Education of a Felon [NOOK Book]


In Education of a Felon, the reigning champion of prison novelists finally tells his own story. The son of an alcoholic stagehand father and a Busby Berkeley chorus girl, Bunker was--at seventeen--the youngest inmate ever in San Quentin. His hard-won experiences on L.A.'s meanest streets and in and out of prison gave him the material to write some of the grittiest and most affecting novels of our time.

From smoking a joint in the gas chamber ...

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Education of a Felon

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In Education of a Felon, the reigning champion of prison novelists finally tells his own story. The son of an alcoholic stagehand father and a Busby Berkeley chorus girl, Bunker was--at seventeen--the youngest inmate ever in San Quentin. His hard-won experiences on L.A.'s meanest streets and in and out of prison gave him the material to write some of the grittiest and most affecting novels of our time.

From smoking a joint in the gas chamber to leaving fingerprints on a knife connected to a serial kiler, from Hollywood's steamy undersde to swimming in the Neptune pool at San Simeon, Bunker delivers a memoir as colorful as any of his novels and as compelling as the life he's lead.

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Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times
masterful...powerful...with vigorous and eloquent prose.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this picaresque, harrowing, humorous yet deeply sad excursion through his dark-starred youth, Bunker (No Beast So Fierce, etc.)--arguably the most renowned convict writer in America--serves as both participant in and witness to the mid-century carnival of L.A. crime immortalized by James Ellroy. The bright, mischievous product of a Depression-era broken home, Bunker was raised in a worsening succession of institutions. In this account, he initially explores how the violence he experienced in these places directed him toward criminality, culminating in a stretch in San Quentin at age 17. These experiences instilled in Bunker the Convict Code, which boils down to: Don't ever snitch, and respond to all threats with uncompromised ferocity. This ferocity made him notorious among his jailers and peers. Bunker details experiences among pimps, prostitutes, gamblers, thieves and L.A.'s nascent gang and drug culture, plus flirtations with affluent society, in the person of a benefactor, Louise Wallis, a producer's wife for whom he worked as a chauffeur and who nurtured his literary dreams. He captures the kaleidoscope of postwar California's underworld with a disturbing seductiveness reminiscent of Ellroy. Bunker ultimately returned to prison for two long periods due to relatively minor infractions; he describes the dangers of California prisons, greatly worsened in the 1960s by racial polarization. Though out of prison now for 25 years, Bunker remembers the experience well: these chapters, as in his novels, present a uniquely searing portrait of life behind bars. Although the memoir ends abruptly with the 1974 acceptance for publication by W.W. Norton of one of Bunker's novels, it remains a thought-provoking and richly re-created tale of a career criminal. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Having served a total of 18 years in prison, Bunker has made a career out of being an ex-felon in the decades since his release. His four works of fiction (No Beast Too Fierce, Animal Factory, Little Boy Blue, and Dog Eat Dog) describe adolescents in trouble with the law--as he was. This memoir, his first nonfiction book, has stories similar to those in the other volumes, but this time the stories are apparently true. Bunker is sufficiently like the juvenile offenders of today to make his self-revelations hit home. The legal system that he describes, however, goes back several decades. Readers who are interested in how things used to be will find substance here; those who are looking for insights into today's correctional facilities may be misled. Bunker writes well, and his hard-boiled episodes can hold the readers' attention. Devotees will probably like this new volume; others may want to pass.--Frances O. Sandiford, Green Haven Correction Facility Lib., Stormville, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
From the Publisher
"In this picaresque, harrowing, humorous yet deeply sad excursion through his dark-starred youth, Bunker—arguably the most renowned convict writer in America—serves as both participant and witness to the mid-century carnival of L.A. crime immortablized by James Ellroy...a thought-provoking and richly re-created tale of a career criminal. " --Publishers Weekly

"Education of a Felon is a masterful summation of the hard and brutal life of crime and prison from which Edward Bunker chiseled the virogour prose that marks him as America's foremost chronicler of prison life..." --The Los Angeles Times

"Bunker writes in straight-ahead, unadorned prose and, refreshingly, he refrains from excessive psychologizing and sentimentalizing...a rough-hewn memoir by a rough-hewn man." —The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312273651
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/9/2000
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 874,581
  • File size: 543 KB

