The summer I turned 15, I started working for Royal Crown Cola, spent my entire summer vacation loading empties onto the bottling line in the plant in Phoenix, where my dad had been transferred.
He was plant supervisor. The boss. And I was the boss’s son.
And there was a car I was after.
My childhood, adolescence and young adulthood all centered on Royal Crown Cola,’ its logo pervasive in my life:We played with RC frisbees, lay out on the beach on RC towels, listened to transistor radios shaped like cans of RC Cola. We wore RC T-shirts, rode bikes emblazoned with RC Cola stickers, decorated our rooms with RC posters. We told time by RC wristwatches, made decorative windchimes out of RC bottles with our Ronco Bottle and Glass Cutter, caught RC baseballs with blue RC baseball gloves.
But beyond that logo and all these RC toys that filled our lives was the truth of its role: RC was my fathers job, his name forever linked to the product by the nametag pinned to his shirt, BILL LOTT etched in plastic, white letters on a blue background, above the name the RC logo. He was out of the house usually before we were even awake, and pulled up the driveway past dark most nights. He was an RC salesman; the trunk of his black Rambler was always filled with the accompanying equipment every RC man had to have: Long narrow strips of paper printed with prices you stuffed into six-pack cartons; bottle hangers, Day-glo pieces of paper precut to slip over the top of bottles, these, too, printed with prices; shelf strips, those narrow pieces of plastic printed with the product logo that slipped onto the shelf, identified where the product sat. There were rolls of stickers, all Day-glo, printed with prices, or with the R.C or Diet Rite or Nehi logo. There were always two or three feather dusters back there to clean the shelf and bottles, along with a garvey or two, the metal and ink contraption he used to mark prices on bottles or cans.
Nothing but toys to me and my brothers—Brad, two years older; Tim, two years younger. When he opened the trunk each evening to pull out the returns, we boys grabbed up the feather dusters, the stickers, the garveys, and had at it with one another, stamped purple ink numbers on each other’s arms or hands or foreheads, shook filthy dusters in each other’s faces, peeled off sticker after sticker and slapped each other on the back or took them inside to put on our notebooks or bedroom doors or anywhere else we could think of.
But now, at age 15, all that business of toys was over. Here I worked in the cool of the bottling line building, fluorescent lights above me, people to talk to: Manny, Red, Gonzales, Marvin, a host of others whose names I cannot now recall. Here the men laughed, here they joked and cursed and spit and cursed and laughed some more. I knew they knew I was the boss’s son, and I lived in daily fear something I might say or do—laugh too hard, work not hard enough—would turn them against me. But still they laughed and cursed and spit.
And here I stood, loading empties into a machine, 15 years old and communing with men, all of us working together to accomplish a single goal: get these bottles—Royal Crown Cola bottles—washed and clean, get them filled with the product, get them capped and labeled, and sent off to the warehouse where they’d be delivered up to those stores who sent back empties to be sorted the next day.
RC was now my job.
It seemed to make sense, fun, even: I loaded cases onto a short conveyor belt that moved the bottles only a few feet away from me, where a huge machine with arms equipped with suction devices, 12 or 24 to a case depending on which product we were bottling, descended upon the bottles, pulled them up from the cases, then brought them to the mouth of the machine, where they were shuffled into a single file, and disappeared into the raging depths of the next machine down, the washer.
I worked later at the labeling machine, loading stacks of gummed paper into a round machine that wet the label, slapped it onto the filled bottle passing through, then brushed at the paper, securing the label. I hosed out the floors when told to do so, swept up the glass when a bottle exploded, kept the empties corning.
At lunch I went with the men to a cafe on the other side of the railroad tracks that paralleled the RC plant, a white cinderblock place with a flat gravel roof and two waitresses about whom the linemen made jokes every day. And every day I ordered country-fried steak, french fries with gravy, and RC, and paid for it with my own money.
Now ï was truly in the ranks, I knew, because of this matter of money: I punched in on a time clock, had my own card, was responsible for not being late back from lunch, and for signing the card, i was making $2.25 an hour, and because my dad stayed so many hours late, the two of us finally rolling home at dusk each night, I worked more hours than most of the men there.
Each Friday we linemen received our paychecks from the line foreman, who sat on the seat of his forklift, called out our last names, and handed us the white envelopes printed with that RC logo on the top left corner. This ceremony was followed by our obligatory bitching and moaning about how much money we made. I remember one Friday in particular when one of the linemen, Red, a pale, skinny man with a snatch of red hair and a sparse red moustache, a man I knew had a wife and three children at home, pulled out his paycheck and shook his head; in his face, loss and disbelief.
“Seventy-two dollars and 16 cents,” he said, and let out a breath. “Now how the hell am I supposed to live on this?” he said, then folded up the check, put it in his back pocket.
And here I was, in my hand a paycheck for $90.73.
Something about this all seemed wrong then, seemed a sham. I was only a 15-year-old kid whose dad ran the place, here inside the circle of men whose lives depended on this check. I could lay no claim, really, to this huge wad of money in my pocket. I was saving money for a car, and pizza after football games this fall. But this man had less than me, and had it only for his family, had it for food and clothing and shelter.
When my dad had stopped at the liquor store, the old man at the window only nodding at us, handing through to my dad his beer and corn nuts, my M&Ms and a cold RC—our evening ritual—I told him what happened.
“Red made less money than me last week,” I said.
He handed the man the money, then popped the beer, but held it to his lips a moment before he took a sip. He pulled out from under the awning to the street, looked both ways. He didn’t look at me.
“What the hell, is everybody showing their paychecks around?” he said, his voice, we both knew, too loud for inside the car. He pulled out onto the street, headed for the freeway.
“No,” I said. “He just said how much he got.”
I could see that my dad knew what I was saying and how I felt about the whole thing.
Finally, he shrugged. He took another sip, placed the beer between his legs; his wrists on the steering wheel, he tore open the corn nuts. “Just don’t tell him how much you made,” he said, quieter. “Just don’t let him know. That’s private,” He said, and it seemed in the way his voice had gone quiet that he’d seen how I felt, this notion I’d not encountered before: work, the truth of a job.This wasn’t fun, but a job. How you lived.
I never complained about paychecks after that, only slipped mine into my pocket on Fridays.
The car I ended up buying, of course, was from one of the men at RC, a sales supervisor who wore his hair in a huge pompadour perched atop his forehead and who spoke so tight-lipped it seemed he never opened his mouth. By the end of that summer I had enough saved to buy the car, a ‘49 Chevrolet four-door with, believe it or not, only 22,000 miles on it. Even my primary teen-age rite of passage—ownership of a car—was indelibly stamped with an association to RC Cola. It was in that car that my brothers,Tim and Brad (who was home on leave, back from the first of his three SEAPAC cruises), and I drove to California in February 1975. Our father had been promoted to vice president of the Los Angeles franchise of RC Cola.
Gone were the jobs at RC. The Los Angeles franchise was the big-time, tied into national headquarters in Chicago, and my dad could not so easily pass us off on the payroll. I found a job the summer after my junior year at Knott’s Berry Farm, making candy apples, getting up at 5:15 a.m. five days a week, weekends included.
My friends—the small cadre I’d accrued in the few months we’d lived there—thought I was nuts getting up that early, especially during summer vacation. What they didn’t know, of course, was my history, the way my dad called my name at this exact time just as he had for the last three years. It’d been ingrained in me, this notion of work, this getting up early to go and make your way in this world.
Strangely, I looked forward to getting up, to doing this job, because my father hadn’t arranged any of it, hadn’t fixed things for me, and wasn’t there, a looming presence in all I did. I wasn’t the boss’s son, wasn’t given the job, wasn’t driven there by my dad.
