A Market Tale, Part II

By the early 1960’s the era of the small neighborhood market had come to an end.  All of the neighborhood kids would gather on the east side of Fairmont Avenue and watch as great vehicles came in and picked up and moved the best houses, while others tore down the rest and hauled what had once been kitchens where wonderful dinners had been cooked, living rooms where Bret Maverick and Marshall Dillon had been watched while eating those dinners on TV trays, and bedrooms where couples made love and then placed the sleeping results of their efforts in cradles and cribs, to an inglorious dump somewhere beyond the edge of town.  New machines cleared and leveled the ground, dug ditches for pipes, poured a foundation that looked like a concrete football field to us, and then began erecting walls.  In a few months a gigantic (for then) Safeway store occupied half of the block between Fairmont and 43rd Street, Landis and Wightman.

“I’ll never stop going to Jim’s” my mother stated, and she was as good as her word.  We had been shopping at Jim’s Market Spot, which occupied the opposite corner of Landis and Fairmont, since we moved into our house in 1952, and Mom liked Jim and liked Jim’s store.  The problem was that Mom did most of her grocery shopping on the naval base and paid prices not even Safeway could compete with, and she only resorted to Jim’s when some item was used up between monthly shopping trips.

Other residents of the area who did not have access to the Navy base were content to stretch their dollars further at the Safeway, and Jim noticed a trickle at first and finally a flood of his customers crossing the street, stepping on the big rubber mats which activated the automatic doors, and disappearing into the air-conditioned vastness that was the Safeway supermarket.  At length Jim heard the bell tolling and closed his market.  I was told that he was crying when he locked the big double front door for the last time but I don’t know if that is true; I wasn’t there to see it.

As I recall, the building remained vacant from then until I entered the Army in 1966.  Many businesses rose and fell along Fairmont; burger joints, pool halls, auto repair operations and plumbers and the like, but Jim’s old building was either too big or too small for whoever came along trying to start a business, so it sat shuttered, quiet, and lonely for my remaining years of childhood.

When I returned home from the Army however things had changed.  Jim’s Market Spot was now a lounge called “Granny’s”, and the place was doing a brisk business indeed.  I never went in there at first, since one of my old neighborhood friend’s father owned a bar a mile or two up El Cajon Boulevard, and my hours of sitting on my butt on a bar stool and piddling away my time and a large percentage of my Army severance pay were largely spent there.  A couple of years later however I had occasion to venture into Granny’s and found, to my surprise, a place very much to my liking.

Granny had an L shaped bar with the short segment angling to the left as you entered the front door; the same front door that Jim had locked a decade earlier, and the long segment continuing straight toward the back of the building, where the beer cooler from which I had tried to purchase a beer for my father once stood.  To the right were tables in a murky darkness where couples or small groups would be lost in their own conversation or listening to the juke box when live entertainment was not to be had.  But live entertainment was almost always there to be had.  Just behind the short segment of the L, the one which stretched off to the left, was a piano, and behind the piano on any given night was Freddy.

Freddy was a piano player and a singer, but equally important she was an entertainer.  I have seen many acts and have come to place musical performers into two categories: musicians and entertainers.  The Beatles were musicians.  Fabulously gifted, they wrote and played wonderful music.  When they got on a stage however they would mostly just stand there (or sit, in Ringo’s case), shake their moppy hair every once in a while to make the girls scream, and do their songs.  The Rolling Stones on the other hand were entertainers.  Oh, they were (and still are) musicians, to be sure, but in addition they, and primarily front man Mick Jagger, were amazing entertainers.  Mick would strut, gyrate, twirl the mic stand like a baton, and pout and point and leer at the people in the crowd and utterly hypnotize the audience.

Freddy was no Mick Jagger.  I never saw her do a handstand or sling her microphone like Roger Daltry of The Who.  What Freddy did however was play popular songs from multiple genres, most if not all of which we were familiar with, and some that we even knew the lyrics to, and draw the audience into the performance.  Being a person of an ebullient nature I would even sometimes sing along, as would some of my friends depending on how many pitchers of Granny’s suds we had already sent down the hatch.  Freddy’s venue was small, but she played it to perfection and Granny’s became a favorite watering hole for me and a good many of my friends.

