Chapter XVII: At Last, California!
A slow moving freight, picking up cars along the way, brought me into Tucson early in the morning. The sun was bouncing heat waves against the ground and there was no breeze as I came to the city's outskirts from the train junction. I walked around a bit, trying to decide what to do. Should I bum a meal? Should I stay overnight? What were my immediate plans?
The heat became unbearable, exhausting me. Across the street a church and its buildings occupied half a block. Its door was open. Inside it was dark and empty. Candles flickered in a corner near the altar. Despite two open doors, the atmosphere was cool, as if some protective spirit prevented the heat from entering. I knelt and said a few Our Fathers. Then I settled back in my wooden bench and fell asleep. I must have slept for two hours when someone touched my shoulder. Startled, I blinked awake to the sight of a woman's inquisitive face above me. "You must be terribly tired to fall asleep in a church," she said.
"Yes, ma'am. I am tired."
"Do you live around here?"
"No, ma'am. I'm from New York. I'm looking for work here."
"Oh, my! All the way from New York! Do you have any money?"
"How do you eat, then?"
"I suppose you call it begging. But I always try to work for it."
"When did you last eat?"
"I don't remember."
"You don't remember?" She appeared astonished.
"That's right, ma'am. I don't remember."
"Are you hungry?"
"Did you pray today?"
"What did you pray for?"
"For something to eat."
"You better come with me."
I followed her into the torrid head. Next to the church a walkway, protected from the sun's rays by a leafy roof of trees, led to the rectory. A chubby priest sauntered back and forth, reading his breviary. As we approached he lifted his head. "I found this young man sleeping in the church," the woman told him.
The priest closed his book. I could see he was making one of those five-second judgments about me. The woman continued. "He's a Catholic boy from New York trying to find work. He has no money and he's utterly famished. Will you please get him some food from the kitchen?"
The plump little cleric, who obviously disliked me on sight, replied, "I'm sorry, but the kitchen has been cleaned up and is closed."
"Well, then," countered the woman, "we can't very well let him starve, now can we?" Not waiting for a reply, she quickly added, "Will you give me some money so he can eat? I'll repay you when I come to mass on Sunday."
"I don't carry money with me," replied the priest.
I disliked him immensely because I could see through him. The woman didn't see him as he really was: a well-fed, potbellied oaf of a man who only cared about himself. But whether she saw through him or not, she was a fast thinker. "Well," she demanded, "if you haven't got it with you, will you get it while we wait for you?" That sounded authoritative enough. The priest went into the rectory. He came back and handed me 50 cents. Compared to nothing, that was a lot of money. On the road, there are ways to make a few cents stretch a long way. Later, in a store, I had the 50 cents changed into nickels and dimes.
With a nickel in hand I entered the first restaurant I saw. "This is all the money I have in the world," I lied to the man behind the counter. "Could you give me something to eat for it?" This ploy works four out of five times; in fact, it makes it hard for anyone to turn you down. You may not eat steak, but if worse comes to worse, there's always the traditional Western standby--a bowl of chili and crackers. He did not accept my nickel as payment; very few people would. Who wants to take someone's last penny?
My heels were down. I went into the shoemaker's and used the same ruse, only this time I raised it to a dime. The shoemaker put a pair of heels on for me and refused the dime. Of course, I attributed all of this to the few simple prayers I had said in church earlier.
Being wealthy has its disadvantages. I now had to ensure that my riches were safely hidden. If some of the guys I encountered knew I had 50 cents, they would very well slit my throat for it. With nothing in my pockets I had no such worry. I stashed the 50 cents under my armpits. I kept only a nickel in my pocket.
