In 1979, Darlene Klein's son, Brian, was killed in a scuba-diving accident off Anacapa in the Channel Islands. He had just graduated from high school.
"It was the worst thing that ever happened to me as a parent," Klein says, "but it gave me a lot of strength. I had this desire to do things (Brian might have done) because he wasn't there to do them for himself."
Klein did not feel like going to group-therapy sessions for parents who had lost children. "I didn't think I had enough inside me to give to someone else," she says. "It was all I could do to handle my own grief."
The way she handled it was to set up her own business. Her second and third career choices would have been a day-care nursery and a bakery--either of which would have been an extension of her homemaker role in marriage. Instead, she set up a furniture delivery and installation business.
Chicago-born Klein (her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 12) had originally trained as a dental assistant. From 1973 she had successively worked in a furniture factory in Gardena, in a furniture showroom on Robertson Boulevard, for five years in a one-person showroom at the Pacific Design Center and for two years as a partner in a business that waterproofed fabrics.
Klein's first venture in the delivery business was closed down because of disagreements between the principals. In January, 1985, she opened a new firm, California Designers' Delivery Service. By mid-1986 she had doubled her staff to 18 and had increased her number of trucks from two to five. In August she moved from a 10,000-square-foot warehouse downtown to a 30,000-square-foot one at 2087 East 55th St., Vernon.
Darlene Klein has learned the delivery business the tough way. She twice had to drive big trucks herself. "One time, I did not have a driver available, and although the warehouseman on duty said he could take me over to the truck-rental firm in a car, he said he would not be able to drive a 16-foot stake-bed truck back to the warehouse. But we needed the truck for a large piece of furniture. So I went over to the truck rental and introduced myself, and they asked me who was going to drive the truck. I said, 'But I am.' I was wearing high heels and a flowing, blue-and-white dress--quite feminine.
"And they said, 'Oh no.'
" 'Of course!' I said. 'I own the company, after all. Do you think the owner of the company doesn't know how to drive a truck?'
"And I looked straight on at this man, who said, 'Well, OK.'
" 'Fine,' I said. 'Just show me where it is.'
"I had never driven a truck before, but I had driven a five-speed automobile; so I thought to myself, 'How different can this be?' And I managed to get it back; it was about seven or eight miles from here. Then, the next day, I had to take the truck to the San Fernando Valley. I drove it to the job site, then the boys drove me back. My knees were literally shaking ."
Another time, Klein had to pick up a 16-foot bobtail truck--one with the cab in front but with its cargo-carrying box attached--as opposed to a tractor-trailer, in which the two parts are separate. "That was a bit more tricky. I was turning right and almost took off a fire hydrant, not realizing that you had to do a wider turn. A standard driver's license is sufficient for that; it's only when you get into a tractor-trailer that you need a Class 1. Anyway, I made it back."
However, when she arrived back at the warehouse with the 16-footer, she pulled it head-on into the dock. She did not know that on a slope, a heavy truck is difficult to pull out. "I thought the fellows would never get it turned around because it was an older truck, but they managed."
Darlene Klein is prepared to turn her hand to virtually anything to get a job done. In 1985, she was doing an office installation in Santa Ana. She was required to remove a second-floor window to enter, so as not to disturb the lobby carpeting. Klein asked a glass company to come out and remove the glass, and she hired a scissor-lift, "which looks like a platform about 10 feet wide and 15 feet long and is operated by a little remote-control box. You can drive it by standing on the street, or you can drive it by standing on the platform. If you are careful, you can walk it along to where you want to go."
After Klein had had a brief lesson on how to use the scissor-lift, the man who delivered it left. Then the glass-company man arrived.
"I said to the gentleman, 'Do you know how to operate this?'
"And he said, 'No, I don't. I've never operated one.'
"At that point, with my 36 seconds' worth of instruction, I proceeded to fire it up and walk it up to the building, thinking: 'Oh my God, it's going to go right through the building, it's going to wind up in someone's office upstairs and I will have to replace the entire wall.' But I handled it, and everything went well. If you don't try, what fun is it, first of all? And second of all, you lose out."