[1959: In the summer of my junior year I worked as a bellhop in Carmel Valley California. The inn’s owner, Harry Graystone, had promised us good salaries that never materialized, and so we—the twenty college students who worked at the Carmel Valley Inn—took out our revenge in various ways, such as pocketing and then dividing the money collected from serving lunches at the pool. And we found another way, one that brought us close to people quite unlike the spoiled wealthy clientele we served.]
We robbed Harry in another, more socially constructive way. Hiking through the Salinas Mountains on her day off, Betsy had discovered halfway up the slope a tin-shack village of Mexican farm-workers hidden in the lush trees that stretched almost to the top. The twenty some families who lived there were desperately poor. It was a good week if the husbands got two days work in the lettuce fields outside Salinas; the wives were burdened with too many children.
“Meet me in the kitchen at ten tonight,” Betsy announced at dinner. “I’ve got a great idea.”
No questions asked. Having served the guests their nightcaps and listened once more to their boasts of financial success or the problems of “finding good help these days,” we assembled at the designated time, met by Betsy who gave each of us a bed sheet.
“Fill up the sheet with canned goods, fruit, meat, towels, blankets, anything you think a family could use.”
“Even toilet paper?” MA chirped.
“Yeah, even toilet paper. Just let your grubby little hands run wild. Think of yourselves as Robin Hoods.”
“What’re we gonna do?” Rosalie asked dumbfounded.
“Take this stuff to those families I told you about who live up the mountains.”
“But that’s stealing,” Little John added, naively.
“Where you think the $100 comes from, kid?”
In ten minutes twelve Santa Clauses were making their way up the dark slopes of the Salinas Mountains, fortified with booze and–even stronger–the conviction that on this night we were going to implant a social conscience in Harry Grayman who, we all suspected, voted the straight Republican ticket.
“I hear there are wild boars in these hills.”
Whether true or not, George’s helpful revelation only added to our high spirits, as in the darkness every cracked branch or dislodged stone metamorphosed into some savage creature, watching us, ready to pounce on the weak animal of our herd. We clung to each other in the exhilaration of our fear, stumbled, propped up fallen comrades, with those stuffed sheets all the while bobbing and tossing on our backs. With “up” the only logical direction, there was no chance of getting lost, and Lynn’s margaritas, brewed as a bon voyage present to christen Betsy’s adventure, insulated us from the cuts and bruises that we would not feel until the morning.
After a while the trees started to thin out, and we saw ahead of us a shantytown. Inside rude huts mothers were putting children to sleep; the men had already begun to assemble on the porches which gave a commanding view of the valley, the Inn far below, in the distance the waves of the Pacific glowing white under a new moon. Someone was playing a guitar. The noises were of a community putting the finishing touches on its day, preparing for a few hours of leisure before bed. Here was a hidden world, beyond sight of the Inn’s affluent guests. We imagined them down below draped over those soft leather chairs in the lounge, in a stupor, bored with each other and, worse, bored with themselves, wondering where the college kids had gone this night.
Two women approached the group, and, in her good Spanish, Betsy explained our mission. One of the women impulsively hugged her, and then hugged Jane who stood nearby. Soon hugs were being exchanged all over, as people started pouring out of the shacks, rushing to greet us. Beginner’s Spanish, beginner’s English filled the air, and it was enough. We understood. A handsome man, the village’s unofficial major as we learned, escorted us to the porch of a shack in the center of the compound. The other porches were soon alive with people. Parents rustled children from bed and, in minutes, they were playing, still sleepy-eyed, on the common ground in front of the shacks. Large gallons of homemade wine suddenly appeared; neighbors vied with each other in getting us to sample their cooking.
Soon the sheets were unfurled and out tumbled our treasures. With the most wonderful display of courtesies, the foods and supplies were distributed. Then, we joined the villagers for more wine and food. As the night wore on, there was singing and dancing and, just before we left, a few moments just sitting in silence with our new-made friends, children asleep in their arms, listening to the sounds of night.
Little John reminded us that halfway down the slope wild boar grunted and pawed the earth, waiting to attack, and we had a big laugh at his expense when the villagers gave a fake confirmation of his fear, estimates of the number of boars rising exponentially as the joke spread around. Conversations jumped from porch to porch, and I recalled the interlocking porches of the row houses in my boyhood Philadelphia where, after dinner, parents would sit in their rockers, gossiping up and down the line, while we kids played stick-ball in the street. Far below the Inn’s only lights came from our quarters, that pathetic row where three slept to a cell in what the ad had euphemized as “own spacious room.”
I recalled The Grapes of Wrath set in this very area, the lettuce fields of Salinas. How Steinbeck celebrated the give-and-take that made an otherwise grim life bearable and efficient, the mysterious way humans seek out each other, live together because the alternatives of isolation and indifference run counter to our spirit. Ours was a variation on the novel’s community. I saw Rosalie, with the simple raising of a hand, the fingers pointed upward, tell a mother not to worry, that she would go comfort a baby fretful in its crib. Still wearing his overalls stained from working the fields since dawn, a man carefully spread sauce over the length of an enchilada and then, as if it were some offering to the gods, handed it to Lynn, beaming with a fathomless pleasure at the opportunity to serve. Their arms draped around each other, Sandy and a teenage girl improvised harmony to a song. I showed the villagers how my grandfather had taught me to pour a gallon bottle of wine by resting it on the shoulder, the left hand cocking the glass, the sign of one’s confidence being to look straight ahead, positioning the glass solely by the feel of the bottle’s neck. One by one the men around me took their turns, and soon shirts were stained red, the merriment increasing when a grandmother of enormous size filled the smallest of glasses without spilling a drop. Little John capped her feat with a parody, positioning his head beneath MA’s shoulder as the jokester first poured carefully, then, faking a nervous spasm, doused Little John from head to toe. Much later, with promises to return, we said our good-byes.
The visits “to the hills,” as we dubbed them, soon became part of our weekly routine, along with bar-hopping Saturday nights at the various cocktail lounges spread around the valley, Friday night beach-parties, and the barbecue for staff Sunday evenings. By day we were waiters and bellhops, maids and maintenance people, serving the newly rich, skimming money from the pool receipts. At night, each night, we came together, an extended family with its inevitable triumphs and quarrels, love affairs and break-ups, bound by our concern for the farm-workers and our disdain for those Los Angeles businessmen and their bony wives.