On one particular evening five of us were perched on our bar stools along the short segment of the L where Freddy sat before her piano.  My brother Brad was to my right and long time friend Was to my left.  To the left of Wes were two friends from the construction crew of which we were all a part.  Charlie Pietermeeder sat next to Wes and Monkey star next to him.  Monkey’s real name was Andy Bandrill, and as every drywall hanger in our crew knew, Bandrill sounds like mandrill, a monkey of the Family Cercopithecidae, Genus Mandrillus, Species Mandrillus sphinx.  At least they knew it once I figured it out and shared it with them.  Anyway, all of that quickly boiled down to Monkey, and so there sat Monkey on the end of our chorus line.

It was a good night.  Freddy was on her game, the beer was flowing, we were all laughing and joking with each other, and Wes was flirting with Freddy.  Freddy was a good deal older than any of us but certainly not ready to be put in the rest home and, in an odd way, attractive.  How to describe her?  Well, plain I guess.  But plain taken to its best potential.  Her hair was well done, and although her figure was a bit more full than the willowy sweetheart whom I had waiting for my dissipated ass back at our house, she was not at all unattractive, and Wes was a man who was not afraid to make an advance to an attractive lady.  Freddy was on duty however, and while she obviously enjoyed the attention she did not materially abet Wes in his efforts.

Eventually the effects of several glasses of beer drove Brad to make his way to the men’s restroom in the back of the establishment.  Brad posted up in front of the urinal in the usual manner and was routinely taking care of his business when the door to the men’s room opened behind him and he heard the rustle of skirts.  Addled somewhat by the beer he had consumed, it took Brad a moment or two longer than it normally would have to register that skirts in a men’s room is not a combination that one comes to expect.  A quick look over his right shoulder confirmed that the rustle was indeed that of a skirt and that the skirt was being worn by Freddy, the piano player, who was at that moment disappearing into a stall in the men’s room.

This discovery produced an initial pucker, and Brad shook off the last few drops and hurried back to his stool after coming uncomfortably close to catching something in his zipper in his haste.  As soon as Brad had reclaimed his perch he leaned over and whispered to me “Freddy’s a guy.  Don’t tell Wes.”  I was initially stunned, but recovered quickly and guarded Brad’s secret.  Soon after that Freddy returned to her post and Wes took his turn in the restroom, which gave Brad and me the opportunity we were looking for to share this intelligence with Charlie and Monkey.

Those two worthy gentlemen were also surprised to learn this fact, but oddly enough nobody was put out by it, even though this was 1973 and attitudes toward this sort of thing still trended toward a hard line of opposition.  We all tended to be interested in our own business however and were not inclined to interfere into that of others, and so as long as Freddy could play a good piano and sing a good song we couldn’t care less whether her chromosomes were xx or xy.  We all agreed to keep the secret from Wes however.  We were a bunch who loved a joke, as I have written elsewhere, and the possibilities here were delicious to contemplate.

At length Wes returned and reclaimed his perch right in the middle of our line and right in front of Freddy.  Wes’ flirtation was not aggressive, in fact it was more like a fun way to play for an evening than a strong pitch to make it more than that, although one never knew where such things could lead and Wes was always up for the game.  Wes flirted with the girls in the same manner that fish swim, birds fly, and spiders are ugly; it was just his nature.  On this night however Wes’ advances generated increasingly ill-concealed chuckles from the rest of us, who were trying with all of our might to talk about the Padres’ baseball season or the war that lingered in Vietnam or the degree to which Harvey Black, the crew foreman for Earl Thurston Drywall and Finishing, was shorting our paychecks; any mundane thing to try to keep us from cracking up right there at the bar.

Wes was only a casual Casanova and his attention was far from being directed only at Freddy.  He too was interested in the Padres, the war, and getting cheated, and he joined into our general conversation.  But when his bent returned towards amorous attention to Freddy the thinly suppressed giggles became more and more obvious and impossible for him to ignore.  Wes could clearly see that it had something to do with his flirting but he knew that we had never behaved this way before, and this was far from the first that Wes, or any of us for that matter, had flirted in a bar.  Not willing to make a stink in front of the object of his attention he waited until Freddy exited her stage to go and take a break.

