“Cummins and Co.” Summer 1973
It was the summer between my Junior and Senior years of high school. My sister’s husband bought me a car so I could drive to school. It was a 1965 Chevy Impala, the ugliest color purple you could imagine. It had been in a wreck and was salvaged. My brother-in-law checked it out and said it drove fine. It was a gas-guzzling piece of crap. I loved it. So I figured I better get a job to pay for gas and insurance. Until then summers had been spent playing basketball and hanging out with my buddies at the bowling alley. But no one paid me for that. Except for the few bucks I could pick up keeping score for the leagues.
I had no idea how to go about getting a job and my dad suggested I look at the want ads. I found one ad looking for a janitor in the next town over. It was the only thing I found that I felt even remotely qualified for. I called the number and they asked me if I had a driver’s license. I said I did. It never occurred to me at the time why a janitor would need a driver’s license but an interview was set up for the next day.
It turned out Cummins and Co. was a sign fabricator. They made huge plastic and neon signs for businesses, gas stations, bars, supermarkets, you name it. The complex was massive. There were warehouses where they stored all the equipment to make the signs. The employees in the warehouses consisted of foremen, a crew of welders and carpenters, drivers and a few guys who seemed to just kind of hang out. There was also an office building where they had secretaries to answer the phones, a bookkeeper, drafters who designed the signs and the boss, Mr. Cummins, who ran the show.
My interview was with the foreman in the warehouse, a crusty old guy named Joe who always seemed to be amused by something. Looking back I would guess it was me. I was 16, 6’ tall and weighed about 120 pounds. I had long hair, acne and I wasn’t much of a dresser. I would have been amused too.
He asked me some questions about previous employment. I had none. He asked me if I would have a problem emptying the trash in the offices. I said I’d done that before. He asked me if I could drive a stick. I said yes. That was a lie. There probably weren’t a whole lot of people who wanted this job for a $1.50 an hour but I did and I was thrilled when I got it.
My First Day
Things started out well. I got there at 6 am day one. I had a key for the office and I went in and started emptying the trash. The whole place smelled of coffee and cigarettes. Ashtrays overflowed on every desk, especially in the drafting room. While I was emptying the drafters’ trash I discovered their stash of colored pencils. There were hundreds of them. Every color you could imagine. I couldn’t believe it. I immediately decided I would take a few every day. Not sure why. I didn’t draw. But the rainbow was irresistible. So day one I started stealing from my employer. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Around 7 am the crew started to roll in. They drove an assortment of hot rods and one guy rode a Harley. Remember this was 1973 and cars were everything. I immediately got chewed out because I didn’t make coffee. “Stupid hippie didn’t make coffee.” No one had told me I was supposed to make coffee. As it turned out there were a lot of things no one told me that I would just have to figure out. But right there, and for the rest of that summer in the warehouse, I was “Stupid Hippie” or just “Hippie”.
All the warehouse guys ate lunch together at a picnic table inside the warehouse. There were soda machines inside and a lunch truck that would come around. I’d been in locker rooms and group settings before in school but this was my first group exposure to adults other than church and this definitely wasn’t church. These guys ranged in age from 18 to 50 and I soon became aware of the fact that I was just a kid trying to put gas in his car but these guys had real-world problems. Wives, kids, alimony, drugs and all sorts of anger issues that I immediately became aware of. There was one guy who was a welder and he seemed to be the bully of the group or at least he thought he was. He considered himself quite the Lothario as he told stories about his wife and girlfriends and all his conquests. The other guys had all heard it before, but I was fascinated. One of his stories that I still remember was both amusing and horrifying at the same time. Apparently, after one of his many conquests, he decided to shower and mid-shower the water went cold. This had happened before and he knew the pilot had gone out on the water heater. So butt naked he leaves the shower and goes to relight the pilot, except in his hurry he doesn’t smell gas and when he goes to light the pilot there’s a huge flame and he burns all the hair off his balls. Now why with all the bull this guy was shoveling, he would choose to tell this story gives you a pretty good idea of who we were dealing with. He was a welder for god’s sake. They work with flame all the time and secondly. and even more confounding, was that apparently this was the second time it had happened. Ouch!!
Stories like that and guys brawling with each other were a daily occurrence.
This could be a rude and crude bunch and everyone was fair game.
I soon learned to avoid the lunch table when, after trying to be one of the guys and challenging something the bully said, I found myself the target of his anger. I would go to buy a soda and come back to find him eating my lunch or my sandwich on the floor. I thought about putting something really awful tasting in a decoy sandwich until I was warned that the last time he’d had a beef with one of the other welders he brought a gun to work. After that, I started eating lunch in my car.
