As I said in the introduction of this book, my memory of many names has grown dim after so many years but the stories I will tell you are as clear as if they happened this morning.
Working out of the slave markets in Los Angeles was an interesting experience on many levels. As I go through the stories of the men and women I met during my stay on the streets, I will try to explain those various levels of experience and how those experiences and the people who were part of those experiences, although for very short periods, influenced my life and the way I think about life.
I was assigned to work for about ten days over a two week period for a company that inspected what were called “sucker rods” for the oil drilling companies. My understanding of how a sucker rod oil pump works is based on a very brief explanation on the first day I was assigned to help with the Magna-Flux process that was employed to check the rods. I am sure that my few moments of education would not qualify me to go out and start pumping oil. The oil pumps have a motor and gear box on the surface. This is the little monster machines most of us have seen from time to time in the middle of corn fields, wheat fields, fields, back yards, down town lots and just about any place one could think of. Many times they are painted in a way as to imitate a horse, or a dinosaur, or a woodpecker. The design of the mechanism allows a rod to be attached and be driven straight up and down into the ground. At the end of the rod is another part than, at the lowest point of the stroke, picks up oil and delivers it upwards to a valve system that sends the oil into some type of storage component and then the cycle starts anew. I understand that the rods have to be flawless in regards cracks or hidden defects that could cause breakage. Four of us were assigned to this operation and our participation was vital to the well being of the oil industry. Our job was to take the rods from a big pile that had been assembled for inspection, carry them to the mobile inspection station, place them on a conveyor belt type of carrier then unload it from the out going end of the belt and place them in an appropriate stack on the “inspected” side of the inspection machine. If there was a problem, the operator would mark the bad spots with a blue marker and we would put those with marks in the “defective” stack. It was a very easy job, it was outside in the always perfect Southern California weather, and it required very little thinking, which allowed for our minds to focus on thinks that were of importance to us as individuals.
I met Ray on this assignment. We were both given a “short term steady ticket”, which meant that this was our assignment for the length of the contract our employer had with the inspection company. Because of the status of this assignment “temporary steady”, we actually made a little more money. We cleared twelve dollars a day. That may not seem like much, but it was actually a substantial increase, twenty per-cent. Who would not like a raise like that every now and then?
Ray pretty much kept to himself, even more than most of us. I think many people working out of the slave markets may have been on the run from the law, from immigration, from something they were afraid to face, or, at least some of the younger ones, just running away from home. I watched Ray with normal curiosity and imagination and tried to figure out what his story was. Everyone on the street had a story. I loved to hear them, even though I think about fifty per-cent of each story was probably an embellishment on the actual story. I decided I wanted to hear Ray’s story. I wondered if he was a bank robber, on the lam, with millions hidden away. There were a lot of them hiding on the street in L A. I started to arrive at the labor office early each morning and offered to buy Ray a cup of coffee at the café next door. We did not have to wait for an assignment; we just had to watch for our transportation. Coffee was ten cents a cup. Boy, do I miss those days! I would make it a point to join him when we broke for lunch and he wandered off to some spot that seemed isolated from the rest of the world. I know he would have rather I would disappear so he could read his book. He constantly had a used paper back and spent his down time reading. His books covered just about everything, western, mystery, science fiction, and once I saw him reading Plato’s Republic. He finally gave up on losing me and we started having lunchtime discussions about anything and everything. After about five days I asked him if he was a native of California or if he came from someplace else. All he said was that he came west from Michigan. I mentioned that I was from Ohio and that it really is a small world when we two Midwesterners were hooked up in California. He agreed with some reply like “yeah, I guess so.” I think what he really meant was “yeah, lucky me.”
I never saw ray at the bar and grill that was located at my hotel so the only time I had to talk to him was when we were at work. I knew he lived at a hotel around the corner and about a block away. I felt that ray was a pretty smart guy and that he should not be here with me on East Seventh Street in L A. Guys like me that were young and just bumming around for awhile belonged here along with the perpetual down-and-outers; he did not fit in with either of those categories. He was very knowledgeable about nearly any subject you could get him to talk about and after talking to him as much as I did, I had a feeling he belonged back in Michigan. I actually thought he may have been a school teacher that had gotten into some kind of trouble
One evening I invited him for coffee and, to my surprise, he accepted. We talked about a lot of things sitting in a torn up vinyl seated booth in that café in the heart of life’s last stop. I finally asked him what he did in Michigan and how did he end up doing day labor in Los Angeles. To my surprise he opened up and began to tell me about his journey to this street of broken dreams. When he finished, I knew for the first time in my life just what a broken man looked like. I wish I could say I knew how he felt, but to be honest, I had no idea and neither would anyone who had not walked just two steps in his shoes.
