A & J Liquor, on Vernon Avenue a few doors east of Wall Street in central Los Angeles, was where Mother purchased Father’s liquor. Ever on alert for business establishments that would hire her oldest son—me—to help boost the family income, Mother arranged with the storeowner that I work there after school and on weekends. I was 14 years old and in high school. The school day ended at 2:15 p.m., and I reported at 3 p.m. The pay was 70 cents an hour, and Mother’s usual finder’s fee prevailed: 100 percent of earnings. The year was 1944.
We lived in a duplex at 43rd and Wall, two blocks north, and the V streetcar that brought me home from school let me off across the street from my workplace. On many afternoons when I entered the store, particularly on hot days, customers were gathered around the soda pop cooler, which emitted gusts of cold air when someone opened it to reach in and pull out a bottle. It was light and sunny outside, and the shady store interior had a welcoming air about it. With nightfall, the atmosphere changed. Serious drinkers took over.
On the right side of the store just past the entrance were open shelves that held bottles of wine, a popular item. The most popular were the cheap wines Gallo made. Men who drank those wines to excess were known as “winos,” and we had more than a few of them as customers.
When the shelves out front needed replenishing, it was my job to dig out the needed case, open it, fill the shelves and rearrange the boxes. It was hard work. Otherwise, my customary post when there were customers in the store was in front of the refrigerator at the end of the counter, where I had an unobstructed view of the wine shelves and of anyone who entered. I was never explicitly told to watch for shoplifters, but I could deduce it was my job. My uniform of choice was a pair of Levis and a white T-shirt, and it was my custom to stand there with my arms crossed and my mouth shut.
The owners of A & J were the Silver brothers, Al and Joe. Al, the younger brother, a portly 50 years old or so, managed another store, and I saw him only rarely. My boss was Joe, a small man with slicked-back, dyed-black hair that was well on its way to surrendering to the advance of a receding hairline. He sported a pencil-thin mustache and wore a suit and tie to work, always taking the coat off to work in his shirtsleeves. Joe wore both a belt and suspenders, a sure sign of a man who takes no chances. His pants would not fall down.
It was the final years of World War II, and the good times rolled in Los Angeles, which had benefitted from the heavy war production. The drinking classes had a lot of money to spend. Top-quality liquor was in great demand, and Joe used that as leverage to rid himself of other stuff. If a customer wanted a case of Johnnie Walker scotch, he also had to buy two cases of peach schnapps or apricot brandy.
Joe worked hard at being friendly as he waited on people. As a customer surveyed the rows of bottles on the shelves behind the counter, Joe would tap the knuckles of his right hand on the countertop and pretend that he didn’t remember what kind of liquor the customer drank. For the moment, the buyer could play the role of a worldly if indecisive sophisticate. Joe feigned an air of easygoing and relaxed familiarity, aided by a steady stream of affable and meaningless chatter.
I worked with several other men, all of whom cycled out before I did. The best of those men, a recent arrival from Brooklyn, was Ruby Gordon, who was in his middle-30s. Ruby, an intelligent man with glasses he was forever propping up with his right forefinger, took on the role of my protector. He could laugh at himself, which by my lights is the essence of a sense of humor. Occasionally, Ruby’s wife would be in the store when Mother was there. Mother, who affectionately called Mrs. Gordon “Butterball” (Mrs. Gordon was indeed overweight, but only slightly), enjoyed talking with her.
Another of my co-workers was Saul, a tall man with an aristocratic look reminiscent of the pianist Arthur Rubinstein. He was an immigrant from Poland, and he spoke English with a heavy accent. Saul and I got along well, and he’d tell me he was astonished at how much I knew—including who Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker were. In light of what was happening in his homeland at that very time, Saul’s decision to emigrate from Poland to the United States was a wise one. But his good sense was undercut by an unmistakable air of arrogance, a trait that would cost him.
For a few months, a man named Al Singer worked at A & J. Al was a small man in his 40s, about 5-foot-5, but his muscular physique made him appear taller. He was from Philly (he never said Philadelphia), and he talked often about attending baseball games in Shibe Park, the home of that city’s Athletics. It was not the sport that drew him to the ballpark but the gambling.
Al had fought professionally as a bantamweight, and his face showed the effects. Scar tissue around his eyes kept them from opening completely, but what I glimpsed of them suggested a perpetual rage. Even when he smiled—he never laughed—there was an unsettling harshness about him. I was respectful when I spoke to any adult, but I was especially so with Al.
One conversation I had with him concerned a striptease artist who performed at the Follies Theatre on Main Street in downtown Los Angeles. Her photo appeared in our local newspaper ads. He mentioned off-handedly that he had a date with her later one night, and I reacted with amazement, impressed that he knew such a famous person on such intimate terms. Al didn’t see anything to brag about. “Shit,” was his only word in response.
I liked Al. He knew what he was and had no illusions about it. He was a gambler, a drinker, a whoremonger, and a brawler who knew the mean streets. But he was no phony. When he was in a good mood, he’d entertain us with exhibitions of shadowboxing. Red-faced and sniffing and puffing, he’d describe past fights.
