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Mom Wanted Me to Take Up Smoking
In any case, I always hated the cigarettes. I hated the smell—I hated the nicotine stains on my mother's fingers and teeth—and I hated being made to clean her ashtrays. And I hated the fact that she was forever trying to get me to start smoking—so that I would stop bellyaching about her smoking.
Roll Your Own Cigarettes
Oh, I almost forgot—there was a time during the war when cigarettes became so hard to get the only thing available was the "roll your own" variety. Then somebody came up with a do-it-yourself home-cigarette-roller. It was a clunky contraption about the size of a Kleenex box that had a collection of gears, rollers and canvas belts, which, when worked just right, would produce a cigarette that was indeed round and firm and fully-packed—although you could never be sure what diameter it would come out. You might end up with a forerunner to a Virginia Slim, or get a mouthful that was twice as fat as a regular cigarette.
In any case, guess who was the first one in line to buy one of these
little gems, and guess whose first chore it was every day after work to
make a fresh pile of cigarettes. (I kind of liked the fat ones because
they made my mom look funny smoking them.) Of course she'd complain about
my wasting precious tobacco. "You could make twice as many cigarettes,"
she'd point angrily out, "if you'd only make them the right size."
And, as you've probably guessed, I never took up smoking myself—but there were times when it seemed like I was the only person in the world who hadn't.
In those days anyone who didn't smoke seemed like an oddball—I mean, all the movie stars smoked (except maybe Shirley Temple or Lassie) and many of them did cigarette ads and commercials.
Our erstwhile president smoked them, using a stylish cigarette holder.
My mother smoked Marlboros.
"They're a woman's cigarette," she would explain. (My, how
times have changed.)
Anyway, I was convinced I was destined to spend the rest of my life trying to adjust to everyone else's second-hand smoke. If anyone had said back then that the day would come when smoking would be socially unacceptable in most situations, I would have said he was crazy. But look what happened. Maybe this is why I still remain an optimist who believes everything's going to be okay after all.
But, getting back to my sign-painting adventures, Mr. Corvelli's warm
response to my first commercial attempt gave me the confidence to ask if
they needed any signs at Ralphs.
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Made a Design of the Customer's Name
The design he painted each time was the person's name lettered in a stylized script up one half of the tie, with a mirror image of the name on the other half. The resulting symmetrical pattern would be a distinctive design that was unique to each tie.
At first glance, a viewer would seldom realize it was a person's name—it looked more like some kind of an avant garde rococo design. In any case, this kid claimed he was selling these unlikely conversation pieces like hotcakes.
So before long I was walking LA's wholesale garment district, looking for the best price on the broad solid-colored neckties that would be suitable for displaying this kind of personalized pattern, as well as trying to learn to blend the special paints and solvents that would adhere to a tie's surface without bleeding into the fabric.
Once I had the right materials, I made a few samples, using the names of some of my friends for the designs. But the problem (again) was selling them. Everybody agreed they were unique and very eye-catching (although the words "lovely" or "beautiful" were never used) but nobody wanted to buy one.
I finally sold a couple to friends of my mom, each of whom knew an affluent person who was about to have a birthday, and who already "had everything." What I needed was more friends who had friends who had everything—but what I ended up with was a pile of soon to be out-of-mode neckwear and some oil colors that were good for nothing but painting on certain types of fabrics.
Why Not Hand-Painted Blouses?
Well, I remembered having once seen a collection of hand-painted women's blouses that had been decorated with some brightly colored flowers or birds or fish of some kind. So I thought maybe I would try this idea, since painting a couple of tropical fish on a white blouse should be easy enough to do.
I didn't have any photos or drawings to work from, but how hard could it be to draw a fish? You start with a football shape, put a tail on one end and some eyes and a mouth on the other. You add some fins and scales and use some exotic colors and—voila—tropical fish!
So I returned to the wholesale garment district and tracked down some white nylon blouses. Then I optimistically commenced to decorate them with what I thought were some very imaginative and creatively designed tropical fish. I was more than satisfied with the results and felt sure I could sell some of these colorful creations to the cashiers at Ralphs (where I still had my regular day job).
Flashy Fish Fundamentally Flawed
But I hadn't reckoned with Jane. Jane was a big, broad-shouldered cashier with a mannish haircut whose voice could be heard from one end of the store to the other. And her one passion in life was fishing. It was all she ever talked about. Well, when she got a look at my "stylized" fish, she about had a fit.
"What are those things?" she demanded. "Surely they aren't supposed to be fish. Fish don't look anything at all like that!" Then she began to dissect each painting, pointing out one inexcusable ichthyologically inaccurate insult after another, and loudly proclaimed why no part of it could possibly be from any known species of fish. Well, needless to say, I didn't sell any blouses to any cashiers that day. In fact I never sold any at all—each one ended up being a birthday gift for someone—but not for Jane.
Anyway, it was a good thing I had my steady job at Ralphs (Jane notwithstanding). It only paid 75 cents an hour—and oh how I envied the cashiers who were making $1.50. I'd finally passed my 16th birthday, so wasn't required to attend "dropout school" anymore. And working a full forty hours at Ralphs meant I had a regular weekly check, albeit a rather small one. But it was enough to allow me to rent an inexpensive room not too far from the job. My mother had recently acquired a new boyfriend whom she wanted to stay overnight from time to time, and having the three of us in this one-room apartment was rather awkward, to say the least.
Mom's New Boyfriend
The new boyfriend was a shifty-eyed, fast-talking New Yorker named Jack, who loved to tell us about all the wonderful things he had done in the past. He claimed he was a writer and a lyricist, and that he had recently worked with Rodgers and Hammerstein on Oklahoma, and that it was actually he who had written the lyrics to The Surrey with the Fringe on Top—but of course Oscar Hammerstein would be getting all the credit (not to mention all the royalties).
Who knows? Maybe he was telling the truth. He further claimed that he had a novel in the works and that he would be getting an advance from his publisher any day now—and he just needed to borrow a few dollars from my mom until his check arrived.
Of course she didn't have any money to spare, but she gullibly gave him whatever she had on hand. So one day, with money in hand, he insisted on taking me around the corner for lunch at the College Grille so he could tell me some more about his wonderful achievements back in New York. But first he had to stop at the adjacent College Bar for a quick fix. As I watched from the doorway, I saw him give the bartender 50¢ and ask for a shot of bourbon. He gulped it down and was back at my side in less than a minute.
"I don't normally do that," he explained, "but I'm a little tense today, and that helps me relax." What my mom and I soon came to find out was that he did that every chance he got. We also found out he was a confirmed alcoholic—and not a very thrifty one at that. I couldn't help but mentally compare his buying booze one shot at a time to my mother's single pack cigarette purchases.
Surely it would have been more cost effective to buy the hootch by the bottle. But, as long as my mom was paying for it—why bother?
By the way, 50¢ in those days would have bought you a Blue Plate Special at the College Grill, consisting of your choice of an entree such as Chicken Fried Steak or Braised Sirloin Tips, complete with soup or salad, and coffee or tea—not to mention rice pudding or lime sherbet for dessert. There'd even be enough left over to tip the waitress. To me 50¢ for a slug of whisky seemed scandalously extravagant.
Then one day Jack vanished as suddenly as he had appeared—and, of
course, without repaying my mom any of the money he had "borrowed."
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