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'The Milk Goes Through'--Despite Rain, Dogs, Robbers and an Occasional Temptress

May 08, 1986|GEORGE STEIN

Carl Sorenson wastes no time when he delivers milk. He brings his battered milk truck to a curb, sets the brake with a yank, grabs the order--a gallon of milk, a quart of juice, a package of hot dogs or a loaf of bread--and hops out.

Baseball cap on his head, a toothpick in his mouth, he cuts straight across South Bay sidewalks, lawns, steps, porches, avoiding dogs and their residue--a familiar, purposeful figure cut out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Come rain or shine, heat or cold, he says, "The milk goes through."

For 49 years, Sorenson has been faithful to that motto.

Now, at 75, Sorenson, the oldest milkman working for Rockview Farms and possibly the oldest person delivering milk in Southern California, is one of a dying breed.

Fewer and fewer people are getting milk delivered at home, according to John Stueve, president of the Southern California Home Delivery Assn. "Overall, it is probably at the lowest point right now," he said.

Back in the 1960s, said Stueve, who is general manager of retail sales for Altadena Certified Dairy, several thousand milkmen--and virtually all were men--hauled their wares throughout Southern California. Since then, many dairies have gone out of the home delivery business. About 500 milkmen still deliver milk the old-fashioned way to maybe 200,000 Southern California homes, Stueve said.

Sorenson serves about 400 customers along a route through South Bay neighborhoods in Inglewood, Hawthorne, Los Angeles and unincorporated portions of the county, as well as Watts and Compton. At Rockview, where Sorenson is one of 67 milkmen, home delivery "is almost a thing of the past," said Lee Smith, 52, a company driver who delivers milk the new-fashioned way, to supermarkets in a semitrailer.

And when the home-delivery era passes, a bit of beloved Americana will be gone forever.

Because, to his customers, Carl Sorenson, with his wrinkled, kindly face and his friendly words of greeting, is more than their milkman. He is a friend.

Trust is an essential part of the job. Sorenson trusts his customers sometimes to pay an overdue bill. They trust him sometimes to leave milk inside their houses.

"You let him on your property. You have to trust him," maintained Robert C. Fenimore, who on many mornings philosophizes with Sorenson over coffee at an Imperial Highway doughnut shop.

Milkmen who are not trustworthy "don't last," Sorenson said.

"He is a mighty good man," said Ruth Brisco, 71, who lives in the 10000 block of Broadway in Los Angeles. "You couldn't get a better man than that."

Treon Franklin, 40, said sometimes she had no other source of food when she was raising her four children.

"I would owe him. He would fuss but he would bring it," said Franklin, who now drives a Cadillac and owns the Franklin Family Day Care Center in the 100 block of West 115th Street.

When Sorenson was laid up after a prostate operation a month ago, Betty Marcelin, who has been buying milk from Sorenson since the 1960s, brought him a get-well basket of fruit.

Some customers have been, well, more than friendly.

Sorenson concedes there is some truth to the jokes about bored housewives seeking sex from the milkman.

Milkmen don't have much time for subtlety and the propositions have been blunt, he said. The approach usually begins with an invitation for coffee. Once, he recalled, a woman said, "I want to show you our new bedroom set . . . "

Sorenson, who has been separated from his wife for many years, said he has never succumbed to temptation.

"It is just against my principles mostly. You don't mix business with pleasure," he said, adding thoughtfully, "It would be awful stupid to park the truck out in the street." Most milkmen who become sexually involved with customers "don't last very long," he said.

Although Sorenson's route takes him through some areas where gangs, drug trafficking and robberies are common, muggers began to avoid him about 10 years ago after he defended himself against one would-be robber.

Sorenson was stepping out of his truck, two bottles in hand, when a man came up to him with a gun in his hand.

"Get in and start driving," the man ordered.

But the robber didn't figure that Sorenson also had a gun--a .25-caliber Beretta pistol that he keeps tucked inside his shirt.

"I put the milk down and got my gun and whirled around and shot him. I got him right in the heart so he didn't have a chance to pull the trigger," Sorenson said. After word of the incident spread, robbers stopped bothering him.

The job itself has not changed very much since the June day in 1937 that Sorenson loaded up a 1931 Ford Model A and pulled out on his first milk route. To be sure, it is a lot less physically demanding now.

In the old days, Sorenson had to get up at 3 a.m. and he worked seven days a week because many people did not have refrigerators and needed fresh milk every day. His pay was $90 a month.

Now, in what he considers almost semiretirement, Sorenson is on the job four days a week--his grandson, who is working his way through college, fills in for him on Saturdays. When he does work, Sorenson sleeps later, getting up at 6 a.m. And he makes more--about $100 a week.

He changed from Rockview employee to independent contractor in 1967, buying his route, No. 371, for $10,000. He buys a gallon of milk wholesale from Rockview for $1.89 and sells it for $2.40.

But the core of the job remains the same.

After early morning coffee in the loading yard, Carl Sorenson swings out, buys $5 worth of gasoline and then begins his morning ritual succession of stops, steps and quick conversations. He is through in the early afternoon.

Sorenson says it is a good life.

"You meet so many different kinds of people, so many different types. It is interesting."

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