1952 – 1953 Learning to Work
Working at the Food Palace I learned how to trim lettuce, celery, corn, cabbage and the rest. I learned how to set up and tear down the wet stand, how to stack apples and all the beautiful displays of fruits and vegetables demanded by Pancho. (The wet stand is the display that holds all the vegetables that had to be sprayed with water during the day, there were no refrigerated stands like today). Back then a Produce Department was a career for men and a respected trade.
The crap job was to work the 1:00 PM to 10:00PM shift, (alone from 7 PM) and have to tear down the wet stand after the store closed at 10:00PM. Tearing down consisted of removing all the lettuce, celery, cabbage etc. and placing them in wooden crates and the stacking the crates and wheel them in to the refrigerated cooler for overnight storage.
The night guy also had to have enough newly trimmed lettuce, celery, corn, cabbage etc. so the day shift could set up the wet stand the next morning with one level of any wet stand vegetable. During the day shift the first thing the trimmer would do is cull the last night stuff and make it look good enough to be placed back on the wet stand, on top of the new stuff, to be sold first.
Guess who got the crap job as soon as he was properly trained. Yep, me! This was about the time I had to start school around the end of August, 1952. I learned really quick!
I understood why I had to close. I was perfect for the job, a school kid who couldn’t work during week days so I would work 5 hours a night from 5:00 PM till 10:00 PM. That is, I got paid for 5 hours but it took me till about 10:45 to get all the work done. I’d get home around midnight or later. Go to bed and start school the next morning.
On Saturday’s I’d get to work a 10:00AM to 7:00 PM shift so I got a break from closing. I was working with grown men who had families and they were teaching me about other manly things like the birds and the bees. We would press one hundred pound sacks of potato’s and that is a lot harder than you might think. A sack of potatoes is dead weight, but I eventually got strong enough to do it and a lot stronger as time went by.
When I was assigned to close, I figured I wasn’t an apprentice anymore so I asked Pancho for a raise and classification change to Craftsman. I mean how could an “apprentice” work alone and be responsible for all the trimming and maintaining the stands by himself? I didn’t ask him immediately, I waited till sometime in October so I had a track record of doing good work that was noticed by the day shift guys.
Finally, when I got up enough nerve to ask Pancho for the raise he went ballistic. You’d have thought I stole his last buck by asking for the raise. So I backed off, but I didn’t like it. He reminded me of Dave and the newspaper corners.
From the time I started working there my primary trainer was one of the older guys, Joe. He was an Italian guy, about 35, married with a couple of kids. He really taught me how to become a good trimmer and I liked Joe a lot. Joe quit a few days before I asked Pancho for the raise, but I kept in touch with him.
Pancho was not an easy man to work for. He was Mr. Company and back then the produce manager was responsible for making a certain amount of profit. He made sure everyone worked their ass off.
Joe had quit over an argument with Pancho and it didn’t take him but a couple of days to get a new job. At his new job they had an opening for a night guy and he called me and offered me the job. He told me the job was mine and he would vouch for me to transfer to the different branch of the union as a “JOURNEYMAN!”
I learned at an early age that the good ole boy system was alive and well in unions. This time I benefited, but what about next time?
So here I was, asking Pancho to be promoted to Craftsman at about $2.65 an hour and Joe is calling me offering me a job at Food Giant in Hawthorne as a Journeyman at $3.30 an hour. What a no brainer that was.
When I quit, Pancho went completely out of his mind when I gave him my two weeks’ notice. I was an ungrateful bastard for turning my back on good old uncle Pancho who gave me a job when he could have hired someone else, blah, blah, blah.
Pancho tried in vain to keep me and as a last resort agreed to promote me to Craftsman status, but the genie was out of the bottle, I was worth more to someone else. Again, I had learned, at the young age of 15, that I had added value because I knew how to do something as good, or better than someone else. I never forgot that for my entire life, added value, what a concept.
Of course, today a 15-year-old would never have the opportunities I had. You know, the government is there to protect 15-year old’s now from the evil business owners who are out to take advantage of them. What a load of crap that is. A kid should be able to work as soon as he wants to and earn what he agrees to. How else is he going to learn a work ethic?
