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Some of the most fun people I know are scientists.
Mae Jemison

Blossoms on the Vine—Chapter Eleven

              HOW A HOLLYWOOD WINO TAUGHT ME ECONOMICS 

I completed the credits necessary to graduate from the University of Kansas in the midwinter chill of 1967.  But—as I would countless times relate over the ensuing years—looking for a job commensurate with my college degree entailed a most frustrating conundrum.  When interviewing at the “white-collar” level, I’d be asked, “Do you have a college degree?”

“Indeed,” I’d reply proudly.  “The ink isn’t even dry on the diploma.”

“How do you stand with the military draft?” would invariably be the next question.

“Well, I’m now 1-A.”

“All right then.  Thank you.  Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”  And that was that, same scenario, over and over.

With rent to pay and food to buy, I couldn’t long afford to be choosy, so, having had experience as a construction laborer, I applied for a job with Hird Construction Co. of Lawrence and was hired.  I’ll never forget my first day on the job, climbing into a trench to fit cast-iron water-pipe sections together with February snow lining the edges and a biting wind blowing up the tail of my parka, thinking, “Geez, I went to college five years to do this?”  As the days merged into spring, I was shifted around to different projects in eastern Kansas—sewer lines, a city pond, more water lines—driving dump trucks, a lowboy, a front-end loader.  And then one day the notice came in the mail to report to the draft board for a physical exam.

Assuming I had a set of Army fatigues and a complimentary trip to Vietnam in my near future, I quit Hird Construction and departed Lawrence for my home back in Emporia.  However, as fate would have it, due to lingering questions about an elevated bile count following a bout with hepatitis when in high school, I was reclassified down to 1-Y and any contingencies regarding the military ceased to be.  Nevertheless, that left me without a job, nearly broke and living at home again with my parents, not a situation I enthusiastically embraced.

That was somewhat, looking back, a time in limbo—imbued with a sense of relief from the onus of war along with the new freedom from scholastic obligations, yet smothered with anxious uncertainties about the future and a groping directionlessness.  A chance meeting, however, with an old classmate from high school, Caroline, provided a much need balm and emotional support.  She had graduated a year early and fast-tracked through college and straight into a secondary-education position.  She was experiencing ambivalence regarding a new teaching assignment, and we spent many a warm, breezy summer evening beneath the starry Kansas sky, commiserating, exploring our dreams and offering each other mutual understanding.

She agreed I needed to get away from Emporia and explore employment opportunities in a larger urban area.  And I still had an abiding wanderlust to seek out new venues of adventure.  So, with Caroline’s blessing, and having heard from other acquaintances about the appealing draws of Denver combined with the advantage of its close proximity, I scraped together funds for a one-way bus ticket to the Colorado Rockies and struck out.

Denver turned out, to be sure, one of the “meccas” for the zeitgeist’s migratory youth scene.  The spirit of the beatniks had morphed into bearded hippiedom.  I interviewed for several job prospects including one as a college-campus recruiter for the Colorado state welfare system and as a reporter for a newly created tabloid tentatively titled The Rocky Mountain B. S.  I also quickly became familiar with the nightlife in and about the downtown and the forgotten lives drifting on the wind like yesterday’s news along Larimer Street.  But securing any stop-gap work and income proved futile and in a matter of days my resources were becoming exhausted, so I telephoned my old college buddy Jack, who was now a mortician in St. Helena, California, and related my plight.

Jack had been recently hired by a funeral firm in Oakland to man a small branch mortuary in St. Helena, and provided with studio-apartment accommodations on site.  He enthusiastically extended an invitation for me to hop a bus out and “crash” at his apartment and begin to pursue my literary ambitions.  That sounded like a dream solution.  He wired me some funds and I was on my way that same evening.

St. Helena was, by all accounts, an idyllic setting—sunny and quiescent, hazy hills in the distance, lush green vineyards pushing up against the patio behind Jack’s apartment.  Nevertheless, no sooner had I gotten settled in than Jack’s employer learned of my presence and advised Jack it simply wasn’t acceptable for him to have a permanent “guest” residing at the mortuary.  So, dismayed and apologetic, Jack withdrew his last 80 dollars from his bank account, pressed it into my hand almost tearfully and dropped me off at the bus depot.  Not wishing to reprise the San Francisco scene, I bought a ticket to LA—or rather Hollywood, it being the cheaper fare—and was off again on the road.  And that, via the short version, is how I came to find myself that midsummer in 1967 standing in the early morning sun with suitcase in hand, hungry, bewildered and awed, staring down the historic Sunset Strip and wondering what life’s vicissitudes held next in store.  I really had no idea then what an amazing experience lie waiting before me.

My first priority was to locate some cheap place to stay, and after asking around, I discovered The Park Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard offered rooms for $2.50 per day.  Although it was definitely “third-rate,” occupying the second and third floors above shops fronting the street, soon I was ensconced there in a tub of hot water, soaking away the dust and sweat of the journey.

