Everything my kid touches turns to shit
We hoisted football-sized boul-ders on our shoulders, and on the run, shot-putted them at the cabin for direct hits that exploded like sonic booms on the aluminum roof.
Dad would whisper in my ear, ‘The guy’s been a pet all his life. Your mother always defends him, because he’s married to her sister, but the man’s worthless as tits on a bull.’
Photo courtesy of Dell Franklin
A confessional from the Summer of 1956
By Dell Franklin
My father, after playing professional baseball from 1938 until 1953 (he missed three seasons during the war) started a wholesale leather and shoe findings business in Compton, California. He had a small warehouse between a liquor store and insurance company near the downtown. By 1956 he had the place going pretty strong and was dropping hints that I might want to go to work for him so I could add to my allowance and learn a work ethic while helping him out.
I had no desire to work. I hated my chores and did such a poor job of mowing the lawn that dad called me a “goddamn butcher,” and informed all those who cared to hear that “everything my kid touches turns to shit.”
Most loathsome, it turns out, I had to go to work for him.
I started not long after my friend Rex Cutler and I were coerced into the Boy Scouts of America and soon ran afoul of the authorities. All we wanted to do was play ball. We were 12, turning 13 that summer, and we had to go on this big camping trip at Lake Arrowhead with about 100 other scouts from neighboring cities. Rex and I hated tying knots and bending to conformity among aspiring out-doorsmen and goody-goody scout masters. We hated these pricks. We made fun of them. We didn’t like the idea of wiping our tender asses with bark or pine cones after taking a shit in the woods.
So, dreading a nature hike, after which we would set up camp at some remote outpost and have to deal with prowling bears, which had already raided our camp, tossing around trash cans while we quivered in our miserable pup tents, Rex and I decided to desert, vowing to find a highway below the mountains and hitchhike home to Compton, where we could return to our precious hooliganism and play ball.
On our way off the beaten trail, Rex and I discovered a cabin with an aluminum roof. Inside this cabin were adults, whose shiny Plymouths and DeSotos and Fords were parked outside. We heard them partying inside to cornball modern classics crooned by Rosemary Cloony,and Perry Como.
“What a buncha fuckin’ dorks,” Rex said. “Let’s bomb ‘em.”
At first we lightly spattered their roof with a hailstorm of pebbles, drawing the dorks and their ladies outside, where they peered about as we hid on the high ground behind foliage. When they went back in, murmuring among themselves, we waited a while and then bom-barded the roof with jawbreaker-sized solid rocks, provoking the heroic male dorks to beat the brush in search of us, all of them discussing what they were going to do to us “little delinquents.” By this time we had climbed a tree a few hundred yards up from the foliage, and again they retreated to their cabin mumbling and disappointed and sour, their partying ruined.
We waited a while, let them get going again (a few of them carried hi balls and beers as they stalked us) with their Hit Parade tunes, the gabble and jibber-jabber rising, and hoisted football-size boul-ders on our shoulders, and on the run, shot-putted them at the cabin for direct hits that exploded like sonic booms, tearing jagged holes through the aluminum roof and crashing into the cabin.
While terrorized women squealed and scurried about in the yard, the dorks set to chasing us through the woods. Little athletes, made of wire, we lost them. Skirted the little town of Arrowhead half a mile away, and crept through the woods just off the main road which was now being patrolled by a squad car and those driven by the dorks. We darted back into the woods, walked miles and miles, in the darkness and finally, exhausted, hitched a ride down the mountainside to a small town where Rex got a shop owner to call his mother and explained we were homesick and hated Boy Scouts. She came and took us home.
That evening, of course, the victims of our tyranny contacted the scoutmaster, a too-earnest and humorless man, who was aware of our absence and made a special trip down the mountain to show up at our doorstep, where, when confronted by my father, I, like a good Boy Scout, confessed my sins. Dad, after apologizing profusely and promising to cover the damage to the cabin (along with Rex’s mother), informed my mother he was taking charge of me, and putting me to work in his store, where I would work the rest of the summer “like a slave, jumping at every command,” until I repaid my debt for my vandalism and mayhem. I was screwed. No ball, and a whipping.
Dad opened his store at 7:30 in the morning, so his shoemakers could get in early and buy their goods before opening up their own shops. I was introduced to them (mostly Italians) as “my kid, Snaggletooth,” since I’d fallen off a bike earlier that summer and busted off half a front tooth. “Everything he touches turns to shit.”
