Unlike most street vendors you see these days, Adolph (Ad) Laudenberg doesn't sell oranges or bananas or flowers or bags of peanuts.
Ad Laudenberg sells sticks.
Of course, these aren't ordinary sticks. They're walking sticks, formerly ordinary sticks that Laudenberg found in dumpsters or by the side of the road and then whittled into things that are not only beautiful but useful too.
Oak, cedar, walnut, pine, even scrubby manzanita and a Deep South import called blackjack vine--Laudenberg makes handsome walking sticks out of any and all of them.
His portable business sign reads, "Sticks by Ad, One of a Kind Walking Sticks, Since 1987." And by roadside vendor standards he's doing a land-office business.
"I sat out here yesterday and made 90 bucks in three hours time," the 67-year-old Laudenberg says as he sits on a stool outside his "office"--a 1985 Pontiac parked by the side of the road near the intersection of Western Avenue and 9th Street in San Pedro. "Ninety bucks, selling sticks."
Prices vary, depending on the stick. A regular old pine Laudenberg walking stick costs about $10; a walnut stick may cost about $20. A corkscrew-shaped blackjack vine walking stick costs a little more.
"I love makin' 'em, and I love seein' 'em in people's hands," Laudenberg says. "So I sell 'em cheap."
Who needs a walking stick? Laudenberg says some of his customers are older people who use canes and prefer wood to metal. But most are just people who walk a lot and appreciate the many advantages of walking with a stick.
"Having a walking stick is like having a third leg," says Laudenberg, a colorful-looking, gray-bearded character wearing a straw hat and red suspenders, a shell necklace and a dangling earring. "You can lean on it, take the weight off for a little while. And a lot of people, when they walk they have dogs botherin' 'em, and they can use a stick to wave 'em off. And if somebody tries to rob you, you got protection. Remember what ol' Teddy Roosevelt said: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick.' "
Well, pummeling a would-be mugger with a three-foot length of walnut might be personally satisfying, but it might also be dangerous, especially if the thug is carrying something more lethal than a stick. But the other benefits of walking sticks are time-honored. The English and Scots, for example, have been using walking sticks for centuries.
In fact, it was a newspaper article about English walking sticks that prompted Laudenberg to get into the stick business, after a lifetime of doing almost everything else. As perhaps befits a man who makes his living by the side of the road, Laudenberg has always been a traveling man.
Born in Kentucky in 1926, Laudenberg joined the Navy in World War II and served in the Pacific. After the war he mustered out, then mustered back in again. He got married somewhere along the way, an event memorialized by a faded tattoo on his left forearm, to a professional dancer who imitated Carmen Miranda.
After he got out of the Navy for good in 1951 he went back to Kentucky for a while, then to Southern California, then Northern California, then Louisiana. He spent most of his working time as a security guard, but he also worked at a racetrack, in a tobacco warehouse and did almost anything that came up. There was a divorce, another marriage, then another divorce, still pending.
He has two sons, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Currently, he lives near one of his sons, in a trailer parked in a back yard on 218th Street in the Harbor Gateway area.
Laudenberg started his walking stick business in 1987, when he was in New Orleans. A longtime whittler, he began picking up old tree limbs wherever he found them--"I never cut the trees," he says--and shaped them into walking sticks with sturdily affixed handles. Sometimes he uses natural limb crotches to make the handles; sometimes he carves intricate designs, such as birds, and uses them for handles. He's got an idea now for implanting golf balls in the ends of sticks to make round handles.
Another of Laudenberg's specialties is hollowing out a space inside a stick, putting some fishing line and fishhooks in it and creating a combination walking stick-fishing pole.
For a while he sold the sticks, hundreds of them, to the tourists in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Then two years ago he moved back to Los Angeles to be closer to his sons and grandchildren. He brought his walking stick business with him.
At first he was operating his roadside business near the corner of 222nd and Western.
"The police came out and told me I had to move along," Laudenberg says. "Well, I did, but before they left, those policemen bought one of my sticks."
According to Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Henry Morris, it is a violation of Municipal Code Section 42.00 to sell products from a sidewalk or roadway, and there is no licensing procedure that would allow such sales. Therefore, Laudenberg is violating the law, along with people at almost every major intersection in the city.
But Laudenberg figures he isn't doing any harm.
"If anybody says anything I'll just pack up and leave," he says.
For the past month or so Laudenberg has been doing business for about three hours each day near Western and 9th. And business has been good; he has sold about 50 sticks at that location. During a half-hour period one day this week, two people stopped to admire the sticks.
"I was just curious," said Ron Hazlett of San Pedro. "My wife is interested in one, and I'd like to bring her back to look at these."
Michael France, also of San Pedro, was looking for a walking stick to eventually replace the crutch he's been using since he broke his pelvis snowboarding in New Zealand this summer.
"I like the wood better (than metal) for the looks," France said. He said he'd probably come back later.
"Lot of people stop but don't buy," Laudenberg said with a shrug. "But they're always real nice."
Laudenberg is planning a car trip back to Louisiana soon to pick up some more blackjack vine, in preparation for the busy Christmas season. He figures he'll probably be back in a month. And if for some reason he doesn't return to his current spot, he'll set up shop somewhere else.
"I love makin' these sticks," he says. "I guess I'll do it 'til I die."