By quitting, in a strange way I became a man because I made a decision without my mother’s permission and stuck to my decision knowing that family gatherings were going to be a bitch when Pancho visited our home.
I wasn’t wrong, things were pretty ugly when he came over. He quit taking me to play tennis with him at the Los Angeles Tennis Club and other tennis related stuff. I don’t think he ever got rid of his hard on for me, but later in life he needed me.
So now it’s around the middle of October, 1952 and I’ve got a new job at Food Giant. Joe was the number two guy and he vouched for me and was solely responsible for my getting that job making $3.30 an hour. Life was grand.
I was averaging four nights a week, Saturday and every other Sunday. Sunday’s were great because I got paid double time, yep $6.60 an hour. With Sundays I was grossing more than $140 a week in 1952! My mother was really happy too, she gave me a raise to about $30 a week.
Across the street from the Food Giant, in Hawthorne, was a music store that had a good size record department. I was buying all my jazz albums there and I became good friends with the record department manager. His name was Bob Andrews and he was a big jazz fan. Especially West Coast Jazz (WCJ). It was Bob who introduced me to The Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach and The Lighthouse All-stars. More on that later.
At the same time another thing happened that put me on my life’s journey. My mother and Tony had reconciled sometime in early 1953.
As I mentioned before, Tony was a man’s man and he took control and responsibility for paying the bills. He told me I could keep my money and I would have to pay about $50 a week for room and board. Talk about a pay raise, I was rich! and I started saving money to buy my first car.
Now it’s around March of 1953 and I’m starting to flirt with some of the Checkers at work. Back then all checkers were women and all box boys were boys, what a concept! While most of the box boys were my age, I was a journeyman produce clerk. The girls thought I was much older than I was and one of them kind of liked me.
When she worked the night shift and I was on duty, she would visit me in the back room during her breaks. The back room is where all the trimming is done and all the potatoes, watermelon and other dry goods were stacked.
Eventually we started necking and petting for a few minutes before we’d both get scared and she would run back to work. One night I decided to go, what I thought was, all the way so I took her into the cooler. I found out it doesn’t work inside of a refrigerator, so we gave up. I don’t know what happened to her but I never saw her again after that episode.
Working at night also started my new era of fear. Back in those days Mexicans* and Blacks didn’t hang out with each other. If anything, they fought, but not as much as with the White guys from further west and southwest. Working at night and travelling by bus at midnight or later was a big risk.
I would get off the bus at the corner of Manchester and San Pedro Street and walk the gauntlet south about six blocks to my house on 88th Place. At midnight, that walk was kind of eerie. No businesses were open, barely any light and I was an easy target for any black guys wanting to kick some ass.
There were six black guys who would hunt me down at night after I would get off the bus on San Pedro and Manchester. They must have figured out my schedule and while they weren’t waiting for me every night it was often enough for me to worry about getting home every night.
They were about 18 or 19 years old and it was always the same six guys in the same car. At any rate, I didn’t want to get caught, but eventually they did. Unlike when I was fourteen, I was getting taller and stronger, but I still couldn’t take on six.
The first time they caught me I was walking down the alley that paralleled San Pedro. They must have seen me as I would exit the alley and walk across the street to the next alley. Whatever, they caught me and proceeded to kick the shit out of me. I was rolled up in a ball on the ground when they got serious and then a miracle happened.
An old lady had heard the ruckus and came out her back door screaming her ass off. Her house was next to the alley and the fight had woken her up. The black guys immediately split and I was saved. She had called the cops and an ambulance showed up and checked me out. I really didn’t go to the hospital, but they wrapped my ribs up and I was out of work for a few days.
When I went back to work I decided I needed something to protect myself with. I would remove the slats off the side of a cantaloupe crate, nail the three slats together and wrap them with the green wax paper used to line the wet rack.
A cantaloupe crate slat was a board about two inches wide and a little over three feet long. Three made a pretty good bat. So I had my bat and would bravely walk the gauntlet four nights a week.