“Why yah got him in here then, Murray?” they’d ask.
“Because if he does damage in here, I can keep an eye on him. I don’t know what the kid’s gonna do out in the streets. If he keeps breakin’ up other people’s property I’m liable to be in the poorhouse and my family starves. You gotta keep your enemies close, Sal.”
What he had me doing at first was sweeping the aisles and front floor and stocking the shelves. Once in a while, if he was waiting on a customer up front on the long table, where he stacked and boxed items and wrote out invoices, he’d shout out: “Meathead! Get me six 11/11 half heels.” Then he’d mutter to his customer, “I’m tryna keep it simple, not overload the kid.”
Dad blew his top at me in front of his customers from time to time, especially when I put half heels on the whole heel shelf, which infuriated him when he went to fetch something he wanted and found it missing, or in the wrong space on the shelf. So he relegated me to sweeping and fetching and hauling boxes of merchandise to the cars of his shoemakers, all of whom were understanding of me and told me they would look forward to the day when I ran the business like my dad.
My dad’s right-hand man, Russ, was married to my mother’s sister, an out-of-work musician who had made a lot of money before the war and had been big time in Chicago and New York City, but was now down on his luck and serving time in dad’s store. He had a delivery route in Orange County, where he had a home with my aunt and cousins, and had opened up some accounts out there. Dad told my mother that “all musicians were worthless and that Russ was the most lazy, undependable, irresponsible Irishman he’d ever come across.”
All true, but a great guy, a charmer, and a storyteller par excellence. Dad, a crazed hustler, always moving, busy, lightning quick, tried to push Russ, but to no avail. He had one speed—slow. Dad would whisper in my ear, “The guy’s been a pet all his life. Your mother always defends him, because he’s married to her sister, but the man’s worthless as tits on a bull…only reason I hired him is because he can’t find a job doing anything else. All he can do now is play the piano in a dive. If I don’t hire him, his kids starve.”
Among other things, dad informed me, the lovable Russ was a “chronic complainer, a hypochondriac, and the biggest goddamn prima donna I’ve ever seen in my life, and believe me, playing pro ball 17 years, I’ve seen ‘em all, Dell.” Then he’d wink at me, and form a shit-eating grin.
“You’re not gonna take after your Uncle Russ, are you? Or your mother’s goddamn worthless family of freeloaders and bullshitters?”
“Nah, dad, I wanna end up like you.”
After a couple weeks into the summer, dad accused me of being a “clock-watcher and a day dreamer,” because I repeatedly “cocked up orders.” But dad’s exasperation with Russ was so overwhelming that it sort of placed me temporarily in the background. Nobody could com-pare to Russ in being a worthless human being, not even me.
Finally, one afternoon Russ closed early to beat traffic while dad was on the road, and left me to fend for myself—all hell broke loose.
One of dad’s biggest accounts, from out near the desert, had come in for a big order, and there I was, a 12-year-old kid, all by myself, not knowing my ass from a hole in the ground. Together, I and this crusty, gnarled old shoemaker, loaded him up as best we could, writing down on a notepad what he took out, and when the guy called dad and told him what happened, dad fired Russ.
While dad looked for a new right-hand man, he took me aside. “Now that your buddy Russ is gone, your corking off days are over. I know it was you distracting him, getting him to tell you stories all after-noon while I’m gone making deliveries. I know exactly what’s going on in my store alla time, buster, and I know what’s getting done and what’s not getting done, and when I get back from my deliveries I can look around and know you didn’t do a goddamn thing I told you to do while I was gone, because you were too busy sitting on your ass in the office drinking cokes and getting that worthless freeloader to tell you his goddamn bullshit stories. I know you, boy.”
The kid taking Russ’s place (Russ found a gig playing piano, singing and telling jokes and stories in an Anaheim nightclub) was the son of one of dad’s shoemakers who needed to get his kid a job. Ludy. I took one look at this guy (he was around 20) and tabbed him “Ludy the Loony,” and “Ludy the Loser.” Ludy was fairly strong and eager. But, since he was visibly simple, dad started him out stocking, sweeping, and carrying orders out to cars, while I had advanced to actually fetching and packing orders at the big table, a show of trust and added responsibility. He told mother I was actually im-proving a little, while mother chastised him for hiring Ludy, claim-ing the “poor thing was retarded.”
“You’ve gotta have flunkies,” dad explained to her.