Meet the Author

"Bunker shoots straight--his direct and transparent prose captures the primacy of violence that defines life in the slammer...Bunker clearly articulates the code of prison life and the pathology of the career criminal in raw, muscular prose."--Kirkus Reviews

"The best first-person crime novel I've ever read."--Quentin Tarantino on NO BEAST SO FIERCE

Edward Bunker lives in Los Angeles with his wife. He is the author of the books No Beast So Fierce, Animal Factory, and Little Boy Blue. He is also the coauthor of the movie Runaway Train. He played Mr. Blue in the film Reservoir Dogs.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


In March of 1933, Southern California suddenly began to rock and roll to a sound from deep within the ground. Bric-a-brac danced on mantels and shattered on floors. Windows cracked and cascaded onto sidewalks. Lathe-and-plaster houses screeched and bent this way and that, much like matchboxes. Brick buildings stood rigid until overwhelmed by the vibrations, then fell into a pile of rubble and a cloud of dust. The Long Beach Civic Auditorium collapsed, with many killed. I was later told that I was conceived at the moment of the earthquake and born on New Year's Eve, 1933, in Hollywood's Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Los Angeles was under a torrential deluge, with palm trees and houses floating down its canyons.

    When I was five, I heard my mother proclaim that the earthquake and storm were omens, for I was trouble from the start, beginning with colic. At two, I disappeared from a family picnic in Griffith Park. Two hundred men hunted the brush for half the night. At three, I somehow managed to demolish a neighbor's backyard incinerator with a claw hammer. At four, I pillaged another neighbor's Good Humor truck and had an ice-cream party for several neighborhood dogs. A week later I tried to help clean up the backyard by burning a pile of eucalyptus leaves that were piled beside the neighbor's garage. Soon the night was burning bright and fire engine sirens sounded loud. Only one garage wall was fire-blackened.

    I remember the ice-cream caper and fire, but the other things I was told. My first clear memories are of my parentsscreaming at each other and the police arriving to "keep the peace." When my father left, I followed him to the driveway. I was crying and wanted to go with him, but he pushed me away and drove off with a screech of tires.

    We lived on Lexington Avenue just east of Paramount Studios. The first word I could read was Hollywoodland. My mother was a chorus girl in vaudeville and Busby Berkeley movie musicals. My father was a stagehand and sometimes grip.

    I don't remember the divorce proceedings, but part of the result was my being placed in a boarding home. Overnight I went from being a pampered only child to being the youngest among a dozen or more. I first learned about theft in this boarding home. Somebody stole candy that my father had brought me. It was hard then for me to conceive the idea of theft.

    I ran away for the first time when I was five. One rainy Sunday morning while the household slept late, I put on a raincoat and rubbers and went out the back door. Two blocks away I hid in the crawl space of an old frame house that sat high off the ground and was surrounded by trees. It was dry and out of the rain, and I could peer out at the world. The family dog quickly found me but preferred being hugged and petted to sending forth an alarm. I stayed there until darkness came, the rain stopped, and a cold wind came up. Even in Los Angeles, a December night can be cold for a five-year-old. I came out, walked half a block, and was spotted by one of those hunting for me. My parents had been worried, of course, but not in a panic. They were already familiar with my propensities for trouble.

    The couple who ran the foster home asked my father to come and take me away. He tried another boarding home, and when that failed he tried a military school, Mount Lowe in Altadena. I lasted two months. Then it was another boarding home, also in Altadena, a five-thousand-square-foot house with an acre of grounds. That was my first meeting with Mrs. Bosco, whom I remember fondly. I seemed to get along okay, although I remember hiding under a bed in the dorm so I could read. My father had built a small bookcase for me. He then bought a ten-volume set of Junior Classics, children's versions of famous tales such as "The Man Without a Country." "Panadora's Box," and "Damon and Pythias." I learned to read from these books.

    Mrs. Bosco closed the boarding home after I had been there for a few months. The next stop was Page Military School, on Cochran and San Vicente in West Los Angeles. The parents of the prospective cadets were shown bright, classy dorms with cubicles, but the majority of the cadets lived in less sumptuous quarters. At Page I had measles and mumps and my first official recognition as a troublemaker destined for a bad end. I became a thief. A boy whose name and face I forgot long ago took me along to prowl the other dorms in the wee hours as he searched pants hanging on hooks or across chair backs. When someone rolled over, we ducked and froze, our hearts beating wildly. The cubicles were shoulder-high, so we could duck our heads and be out of sight. We had to run once when a boy woke up and challenged us: "Hey, what're you doing?" As we ran, behind us we heard the scream: "Thief! Thief!" It was a great adrenaline rush.

