PRINT May 1963

A Visit with Sam Rodia

AT THE END of the SLA✻ Convention, on June 2, 1961, I had scheduled a visit to Sam Rodia in Martinez. I would meet Sam for the first time, bring him presents from the Committee✻✻ and some money. I also had assembled some photographs of portraits of his heroes, Galileo, Columbus and Copernicus. I had rented a tape recorder; my hosts agreed to drive me to Martinez; young William B. Walker, Librarian of the Brooklyn Museum came along to assist me with camera and tape recorder.

We arrived at Martinez at 10:30 a.m. Not far from the center of the city we found Laird’s Market, where Sam’s nephew Mr. Sullivan is employed. There was a sort of shopping center with a gas station and finally Sam’s house, an old wooden barrack stretching backwards from a stone facade with the sign of an orthodontist. We found the side entrance from the alley. While my hosts drove on and Bill Walker deposited the presents in the next door appliance shop I went ahead investigating. Over the old rotten staircase I came into a narrow drab corridor, second floor. There were numbered doors at each side, all closed and locked except one at the end. I approached this open door quickly—but it was not Sam’s door. It was a toilet with a younger man sitting there peacefully, not anticipating female visitors in this man’s house. I retired quickly and waited patiently. When the man had finished he approached me. I asked for Sam’s room. “Door 1 and 2,” said the man. But both doors were locked, No. 1 with an old padlock. Sam was not in. “You will find him,” said the younger man, “he is in and out. He hangs most of the time around the gas station.” When I returned to the street I saw my friends talking to an old man. They had started taking a walk and had asked him for the way. He had answered, talking somewhat confused about world conditions. I recognized Sam, surprised to find him very small, less tall than my own five feet.

Sam stood at the street crossing next to the stop sign at the curb; small, tanned and wrinkled, apparently shrunk, because his old gray suit was hanging loose around his bones. I approached him joyfully; he smiled back so that his bad lower teeth appeared; the upper teeth were lacking. He took his old gray hat off, politely. I took his hand. “Are you really Sam Rodia?” “Yeas, Ma’m,” he answered in his own cadenza on the yes. “Sam, I am one of your friends of Los Angeles, a friend of Mae, who gave you the drawing of the Towers. I come in order to bring you a few things from our friends and to tell you that we love you and admire you.” He laughed: “Thank you, thank you, Lady, you should not do that.” I gave him the blanket in the leatherette case; he peeped in and said: “Lady, thank you no . . . no I have blankets, no, no . . . No. no, I cannot accept this, take it back Lady.” “No Sam, I can’t take it back, your friends would be very angry if I would not deliver this envelope with their greetings . . . And see, Sam, I have also some pictures for you, pictures of Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler, all in one picture.” (It was a photograph of Stefano della Bella’s title page to the Galileo edition, 1632.) “And here is Columbus and another picture of Copernicus.” “Thank you, thank you, Lady . . .” I explained that I was able to bring him these pictures because I was working with old books all day long as a librarian. “And this is Bill Walker, also a librarian.” He shook hands with Bill. “You have a beautiful nice son, Lady,” he said “a very nice son.” We did not contradict. We did not want to confuse the issue. Bill played the son of Kate Steinitz very well. I repeated that we work all day with books and encyclopedias. Sam smiled with appreciation. He liked the fact that we were librarians. It agreed with the yarn he was spinning. He always liked to talk, and after his start with repeated “Thank yous” he talked on for 2 hours without interruption, lively, with dramatic gestures. Now and then we put a few words in to guide his talk to our special points of interest. We wanted to hear about his way of living and find out what we could do to improve it, and, if possible, we wanted his story of the origin and the making of the Towers. But any time we asked questions or made remarks, Sam politely lifted his hat; several times he laid it down on the pavement. Making a real elegant courtesy with Italian grandezza he took up his own thread of the conversation: “Excuse me Lady, but I said before . . .” and on he went, ignoring our remarks. Sam rambled along on the same lines which we knew from Hale’s and Wisniewsky’s tape recordings of 1952, when they made their film. Some of Sam’s sentences had remained the same, word for word.

We would have liked to see Sam’s living quarters; perhaps we would take the tape recorder upstairs and sit down, talking. But Sam was not in the mood. “No, Lady, you must not see that house. I am a poor man, you should not see that.” Therefore—no change of place during the two hours of conversation with Sam or rather during his two hour monologue. We three kept standing at the street crossing, the sun shining bright upon the red stop sign, upon the gray dwarf-like Sam, and upon us two librarians:

"God made them all, men and animals, monkeys and elephants, spiders and snakes; we should not kill ’em, because God made ’em. There are only two faces, black and white, and Jesus Christ was a Jew, but don’t you know this? People don’t want to see it. And people had only one name; now we have two names. Some are good, some are bad. You have to be good, good, good, or you are bad, bad. They live bad today; no respect, no love from children to parents; they buy machines and go away.

“A man makes money, but no pay gold. And first has to pay money to Union; else no work, no pay. Too much money to Union. And his wife gets in the family way. So he must build another room to his house. And she gets again family way: ‘Papa, Papa must build another room.’ And wife wants machine. So must buy machine, no save money. You do not know a man from what he makes, but what he saves. And child is born in hospital. Man should die at home, all family come, stand around, no family in hospital.”

Sam goes back into history, in loose but correct sequences, though with short-cuts. I ask him where he learned all that. From the encyclopedia?

"Yes Lady, from the great English ENCYCLOPEDIA . . .”