Ray told me that he had been a certified welder in Michigan and he worked for a company that made very large tanks. I believe he said his company made the tank trailers that semis pull around the country. He told me that he had worked there for over twenty years. I kept after him to tell me his age. All he would tell me was that he was in his late forties. I would have guessed him to be in his late fifties. He was married to his high school sweetheart and had two young daughters. I got the impression they were pre-teens but did not push him on their ages. He earned in excess of forty thousand dollars a year, and this was in the early and mid sixties. That was a lot of money in those days, not many people could boast of a salary like that. They vacationed twice a year. One vacation they would spend a few days each with their respective parents, the second vacation was just their little family. Every year they would go to a different place. His house was paid for, every other year he bought a new station wagon and in the alternating years he bought a new pick up truck. He and his family wanted for nothing. He said “I was living the American Dream. Who ever made up that term was looking at me and my family.” One day, in the middle of the morning, he was called to the manager’s office. He had no idea what he could have done that would warrant a visit to the manager’s office. When he arrived he found a state policeman there with the manager. He said he knew it was bad before any said a word. He could feel the blood drain from his body as he watched the look on the trooper’s face. The policeman said “Ray, there has been an accident.” Ray knew that his world and his life had already ended, there was just a delay getting the message to him. There was an accident alright. His wife’s car was hit by a semi that had run a red light. His wife and daughters died at the scene of the crash. Ray said he went through the formality of the funerals and later took care of all the necessary legal activities. He of course sued the trucking company and the driver personally. He collected a very good settlement from the trucking company. The driver, however, had other legal problems involving traffic violations and actually went to prison. After the accident, Ray moved into a small apartment across town from his beautiful home.
After the trials and lawsuits were settled, Ray quit his job. He could see no reason to get up every day and go to work. Everything he had worked for, everything he loved had been snatched from him in a split second. He would never love again; he could not risk the possibility another love would be stolen from him for no good reason. He sat around in his apartment for about six months, and then made a decision. He signed his home and everything in it, except for a few keepsakes, to his older brother. He told him he wanted him to have it and to always fill it with love as he and his family did. The only condition was that the house could never be sold to anyone outside the family. At first his brother said no, but Ray told him that if he wouldn’t take it, he would burn it down because no outsiders would live in that house as long as he was alive. He signed his truck over to his father. He had a pension from his job and it goes into an account his attorney had set up for him. He has never touched a penny of it. He bought a duffle bag, packed it with what he thought he needed and started hitchhiking. Los Angeles is just one of many stops on his journey to nowhere. Ray told me that the moment he saw the policeman at his work, he knew his life was over. Since that day Ray lived in a place so dark and so distant that even the sun cannot reach it. He said he just quit living and all he wants now is to die and be with his family. I asked him about suicide and he said the one thing he had not lost was his belief in God and that God will take him when he is ready, suicide was not an option. I never asked Ray what his religion was, it did not really matter, he still believed what he believed.
When we finished talking, I was nearly in tears but I held them back so as to be as strong a man as he was. Actually only time and years of joy and sorrow and my reaction to both would determine if I could ever measure up to his strength. Later that night, laying in my lumpy bed in my three dollar a night hotel room, I kept going over Ray’s words. He had it all and someone jerked the rug out from under him. I thought about how unfair life had been to this man that had worked so hard. The story of Job came to mind but that story actually had a happy ending, kinda. Ray’s story has no happy ending. He is an empty shell of a man, going through the motions of living. Things like breathing, trying to sleep and yet afraid to face the nightmares that awaited him. He ate, but why? What was the purpose? I tried to imagine the hell he had gone through and was going through and found it to be an impossible task.
Ray had a profound effect on my life. He taught me lessons that would help to shape the person I have become. He taught me about courage. Suicide would have been easy, but he did not take the easy road, he waited for the God he believed in to call him out of this life that had become only misery and sadness for him. He taught me to look beyond the outer shell of a person. I really was hoping he was a bank robber with zillions of dollars stashed. After hearing his story, I wished even more that my version could have been reality. He taught me to reach out to people. Maybe I reached out to Ray because I was nosy, but Ray needed someone to tell his story to. I am so glad I was there to listen. Over the years I have listened to many different people talk about themselves and their problems and have never minded being that shoulder that might help ease some heavy burden. For the most part listening costs nothing. The rewards of listening are immeasurable. I hope I can always remember that sometimes people just need someone, anyone to listen for a few minutes. Most importantly, Ray taught me that the highway of broken hearts is just that, men and women who have either lost or found their way. I think Ray found his way, and since I don’t really believe in coincidence, I think Ray was in Los Angeles to meet me and to help me to start seeing the world through the eyes of others, not just through my own. I didn’t get it right away but after a while it sank in and I knew Ray was just one of the people I would meet, and some I had already met, who were placed at the intersection of my path and theirs to show me the pictures of life.