The next morning, while in my room perusing help wanted ads in the L.A. Times, I heard voices outside my door and discovered two men pulling along a maid cart and bagging used linen and trash from the vacated rooms.  Both were older, one possessing the elongated neck and facial features of a “Bertrand Russell,” and the other—a little shorter with graying slicked-back hair and a chevron mustache—might have somewhat, in his younger days, resembled Clark Gable, without the prominent ears.  When they approached my door, I casually queried whether they knew of any jobs available in the area.  To my surprise, the taller man replied, yes, they needed another hand doing just what they were doing, servicing four hotels in the area out of a miniature laundry.  The work paid five dollars per day plus a room in a slightly more favorable hotel.  I could start tomorrow!  But I had to promise to stay a month.  I eagerly voiced my agreement on the spot and shook hands with the man.  And that was that.  I had a job!

That afternoon I moved over to the Las Palmas Hotel, a half-block off Hollywood Boulevard, and settled in.  The next morning I reported for work in the narrow, steamy little laundry next to the Wilcox Hotel, joining the “Bertrand Russell” manager, Frank, and his assistant, Dick.  Having worked in a commercial laundry before, I was a quick study with the washer, extractor and mangle, and I quickly developed a pleasing rapport with the two men.  Frank advanced me enough money to buy a meal ticket at a nearby workingman’s cafeteria, and so I was set for the week with food, shelter and complimentary personal clothes washing.

The next evening I was relaxing after work on the front terrace of the Las Palmas, conversing with a couple of retiree residents, when a young stranger sauntered into the light, entered the hotel briefly, then came back out.  Procuring a cigarette from the back pocket of his wheat jeans, he looked over at me and asked for a light.  His lengthy light-brown hair swept back onto the neck of his navy-blue sweatshirt; his leather sandals afforded a catlike hush to his stride.  His countenance conveyed a soft innocent expression, something that might have been akin to an “adolescent” James Dean.  His name, I soon learned, was Robert Burch.  Or “Robbie,” as his friends had dubbed him.  And to paraphrase a line from the movie Casablanca, that was the beginning of an exceptional camaraderie.

That very evening Robbie had me accompanying him strolling around Hollywood Boulevard.  At one point we entered a short passageway leading off from the middle of one block with small shops on either side, the last one displaying ceramic items and named The Potter’s Wheel.  That’s where he worked part time, Robbie explained, and he introduced me to Bob, an art grad student and the proprietor of the business as well as potter extraordinaire.  Bob’s potter’s wheel and kiln were located in a courtyard behind the shop.

I soon fell into a pattern, working days and spending evenings hanging out at The Potter’s Wheel, Robbie and I shooting the breeze with hippies and flower girls and the confoundingly diverse components of humanity streaming in and out and up and down the whole of Hollywood Boulevard.  Even on occasion spotting a celebrity or two cruising along amid the noisy Boulevard traffic.  What I experienced in that short period provided the basis for my first novel, The Potter’s Wheel, and in the manuscript I described my acclimation to that scene as follows: “The days passed quickly.  The time filled up with dirty towels and bathtubs, the smell of [Frank’s] pipe, evenings out on the Boulevard with the crowds and the lights, after-hours in The Wheel rapping with strangers about who remembers what, crashing on [Bob’s] floor, cheap wine, acid rock, and everywhere the sandal-footed, long-haired people in the night.”

Frank was an intriguing entrepreneur, a former World War II Hump pilot, who loved to debate philosophy and politics as we slogged through our manual labor.  But perhaps because of some sympathetic memory of my father’s alcoholic hired man, Ab, I quickly developed a fonder friendship with Dick, who, unfortunately, was himself a tragic slave to the bottle.  He was a hard worker, and dependable when sober (helpful in mentoring me which guests might tip big and so on), but always, after getting paid, he’d stash a jug out of sight in the back of the laundry and nip during the day.  Sometimes by evening he’d be well into his cups and a source of irritating frustration for Frank.  Nevertheless, Frank was compassionately patient, and didn’t have a ready supply of job applicants anyway, so he kept Dick on, assisting with the laundry, the deliveries and the maid work.

It soon became apparent to me, however, that five dollars per day wasn’t ever going to get me any money ahead.  I could barely make up the advances I took for a meal card.  I was grousing one day, in Frank’s absence, about that fact to Dick.  And generally, with a typical college-student broad-brush mentality, indicting the rich just for being rich.  Well, old Dick put me straight in short order.

“Nope, I don’t blame no rich folks,” he declared.  “It’s rich guys what gives stiffs like you and me jobs.  They takes the risk while we punch the clock.  Don’t never blame the rich.”

Admittedly, that did give me pause.  Furthermore, I was surprised to learn Dick considered himself a Republican—but didn’t vote.  “When it comes to government, less is more, “ he elaborated.  “You want somebody to blame, blame the politicians.  Them D.C.ers is always meddling and messin’ things up.  I wouldn’t trade you a cigarette butt for the whole kit an’ caboodle.”

