by R. Passov

There was a big earthquake in the San Fernando Valley in 1971. Overpasses fell in the north end. People died. My junior high school was closed for two weeks.

I was in the 7th grade and had just begun to hang around a boy named Mark. During recess or lunch, we’d walk to the back of a field of grass and smoke cigarettes. Sometimes, if she were in school, we’d stand next to Mark’s older sister, Sharon.  

A few days after school was closed, Mark said that I should join him selling candy for Dave Katz. Dave was college-age at the time. He lived in the garage of his parents house and earned his living rounding up boys and taking them all over Los Angeles to sell candy. We were told to say we were trying to earn enough money to go to a boys camp and could you help us out by buying a box of candy. Dave got the candy from a local supermarket.

For most of the two weeks that we were out of school, Dave would pick me up at around 7:00 AM. By the time he got to my apartment, his 1971 Dodge Charger was full. I’d force my way into the back and sit on laps. Our first stop was breakfast. As many as nine would get out of the two door Charger which had bucket seats in front.

We’d eat as if we were just out of juvenile hall. Sometimes, we’d pay the bill by each leaving our share in our water glass. We’d put a place mat over the glass, turn it upside down, rest it on the table, then slide the place mat away. Other times, we’d simply get up in mass and rush the door.

John Kemp usually did the best. He could sell 100 boxes of candy on a good day, 80 on a bad day. He was missing half of his thumb and somehow that was part of his pitch. The Enrique brothers also did well. They looked liked boys from a toothpaste commercial and knew how to take advantage of first impressions. Victor Breedlove had a dark air about him. I could never figure out why he sold so well. A few years later he would die in a train accident.

Dave would drop us off on a street corner, usually check in at lunch time then track us down at the end of the day. He kept a meticulous inventory; we paid retail for whatever we ate. I enjoyed walking the city. I got a reputation for not selling but Dave took a liking to me.

Most of the boys were thieves. If they found themselves in an office around lunch hour they’d rifle through whatever they could. Sometimes Dave would have to pick a boy up on the run. He got angry when someone stole, it would ruin the route for weeks or longer. Usually, he’d wait until we were on the freeway before swinging away at whoever needed the reminder. Then he’d take his share.

One day I was left in Inglewood, near the LA airport. The area seemed barren of prospects, offering mostly stucco offices and apartments. I wandered around, stopping in small shops, pet stores and dental offices. I was walking through a long stretch of apartments, trying to get to the next row of stores and offices when a tall boy approached.  

“What are you doing?” the tall boy asked.

I gave him the pitch about selling candy to work my way through boy’s camp.

He took an interest and asked me to follow him into the apartments. At first I hesitated but he had a gentleness about him that was convincing. We went to an apartment where an elderly lady lived. He gave her my pitch. She got her purse, fumbled around for two dollars and bought a box.

We went to other apartments where people who looked like they didn’t get out much bought more boxes. Then we left the apartment building and walked a few blocks, all the while the tall boy asking me questions:  

“Where you from?”

“Van Nuys.”

“How’d you get here?”

“There’s a guy in our neighborhood who picks us up,” I said.

“Where’s the camp?” he asked.

“Don’t know,” I said. “Never been.”

At some point we turned into an alley that ended in a bar. He walked toward the front door without breaking stride. I held back but he told me it was ok, they were his friends.

Inside were more older people, sitting at stools around a horseshoe bar. Most were smoking. The tall boy introduced me to the person closest to the door. He was nice enough and smiled but said he had to pass. I looked up as we walked along the bar. On the far wall was a giant picture of a man lying on his side, fully naked, holding his head up with one hand and covering his privates with the other. He had a lot of hair on his body.  

When I turned away from the picture, I noticed that some of the men were smiling at me. I told the tall boy that I had to get back to my meet my boss. He said ok. I sold out that that day – the one and only time. I thought of trying to explain why I did so well but didn’t know what to say. Every time we worked near Inglewood I got the same route. 

On my own in the streets of greater Los Angeles was farther away than I had ever imagined. I enjoyed the boys and their cruel teasing. Dave was clever and fought hard to keep us in line. He’d hit us if he felt the need. We trusted that no matter what he wouldn’t leave us. He was always unshaved and angry like and old man but we knew he was young.  

At some point, at the end of a day selling, Dave began dropping me off last. He said it was because my apartment was closest to his house. One day, as I was getting out of the car he said, “You’re a little different. Maybe you’ll be a lawyer.”

On some days, I could sell as few as three or four candies. But Dave kept me on, picking me up and taking me to the farthest reaches of my imagination.