I caught a freight out of Tucson in the cool evening. Alone in the boxcar, I settled in for a long night's haul to the California border. With the door open, I fell asleep. The dead silence of the boxcar informed me I was no longer part of the train on which I started out. We were sidetracked miles from anywhere. I became perplexed. What the hell was I going to do miles from nowhere, out in the desert? Fully awake now, I realized we were in some sub-junction with five sets of track. On the second set of tracks away from me stood several railroad work cars. I could smell cooking and hear women's voices. A ventilation door opposite me opened. A woman caught sight of me with my clothes rumpled and hair all disheveled. She turned her head and spoke into the car to someone. Another woman's face appeared, looked at me and withdrew.
It was the cook's car for a railroad section gang of Mexican-American workers. Breakfast was being prepared for the crew. The railroads had the best possible system for their work gangs. A series of cars in which they made their homes, with a cook's car attached, carried them to work. This gang would most likely remain here for a week or two until all the maintenance work was caught up. Then along would come the engine and haul them all to a new trouble spot, perhaps hundreds of miles away. It certainly kept the family together.
I heard, "Psst!" One of the woman was beckoning me. "Entra," she invited, and I climbed aboard and sat down at a table. "Comida," she explained. "Desayuno." She made a gesture of putting food into her mouth. Then she scooped something up from the frying pan and put it in front of me. "Huevos fritos con chorizo," she said, smiling.
She was a small, rather plump woman with strong black hair tied behind her head. Her face was warm and pleasant. She spoke no English and seemed to know that I spoke no Spanish, so she acted out her side of the conversation.
I dug into the eggs with chorizo. The first mouthful almost blew my head off, it was so hot. Tears welled in my eyes. I fought for breath, trying to make it seem like I was ecstatic about the food. A full plate still lay before me. "Quieres más salsa?" she asked, moving a bowl of God only knew what in front of me. I sensed at once that this bowl was my nemesis. Tears still blocking my vision, I managed to convey no, thank you. I downed the rest of my coffee and rolled up another tortilla, hoping that would soothe my pain. The first law of courtesy demanded that the plate be cleaned, regardless. How could I claim to be on the verge of starvation and leave something on the plate? It had to be done.
"Gracias, muchas gracias," I finally got out, bowing my head to humble myself before these two women--who in trying to do me a good turn had almost murdered me.
I was lucky; an hour later another westbound freight came by, stopped, unhitched a few cars and went on its way. I climbed aboard, still slightly afire.
His name was Bannister, John Sebastian Bannister. He made it clear to me that he was not found of the name Johann Sebastian, hung on him by his father. He preferred to be called just plain Bannister. In his thirties, he was slightly shorter than I. He dressed neatly, and it was apparent that staying clean had top priority with him. Chicago was his home. His father ran a small music store there of which Bannister did not care to be a part. He had been on the road for the past six months, with no particular goal. "I had to get the hell away from the old folks," he explained. "They were carrying me on their shoulders. The burden was too much. They made a lot of sacrifices to put me through school. Four years in college, a degree in civil engineering, and I can't even get a job. Better they should have spent the money on themselves." Bannister had been the sole occupant of the car into which I had jumped. Of all the men on the road, he seemed the best organized. In a small army backpack he carried some personal things. A quart bottle wrapped in canvas was strapped to it. The pack was light and very flexible, something he could run with that would not get in his way.
We were both headed for San Francisco. I hoped to pick up a ship; he wanted to inquire among the foreign consulates about a job abroad--building bridges, dams and whatever else civil engineers built. He knew about all the latest happenings on the road. He was the first to warn me of the police roadblocks intended to keep people out of California, especially Los Angeles. "The Oakies and Arkies are being turned back in droves," he told me. "The California police are even giving away free gasoline to make sure they leave the state. You know what?"
"This country is so screwed up, it may never get back to normal, that's what."
Bannister made it clear that as traveling companions "we share and share alike. You bum one place, I'll bum the next. None of this one man doing all the bumming and the other all the eating. I don't go for that."
