My life story -- kinda, sorta


I am indebted to author James Frey for having opened my eyes to the fact that one needn’t have lived a tragic or lopsided life in order to write an uplifting memoir. What you don’t live, you just make up, and Oprah will come a-running.

The truth is, I’ve been considering a memoir for some time now, but the problem I’ve had is that I’ve never been in prison, never tried to run down a policeman with my car, never been a drug addict or an alcoholic and I’ve never caused anyone’s death.

Well, yes, I like a martini now and again and there was that time in Berkeley when I partied with a dysfunctional barber and took a couple of hits on his hash pipe. Unlike Bill Clinton, I inhaled the heck out of it and fell asleep. Cinelli took me home without saying a word -- for weeks.


Even though I have not touched even a simple weed since then, it can hardly be considered the kind of inspirational journey of the heart that so appeals to Oprah Winfrey. You’ve got to fill her eyes with tears and her psyche with pain to have her recommend your book.

Frey did just that with “A Million Little Pieces” and Oprah, who went for it like a pit bull after a mailman’s behind, picked it for her viewers’ book club. As a result, the “memoir” has sold 2 million copies, putting it just behind that other fantasy, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

According to those who have investigated Frey’s past, upon which the book is based, key elements are pure fiction, thereby casting doubt on the rest of the book. He mumbled a weak defense, his publisher said they’d stand by him, and America went on buying the book.

The controversy, however, continues among those purists who feel that a memoir ought to be true. Cinelli, who suffers specious debates poorly, suggested that Frey just rename it “A Hundred Little Pieces” and go on from there.

You might recall that back in 1972 one Clifford Irving wrote an “authorized” biography of Howard Hughes, the reclusive, nutty genius you discovered through the fine acting of Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Aviator.” That book was selling like hot pastrami at Nate ‘n Al’s when Hughes crawled out of wherever he was to declare the book a fake.

Irving finally admitted never having talked to Hughes, went to jail for 17 months and repaid the $765,000 advance. But -- and that’s a big but -- he went on from there to apply what he’d learned about writing fiction to turn out several well-received novels, thereby originating the theory that no crime should ever go to waste.


Although I weathered the Hughes ordeal without planning to fake anyone’s biography, I’m in a quandary about what to do now about my memoirs. Whatever evil habits I have acquired over the years, I’m still practicing, so there is no redemption in my life. Oprah and her lachrymose followers want pain and atonement, neither of which I am in reality able to offer. But now that I know that truth need not be a factor in conning, I mean convincing, Oprah of my sincerity, I am thinking along other lines.

Suppose, for instance, that the one or two (maybe three) puffs on the hash pipe had turned me into a raving addict and, in order to afford my three-puffs-a-week habit, I had to start holding up sick old people on Social Security, accompanied by my moll, Cinelli, noted for her tendency to cook a nice meal and clean the houses of those we were robbing. A Mafia hit woman she wasn’t.

We were sort of the Bonnie and Clyde of Oakland for a while, causing terror among those peeking out from behind their shabby lace curtains as we walked by, hoping that their house was not our target for the night.

We were easily recognizable, me with my short legs, pot belly and peculiar loping gait, and Cinelli with her bright smile, positive attitude and willingness to help everyone.

I kept trying to talk her out of cooking and tidying up for the people we were victimizing, but she’d just go on dusting their furniture and saying, “You do your job and I’ll do mine.” It was only when she wanted to paint their living rooms that I put my foot down and insisted she call a contractor instead.

Robbing old people on pensions wasn’t paying a lot, because Cinelli kept buying them fruits and vegetables, so I could no longer afford my hash addiction. That’s when I switched to martinis. It was during this time that Cinelli, who never drank, asked for one of my olives dipped in the vodka. This became a habit with her and very soon, I’m sad to say, she was addicted to olives.


Here comes the inspirational part: My love for Cinelli was greater than my love for martinis, so for her sake I gave them up. Temporarily. I remember the day clearly. After I finished my last martini and she her last olive, we got down on our knees in the bar and prayed together. This so impressed the other drinkers that they also fell to their knees, praying and drinking or just unable to get up again.

If, after the mention by Oprah and several million in sales, I am forced to admit that 62% of my memoir isn’t true, c’est la vie! I’ll call it a novelistic memoir, downgrade it to “A Dozen Little Pieces” and hurry off to the bank, laughing all the way.

Al Martinez’s column

appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at