In 1952, five years after my grandpa had hit it big in Chicago, my grandparents moved to The Golden State. My grandma sold her beauty shop and would never again hold a job. They moved into a house in a new subdivision cut out of the citrus groves of the San Fernando Valley. Since the subdivision was built atop the accumulated sediments of the Santa Susanna Mountains, the new town was called Granada Hills.
Unlike the Chicago two-flat, the new house had a yard. A big yard, too, the lot being a quarter acre. The house had three bedrooms and — a luxury almost unheard of in those days — two bathrooms. In addition to a dining room it had a “living room” and, outside of the back door, a concrete patio.
When the developer handed over the keys to the new house my grandpa paid him $11,000 cash. He paid cash for all of their new furniture and appliances and for a brand-new 1952 Chevy Bel Air. Throughout his life my grandpa paid cash for everything. The notion that he’d borrow money from a bank was abhorrent to him. He trusted bankers about as far as he could spit. Or about as much as he trusted Wall Street stock speculators or politicians. To my grandpa’s way of thinking owing money to a bank wasn’t much different than taking on the type of “silent partner” that all Chicago storefront owners were forced to take on. You did all of the work but they still got their cut, their fair share of your receipts. That was the deal you’d made and you’d have to live up to it or suffer the consequences.
When, after the invention of plastic, credit cards hit the consumer market my grandpa wanted nothing to do with them. I remember my dad, who was a hustler and a salesman, trying to convince my grandpa of the wisdom of taking advantage of the new invention. Since the credit card companies took a cut from the merchants that accepted them, you could use a credit card as a free bookkeeping service. By putting all but your nickel and dime purchases and payments on your credit card you’d get a monthly roadmap of just where your money went. Since so long as you paid the credit card company on time and in full it cost you nothing, and since with a credit card you could store your money clip in a dresser drawer so that if a mugger whacked you on the head he’d get very little of your cash, what could be better than a credit card? If, as Veblen said, the highest achievement in business was the nearest approach to getting something for nothing, then how could any businessman turn his back on what was clearly something for nothing?
Of course my grandpa was never convinced. My dad may as well have been trying to convince his little dog Pepe. Then again, my grandpa had little use for a credit card because, unless he absolutely needed to, he never spent any money.
Now you would have thought, “like a bat out of hell,” that my grandpa would have taken to suburban LA with its fine weather and myriad all year “attractions.” In fact my grandpa became a hermit. From the time he moved into the house in 1952 until his corpse was carried out of it in 1970 he never strayed further than to our house which was about 15 miles away. And he did that only two or three times during those 18 years.
When he died his ’52 Chevy had 16,000 miles on it. The car still had its original tires and brakes. And my grandma had driven every one of those 16,000 miles, usually solo.
More than traveling or being out in public my grandpa hated and feared poverty. The Great Depression had broken his faith in people and had caused him so much suffering that he trusted nobody, even family, as much as he trusted his possession of money. Only money could give him “security” and in his mind a life without “security” quickly became hellish. So to my grandpa “security” was all “success” amounted to. That plus some creature comforts, some gadgets and some trinkets.
If the economy collapsed again then my grandpa was ready. He never owed anybody a penny. He had no money in stocks or bonds and no gambling chits in commodities or precious metals. All of his money he kept in savings accounts in banks. Since at that time the federal government insured bank deposits only to the amount of $10,000, when he died my grandpa had $10,000 savings accounts distributed among 25 some odd banks.
My grandpa believed that the greatest invention of the 20th Century was the TV dinner. If only young people knew what it took to cook while bent over a wood stove. If only they knew the smelly mess made by having to gut and pluck chickens in a humid, box like kitchen. The tremendous amount of labor saved by TV dinners covered their modest cost in spades. By eating TV dinners you didn’t have to worry about getting poisoned, either.
Next came the flip-flop shoe. Who could ever have imagined that for 29¢ you could purchase a pair of shoes that were airy and comfortable and perfectly suited to the southern California climate?
Also, when it came to my grandpa’s favorite inventions, there was the electric rotisserie, the Grundig shortwave radio, the automatic toaster and the Norelco rotary razor.
And of course there was the black and white TV. My grandpa never believed in color TV. When they first hit the market he thought they were unreliable and over-priced. Later on he just thought they were over-priced.
When it came to watching TV my grandpa was a news junkie. Never in my life would I ever encounter anybody else who would watch, back to back, every news program that was offered. (In those days not all of the stations were government spokesmen.) My grandpa watched the news to get joke ideas and, just as importantly, to watch for signs of the apocalypse.
So far as the commercials were concerned, my grandpa seldom listened to them. Like Madison Avenue, my grandpa was convinced that the average person would believe anything so long — but only so long — as it promised to make him them healthy, wealthy or wise. Hell, the average person would believe any sales pitch that promised him fun or sex appeal or status or luxury or convenience or anything else so long as he thought, by handing over his money to a stranger, he would be making his life better.
