Chasing a Living in California by Anon. appeared in the June 1944 issue of The Wide World.
The June issue continues with an anecdotal warning from an anonymous Brit that there’s no work to be found in the United States, only hardship.
By 1944, the US had ramped up its wartime economy, and Anon’s account is largely from the early days of the Depression, but it’s an interesting episodic look at a one man’s struggle from the beginnings of the bust to a prosperous rebound to desperate days before finally scraping together enough money to return to England. Most interesting were the descriptions of California’s failed programs to incentivize white farm-labor; the rough state and means of those who traveled up and down California doing harvest work was not dissimilar from accounts one might read in more recent times.
Anon began his adventure a few months before the bust, arriving in San Francisco where he sought work in construction as a journeyman carpenter. As a foreigner who could only afford shoddy second-hand tools, he was quickly laughed off the site of his first job, but managed to find work as a handyman on another building. The bust hit right as construction was finished, but Anon found success as a construction contractor, building fences during the mini-golf craze. Eventually, though, the mini-golf fad died down, and as the Depression grew worse, contracts began to dry up.
Following the government stimulus package, a bubble investment into the Hollywood film industry, Anon thought he could get in on the ground floor of the movie business doing construction, only to find that every Tom, Dick and Harry in California who could swing a hammer was thinking the same thing. After a short and unprofitable time hammering in a few nails, Anon had a better idea: get a job as a writer by interviewing a Hollywood starlet!
This part was pretty brazen and took some guts–Anon goes up to some Hollywood dame’s mansion, knocks on the door and says he’s there to interview her for a motion-picture magazine:
To my gratification I was shown in almost directly. Once in the Presence my tongue failed me, but luckily this was no handicap, since I had only to listen. The beautiful lady whom I had been so bold as to beard in her beautiful den, so to speak, talked without any prompting on my part. “And how,” as the Americans say!
Her remarks went beyond my farthest expectations! At best I had thought she would tell me some hitherto-unrevealed fragments of her life story, or some tit-bit about her new husband. Instead she spoke from the bottom of her heart, giving me her exceedingly frank and—as it seemed to me at the time—very undiplomatic opinion of Hollywood and those in high places there. The place wearied her, she said; it was a hot-bed of deceivers, slanderers, ingrates, and liars.
There was, she told me, not an honest or dependable man or woman between Culver City and Burbank; and she went into details about people she knew there—famous and important personages—which made me gasp. She ended by telling me that she was quitting the films for good.”
Alas! The magazine is not interested; the starlet is already old news:
“Is that the Miss X— who played the lead in — about twelve months ago?”…. “I’m afraid Mr. N— wouldn’t be interested in anything about Miss X—“ She told me.
“But,” I replied. “This is the Miss X—. The star herself!”
Once more the girl shook her head. “She was a star,” she remarked, and then added: “A shooting star.”
Before turning sadly away it occurred to me to ask when the lady had descended from her pedestal.
“I forget,” replied the girl. Sic transit gloria Hollywood!
Giving up the city for the country, Anon takes his landlady’s suggestion he try picking oranges:
Wages were paid on a piece-work basis, and cupidity and avarice fired the men’s blood. From his place at the top of the lad, where he had already half filled his sack by the time I had grasped the routine of the work and set to work, my swarthy neighbor paused for a second to watch me start in as a picker. Very soon, however, his desire for wealth overcame his interest in my amateurish efforts, and I was left to work out my own salvation by imitating his methods.
At the end of the day I had to my credit 28 boxes. At six cents a box, this represented the magnificent sum of 68 cents for nine hours’ work! I was disappointed, and the Mexican foreman and the packing-house superintended looked at me inquiringly. The average picker’s wages were three to five dollars, and they fully expected me to quit. But, with nothing else in sight but tramping the countryside, or loafing, I decided to stick.
I stayed for ten days, earning about two dollars a day. I lived according to my means, and this was fortunately very easy to do, since there were a number of cabins for rent near the village at the infinitesimal sum of 25 cents a day. They were frail affairs which a man could almost have pushed over with one hand; but, strangely enough, both electric light and gas were laid on in every shack.
Anon goes on to try his hand at picking lemons then apricots, with equal degrees of success, riding the rails up and down California, wary of hobos and brakemen alike who’d shiv him for his pocket change. He finally lands work cleaning windows before saving enough money to leave America and return to England
All in all, a well told and fascinating account—one I wouldn’t mind reading at novel-length in greater detail—though I do wish the “avoiding shipwreck” promised in the lead-in had not been metaphorical.