Los Angeles, 1938
by Charles Willeford, October 27, 2010
My grandmother was as happy to see me as I was to see her. We hugged and kissed each other and we both cried a little. But after we settled down and talked for a while I could see that her situation was worse now than when I had left. She had lost her job at the cleaning establishment, being replaced by a nephew of the owner, and the arthritis in her fingers was so severe she could hardly close her hands. My uncle Bill still paid the rent and utilities on her cooperative apartment and gave her five dollars a week to live on. He still had his executive job with Southern Bell, but he also had a wife and three children to support. She had cashed in her insurance policy and had given him the money because a street assessment in his neighborhood had to be paid or he would have lost his house.
She cheered up a little when I gave her the fifty-dollar bill.
“By the time that’s spent,” I said, “I should have a job, and we’ll be all right.”
But things were not all right.
I took a battery of tests at the city’s free employment agency on Hill Street, and the test-giver/interviewer, a heavy-bottomed woman in her late thirties, told me that I wasn’t qualified for any of the few jobs they had on file. She also told me that my fingernails were dirty.
“Fingernails,” she said “are the first thing an employer looks at. So when I send you out on an interview, I want you to promise me that you’ll clean your nails.”
I looked at my nails, and they seemed clean enough to me. I felt like ramming all ten fingers up her big bureaucratic ass.
My grandmother still had her phone, on the cheapest rate possible, $1.50 a month. You could make three calls a day, but if you made a fourth it would cost an extra nickel, and so would every additional call after that. We got around this restriction when we called people we knew by letting the phone ring once and then hanging up. Then the person we called, if so inclined, would call back. All of her friends knew the signal, but as time went along, she said, fewer of them returned her calls. She no longer had the money for giving dinner parties at home, which meant she couldn’t accept any invitations either.
I had always called my grandmother Mattie, her first name, because she looked much too young to be a grandmother. And when she had gentleman callers, I always told them I was her nephew, not wanting them to know she was a grandmother. But she looked like a grandmother now. My mother had died in 1928, and Mattie must have been at least forty-eight then, so I now reckoned she was fifty-eight or perhaps older. Being that old, together with her crippling arthritis, made her chances of ever getting another saleslady’s job seem unlikely. Mattie had sold millinery in the French Room of the May Company, where the cheapest designed hats sold for fifty dollars apiece. She had been on a commission as well as a salary. She had worked six days a week, Saturday being a big day at the May Company, and we lived well whie she was working. At one time, when I was small, our family had been fairly well off. That was when Mattie and my uncle and my mother and my stepfather, Joe, and I had all lived in a big house in Topanga Canyon. Everyone was working, and my mother gave piano, voice, and expression lessons at home, so there were four good incomes coming into one house. We had a cook, a maid, and two Buicks.
But then my mother had died of TB. My stepfather sold his garage and went back to New York, and my uncle got married and was transferred temporarily to San Bernardino. Mattie and I had still lived well in our apartment, but then the Depression came along...
One day, after I had been home for about a week, the phone rang. It was Norma Shearer, the movie actress who was married to the producer Irving Thalberg.
My grandmother talked to her for a while, and when she hung up there were tears in her eyes. “Miss Shearer called to ask about my health,” she said. Apparently they told her at the May Company that I had retired because of ill health. Poor dear, I sold her hats for years. God only knows what they’ll put on that woman’s head now!”
“It was nice of her to call you.”
“Yes, I think so, too. Ordinarily I never accepted any Jewish customers, but Miss Shearer was a real lady.”
Mattie tried not to let on, but I knew she was pleased because she called about six different people that afternoon to mention casually that Norma Shearer had called her that morning.
Finally the employment lady sent me out for an interview. A taxidermist on Flower Street in downtown L.A. wanted an apprentice to sweep the store in the morning, to wait on customers, and to learn how to stuff birds. The store was dingy and musty. There was a dusty stuffed black bear in the unwashed front window, and dozens of glassy-eyed dead owls clutching wooden perches were on the plywood counter. The place looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned in years. The taxidermist, an old man with a tic in his left eye, blinked and winked crazily at my discharge for about three minutes and then shook his head.
“It says here,” he said, tapping my honorable discharge with a forefinger thick with dried glue, “that you’re a chauffeur. I don’t want a chauffeur, I want a taxidermist.”
“I’ve never mounted any animals,” I said. “But I could probably sell some of those stuffed owls for you. Somebody should be pushing those owls.”
“The owls aren’t for sale.” He shook his head. “They’re mine, for display only.”
“Well, maybe the lady made a mistake sending me here. I guess she thought my fingernails weren’t clean enough for a decent job. But thanks for considering me, anyway.”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t hire you. I just said that you, being a chauffeur and used to driving around the city, might not like the confinement of a small shop like this.”
“You’re right. I walked downtown, more than five miles, so I’d appreciate it if you could let me have seven cents for the streetcar home.”
He gave me a dime. The only major change in LA since I left was that they had raised the streetcar fare from a nickel to seven cents.