Some of my grandpa’s favorite hustlers — the characters he used to illustrate for me the infinite gullibility of the common man — were Charles Atlas, Jack LaLanne, Gorgeous George, Jean Dixon, Billy Graham and that fellow who came out with the Hula Hoop.
Since the only commercial worth watching told you what a product was good for, how long it would last and what its price was, and since no TV commercial did that (each being an assemblage of “Hidden Persuaders”), my grandpa invented the original mute button. Contrary to what was customary in those days, my grandpa went about his house barefooted. When he watched TV he sat in his desk chair, which swiveled and moved on rollers. When a commercial came on the TV he’d roll forward, reach up and twist down the volume knob with his toes. Then, when the news came back on, he’d re-extend his toes and return the sound.
As an ace in the hole my grandpa wrote a weekly newspaper column called “The Cheering Section.” Taking up a quarter page, the column consisted of two cartoons plus some usually humorous tidbits lifted from publications from all over the country. Sometimes he’d insert a joke of his own, or some Great Quote from antiquity or some bit of amusing folklore. But the column was titled “The Cheering Section” because it mostly consisted of those little gems that my grandpa thought were funny or insightful or both. As such it was one of the earliest examples of what would later become known as “three dot journalism.”
To put together his column my grandpa spent hours scanning through mountains of publications. When he saw something that caught his eye he’d clip it out with scissors and set it aside. Toward the end of the week he might have accumulated 200 clippings. Then he chose about 20 of the best, assembled them with his cartoons in a format and then submitted them through the mail.
When my grandpa wasn’t working on his cartoons or his newspaper column or watching the news he was usually reading one of the Great Books. In 1948 he’d bought a boxed set of 74 paperback volumes for $69.95. (I still have the set.) Having spent so much money for the books he was sure to read every one of them. Then, because by the time he’d finished reading Thoreau he’d forgotten the works of Aristophanes, he’d go back and read them again.
Why it was that some frail and timid men had mean streaks I couldn’t tell. But it was always clear to me that my grandpa had a mean streak. I remember, every Christmas, my grandma would pull me aside and sneak a five spot into my hand and apologize for the stingy gifts they’d given me. Then she would have me promise that I would never, ever tell my grandpa what she had done. And if, while spending nights with them, I ever spilled something, or knocked something over or made some loud noise while my grandpa was “working” in his studio, then my grandma was on me immediately so that my grandpa didn’t have to interrupt his work to take care of the problem himself.
Only after he was dead did I learn that my grandpa occasionally beat up my grandma. I had thought that my dad had solved that problem way back in 1937. As was customary in those days, once my dad grew big enough to defend his mother he did so by giving his dad one severe beating. Then my dad told him that if he ever again raised a hand to his mother then he personally would break both of his arms.
Which helped explain some of the tension that existed between my dad and my grandpa — that they were no blood kin never occurred to me.
Maybe once a year during the 1960s my big sister, who lived nearby and had a family of her own, received a phone call from my crying grandma. My sister and her husband would jump in their car and drive to my grandparent’s house. There they would find my grandma standing on the porch with a suitcase in hand. Too proud to impose upon family any more than she needed to, my grandma would check into a motel and stay there until my grandpa promised over the phone that he would never beat her again.
Only after my grandparents were dead did my big sister tell me about that ritual. My sister had been afraid that if she told me then I might tell my dad and, those being law and order times, my dad would wind up in jail. As it was my dad, who died 28 years later, never found out about it.
When on my 16th birthday I quit high school I nearly broke my grandpa’s heart. Convinced that I was bright and, thanks partly to his teachings, not a sucker, he couldn’t believe that I would do something so self-destructive, wasteful and just plain stupid. When a year later I joined the army infantry and volunteered for Vietnam my grandpa became convinced that there was something seriously wrong with me. How could I not know that war was a racket? After that my grandpa wanted no more to do with me. Life was too short to waste on losers.
Because my grandpa trusted lawyers no more than he trusted bankers or hoodlums, politicians or cops, Christians or Jews, Muslims or Hindus, the rich or the poor, blacks or whites or anybody else, when he died he left no Last Will and Testament. As the sole surviving heir my dad was forced to clean up that mess.
After my grandpa’s death (my grandma had died while I was in Vietnam) my new wife and our baby and myself moved into my grandparent’s house to give it a face-lift before selling it. When I unlocked the garage door to have a look at that cherry ’52 Chevy — it still had its skirts — I noticed, neatly stacked along the front wall of the garage, thousands of shining aluminum trays left over from TV dinners. Like the Chevy, each tray was sparkling clean and in mint condition.
Thinking my grandpa might have been on to something, I loaded the stacks of trays into the bed of my pickup truck, roped down a piece of plywood over the tops of them and drove off to sell them to the highest bidder.
I think I got ten bucks for them.