After I sent John off to work that morning, I got all dolled up in my rose pink Sunday dress with a wide satin sash that wrapped around my hips and a pink velvet cloche. I checked myself in the mirror and thought I looked pretty enough to be a beauty queen. When I worked up enough courage, I walked one block to Everybody's Market to ask Mr. Sharp, the owner, for a job. It was the middle of June 1930. John and I had been married for a month.
Even though the Depression was getting worse, I didn't have to work. John made enough money to take care of us cutting hair at a barbershop downtown. But we lived with his family and I got tired of being stuck inside the house all day with his mother, cooking and cleaning, while everyone else in his family got to get out and spend the day at work or school. It was just like when I lived at home. I didn't mind helping my mother-in-law, but I was eighteen. I wanted to get dressed up and go to work where people could see me. And I wanted my own money to buy some satiny, maroon drapes and glass lamps I saw at Montgomery Wards. I planned to hang them in the living room of the house we were saving to buy. The only place I knew of where I might be able to get a job was Everybody's Market.
Everybody's Market was twice the size of Papá's store, big enough to fit two cars, and Mr. Sharp stocked twice as much food. He even had a meat counter. Mr. Sharp was in his forties and panzon. He ran the store by himself and always stayed open, even on holidays. No matter what time I went there, it was busy with customers. All that work was too much for him.
When I walked up to the store, Mr. Sharp was rushing to sweep the front before a customer came. His round, bald head shined with sweat, and his fat cheeks looked like pink balls ready to pop. I knew it was a good time to ask him for a job. When he saw me out of the corner of his eye, he stopped sweeping and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. "Good morning, Mrs. Navarro," he said, trying to catch his breath. He was always polite and friendly, no matter how busy he got.
"Good morning, Mr. Sharp." Using my smart voice and best English I said, "You need somebody to work here for you. Look over there." He followed behind me as I stepped into the middle of the store. Instead of a front wall, he had a steel door that rolled-up and let in all the bugs and dirt. Railroad tracks ran on the right side of the store. Every time a train passed by, dust blew all over everything.
I pointed at the top of a shelf against a wall, covered with dust and cobwebs. "Everything over there is all dusty," I said.
Mr. Sharp glanced around at the tops of the other shelves. "They're all pretty dusty, aren't they?"
I looked him in the eye so he knew I was serious. "You need somebody here to help you. I know the store business. My mother and father have one and I ran it for them."
"Can you start today?" He hired me right on the spot. He couldn't pay much, but I had a job.
Everyday I kept busy, Monday through Friday, from nine o'clock in the morning until six o'clock at night. I dusted from one end to the other, back and forth in my high heels. Oh, yes! I wore high heels so I could look tall and slim. And I treated the customers like I loved them. The moment I saw a customer come in, I hurried and took off my apron and took care of her. "Hello Mrs. Graft, how can I help you?" It's bad for business when customers have to call the clerk over. As soon as the customer left, I tied the apron back on and dusted some more.
A train passed by a few times a day; that place got dirty too fast. I only got to rest during my half hour lunch break, but I didn't mind. I loved to be out where I could talk to people and show myself off. I wore my good dresses from Penney's, and I kept my Mary Pickford curls pulled back with pins. Nobody could ever say I was a greñuda. People like to shop where the workers are clean and neat. And I gave my regular customers special attention. One day I even surprised one of my regulars when she came into the store one afternoon.
"Hola, Sra. Ramirez. Are you here for tomatillos?"
I talked to her in Spanish because she didn't understand English.
"I had Mr. Sharp order an extra dozen tomatillos just for you," I said. Just then, Mr. Sharp came in from the stock room in back and hurried over to say hello to her.
"I'm so happy you have Nellie working here," she told him, wearing a pleased smile. "Now I don't have to walk to the store three blocks away to get somebody who speaks Spanish." Mr. Sharp couldn't understand much Spanish, so I told him in English what she had said.
"Tell her I said I'm happy you're here too," said Mr. Sharp. He nodded at her with a grin so wide, the corners of his mouth poked into his fat cheeks.
I hadn't known any white people before I worked at Everybody's Market. My old neighborhood was just nine blocks away, but only Mexicans lived there. The white salesmen that came to my father's store took care of business and left; I didn't get to talk to them very much. But I got to know a lot of white people at Everybody's Market. I paid attention to their ways, so I would know how to take good care of them, like the Friday morning Mrs. Sawyer came in needing something in particular.
"Good morning. What can I do for you today?" I stopped wiping the counter and rushed over to her. She had four boys, ages seven to ten. They were on vacation from school and wore her out. She told me she sent them to the playground for a few hours on Friday afternoons so she could spoil herself with a long bath.
"Do you carry coconut oil shampoo? I ran out and don't want to make a trip downtown just for that." Mrs. Sawyer talked loud and fast. She rubbed the back of her neck as she talked to me. Her dark blue eyes popped out of her skinny face. She was already nervous and it was only nine o'clock.
"We sure do! Right over here." I took her to the shelves where I had set up pretty smelling shampoos, soaps, lotions, and powders.
"Oh my," Mrs. Sawyer's face shined as she took in all the glass bottles and metal containers, like a little girl who just found a box filled with dolls. She ended up buying three dollars worth. When she left, Mr. Sharp walked over to me from the meat counter, wearing a big smile. "I'm glad you talked me into ordering these products," he chuckled, "they're selling like hotcakes."
"I knew they would," I said and got back to work, cleaning the counter. I loved it when Mr. Sharp showed me that he appreciated me. My parents used to give me compliments when I did a good job in my father's store, but it felt like it meant more when it came from a boss who wasn't in my family.
