I had one of those weird, otherworldly experiences this morning.
I’ve been sick for much of the last week but finally felt well enough to drag myself out of bed to plop in front of the television. I switched on Bravo! and was sort of half-dozing when, through my fevered haze, I saw something that didn’t compute. So I pulled myself upright in the chair – causing the napping cat to flee my lap – unsure whether I was sleeping and this was a dream or I was awake.
Nope. I was awake, alright.
What so startled me was that whatever I was watching was a scene shot in front of my great uncle’s house in LA. Well, it was his house; Joe died 25 or 30 years ago. But it got me thinking, for the first time in decades, of Joe and his brother Norman, two of my family’s many characters.
On The Road
During the Great Depression – the first one, back in the 1930s – there wasn’t any work for them in Milwaukee. Somehow, they scraped together enough to buy a car and head west. To earn gas money along the way, they’d spend a week or two working in brothels in towns on their route: Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Albuquerque, Bakersfield and probably a few other places. Joe could play piano and Norman, who was a pretty big guy, did everything from being a bouncer to cleaning up to running errands for the Madame and her ladies. Best of all, the jobs came with a place to sleep and they got fed three squares a day, both a rarity for guys on the road in the Thirties.
Eventually, they ended up in Los Angeles where there wasn't much more work. But being enterprising fellows, they figured out that entertainers were in demand at Hollywood parties. So they became swamis: Prince Oomba and Prince Boomba managed to get gigs at the Barrymore’s, the Chaplin’s, the various Brothers Marx and so on. They knew no more about fortune telling than I do but they each wrapped a towel around their head as turbans and eeked out a meager living.
One night, Joe was walking home from one of the parties and saw a drunk stumble out of a bar on Hollywood Blvd. He watched the poor schlub try to get into his car without success so he went to the guy’s aid. He saw that the drunk couldn’t drive so Joe put him in the passenger seat, checked the registration to find where the fellow lived, and drove him home where a very sleepy and suspicious Mexican maid let him in. As he was leaving, Joe handed his Prince Oomba card to the housekeeper.
A few days later, the phone rang in the squalid little rooming house Joe and Norman called home. It was the secretary of the man Joe had aided, who wanted to take him to lunch. Thinking quickly, Joe told the assistant that his brother was with him at the time and wondered if Norman could come along. Hey: It was the depression and somebody was offering a free meal.
Only in America
At lunch, the man thanked Joe and Norman profusely, confessing he was so drunk he probably would have killed himself had he tried driving home. Then, something came at them out of the blue that became one of those “only in America” stories.
It turned out that when the man wasn’t getting drunk, he was chief purchasing agent for Douglas Aircraft. He asked the pair if they were interested in giving up their swami shtick to go into the scrap metal business. He’d tell them what kind of metal he needed and would buy anything they could get that met his purchasing requirements.
So Joe and Norman became junk men, scouring the city for specific kind of scrap metal and then selling it to Douglas. They were doing alright – certainly better than telling Garbo her fortune – and settled into life as a 30s version of The Redd Foxx Show since they lived in the junk yard’s office.
Then, Dec. 7, 1941 arrived.
Suddenly, every aircraft manufacturer, ship builder, munitions maker and the War Department itself needed to buy tons and tons of scrap metal from the boys. They became wealthy during the war and prosperity continued after, boosted by both the Cold and the Korean Wars. They’d long since moved into real homes, Joe on Sunset a few blocks west of the Strip – the home in the program that interrupted my flu-ish dozing.
By the way, the house holds an asterisk in American political history.
During the run-up to the 1960 Democratic National Convention in LA, Jack Kennedy wanted to get away from his headquarters at the Ambassador Hotel so he moved in with Joe and his wife – early Kennedy supporters, contributors and fund-raisers – for a day or so. And, yes, Marilyn did show up for a couple of hours. No one said a thing.
The house on Sunset also is an asterisk in my own political history.
When my 9th grade class took the obligatory trip to Washington DC, Joe or Norman arranged for me to meet Kennedy. Somewhere in a dusty box of family photos down in the basement is a picture of an awe-struck kid in a crew-cut standing in the Oval Office with President Kennedy resting his hand on my shoulder. He asked something about my great uncles and I have no idea what I said in reply.
I was in the Oval Office for maybe 90 seconds, politely but quickly ushered in and out by someone huge and hulking in a dark suit with a bulge under his armpit.