“Sam, did you own an Encyclopedia? Did you study it in your house?”

“Ooo—Noo—Lady, I never could buy that book . . . And I read the Bible . . . they don’t read the Bible now . . .”

“Sam, did you read the Bible in English or in Italian? . . . Or Spanish?”

“Lady, I do not know . . . Just the Bible . . . Cannot read no more . . . too old, bad eyes.”

“But Sam can’t you get eye glasses?”

“I have glasses—but no good, cannot read . . . and they don’t go to church Sundays; they take machines and drive away . . .”

“Sam, are you going to church?”

“Lady, I am too old, I no go to church . . . too old. But old people live, cannot die; young virtuous men die young; mother of children die young. Bad men live. Bad women live . . . And what they wear; women wear pants, look what they wear, nothing up and nothing down, and painted face and toe nails.” Sam makes a very expressive gesture to describe a very low neckline and the shortest possible skirt line.

“But you are alright, Lady . . .” He looks to see whether I am decently dressed. His eye catches my self-winding steel watch, and the glass beads around my neck.

“Lady no wear gold watch, no wear gold necklace, ladies used to wear gold.”

“But Sam, this is a good self-winding watch; I never have to wind it; I like it it . . .”

“But what is it—you can’t sell it, or what do you get? Nothing. You can sell gold watch and gold necklace . . . But you cannot even get gold watches. I wanted to give one to my nephew; could not get gold watch.”

“Woman should be the Angel of the House; not go to work, woman gets sick every month. Woman stay at home, angel of the house, can sew pretty curtains . . .” Sam talks about present-day conditions. Sam is well aware of prices, salaries, cost of living.

“Sam, how do you know all that?”

“Lady, when I was night-watchman at court, I heard the boys talk.”

“Was this here in Martinez, Sam, or in Los Angeles?”

“I said it Lady, I was night-watchman . . . I heard a lot.”

“Do you know Lady, Washington was an Englishman, and Lincoln was an Englishman. Many Presidents Englishmen . . .”

Sam does not admire the Roosevelts.

“The first Roosevelt ruined the United States, the second finished it up. Great men Columbus and Buffalo Bill.”

“Sam, you got around a lot in the United States. Have you been East?”

And Bill Walker tells him that he is from Brooklyn. “Yes, my son! The Great Brooklyn Bridge . . . I have seen the great Brooklyn Bridge.”

I said a few words about the construction of bridges,trying to get Sam to speak of the construction of the Towers.

“Lady, when Marconi invented Telegraph, needed copper wire. You need what another man made. No copper wire—no inventing telegraph. I also needed tools, I had to buy tools. I could not build towers without tools . . .”

“Yes, Sam, we know your good tools. You impressed them into the cement of the wall.”

His eyes were twinkling. For the first time he spoke of the making of the Towers.

“You built them strong, Sam, with your tools . . . But how did you start building the Towers?”

“Yes Lady, and I built them all without scaffold, just with tools.”

“Sam, they say you had very good cement. What cement was this?”

I was not able to understand what Sam said about the cement; but he mumbled something on “galvanized iron,” “chickenwire” and, mumbling, he starts demonstrating: his hands go gently around the signpost as if he would cover it with cement, and set it with mosaic. I try to get a picture of his hands . . .

Sam, though opposed to machines, tolerates the camera, but he does not pay much attention to it. Anytime I step back to get at least a distance of 3 feet, Sam follows me, apparently concerned not to lose a listener. Several times when he came too close, I had to hand the camera to Bill Walker, who stood in the distance from Sam.

“But how did you start the Towers?”

“Lady, this is something. I was drinking. No wife, she passed away . . . No son, no daughter. I was drinking three days and three nights. I really drank. So I started work on Towers. No more drink—just build Towers. No more, never again drink.”

"Sam, why don’t you come with us to Los Angeles and see the Towers well kept and standing firmly? . . . Your friends would like you to come . . . !”

Sam put his hand on his heart, in emotion, his eyes were shining.

“No, Lady, that I cannot do; I am too old, not travel; cannot see the Towers, cannot stand see Towers . . . You know I made a ceiling, all with mirrors, do you know? . . . ”

“Sam, all the mirrors are there. They are very beautiful. This little hallway with the mirrors is one of my favorite spots and the ship is there too. Say Sam, is this Marco Polo’s ship?”

“No Lady, Columbus ship. But Columbus died with his arm and leg in chains.”

And back he goes to spin his yarn; he goes in circles without any sign of getting tired.

But I am exhausted, standing two hours in the sun, on one spot. We see our friends in the distance returning from their long walk; we are getting hungry.

“Sam come on, have lunch with us.”

“No Lady, no teeth, no, cannot eat.”

“Well, Sam, you can have soup . . .”

But Sam refuses firmly, with a most polite “Thank you, Lady.”

He takes the leatherette case, containing the blanket and our other presents. He takes it with a firm grip and turns toward his house. Bill quickly gets the flowerpot, which he had checked in the appliance store. He presents the pink chrysanthemum to Sam. This seems to please Sam most of all. He gives us a big smile, or rather a real grin.

“Thank you my son; thank you Lady, you have a nice beautiful son.”

This was the happy end of our visit.

Kate T. Steinitz



✻ Special Libraries

✻✻ The Committee for Sam Rodia’s Towers in Watts, formed to preserve the Towers from their contemplated demolition by the Los Angeles Building and Safety authorities. The Towers were subsequently proven to be safe.