Excerpt from forthcoming
Who Do You Think You Are:
Reflections of a Writer’s Life
This excerpt is focused on Joseph Torra’s relationship with his father.
Eventually my father realized the potential of free labor, and how to keep me under his watchful eye. He began taking me to work with him. The gas station I wrote about in my novel is the one I remember. That place introduced me to the outside world. I learned about business and politics and people. I knew priests, police, crooked police, politicians, businessmen, teachers, carpenters, bookies, drunks, bikers, veterans of various wars, plumbers, truck drivers even prostitutes. In my pocket at the age of fourteen, I carried what was known as the gas roll—essentially the working capital of the day. It could be as little as fifty or as many as several hundred dollars. This was before credit and debit cards. Business transactions were cash, or occasionally check. I met amazing mechanics. Men that could build a drag racing car or roadster from scratch. They were the first real artists I knew. I sat with them on cold cement floors taking engines apart and putting it all back together until it turned over and hummed. Later in life, when I discovered Herman Melville, I became fascinated by the encyclopedic way he wrote about ships.
In his exhaustive descriptions of ship tasks, the intricacies of rope knots or the sweeping range of characters that could inhabit one place—I find the universals in the particulars. Rebuilding an engine with the mechanics as it hung on a hook chained to a block and tackle in that damp, cavernous garage—we were the whalers on the ship’s deck, surrounding the hanging carcass readying to cut in. Theirs the age of the whale. Mine the age of the automobile. For many years I worked right through vacations and after school and weekends during the school year. In summertime it was six or seven days a week—seven in the morning to five at night or sometimes until nine closing. My father picked me up after school, we’d go directly to the station and I’d work until five or sometimes nine. I worked Saturdays and occasionally Sundays. To be fair, I did have a car as soon as I was old enough. I got free gas and when I needed spending cash, he gave it to me. But for me, it came down to having a choice. If I had my mine, I would have done it differently. Not that I could have voiced my opinion back then. I could not go against him—not for anything. I think it’s where my attraction to anti-authority comes from. From the early rock and rollers and other cultural icons to authors like Thoreau, Kerouac, to Taoists recluses who left society to live in mountain huts, to the anarchists. Those times that my father struck me or woke me at first light to work a fourteen-hour day leaving me no say in the matter—there the roots of my anarchism. The political is personal.
Thanks to PFP Publishing for the use of an excerpt from Joseph Torra’s Who Do You Think You Are: Reflections of a Writer’s Life (2021).