    One night a group of us sneaked from the dorm into the big kitchen and used a meat cleaver to hack the padlock off a walk-in freezer. We pillaged all the cookies and ice cream. Soon after reveille, we were apprehended. I was unjustly deemed the ringleader and disciplined accordingly. I was also thereafter marked for special treatment by the cadet officers. My few friends were the other outcasts and troublemakers. My single legitimate accomplishment at Page was discovering that I could spell better than almost everyone else. Even amid the chaos of my young life, I'd mastered syllables and phonetics, and I remembered many of the exceptions to the rules. It is trivial, yet because I could sound out words, I could read precociously—and soon voraciously.

    On Friday afternoons nearly every cadet went home for the weekend. One weekend I went to see my father, the next to my mother's. She now worked as a coffee shop waitress. On Sunday mornings I followed the common habit of most American children of the era; I went to the matinee at a neighborhood movie theater. It showed double features. One Sunday between the two movies, I went to the lobby, where I learned that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. Earlier, my father had declared: "If those slant-eyed bastards start trouble, we'll send the U.S. Navy over and sink their rinky-dink islands." Dad was attuned with the era, where nigger appeared in the prose of Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and others. Dad disliked "niggers," "spics." "wops," and the English with "their goddamn king." He liked France and Native Americans and claimed that we Bunkers had Indian blood. I was never convinced. Claiming Indian blood today has become somewhat chic. Our family had been around the Great Lakes from midway through the eighteenth century, and when my father reached his sixties his wrinkled leather skin, in addition to his high cheekbones, made him look like an Indian. Indeed, as I get older, I am sometimes asked if I have Indian blood. I really don't know—or care.

    At Page Military School, things got worse. Cadet officers made my life miserable, so on one bright California morning, another cadet and I jumped the back fence and headed toward the Hollywood Hills, three miles away. They were green, speckled with a few red-tiled roofs. We hitchhiked over the hills and spent the night in the shell of a wrecked automobile beside a two-lane highway, watching the giant trucks rumble past. Since then that highway has become a ten-lane interstate freeway.

    After shivering through the night and being hungry when the sun came up, my companion said he was going to go back. I bid him good-bye and started walking beside a railroad right-of-way between the highway and endless orange groves. I came upon a trainload of olive-drab U.S. Army trucks that waited on a siding. As I walked along there was the rolling crash as the train got under way. I grabbed a rail and climbed aboard. The hundreds of army trucks were unlocked so I got in one and watched the landscape flash past as the train headed north.

    Early that evening, I climbed off in the outskirts of Sacramento, four hundred miles from where I had started. 1 was getting hungry and the shadows were lengthening. I started walking. I figured I would go into town and see a movie. When it let out, I would find something to eat and somewhere to sleep. Outside Sacramento, on a bank of the American River full of abundant greenery, I smelled food cooking. It was a hobo encampment called a Hooverville, with shacks made of corrugated tin and cardboard.

    The hoboes took me in until one got scared and stopped a sheriff's car. Deputies raided the encampment and took me away.

    Page Military School refused to allow me to return. My father was near tears over what to do with me. Then we heard that Mrs. Bosco had opened a new home for a score of boys, ages five through high school. She had leased a twenty-five-thousand-square-foot mansion on four acres on Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena. It was called Mayfair. The house still exists as part of Ambassador College. Back then such huge mansions were unsalable white elephants.

    The name MAYFAIR was affixed to a brass gate post. The house was worthy of an archduke, but a nine-year-old is unimpressed by such things. The boys were pretty much relegated to four bedrooms on the second floor of the north wing over the kitchen. The school classroom, which had once been the music room, was off the vast entrance hall, which had a grand staircase. We attended school five days a week, and there was no such thing as summer vacation. The teacher, a stern woman given to lace-collared dresses with cameos at the necks, had a penchant for punishment. She'd grab an ear and give it a twist or rap our knuckles with a ruler. I already had a problem with authority. Once she grabbed my ear. I slapped her hand away and abruptly stood up. Startled, she flinched backward, tripped over a chair, and fell on her rump, legs up. She cried out as if being murdered. Mr. Hawkins, the black handyman, ran in and grabbed me by the scruff of my neck. He dragged me to Mrs. Bosco. She sent for my father. When he arrived, the fire in his eyes made me want to run. Mrs. Bosco brushed the incident away with a few words. What she really wanted was for my father to read the report on the IQ test we had taken a week earlier. He was hesitant. Did he want to know if his son was crazy? I watched him scan the report; then he read it slowly, his angry flush giving way to a frown of confusion. He looked up and shook his head.

