My grandmother, Helen Lucile Gross (then Helen Beckwith, then Dicks, then Beckwith again) was a tough lady. But that toughness came from an immutable sense of right and wrong.
Her ethics weren’t the of the sort studied in college philosophy class; they were built on her life’s experiences and couldn’t always be neatly squared or explained. Sometimes, her ethics made her mean. She held grudges. She righted wrongs by getting even.
But she was sweetness and love, too. Her willingness to sacrifice her own comfort and security was nearly foolhardy. She was poor, but let a grandkid look at a new toy or candy or treat, and she’d come up short on rent if she had to to make sure her grandkid got what he or she had wanted. She took us places she couldn’t afford, too, because she wanted to see us having fun. Had we known better, we wouldn’t have let her.
It was an ingrained into her soul to never want to see anyone “go without.”
In The Grapes of Wrath, Ma Joad ached for just getting enough food in the bellies of her family. Pa Joad was given slightly more to my grandmother’s weakness to “treat” the youngest members of her family. When Pa sees his youngest children, Ruthie and Winfield, look longingly at candy pieces in a roadside diner, candy the family can’t afford to buy for them, he does so anyway, not knowing the candy was being sold to him at a steep discount. And when the Joads finally – if briefly – have a few pennies to spare, he pushes Ma to forget the tightness of their budget and buy Ruthie and Winfield each a box of Cracker Jacks.
I remember some few occasions when I thought maybe I shouldn’t let Grandma spend her money on me, and I would tell her no, not to buy it, regretting I’d even looked at whatever had caught my eye. The answer to my refusal was a big smile and the proclamation, “You go ahead and get it. I got some extry this week.”
That those things were trifles that couldn’t matter to any of us much after the moment we first saw them didn’t enter Grandma’s mind. She’d buy them for us anyway.
As I said, Grandma didn’t want to see anyone “go without,” and spending her money foolishly on her grandkids made her happy, so in the long run, maybe it was all right.
It was a different story if Grandma saw someone hungry. That would bring out a fierceness in her that went far beyond the white lie of saying she had “some extry this week.” I learned this the day I saw her stand off against five grown men who were going to stop a homeless man from eating a plate of leftover food.
* * *
When I was fifteen, Grandma managed to finagle me a job at the restaurant she worked at, Mel’s, which I described in some detail in a previous post. I have little doubt this had a lot to do with her wrangling a grandkid to live with her on a part-time basis. It could have been any of us, but I was handy.
Mel’s, and Grandma’s house just around the corner from it, were far enough from my house that working there meant I spent every Friday night, Saturday, and most of Sunday living with her. It worked that way for more than two years, and Grandma loved it. I did, too.
It was my very first job, as the weekend dishwasher. I also had the job of slicing onions in the back room, a job that left tears streaming from my eyes for an hour at a time. I also prepared the lettuce for salads, chopping and soaking and adding MSG to the watery concoction, after which I placed the lettuce – several plastic tubs worth – in the large refrigerator against the wall, where they would sit until they were needed at the kitchen.
“We need salad,” Grandma would tell me whenever the salad lettuce got low during the day or night, and I’d make my way to the refrigerator to bring out the next tub. Sometimes, I found big spiders in the crates the heads of lettuce came in on, which scared me silly because I had to get them out without squishing them against the heads of lettuce. I’m sure my spider removal efforts were quite comical, but I was careful, if jumpy, because no one wants spider guts in their food.
I took food preparation very seriously. Grandma taught me to make everything as perfect as it could be because it was a responsibility to the folks who would eat it, not just for cleanliness, but composition and taste.
I also made “set ups,” beds of lettuce and onions and tomatoes and pickles that would be set in rows upon wax paper sheets, piled five deep, so they could be pulled out and set on burgers, ready to go, no muss, no fuss. Time saved next to the grill was important, and everything was as ready to go as it could be before the doors opened at 6 a.m.
The owner of Mel’s, Larry, taught me the finer points of trash can maintenance. When the soupy refuse left on the plates – fat and gristle, eggs, toast, pancakes, ketchup, and burgers – was scraped away before putting the plates in the rack for the dishwasher, it was dropped through a hole in the stainless steel counter where the dishwasher was, into the metal trash can waiting below. Newspaper, I was taught, had to be set in around the edges of the can, to keep the top clean and the can easier to empty. But the bottom of the wet can was a grotesque mess. After taking the can out to the dumpster for emptying, which was a herculean task given the wet weight of the thing, the can had to have new newspaper placed on the edges, but, more importantly, Larry instructed, you had to pour some ammonia into the can to “sweeten it up” and keep it from stinking up the place.
I spent every weekend during those years with Grandma, working at Mel’s, working with her in her yard, and spending the evenings together watching television. It was our Saturday night ritual to watch The Love Boat, followed by Fantasy Island.
Grandma and I sat in two recliners those nights, watching T.V. until sometime around ten O’clock, when she would yawn and say, “Well, 4 a.m. comes early in the morning,” which was my signal to shut off the lights and to go to the single bedroom in the house, where I would read until I fell asleep. Grandma herself would sleep on the recliner throughout the night. Then, at 4 a.m. she would wake, dress in her pink or blue or gold cook’s uniform, and walk to Mel’s alone in the dark to get things ready to open at six.