I walked over to Main Street and went into a long, narrow donut shop that sold five donuts and a cup of coffee (no refills) for a dime. The donuts were much smaller than those in the Johnson’s chain donut shop, but they were dense, and they stuck to a man’s ribs. As I dunked and ate the donuts I felt as if I had just escped from a cage. If the old man had offered me the job, which paid ten dollars a week, I would have had to take it. God, what a fate that would have been for a poet — stuffing dead owls and rummaging about in a cigar box full of glass eyes!
As long as I was on Main Street anyway, I decided to see if the old recruiting corporal was gone, back to the coast artillery, I supposed, but there was a buck sergeant from the field artillery in his place. He was tall and thin and was wearing soft, pearly gray fox leggings instead of GI issue wraparounds. I tried not to stare at him as I lit a Chesterfield, but he grinned and beckoned me over.
“Well,” he said, “you about ready to take out another stack?”
“Not yet.” He had never seen me before, and I had never seen him, but he knew that I was an ex-soldier, a P.S. man. I was pleased by the recognition.
“I guess,” he said, “you were smart enough to join the Regular Army Reserves when you got out?”
He seemed surprised. “How could you pass up a good deal like the Reserves? You get a dollar a week, twelve dolars every three months, and don’t have to do a damned thing to get it. Just sign up, stay home, and every three months your check comes in the mail like clockwork. Most people I know, when they get a free check in the mail four times a year, forty-eight bucks a year for doing absolutey nothing, can always find a use for the money.”
“Before I was in the Army I was in the National Guard, and I don’t want to be tied down to drill every week.”
“The RAR ain’t the National Guard —” he spat into the gutter. “The Reserve is just that, a reserve. They don’t go to meetings or do anything else. It’s found money.”
“Let me think about it.” I edged away.
“You know where to find me.”
I don’t know why I didn’t take him up on the Regular Army Reserves. Because of the taxidermist interview I had my discharge with me, and he could have signed me up in minutes. But I was too uncertain about what I was going to be doing or where I would be living in three months. A man in the Reserves needs a fixed address to get the quarterly check. But it pleased me no end to be recognized as an ex-soldier. It’s the way we carry ourselves, I supposed, our military bearing. I could feel my back stiffen as I pulled in my chin.
I walked down East Fifth Street. Skid Row. The street was packed with bums. In addition to the thousands of Okies and Arkies who had drifted out to LA, soon followed by the rest of their families, professional bums were wintering in LA, too. In the spring the professional bums would take to the Poutry Route, hiking along the highway through the valley to Bishop, to Reno, and then into Utah, stopping at farms along the way for handouts. But now they were getting by on blood sales, mission handouts, and dinging in the streets.
There was a Skid Row employment agency on Los Angeles Boulevard (the Street of Forty Thieves, it was called, becuse of all the wholesale clothiers located there), and I wanted to see if any jobs were open. There were listings for dishwashers, busboys, and fry cooks on the blackboard outside the agency, but no interesting jobs. I went inside. The man took one look at me, in my neatly pressed oxford gray suit, and shook his head.
“Not you, buddy,” he said. “These jobs are for people who can’t do nothing else.”
“What makes you think I can do something else?”
“You got a suit. A hot-shot with a suit can sell Hoover vacuum cleaners and make a hundred bucks a week.”
The man was a fool. Who in hell, in the winter of 1938, could afford to buy a new vacuum cleaner?
I started back toward Main Street and bumped into Willie Taylor, Jack Taylor’s older brother. Jack Taylor and I had gone to Menlo Avenue Grammar School and John Adams Junior High together, and had been good friends. Willie was ten years older than Jack, and a hero to both of us. A writer like Jack London could have made an interesting story out of Willie Tayor’s rise and fall. Willie had worked for Safeway while he still attended Manual Arts High School. When he was graduated, first in his class, Safeway had made him the manager of the store, the youngest Safeway manager. He then put in an extra cash register in the checkout line, his own personal cash register, one the chain didn’t know about. When people checked out through Willie’s personal register, the money went into his pockets, not into the coffers of the store. After a year the store showed a loss, of course, and was investigated, but no one could figure out where the losses were coming from. No one thought about counting the cash registers and comparing them with the original setup. But finally a disgruntled employee Willie had fired, who figured out the angle, tipped off the company and Willie was fired. He wasn’t arrested, because Safeway didn’t want the publicity, but he was blacklisted in the food industry. Because of his brilliance, Willie would soon get a new job in a grocery store. It usually took three or four days before Safeway found out he was working again and informed the store owner that Willie was a thief. He’d be called in and fired. Not being able to hold a job, and knowing nothing except the grocery business, Willie had quit trying. He stayed at home and drank muscatel wine. Mr. Taylor, Jack and Willie’s father, had a modest income from an apartment house he owned, and he gave Willie a small weekly allowance.
Willie didn’t recognize me at first, but he remembered me as soon as I told him my name. We had often talked when I went to their house to get Jack for a softball game in Exposition Park. Willie was now about 29 or 30, but he looked closer to 45. His face was deeply wrinkled, and he was much skinnier than I had remembered him.
“What’s Jack doing these days?” I asked.
“He went to sea. He’s a mess boy in the Merchant Marine. He sent me a postcard from Hong Kong the other day, saying it isn’t true.”