    "That's a lot of why he's trouble," Mrs. Bosco said.

    "Are you sure it isn't a mistake?"

    "I'm sure."

    My father grunted and half-chuckled. "Who would have thought it?"

    Thought what? He later told me the report put my mental age at eighteen, my IQ at 152. Until then I'd always thought I was average, or perhaps a little below average, in those abilities given by God. I'd certainly never been the brightest in any class—except for the spelling, which seemed like more of a trick than an indicator of intelligence. Since then, no matter how chaotic or nihilistic my existence happened to be, I have tried to hone the natural abilities they said I had. The result might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I continued to go home on weekends, although by now my mother lived in San Pedro with a new husband—so instead of switching off every weekend, I spent three of four with my father. Whichever one I visited, on Sunday afternoon I would say good-bye, ostensibly returning straightaway to Mayfair. I never went straight back. Instead I roamed the city. I might rent a little battery-powered boat in Echo Park or go to the movies in downtown Los Angeles, If I visited my mother in San Pedro, I detoured to Long Beach, where the amusement pier was in full swing.

    Late in the evening, I rode a big red Pacific Electric streetcar back to Pasadena, where I had to walk about a mile to Orange Grove Avenue and Mayfair. I went up the rear drive. A balcony at one end could be reached by climbing a slender tree and scrambling onto the balcony. Directly across from the balcony door was the room I shared with two other boys. Nobody ever missed me or noticed when I arrived as long as I was on hand Monday morning.

    One Sunday night when I crossed the balcony, turned the doorknob, and pushed the door opened a few inches and stopped. Something was blocking it from the other side. Leaning against it hard, I managed to force the upper part open enough to squeeze through, stepping on what seemed to be a body next to the door. Crouching, I felt around the blackness and touched a face. A bolt of fear shot through me. The face was cold. It was the face of death. I think I let out a cry, but nobody heard me.

    Not wanting my after-midnight arrival to be discovered, I undressed and climbed into bed. Lying there, I knew I couldn't just ignore the situation. Not wanting to step on the body in the darkness, I went through the bathroom to the next bedroom, where four boys slept, and from there into the hallway. I woke up Mrs. Bosco and told her what I'd found.

    She put on her robe and brought a flashlight, took me to my room, and told me to go to bed, then locked the door. I went to bed and managed to fall into a light sleep, although I came awake when I heard muffled voices and saw light under the door.

    A few minutes later, I heard the key unlock the bedroom. In the morning the body was gone. It belonged to Frankie Dell, a pale, frail boy who was a severe hemophiliac with a rheumatic heart. He had simply collapsed and died in the hallway. He might even have been going for help.

    Mrs. Bosco's was the only home I ever liked as a child. She treated me more like a teenager than a nine-year-old. During weeknights I was allowed to go alone into downtown Pasadena. I went to a movie, of course. I learned geography from the two big maps affixed to the wall in my room: Europe, including the Mediterranean and North Africa, was on one map, the Pacific plus Asia on the other. I had pins of various colors to mark battles, troops, and the front lines of the war that was going on. Finding the Solomon Islands to mark Guadalcanal took my eye to Australia and New Zealand. The star on the map told me that Canberra was the capital of Australia.

