Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

Bobby Boy’s Old Curiosity Shop for February 2021:  Nerd is the Word

We’ve been lying low in the Old Curiosity Shop for many months now, like the rabbits in their bunny burrow, watching their TV with the “people ears” antenna on top.  By the time you read this, we will be two weeks into the Biden era in Washington DC, assuming that something terrible hasn’t happened.  But the last several months haven’t been a total loss.  We’ve received Evie Sands’ new album, “Get Out of Your Own Way” and Marla Jo Fisher’s “Frumpy Middle-aged Mom” book arrived at Vroman’s, where I bought an autographed copy.  Teresa Cowles, whom I have seen in several different bands over the last 15 years, appeared via video with Grant Langston’s new group: Great Outdoors and their first release, “Forty Miles of Bad Road”, a title that sounded familiar to us old timers.

The above-mentioned Ms Fisher (not to be confused with Miss Fisher, who solves murder mysteries in 1929 Melbourne, Australia) writes a column for the Southern California News Group, which we usually see in the Sunday edition of the Pasadena Star-News.  For those of us who missed her earlier columns, the book she published last year gathers a fine collection in an easy to read form.  Her column for Jan. 10 of this year recalls her high school days and life as a “nerd” in a San Joaquin Valley town.  It reminded me of Janis Joplin’s high school days in Port Arthur, Texas.

Going back to my high school days, I was definitely a nerd, with minuscule athletic ability and rather short on social graces, too.  My extra-curricular activity was the Wildcat, the weekly school newspaper for which I wrote articles and (unlike “real” journalists) set headlines in the print shop.  Getting a bit ahead of our story, I wound up marrying one of the editors.

To this day, I’m a music fan, and we had recorded music in our home from many years ago, including some records that would later turn up on the Dr. Demento show.  In 1955, I developed an interest in rhythm & blues/rock & roll, which was encouraged when my dad, who was a postal clerk at the San Marino Branch, was upgraded to night supervisor when a crew was brought in to work nights during the Christmas rush.  

Earlier in the year, one of his colleagues, who was an electronics hobbyist, installed a background music system with an FM tuner, which was tuned to what my younger daughter would later dub “wallpaper music”.  Came December, and the night crew started in.  Pappy soon noticed that the background music was not what the night shift needed—“That dern fiddle-squeakin’ music will put everyone to sleep.”  So he took our table model AM radio to work and rigged a connection to the music amplifier, and at midnight would tune in the Huggy Boy R&B show on KRKD.  Huggy Boy’s slogan was “Nobody sleeps while this show’s on!” and it kept the crew jacked up and moving the mail till the sun came up.

Being somewhat of a night owl anyway, I soon started listening to Huggy Boy during late night studying sessions.  Then I learned about Hunter Hancock, Johnny Otis, and other radio personalities who broadcast music aimed at (to use a term of those days) the “colored folks”.  I started collection 78 RPM records by Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, and around April 1956, gathered parts and built a 3-speed record player.  

As time went on, I started hanging around Johnson Music in downtown Monrovia, and made myself useful as a “resource person” for obscure R&B records.  Finally, the day came in the spring of 1957 when Mr. Johnson asked, “Would you like to work here?”  After getting an OK from my parents and the counselor at school, I started on my only paid job in the music industry.  What made this more interesting was that we had a lot of teenage girls coming in to buy 45 RPM records featuring Elvis, Ricky and other favorites.  Some of them would even flirt with me, to get me to play a record they were interested in.  One girl wearing a low cut top leaned over the counter; this was a new experience for a shy, nerdy kid. 

 In school, things livened up when I was one of three students trying for a National Merit Scholarship.  One of them was a boy who went off to Caltech and became a highly respected aeronautical engineer, going on to earn a PhD.  The other was a blonde girl whom I took out a few times; one evening I was over at her house with the camera I had received as a graduation present, and she asked me to take her photo.  Her mother was standing nearby, and when I was ready to shoot, told her to take a deep breath to show off her curves.  I think her mother might have thought I would be a good catch.  But in September 1958 I went off to college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to study electronic engineering, one of those fields which, especially in those days, had very few “coeds”.