There was one other guy who worked in the warehouse who was an apprentice. He was only 18 and drove a little MG. He seemed like a nice guy and he ate in his car, too. On Friday, which was also payday, he asked me if I wanted to get high. I didn’t want to seem uncool so I said sure. After we finished lunch we took a little spin in his MG and smoked a joint. My experience with marijuana was very limited and let’s just say I got wrecked. Now, I had to go back to work. I quickly decided that it would be a good idea to try to avoid as much human contact as possible for the rest of the day. That morning the boss had told me to pick up all the scrap metal that the fabricators left strewn around the yard while they made the frames for the signs. I had devised a method where I could use a forklift with a pallet on the forks and a big garbage can on the pallet that I could load with scrap. That particular day I had discovered that if I left the forklift in gear it would very slowly move along with me while I picked up the scrap and tossed it in the can. This saved me from having to keep getting in and moving the lift. So while I was feeling pretty satisfied with my new discovery and pretty buzzed from the dope I walked next to the lift and cleaned up the yard. At some point I got distracted and, not paying attention, the forklift ran right over my foot. The pain was excruciating but the embarrassment was even worse. Thank god no one saw the stupid hippie drive the forklift over his own foot. I limped through the rest of the day, never told anybody what I’d done, and just went home for the weekend to lick my wounds. I’d like to say that I learned my lesson and never smoked dope at work again but that would be a lie. My foot still kind of hurts when I tell that story.
Things progressed pretty well after that. I learned who I could trust and who to avoid. The people in the office were much nicer than the crew and both of the secretaries seemed to really like me. So I hung around inside there whenever I could find an excuse. I started making coffee for them, too, and my colored pencil collection was growing. All in all, the life of a janitor wasn’t so bad.
One morning Joe said he had an errand for me. He tossed me the keys to a truck, a map and an invoice with an address for something he needed me to pick up. He said, “You can drive three on the tree right?” Seeing my confusion he repeated and pantomimed the shift pattern. “You know, three on the tree?”
“Oh sure,” I lied. Since my interview, I had gotten my dad to let me drive his little Datsun pickup a few times and had been getting the idea of driving a stick. So with Joe’s pattern of three on the tree still in mind, I threw the map and the invoice on the seat, jumped in and put the truck in reverse – and almost ran over Joe. Apparently first gear was reverse. So after figuring out that first gear was where I thought the second was an enduring one of the many amazed looks Joe gave me that summer, I chugged and bucked the truck out of the lot and onto the street where I stopped and did a quick tutorial and tried to figure out the map. I hadn’t really looked at the address until then and was amazed to find that it was in San Jose. Cummins and Co. was in Benicia and I had no idea how to get from point A to point B and almost no experience reading a map. I immediately got lost, took a wrong turn somewhere off the highway and ended up on Fish Ranch Rd. The distance between Benicia and San Jose is only about 60 miles. But I panicked, got lost and managed to take over 2 hours just to get to San Jose and then the better part of another hour finding the address I was looking for. There was no Google then, barely even a payphone. We had an app that was called ‘figure it out’.
So by the time I was able to find the person I was looking for, who then called the guy to load my truck, I was almost 3 hours in. Probably longer than the entire trip should have taken. The loader brought the barrel of solvent to the back of the truck and set it just past the tailgate. He could see I was green as grass and asked me, “Do you want me to push it forward?”
I had no idea how important that question was, but I would find out. I said, “No, that’s fine right there.” I signed the invoice, got the paperwork and was racing to the freeway to try and get back ASAP. Things were going great and I was making good time on the way back to Benicia when out of my peripheral vision I see a guy crossing three lanes of traffic to take the exit right in front of me. I had no choice but to slam on my brakes to avoid hitting him. I narrowly missed rear-ending his car and just as I started to swear at this idiot I heard a rumbling and then a huge crash as the barrel slid forward with so much momentum that it hit the rear window and glass shattered all over the front seat and me. I was so shaken up I didn’t even stop.
As I arrived back at the shop I could see Joe standing there, probably thinking, “Where the hell have you been?” But his look of anger soon turned to wonder as I opened the door and glass just spilled out everywhere. I was pretty much ready to be fired on the spot, but when I told him what happened he called the guy who loaded my truck. To my amazement, the guy apologized to me and agreed to pay for the window. Joe said he was sorry and should have told me how to load the barrel properly but that any forklift driver would have known better. As I stood there trying to get the glass out of my hair and from down my back I couldn’t help but feel relief. I thought I was fired for sure. Joe had my back after all and I’ll never forget the look on his face when I got out of the truck and glass went everywhere. All he could say was, “Oh, Hippie.”
