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Jack Smith

'It was a bright and mellow day. . . . Suddenly, a sweet sales pitch rang out. . . . '

March 19, 1986|JACK SMITH

Anyone who writes a column for a newspaper should use irony sparingly, and with caution.

Irony--in the sense of saying one thing while meaning the opposite--is, unfortunately, natural to me.

For instance, I do not for a moment really believe that the amiable climate and easy living of Southern California have a deleterious effect on novelists. We have produced many good novelists, and more are writing today.

The myth that Southern California is a cultural wasteland is just that--a myth; and if I often quote Eastern columnists in perpetuation of it, that is because I think it's funny.

John Rechy, whose own novels are powerful evocations of the Los Angeles scene, writes to complain:

"We 'Los Angeles' writers have become accustomed to Eastern critics deriding our 'regional affiliation,' but I believe that Los Angeles critics and columnists often compound this unjustified attitude, and, in effect, become 'saboteurs' of Los Angeles culture. . . ."

But if we can't laugh at our Eastern critics and let their ideas wither in the California sun, if we can't mock them, will they not prevail?

On the other hand, I am reproached for my "defensive" treatment of a neighbor of mine on Mount Washington who wrote an essay describing Los Angeles as hell and announcing her imminent return to Michigan.

I am not insensitive to the homesickness anyone may feel in this alien place, and I sympathize with her rejection of it as mean and hostile. It certainly can be that.

I am stunned, however, to find that I was taken seriously when I wrote of our neighborhood: "We are pestered by children selling cookies, candy or magazine subscriptions to raise money for band uniforms or something equally frivolous."

Nancy Kellenberger writes: "I have been a Camp Fire leader for nine years. My daughters sell candy every year. Organizations like Camp Fire depend on their annual product sale for a major part of their budget. . . . I know that children constantly ringing the doorbell can be annoying. . . . But won't you please reconsider that their purpose for doing so is important?"

I have probably bought more cookies and candy from children at my door than any other person on Mount Washington.

I must be considered the easiest mark on the hill. Sometimes I think children have a way of marking houses whose owners are soft, the way hobos used to mark the fences of housewives who gave them handouts.

I think school bands are among our most wonderful institutions. I am happy to help buy their uniforms. When I was a small boy, my cousin Annabel played in the Shafter Elementary School band, and I can still see her in her green uniform, marching across the sunbaked field, tooting on her trombone.

I remember my own boyhood enterprise, part of it right here in Highland Park, selling Liberty magazine from door to door.

Just the other afternoon, a small boy came to the door and asked if I'd like to buy a bar of candy. I asked him how much it was. He said it was $1 a bar.

"I'm trying to win a bicycle," he told me. He was a beautiful boy, and very charming. He looked me straight in the eye.

"OK," I said, "I'll take one."

I got a dollar from my billfold and gave it to him.

He said, "You want the almonds or the crunch?"

"I'll take both," I said, and I pulled out another dollar.

I don't eat candy, but I thought it would be handy to have in the refrigerator in case my blood sugar ever got too low.

The next afternoon about the same time he came back.

"You want to buy a candy bar?" he asked.

"I just bought two from you yesterday," I said.

"I know," he said. "But I really want that bicycle."

"OK," I said, "I'll take another crunch."

I went to get a dollar bill out of my wallet. First I extracted a ten. I put it back and pulled a bill from the other side of the sheaf, thinking it would be a one.

I handed it to the boy. He looked at it and then up at me. Then he said, quite matter-of-factly: "I can't change a fifty."

With embarrassment, I realized I had given him the $50 bill I had meant to hide inside my wallet for emergencies.

I took the bill back. "I'm sorry," I said, not wanting him to know I didn't know it was a fifty. "I think I've got a one."

I found a one and gave it to him.

"You want almond or crunch?" he said. I took the almond.

That evening when my wife opened the refrigerator she said, "Another candy bar?"

I told her about the boy and the fifty. "You are getting absent-minded," she said.

The next afternoon, the boy came back.

"You want to buy a candy bar?" he said.

"I've already bought three," I said.

"I know," he said. "But I really want that bicycle."

"Well, all right," I said, "I'll take another crunch."

I couldn't help liking the boy. He'd been so cool about the fifty, and I doubted that he had ever seen one before.

That night my wife saw the four candy bars in the refrigerator.

"What's that boy got on you?" she said.

"The way I look at it," I said, "I'm still $49 ahead of him. I'll have to keep buying candy bars till that's run out."

At least I'm helping the kid get his bicycle.

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