"Me neither," I assured him. "Hey, you know what? Abraham Lincoln said something like that. Let's see now. Yeah, I think it was, `If God wanted some people to do the work and other people to do all the eating, he would have created some people with all mouths and others with all hands.' Yeah, I think that's how it went."
We crisscrossed over a highway, past a sign reading, "Yuma City Limits." The train slowed down through a small railroad yard. Within a few minutes we had left it behind. "Well," commented Bannister, watching Yuma fade into the distance. "You wanted to see California. This is it."
The California desert looked like all the others. Mexico was only a stone's throw away. The sun was setting. Soon the scorching desert heat subsided; the evening became cooler. The scenery changed rapidly. From the desert, we came upon mile after mile of lush green fields with rows planted in rich, black loam. My fellow traveler seemed to know this country well. "We're going through the Imperial Valley," he informed me, adding, "Most likely the richest part of California."
I was amazed. I couldn't tear myself from the door. Now we passed miles of orange trees. Yellow lemon trees also dotted the landscape. This, truly, was California. I wondered why the Indians and Mexicans had ever given up such lush and fertile property. The mountains on the Mexican side of the border began fading into the distance as the train chugged its way through the valley. Patches of arid desert appeared, broken by giant saguaros stretching their limbs skyward. The Salton Sea was not far away. Now we were traveling below sea level.
Five miles outside of Indio we stopped for water and bunkers. Five men came aboard the car. One had a potato sack half-filled with dates he said he had picked. He was willing to share them with us if we had something to share with him. Bannister reached into his pack and extracted a small loaf of bread. He hacked off a two-inch slice and the exchange was made. The dates were sweet. We had more than we could eat. "Hear tell that no one can get into Los Angeles. All roads are blocked," said the man with the dates.
"Who the hell owns Los Angeles, anyway?" challenged another man.
The train moved slowly through Indio, then picked up speed for Los Angeles. For at least ten miles before we entered the huge railroad yards of that city, we rode on a long straight stretch of track parallel to the main highway and just two hundred feet from it. The sun had long since set, but a full moon gleaming overhead cast its eerie light over the countryside. I noticed a car speeding up on the highway. As it came closer I could make out four policemen inside; they seemed to be staring at our car. Obviously they were following to make sure that none of us jumped off before the train reached the yard, where we could all be rounded up. I told Bannister.
"Look," he replied. "Two more police cars back of them."
The train was slowing now, whistle blowing every second. Only a few more minutes and it would be over. "Let's see if we can open this other door," Bannister suggested, leaping to it. Locked from the outside, it wouldn't budge. Our mistake--a smart rider would always make sure both sides were unlocked in case he had to use the other door. "Let's climb on top of the car and get off on the other side. They can't see us from there," Bannister tried again.
Carefully, we did it, the police watching every move. Unaware that one cop's car had slowed down and was trailing the caboose, we positioned ourselves on the train ladder, waiting for the train to slow down so we could hop off. But the train kept up a good speed until it reached the yard entrance. We jumped and practically flew a few feet toward a trash box, where we hid. Men were climbing off the train; policemen with flashlights were rounding them up. We thought we were safe, but the cops shone their lights on us, too. We joined the others in the roundup.
We stood under a street lamp. A cop blurted boastfully that we were all good for a 30-day waiver to get out of town. But first, he assured us, we'd get a night in the clink and an appearance before the judge. Then a radio message summoned the cops to their cars. They left only one man to handle all of us. "Everybody line up, single file," he ordered. "After you give me your name, move to the rear of the line. I want to get all of you before the wagons get here."
Bannister nudged me. "Let's go," he urged, half pulling me with him to the front of the line. "My name is John Bass. My partner here is Tom Carter," he told the cop who scribbled down the names.
"Go to the rear of the line and stay there," the cop advised. "Several wagons are on their way down here."
The line reached a corner, around which we slipped--and kept walking. Five blocks later we heard sirens. The wagons were speeding to pick up forty-eight men, minus two named Bass and Carter. At about ten o'clock we reached a place called Uncle Tom's Mission. It was on skid row with all the cheap flophouses and gag-and-vomit restaurants. We were admitted.
Some soup was left over, but cots were reserved only for those who saw the light by attending services and listening for two hours to some spellbinder as he castigated the devil and saved your soul. However, we would be given a blanket and allowed to sleep on the floor.
At 5:30 the next morning, Bannister woke me. "Let's dress and get the hell out of here," he urged, yielding to his good instincts. Who was I to question his wisdom? No sooner had we stepped outside the mission's front door than three big patrol wagons backed into the curb in front of it. Quietly we moved on.
Twenty-five miles from Los Angeles stands San Pedro, the city's main port. We took one of many roads leading to the coast. We passed a few large buildings, lots of open space and an occasional small factory. With each mile we covered, we came to a small community. Each had its own shopping center. One of us would go into the delicatessen and come out with what turned out to be a West Coast staple: bologna and bread. Bit by bit Bannister's pack grew heavy with the bread, bologna and liverwurst we collected. One woman who made up two sandwiches for me said, "I hope someone is doing the same for my son. He's out there somewhere, on the road."
At another store, a man gave me some rolls and bologna and then said, "Once a man came into this store. He waited till I served someone in front of him. I could tell something was wrong with him. When his turn came, he told me he was hungry but had no money. I made him up a big sandwich and gave it to him with a quart of milk. He thanked me, but before he left he said, `I came in here thinking that if you turned me down I'd take this gun and shoot you dead.' He took a big pistol out of his pocket and showed it to me. My philosophy has always been to help anyone in need. I was lucky that time. I hope I'll be lucky next time, if there is a next time."
Our hike to the port of San Pedro was leisurely. From there to Long Beach was only a short distance more. That night we camped on the beach. We found a tin can and boiled up some coffee and ate lots of bologna and bread. The weather was warm. We enjoyed the night's sleep.
Bannister had several contacts to visit in Long Beach. He thought there was a good possibility he could land some sort of job abroad. I decided I'd go back to San Pedro and check around on some of the ships to see how shipping was in the port. Several oil tankers were tied up inside the breakwater. I found out they were laid up. I scouted around for information. I decided to look up the YMCA in port. A man who said he was the assistant manager there talked with me. He was friendly and sympathized with my coming all the way from New York trying to find work. The more we talked, the friendlier he became. Finally he asked if I had any objections to working in the hold of oil tankers, cleaning them. I assured him I'd be most appreciative if such a job turned up.
He got on the phone and, while waiting, winked at me. "Maybe you're in luck," he confided. "Twenty men are going to be hired by this tank cleaning company tomorrow. Well, let's say 19 will be hired. You're to report to the tanker called Port Royale at this pier. Present this card to a man named Svensen. He's some sort of foreman. Meanwhile, how about some lunch? When you become wealthy you can repay me for it."
The job card said I must report at 7:30 a.m. I promised myself I'd be there bright and early. Back at our meeting place on the beach, Bannister had retrieved the food sack and had already dined. Two bottles of wine and a pint of whiskey stood in the sand. A quarter of the whiskey was missing. With the first few words out of his mouth, I knew where it had gone. Not only was he half-drunk, he was feeling miserable. "I visited three lard-ass sons of bitches today," he informed me. "Not one of them would offer me even a chair, let alone a job in their goddamn country. Nobody's building anything anymore. What's going to happen? Is the whole world coming to a standstill now that I've got myself a diploma that says I'm qualified to build a bridge to the moon, if that's what somebody wants?" He reached for the pint and took a swig.
"Well," I told him, feeling a bit bad about it, "I think I got myself a job. Ain't much. Cleaning oil tankers."
"That's more than I got. And you didn't have to go to college, either."
