me in red mini van with augie and oliver

When new electronics fell off a truck and into my father’s apartment (don’t ask) he would place a call. “Screwdriver, come over and set this shit up.”

I don’t know how Kevin, AKA Screwdriver — so named by my dad for his skills at setting up sound systems and things — found his way into Duke’s posse, but this young hip black dude became a full-fledged member of the team.

Some nights I might call and ask my dad what he was doing. Okay, most nights I made that call.   I often crashed, the only chick allowed in an almost exclusively male-dominated club. The group consisted of ex-CBS president Bud Grant, a bigwig ornery PR guy (Sinatra’s and Michael Jackson’s) named Lee Solters, Screwdriver, my dad, his current “with,” and a few other hanger-ons. Did I hear you ask what a “with” is? Read here.

Everything in my life was freebie style. Free tickets to Disneyland. Comp’d seats at Broadway plays. Freebies to shows and hotels in Vegas.

And on one memorable night, Screwdriver hooked us up with the Greatest – and Hippest — Show on Earth: The Black Circus in South Central. This was not your Ringling Brothers, it was your Ringling Brotha.

Me with my daughter Augie and baby, Barnaby

Me with my daughter Augie and baby, Barnaby

I filled our cherry-apple red minivan with my Casper-the-ghost white children. My sweet middle child Augie announced, “Got my beat-selt on Mommy!” And we headed downtown. In a seedy section of East Los Angeles, we saw something surreal — a big top in a large parking lot. It was in the middle of nowhere – or at least nowhere I’d been. From a mile away we heard the loud boom-boom of hip-hop music. This was before GPS, so like a cartoon animal trailing a scent, I followed the sound.

The beat was so loud you could feel the bass pumping through your body. We headed to our VIP seats. A sea of African-Americans filled the place, not an empty seat in the tent. And not another white family either.   African-American dwarf clowns ran up and down the aisles warming up the crowd.   Anticipation mounted as the rap soundtrack kept everyone swaying. This was better than a Stones concert or any circus I’d ever been to.

UniverSOUL Circus

UniverSOUL Circus

I asked my son Oliver if he had any memories of Kevin and the black circus. A few parts of his answer are true: “I have a lot of memories of Kevin. Namely, eating lobster at that cantina joint in Marina – on Tuesday nights. He reminded me of a black police officer who played electric jazz piano. His mustache was authoritative and I respected him. I also remember going on long bike rides – sometimes four hours long. I was never prejudiced when I was little and I never saw the difference between black and white people. I never understood why people could hate people just because they were a different color. It never made any sense to me and still doesn’t. I vaguely remember the black circus – remember feeling like I belonged there. Maybe they were my family. One of the black clowns – who had white face – brought me into a raggedy tent and told me that he wanted to become the next black Charlie Chaplin, but that he lived in his car and ate cat food and didn’t have the same pizzazz. He showed me a piece of a confederate flag that he brought with him to remind him of his great-great-grandparents who were slaves on a plantation in Lynchburg. He put a little white makeup on his thumb and then smudged it on my cheek and told me that I could be anyone I wanted to be. His shoes were enormous and his wife was eating nothing but a head of lettuce on an old wire cot with springs in the corner of the tent.”

What I loved best about Screwdriver were the parties in his bachelor pad in the Marina. He’d fly in fresh crabs from Maryland where he was from. Then he’d cook an amazing meal for a huge crowd. My dad came with his entourage. I came with my kids. There was nothing like Kevin’s Crab Cakes….

Food:  For the most amazing crab cakes, try Santa Monica Yacht Club, a sister restaurant of Tar and Roses.  On the corner of 7th and Santa Monica Blvd. in Santa Monica, California.  Or Bestia in downtown Los Angeles.  Or any crab dish at Son of a Gun on Third in West Hollywood.

Onionhead the clown .

Onionhead the clown .


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

7 Responses to “Screwdriver”

  1. Linda says:

    Another gem …

  2. Pauli says:

    Wow. Talk about a crazy memory lave with branches that need more fleshing out. This reads so well, but it is definitely a three parter. Keep going. So vivid I can smell that lettuce…

  3. Laura Plotkin says:

    What a great , rich life you had with your dad and his friends!

  4. Augie Duke says:

    Oh, the best Circus i have ever been to. Thank you mom for writing this awesome story. I love you..

  5. Mitch says:

    Great story, Fredde. Your experience tells us that the real show is behind the tent.

  6. gari says:

    i hate to be a nag but you really need to write and book with all of your stories and about your family~just saying~you are the best story teller!

  7. Bravo Fredde!! Such talent…

Leave a Reply