I’ve decided to do a series called “Jobs I’ve Had”. Since I’ve had so many, this may come to be known as ‘the series that would not end”. When I’ve finally finished it, maybe I’ll try to put them all together into some sort of Studs Terkel type arrangement.
The very first job outside the house I had was a summer job. I think I was about 10 years old, and it was picking peaches in an orchard with migrant children. Although we weren’t migrants, my father’s father had been a migrant farm worker/ rodeo rider, so my father was of the opinion that it was never too soon for us to start earning our keep.
What I remember most about the job was the heavenly smell of the ripe peaches and the way the wood of the ladder, worn smooth by hundreds of trips up and down it over the years, felt beneath my fingers. At that age, with boundless energy, despite going up and down the ladder with buckets full of peaches for hours, it felt more like fun than work to me
My younger brother and I, in separate trees next to one another, got into trouble once for throwing peaches at one another. Once. It wasn’t only our father threatening to take off his belt that stopped us, but the horrified, disbelieving faces of the Mexican migrant children working in the other trees. They had learned to handle the peaches as if they were fragile eggs, because they would not be paid for peaches that were bruised.
We learned to copy them. We also learned that the best way to keep my father, who mostly sat drinking in his pickup while we worked, away from us, was to just keep up a steady rhythm of bringing down full buckets, then moving the ladder to the next tree when we couldn’t reach any more fruit.
To this day, I don’t like cake, and my favorite birthday pie is peach. GMO peaches don’t taste anything like those peaches we were allowed to eat at the end of the day, juicy and bursting with flavor. I never got tired of them, and I’ll still pay top dollar at a farmer’s market for a real one.
The summer I was 11, I worked the graveyard shift at Jimco Truck Stop with my father, who had an amphetamine addiction left over from the Viet Nam war and two jobs.
The truckers all loved me, and would often tip me a quarter when I climbed up the ladder to wash all the dead bugs off their windshields. They would call me things like “half pint” or “little bit”. I also learned to check tire pressure with a guage and by hitting the tires with a metal pipe and hearing how they sounded.
After filling their tanks and their bellies, the truckers would swing back up into their rigs and either park them for the night in the lot out back or head back out onto the road. They’d usually see me making a pulling gesture in their rear view mirrors, and would make a point of sounding a loud whistle for me on the way out.
I’d often struggle to stay awake for the whole shift, especially if it was slow, and sometimes nodded off between the pumps while sitting on the island, my head lolling over and jerking me back awake.
I wasn’t allowed in the tire/oil changing part of the facility while rims were being removed to change tires, because I was told that the pressure of removing a rim from a tire with a crowbar could result in someone being accidentally beheaded. However I was allowed to help use the air ratchet to remove and tighten bolts and absolutely loved the sound it made and how powerful it felt.
The three best parts of the job were: 1) I got driving lessons in my father’s 1958 GMC pickup around the lot. 2) The truck stop hotel had a swimming pool that I got to swim in when the sun came up. 3. The restaurant had excellent pie and a decent selection on the jukebox, which they always gave me a quarter for. The worst thing about the job was that my father never paid me even though he promised.
Later in life, when I had my first car, every time I’d see a trucker on the highway, I’d make that pulling motion and smile in victory when I could get one to sound his horn.
When I was fourteen, a girl named Sandra and I escaped from a rehab program modeled on “Sad Nun At Synanon” where we were sometimes required to wear cardboard signs saying “I Am A Suzy Cream Cheese” or “I Am A People Pleaser”. We escaped by going under the fence. Our plan was to hitchhike across the United States, but we only made it as far as her mom’s apartment.
Her mom’s apartment was in charming Lynwood, California, right next to Watts, which made even hitchhiking that far exhausting because we’d had to run from some girls brandishing broken bottles. The apartment building was partially condemned, with plywood nailed over the windows, but some of the apartments were still occupied.
Because her mother’s meager salary could only buy Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Sandra and her older brother had had to get after-school jobs, which became full time when they dropped out of school. Sandra said she could get me a job, too, and she did.
The job was at a greasy burger joint. This job didn’t provide a lot of good memories. Mostly I remember the heat, the smell of rancid grease, and the glistening hairy arms of the owner perpetually passing in front of me with orders. I only had this $2.75 an hour job for a couple of weeks, even though one of the benefits was free food.
