Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My first real job



When the President spoke about the Treyvan Martin case and stated that he personally had the experience of people locking their car doors as he walked by, I, along with millions of others, cringed.

My first job out of college was in Los Angeles, working for Interstate Restaurant Supply. I answered an ad in the paper for a food technologist. The company manufactured liquid products like salad dressings and beverage bases in the "wet plant"; pancake mixes, beverages mixes and cakes mixes were made in the "dry" plant. The manufacturing facilities were located at 901 E. 31st Street in Los Angeles. Every day I started in the morning in the wet plant doing quality control: pH, total acidity, microbiology and sensory evaluation of every batch made. In the lab, I weighed on my sensitive analytical balance, critical ingredients for the formulas such as color and preservatives . In the afternoons in the dry plant, I sampled each batch for pH and for performance which meant daily, I made tons of pancakes or baked lots of cakes, checked the package fill weights on the lines, checked the in-coming raw materials and batch codes and paperwork and kept records. Every night I came home and immediately stepped into the shower, where rivulets of color would run down out of my hair turning the water into a rainbow as it washed down the drain. I'd scrub my skin until it was red, trying to eradicate the pervasive smell of blue cheese dressing oozing out of my pores. To this day, I can't stand the stuff. Or any really stinky cheese.

It was deadly boring work. Quality control is like that. You go on day after day after day sampling, measuring, recording, sometimes for years  - until something goes wrong. When it goes wrong, all hell breaks loose! It's a full blown emergency and you're at the center of the hurricane. You stay calm, fix whatever went wrong (hopefully nobody was harmed), put in a new check-point to cover it and back you go to the deadly routine: sampling, measuring, recording. Perversely, you reach the point sometimes where you almost hope something will go wrong to jolt your brain back into operation.

I learned a lot on that first job. The horrible daily commute on the Santa Ana freeway from Anaheim to L.A. -  the stress of trying to be on time despite the ever possible accident- related grid lock; the grinding boredom of going to the same place every day to face the same repetitive tasks. I knew quickly this work wasn't for me but I loved getting paid! Taking that paycheck to the bank every Friday partially alleviated the suffering. After the bank deposit, we'd head to the bowling alley where we'd settle into a red vinyl booth and drink a G and T or a gimlet - this was before everybody drank wine. The Friday night special was usually fried abalone - pounded, flour dusted and pan fried served with a baked potato and a salad. As I recall, the price was something like 5.99. Ah, that abalone accompanied by the Big Lebowski-esque sound of balls rolling down the alleys and the harsh strike when pins scattered. The high point of the week! We thought we were really living it up. In case you wonder, we never bowled.

Back to why I cringed at the Presidents remarks.

I immigrated from an all-white community in Canada directly out of college to black South Central LA in one fell swoop. I was very naive and had only one black school mate whose father was a pro football player on our local football team. They were well off and she was beautiful and popular. The only other black people I knew were Trinidadians who came to the University of Manitoba because it was cheap and in the Commonwealth. They were well educated, usually beautifully mannered (in the British way) and popular as hell because they had great parties where there was plenty of rum and the limbo!! All the girls wanted to date them.

In the manufacturing plants I worked with blacks from the south. I couldn't believe that many of those people had graduated from high school but could barely read and were functionally illiterate. Most of them were very skilled at hiding their deficiencies and I soon learned to play along with them and pretend they could read. Some couldn't read the formula cards at all but had everything committed to memory. If there was a change I learned to take the new formulas out and read them aloud slowly and deliberately. I would read them two or three times on some pretense or another. Most of these people were quite smart, smart enough to almost hide their illiteracy and it was sickening to think they'd had such a poor education. They'd obviously been shoved through school learning little.