And the Hollywood milieu, in Dick’s eyes, didn’t fare much better.  More than once I’d hear him assert, “Hollywood ain’t nothin’ but a high class skid row.  That’s all it is an’ ever will be.”

Before long, however, lady luck presented me with a blessed opportunity for betterment.  One morning as I was lugging a bag of dirty laundry over my shoulder through the Las Palmas lobby, I spotted a twenty-dollar bill on the carpet, smiling up at me.  Dick saw it too and whispered, “Grab it up, Mark.  And don’t be asking who lost it.  It’s your gain now.  That’s your ticket!”  I snatched onto it like a lifeline and stuffed it into my pocket.  That represented four-days pay and I gave Frank notice for the end of the week.

The Monday after quitting Frank’s employ, still having my old labor union card, I took a bus to the local headquarters of the International Laundry and Dry Cleaners Union, and was sent to Tamkin Towel in Downtown L.A. that afternoon.  There they had an immediate opening for a “bundle tier” at a far fairer wage.  That evening I rented a room in a cheap hotel on the corner of Main and Venice.  And it was goodbye Hollywood, hello Downtown L.A.!

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Mark Scheel
Mark Scheel grew up in east-Kansas farm country. He attended both Kansas State University and The University of Kansas, majoring in psychology and English. Prior to writing full time he served overseas with the American Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, West Germany and England, taught at Emporia State University and was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Little Balkans Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, The Kansas City Star, Heritage of Kansas, Samisdat, and Poet as well as many sites online such as Common Ground News. His literary activities have also involved membership in The Kansas Authors Club, a seat on the board of directors for Potpourri Publications Company and an editorial position with Kansas City Voices magazine. He co-authored the book Of Youth and the River: the Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr., and his collection of stories and poems, A Backward View, was awarded the 1998 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. His most recent book is titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom.

8 comments to Blossoms on the Vine—Chapter Eleven

  • Ricardo

    I am pleased that bone spurs had nothing to do with your not being compelled to go to Vietnam, Sr. Scheel. However, an adolescent James Dean is just that…not “adolescent.” Your otherwise estimable writing is interrupted by these unnecessary quotation marks. It’s just like enjoying a tranquil drive down the highway when a deer suddenly jumps in front of your car. Whether you hit it or not, the experience becomes entirely different.

  • Good man Ricardo,

    Wow, I’d not even finished editing the post before your comment appeared! Thank you, kind sir. Yes, those damnable quotations marks–we’ve gone around about that before. But, well, that’s the way my gut impels me to use’em. Dean wasn’t an adolescent when he hit the big time and became widely recognized in the fifties, although he played a teenager in Rebel without a Cause. The distinction I’m drawing here is how he would have looked before fame arrived because Robbie looked much younger than Dean in the movies. As for Vietnam, that’s coming up. Hang in there!

    Mark

  • mistermuse

    Mark, I was struck by how easily “old Dick put me straight in short order.” Like most of us, you must have been very impressionable in your relative youth, but “I don’t blame no rich folks” because “It’s rich guys who gives stiffs like you and me jobs” seems a simplistic truism to take at un-adult-erated face value for the rest of one’s life. I have nothing against the rich per se, and I applaud their altruism in giving “stiffs like you and me jobs” — however, neither do I believe being rich automatically confers sainthood on what is a mixed bag of human beings, just like the rest of us.

    That said, and “broad-brush mentality” aside, your post is (as usual) another well-written and interesting read that takes us along for the ride in a way that doesn’t want the ride to end.

  • Mark,
    This is L.A., the Strip, a low rent hotel, aren’t you supposed to find a dead body in one of these rooms? Ah, the stuff that dreams are made of. Good stuff and next stop is Vietnam. I await.
    Don

  • markscheel1

    Hi Muse,

    Don’t try to read too much into Dick’s admonition and its effect on me. When in college I was primarily a liberal because KU even then was a hotbed of liberal thought. However, over time various influences moved my stance toward ultimately libertarianism, Dick’s opinion being only one. One of the strongest came much later, the presidential libertarian candidate (in primary) Richard Boddie, now a good friend. But I remember Dick fondly–he was kind to me, a stranger in a strange land.

    Mark

  • markscheel1

    Hi Don,

    Well, the next stop is a near-death adventure in Downtown LA, but Vietnam isn’t far off. As I advised Ricardo, hang in there! 🙂 And speaking of Ricardo, if he’d been writing that, there would have been a dead body in there!

    Mark

  • Mark,

    You’re right if Richard the IVth was writing this there would be a dead body or bodies and quotation marks. No, maybe no quotation marks? You know who never used quotation marks? James Joyce.

    Don

  • markscheel1

    You’re right, Don. Joyce used dashes instead! Ha.

    Mark

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