“OK you shitbirds, what’s so damned funny?” Wes asked as soon as the coast was clear.  At this our suppressed laughter erupted from where we had tried to cage it for the last hour.  “Man, Freddy’s a guy!” Charlie blurted out, and we all laughed harder.  Wes looked at Monkey, Brad and me, and we all nodded our affirmation.  “Yeah man, it’s true” I said.  “Freddy came in to use the crapper when Brad was taking a leak.  He saw the skirt hit the floor in the stall.”  At this point Charlie chimed in “It’s OK man.  We ain’t judging” he said and slapped Wes on the back.  “To each his own.”

Wes got red as a beet and just sat on his stool, unsure of whether he should hit somebody or just get up and walk out of the joint.  Ultimately he did neither.  Wes knew he had to face us on the job site the next morning and there was nowhere to hide.  Also, Wes could play a joke as well as the next guy, and it slowly sunk in that it was just his turn to be the butt of one.  I extended the pitcher and refilled Wes’ glass and we all had one more laugh, including Wes, and went back to enjoying our evening.

Her break concluded, Freddy returned to resume her work for the evening.  Wes’ attentions were now dramatically muted and Freddy figured out quickly that the jig was up.  We all genuinely enjoyed her music however and had no inclination to leave.  This became apparent to Freddy who discerned that nobody was going to get weird on her this night, and we all enjoyed ourselves greatly until we went home far later than we should have.

That old building continued as a lounge for a few more years, and then changed hands and became something much more unsavory, and I will go no further in describing that sad history.  At last, the old building was torn down sometime in the last thirty years, along with a couple of the adjacent houses, and now a Mexican seafood restaurant occupies the space.  In my mind’s eye however I can sometimes see the place in a vision.  It’s after closing time and when the traffic has settled down.  The neighborhood rests in the dead of the night, gathering strength for the next day’s frenetic activity at parks, schools, and businesses that have transformed the place where I grew up.  A thin, ethereal outline of an elderly woman pulling a wire shopping cart on two wheels walks arthritically through the big doors of Jim’s Market Spot, past five idiots sitting at a bar when they should be home with their wives and sweethearts.  She selects her weekly groceries as a little boy pulls a quart of beer out of a cooler.  The vision brings a smile to my face, and sometimes maybe a small tear in my eye.

Invitation to an Unexpected Road Trip, Part I

The summer of 1970 was a very restless time for me.  I had been discharged from the Army a little over one year earlier after serving for nearly two years in Vietnam, and had spent most of that time drinking beer and getting stoned with old neighborhood friends.  Initially I was celebrating the fact that I had returned home alive, but as the months wore on it became more of an unthinking habit:  get up, eat breakfast, go find some friend or friends, eat junk food, drink beer, get stoned, go to bed.  The pattern was simple, it was comfortable, and I didn’t have to think very much (although I was convinced that I was thinking like a Greek philosopher).  At long last however a switch somewhere deep in my subconscious was thrown for some reason or other and the vague, non-specific impulse that maybe – just maybe – I ought to begin to entertain the idea of expanding my vision just a little bit was born.

That notion did not burst into my consciousness with neon lights and a brass band.  I really gave little organized thought to where I was at that moment in time or where I wanted to be a year or two hence.  Really, the central point of my big change was no more than the fact that I got my first civilian job, which nevertheless was indeed a big change for me.  My father would not allow me to hold a job when I was young:  “When you can bring home straight A’s on your report card I’ll know that you have time to hold down a job and do it right.”  The truth is that this closed the gate on me ever having job while still in high school, and bolted it tightly with several padlocks.  The truth was that a whole flock of pigs would fly in close formation at mach 3 before I was ever going to get straight A’s, and the Army, where I held jobs, was still the Army, and not like real life, so when I applied for that job paying $1.10 per hour, that subtly marked a new stage in my life.  Finally I was engaged in some form of labor in exchange for what was a small but adequate amount of money, but what was much more important in the development of who I was to become than any first tentative steps towards responsibility was the fact that it was at this job that I met my friend Dave.