It didn’t take long for the bat idea to look stupid to me so I went back to our garage and took the bicycle chain off my bike. I taped one end and the middle using black electrical tape. At the other end, I wrapped the chain with the same tape to make a six-inch handle. Now I really had a weapon and I could roll it up and put it in my leather jacket’s pocket.
The first time I used the chain was in the same alley closer to my street against the same black guys, but this time I whipped out my chain. I took a swing at two of them, hit one and as they flinched I ran through the hole like a tailback going through a hole in his front line. They ran to their car and I heard it starting up, but I made it to my street and hid behind the first house until they gave up looking for me.
During those months, my Uncle Danny was teaching me how to drive and I was saving money to buy my first car. I had obtained a learners permit but I couldn’t get a driver’s license until I was sixteen.
Tony had bought a 1940 Ford panel truck and soon after lost his job at the Central Market in downtown L.A. We had an opening at my store and Tony was an experienced produce man so I asked Joe if he would hire Tony. That turned out to be a mistake, but for a while he and I kind of bonded. But imagine this, he and I were making the same hourly pay. What a trip that was.
On some Saturdays that we worked the same hours and we would drive to work and home together. He would let me drive home because he was busy chugging six quarts of beer. He would buy the beer in the store’s liquor department and have them finished before we got home. Six quarts! My mother didn’t know he had had one beer.
With the beer drinking daily on the way home she started to notice and the fights started all over again. My mom separated from Tony again and for some reason he quit working at Food Giant. I had dodged a bullet because I had already bought my car. As soon as Tony went out the door, my weekly pay went back to about $30 a week.
The Friday he left he took his check from the little box in the back room. The little box was where the manager would place all the checks on Friday. The only problem was when he left he also took my check. I didn’t know he had taken it so I asked Joe where my check was and he said it was in the box. We both looked for it with no results.
The next day, Saturday, I went to work and someone had called the police about the missing check. While I was working out front loading the potato rack, two uniformed police officers came up to me and started asking me questions about my check.
Coincidentally, the market chains big boss was in the store for an onsite visit. As he entered the produce department, he saw the cops talking to me and he asked, who is that kid, not what happened. I was later told his response was “Fire him.”
So I was fired on the spot.
Joe was the one who had to do it, but he felt so bad he made a phone call to a friend of his at the Von’s Market on La Cieniga in West L.A. Again, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise because prior to this, the two stores I had worked for had tiny produce departments compared to this Vons.
Von’s was huge and they had three times as many produce clerks. The store was one of the new modern markets with a giant produce department, refrigerated produce stands, it was a huge market. It also had a small open restaurant with counter seating.
While all this shit was going down with Tony and my check, I had bought a 1941 Ford 2 Door Coupe for $400.00. It was sitting in the garage waiting for me to turn sixteen. For about three or four weeks before my sixteenth birthday I would drive back and forth on our driveway. When my uncle Danny had time, he would take me out on the street because I had the learners permit.
All this happened before I started at the Von’s store so it must have been a few weeks before August 3rd, 1953.
My 41 Ford was a beauty. It was deep red/maroon with red and white leatherette seat covers, it had a white headliner, white side wall tires and Cadillac hub caps. I added two baby spotlights and twin pipes that made it sound so cool! What a chick magnet.
The first day I drove my Ford, by myself, to work, was the greatest day of my life. The sense of freedom I felt put me on top of the world. I was free. I didn’t have to run from the black guys at night. I didn’t have to fight after school. I was gone within five minutes after three o’clock.
I don’t think I can write enough words to explain the enormous, gigantic, tremendous feeling of safety and freedom I felt that first day I drove to work. I was on a cloud looking at a brand-new world. No more fear at night, no more running the gauntlet.
When I say, “no more fear,” I was still cautious at night. But I had walked that gauntlet every nightshift I worked. I walked it with the fear of anyone walking into a mine field. But I was ready to defend myself and I did just that. But now I had a car and I was safe.
Next – Fremont, Work and a Woman