I kept on part-time ‘once school started, into the spring of my senior year. Every Saturday and Sunday I was out of the house by 5:30 a.m, every week bringing home a paycheck, every Friday night spending it on my girlfriend and the movies and dinner and whatever else it is you waste money on in your senior year of high school. When I got accepted into the forestry program at Northern Arizona University, there lay before me only 12 weeks to make enough money to last me a whole year. With all my money spent and a job skewering apples at $3.10 an hour, I had no choice but to accept my dad’s offer of summer employment at good old RC Cola. There I would make $5 an hour, have weekends off, could drive in with him so I wouldn’t have to put miles on my car or pay any gas.
At 5:15 the morning after I graduated from high school, having been out until 3 the night before, my dad again leaned into my room, called my name, said, “Time to get up.”
I spent the summer building racks, those huge wooden structures you see on the ends of aisles in grocery stores, under the direction of one Jimmy Galintino, a short, gray-haired man who’d been with the company for 30 years and whose ears stuck out from his head like the handles on a trophy. Here I was in Los Angeles, in the middle of Watts in a sprawling factory, hundreds of people at work in all the adjacent buildings, the bottling line running 24 hours a day non-stop. Mr. Galintino filled out rack orders, called stores and arranged times for new ones to be delivered, old ones to be picked up; I sat outside, the pieces of these things spread out around me like the bones of a big dead animal, waiting for me to reassemble them.
Once enough of them were built, we loaded them for delivery onto the back of a flatbed truck and drove all over Southern California, from San Clemente to Ventura, Pasadena to San Pedro, Simi Valley to San Bernardino. We spent a lot of time together, just driving on freeways.
Mr. Galintino talked, his words quick and loud, his hands working all the while. He was barely able to see over the steering wheel and spent his drive time imparting the history of Royal Crown Cola to me, as though he were some sort of oracle, I his amanuensis, though all I ever did was nod, look out my window, wonder which Vons we were headed for, where we might get lunch.
He told of how he’d been the one to invent the display tray, the fold-up and precut sheet of cardboard in which the product was placed to build displays of RC or Diet Rite or anything else; he told of when Nehi was king and you couldn’t give away RC; he told of the first summer they sold a million cases out of the Los Angeles franchise, and of how when he was a driver and it was so hot one day that bottles were exploding in the bays.
He’d known my dad for years, knew him back when he was doing driver-truck sales for the company, then when Dad had become the first pre~salesman, a notion back in the ‘50s of sending someone in to take an order and having it delivered off the truck by somebody else the next day. As radical as you could get, Mr. Galintino let me know. My dad was something of a mover, and he let me know how proud I ought to be of him, how great a man he was.
And he told of how my father, the story legendary now in the annals of Royal Crown, had gotten into a fistfight with a Coke salesman once in the soda pop aisle of a Safeway in Long Beach over who had the right to which facings on the shelf.
“Who won?” I asked when he was through with the story.
He looked at me, his hands finally still and in place on the steering wheel. It was a look that seemed to size me up, and seemed to find me wanting.
He smiled, shrugged. “Doesn’t matter, does it?” he said.
I took all these stories as being an old man’s attempts at brown-nosing the boss’s son, though I never let on that I felt this way. I only worked alone building racks in a warehouse, a willing but unwilling compatriot. I bore him no ill-will, except when he came out of his office and told me to hurry it up with the racks, that I wasn’t moving fast enough. But I liked him for how loud he was, for how he slapped on the back the salesmen we ran into on calls, liked him even for the way he moved his hands when he drove, as though in these moves I was brought closer to the story.
So much history, but all of it, I thought, wasted on me. I was only marking time, getting my paycheck and drinking my RC while waiting for the day I drove off to Flagstaff,Ariz., and the real life that lay before me.
I had planned to be a forest ranger since my first days in Boy Scouts camping on the Mogollin Rim. I had planned to spend my life riding a horse, helping people make certain their campfires were out. RC, of course, was my father’s life, the way he’d made his way in this world. But not me. In August 1976 I got into my new car, a yellow Ford LTD, an ex-company car my dad had sold me. I knew RC and all the hours I’d ever worked there were long behind me. The cashier’s check in my pocket was the only proof of my association with the place.
Except for the car. And the RC duffel bag.
But past that, RC was gone.
Until I moved back at the end of fall semester.
Forestry, it turned out, was product yield, computer models, soil tests. Everything but riding a horse. And my girlfriend was back home, too.
The day after Christmas, I pulled up at 6 a.m. sharp to the branch sales office in Lynwood, a low building with a small parking lot out front, the lot crammed with cars.
ï had on my RC company shirt, light blue with the logo stitched above the left breast pocket, and the blue RC tie with the tiny logo centered on the bottom tip. I had on my navy blue polyester company pants, my RC Eisenhower jacket, the logo stitched on the left breast, my black steel-toed shoes, and navy socks.
My dad had brought the clothes home for me even before I got back from Flagstaff. I sat there for a while, trying to figure out what was going to happen. I hadn’t done this before, been simply sent alone to an RC outpost. Eighteen years old, and I wanted my dad there with me.
There were still stars out, I remember, as I finally moved for the door, scared to death of what might happen once I entered: People would look at me, wonder who I was, why I was here. The boss’s son, they would think, some wuss forced on us by the big man downtown.
I put my hand on the knob, pushed open the door. Light from inside fell out onto the ground before me; I looked up and saw precisely what I’d feared I’d find: 30 or A0 men, all dressed as I was, seated at tables in the room, all of them looking straight at me. At the far end of the room stood a small, thick man in a white dress shirt, his tie not a company tie but wild swirls of color. His hair was slicked back on his head, his ears from the same mold as Mr. Galintino’s. He held a cigarette in one hand, took a drag: Con Andros, branch manager. The man who’d hired me in an all but pro forma interview last week. A man of good will, I believed. A nice man. A good man.
In the silence of all these men watching me, he said, “Mr. Lott, good afternoon. Glad you could make it.”
The branch was in a meeting, and I eased myself in the door, moved along the wall to my left, and leaned against it, tried not to be seen even with these men looking at me.
I nodded, tried to smile, crossed my arms.
“Mr. Lott,” he went on, smiling as he spoke, “when we say be here at 6 o’clock, it means that’s when the festivities begin. Be here by 6 o’clock means, in all actuality, be here by 5:45. Am I understood?” He took another drag off the cigarette, held in the smoke, smiled at me.
I could see the other men smiling, too.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Fine,” he said. “Wonderful.” He breathed out the smoke, said, “And welcome to our humble shop “
At the meeting I was introduced to “fact sheets,” flyers of a sort that advertised upcoming sale prices given to store managers in order to get them to buy displays. The “sales board,” covering one whole wall of the room, was a huge grid displaying numbers and names of all the products sold: RC, Diet Rite, Schweppes, Nehi, RC100, Mug Root Beer. Each day the salesmen posted their sales— numbers in green if they were above projection, in red if they were below, so that everyone in the branch knew who was selling what. Also, whose job was secure, whose wasn’t.
After the meeting I was ushered by one of the salesmen out into the warehouse behind the sales meeting room, and to the point of purchase (P.O.P.) room. There I was issued the tools of my trade: a cardboard case, a few rolls of Day-glo stickers advertising prices on RC and Diet Rite and Schweppes, stacks of carton stuffers and bottle hangers, all Day-glo. The price gun, a plastic thing that looked a little like some hand-held weapon from “Star Wars,” fed out paper price labels when you pulled the trigger. Garveys were ancient history.
And there I was issued a feather duster.
I spent the duration of the Christmas break driving around in my car to grocery stores all over Orange County and the South Bay, merchandising the shelves, writing on the backs of carton stuffers the number of cases I would need of what in order to fill the shelves, then heading to the back room, and wheeling out the product, filling the shelves, putting up P.O.P. Occasionally I’d stop to talk to stock clerks about those Lakers, the prospects for the Dodgers, how the Rams had blown it in the playoffs.
It became evident on that morning that somehow I would end up in this life. I kept making aborted forays into endeavors, enrolling at Cal State—Long Beach for the spring semester as a marine biology major for no good reason, as I can recall, other than that I liked the ocean. I got a job working as a fry cook at a CoCo’s in Newport Beach, given the job because of my veteran experience with Food Services at Knotts Berry Farm. I never told them that experience amounted only to the dipping of apples into hot candy. That semester I flunked Ocean Fishing, a course I got tired of and simply quit going to, and that semester I got engaged to my girlfriend, then broke up with her.
I went right back to RC for more merchandising work and, toward the end of the summer, vacation relief sales, yet another rung or so up the corporate ladder. Here I was given the route sales book of one of the men, then followed his route, called on managers with my fact sheets and tried to sell them. I was a tentative salesman, willing only to hand a manager a sheet, say a few words about a possible endcap I’d spotted down off the bread aisle or here, up front, next to the produce area. Then I’d disappear into the back room, take inventory, pencil out an order sheet that would bring in just enough cases to fill the rows,just enough to cover what I put up on the shelf.
In the fall, still a marine biology major, I worked at a restaurant called The Big Yellow House in Costa Mesa, given the job based on my veteran experience with CoCo’s. I never told them my expertise amounted to frying up onion rings and fl·ench fries, nor of the fire I’d started in the cook station after I left a pile of those wicker baskets they served onion rings in on top of the deep-fryer exhaust pipe.
The Big Yellow House was a restaurant that featured American food: pot roast and fried chicken and barbecue ribs, mashed potatoes and creamed corn and green beans, all of it served up family style. Waitresses in granny dresses brought out big plates heaped with food and set them on the table; you served yourself. A special feature that seemed pretty clever was that kids paid based on what they weighed; in the front room of the place children had to step up onto an old-fashioned scale, watch the needle spin around until it landed on a certain price.
I ended up working there through Christmas break, being promoted to the opening crew of the chain itself, and spent the next spring training cooks how to cook for the company at a new restaurant opening up in Brea. There I preached the subtleties of cayenne pepper in the creamed corn, the art of pot roast cooked in coffee, the beatific ramifications of ribs cooked just until the meat fell from the bone.
This too was when I left the confines of my parents’ house for the grown-up world of a rental home shared with three other guys, friends I’d met at church: two surfers, one seminary student. I’d work late at the restaurant then get up and go to classes at Cal State the next morning. My grades stayed up except for Elementary Physics, a required course for marine biology majors, a course in which you had to receive a C or better in order to remain a marine biology major.
I did not pass.
I was not affected by this failure in the least. I was working on the opening crew for a chain of restaurants, the success of which was assured. Four new stores were opening up. I was living in a house I helped pay for; I was keeping my own hours, responsible for myself and my way in this world, convinced that this business was my future. Who I was.
Which is why I told the vice president of The Big Yellow House, Inc., that I was the one who ought to be made assistant manager of the store in Brea. I surveyed my life, saw all I had going for me, saw the way even this failing of a physics course serendipitously landed me out of school and into the corporate good hands of the restaurant chain, saw this, in fact, as my destiny. A restaurateur.
No, the VP said. I was only 19, and had to be 21 for reasons involving the lounge where drinks were served while you waited for a table.
I’ll quit if you don’t let me be assistant manager, I told him, me there in a cook’s smock and apron, the two of us standing in the cook station while my trainees served up perfectly rendered versions of corporate recipes: Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, those ribs.
Then quit, he said.
That weekend, astounded by the company’s lack of vision, coupled, of course, with the ugly irony of the fact I’d dropped out of school, certain of the company’s visionary capacity—of course they would hire me as assistant manager!—I went over to Mom and Dad’s for dinner, a weekly routine that involved me cooking steaks out on the patio for the entire family, since I was the one who knew so much about cooking. Each Sunday my dad made it a point to holler out to me from inside, “Don’t burn the steaks1’’Each Sunday I stood with my head tilted to one side, and breathed out a sigh as only a 19-year-old shown the obvious by his all-knowing father can sigh.
But this Sunday he came out and watched me cook up the steaks while I told him what had happened, about the idiocy of the company. I was a good worker, I told him, showed up on time, did what was asked, knew how to get things done.
“Work for RC,” he said. “Weekends free. No nights. Base salary and commission. Nickel a case.” He paused. “Brad’s on the table-set crew. Timmy’s building racks for Galintino.” Paused again. “Weekends free,” he said. “Nickel a case.”
I remember taking in a breath then, looking over at him. He only watched the steaks, his hands on his hips, waiting.
I sat down on the porch swing, tongs in hand. Above me was the latticework of the patio roof, the afternoon light broken into long lines and shadows that lay across my legs like something trying to cut me in pieces, or something trying to mend me. I heard the steaks cooking along with no help from me, just sizzling there on the grill. 1 smelled the smoke.
Here was my dad, my towering father who, in fact, was three inches shorter than me by then. He stood looking at the steaks, his eyes creased closed for the smoke.
Here was RC.
Here was my life.
He said, “You’re not going to let these burn, are you?” and looked at me, smiling.
I was a salesman, full-blown. Five company-issue shirts, five pairs of pants. A tie, a car allowance, a trunk full of P.O.P. and cardboard
trays. A permanent nametag, BRET LOTT etched in plastic, white letters on a blue background, above the name the RC logo. A route sales book, a route.
I told all my friends it was a good decision, told them I could see myself doing this for the rest of my life. I told this to my parents, told this to my housemates. I told this to myself, too, whenever î pulled up at a Vons or Ralphs or Stater Brothers: This is a good decision, I can see myself doing this for the rest of my life.
My route was made up of beach communities in Orange County. Out of the house before daylight, pulling up the driveway past dark most nights. The afternoon of my fourth day, I pulled in to a Vons on Harbor Boulevard in Costa Mesa, carrying with me all that P.O.P. I pulled out my duster, poked the handle into my back pocket.
I walked in, loaded up what I needed, and filled the shelf, finishing with the P.O.P. “You want to roll out the proverbial red carpet!” Con Andros had exhorted me last Friday afternoon at a meeting before I went on route myself: a bottle hanger on every other bottle, a carton stuffer in every six-pack, there in the slot for the center bottle.
When I was done I made my way up to the courtesy booth at the front of the store. I had my route sales book open, saw at the top of the sales card for the store the manager’s name, Allen Schenk, and started rehearsing my introduction: Hi! I’m Bret Lott, your new RC salesman, and I just wanted to give you this fact sheet on RC two-liters . .
At the courtesy booth, an older man in a shirt and tie and red Vons vest, his white hair perfectly coiffed and lacquered into place, stood inside on the raised floor of the booth. He was looking down at me, his head leaning to one side, arms crossed, ready, I could see, for whatever pitch he knew was coming.
“Is Mr. Schenk here?” I said, smiling.
“You’re looking at him,” he said.
“Hi!” I said, and felt myself blush a moment. I put out my hand to him. He reached over the glass partition between us and gave one quick shake. He crossed his arms again, all without taking his eyes off me.
I said, “I’m Bret Lott, your new RC salesman, and I just wanted—”
“What’s your name?” he cut in, and I saw him glance at my nametag.
“Bret Lott,” I said. “I just wanted—”
“You’re not related to that other Lott down there, Bill, are you?”
“Yes,” I said, and tried to smile, not sure where this was going. “He’s my dad,” I said.
“Good God,” he said, then slowly shook his head. “Bill used to be my salesman,” he said.
He was shocked, with this second-generation salesman from RC showing up to peddle still more soda pop to him, himself still a manager after all these years.
But I think the shock to me was just as great as it was to him.
Here I was: the RC man.
I lasted a year on the route before what I told myself and told others was simply something I could no longer believe: This is a good decision. I can see myself doing this for the rest of my life.
I was a good salesman, sold displays, filled shelves, beat my projection for the entire year, more green numbers than red on the sales board. Every Sunday afternoon at my parents’ house my dad talked to us boys of Royal Crown, my father holding court, making the rounds of topics: first me and the Schweppes promotion coming up at Christmas; next Brad, and how the tableset at the Gelson’s up in Newport Hills had gone, whether we’d been buried in facings by Coke or not; finally, little brother Timrny, swamper for RC now, riding shotgun on trucks out of the Lynwood office, Dad’s questions to him more about how the trucks were performing, if the dispatcher, Ted Blankenship, was doing his best at routing out the stops.
We’d all ended up working for Royal Crown.
But inside that year I came, slowly and fully, to hate what I was doing: Every day I had to walk into a store and talk to a manager, a man who thought very little of you in the first place, thought of you as more of a pest than anything else, thought of you as a salesman, pressing people into buying something they really didn’t need in the first place.
But it wasn’t the nature of the product that made me decide to abandon this life I’d seen for myself, this good decision.
It was simply the fact of placing who you were on the line every minute you were inside the store. You became someone new, someone else, when you walked in, whether it was before dawn at your first stop, a huge Albertson’s, the store not yet open, the intercom blasting Aerosmith throughout the store, stockclerks dressed in ragged shirts and beat-up jeans throwing product onto the shelves, hauling ass to get the aisles cleared before the first customers showed up at 7:30, or whether it was the last stop on Tuesday, mom-and-pops day, this last store a Korean dairy in Garden Grove, a rnom-and-pops if ever there was one, complete with a Kim Chee burial plot out back, seven children huddled around a milk-crate turned over and being used as a dinner table, the Pop of the operation nodding at you, smiling, inviting you to partake of his meal, on your mind only the 10-case stack you wanted to sell him in the hopes of meeting your projection that day.
You were someone else. I was someone else.
I could do this no longer, could not give up myself upon entry into the marketplace, not because there was anything wrong with it, or because there was any deceit in it. I simply did not like it.
And so I enrolled that spring in a creative writing class at a community college, in order to prepare myself for getting back in the saddle that fall: I’d already re-enrolled at Cal State.
Things fall apart, and find their own ends, finally, in ways we cannot imagine, ways that defy precisely what we imagined in the first place.
I have no doubt that my father imagined that he was bestowing something good on his sons, something to save, something with which to build their lives. And I have no doubt he imagined for us, later in our lives, careers with the company, the safest—and only— life he had known, a company man since 1953, when he was hired on at age 18 to drive truck for Nehi, a life safe enough for his children, secure enough for our own lives.
But what I know he could not imagine was the way in which these lives played themselves out, the way in which events out of our hands became events looming in our lives, events bearing down hard on us, forcing turns we had no idea we might ever make.
He was fired from RC in 1980, 27 years after he’d started with the company; fired because, when a new president was named and moved down from Chicago to take over the branch, this man found inside the hearts of the men who both worked for and with my father a sort allegiance that he knew he could not inherit. Bill, my dad, vice president, knew the buyers at all the corporate headquarters, had known them for decades, had known them all since he was that salesman, themselves those stockclerks winking at us those Saturday afternoons we followed our towering father into the stores, feather dusters in our back pockets; Bill, my dad, knew the inside of his own company, too, knew everyone from the branch managers right on down to the swampers.
They all knew him, and knew him to be the RC man, the one they could count on, that same man who’d made himself legendary for punching it out with a Coke salesman in a Safeway in Long Beach over who would get how many facings, that same man who’d been the first pre-salesman in soda pop history, the same man who’d singlehandedly turned the Phoenix franchise into a money-maker.
The same man who’d wanted for me this life, the life of becoming someone new upon entering a store.
He was fired, given no notice, only told to leave, here is your severance pay, thank you very much.
Within the week he was Tiired by Dr. Pepper in the same capacity, his value duly noted by the competition all these years.
And the sales force started leaving, giving notice at RC, hiring on at Dr. Pepper, until this immigration became so apparent to the new president that he informed my father at a dinner given by one of the store chains that he would fire me if he kept hiring men away from RC.
“Go ahead, fire him,” my dad told him, and I can see the smile on his face, the dare there, but the faith, too, I hope, that his son could fend for himself. Or start up with DP. “He’s a big boy,” my dad told the president.
And I was fired.
The next week I got a job as a reporter for the Daily Commercial News, a shipping newspaper based in Lynwood. I was making $50 more a week, worked from 8:30 to 5. And worked with words, wrote and wrote and wrote.
Brad split, lived in Aspen and worked as a barboy in one of the glamour pads up there.
Now he is a sheetrock man, married with two daughters and working in Sequim,Wash., where he and his family live in a trailer set up on a parcel of land they bought; he has plans to build the house himself, stick by board, and I have no doubt he will do this.
Timmy hung in the longest, stayed first with Dr. Pepper, working as a merchandiser, the job given to him by my father. Then, when he’d worked his way up to a salesman himself, Dr. Pepper was bought out by Coke, and he was then a Coke salesman, working for the same company my father’d brawled with all those years ago in a Safeway.
He stayed the salesman for nine years, until stunned one morning a year or so ago by the words of a supervisor in a sales meeting.
“I don’t care who you are,” this supervisor said. “You want the sale, you get it whatever way you can. Leave your integrity in the car.”
My brother called me that evening, told me of these words, and told me of how suddenly he looked around him, at the other men all dressed as he himself was dressed, and resolved in that moment to quit as soon as he could.
And he did quit, finally given the nerve to abandon our fathers profession, I believe, simply by the conviction in his heart of his own integrity. He, too, found a job he enjoys, designing and selling playground equipment from Orange County all the way to Las Vegas.
When Coke took over Dr. Pepper, my dad lost his job again, squeezed out once more. After that, he started working for a food brokerage firm, a company that sells product from the manufacturer to the chains. He sells anything and everything—sacks of dog food, boxes of bleach, pallets of toilet paper—and has called me on more than a few occasions to inform me of a particularly large sale: “Sold four freight cars of detergent,” he once told me over the phone.
Not what he had imagined.
But he works hard, and is happy.
I eventually wrote a novel, my first one, about an RC salesman, and something about the life he leads, the way his work and love intersect, for better and worse. And because the main character in that novel feels a certain disdain about his job, a certain distance between himself and what he does, my father believes I have a certain disdain for him and for what he did all those years.
And I believe he thinks, finally, that all that RC stuff was for nought, given the outcomes of the lives of his sons, none of them in the business, none of them having panned out as he may have planned all those thousands of cases.
It would be easy for me simply to say, here and now, that this is not true, only give words in written form to the contrary of what he has said to me face to face before: “You think working for RC was a waste.”
But I think it better to say that while I wrote that first book, I got up at 5:15 each morning, long before daylight, and wrote, in me some natural rhythm begun by no one other than him. Even now I am the first one up in our household, though I allow myself to sleep in, rise at 6, a luxury after all those years, and I spend my days at work here, in this room, my office, where there sits on a file cabinet an old RC 16-ounce bottle, the diamond and crown logo in red and white on the glass, a totem that speaks to me of the value of work.
It started as a game, three boys having at one another with filthy feather dusters, Day-glo stickers and purple ink.
And it only occurs to me now that with our sharing the communion meal of corn nuts and M&Ms together, even his coming into my room before daylight and calling out my name in his deep and solid voice, then the words Time to get up; all of these, I now see, were only his attempts to guide me and my brothers the only way he knew how, all this my father’s effort to hold on to Brad and to Tim and to me and keep us there with him, all uttered in the only language he knew: Royal Crown, and its presence in his life, his focus, his own anchor.
It ends with no end at all, of course, as we are all still alive, still here. And here are only permutations, variations on the themes of work and love, all our lives splintered away from intention and desire, from will and choice, to reveal the influence, finally, of Royal Crown: men at work, living, providing, going on.