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“Rock ’n’ roll is here to stay!” What I always say. I said it back then, and it’s still true today, a quarter of a century down the road. Oh yeah, things have gotten kind of slow from time to time (early sixties twist, mid seventies disco), and sometimes they’ve even come to a stop—Elvis Presley three years ago and John Lennon just last night. I’ll always remember where I was and what I was doing the night John died. I was in my room listening to the Beatles for Sale album, and I was reminded once again what cool cats those guys were. They covered Chuck Berry, Leiber and Stoller, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins on the album, and the sounds they made took me back to the time when those tunes were at the top of the hit parade.
Rock ’n’ roll was in its first golden age on that warm summer afternoon twenty-four years ago. I was filling out a job application at the Rexall drugstore on the corner of Sixth and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. “Don’t be Cruel” was playing on the P. A. System, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear Elvis rockin’ ’n’ rollin’, even at low volume, in such a place. Rexall was about as mainstream as it got in American society at that time, and “Don’t be Cruel,” because it was some of Elvis’ best stuff, seemed a bit sophisticated for that venue. It usually comes down to the best stuff in the end anyway, the best stuff being that which is complex and involved, but still primitive, simple and rudimentary. In the time it took me to finish the application, I heard Fats Domino doing “Blue Monday,” and Jesse Belvin, “Goodnight my Love.” And that’s when the thought first occurred to me: “rock ’n’ roll is here to stay!”
I ran into Michelle Bergerac when I got back out on the sidewalk. She’d gotten off a southbound Five bus coming from Eagle Rock, the neighborhood where we both lived. I hadn’t really known her at Saint Dominic’s elementary school because she’d been one year ahead of me all the way through, but we knew each other by name and sight. Hers was the first familiar face I’d seen all day.
“Hey, Michelle, how ya’ doin’?” I said.
“Jerôme! What’re you doing here?”
She was a pretty girl, strawberry blond hair and emerald green eyes. Her green dress (a paler shade than her eyes) looked like a waitress’ uniform. A clean, pressed apron of like-color was folded neatly and protruded from her woven shoulder bag.
“I just applied for a job here at Rexall, but it doesn’t look too promising. I’m havin’ a hell of a time tryin’ to find something.”
“I’m on my way to work right now. I’m a traygirl at Clifton’s cafeteria. Why don’t you come with me and fill out an application? They might even be looking for a busboy right now.”
I walked the two and a half blocks with her to the cafeteria on Olive just off Sixth. She introduced me to her boss, Dan Weems, and he gave me an application which I filled out on the spot. When I finished, I said goodbye to Michelle (she was already on the clock), and went back down to Broadway and caught the bus home.
That was Wednesday, August first. The following Monday morning, Dan phoned me, and I went to work that same afternoon. It was the first real job I ever had; I’d never thought of the paper route and newsstands I’d had when I was a kid as real jobs. Clifton’s opened up a whole new world to me. I felt like my life was just beginning. Dan’s call ended a two month funk that Lana Guerrero had put me in when she two-timed me in June. More important, the job provided me with the means to escape Eagle Rock once and for all. I’d been trying to do that since last fall when I started my freshman year at Cathedral High School.
I also started to take on a new cultural identity at Cathedral, moving away from my American-European roots and into the Chicano culture I’d been longing for since I was two years old. My first day on campus, I looked around at my classmates, eighty percent of whom were Chicanos, and I told myself that I’d finally come home, found my true brothers. By the time I got to Clifton’s, it was impossible for me to see myself as a light-skinned, brown-haired, brown-eyed American-Franco/German, born Jerôme Farot in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was convinced that God had made a mistake; I was born into the wrong culture; in my mind I was a Chicano.
I was learning Spanish in the classroom at Cathedral, and also in the barrio hanging around with my five tightest partners from school, Carlos Williams, François Rojas, Wolfgang Benavides, Marc Pérez and Craig Cubangbang. The process moved forward when I went to work at Clifton’s, and the Mexicano dishwashers in the basement, who called me Pelón because I’d bought some barber tools and shaved my head after Lana broke my heart, helped me take my Spanish to the next level.
