I arrived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco at the tail end of the “Summer of Love.” It was either late August or very early September. Things were already starting to fall apart before I got up there, but it took weeks before I was able to recognize what was happening.
I had traveled from Los Angeles by thumb, where I had just given up a lucrative business my father had purchased for me at the very end of 1966. Fearing my life was going nowhere (which it kinda was) he took the opportunity to buy a small snack shop from a friend who was going into another business. The place was called DEBS, which was an acronym of the previous owners family’s names. We kept it . . . the name that is.
Situated directly across the street from the May Company, between 8th and 9th Streets on S. Hill Street, I was making big bucks for a snot-nosed teenager. I didn’t realize just how lucky I was at the time which, I suppose, is the very definition of privilege. I just did a time/value calculation and discovered I was making the equivalent of close to a quarter of a million dollars a year back then. Yikes! That doesn’t seem possible or even reasonable, but I’m pretty sure it’s true.
Unfortunately, I was only 19 years old at the time, fresh out of High School the previous year and recently honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy after a total of one month and twenty-three days of service. I’m surely one of a few people in the country who has served, received the National Defense Service Medal, and also a medical discharge while I was still in boot camp. Since I was in for such a short time, I am not eligible for veteran’s benefits, nor have I ever sought to receive them . . . but that’s another story I’ll get to later.
DEBS Snack Shop was open six days a week, twelve hours a day on weekdays, and ten hours on Saturday. I had to be there for every one of those hours and, since I lived in the North end of the San Fernando Valley, the commute took at least an hour and a half, round-trip, every weekday. Saturdays were a little quicker. So I was putting in about 70 hours per week, not including time getting ready to head out the door.
Not only were the hours long, I had to deal with my father coming by every day and pointing out everything I had done “wrong,” i.e. not how he would do it. Not that I didn’t screw up; 19-year-old boys aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, no matter how high their IQ. But my old man was not the kind to hand out compliments or praise. Nope. He was a genius at pointing out shortcoming, though.
I remember one weekend I finally had a date with a young woman I had met somewhere. Much of the detail is lost in the mists of time, including who she was and where we met, and the relationship didn’t last long at all. We went out to dinner and were going to go to a movie afterward. Unfortunately, if memory serves, I actually fell asleep at dinner, I was so tired. I don’t think we made it to the movie, and I’m not sure I ever saw her again.
That particular debacle was one of many compelling reasons I asked my father to sell the place after only seven months. I was young and restless, and I had no social life. I had also started smoking pot the previous year and was beginning to experiment with acid (LSD.) I needed to spread my wings and I didn’t see that ever happening as long as I was tied to a demanding business and an overbearing father. But I digress.
What I was thinking of when I decided to write this post was the agricultural workers here in my native County of Ventura. Some of the laborers post videos to a local Facebook group and seeing them brings me back to my two encounters with working in the fields, one of which took place while I was living up in the Haight.
When I was working in the snack shop, I frequently had to go and purchase produce, generally a few blocks away at the Grand Central Market. One of the items I had to buy was tomatoes. I would get them by the “lug,” each of which weighed approximately 30 pounds.
On many a day in the Haight, people would just sit around in front of the stores on Haight Street, sometimes standing to perform for the tourist buses that would pass by. They expected no less from a bunch of “Hippies,” and we were often content to give it to them. One day, a man came by and asked if anyone was interested in picking tomatoes. He said it paid a certain amount (I have no idea what it was) per “lug.” I accepted.
The following day, early in the morning, I boarded a bus with a group of fellow “hippies” and we were taken to a field right next to a mental hospital. We were set loose in the fields to pick tomatoes and it was then I discovered their definition of a “lug” was considerably larger than what I had grown used to purchasing for the snack shop’s use. At least twice as big! I had just turned 20 in June, a couple months prior to selling the business. I was in good shape, yet picking tomatoes, which requires bending over continuously, was physically demanding and, based on how many tomatoes had to be gathered to complete a “lug,” I soon came to the conclusion this was NOT how I wished to make money in the future.
I don’t think I spent more than a couple of hours in the field, but I’ve never forgotten how difficult and back-breaking the work was. It has given me a sense of deep respect for the people who spend their lives working in the fields. It is extraordinarily difficult (and sometimes dangerous) work, for which I’m sure they are not paid enough.
I did mention, above, there were two times I had worked in the field. The second one was in 1973, when I spent two months in Cuba as a member of the 6th contingent of the Venceremos Brigade. During that time I worked primarily in construction, making concrete slabs and pillars used to construct small, single-family dwellings. However, on one occasion we spent a day in the fields cutting sugar cane. In addition to the work being back-breaking, the fields were torched prior to our work in order to burn off some of the vegetation on the canes. It meant we were covered in burnt sugar cane juice by the end of the day.
I had purchased a pair of brown Red Wing boots for the trip. After one day in the fields, they were mostly black from that burnt juice. It never came off.
Those two, admittedly short stints in the field gave me an appreciation for anyone who works in agriculture – especially those who bend over and pick and pack our food for distribution. I’ve done a lot of other things in my life that were difficult, some equally so, but none more difficult than picking tomatoes or cutting sugar cane. I have nothing but respect for someone who makes their living doing such work. It’s why I have long supported the United Farm Workers and all who struggle to be treated with dignity and respect.