"Look, Dad, balloons!" I said, holding one up to show him. It was a translucent white, and I started to blow it up. Before as I raised it to my lips, my father flew across the room to slap it away in one lightning-quick move.
"Go wash your hands," he said. "Use soap and water and wash good."
Mystified, I found the bathroom. There was no soap so I scrubbed with kitchen cleanser, then dried my hands with toilet paper. By the time I returned to the living room, Dad had emptied all the credenza drawers, including the one where I found what seemed to be dozens of wrinkled balloons, into the trash.
"I'll finish up here, you go in the kitchen," he said. "Throw the food away, but put anything that's metal in a box."
The elderly man whose apartment we were emptying had died suddenly a few days before; after his children removed the valuables, they hired my father to haul everything else away.
I was almost eleven, and worked with Dad every Saturday on the truck. Earlier that year he had lost his sheet-metal job. For a few years after the war he had built neon signs, bending huge sheets of galvanized steel into stylized shapes, then drilling and punching holes for mounting brackets and electrical connections. After recovering from double pneumonia, Dad gave up his side jobs delivering flowers and driving a taxi. But he couldn't make enough money at the factory, so on weekends and holidays he rented a wagon or truck and went around Chicago buying and selling junk.
I don't think Dad was quite ready to give up a steady paycheck, but after Mom returned from electroshock therapy she slept almost all the time; it was all that she could do to take care of Ila, the baby. So every morning Dad had to get me and my two school-age siblings off to school. Sometimes he was late to work.
After the sign factory fired him, Dad had asked Uncle Harold, Aunt Mollie's husband, to find him a swing-shift job where he could get some overtime. Harold was a union official; he told Dad that even for a brother-in-law that kind of help would cost a month's wages. Harold, who liked the horses and knew his way around a bottle, said he'd loan Dad the money, but he wanted interest. Ten percent a month.
Dad didn't much like Uncle Harold, whom he called a drunk to his face, so he decided that if he had to borrow a lot of money he might as well buy an old truck and go into the junk business full time. Starting out, he took anything that would bring a little money. When we cleaned out dead people's rooms, most things went to the dump, but usually we found items that could be sold to junkyards or second-hand stores — clothes, household items and small pieces of furniture.
Dad handed me a box heavy with dishes. "Put this on the side," he said. "Hide it under the tarpaulin." As always, he pronounced it, "tar pole eey-un." Dad read two newspapers a day and was far from ignorant, but he dropped out of high school and much of his vocabulary were words that he’d never heard spoken.
When the truck was full, Dad found an old broom and I held a piece of cardboard that substituted for a dust pan. Squatting on the floor I saw something shiny in the back of the hole left by a credenza drawer. I stuck my arm in and came out with a handful of foil squares. Before Dad could object, I tore one open.
"I've never seen balloons like these," I said.
"Those are called condominiums," said my father. "When you're old enough, I'll explain how they're used."
That day never came. Within a few days I had asked an older schoolmate about "condominiums," and after he stopped giggling, he enlightened me on the correct pronunciation as well as the product's purpose. He was fascinated with my account of how I had stumbled on a cache of expended units, and especially curious about the fact that they had belonged to one so ancient.
All this came flooding back into memory fifty years later. After spending an out-of-town night on a friend's living room couch, I awoke in a strange position, with something pressing on a tender spot in my chest. Cautiously exploring this with my fingers, my unease grew as I felt a large, irregular lump where none should be. It was three days before I could see my doctor, and in that time I decided that the lump was a giant tumor. I expected to go directly from my physician's office for X-rays and CAT scans, and thence to surgery.
Unless it was too late.
Surely, I thought, something that big had metastasized. Probably I had only a few weeks to live.
There was much to do. All the things I had put off, always meaning to get around to, now loomed in my thoughts. I began to put my affairs in order, starting with an update of my will. I had creditors to pay. To spare my daughter, I arranged for a burial plot and a funeral service. And then, suddenly, I recalled the spooky coolness I had felt exploring dead men's rooms, leafing through closets and private papers, tossing drawers full of worn clothes into paper bags, meanwhile wondering what sort of person had worn them. It was curious merely visiting a place where a real person had so recently lived. I remembered what I had found in the credenza, and how I shared the story with my friends, and began to worry not about dying but what would happen afterward. What would my daughter find in my rooms? What secrets would she uncover among my papers? How would the things that she found among my belongings change the way in which she would regard me thereafter?
No wonder, I thought, that dead men's families hired strangers to empty the deceased's apartment.
At the doctor's office I took my physician's fingers and placed it on the tumor. I started to say, "Give it to me straight, Doc," but he laughed and showed me a medical book illustration, pointing out the triangular piece of cartilage protecting the sternum. Everyone has one of those, he explained. I would certainly die, he said, but unless I got hit by a truck, probably no time soon.
