The .357 Magnum Pom-Pom
I was talking about my good friend Otto the other day, the “grease monkey” featured on the tee-shirts from United Auto Stores. U.A. was located on the corner of Story Road and King, in East San Jose, and I worked there from 1974 until 1982, when I moved up here to Bell Springs Road. Otto did not have to do much to get me thinking back to what it was like to work in a bell-ringing, hand-wringing, number-pulling madhouse. Not only did I work there, I loved it, because the pace was blistering, the corps of workers amazingly resilient and supportive, and the clientele as colorful, both literally and metaphorically, as that of any inner city in America.
Half of the people who came into the store, spoke little if any English, but that did not mean that they hailed from Mexico. One of our good customers was a black man from Cuba, who was only able to speak a few words of English. Blacks comprised a large percentage of our customers, but they spoke English; it took a while to get used to Spanish coming from this guy.
Otto asked me if I remembered L.C, another black man who was one of the most charismatic individuals I have ever met. He towered over me in height, even though one of the quirks of working at United, was the four inch thick platform we worked on, behind the counter. That meant that even I, at five feet ten inches, appeared to be six-two when looking across the counter. If you asked management about it, you would be told that it was to allow better access to the banks of catalogs, which lined the front counter, like a barricade from the masses.
If you asked anyone who worked there, it was to give a little psychological edge to working on the central corner of the most diversely populated community in San Jose. There were some attitude cases who came in occasionally, who specialized in intimidation, with their trench coats and the fact that they always came in to the store in small packs.
Mike’s method of dealing with them was to immediately join them on the front side of the counter, and make pleasant conversation, asking them if they needed help, and accompanying them on their rounds within the store. It was obvious what the hoods were up to, just as it was obvious what Mike was up to, so it was a stalemate. For United Auto Stores, a stalemate meant nothing got stolen and no one got hurt.
You couldn’t always tell who the players were. As jolly as he was, L.C. was hard guy to gauge. He was a customer first, and then he ran a hot dog stand that he drove around and hit up various locations as close to lunch as he could manage. He would pop his head in the door, and take a count of how many chili dogs we wanted, and be back in five. We thought it was great, and L.C. was always cheerful and friendly.
However, I still remember the day he had come in, as loud and boisterous as ever, good-natured and joshing us about how long it was going to take. In the midst of our exchanges, old L.C. suddenly pulled out this .357 Magnum, held it high in the air with this insanely devilish grin, and said, “Well now, Boys. How about some service?” We laughed.
Again, it was Mike with the immediate response. “No problem L.C. Just guarantee me that no one else in here is going to pull out his pistol, if I let you take his place in line.”
L.C. just thought that that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard, pocketing his .357, and chuckling as he rifled through the car deodorants, looking for the spice-flavored ones. I didn’t actually have a clue as to what kind of weapon it was. Jaime, of course, had his eyes fixated on it, and was later able to inform me precisely what kind of weapon it was. He told me it was his dream to have one identical to it some day.
I would probably have forgotten the whole incident anyway, but after finding out that L.C. had been gunned down in broad daylight, while working his stand, it was indelibly imprinted on my mind. At the time we heard the news, I was devastated, because I could not see why anyone would shoot such a friendly guy. It was only years down the line, after contemplating all of the known information, that it occurred to me that L.C. may have had something additional that he was selling out of that hot dog stand, something that was worth a lot more than lunch money, and for which the stakes would be much higher.
I’ll never know one way or another, but I will always remember the sight of that .357 and how it produced nothing but smiles by the whole crew of United Auto Stores, when it was brandished about like a pom-pom.