    Mr. Hawkins, the black handyman whose apartment was over the immense garage, had once been a prizefighter, and he taught me how to throw a left jab. The jab I learned wreaked havoc on the nose of Buckley, the home bully. We started to fight in the upstairs hall. I backed up, one step at a time, down the length of the long second-floor hallway, sticking a jab in his nose whenever he seemed coiled to charge. One of Mrs. Bosco's pretty daughters, a USC coed, came out of her room and broke it up. Buckley had two rapidly swelling eyes and a bloody nose. I was unmarked. About the same time, I learned the value of the Sunday punch, which was simply striking first. In reform school I would study experts on the Sunday punch and hone my own ability. Fistfighting is a useless skill in boardrooms and business meetings. It will not get you the girl. Most middle- and upper-class white men go through adult life without ever having a single fistfight. But where I spent youth and young manhood it is a useful skill, especially since I hadn't been given strength, speed, or stamina. My reflexes were mediocre. I do, however, take a good punch without falling. I have beaten bigger, stronger men, who were faster and in better shape, including a U.S. Marine karate instructor, simply by punching first and continuing to punch with both hands before they ever got started. Occasionally, someone overcame that first onslaught and beat my ass, but not usually. In later years I leaned to pace my attack so a few punches accomplished what had taken many wild ones long ago. On the chin and most go down, and once down they should never be allowed to get up and continue. But I've digressed. Back to my childhood in Mayfair on Orange Grove Avenue, nicknamed King's Row because of the many great mansions, including the famed Wrigley mansion.

One Sunday night in December, it was past midnight when I got off the streetcar on Fair Oaks and Colorado in downtown Pasadena and began my walk. The last street was a narrow lane with tiny frame houses for servants that ran parallel to Orange Grove a block away. The lane and tiny houses are long gone, but back then they were fronted by huge trees that overhung the street. A lighted Christmas tree was in one home window and a candle in another. They calmed my fear at walking through the shadows where wind and moonlight made weird moving shapes. It was enough to make an imaginative nine-year-old whistle his way through the dark.

    I turned into the rear gate of Mayfair. Up the slope loomed the dark outline of the great house set among tall pines. They suited its Bavarian hunting chalet architecture. The house had once belonged to an American general who apparently had invested heavily in Germany after World War I. I found the certificates between the walls. I was now familiar with the great house as I circled to the slender tree next to the balcony.

    The tree actually grew three feet from the balcony, but as I climbed, my weight bent it over, and I disembarked by throwing both arms over the rail and pulling my legs away from the tree. It snapped back straight and erect.

    On the balcony I always felt a pang of anxiety: had someone locked the balcony door? Nobody ever had, so far, although I was prepared to break the glass and reach inside if it ever became necessary. Nobody would know who or why; the broken glass might even go unnoticed for days. No need for that on this night. The door opened as usual.

    The hall was totally dark, again as usual. I immediately smelled something I couldn't recognize. It was definite but not overpowering. I reached for the room door. It opened. I went in.

    The room was pitch-black. From memory I crossed the darkness to my bed in the corner. It was gone. Where was my bed?

    I reached out, feeling for the bed next to mine. Nothing.

    My heart jumped. I was scared. I went to the door and flipped the light switch.


    I felt along the wall. Empty space. Something weird was going on. I wanted to yell, but that would expose my postmidnight arrival. With my fingers touching the wall, I moved to the door. Before reaching it, my shoes crunched on broken glass.

    My heart raced. What was happening? I nearly choked, because no rational possibility came to mind. I knew better than to think it was magic or the supernatural, but the idea was inescapable for a moment. Just then, in the blackness, something brushed against the calf of my leg, triggering instant terror. I jumped up in the air, came down, and tore open the door. I can't remember crossing the hall to the balcony. In the darkness I climbed on the rail and jumped for the tree. It was three or four feet out. I got both hands on it, and it bent away from the balcony, pulling my upper body with it. My feet were still on the balustrade. For a moment I was a human bridge; then my feet came free.

    The limb I held snapped with a loud crack. I fell through, breaking limbs that grabbed and scratched me, and finally landed flat on my back. Every bit of air was smashed out of my lungs. I knew I was going to die. I could not breathe. Even while dying from my inability to breathe, I drew up my legs and rolled over to rise. I wanted distance from the huge mansion. I wasn't thinking. I was running on automatic fear.

    When the first tiny breath kicked in, I was limping across the parking area toward the shrubbery. There was an acre of greenery, much of it half-wild, right here—and I knew every inch of it. I hit the wall of shrubbery with both of my hands folded over my face. I plowed through with the branches tearing at my clothes and face.

    I veered right, behind the garage, and hit the ground in a space beneath a giant elm whose limbs covered the ground. We had put a flattened cardboard box in there, as boys do.

    My exhaustion modified my fear. It was crazy. I knew there were no ghosts. (Years later, while I was telling this story, a listener said, "I'll bet it was a cat's tail that brushed your leg." I think he was right. Mrs. Bosco had a black cat that roamed the house and brushed against legs. What else could it have been?) I spent the night in that space beneath the tree, sometimes shivering with the chill, sometimes dozing off for a few minutes.

    By first light my entire body ached. My back really hurt and would turn into the largest black-and-blue mark I've ever seen.

    I dozed and came alert to the sound of rattling garbage cans. Mr. Hawkins was hoisting them onto the back of a pickup truck. He was working in the space beside the garage where the cans were kept.

    "Mr. Hawkins!" I called.

    He stopped work and peered, closing one eye to focus the other one. "Is that you?" he asked. He knew me better than the other boys. Beside the jab, he had taught me how to tie a Windsor knot. He may have been poor, but he dressed sharp on his day off.

    I stepped out of the shrubbery but kept the edge of the garage between myself and the house. "What's going on, Mr. Hawkins?"

    "You ain' seen Miz Bosco yet?"


    "She called your daddy Sunday afternoon. He said you'd be here las' night 'bout six. She's been worried sick."

    "What happened? Where is everybody?"

    "We had a fire in the attic late Saturday ... early Sunday `fore it was light. Look there." He pointed at the roof. Sure enough, there was a hole about four feet across. Its edges were charred black from fire.

    "It was the wiring," he said. "They moved the beds to the school auditorium over yonder." He gestured with a finger. "It's just until she can get all the boys picked up."

    A maroon 1940 Lincoln Continental flashed into sight. It went past us around the circular drive and pulled up at the mansion's front door. The car stopped and Mrs. Bosco came down the walk to greet the couple who emerged.

    "That be Billy Palmer's folks," Mr. Hawkins said. "Gotta get those bags." He pulled off his work gloves and abandoned the garbage cans, heading toward the house. I backed up into the bushes.

    A few minutes later, Mrs. Bosco and Mr. Hawkins came into view. They were heading right toward my hiding place. I backed farther into the bushes, tripping down on my butt. That galvanized me. I got up, turned, and ran. Mr. Hawkins called my name. He thought I was still where I had been. I was rapidly adding distance between us.

    I went over the wrought-iron front fence and ran across the wide boulevard, then crossed a lawn and went down a driveway to a backyard the size of a baseball diamond. Several people in white—I would think of the scene years later when I read F. Scott Fitzgerald—were playing croquet. I flew past their periphery. One or two looked up; the others saw nothing.

    By noon, I got off a big red streetcar at the Pacific Electric Terminal on Sixth and Main Streets in downtown Los Angeles. The sidewalks teemed. Uniforms of all the armed services were abundant. There was a long line outside the Burbank Theater. the burlesque theater on Main Street. Two blocks away was Broadway, where there were several movie palaces on each block, their marquees flashing bright in the gray December light. I would have gone to a movie, for movies always let me forget my troubles for a few hours, but I knew that this was a school day and the truant officers routinely patrolled the downtown movie houses for truants.

    On Hill Street near Fifth was Pacific Electric's subway terminal. The streetcars left for the sprawling western communities and the San Fernando Valley to the northwest through a long tunnel in the hillside and come out on Glendale Boulevard. I took a streetcar to Hollywood, where my father worked backstage at Ken Murray's Blackouts, a variety review with chorus girls and comics in a theater on a side street off Hollywood Boulevard. I was familiar with this area. I wanted to be where I knew my way around.

    Hollywood Boulevard was new, bright, and crowded. Thirty years earlier it had been a bean field. Now servicemen were everywhere. They came from training camps and military bases all over Southern California. They were drawn to Hollywood and Vine and especially to the Hollywood Canteen, where they might just dance with Hedy Lamarr or Joan Leslie, or they could stroll the boulevard and see if their feet fit the imprint of Douglas Fairbanks or Charlie Chaplin outside Grauman's Chinese Theater. Sid Grauman had built three great palaces to honor the movies. The downtown Million Dollar Theater was the first, but he realized the city's wealth was moving west, so he built two on Hollywood Boulevard, the Chinese and Egyptian. The latter had a long walk from the box office to the lobby that was lined with images of ancient Egypt and giant kitsch statues of Ramses II and Nefertiti or somebody with a head like an animal. That first night on my latest runaway, I went to the plush Hawaiian, farther east on the boulevard, which was showing the original Mummy, with Boris Karloff, and a new sequel, The Mummy Returns. It scared away my troubles for a few hours.

    When I came out, a cold wind had risen. No rain was falling, but the sidewalk and street were dark where it had come down while I was inside. I turned up Gower. The Hollywood Hills started a block north of the theater. Beyond Franklin Avenue was Whitley Heights. It was "old" Hollywood and looked as if it belonged in either Naples or Capri. It had once been fashionable enough for Gloria Swanson, Ben Turpin, and Ramon Novarro. In the war years it was still nice, although since then it has lost favor as Hollywood's surrounding streets became infested with poverty and poverty's handmaidens: crime, drugs, and prostitution.

    Rain began to fall. I tried to find shelter. I could get out of the rain but not away from the wind. It was time to go to where my father worked. I walked along Franklin and turned back down Ivar. The marquee had been turned off, and the box office was closed. I wasn't going there anyway. I went down the alley beside the building to the stage entrance. I didn't know the old man on the door, but he knew my father and remembered me from an earlier visit. "We were working the Mayan downtown. It was Abie's Irish Rose ... or maybe Song of Norway."

    I remember Abie's Irish Rose at the Mayan, but not the old man. It was immaterial; he motioned toward me. I shook my head.

    "When's curtain?"

    "Ten-fifty-two ... `bout half an hour."

    "I'll be back."

    "Here's your dad now. Hey, Ed!"

    My father, wearing the white bib overalls of a stagehand, was crossing backstage. He turned his head, saw me, and hardened his expression. As he walked over, his jaw muscles pulsing, I wanted to turn and run. I was sure he wouldn't show his anger here, but I knew the fury of his exasperation. He was never mean, but frustration sometimes overcame him. He looked at me. "Just like a bad penny," he said.

    What did that mean? Bad penny? I'd never heard the phrase and had no idea what it meant. Still, the tension of the situation made it imprint on my memory, so years later I remembered this moment whenever I heard the phrase.

    My father took his keys from his pocket. "Go wait in the car," he said. "It's around the corner on Franklin."

    I took the keys and went out. His car, a `37 Plymouth with the first streamlined ship as hood ornament, was easy to find. The white stood out in an era when dark colors, especially Henry Ford's black, still dominated. On the windshield was a decal "A," which meant the car was allowed the basic ration of four gallons of gas a week. Gas coupons were issued and handed over in the gas station. Stealing and selling gas coupons would become my first monetary crime.

    I unlocked the car and got in to wait, listening to the rain hit the roof, watching it bounce on the ground. It was hypnotic, soothing, and I must have dozed off. I hadn't really slept the night before. I closed my eyes with cars parked all around. When I opened them again, the other cars were gone and my father was knocking on the window.

    I opened the door lock and slid over to make room. I was wary, for although my father was generous and loving, once or twice he had lost his temper and cuffed me around, yelling in frustration, "What in God's name is wrong with you? You can't do what you do. You'll ... you'll end up——" His anguish stifled his words. I could feel his torment. It never rose to anything near abuse, but it made me feel terrible to upset him, and I invariably promised reform.

    This time he avoided looking at me as he pulled out and headed for the Cahuenga Pass. (The Hollywood Freeway was almost a decade in the future.) As he drove, he grunted and shook his head, reacting to the turmoil in his mind. I thought we were going to the residential hotel where he lived, but he drove past that intersection and went up into the hills. The clouds were breaking up, allowing a little moonlight to come through. Soon we were at the summit, looking down on Lake Hollywood, which was really a reservoir. The view overlooked the western half of the City of Angels, a sprawl of glittering lights with patches of darkness in between. In another ten years, the lights would fill all the LA Basin to the sea—and deep into the desert going the other way.

    My father shut off the engine and gave a long, agonized sigh. When it was over he sagged visibly. "What do I do now? Mrs. Bosco is closed down. She didn't have a permit for those two crazies upstairs."

    Mrs. Bosco had kept two truly demented boys or young men up there. No doubt she had been paid handsomely to keep them out of sight. One I remember was just slightly gaunt and freckled. The other was named Max. He had thick black hair and heavy black facial hair. You would say he was bearded, but it was really that he had gone unshaven for a month or more. Max used to come down to unload the station wagon when Mrs. Bosco returned from buying provisions. He was strong. He was obsessed with rending his clothes. They hung in rags across his torso and in strips down his legs. He would rip up a new pair of Levi's if he was goaded. All you had to do was stare at him and tell him. "Max, bad boy! Bad boy, Max!" and he would start passionately rending his clothes.