I returned home feeling that life was wonderful. Tomorrow, I decided, I would clean out my credenza.
Copyright 2002 © Marvin J. Wolf
Dad twisted the valve and the torch hissed acetylene. He clicked the sparker, and orange fire blossomed in the wind. Pulling down dark goggles, he adjusted the oxygen, then the fuel, lit a Winston off the side of the blue flame, and bent to his task: cutting huge steel bulldozer tracks into sections small enough for me, Ted and Matthew, my brothers, to wrestle onto the lift gate.
Our truck sat on a river of earth 20 feet high and hundreds wide, stretching miles north through the Valley toward the sere heights above Sylmar. Ahead of us, open-topped semis dumped dirt for a fleet of bulldozers to push around. Enormous yellow trucks towed ponderous rollers, tamping, compacting. Behind us, dozers spread gravel, carpenters hammered together forms, a parade of cement trucks filled them with gray slush.
They were building the San Diego freeway.
For reasons I never understood, when the rubber cloaking the steel treads wore out, it was cheaper to replace them than to send them to Caterpillar's factory for reworking. In the late Fifties, freeways were a growth industry, and when Dad could find a foreman to sell him worn-out tracks for beer money, we went to work.
Sparks flying, molten metal snapping, his flame melted the steel links between treads while we dragged, pushed and rolled still-smoking sections onto the gate. Ted operated the lift while I, who had a driver's license, cranked the starter. When the gate stopped, I popped the clutch, the Dodge spurted ahead, I hit the brake, and the steel slid or tumbled forward. Then I backed up and we did it again until the slat springs beneath the battered stake body were bent nearly flat. If there was more to cut, Dad stayed while I drove the load to Terminal Island, seven or eight tons on a ton-and-a-half. God help me if I had to stop suddenly because the brakes were never intended to restrain that much weight.
At the waterfront, a Volkswagen-sized magnet sucked steel off the scarred boards, swung it sideways to drop into the hold of a Japanese freighter.
Long before people spoke of recycling, my father the junkman bought almost anything that could be melted, smelted, shredded, compressed or otherwise turned into a buck. He began when we lived in Chicago, patrolling tenement-district alleys behind a tired nag dragging a battered wagon. "Rags! Old iron!" he cried. "My wagon's broken! My horse is croakin'!" Husewives and janitors brought bundles of rags and newspapers, beat-up pots and pans, broken appliances, patinaed plumbing. Dad replied to everyone in what sounded to a child's ear like the same language he was spoken to--Russian, Polish, German, Armenian, Spanish, Italian. Growing up, however, I slowly discerned that he actually knew only English and Yiddish; his gift was mimicking accents. By my teens it made me cringe.
We moved to Los Angeles in 1957, and for a time Dad tried to make a living at his trade, sheet metal. But as soon as he scraped together enough for a down payment on the venerable Dodge, he went back to junk. I worked with him on Saturdays and school vacations, looking for things discarded, used up, worn out, left over, broken. He followed electricians and telephone crews to the housing tracts sprouting beside the new freeways and bought color-coded communications spaghetti and short lengths of house wiring. He battered old coal furnaces into heaps of iron and ash with a sledge hammer, and carted cast iron window sash weights from demolished homes.He sniffed out back-alley machine shops and out-of-the-way factories to buy barrels stuffed with the shredded aluminum, brass, bronze, or stainless-steel turned by lathes and metal-boring machines. He cultivated hospital janitors and bought threadbare sheets and battered plumbing. He found auto-repair shops and schmoozed men with grease-stained hands into parting with strips of wrinkled chrome, crumpled fenders, dead lead batteries, chipped gears, worn-out generators. He bought buckets of blackened motors and switches from electricians, and cajoled or bribed purchasing agents into telling him how much to bid at closed auctions for aerospace effluvia: rejected circuit boards with gold-plated connectors; obsolete prototypes and models, bars, rolls, plates and sheets of exotic alloys, exhausted machinery, outmoded fixtures.
Increasingly deaf, he refused a hearing aid, ignoring unwanted answers, repeating his offers until people said yes. "Yes," he always heard.
Dad dropped out of high school during the Depression, but he taught himself cookbook metallurgy; he could identify most metals by scratching or tasting or smelling them, by watching what a drop of acid did to them. He knew the uses of many alloys, and when to suspect that a plate might be of nickel, a shaft of bronze, a pipe of zinc, a panel of some little-known stainless steel.
My father often said that making a living from junk meant buying right. "Any fool can get a newspaper and see what number-one steel sells for at Wilmington," he'd say. "You have to know what you buy, and then how to buy it."
