Readers everywhere, myself included, laughed, cried and just plain enjoyed Al Martinez's wonderfully written and insightful blogs.
Al’s wife, Joanne, now shares memories of the more than 65 years she and “The Bard of L.A.” spent together.
Sometimes an ordinary moment transforms into a pivotal one. So it was when my husband, Al Martinez, met an imaginary field of daffodils.
More than seven decades before he passed away in January, Al and his fellow fourth-graders were supposed to give speeches. Al realized just how badly he stuttered when he was nervous: “My name is A-a-a-a-alfred.” It made his classmates roar.
“I’ll never talk in front of the class again,” he declared to his teacher. He meant it.
“Well then, young man,” she said, “you’re going to have to write two essays for every speech you don’t give.”
It was a moment of birth. Al Martinez the writer began his emergence into the world of letters. One of his first pieces described the stars twinkling like bits of broken glass in the sun on the nights of blackouts during World War II. “Did someone write this for you?” the teacher asked. “No!” he angrily replied. She didn’t know that no one in his family ever picked up a book to read, much less spent time writing.
Al wrestled alone with his newfound talent, struggling, learning the beauty of words and the joy of cobbling them together in a dramatic way. Soon he had company. His teachers recognized his special ability to make words on a page come to life.
“Alfred, would you mind staying after class so I can help you with some techniques to develop your skills?” He didn’t mind. He knew the teacher was on his side.
And that’s when the daffodils appeared.
To help him get into his writing in a visceral way, his teacher asked him to put himself into a moment and feel it completely. “Do you see those daffodils on that hill?” Of course, there were no daffodils. “See their luminescent yellow glow against the brown dirt? See how the stems bend slightly as the breeze pushes them in one direction, then the other? Feel their softness against your cheek.”
He felt it. And he continued feeling the pulse of what he wrote throughout his life.
The subject wasn’t why he wrote; it was what the subject aroused in his writer’s brain that mattered.
When his juices weren’t flowing as hard as usual, I’d try to boost his thinking: “Al, I think it’s interesting that a lot of birds are dying in the southern part of Los Angeles.”
“Well, maybe.” But no essay was ever done on the birds.
Later, he’d say, “By the way, did you know that Jerry Rubin — not the one in the news but the one that lives quietly in Santa Monica — is fasting for peace again?”
I didn’t know. Jerry’s a gentleman without a regular job but who spends almost every waking hour trying to make the world a better place. He doesn’t just care; he passionately cares. And that’s what intrigues Al. This is a man who will devote his life — however little his effort produces — to a cause. That’s a man worth writing about.
So was the Frank Sinatra impersonator; the gay man who helped a blind girl through many days of despair; and the grandchild who walked through the wilderness behind our home with him. These were the people who aroused his deep feelings of drama, compassion and intrigue.
Al explored humans. He had a magnificent ability to make people talk. But he also saw drama in the falling leaves of autumn and the glow of new green growth in the spring. Love, sex, martinis and anything that produced a sensation: That was what he wrote about.
Al was a complicated man. I could never ask him to do anything. “Would you pick up a container of milk while you’re out?” “Oh for [blank] sakes. Can’t I even make a quick trip to the bank without having to take care of a million other things?”
Nor could I disagree with him. If he said we had two kids when we really had three, and I corrected him, the response was instant: “I’m just having a conversation. It’s not an inquisition.”
He never minded giving advice: Smile more, be quiet, talk, look happy, and any other miscellaneous thing that popped into his mind. He spoke as he thought.
But then, he never told me what I could or couldn’t buy, and he always praised me to others. He wrote about me in a more-than-loving way. Our life was a balancing act: this part good, that not so much.
But writing was always number one. He could write the skin off an avocado or the smell off a peach. And he never missed; no word was ever out of place. He self-edited for hours, so no sentence had anything dangling and no paragraph was unnecessary. Rereading his columns is a joy and a treasured legacy.
Anointed “The Bard of Los Angeles” in a retrospective of his work displayed at the Huntington Library, he filled the role and loved it, while being a little embarrassed by all the attention. “Who am I?” he mused. “Just a ‘wetback’ from Oakland with a knack for words.”
He was never sure he was doing it right, but he always did. He wrote six columns a week for the Oakland Tribune and became a reporter and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He sweated every word and became obsessed with definitions and explanations. The light in his writing room stayed on for hours after I’d gone to bed. Next morning he’d say, “Had a hard time with the column last night but finally I think it came together.”
It came together with an explosion that was felt inside the soul. Al had put together a group of words that were destined to be a lasting memory.
Wherever you are, Al, have a martini, let it warm your body, your soul, your self-esteem, and know that you created magic that will be treasured as long as people read.
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