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In 1957, I started work as a telephone installer in Watts. I lived in the neighboring town of Compton. Here I am looking Bell Telephone spiffy, decked out in my work belt and pocket protector, in front of my ladder-equipped truck.
I was looking to make some money and perhaps begin a career. But within a year, my plans changed. The reason for that change of plans is what this post is about.
My dad, mom, sister and me were rural Okies who had migrated to California in 1944 (I was six) because that’s where the jobs were, in particular in the oil field of Signal Hill in Southern California. At that time, working in the oil fields was a low-paying job, and roughnecking, my dad’s job, was at the bottom of the wage scale.
Below is a recent photo of the backyard of our first house in LA., a rental at 1711 W. 60th Place. An alley ran past it on this side of that fence. It looks worse in this photo than it did when we lived there. For one thing, we had no mangy dog and no bars on the windows. It was a small house (848 sq. ft.) off the street, (behind our landlord’s house) with concrete slabs instead of grass for the front and back yards. Not a bush, flower, or blade of grass to be seen. (On Christmas day in, oh, about 1946, my dad and granddad got into a fight on that small porch to the left and tore down the banister as they fought their way down the stairs. I see no one has ever replaced the banister.)
As a kid, I was only vaguely aware that I belonged to any particular class. Fish will never know they’re living in water until they leave the fishbowl. When I was hired by Bell Telephone to be a telephone installer, my job forced me to raise up my head up and look around.
The first thing Ma Bell did was to send me to a pole-climbing school. The forest of telephone poles we practiced on was located across the street from USC. I spent a lot of time held up by a pair of spikes as I gawked at the USC campus.
I had never seen anything quite like the upscale look of its manicured, professionally landscaped grounds, the huge Memorial Coliseum looming in the background. Even more remarkable, in the eyes of this kid from Compton, were the nattily dressed young men, most in ties and sport coats (this was 1957), the coeds in pleated skirts below the knees, who strolled by on their way to classes.
It was clear to me, as I watched these students stroll by, that I would have felt awkward and out of place in the homes, classrooms, and fraternities that made up their world. They dressed better than I did, I’m pretty sure they lived in nicer homes, and they even seemed to be better looking than me and my Compton buds were.
I didn’t belong there. Perched on my pole looking down, I was learning about the social class system in America.
Before employment at Ma Bell, I was equally as naive about the class below mine as I was the class above. But I lost my naïveté when I began installing phones in Watts At that time, a telephone installer climbed poles to wire up homes, crawled under houses to string wire, and went into the customers’ homes to install phones. (I remember that we installers were supposed to push colored phones.) So I quickly became familiar with the lives of the people who lived in Watts.
The poverty in Watts — and all the chaos, dirt, and trash that accompanied that poverty — was bad enough, but worse were the conditions in the Watts subsidized housing projects, the home of numerous gangs. (I’ve forgotten the name of the projects when I installed phones there, but there were blocks and blocks of them, all dirty, all ill-kept, all dangerous.)
So it was good ol’ Ma Bell that gave me a pretty fair idea of my place in the scheme of things. I learned that I existed somewhere in the large space between USC and Watts, with plenty of wiggle room in that space to move around. Ma Bell awakened in me possibilities.
I sensed there might be better things for me ahead which didn’t involve Bell Telephone.
For reasons that I can’t explain, a ridiculous number of famous and accomplished people resided for a time in the city of Compton or attended Compton Community College (called Compton Junior College when I went there).
Athletics:: Pete Rozelle (commissioner of NFL for 30 years), Hugh McElhenny (NFL Hall of Fame), Charles Dumas (first man to jump over seven feet), Duke Snyder (eight-time All-Star, Baseball Hall of Fame), Serena and Venus Williams (tennis titles too many to list).
Celebrities: Kevin Costner, James Coburn, Mort Sahl (satirist/comedian), Paul Rodriguez (comedian), Leslie Sykes (news anchor)
Rappers: Snoop Dog, Coolio, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Suge Knight, and the rap group NWA. (Straight Outta Compton), and many many others.Published in