One hobby I took with me to college was collecting records.  I located several sources of old 45s in the SLO area, one of which was the local music store in downtown San Luis.  They had a bargain bin full of records, and a listening booth for trying them out.   One of the employees seemed a bit too friendly, bordering on creepy, and would get into my “personal space” back before that term became common.  I made it a practice to avoid going there when he was on duty.  Back on campus, I mentioned this character to a classmate, who said, “That’s [name redacted]—he’s queer as a nine-dollar bill.”   This was my first experience with what I’ve heard called “chicken-hawking” ; I may have been rather naïve, but I had no interest in this dude.

Things changed rather quickly in the next few years, and I wound up working in the electronics manufacturing industry, married with two daughters.  A big milestone was marked in June 1963, when I joined what was then Orange Empire Trolley Museum.  My interest in railways, which had mostly gone dormant after the Pacific Electric line to Monrovia was abandoned in 1951, came alive, and has been a part of my life ever since.  But like record collecting, this was an interest that attracted mostly nerdy men.  It wasn’t a concern when things were going well at home, but as the years went by, my wife, Rosemary, who had been my high school sweetheart, turned sour.  I think she expected me to become more than a technician in an industrial plant.  After working in several manufacturing plants, the aerospace contracts started to dry up, so I decided to “turn pro” and go to work for the Santa Fe Railway.  I could do a whole story about my railroading days, which were less than two years but gave me a lot of interesting experiences. 

After “pulling the pin” on the railroad job, I went to Hoffman Electronics in El Monte, where I tested and tuned modules for aircraft navigational radios.  Since I had been on the night shift at Santa Fe, I soon went to the night shift at Hoffman, which did have a goodly percentage of women on that shift.  There was Eleanor, on whom I had a bit of a crush and one of my colleagues said, “I saw you looking at her—I’m gonna tell your wife!”  and I said “Go ahead—she’ll probably say, ‘Good!  It’ll get his mind off those damned streetcars!’”  

By this time, our family had moved into a larger house, and with my late hours, I moved to a spare bedroom at the rear of the house.  In the early 1970s, first wife and I had gone on some family outings, but I was mostly doing vacations as solo tours.  She didn’t care, as long as I brought home the paycheck.  

One amusing story from the night shift— we had a pot-luck dinner one night, and Sal, one of our rework assemblers, pointed out a bowl of green chili dip, with a bag of tortilla chips nearby.  He said, “Bob, you should try this chili dip.  Eleanor made it.”  So I took a chip, and dug a big scoop of dip and chowed down.  It was the hottest dip I’d ever eaten.  Steam came out of my ears, and smoke rose from my collar.  I looked at Sal, and said, “That really gets your attention!”  Sal said, “You’re the first Paddy [LA barrio slang for “Anglo”] I’ve seen who could eat that and not fall over.  I’m declaring you an Honorary Mexican!”  Ole’! 

 In 1978, Hoffman was bought out by Gould, Inc., which meant that corporate headquarters would move from upstairs in El Monte to a suburb of Chicago.  But this was about the time that one of the other techs saw an ad for brakemen in the LA Times, placed by Southern Pacific.  I was rather surprised, because the railroad business wasn’t that great in the 1970s, and railroads used to depend on family members and word of mouth to get replacements for retiring crewmen.  Well, I checked the want ads (remember those?)  and saw nothing from SP.  But there was an ad for communications techs posted by Southern Calif. Edison, and the job paid a dollar more per hour than what I was getting.  So I took a vacation day, went to Rosemead, applied for the job and took the test.  My application was OK, and I passed the test, so a week or two later, I went to an interview in Alhambra.  

The interview panel asked a number of  questions that I had good answers for, such as “How do you feel about overtime?” “Love it!  It’s what puts new tires on my truck.” 

“How about out of town work?” “Fine with me” (daughters were almost grown up, and the less time I spent with Rosemary, the better)

“What kind of hobbies do you have” I told them about working at the railway museum, building track, helping on the overhead line crew hanging trolley wire and setting poles and doing electrical work on old streetcars.  This turned out to be a “plus” because they had hired some techs who thought the job meant sitting at a bench and trouble-shooting modules and radio units.  These fellows weren’t happy campers when they found that the job included pulling cables, installing equipment racks and running temporary wiring through power plants. 