“It isn’t true. I just got back from the Philippines myself, and I can vouch for it. I spent two years over there.”
“That long? I knew I hadn’t seen you around the corner for a while, but I didn’t know it was that long.” (The corner was Santa Barbara and Vermont, including Pop’s Pool Room and Johnson’s Donut Shop, where most of us had hung out in the evenings.)
“What’re you doing down here on Skid Row, Willie? Did your old man finally kick you out?”
“No, I’m still living at home. I’ve got a job down here in a winery. It’s just a temporary job, siphoning wine into one gallon jugs, but I’m getting two bits an hour. You want to help me? For every gallon you siphon, you can take a mouthful for yourself, I do.”
I helped Willie, and both of us got drunk. I was siphoning zinfandel and he was siphoning burgundy. When we started giggling and laughing and began to miss the jugs with the hose, the owner fired Willie and threw us both out. We had been working in the back for more than two hours but the owner refused to give Willie the fifty cents he had coming, complaining that we had drunk twice that much in wine. It wasn’t true, not when wine was ony fifty cents a gallon, but we had put away a lot of it.
It had rained while we were in the winery, and LA is never ready for rain. The drains are inadequate, and the streets become flooded in minutes. The merchants along the street keep two-by-fours in their shops for these flooding rains, and put them out on the curbs to the street so people can come into their stores without getting their ankles soaked. The stream running along the gutter was a torrent. Willie and I were laughing about his dismissal, and I said that perhaps now he would be blacklisted from all the LA wineries as well as the grocery stores. He thought this was a funny remark.
About this time a one-legged man was coming down the sidewalk, making good time in the rain, using only one crutch. As he came abreast of us, Willie, for no reason that I know of, kicked the crutch out from under the guy’s arm, and it landed in the gutter. The rushing water picked it up, and it sailed down the gutter like a speedboat. The one-legged guy hopped after it, cursing us and shaking his fist as he hopped along. I know this isn’t funny (it’s terrible), but we laughed so hard we got weak. Three Mexicans who had witnessed the incident came over to where we were standing. I was holding myself up with one arm around a telephone pole and clutching my sore stomach with my other hand. Two Mexicans grabbed Willie from each side, and the third Mexican hit Willie in the mouth. Willie’s mouth began to bleed, and I jumped onto the back of the nearest Mexican, which brought us both down to the sidewalk. While I was on top of the guy, and punching him in the neck, one of the other Mexicans kicked me in the ribs. Willie, in the meantime, had kneed the third guy in the balls, so he was down, too, howling as if his ass had been turpentined.
A white Ford stopped at the curb. A cop in civilian clothes got out, flashing his badge. The activity stopped. The Mexican who wasn’t hurt told the cop that we had kicked a one-legged man’s crutch out from under him. The cop told the Mexicans to get lost. They left, two of them supporting the guy Willie had kneed in the balls. The detective told us to get into the back seat. We got in back, sobered a little, and Willie wiped his bleeding mouth with a handkerchief. The detective drove over to Figueroa and Ninth Street and parked at the curb. He turned around and said: “East Fifth is my beat, and I’m down there every day. If I see either of you on Skid Row again, you’re going to Lincoln Heights on a vagrancy charge. And that means three days in the slammer, twenty-seven days suspended. You ever been in Lincoln Heights before?”
“No, sir,” I said. Willie shook his head.
“I guarantee you won’t like it. So as of now, both of you guys are washed up on Skid Row! D’you understand me?”
We nodded and got out of the car. The cop was a big man, and looked as tough as he talked. I was completely sober now. I noticed that the sleeves of my suit jacket were torn loose at the seams under the arms. But my mind was bemused by what the cop had said.
Jesus Christ! I was only 19 years old and I was washed up on Skid Row!
Hell, from Skid Row, there was no place lower to go. The absurdity of it hit me, and I started to laugh again. I laughed so hard I had to sit on the curb. Willie didn’t laugh with me, but he sat beside me. He fingered his teeth to see if they were all there. They were, but his front teeth were a little loose.
“You lost your hat,” he said.
I felt my head; the fedora was gone. “I can’t go back for it, either, because I am washed up on Skid Row.”
“That cop didn’t scare me,” Willie shrugged. “I’ve been in Lincoln Heights before. I ate swordfish there for three days, courtesy of Zane Grey, who donates all the swordfish he catches to the county jail. They don’t know how to fix it, though. They boil it, and that isn’t the best way to cook swordfish. But if you’re scared, Charles, I’ll go back and find your hat for you.”
“It wouldn’t be there. It’s a new hat. Somebody’s probably sold it by now. Did you ever eat any dog, Willie?”
“Dog’s got to be better than boiled swordfish. Why did you kick that guy’s crutch out from under him?”
“Why did it rain? Why did it stop?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Everything,” he said. “Everything.”
We sat there for a long time, smoking my Chesterfields, not talking, thinking our own thoughts. Then Willie got up, brushed off the seat of his pants, and started walking up Figueroa toward Eighth Street. I watched him go, but he didn’t turn around and wave, and I didn’t tell him good-bye. ¥¥
(Excerpted from ‘Something About A Soldier’)