The whole culture was a big shock to me. Every day a bookie came around and took bets - none of these people could afford to gamble but almost everybody did. Me included, as I was never able to pass up a horse race. A young girl (I'd guess about thirteen years old) used to come to the back dock at lunchtime and offer sexual services to the plant workers in exchange for money which she took promptly over to the local grocery store to buy glue. Glue sniffing was the drug du jour at the time. Everybody just accepted all of this as a normal part of the work day. Furious when I found out, I marched over to the grocery store and gave the owner a piece of my mind. A piece of my mind at this point in time was worth nothing, of course. He told me if I knew what was good for me, I'd mind my own business and keep everybody out of trouble including myself. I was no whistle blower and easily intimidated. I liked my fellow workers and even though the whole scene was repugnant to me I put my head down and kept my nose in my microscope.

There were a few black women working in the plant but they too suggested strongly that some rocks were better left unturned. The few women and the men did not fraternize at all....in fact, the women stayed as far as possible from the men only interacting at the bare minimum for getting the job done. I remember them as quiet and efficient...no smokin' and jokin' like the boys.

Not only was the environment morally discouraging, it was dangerous. Once a week the janitor would go up onto the roof of the building and collect all the purses, handbags and wallets that accumulated up there. Purse snatchers and robbers in the neighborhood grabbed them from people in various parking lots, pulled out the money and tossed the purses on top of buildings. All they wanted was the money.
Every once in a while, if it was convenient, someone would escort me on my daily walk between plants. I never asked to be escorted even though it was a high risk stroll; in those days you never wanted to draw attention to the fact that you were a member of the "weaker" sex.

Sometimes I felt like I'd landed on another planet. I didn't fit in with anyone - I was much younger than anyone in the plants, most of them were black, most of them were men, all of them were American.

Often, I'd find that Ernie, the lead man in the dry plant, hadn't shown up for work. "Where's Ernie?", I'd ask. "Picked up by the police in a sweep" someone would reply as if it was an everyday occurrence. Later in the day or the next day, Ernie would show up, bleary eyed from the latest ordeal, but he'd pick up where he left off. He was a sweet guy with a family he loved, a straight shooter who did his job well and whom we could rely on to be accurate and honest. He was tall and big; if you ran into him in a dark alley, he could be frightening. He never complained about the constant harassment. It was the first time I really realized what being black meant in the U.S. and how difficult life could be.

One year and one month after I started the job, the Watts riots erupted. A horrible time. I stayed home from work for a couple of days terrified.  I rode the bus every day to work with a bunch of regulars, all black, who'd over the months become my friends. They called me when I wasn't on the bus, to find out if I was OK.  My brother-in-law was doing his residency at LA County Hospital and worked for 48 hours straight, as did the whole hospital staff, providing emergency care. I'll never forget the sight of the National Guard and tanks marching down Central Avenue. The little world I had just started getting used to was turned upside down. We all thought about throwing in the towel and moving back to Canada. Reluctantly I went back to work. It was like re-entering a war zone and everything settled down although it was never the same. I felt even more like an alien and at that point would probably lock the car doors if a black man walked by.

In time, I was rescued by the sales team. When they had problems with products out in restaurants, they asked me to go along and work with the customers. Previously the plant managers, two gruff guys with marginal people skills, went along and frequently made the situation worse. I loved that role and kept a nice clean lab coat on hand to wear on the field trips. If it was hot, once in a while a streak of blueish sweat might run down my brow and threaten my credibility. What joy it was to escape the dismal plants for a day! Another improvement came along: because the quality assurance tasks didn't require all my time, they began giving me new product projects - changing flavors in products, re-formulating to reduce costs, creating line extensions.  I finally found some part of the job I liked and it was a great opportunity to accumulate skills I could use to get a better job and get the heck out of there. Soon I was doing the trade shows - more time out of the lab, more learning: how to organize a booth, how to get people to stop, how to get them to tell you what they were looking for and how to make them remember your brand, product - just regular business know-how.

After about 18 months, one of the people I worked with became VP of Marketing at Van de Kamp's Bakeries in Glendale and asked me to go along in a new product development capacity. I jumped at the chance. Bye bye east 31st Street.



1 comment:

  1. Wonderful story. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete