Can you point to a time and place that profoundly impacted your life, that you can say with certainty either made, or played, a role in making you the person you are today? I can. It’s this building and sidewalk at the corner of Harrison and Elm streets in Taft, California, the town about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles I spent my teen years in after leaving New York City. In 1976, I was 17 and my mom and stepfather were doing whatever they could to make their fractured marriage work. Complicating matters was the abject poverty we were living in, my dad earning little more than $250 per week and trying to support a family of nine on it. So they took a gamble. My dad quit his job and decided to make a go of it, as a machinist , on his own. He would do the physical work and mom, who had gone to Taft College and earned an AA in business, would handle the finances. They rented out this building from a rather unsavory landlord whose greed and unreasonable demands for payoffs in exchange for promising to provide customers made success a long shot. Work would trickle in and the wait for payment would seem eternal. Every morning, my dad would stand out front, on that corner, waiting for the mailman. Waiting for a check. Any kind of check. My mom would call, every day, with just one question: “Did any checks come?”
I worked for them doing sandblasting, using a high-pressure air hose to clear caked on oil and debris from the natural gas compressor valves that my dad would recondition. And I would watch the daily ritual, my dad standing out front, on cold and foggy mornings, wearing his oil-stained, navy blue sweatshirt and worn jeans, his hands that were permanently the color of oil, tucked into his front pockets. Staring at the ground, shuffling from side to side, waiting for the mailman. I would work the sandblaster bundled like we were in the arctic, as we could not afford to run the large, drafty building’s heater. It is that image, of my father standing in front of that shop, days on end, waiting for the mail, that’s seared into my memory.
And then came the time for me to go to college. I did my two years at Taft College, and had applied to Cal State University Northridge. I wanted to be a journalist, and remember the thrill of being accepted. But how could I possibly go? I especially loved the chocolate chip cookies they sold in the cafeteria when I was at Taft High School. They cost a dime, and my mom would cry because she could often not find 10 cents so that I could buy a cookie. (I never saw her cry. She told me this in later years.) There was no way they could send me off to college. But somehow, some way, they decided they would try. Nobody in the history of my family had graduated from a four-year college. I would be the first. I wanted it and more importantly, my mom wanted it. So we made a deal: I would go off to Cal State Northridge with the understanding that it was a month-to-month situation, and if they called me home, I would have to come home. No questions. I went, and as I studied with a sense of purpose, knowing that every class session might be my last, their business gradually picked up. And they were able to keep me in school. While I was at school, they moved out of that building and away from the horrible landlord, who was really taking advantage of them. They moved into a building down the street, and this time found a kindly landlord who recognized their difficulty, did everything he could to help them along and eventually became a beloved family friend who we to this day fondly regard. (Their business, Taft Controls Repair, eventually became successful.)
I’ve always said I would someday stop and photograph this building and tell this story. Today I was in Taft for a good friend’s mom’s funeral, and as I drove by the building – now a feed store – the sky dictated that this was a nice time to take that photo. It was missing my dad standing out front, waiting for the mailman, but I saw. I’ve seen it for 40 years. It’s never gone away. It’s instilled in me my work ethic and my values, my attitude about responsibility and pulling your weight in what can sometimes seem a big, bad world. It’s helped me become the person I am today.