During my adolescence, my father had a hard time keeping a job. His problems began when I was 11. We lived in Pine Valley out in East County. My father sold surgical supplies for a company called Gentec. He worked straight commission selling scalpels and gauze and respirators to doctors and hospitals in San Diego’s outlying areas. Every morning, he left the house at 7:30 and drove to Fallbrook or San Ysidro or El Centro. He wore a crisp white shirt, a striped tie, and one of the three suits he’d bought second-hand at Goodwill. His shoes were always shined. I remember my dad standing at the desk in his bedroom every Sunday evening methodically applying the polish that smelled like strong soap. He’d let the shoes rest for a while, then take out his big, soft-bristled shoe brush and buff each shoe until the lamplight blazed across the brown leather.
My father had been selling surgical supplies almost from the time I was born. He’d never made a lot of money, but he’d been able to support my mom and my two brothers and my sister and me. I don’t remember when things began to fall apart at Gentec, but I’ve heard the stories from my mother. My dad had to drive to L.A. on the weekends for corporate sales meetings, time he didn’t get paid for. Other weekends, the San Diego manager would make the salesmen conduct inventory at the local warehouse, also without compensation. Commissions didn’t get paid.
When my mother befriended the owners of Pine Valley’s only motel, she told them about my father’s problems at work. The Thomases had run the Hobart House themselves for many years. “We’re thinking about retiring,” the Thomases said. “Why don’t you and Paul come manage the motel for us?”
My father left Gentec. We moved to the motel. My parents lived in the little apartment behind the front office. My brothers and sister and I shared a cabin out back. My father approached his new career the way he approached everything. He learned everything he could about the subject, in this case, hotel management. He worked around the clock. He never stopped until the job was done right. He aimed for perfection even in little details that no one would ever see or know about. People who’d been coming to the motel for years told my parents the place had never looked better. Revenues increased. The Thomases said they were pleased with my parents’ work.
A year after my parents took over the motel’s management, the Thomases sold the Hobart House. “The new owners will be bringing in their own managers,” they told my parents. “Sorry.”
My father remembered an acquaintance from high school, Bob Cornell, who owned some lodges in the Mammoth Lakes area of the Eastern High Sierra. He called my grandmother, who called Bob Cornell’s mother. Two months later, we moved to Mammoth to manage Tamarack Lodge. I had just turned 12. The day we arrived, a “spring duster” had deposited 12 inches of wet snow on Mammoth Lakes. We pulled our belongings on a sled up the hill to the tiny, dark, two-bedroom cabin where we’d all be living.
In the summers, my father repaired the damage wrought by the 20 to 30 feet of snow Tamarack Lodge received every winter. He replaced windows and painted cabins and fixed toilets cracked by frozen water. In the winters, he unfroze pipes and hiked through waist-deep drifts to dig paths to the cabins scattered around Tamarack’s main lodge. On long stormy nights, he drove a snow plow back and forth along the winding three-mile road that led into the main town of Mammoth so that guests could reach the lodge. People who’d been coming to Tamarack for years said the place never looked better. Bob Cornell told my parents they were doing a great job.
Two years after we moved to Mammoth, Bob sold Tamarack to a psychologist from Los Angeles. “He’s going to manage the place himself,” Cornell said. “Sorry.”
For a time — I don’t remember how long, less than a year — five of us lived in a one-bedroom apartment on a back street in Mammoth. My mother chain-smoked and watched television. My father looked for a job. I walked to school every day and refused rides home from friends because I didn’t want anyone to see where I lived. That summer, my father got a temporary job painting the high school. Over the course of the next four years, we managed a condominium complex, my father got a management position with the local school district, he worked as a stock clerk in a drug store, and he ended up as a baker at the local Vons.
After my father lost his job at the school district (because of a personality conflict with a new superintendent), my older sister Anita came home from college for a visit. When Anita took Spanish in high school, she had begun referring to my father affectionately as “Pablo Grande.” During her visit, she told my dad, “We should give the new house a name.” Based on the “security” of the school district job, my parents had purchased a house. “Casa de Pablo Grande de…. Something.” Anita suggested.
“How do you say ‘chronically unemployed’ in Spanish?” my dad asked.
A dozen years ago, when my father’s baking career had been ended by a series of heart attacks, he invited me over during the first week in December to make Christmas cookies. “We’ll make about four different kinds,” he said. “Seven dozen of each.”
I arrived early on a Saturday morning. My dad stood in the small kitchen of the house where he’d grown up, the house he and my mother moved into when my grandmother got too old to care for herself. He had arranged on the counter all the ingredients we’d be using. He had the bowls and measuring cups and cookie sheets arrayed like materiel ready for a military invasion. “Be careful,” my mother warned. “He gets going, and he thinks he’s back in the bakery.”
For the next four hours, my father and I worked side-by-side, measuring and mixing and meting out bits of dough that browned into delectable date-drops and snickerdoodles and chocolate-chip cookies. We finished with seven-layer bars. My father never stopped moving. He never hesitated. He did everything perfectly, even though no one would ever see or know. For someone who couldn’t keep a job, he taught me an awful lot about hard work.