I’d wake up a little later and walk over myself, usually as the light was just coming up. I’d knock on the glass door out front, and my smiling grandma would come to the door to let me in.
By midday, Grandma was covered in grease, her white apron stained with brown splotches throughout.
Hers was a hard job. She was on her feet every minute, taking orders, assembling the food to be cooked, grilled, griddled, or fried, and timing every order perfectly, so it all came out hot and ready on the plate. She never stopped moving but for the few cigarette breaks she would take during the day at a table next to the kitchen.
For my part, I remember sometimes thinking about all the uneaten food that Grandma had cooked, only to go through the stainless-steel hole into ammonia-sweetened garbage can. There was a lot of it, piles of it, gobs of it, sometimes with cigarettes butts put out in an uneaten pancake or half-full glass of juice. Egg whites went in, half a burger, uneaten salads, bread, and scores of French fries.
It all went from edible to slop inside of thirty minutes.
Grandma got along with her co-workers, the other cooks and waitresses. I never saw her meanness come out at Mel’s, except once.
As I’ve written previously, Grandma had nearly starved to death coming to California, shedding tears of anguish telling me about it. But that was after I’d worked with her at Mel’s. At the time, I’d known nothing about it.
But I knew about bums.
In the 1970s, the word “homeless” wasn’t used much, nor was much ascribed to a person who was on the streets beyond pure laziness, looking for a “free handout.” Bums were derided and much hated because of their laziness. Whatever their problems, they were their own fault. Nothing was stopping them from putting in a hard day’s work and earning a paycheck.
The admonition, “Get a job, you bum,” was readily at hand for anyone asking for a meal. It wasn’t meant as a joke in those days.
These days, we know things are more complicated. If it was known then, few cared.
In The Grapes of Wrath, starvation wasn’t a matter of Okies refusing to work. They wanted to work. They were desperate to work. But what little work there was paid wages too low to buy food. And as Grandma’s experience showed, in the real world outside the novel the threat of starvation was all too real.
In Mel’s, there was a counter at the end of the kitchen area, where men sat on orange stools to eat their meals on the brown countertop. The food was set down on white plates, with silverware and a glass full of whatever they were drinking. The men were blue-collar, sometimes young, sometimes older, in their forties and fifties. They were a solitary bunch, seldom given to conversation. They’d eat, leave their quarter tips under their plates, pay, and leave.
One day, I was out on the floor in the front of the restaurant, when I saw a bum slowly and deliberately walk in through the front door. He was filthy, unshaven, and disheveled. Were I close enough, I’d guess he would have smelled like an unsweetened garbage can.
He made his way to the counter and sat in the one empty stool, looking down the whole time. In front of him was a plate with unfinished pieces of strip steak, fat and bone, and baked potato skins. The customer who’d ordered and eaten most of it was paid and gone.
Incredibly, the bum picked up the dirty silverware and the plastic-handled steak knife next to the plate and started cutting at the leftover steak, putting it up to his mouth, and chewing. He looked straight down at the plate, careful not to look at anyone at all.
He did not evoke my sympathy at the time. In fact, I was wondering if someone was going to ask me to throw him out because I was the only “man” working at Mel’s at the time.
Instead, I saw I wouldn’t have to. The men sitting at the counter, in some sort of silent agreement, all began to get up from their stools. It was clear they were about to take matters into their own hands and throw the bum out onto the street.
That’s when I saw Grandma. She’d seen the man, and now she saw the other men at the counter readying to give him the literal bum’s rush.
Decisively, Grandma stopped cooking, and with her heavy spatula in hand like a weapon, she marched over to the counter.
Because I’d yet to learn what I learned that day, I thought Grandma was going to throw the bum out herself.
I was very wrong.
Instead, she fiercely stared each of the men down. They saw her, saw the look in her eye, and I watched as each slowly eased himself back onto his stool, apparently more intimidated by Grandma that offended by the bum’s presence.
Transfixed, I watched as Grandma stood there like a hawk, keeping the men in check the whole time the bum ate, holding that spatula with the clear implication she’d clobber someone with it if he tried to keep that man from eating.
After a few minutes, the man finished. He got up very slowly, turned around, and walked out the door.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Grandma turned around and went right back to cooking like nothing had happened.
She never said a word about it. At the time, I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought either.
But as the years have passed and I see it in the light of my grandmother’s past, when her dignity had been stripped away and she’d had nothing to eat. That little bit of steak and potato skins would have made a difference then in her life, if only for a few hours. She sure as hell wasn’t going to let someone deny the same to a hungry man, not without her standing in the way.
In truth, it hadn’t even been much that the man had eaten. He hadn’t begged for money or even asked someone for a free meal. It just was leftover food that would have gone down into my garbage can, into the wet filth with all the other uneaten food. But it was enough to lure the man off the street, food he’d probably spied through the plate glass window of Mel’s.
How hungry must he have been to have been drawn to the meager leavings and to eat them with dirty utensils?
Grandma wouldn’t have been allowed to cook him a free meal. But again, he didn’t ask for that. So, she stood watch in his defense, long enough for him to eat what he could and to keep what dignity he had unassailed.