At Clifton’s my cultural education was enhanced in ways other than simply learning a second language. I was going into downtown every day and being exposed to all kinds of people—panhandlers and prostitutes on Main Street, soapbox preachers in Pershing Square, winos and rail bums down on Fifth Street. Within a month I was getting to know the ropes, and I was beginning to think I was a pretty shrewd operator, not just a naïve kid. In some respects, I was following in my dad’s footsteps. These were the same people Antoine was meeting and hanging around with when he was fifteen.
Dan had told me to meet him on the front mezzanine of the cafeteria at three o’clock, well past the lunch hour rush, and to wear a white shirt and tie. As I waited, I walked over to the railing and looked down on the main floor. Only a few of the tables were occupied, and a lone busboy in a short sleeve white shirt and clip-on bow tie was clearing dishes from one recently vacated.
Dan appeared from the rear of the cafeteria and walked in my direction. He stopped briefly to say something to the busboy. Then he continued on his way and came up to where I was waiting. After we shook hands, he walked me to the time clock in the kitchen at the rear of the restaurant. It was near the back door that let out on the alley where skid row winos lined up for a free soy meal called “MPF,” multi-purpose food. Feeding the down-and-out was one of Cliftons’ charitable contributions to the neighborhood.
Dan showed me my time card and how to use the clock. I’d be paid seventy-five cents an hour or six bucks for an eight hour shift. Meals were included. That was how they got away with paying sub-minimum wage. The legal minimum at the time was a dollar an hour.
We went back through the hot supply (that was the area where the steam tables were) to the trays and silverware. He walked me through the line and got me past the checker without paying. I went to the rear mezzanine and sat at a table near the back stairwell where Michelle was taking a ten minute break. The house photographer, a beautiful blond girl named Robyn, was sitting at the table with her. She wore a Hawaiian print skirt. A professional’s camera with a flash attachment was on the table in front of her.
“Well, I guess I should go punch in,” she said with a sigh as she picked up her camera and headed for the stairs.
Michelle followed her five minutes later.
When I finished eating, I took my dirty dishes to the escalator room and sent them down to the basement. Then I went to the main floor and met Dan. He introduced me to the busboy I’d seen earlier. His name was Pierre Duval, and he showed me how to bus a table. Then he took me on a tour of the whole restaurant.
On the south wall above the main floor, there was a rock terrace with a pool that caught a six-foot-high waterfall in its basin. On the right between it and the front mezzanine was a copse of imitation palm trees. A Polynesian mural was painted on the wall to the left. A row of thatched huts made of blond bamboo lined the wall directly under the waterfall. Robyn was taking a picture of a party of four sitting at a table inside one of the huts.
There were basement rooms in the front and rear of the building. The one in the back was where the Mexicanos washed the dishes, and there was also an employee locker room in that area. There were a couple of rooms in the front basement. They contained what the management called a chapel. In one was a Garden-of-Gethsemane scene (a spotlight shone on a life-size statue of Jesus Christ kneeling in the dark in front of a huge papier-mâché boulder, eyes gazing heavenward, hands clasped in prayer) with women guides dressed in floor-length robes, heads covered with shawls, conducting “spiritual tours.”
To the left of the main entrance, opposite the stairwell to the basement chapel and front mezzanine, was the entrance tunnel that led back to the hot supply. A grand stairway, leading up to the rear mezzanine, split and wound around a landing where an organist played diners’ requests during the rush hours. The stairs and landing were located almost dead center in the middle of the building.
Pierre showed me the escalator rooms on the main floor and rear mezz, and the tour ended there. When the two other busboys who worked the rear mezz came back from their lunch breaks, the three of us worked together until the end of the shift. Business had picked up since I’d punched in. A few tables were occupied and some needed busing. The dinner rush began at five o’clock and went on until after eight o’clock when business started to taper off, and I got a half-hour break for dinner. I punched out at nine-thirty, and rode home with Michelle and few other Clifton’s employees on the Five-Eagle Rock.