Dad managed, through kindness and patience, to turn Ludy into a flesh and bones robot, politely asking him to fetch such and such an item, and Ludy, only able to do one thing at a time, was like a remote control toy. If the pace in the store got feverish and de-manding, and dad mindlessly gave Ludy too much to do too quickly, it was disaster. Still, dad reacted to Ludy’s fucking up with rare under-standing. Ludy wore new baggy jeans crumpled up on his black Keds, and a white T-shirt, cigarette packs rolled up in the sleeves. Some-times his mouth hung open. I couldn’t talk to him. He drove an old Ford on which he worked and got himself greasy, and one time dad sent him on a delivery of one item to a shoemaker three blocks away and Ludy was lost for hours, never found the shop (the shoemaker called and called—an emergency!), showed up at closing time with ice cream on his face.
I began lurking among the shelves and hurling, from long distance, little ladies toplift heels at Ludy, nipping him on the flank, and the poor kid yelped and jumped as if stung by a bee, dropped the heels he was fetching for dad and dashed up front squealing and jerk -himself around like a dog trying to bite his flea-bitten ass. Cus-tomers recoiled with distaste while dad took me straight to the office and threatened to break me into a thousand bloody pieces if I did not put a stop to tormenting poor, unfortunate Ludy.
I took my ass-chewing like the miscreant I was, behaved like he wanted me to and then some for almost a week, before sailing with some zing an over-sized men’s leather heel at Ludy’s flank, and this time he went berserk, drooling all over himself, his eyes went wild, as he grunt-ed animal sounds. He grabbed a broomstick and came after me, and I dashed out the front door and out-ran him down the boulevard while dad wrestled the broomstick from Ludy and stood cursing me, waving a fist, threatening to break me into a thousand bloody pieces. He fired me that night after a whipping.
But he rehired me a day later after a discussion with mother, who felt I was “really too young for a serious job.”
“Bullshit,” said dad, as I listened at the keyhole to them arguing about me, which was common. “Listen, the kid has only paid off half of what he’s destroyed. We can’t let him skate on this, Rose, or he’ll skate on every goddamn thing he does the rest of his life. And believe me, deep down, I wanna cut my losses, and get rid of him before he cocks up something else, because everything he touches turns to shit, believe me, but he owes me, and the smartass, he knows exactly what he’s doing, the devious little bastard, he knows goddamn well I’ll fire him, like he wants me to, and I probably should, before he sabotages our goddamn livelihood, but it’s a matter of principle with me, Rose, so the worthless kid goes back to work.”
So I returned to work. Immediately I decided to toss a curveball at my ex major leaguer dad. Instead of being a perennial fuck-up, I picked up the slack for Ludy, who mercifully quit, nearly losing dad a customer (Ludy’s dad). I conscientiously went out of my way to not only do things right, to work hard and fast and learn quickly, but to trade in my wise guy know-it-all attitude for a Boy Scout impersonation, so that many of dad’s customers were pleased and complimenting him on my intelligence and maturity.
Dad hired another shoemaker’s son, a dud, a fruitcake, but I left him totally alone.
And everything would have probably worked out for the remainder of the summer if it had not been for one Augie (Big Schozz) Bovoloni. Augie was this short guy with a long body and huge head of curly hair and a monstrous hooked nose and two crazy darting black eyes. The size of a jockey, and a horseplayer to boot (like my dad), he was a cash customer always in debt and married to a fat woman at least twice his size who had hatched ten kids and never stopped carping at Augie, who had a small shop in Culver City.
Dad referred to Augie as a “Sad Sack.” Always whining. Always looking like he’d just saw his dog run over. Business was always bad. Poor Augie. A talented shoemaker, said dad, who, when requested, made beautiful shoes and boots for rich folks. Augie even complained to me, “Little Murray, you’re such a good kid, workin’ for your wonder-ful dad. My kids, they won’t work for me, little Murray…”
“My name’s Dell, Augie.”