The only one of us unwilling to treat Al with deference was Saul, who would mock him contemptuously. I began to doubt that my Polish colleague was as intelligent as I thought. One afternoon after school, I reported to work and saw neither Al nor Saul behind the counter, although both men were scheduled to work that day. The place appeared deserted. Then I heard a groan from behind the counter and ran over to find Saul, bruised and bleeding and struggling to rise. I helped him up. Al Singer was nowhere to be seen. We never saw him again.
Not long afterward Saul, too, left A & J.
Al had been an unusual acquaintance, but he wasn’t the only one to take an interest in boxing. On Friday nights, the store radio was tuned to the Friday night fights in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Gillette sponsored the broadcasts, and the announcer was Don Dunphy, who described the fights of the likes of Joe Louis, Billy Conn, Tony Galento, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, and Ray Robinson. I thrilled to Dunphy’s blow-by-blow descriptions. We listened on June 19, 1946, as Irishman Billy Conn, who had almost defeated Joe Louis for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world in 1941, met Louis one more time in Yankee Stadium, only to go down for the count in the eighth round.
One of our customers was Chalky Wright, a black man who had been one of the country’s best featherweight fighters. One evening Wright appraised me with his expert eye, asked me a few personal questions, and inquired if I would like to become a fighter. “If you do,” he offered, “I’ll train and manage you.” Ruby, who was always looking out for me, broke in to say, “Leave him alone.” I declined Wright’s offer. But I confess that I was and remain flattered. Decades later, incidentally, I learned that Wright had worked for Mae West as a chauffeur and bodyguard.
At A & J, I had little personal contact with customers. One unwelcome exception was a regular, a small, thin black man in his 20s who dressed in a modified zoot suit and wore a hat and tie. He would saunter into the store swaying exaggeratedly from side to side with a disaffected look on his face. When he’d see me standing in my spot he would say things like “Hey, daddy-o, you think you tough?” or “Big guy, huh?” One night he invited me to “step outside, if you think you so tough.” I declined his invitation. How could a man become so hostile toward a boy who wanted no trouble and represented no threat to him?
Some of our customers were semi-famous. Central Avenue, not far from us, was the center of black nightlife and attracted musicians like Louis Armstrong and Count Basie, and people of some standing in the black community traded at A & J. One was Ivie Anderson, who had been a singer for the Duke Ellington Orchestra until a few years earlier. For a while, every popular music lover knew her name and the songs she recorded with Ellington, like “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good).” We whispered her name whenever she appeared, for her best days were far behind her. It was a lesson for me about the nature of fame.
A & J provided delivery service—me, on foot. Deliveries were made only at night, and the area was far from safe. One occasional destination, several blocks away, across the street from Wrigley Field (where the Pacific Coast League’s Angels played baseball), was a white frame house of ill repute. I would ring the bell and enter a large living room, in which semi-modestly dressed women talked and drank with customers. I stayed only long enough to deliver the goods and always felt relieved when I made it back to the store safely. Why didn’t I protest being sent out in the middle of the night to walk dangerous streets? The answer is that the thought never occurred to me.
One afternoon, I reported to work and found two co-workers, both recently hired black men—one was a USC dental student and the other a local high school teacher—on the floor behind the counter. Two gunmen had entered, ordered the employees to turn around, and then hit them on the head, knocking them unconscious. Criminals no longer needed the cover of night. I should have quit then.
One Saturday night, three armed men robbed the store at gunpoint, pistol-whipping me before fleeing into the night. I have related this story—and how Ruby Gordon stepped in to look out for me, telling the robbers I didn’t have any money—in an earlier article for this publication, but I am struck by how often I replay the incident in my mind. I still wonder at my foolhardiness and recklessness in trying to save my $20 bill by withdrawing my wallet from my rear pocket and putting it into an empty slot in a liquor case. And this was after I’d been pistol-whipped and the gun had gone off, shattering bottles on the shelves and covering me in liquor, with three armed men 10 feet from me.
Until the last minute, I had felt no fear, but when it was over and the robbers had fled, I began to react emotionally. I felt humiliated and degraded and furious. When the police arrived, I was fantasizing about getting my gunman in a room alone with me—and without his gun. Normally, when the store closed, at midnight, I walked home. By this time, our family had moved to a storefront on 53rd Street, a mile away. That night, Joe gave me a ride. The only people I told about the holdup were my parents. They had no reaction. They had their own problems.
The following week, I asked Joe for a 15-cent-an-hour pay increase. “No,” he said. He decided instead to replace me with a black boy, in what I suspect was some misguided attempt to buy peace for himself in the neighborhood. Some weeks later, Joe appeared at our door asking me to return with a raise in pay. “No,” I said.
The following year I spent my afternoons at Manchester Playground playing on the Mt. Carmel High baseball team. Chasing after fly balls in the warm sunlight on large expanses of green grass with boys my own age was a considerably safer activity than associating with drunks, derelicts, psychotics, criminals, and ladies of the night.
I learned a great deal in my two years at A & J and left with few illusions about my fellow human beings. I didn’t enjoy living through those experiences, but today, for some reason, I greatly enjoy looking back and reliving them. I cannot say why. Perhaps it’s simply what an old man does.