    She had no permit for these two. And the fire had illuminated their presence to the authorities. Even if she managed to finance roof repair, she was closed down. It was the only place I'd gotten along, even marginally.

    I wanted to say, "Let me stay with you," but the words were choked back. What I wanted was impossible and only agitated him when I brought it up. His standard reply was that he had to work nights, there was nobody to look after me, and I was too young to look after myself.

    He turned and looked at me closely. "Are you crazy?" he asked.

    "I don't think so."

    "You sure act crazy sometimes. I thought everything was great with Mrs. Bosco—"

    "It is great, Pop."

    "No, it isn't ... not when I find you've been roaming the city all night. You're nine years old, for Christ's sake."

    "I'm sorry, Pop." It was true; my sorrow for his anguish was painful.

    "You say that, but ... it only gets worse.... Sometimes I think about starting the car with the garage door closed."

    I knew what that meant, and from some source within me came a Catholic canon: "If you do that, you'll go to hell, won't you?"

    Even in his despair, he swelled with scorn. "No, I won't. There's no hell ... and no heaven, either. Life is here. Reward is here. Pain is here. I don't know very much ... but that much I know for sure." He paused, then added: "You'll remember this, won't you?" He held my arm above the elbow and stared at me.

    I nodded. "I'll remember, Pop."

    I have remembered, and although I've searched everywhere for a refutation, the facts of existence affirm the dismal truth of his declaration. The only way to deny it is to make a leap of faith across the chasm of reality. That I cannot do. Whatever else I've done, flagrantly and repeatedly and without apology, violating every rule that blocked whatever it was I wanted, I have tried to sift kernels of truth from tons of chaff bullshit. Truth is the distilled meaning of facts, for any truth refuted by a fact becomes a fallacy.

    I am an apostle of Francis Bacon, the messiah of scientific objectivity, which leads inexorably to secular humanism and relativism and contradicts the notions of kneeling in prayer before one totem or another, be it a cross, golden calf, totem pole, or African fertility god with a giant phallus.

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Table of Contents

Introduction xi
1. No Heaven, No Hell 1
2. State-Raised in California 13
3. Among the Condemned 26
4. Whores, Hearst, and Hollywood's Angel 55
5. Night Train to San Quentin 92
6. Tick Tock Turns the Clock, '52, '53, '54, '55 110
7. Awaiting Parole 128
8. The Land of Milk and Honey 146
9. The Run 166
10. The Shit Hits the Fan 203
11. On the Lam 213
12. Adjudged Criminally Insane 225
13. Stuck in Folsom Prison 247
14. Prison Race War 264
Afterword: Paris, Jost Before Spring 295
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2004


    In this memoir Edward Bunker demonstrates his great ability to make the reader understand the depth of the situation which he arose from. He succeeds a childhood raised in reform and military schools which he describes with great detail. Bunker puts you in his shoes as he battles life in prison as well as on the run. Though being out of prison for the last 25 years (when the book was published) Bunker takes you through the Los Angeles underworld side by side with pimps,prostitutes, drugdealers, safecrackers, and conmen during the 1940's through 60's. Also he describes his life in prison before and during the race wars. Though his story ends quite abruptly with the publishing of his first novel (written in prison) this is a great book and is definently recommended to anyone seeking a thrilling life story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2000

    'American Papillon'

    On March 17, 1970 Henri Charriere held a press conference in Paris, France to defend the authenticity of, 'Papillon', by simply stating, 'I did not go into that hell, with a typewriter at my side!' However, Edward Bunker did receive a typewriter while in prison, he also began to read great literary works at an incridible pace, aspiring to be a great writer he sometimes sold his own blood to pay the postage on early manuscript submissions. If mainstream readers have for the most part accepted the authenticity of Henri Charriere's monumental work, 'Papillon', then the work of Edward Bunker must also be accepted for it's authenticity amongst mainstream readers. The words of Edward Bunker, are truly the only words of authority which make this youngman put on the breaks and snap back into line! 'Education of a Felon: A Memoir', is the best non-fictional account I have read about one man's attempt to overcome his incarceration. Edward Bunker truly is, 'American Papillon'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2012

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