Dad never weighed a purchase if he could avoid it. He was not quite five-foot seven, and never weighed over 150, but he'd lever a 55-gallon drum brimming with scrap over his knees to lift it off a factory floor. Face purple, veins popping from his neck, he'd gasp, "Two hundred and sixty, maybe 270. Call it 300," he'd offer, magnanimous, and pay for that amount. At the yard where he sold his gatherings, the scale would groan and settle at 530, 540.
If a customer insisted on a weighing, Dad unloaded an old balance beam scale and wrestled each barrel aboard. Handling the iron weights, he'd secretly slip a small magnet beneath the bottom; when the scale read 100, the barrel held 120. When he bought his first new truck, he concealed a pair of 80-gallon water tanks beneath the bed. Water goes eight pounds a gallon; filling tanks before loading his truck, and emptying them before stopping at a public scale, he made off with well over half a ton per load. He knew no algebra, but multiplied eight-digit sums in his head faster than most people could crank the adding machines of the day. He did the longhand on a scrap of envelope under the seller's nose, and made a math mistake most every time. I never saw anyone catch him, and when I questioned him he just grinned. "If they see it, I apologize, and I screw them double next time," he said.
I came to resent this. He lectured me on right from wrong, sent me to Sunday school to learn moral values, and beat my backside for lying to him or Mom--but bragged at taking bronze for the price of brass, at stealing half the weight, at buying a load out the back door from someone who shouldn't have sold it. There came a day when I called him on it, and though he grew angry, he never raised his voice."In business, only the gonif feeds his family," he replied. "If I don't screw them, they'll screw me. When you have your own little bellies to fill, when the landlord comes to put you in the street, you'll understand."
Dad's greatest disappointment was that none of his six children--and especially me--had joined him in business. Near the end of his life, broke and trapped in a nursing home, he fantasized about returning to the streets, buying scrap, making a buck, regaining his independence.
After he died, struggling to make sense of his junkman's life, I thought back to the heart attack he'd suffered years before. Medical expenses took every cent that he'd saved, so I put up money and became his silent partner. I soon discovered that sellers concealed worthless steel under valuable aluminum, yardmasters unloaded his truck, then found pretexts to shave prices, smelters reneged on deals after melting his scrap, competitors slandered him shamelessly to steal customers. Finally I understood Dad's ethos: When everyone was a thief, joining the fraternity was his only option. I saw, too, that in salvaging the ordinary and the exotic, he'd helped turn them into new and different objects that were again valued. To this day, I cannot see a new car without wondering if it might contain a few molecules from one of those dozer tracks that he cut up.
And I see now that my writer's work is much the same: I support myself finding value in ideas cast off by others: ephemeral words and fleeting thoughts. Recycled and reworked into my own observations, they become components of articles or books, amusing or enlightening many more than the few who first heard or saw them. I am the junkman's son, and in a curious way I have, after all, followed in his footsteps.
Copyright © 1999 by Marvin J. Wolf
The war had been over for months, yet rationing continued: Millions of Americans were still in uniform, and many millions more roamed hungry through Europe and Asia. And so we all had to make an effort to save meat for those who needed it more than we did. All this Mom explained as she carefully trimmed fat from the stew meat that she’d bought at the butcher shop a few doors down Taylor Street at the corner of Ashland Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. She saved the trimmings in a coffee tin, and when she bought more meat, exchanged it with the butcher for its weight in ration coupons.
"What happens to the fat?" I asked one day, and she explained how the butcher sent it to a factory to be melted and turned into candles, soap, and other useful products.
A few weeks later, about the time I usually had my nap, Mom asked me to come into the kitchen.
She had emptied the scraps from the coffee can into a sheet of newspaper and was wrapping it. Cinching the bundle with string, she told me that we’d saved at least a pound, and I was to bring it back to the butcher shop.
"Watch the scale while Mr. Kravetz weighs it. Then give him these," she added, pressing green and brown coupons into my hand. I thumbed their serrated edges, enjoying their reassuring tickle until Mom put them in my pocket.
"Read this list to Mr. Kravetz one item at a time," continued my mother. "Wait until he wraps each item, then read him the next."
It would be another year before I started kindergarten, but Freyda, my seven-year-old sister, was in the second grade. When she returned from school every afternoon, Mom gave us peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches in the kitchen. Then we went into the dining room and sat at a long wooden table, where Mom spread Freyda’s schoolbooks across the lace tablecloth, the only thing that her own mother had left her. As Mom went over Freyda’s lessons in reading, penmanship and arithmetic, she explained things to me. Freyda’s penmanship was far better than mine, but I read nearly as well as she did.
Mom’s list was short: A chicken, two pounds of ground chuck, a pot roast. I read it aloud twice; then Mom explained what I was to say to the butcher. I repeated it twice before she shooed me down the long flight of stairs.