Dave was a guy who could not have been more programmed to be my friend.  We were the same age but Dave had somehow avoided military service, so while I was engaged in the original “Surviver” reality show Dave was working taking a class or two at the local community college, finding a girlfriend and sharing a rented house with Peter, a Hispanic full-time student.  Dave was very California laid-back, and would drink a few beers and smoke a joint or two with me and daydream like we were brothers.  I didn’t work it out in any coherent way, but the life that Dave was slowly, tentatively knitting together contrasted very favorably as compared with my own.  I was still living with my parents, schlepping my way through a couple of college classes which I would be fortunate to pass, and hanging out with friends who had girlfriends, many of the latter were annoyed with me for distracting the attention of their boyfriends away from them and onto whatever foolishness I was engaged in at the moment.  When I began hanging around with Dave and working for my small check it dawned on me dimly that I should perhaps be aiming a little bit higher.

The next tiny step in this personal upgrade came when I I moved in with Dave, Peter, and Dave’s Australian Shepherd, Foxy.  They rented a small house in a low income area of San Diego and the addition of one more minimum wage tenant to the household was a good deal for Dave and Peter.  Foxy didn’t care one way or the other.  We would go to a nearby church once each week where the government was handing out what was then called “food commodities”.  Pounds of lard and butter, boxes of cheese, powdered eggs and milk, dried potato flakes, beans and rice were some of the many items which were handed out to whomever cared to queue up and carry the boxes away.  I grew up eating beans and such and could scramble a powdered egg and reconstitute dried mashed potatoes as well as anybody, and we ate like bedraggled kings on that good stuff.

And then there was Stacy, Dave’s girlfriend.  I had had one of those for a month or two five years earlier so I enjoyed a rough idea of the concept, but a deep and crippling fear of being turned down by a girl had for the greatest part of my life up to this point denied all but that one person the opportunity of inflicting that wound.  That one girl whom I could legitimately call a girlfriend for that magical month or two in my seventeenth year was in fact very kind and let me down gently – a thing uncommon among teens past and present – but I did not again, from that time to the time under discussion here, make any attempt to attract the attention of a girl again and accept the risk of rejection.

Dave however suffered no such impediment and was as laid back and easy with women as he was with men, and his general good naturedness made him very attractive to the opposite sex.  Stacy was a very attractive girl herself.  Its been a long time, but I remember that she was a little taller than the average and had long, straight, auburn hair that made her seem even taller than she actually was.  Stacy was by nature quiet but she laughed easily when she was with Dave, and although they were not a couple that hung all over each other you could see that there was real feeling in the way that Stacy would put her hand on Dave’s arm for just a moment, or Dave would brush into place a strand of Stacy’s straight hair which had fallen out of place and strayed next to the corner of her mouth.  I thought that Stacy was a very pretty girl, although she seemed a little angular; could have used a couple of pounds.  Dave was with her a lot, driving around the San Diego Bay to take the road which ran atop the thin, sandy strip of land which connected the South Bay communities with Coronado where she lived.

Dave would frequently get up early to go to visit Stacy, and by the time that I rolled off of the sofa which I called home at around 9 AM he would be long gone.  One morning however, not long after that magic hour when I usually began to return to life, Dave came slowly rolling up the gravel driveway and walked glumly across the dry grass of the yard, through the door, and fell back into a big, square easy chair with the bottom nearly sat out of it.  “Shit man, what happened to you?” I asked with my best effort at eloquence and compassion.  “You look like somebody ran over your dog.”  I looked quickly into the corner where Foxy the shepherd made her bed on a pile of cushions to make certain that she was there and safe.  Dave didn’t say anything so I persisted.  I have never had very good filters and would let the world know what I was thinking, whether the world wanted to know this or not.  It irritated me a little for Dave to sit there like an heir who had been written out of a will and not just spill it out all over the floor.  “What’s going on, man?  Why aren’t you with Stacy?”  Dave never once looked like he was going to cry, but if he was ever close to doing so it looked like it would’ve been right then.  “What is this, some kind of damned soap opera?’