“Little Dell, my kids, they hate me. They don’t do nothin’ Augie tells ‘em to do. My wife, she turned ‘em against me, little Murray, because she hates me, too. Your daddy, he’s my best friend. I wish I had a brother like your wonderful dad, little Murray, but my brothers, they got their own lives, they live back east, they don’t care what happens to Augie…”
This guy, if you let him, he could drive you nuts. He had these huge intense eyes that saturated you, so that you wanted to run from the poor bastard. He’d be in the store, and I’d be in the back, stock-ing shelves, trying to stay away from my dad and Augie and the intensity of all his in-a-hurry, complaining and boring shoemakers up at the big loading table, and Augie’d find me. “Ohh, Little Murray, such a good boy. Look at those things on your poor feet. Those are rags, they got tape holdin’ ‘em together. Goddamn tennis shoes, they’re drivin’ the shoemakers outta business, those sneakers, Little Murray. Why you gotta wear them ugly things, when they fallin’ off your feet...?”
“I’m an athlete, Augie, I play ball in ‘em. They may not look good, but they fit good. I don’t hafta worry about polishin’ them or being filthy, I can run through puddles and creeks and if they stink, I dry ‘em out in the sun…I like ‘em…”
“But they got tape on ‘em, Little Murray. Your dad, he’s in the shoe business, and his kid, he wears cheap sneakers with tape keepin’ ‘em on his feet. What you think all his customers gonna think when they see you wearin’ them rags with tape holdin’ ‘em together...?”
“I don’t care what they think, Augie. I care about my feet and playin’ ball.”
“People think your daddy is poor, and he works so hard. …Little Murray, your daddy, he is my best friend, so little Murray, what I am gonna do, I am gonna make you some good shoes, nice shoes, shoes last you for years, you don’t got to put no tape on ‘em.…”
“I gotta go up front, Augie, dad needs my help.”
He followed me up front, where it wasn’t much better, with him still fawning over me and telling my dad what a great kid I was, my dad knowing for sure that was bullshit, but going along with Augie since Augie was his loyal customer, who would never ever under any circumstances buy from any other wholesaler in the country, and now dad was even bragging to these grimy characters that I was really working out and learning the business and would someday, if I chose, inherit and run the business.
I persevered this bullshit. But Augie, he wouldn’t let up. He’d pigeonhole me every time he came in the store, telling me how great I was, then squeezing my biceps and telling me how I was strong and would be a big powerful guy someday like my lionized dad, and then one day he comes in with these goddamn boots. Ankle-high boots, gor-geous boots made of supreme leather. Fruit boots.
He presented them to me up front while dad and about twenty shoemakers looked on. “Your boy, he deserves nice boots, Murray, look at those rags he’s wearin’…”
“The kid wears rags, Augie. I can’t even buy him new shirts. I don’t know what to do with him. He won’t wear new things or nice stuff.”
Augie insisted I try on the boots. Dad gave me a look. I took off my filthy, smelly, ragged sneakers and slipped into the boots. A per-fect fit. I felt a shiver go up my spine as Augie beamed and my dad turned away, not wanting to see the expression on my face.
“Look at those boots, huh, Murray. I make ‘em for your son.”
“Beautiful boots, Augie. You’re a craftsman.”
“Your son, he’s my son, too, Murray. I do anything for him.”
Now I had the boots off, slipped back into my sneakers.
“Murray, the kid’s wearin’ them sneakers again! They got tape on ‘em. He won’t wear my boots. Why won’t he wear my boots?”
I started sneaking to the back of the store. Dad glowered at me. “You can wear those boots for a little while,” he said, miserable.
I went to the back of the store, tying the laces of my sneakers. Brand new laces secured on the shelves of the store. Holding the sneakers together, like binding. Meanwhile, Augie whined and harped on, crushed by having to see his unworn boots on the front table. I’d had enough. I had to put a stop to this sonofabitch, or there’s no telling how far he’d go. I found the big push broom and snuck up along the shelves. There was Augie, still carrying on, his baggy pants crumpling up at his ankles, hiding his skinny ass. I raced forward and shoved the end of the broom up that skinny ass as hard as I could and Augie shrieked and went straight up in the air, landing feet first on the table full of orders. He grabbed at his ass and shrieked again. He waved his arms, his enormous eyes circulating around like crazed orbs. He shrieked again, jumped off the table and secured the long window-opening pole and came after me with it. We blasted the wooden poles against each other, like two sword fighters in movies. My dad tried to get between us. Shoemakers spilled out into the street. I tossed down my broom and followed them in a dead sprint. My dad and Augie gave chase. Nobody could catch me. I was well down the street. Dad fired me for good that night, cutting his losses.
Augie came back in the fold. Nobody else but my dad would put up with him. Dad kept the boots in the garage. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He still wears raggedy tennis shoes. He can be reached at email@example.com.