I wasn't much in the mood for drinking, but Bannister insisted that I have at least a shot of wine. One shot led to another and another, until we had cleaned up both bottles. "Don't worry about getting up in the morning," Bannister reassured me. "I'll have you up at 5:30 on the button."
The sun was shining in my eyes when I woke up. It was bright and already high in the sky. Disaster breathed down my neck as I pulled on my shoes. Bannister, flat on his stomach, showed no signs of awakening.
I headed toward San Pedro. Few cars came by, and most of those were going the other way. I walked, sometimes trotted, sweat pouring down my face. A pickup truck came by and stopped; I climbed in front. Before I could even thank the driver, I gulped, "What time is it?"
"Ten past eight," he replied.
"Oh, Christ!" I exclaimed loudly.
"What's wrong?" the driver wondered.
I told him about my pending job and that I was to have been there at 7:30.
"I'm going right by that place. I'll drop you off at the gate. Maybe it won't be as bad as you think."
The Port Royale lay tied up at the dock, empty, riding high out of the water. She was visible half a mile away. I hurried down the pier. In front of the gangway I met Svensen. I handed him the card. "So you're Bailey, heh? You know you were supposed to be here at 7:30?"
"My alarm clock broke down," I lied.
"Well, too bad for you and your alarm clock. I hired another man. Next time, when you get a job for Svensen and it says 7:30, make sure you're here at 7:30."
Well, I'd screwed myself on that one. Downhearted, feet heavy, I walked off the pier. There was nothing I could do but return to Long Beach, lie on the beach and watch for the movie actresses everyone said swam there.
Bannister was up and around when I got back, boiling coffee and looking foolish. "I thought you were working," he said.
"I would be if you'd woke me up like you said you would. I got there late and the boss said screw off."
"Well, what's a job nowadays, anyway? Sit back like me. Enjoy life. Just think: if you had a job you couldn't sleep late. You couldn't enjoy those fine bologna and liverwurst sandwiches and this delicious coffee. Here. Have a cup and forget small problems like jobs and money and the good things in life. You're too young to be corrupted so soon.'
We loafed around the beach the rest of the morning. At about 11:30 we heard a loud boom from the San Pedro area and watched a giant puff of smoke rise in the air. Minutes later we heard fire engines and ambulance bells as they rushed down the shore in the direction of the smoke, which now faded and drifted.
"What do you say, let's get the hell out of here and work our way to San Francisco?" suggested Bannister.
"Any time you're ready. I haven't seen one movie actress on this beach, anyhow. Some bum has been handing out a line."
Out on the highway, we footed it toward Los Angeles. The smoke had completely disappeared as we veered onto Long Beach Boulevard, putting the sea to our backs. A truck came by and stopped; the driver nodded toward the rear. We got aboard. An hour later we were standing along the railroad tracks, waiting for the northbound freight. We knew it was a bad spot, too far out of the yards, in a flat area. The train would highball long before she reached us. Yet we were afraid to move in closer to the yards, knowing it was loaded with railroad bulls with unfriendly attitudes. So we waited. Bannister shifted his knapsack. It was heavy with additional food we had bummed.
We heard her highballing way back in the yards. We would have to race with her. She came charging at us, picking up speed each second. Bannister tried to grab the handrail. I turned to face the cars, grabbed the rails and pulled myself aboard. Most of the cars were empty reefers. I worked myself back along the car tops, shouting Bannister's name. He had not made it.
I found a car with the lid open and climbed down, feeling depressed about Bannister. For one thing, he had all the food. An older man sat in the corner. He had sneaked into the yard while the engine was being serviced. "Did you hear the news?" he asked.
"News? What news?"
"About the big explosion in Los Angeles harbor."
"Oh, is that what that noise was all about?"
"Yeah. Some guys were scraping and cleaning an oil tanker. Must have had a spark, because it blew the tanker up. Killed about ten men; there are still some missing."
A tanker, I mused. "You don't know its name do you?"
"Sure. The radio said it was called Port Royale."
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One