The white men in the neighborhood worked across the bridge in the shops and yards at Santa Fe and kept long hours, so their wives usually came in alone or with their kids. Some of the wives seemed lonely. They told me about things the people in my old neighborhood kept to themselves: husbands that came home drunk every night; single sisters that dated married men; brothers-in-law that borrowed too much money and took their time paying it back.
All my life I thought whites were better off than us Mexicans. They finished high school, could afford new cars and washing machines, and they shopped at Harris's, the expensive department store downtown. Sure, the white men worked as laborers at Santa Fe and at the groves, too, but they got the good jobs. After working at Everybody's Market for three months, I learned that whites were different than us, but not all of them were better off, especially when the Depression hit hard.
Myrtle, a sweet lady in her twenties with a cute bob haircut, came in about twice a week. One morning while I was putting her groceries in a bag, she kept looking around, as though she wanted to make sure we were alone. I was worried about her, but I didn't want to seem nosy, so I waited for her to tell me what was wrong. She was married with three little kids and a mother-in-law to feed, but she only bought a few oranges, a half-pound of beans, and a can of spinach. Usually she complained about her widowed mother-in-law-the old lady had moved from Oklahoma to live with Myrtle's family and she treated Myrtle badly-but today Myrtle seemed to have something else on her mind.
When I handed her the bag across the counter, she looked down as if she was embarrassed and whispered, "Where's Mr. Sharp? I have something to ask you and I don't want him to hear me."
"He's gone downtown for a while. What is it?" I took her hand in mine, "Are you okay?"
She moved close to my ear and whispered so quietly I could barely hear her. "Nell, when you go home for lunch, will you please bring me a pair of stockings? I have to go to a job interview and I don't have any stockings."
A lot of the white lady customers had stopped wearing stockings. I thought it was because of the heat. I had no idea that they might not be able to afford them. John and I weren't suffering from the Depression as much as other people. Santa Fe laid him off from his clerk job depot in April, but he found another job fast. Mr. Obata, the owner of the barbershop where John cut hair on Saturdays, needed a barber full time and hired John to work from Monday through Saturday. The pay wasn't as good as he made at Santa Fe, but the only bill we had was the room and board we paid his parents, so we did all right.
I wanted to help Myrtle; she was such a nice lady. When I went home for lunch I got one of my good pair of stockings, without runs or holes, and put them in a paper bag. She asked me to meet her on the side of the store where the trains passed. When I turned the corner, she was already there. She stood real close to me, like she was going to kiss me. I moved back a little, but she got close to me again and whispered, "I don't want anybody to see what we're doing."
"Nobody can see what I'm giving you," I said. "I put them in a bag." I opened my purse to take the bag out and she put her hand on mine to stop me.
She checked around one more time then told me to hand her the bag. She hurried and put it in her purse. "I'll wash them real good."
"That's okay. You can keep them."
She threw her arms around me and squeezed me so tight I lost my breath for a moment. "You're a doll, Nell. Thank you so much." I was surprised she got so excited; it was as if I had given her gold coins or something.
When she walked away, I noticed that her bob was choppy, as though she had cut it herself. She loved to go downtown and get her hair done once a month. I wondered how her husband could have afforded to buy a new car six months ago and now she couldn't afford to buy stockings or to have her hair cut. A few weeks later, I found out why some of the white customers were hurting from the Depression worse than others.
Janet was my prettiest and most favorite customer. I called her Lillian because she was blonde and gorgeous and reminded me of the famous movie star Lillian Gish. Janet always dolled up in new dresses from Harris's. Her husband Tom was blonde too, and tall and handsome. They had been married for four months, just like John and me. Twice a week, they came in together to buy groceries for dinner. Tom talked to Mr. Sharp at the meat counter while Janet picked up some things and told me about the new styles at Harris's.
One afternoon Janet came in alone. Her face was pale and her eyes were red with dark circles under them. This was the first time I had seen her without makeup and in a housedress. She told me she was busy packing and stopped in to say goodbye before she and Tom left town.
I couldn't believe it. They were so happy in San Bernardino. "What happened?" I asked her.
"Tom got laid off from his job in the yards
all of a sudden," she said. Her voice sounded scratchy from crying.
"I'm very distressed," she told me. "We're renting a furnished house with dishes and all, and we're still making payments on our car." Janet turned away from me, trying not to cry. "We'll have to live in the car and see if Tom can find a job in another town."
This was new to me. I had never known what it was to be poor. When I was growing up, my family wasn't rich, but whatever we had we owned. My parents didn't rent a house or put a bed or anything on credit. My father still drove the same used pick-up he had bought when I was twelve. And John and I almost had enough money saved to buy a house. It was going to be small and old, but we wouldn't have to give it up. As I listened to her talk about her troubles, I wondered if we were better off than whites.
Janet pulled an envelope with cash inside from the pocket on the skirt of her housedress and handed it to me. "Please give this to Mr. Sharp. It's for our meat bill." She shook her head, "I wish we hadn't bought so much on credit. We're paying all our bills off before we leave and hardly have any money left."
I didn't want to take the envelope, but I couldn't afford to pay her bill, and I knew Mr. Sharp needed the money. There was over ten dollars inside. Gee, I felt bad for Janet and Tom having it so rough. They were such good people.
She gave me a hug and walked out of the store real slow. Her body looked sad; she didn't hold herself straight and proud anymore. I thought about when I used to think all whites were better off and said to myself, "John and I have it all."