It was my first shopping trip alone, and at the glass door to Kravetz Kosher Meats I paused — not frightened, exactly, but wanting to please Mom by doing well — then turned to look up at Mom in the open bedroom window where she held the baby in her arms. She waved, encouragingly, and I waved back.
I felt proud and happy to be helping, and glad to be home with my new brother. Ted was born a month before the war ended, about a week before my fourth birthday, while Dad was off working at Great Lakes Naval Station. With his thick glasses and impaired hearing, Dad had thrice been drafted and each time judged unfit for military service. But he knew how to work with sheet metal, and so landed two jobs at Great Lakes. By day he taught young seamen how to use acetylene welding torches, then worked the night shift building some of the flat-bottomed landing craft that would deliver our troops onto enemy-held beaches and help win the war.
But Mom had a difficult pregnancy, and the schizophrenia and depression that would warp her life, and our family, had begun to surface, though a diagnosis was still many years off. In the seventh month of her pregnancy, she refused to leave her bedroom. With Dad working double shifts and returning home to Chicago only on Saturday nights, then catching the early Monday train back, there was no one to care for Freyda and me.
My parents were orphans, but between them they had thirteen siblings. Except for Uncle Bill, who was in the Air Corps, all lived nearby. Nevertheless, for reasons still I still don’t understand, Freyda and I were placed in a county orphanage.
It was near the stock yards, and when the wind blew, a fetid miasma of blood and manure descended on this Egypt like some unspeakable Biblical plague. We were probably the only children in the institution with two parents, a fact of which we were reminded almost daily. If Freyda complained about the food, or cried when a bigger kid broke her doll or brazenly swiped her candy, the matron told her to shut up and be grateful for having both a mother and a father, for having a home that we would soon return to. I was punched in the face trying to protect Freyda's Fourth of July sparkler from a bigger girl. As she wiped blood from my nose, a nurse delivered the inevitable lecture about how lucky my and sister and I were.
This was bearable only because Dad visited every Sunday. We counted the days until his next visit, and after his hugs and kisses reeled off our respective lists of the previous week’s indignities, which earned us more hugs and kisses.
The weeks turned into months and I began to worry that Mom might forget me. Then in the middle of the week, Dad appeared to take us home. Mom was again her usual, cheerful self, and I met my month-old brother. That afternoon we all went to Lincoln Park, where Dad rented a boat and rowed us around a pond.
"Why ain't you working?" I asked, and Dad explained that the war was over: It was V-J Day.
And soon, so were Dad's jobs. He went looking, but wartime government contracts had been cancelled. Civilian hiring preference went to veterans. Our savings vanished into rent, food, clothes, diapers and doctor bills. The day before I was sent to the butcher, Dad finally landed a new job. Mom announced that we would celebrate with a roast.
I stood on the sawdust floor, enjoying the coolness, until the thickset, balding man said, "What can I get you today, boychik?" On tiptoe I handed up first the bundle of scraps and then the coupons. The butcher weighed the fat carefully. "Almost a pound, close enough," he said.
I backed away from the counter until I could see his face, then consulted the list. "One chicken," I read. "A nice big one," I adlibbed.
"Roaster or fryer?"
I had no idea what he meant.
"Does your mother cut the chicken up and fry it in a pan?" he asked.
"She cooks it inside the stove."
"A roaster then. What else?"
"Two pounds of ground chuck."
"Is that everything?"
"A pot roast."
The butcher shuffled around, grinding the beef, then wrapping it, the roast and the chicken. I took the packages from the counter, then turned to go.
"Not so fast," said Mr. Kravetz, smiling. "You haven't paid."
"Mom said to say, 'Please put this on my mother's account,'" I recited.
The smile faded. Wiping his hands on his apron, Kravetz came around to take the packages. "Wait just a moment," he said, setting the meat on a chopping table behind the counter. Then he took a telephone book from a drawer, peered at it, dialed a number.
"Mrs. Wolf? This is Kravetz Meats," he said. "I've got your boy down here with a shopping list, but he didn't bring any money."
The butcher listened for a while. When he replied, he raised his voice.
"Mrs. Wolf! You know very well that you don't have credit here any more! And please, don't send your child to beg!"
It took a long while to climb the stairs to our apartment. I was empty-handed. I had failed to do as I had been told: I had added words, read the whole list at once, and worst of all, forgot to tell Mr. Kravetz to put the meat on my mother's bill until after he asked for payment. No wonder he was angry. Mom would be mad, too.
But all she said was, "Time for your nap." It was too early, I fretted, and she swatted my bottom and put me to bed until Freyda returned from school. At supper, Dad praised the tuna casserole, and took seconds.
But I lay awake long into the night, hoping that Mom wouldn't send me back to the orphanage.
Copyright © 2008 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.