Book excerpt: from ‘Los Angeles Stories’ by Ry Cooder
I work for the Los Angeles City Directory, a book of names, addresses, and job descriptions. I am one of many. Our job is to go out and collect the facts and bring them back. Other people take our work and put it in the Book, but we do the important part. Los Angeles is a big city, and the City Directory is a big book.
“How would you like to be listed in the Directory?” I show people what it is. They’re afraid you’ll ask embarrassing questions like “Do you have a toilet?” and “Can I see it?” I tell them they can list whatever they want — the job, the husband’s name, the wife’s name — simple things that most people don’t mind. Most people like to be noticed, they like being asked.
The supervisor said I have the right manner and appearance: medium size, medium age, dark hair, and glasses. I received a week’s training, and then I was given a territory. The Book is published yearly. I’m paid at the rate of twenty-five cents an entry.
I live in a oneroom apartment on Alta Vista, in the old Bunker Hill district, so Bunker Hill is part of my territory. You have to do a lot of climbing, but I like the feeling of being elsewhere. Apartment houses are convenient for this work, and Bunker Hill has a lot of them. The population is older, and older people don’t mind taking a little time since they’re not going anywhere. I don’t expect to be asked in, and that puts people at ease. It’s easy to be listed in the Directory, that’s my message.
I made the acquaintance of a Mr. John Casaroli. Mr. John, as he was known, was a retired opera singer and teacher. I listed him as Casaroli, John, vcl tchr, New Grand Hotel 257 Grand Ave. It turned out we got along, and I was often a guest in his apartment. One evening I arrived there to find police and onlookers crowded around what looked like a body on the sidewalk. The police said Mr. John had jumped from the roof just minutes before and was dead. They asked me if I was an “associate” of his, and I explained that he was my friend and I’d been invited for a spaghetti dinner. They took me to police headquarters and I was questioned for an hour. When I asked why, the officer told me it was routine. That’s when I learned that Mr. John had made a will and left his record player and all his records and Italian poetry books to me. I spent the next few evenings moving them to my apartment, one block away. I discovered he owned a copy of the City Directory. It had been hollowed out, and inside was five thousand dollars — in hundred-dollar bills! I had never even seen a hundreddollar bill. I decided to leave the money where it was and go on about my business. I didn’t tell anyone, since there was no one to tell. Mr. John was the one friend I had. But I wondered — why would a man, an Italian, make all that spaghetti and then jump off the roof?
Mr. John’s treasures made life much more interesting. I started listening to the records in the evenings and drinking the Cribari red wine in the way he used to do, a new experience for me. Then I thought I might try to learn Italian so I could read the poetry books. Why not? There was an Italian woman in my building I knew only as Cousin Lizzie. She agreed to teach me for fifty cents an hour. I listed her as Giordano, Lizzie (wid Benito), smstrs, Alta Vista Apts. 255 Bunker Hill Ave.
We use abbreviations for the jobs: smstrs for seamstress; lab for laborer; pntsprsr for pants presser; shtmtlwkr for sheet-metal worker, and so on. Even with the abbreviations, the Directory is huge and the lettering is so tiny, some readers have to use a magnifying glass. We’re trained to be very particular about the spelling of names. I meet people who are poorly educated and aren’t sure how to spell their own names. In that case, I have to ask other family members, or neighbors, or check their mail, if they don’t object. I don’t mind taking the time; it’s all part of the job.
One day, I knocked at the apartment of a Mr. and Mrs. H.D. Clark, and a woman answered. There was some kind of a service going on inside. I heard someone reading from the Bible. The woman picked up a small case off the floor and shoved it at me, shouting, “You can’t leave him alone, can you? He’s dead, but you bastards can’t leave him alone!” She slammed the door. I took the case home and opened it, and it was a clarinet. There was a card pasted inside the lid that read, “If found, please return to Howdy Clark.” I looked him up in the Directory. He was listed as Clarke, Howard D. (Margaret), music, New Grand Hotel 257 Grand Ave. I made a note to relist Margaret Clark as wid, the abbreviation for widow, but when I returned the following week to confirm the spelling of Clark, she was gone, no frwrdng. The old Italian moving man saw me looking at mailboxes. “They move in, they move out,” he said.
I heard music. I went up the steps to the front porch, and there a man was playing the ukulele. “No vacancy,” he said when he saw me.
“The widow Clark is gone,” I said.
“I don’t like the cops hanging around.”
“I’m not a cop, or a bill collector,” I said. I showed him the book.
“A lousy book that costs twenty-five dollars? Nobody has that kind of money to throw around, but nobody.”
I thought of Mr. John. “You can’t judge a book by the cover,” I said, but he was right in a way. The Book is not really meant for the ordinary home; it’s a service to the business world, that’s the official point of view. I once had the idea of offering it to homeowners on the timepayment plan of fifty cents a week, but my supervisor said, “Can’t be done, just do your job.”
From “Los Angeles Stories,” copyright 2011 by Ry Cooder. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.
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