A Living From Junk
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
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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. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.