“Would you have a problem taking instruction from someone younger than you?” “If the person knows the job, age, ethnic background and gender are immaterial.”

I’ve forgotten whether I was asked “When can you start?” that day, but I gave notice at Hoffman, took a week of vacation, and started at SCE in May 1978.

Edison work kept me busy, while my personal life saw my daughters graduate from college, and the older one marry her high school sweetheart.  For her it worked out great—they just celebrated their 36th anniversary.  I bid a “rotating shift” job in Alhambra.   This meant that every few weeks I’d get a four-day weekend, and I would sometimes use this to go for a trip to San Francisco.  

During the mid-1980s, the Municipal Railway was running vintage streetcars on the Market St. surface tracks during the summer (the new cars were running in the subway that had been built as part of the BART project).  One day in July 1985, after the old cars had gone to the barn, I was in my hotel room, reading Herb Caen’s column in the SF Chronicle (an essential part of a visit to The City) and noticed an ad for Wolfgang’s night club, announcing that Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes was appearing.  I decided to make the scene, and by some miracle found a parking spot near the club.  

The most memorable part of the show was meeting two local ladies, one of whom, Cassandra, was a major fan of Ronnie, and even got to visit her in the dressing room after the show.  We were talking about the music of the 1960s, and she complained about how there wasn’t much from that era on the local radio stations, and often the DJ would talk over some of the music.  I offered to make her a tape cassette from my collection, and she gave me her address and phone number, something that had never happened to me before.  So I compiled the tape, sent it to her, and the next time I was in San Francisco, we had dinner at Tommye’s Joynt on Van Ness Ave.  A few months later, I went north again, and had told my buddies at work that I was going to meet my girlfriend in SF.  No, this did not turn into a torrid love affair; it was strictly platonic, but this was after my first wife had done a rather thorough job of running my self-esteem through the brush chipper. 

 Cassandra and I met once again in 1986; this was after I had moved out of the Duarte house and filed for divorce from Rosemary.  But Cassandra had decided to move back east, where most of her family was, so I made another tape for her to play on the cross country trip.  She sent me a few postcards from stops along the way, but then disappeared from the radar.

 By the summer of 1986, I had moved into an apartment in Alhambra which had the advantage of being within walking distance of work, the Post Office, a supermarket and the Camera Shop.  My car would sit in the carport for days on end; ironically, it would be started on Wednesday evenings when I was off duty for trips to LA for an informal gathering of electric railway fans.  

I was at a family gathering when Ruth, my sister-in-law, knowing of my single status and rather meager social life, suggested that I try square dancing.  She and my brother were active members of a couples club, and she told me that there were singles clubs where women outnumbered men— a much more favorable ratio than used record shops or railway museums.  So I joined the Bachelors and Bachelorettes (known as the B &Bs for short) and began the 9-month course to learn all the steps.  

Classes were in the Masonic Hall in Temple City once a week, and we were welcome to dance with other classes in the area.  It took a while to get to where we could do a set without missing a step, but when we got into the groove, I imagined an overhead camera recording our moves, like a Busby Berkeley scene in Hollywood musical.  Among the songs we danced to were “Hello Mary Lou” (made famous by Ricky Nelson) and “El Paso City” (from Marty Robbins).  Then there was the night that one of the ladies asked, “Do you have a partner for the next tip?” [pair of dances]  When I said, “no” she seized my wrist and said “You do now!”  Wow!  A new experience.   One night we had a pot-luck supper as part of the evening.  I made a potato salad from scratch, after calling my mother for some kitchen advice.  When I put the baking dish with the salad on the table at the club, one of the ladies was noticing it and said, “Looks home made.”  “Yep, made it this afternoon”  and she said, “Guess what, girls, he can cook, too!”  Obviously I was on somebody’s radar.

We’ll wrap up this saga for now— not sure what next month will bring; musical play list?  Travel stories?  Tune in at the beginning of March for the next installment!

Return to DaBelly

© 2021   DaBelly Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.