After that picking up supplies became a regular part of my job. I guess they figured I couldn’t screw it up any worse than that first trip. Well, hold my beer.
A few days later Joe gave me a list of lumber he needed picked up at the local lumber yard. I found the place without incident and someone to help me load. I got everything into the back of the truck and off I went. As I was driving back to the shop people kept passing me and pointing. I thought it was odd until about the third person did it. I was probably stoned. Darn those lunch breaks. Anyway, as one guy drove by me and honked I looked in the rearview just in time to see a sheet of plywood arc, float off to the shoulder and land with a thud. It was at this point I realized I probably should have tied the load down. So I took the next exit and retraced my route. I collected what was left of the lumber, minus the few pieces that had been run over repeatedly by traffic, and drove back to the shop. Joe just looked and said, “Didn’t tie it down, huh? Oh, Hippie.”
And still, they didn’t fire me. I guess no one else wanted the job or they were just entertained, waiting to see what I would do next.
So now that I was an experienced driver they decided to add to my morning duties. Along with emptying the trash and making coffee, they decided I should gas up the boom trucks that they used to deliver the signs. These things were huge with cranes mounted on them and had air brakes. They asked me if I could drive them and, of course, I said, “Sure.” So I just figured it out. Along the way, I drove one into the side of another one with minimal damage. I was trying to figure out the airbrakes and wasn’t looking where I was going. I also left the lights on in one and the driver climbed in to find a dead battery. Then finally, before they realized I didn’t really know what I was doing, one of the drivers ran out of gas because I forgot to fill the auxiliary tank. All I could say was, “What’s an auxiliary tank?” to which the driver who’d been stuck on the highway for an hour waiting for gas replied, “Stupid Hippie.” Then he smiled and punched me in the shoulder and winked. It kind of hurt but it also felt like acceptance.
Things slowed down for me a bit after that, the way they do when you start to get the hang of something. I realized they teased me because they liked me. I was young and free. For me this was just a summer job and leaving was a short time away. For the guys in these jobs, this was it. Nobody grows up thinking I’m going to work in a warehouse making signs. They were stuck doing the same job day after day and making fun of the dumb kid eased some of the pain.
As the summer came to a close I was really looking forward to getting back to school. Some kids went away to camp for the summer. My summer camp was a glimpse of the future and the adult world.
Looking back on it now, over 45 years later, I can’t help but think about what a wonderful opportunity it was and how much experience it gave me. I took a lot of grief but I laughed a lot too. We all did and it wasn’t always at me. It was such a different world then. Can you imagine just throwing the keys to a 16-year old kid who has never driven a truck before and having him drive in California traffic to pick up a 55-gallon barrel of solvent? Think about the nightly news story if that barrel had exploded when the idiot cut me off and all the blame to go around for the toxic spill and the death of the poor high school kid, the grieving parents, and the irresponsible employer. But that was the way it was then. You were expected to take the challenge and you gained experience and confidence that helped you along the way. No one held my hand, they just gave me a chance.
We live in a time now where we try so hard to shield our children and protect them from virtually everything. So few get a chance to experience summer as I did. I’m not saying they should. But looking back I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
A few years later a couple of college students in a garage not too far from where I picked up that barrel of solvent invented the microchip and technology that changed the world, while all I had invented that summer was a way to drive a forklift over my own foot. But I discovered that I was capable and could try and do things I hadn’t imagined. I figured I could drive just about anything after that summer and did, often to my own detriment. But there’s one thing for sure, I wasn’t afraid to try.
After I wrote this I realized this wasn’t really my first job although it was my first full-time employment. The previous summer I’d had two jobs. One was selling Fuller Brush, which essentially entailed being dropped off in a neighborhood with a bunch of other salesmen carrying a valise full of obsolete brushes and household items nobody wanted. The ‘No Solicitors’ signs you still see on houses were a result of people like me. Although now, it’s more likely you’ll hear a voice, from some remote location, telling you to piss off. I also sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door for a few months. The Filter Queen. She was a beauty. I sold one.
A call from my editor:
“See, there you go. That was a good, solid piece.”
“So what the heck is a Fuller Brush man?”
“I was the last of a dying breed of salesmen. It’s just like it sounds. You’d go door-to-door and try and sell housewives stuff.”
“Yea, hairbrushes. combs. Bottle and toilet brushes. You know, household items.”
“And you did this door-to-door?”
“Man, I can’t even imagine how pissed I’d be if someone knocked on my door and tried to sell me a toilet brush.”