When I think of Sam, I see his hands most of all. They’re large, weathered hands, the kind of hands that have seen plenty of hard work, that have paid their way to whatever comfort they now enjoy. His hands are meaty at the spaces between the joints of the fingers; but the joints themselves also seem larger than average — together bearing testimony to Sam’s stories of how he grew up and labored in working-class East Los Angeles through his youth and young adulthood.
Over the months since we met, Sam recounts stories of his work at the meatpacking plants that long ago filled whole swaths of South Central Los Angeles. He’s both old enough and young enough to share vibrant details of a life lived long before most of our times.
Sam paints vivid pictures of employees and bosses gambling together in the back rooms of the plants. These were rough places where cattle were marched through the front door and after a couple of hours of processing, were sent out in small packages through the back. Gambling in the morning and night was part of the scene. “This is what people did before TV,” Sam says. When not gambling, Sam’s job was cutting beef quarters into marketable sizes and pieces.
“Mexicans and blacks did the hardest work,” says Sam. These were the ones who slaughtered the cows as they pass through the gates, who took them down with impact guns, who hung them on hooks and sliced them into the manageable quarters that Sam and his white coworkers trimmed into packaged product. Sam waves his large hands and recounts that white guys couldn’t or wouldn’t do this hard, blunt work. “It was too dangerous — and we knew it.” But he specifically adds, “Back then, meat plants were union and paid all the workers well.” Everyone — black, brown, white, or whoever else was in Los Angeles at the time — made wages enough to fill their pockets full enough for early morning and afternoon gambling. No one cared what color the gamblers were. Winning is what mattered, and Sam says that generally, he won more than lost, earning handsome profits to bolster his respectable working class wage.
And Sam moves on to another colorful story.
Carrie and I had been on the outside of the circle of friends that Sam holds daily court over at the Granary Square Starbucks. We had been getting up early for morning exercise walks for coffee and tea and then back up the hill again. Always, a group of grey haired knights, jesters and knaves sit at Sam’s round table, chatting up and lampooning the topics of the day. Loudly, too. Most patrons don’t seem to care, and likely enjoy the locally flavored banter. Some sourpusses however, sit disapprovingly, their dour faces indicating they’d prefer a library setting to Sam’s hip coffee-pub scene.
Being reserved, Carrie and I occasionally listened in, but we held back on introductions. Oh, how Carrie longed when the loud banter turned toward college football. Often, the USC Trojans were tops on their tongues, and living, breathing and eating Trojan Football, Carrie quivered to join in the fun.
Sitting at the outside patio one day, one of the more outgoing members of Sam’s club parked his car at the curb, and, walking toward the Starbucks door and recognizing our faces, paused in front of our table to say a friendly, “Hello.” An opening appeared. We said our “Hi’s” back to Joe, and resolved to draw closer. Over the days, further “Hi’s” were exchanged and then one morning it just seemed natural to add, “Do you mind if we join you fine men?” Sam was quick to pull up two chairs. Sam always graciously manages the seating arrangements.
Carrie was thrilled… and soon became the sole female regular at this special table of neighborhood friends. While Joe initially opened the door, Carrie was drawn toward Sam. Turns out that Sam worshiped the Trojans as a kid — riding bikes and trolleys Saturdays to watch his team play. “We cried for a week if the Trojans lost,” mourns Sam — childhood pain still reflecting in his mature steely gray eyes. Carrie also mourns for weeks when the Trojans come up short. So Sam and Carrie have formed a Trojan blood bond.
Joe is far and away the most political of the bunch. Naturally, I moved toward him, and we’ve exchanged jokes and lamentations on the state of politics in our day. Joe serves as the straight man at the table. Essentially a hyper-liberal Ed McMahon; he delivers dry, intentionally probing jokes that test if you’re up on current affairs and can catch his drift. “Do you know Hu is the president of China?”
Later we meet Dennis. We discover that Dennis is the father of one of our son’s best high school friends. Most remarkably, Dennis was also a longtime coworker of my only uncle — who died a long decade ago. Together, we resurrected my uncle Bob with stories and kind and tender memories.
And Herman and Tony. Herman is the University of Arizona fan, a prominent local lawyer with three kids, all of whom are Wildcats. Herman repeats sound advice: “NEVER,” he says, “get divorced. It nearly always ruins people financially.”
Meanwhile, Tony is literally “the caterer to the stars.” Tony owns the most prestigious Hollywood catering company and has been on location from Iceland to Hawaii with most all our favorite actors and actresses. It turns out that Tony works with our neighbor, Duncan, and it seems our whole neighborhood is being woven together through our new friends at the table.
Some complain that our growing suburban community has diluted its sense of closeness and lost its soul. I was one of them. But it’s been my shortcoming, not the neighborhood’s.
Community is what you make it. Closeness is how you reach out. And friendships are there — when we slow down, lower our guard, and allow ourselves to be friends, and to be befriended.
Thank you Joe, for the invitation to the round table. And as Sam says, “For the price of a cup of coffee, it’s the best entertainment deal in town.”
Gary Horton is away on business. This column was originally published in January 2008. His“Full Speed to Port!” has appeared on Wednesdays in The Signal since 2006.