That’s because we were invited to an after-work party by the owner and some of his friends, who tried to ply us with alcohol to put the sleazy moves on us. They even offered us money. I remember breaking down in fake tears and trembling in order to try and awaken their compassion so that I wouldn’t be raped.
So actually, in addition to slinging burgers, this job was kind of a screen test. I’m glad I passed. I didn’t show up for work again after that, though.
After quitting the job at the burger joint, Sandra, the girl I had run away with, said she knew a “cool’ mechanic who owned a business who would probably give me a job under the table. By cool, she meant that he “partied”.
He owned a garage called “European Auto Service”, where he worked on foreign autos, and a yellow van with wall-to-wall shag carpet. I was to answer the phone, file invoices and call customers to let them know their autos were ready, and despite not being old enough to have a driver’s license, go and pick up parts he needed. He scoffed at rules made by “the man”.
This 42 year old cool dude, who I later learned was an ex-con when he explained that a scar he had was due to having been “shanked”in prison, selflessly offered to let me sleep in the back room of the garage.
At this job, I learned to drive on actual roads, not just around the parking -lot of a truck stop. One of the fringe benefits was that every time he would finish repairing a foreign auto, I would get to drive it to make sure everything was functioning properly.
I drove MG’s, Triumphs, Mercedes, and once, even a Bentley with the steering wheel on the other side. I also learned a lot about engine parts, the importance of head gaskets, and how liens on property worked.
When summer ended and it began to get cold in the back room of the garage, he rented a house for me where I grew alfalfa sprouts in the sunny kitchen window.
Sadly, though, he began claiming to be in love with me, and to grow possessive. This “love” eventually manifested itself in a jealous rage upon learning that while driving one of the cars, I’d invited Sandra’s brother, on whom I had a huge crush, to accompany me.
This outburst resulted in a trip to the hospital after he dislocated my shoulder and threw bleach in my eyes. He drove me there himself, apologizing the whole way. Since my arm was in a sling, and I had to wear sunglasses for weeks, I decided that the best course of action would be to quit that job and turn myself in to the police as a runaway.
After doing that, the next job I would have would be running the huge buffer machine to polish the floors in juvenile hall in South Central Los Angeles . They didn’t pay me, but they did provide food, shelter and the first sense of safety I had known, so I liked that job. They might have locked my door at night so I couldn’t get out, but nobody could get in, either. Plus I learned to play spades.
Short Order Breakfast Cook
After a four-month stint in Juvenile Hall where I waited for an opening at Las Palmas, a maximum security treatment facility that the judge and my child advocate agreed would be the best place for me, I daresay my floor buffing skills were top-notch.
I spent 7 glorious months in Las Palmas, which despite the barbed wire and tall gates, I considered a kind of heaven on earth. That’s because it had a baseball diamond, a swimming pool and a gymn where we were required to play volleyball every day to reduce our aggression. I felt that daily intensive group and individual therapy was a small price to pay to enjoy these kinds of luxuries.
Upon my release from there, I was sent to Hamburger Home, a group home with 43 girls located on Hollywood Blvd. at my request. My P.O. was cool Having turned 16 in Las Palmas and been in a private foster home for a brief time before running away because it was too normal, I felt I was too old to become part of someone’s already existing nuclear family.
The group home had shifts of “house parents” of all sizes and colors. We were given an allowance of $7.00 a week to buy shampoo and such, but we could also apply for jobs in the kitchen to earn extra money. You had to maintain a standard of behavior to be allowed to work in the kitchen with knives. My boss was an agelessly beautiful black woman named Hazel. Hazel was the only person who ever made me feel safe while being called “child”.
For example, when I’d attempt to fry eggs on high heat, she’d reach over and turn the burner down, saying “Child, child, child—Didn’t nobody ever teach you anything? “ Hazel was a woman of few words because her regal presence commanded respect. She had only to raise an eyebrow in the direction of anyone threatening to get out of hand for them to immediately cease and desist.
She let it be known that there would be none of that in her kitchen. I think part of her power lay in the fact that she often touched us. She wasn’t a hugger, but if she was explaining how to do something, she would, while looking you straight in the eye to check whether it was okay first, lay a hand gently on your shoulder while she talked. It was a respectful kind of touch.
