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VERY FIRST PERSON

The $325 Salvation

It Was 1957 and a Skinny 16-Year-Old Needed an Emergency Loan to Keep His Family Up and Running. Enter Mort Rubin.

October 11, 1998|Marvin J. Wolf | Journalist and author Marvin J. Wolf is immediate past president of Independent Writers of Southern California. His most recent book is "Where White Men Fear to Tread" (St. Martin's Press), which he co-authored with Russell Means

I stood on tiptoe and handed the 3-by-5 card from the Help Wanted board at Fairfax High up to the tall, broad-shouldered, ruddy-faced man behind the counter of Mort's Deli at Farmers Market. He wore a starched chef's hat and a clean white apron over slacks and a sports shirt, and even before I opened my mouth to speak, he was frowning and shaking his head.

"This is a tough job for any high school kid," he said. "I need somebody big and strong."

At 16, I looked younger and was barely 5 feet tall. "I worked last summer washing dishes in a boys camp," I said. "Near Chicago. I'm not afraid of hot water, dirty dishes or heavy lifting."

"Florine, come out here a minute," called the tall man. In the kitchen doorway appeared an elfin presence, his dark skin mottled and wrinkled with age. He was even shorter than I was. Several long, wispy white hairs sprouted from his chin. "This is Mr. Joaquin, the chef. He's 80 years old. He needs someone strong enough to lift great big pots filled with boiling water."

"I can do the job."

"Really, we need someone bigger. You'll find something easier than this, kid," the tall man said in a kind voice. It was September 1957, and my family had just arrived in California. Without seniority in the local union, my father, a sheet-metal worker, was lucky to get work two or three days a week. Our meager savings were gone, and I, the eldest boy among what would soon be six children, was the only one able to help. I'd applied at retail stores, but without local references, shopkeepers were reluctant to let me handle cash. And everyone said I was too small.

"Tell you what," I said. "Put me to work the rest of the week, and if you don't like the way I do the job, don't pay me."

The tall man stared at me, then nodded. "I'm Mort Rubin," he said. "What's your name?"

The patio at Farmers Market, then as now, was a collection of small shops and about 30 highly individualized restaurants. All used the same crockery and silverware, retrieved from tables by busboys and returned for washing. At Mort's, a river of soiled utensils, trays and dishes flowed into my sinks. Huge pots and pans came off the stove and out of the ovens to be scrubbed. I washed and rinsed and scoured; by the end of my first after-school shift, sharp pains were shooting up my heels and lower legs from four hours of standing on concrete without a break.

My father suggested that I would get used to it, but as closing time approached on Saturday, I was in agony. I would need better shoes if I was to continue working here, but I had no money and no idea if Mort would pay me for four days of work. Near the end of the day he called me up front. "How much did that card at school say this job paid?" he asked.

"Dollar an hour," I murmured. "The minimum wage." I was willing to take less.

"That's not enough for someone who works as hard as you," said Mort. "You start at $1.25."

Over the next few weeks I learned a lot about Mort. He was a few years older than my dad, was from Chicago and had a daughter my age. About 1937, Mort had joined the National Guard's horse-drawn artillery because he loved horses. Early in World War II, he was nearly killed in a savage battle in New Guinea's Owen Stanley mountains. Recuperating from a terrible head wound, he was attached to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's personal staff as a military policeman, where he cultivated an Aussie accent while tracking down GI black marketers. When things were slow at the deli, he often shared stories from his Army days. But things were never slow in the kitchen; there was always something to be washed or swept or scoured.

We were closed on Sundays, and so every Saturday evening, Mort encouraged me to take home the leftover soup in a huge jar. A rich broth of turkey, rice and vegetables, it was a meal in itself, a treat for my struggling family. My father usually picked me up after work on Saturdays because the soup was too much to lug home on my bike. Then, one Saturday about six weeks after I began working, my father was hired to hang gutters on a neighbor's house, and I took the family car.

After work I drove home and parked on 6th Street, a few doors from Sweetzer Avenue, and, with the warm jar in my arms, crossed the lawn. As I passed the living room window, I glanced inside--and almost dropped the jar. In my father's chair--my father's chair!--was a large, heavy bald man. He was cursing my father, flinging the most obscene words in a voice dripping with contempt. My brothers and sisters sat like statues. Dad's face was stone; Mom wept.

I crept into the darkened kitchen, carefully set the soup on a counter and listened through a crack in the swinging door. The bald man wanted to take our 1952 Chevy. Dad offered to pay the three weekly payments that were in arrears, but the man demanded the entire sum--$325--or the car.

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