Author Joseph Di Prisco takes the 'Subway to California'
By Lou Fancher
People struggling to find their place in the world often search for answers in a psychiatrist's office, in love affairs, religion, illegal drugs, gambling, social activism, academia, work and vicariously, through their children.
Joseph Di Prisco visited all those places, and then, coming up short, found himself by writing a memoir.
"Subway to California" tells the story of his wild upbringing beginning in 1960s Brooklyn and parading through what is nothing other than a series of fantastic escapades winding up in Lafayette, where the author and former educator now lives.
Along the way, Di Prisco survived his mother's and father's tumultuous "enmeshment" parenting, teenage tomfoolery (by others -- he was too busy being a "good Catholic boy" novitiate), a stint as a card-counting blackjack shark, an FBI racketeering investigation, cocaine addiction and a world of hurt.
Delightfully, he escaped with his sense of humor intact, and at a recent Sweet Thursday book event at the Lafayette Library, the laughter was frequent. Ruth Thornburg, president of Friends of the Lafayette Library, led a conversation and Q-and-A session with Di Prisco.
Thornburg said reading the book made her feel as if she knew Di Prisco.
Describing his mother as "beautiful, smart, and manipulative," Di Prisco said, "She was devious. She had to be -- she had all these babies out of wedlock and she lived in a Catholic neighborhood."
Recalling the moment when he learned from his mother that his violent, small-time con-man father had been tied to a green pole in the cellar as a boy and beaten by Di Prisco's grandfather, Di Prisco said the act of writing a memoir brought up amazingly clear recollections.
"I am 3," he said, remembering a night when he drew a red balloon and pleased his gorgeous, wrathful and unpredictable mother. "It was a beautiful night."
Di Prisco's new "Subway to California," along with his other essays, novels, poems and nonfiction guides to teenagers, often describe sad brutalities softened with wit. The first member of his family to attend graduate school, earning a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, he said teaching English to middle school and high school students for more than 20 years taught him to be a better father to his son, Mario. Caring for his father, who had Alzheimer's disease and died in 2012, and writing his memoir taught him to be a better man.
"It's a book about the battle with my parents, being Italian-American, growing up in a family where education wasn't prized. I'm the only member of my family to graduate from high school. It's a Catholic confessional book and it's a love letter to my son."
About the years he traveled from Reno to Las Vegas to casinos throughout the world, playing blackjack and winning with a computer built into special shoes that allowed him to count cards by wiggling his toes, he said, "I'm sure the FBI wasn't pleased." Betting on both sides -- "middling," as it is known in gambling circles -- is a good metaphor for the way he said he lived his life for most of his formative years.
But writing a memoir was an opportunity for reflection and for recreating the world -- an act he compared to poetry.
"I'm continually recreating the mythos of my life. I needed to invent the truth: to create the narrative that would make me understand myself," he said.
Di Prisco said he did not regret anything he put in the book, including events that revealed he once "played cards for a living, was a drug addict, a bad parent and a pretty good teacher." He changed a few names, and a chapter he calls "X-rated" has been altered to protect identities. A slow writer -- and, he admits, a man slow to reach social maturity -- Di Prisco said he often wanted to alter his consciousness during his younger years. "As I get older, what changes my consciousness is writing," he said.
Di Prisco is working on a new novel involving organized crime and the church. Flashing the dry humor that prevails in his writing and lectures, he said, "mob and the church -- I know, what's the difference?"