Sometimes new girls straight from juvie spoke disrespectfully to Hazel to show us they weren’t afraid of authority. Once they found themselves surrounded by former gang members blocking their entry into the food line, they’d decide that giving Hazel a hard time wasn’t in their best interests, and if they were going to create some kind of rep, they’d have to find another way to do it.
Fish And Chips
In the group home I was in, once we reached level 3, we were allowed to get a job in the outside world. My best friend Patricia and I were hired by a semi-fast food fish and chips joint on Sunset Blvd. two blocks away. This place qualified as a “joint” because the tartar sauce for the fish came in tiny paper cups the same size as those used to distribute our medications.
Our boss was a tiny powerhouse of a Chinese woman who moved as if she were a video on constant fast forward. She seemed to know only three phrases in English and had two tones of voice, a smiling one for the public and the other, a sharp, non-smiling one for us. Her two phrases for the public were “To go?” and “You have nice day.” The phrase for us was “No, you do like this”. She used this phrase every time we tried to fill the tiny tartar sauce cups to the rim when we were only supposed to fill them half-way and charge for extra.
All other communication was to the cooks in the back, in Chinese. Every day, I expected the cooks to finally have had enough and just rip off their aprons and walk out, because everything she said to them sounded like an angry threat delivered in rapid machine-gun fire bursts of words.
They sometimes tried to get a word in, but they were usually silenced within a single sentence, or maybe paragraph, since Chinese has a lot of short words. The best part of this job was working with my friend.
Together, we devised ingenious schemes to be able to generate tips even though this was a fast-food place with cardboard dishes and white plastic silverware and most people wanted their food to go.. We’d get really excited every time someone responded “No, for here”, to her “To go?” phrase. We’d use the tips we’d in our drama class and fall all over ourselves providing them with customer service.
Despite there only being a few small wobbly tables, we behaved as though it were a four-star restaurant. “Would you prefer a window seat, sir? Can we offer you a beverage while you wait for your order? No need to pick it up. We’ll be glad to bring it over.” Most of the time, it worked, and one day we came in and saw that she’d put a tip jar next to the register.
P.I. P. (Public Inebriation Program
Once upon a time in Los Angeles, some alcoholics got confused and started wandering out of skid row into middle class neighborhoods to pass out. After thousands of complaints, using C.E.T.A. funds, the government created P.I.P. which stands for Public Inebriation Program.
After I aged out of the foster care system, this was one of my two jobs, the other being a motel maid in exchange for a room. My motel room had a T.V. that you had to put a quarter in to watch for 20 minutes, or you could use your quarter to make the bed vibrate. Cleaning blood off lampshades was the worst part of that job.
In my job at P.I.P, I was teamed with two men, both of whom were on parole, because C.E.T.A funded jobs were designed to employ the almost unemployable. One of them was a long-haired white mellow stoner type guy and the other was a huge black guy with a beard who looked a lot like Isaac Hayes.
We drove around in a radio car all day picking up alcoholics who were passed out either on someone’s front lawn in a residential neighborhood or in a skid row hotel room past check-out time. Time is money. We used smelling salts to bring them to consciousness long enough to sign the form authorizing us to drive them to detox. Most of the time we settled for an “X” on the signature line.
Calls would come in on the radio in what we referred to as our “boozer cruiser” saying things like “man down on 7th and Main” and we’d go to pick him up and drive him to detox. One time, for lunch, we all went to the white guy’s apartment so they could smoke pot. Most of the time, we’d have lunch in a cafeteria near our headquarters, which was an office in a Salvation Army building on skid row.
At first, I was afraid to get off the bus and walk the rest of the way to the headquarters. But after two weeks, I felt that skid row was the safest place in the world, because word spreads fast on the street. Maybe it was somebody we picked up and took to detox who put out the order, I don’t know, but I always had a personal escort of one or two homeless, smelly alcoholics who would threaten anyone who tried to come near me even to beg change.
I think it was because I probably reminded them of daughters they’d lost to drinking even and they wanted to be able to use their protective instincts for something. The best thing about this job was seeing them get cleaned up after detox, start going to meetings, and get their families back, but that hardly ever happened.
One day, we were having lunch at the cafeteria, and the black guy, whose lighter I’d borrowed the day before, asked for it back. I didn’t have it on me and said so, and he said “Girl, don’t make me have to break your legs.” Of course, it was a joke, but it triggered so many of my past experiences with violence that I never went back to work.