Dave flared a little but my poor interpersonal skills had their desired effect and roused him from his funk.  “Stacy broke up with me” he blurted out.  Dave just sat there glaring at me, expecting me to pour out a healing wave of sympathy.  In fact, my experience with breaking up was five foggy years in the past and I frankly had little understanding of the situation or of the comfort that was needed.  Dave was a friend though, and I felt that I should try to help, even if I hadn’t the least clue how to do that.  “Wow, man, that’s the pits.  I mean, that is really a drag.  What’s her trip anyway, like why is she breaking it off?”  Dave mumbled something that I couldn’t hear and I said “Come on man, spit the shit out and try it again.”  I should point out at this time that this was the manner in which many of us spoke to each other in those days.  It sounds now as if we were trying to pick a fight or just insensitive jerks, and some of the latter may indeed have applied, but we all understood each other and Dave knew that I did really want to know what was going on, and was using a gruff approach to try to lighten up the situation.  From a distance it seems weird, but we all understood the system and it worked for us.

“Stacy’s dad told me to hit the road, and if he ever saw me again he would call the cops”.  “Call the cops?” I repeated.  “Screw him.  Let him call the cops.  Stacy can do whatever she wants to, and if he doesn’t like it she can just move out” I opined.  Dave stared at me a minute or two as if he didn’t understand what I was saying.  Then, as it dawned on Dave what was the vital piece of information which was missing from my picture of the problem at hand he proceeded to provide that critical bit of datum.  “Stacy,” he said, “isn’t 18 yet.”

Oh.  That puts a different light on things.  I had no idea that Dave was five years older than Stacy, which was why she had looked just a little bit underdone to me.  I asked Dave for a little more history in order to obtain a better picture of the situation at hand.  Dave told me that Stacy’s father was an officer in the Navy – nearly everybody living in Coronado then was connected in some way to the Navy – and that he had returned from an extended deployment somewhere in the world to find his pride and joy spending a considerable amount of her spare time in the company of a long-haired, minimum wage-earning stoned college student, and Papa was not impressed with that one little bit.  “Good thing that he didn’t meet me!” I thought.

“I’m going to go back to her house and tell Stacy’s dad that I love her” said Dave, channelling his best Romeo.  I knew how Romeo and Juliette ended however and proceeded to point out the folly in that course of action.  “Dude, my dad was a Swabbie for twenty years and I don’t think that you want to go messing around with these Navy guys.  Nobody in my neighborhood would come around our place because they were afraid of my Dad, and people left me alone too.  Either they were afraid that Dad would come after them if they messed with me, or they figured that anybody who got his butt whupped as much as I did at home just naturally must have a nasty attitude and be hard as flint.  Either way, Dad was a legendary bad-ass and I wouldn’t be surprised if Stacy’s father is a bad-ass too.  If I was you I wouldn’t set foot in that town again unless you want your ass kicked, thrown in jail, or both,

Dave chewed on that one for a few minutes and then said “Holy crap, I think you’re right.  This may not be over.”  I agreed, although I didn’t really know one stinking thing about the father or the severity of the situation, and we began to discuss the possible negative consequences for Dave’s future.  At last, Dave said “Maybe I ought to get out of town.”  “You got a place to go to?” I asked.  “Not really.  No” was the reply.  “Maybe I’ll just hitchhike somewhere – anywhere – and start over.”

Dave had no idea how good that idea sounded to me.  I had made several trips across the country with my family on what were vacations for them and hell for me, and I had travelled vast distances when in the Army.  As I have written earlier I had been sitting static in a rut that I had landed in pretty much since my release from the Army, and the thought of a road adventure instantly roiled up my blood.  “Why don’t we just throw a few things into my truck and hit the road?” I asked.  “Where to” asked Dave.  There was Mexico to the south, the desert Southwest to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west.  “How about North?” I suggested.  Dave needed no more than a moment to think about that and then, with a shrug of his shoulders, asked “Why not?”  In less than an hour we had rolled my 305cc Suzuki motorcycle into the back of my 1960 Studebaker pickup truck and thrown a few bags of clothes and such into the bed with it, and with a cooler full of beer on the seat between us in the cab of the truck I fired the vehicle up and nosed it out into the traffic of San Diego, onto I-8 westbound, and then turned onto I-15 northbound to we had no idea where.