20 February 2009

Helms Man, Watermelon Man

Good people work hard. They work hard and rear their families as best they can, whether making $125,000 or $25,000. I've known one family making a million dollars per annum, with salt-of-the-earth parents and great kids (Hollywood types), and another family with a dad who quite literally collects recycled materials and hauls trash to make ends meet (Hauling types). Both of these families have a few things in common: they own their homes, with children who attend private/religious schools, and both are credits to their neighborhoods.

Good people work hard, and to work is a blessing from a good God, so says the Puritan work ethic and King Solomon in Ecclesiastes (before everything became vanity). Occasionally my sons will ask me about the men we see waiting by Home Depot for work. "Dad, why are some of the workers dirty? Are they from countries that are dirty?" I tell them that these men put many of the men in suits on the same LA streets to shame with their amazing work ethic and indefatigable spirit to make a living. And, yes, they may be dirty, but their day-laborer m├ętier is a badge of honor. That's what I tell my sons. If I had their work ethic, thick skin and stamina, then I'd be Richard Branson successful (see Ex Libris ... 2009, right) of Virgin Group fame.

When I was a kid -- 4 and 5 years old -- the Helms Man used to come through our neighborhood regularly. I can still hear the distinct "wooot, wooot" whistle of the Helms truck telling all who had ears to hear that calorie-loaded goodness was drawing nigh. And, like any good childhood memory, there was food involved.

Many times as I was walking to kindergarten (when children still walked to school), I would wave down the Helms Man and he'd stop and give me a chocolate chip cookie and a bag of M&Ms. I'd put it on our tab and then he'd charge my mom (since she always slept-in, she could not stop such mid-morning gastronomical tomfoolery). The yellow truck was modified with all sorts of doors that opened, revealing still more drawers, some which were very narrow and long, or very flat and wide. In these drawers and behind those doors were the time-tested still-warm goodies of a bygone era: pastries, doughnuts, cookies, and some store-bought candy all within steps of your home or on your way to kindergarten.

Lots of memories from that time have stayed with me: the feel-good aroma that poured out of the Helms truck every time those doors opened (like the perfume scented memory of loving grandma's bakery hug). Or, the sonic memory of clanking bottles (both full and empty) when the milkman would drop off the milk on his morning round -- which occasionally included a bottle of thick-n-rich chocolate milk after my little brother and I would mark up the order card with an extra 'X' in the box. Which I suppose was appropriate as we were the beginning of the generation tagged with moniker 'X'.

Helms Bakery at its height of popularity was a 24-hour-a-day factory that cranked out fresh baked goods, and then loaded up hundreds of trucks around SoCal for daily delivery. Helms established the brand after landing the contract to supply the 1932 Olympics. Drivers like the Helms guys, and individuals like them, made a living by working the oil rigs, doing time on the assembly line, or walking a beat in Southern California. These guys are called the "greatest generation" because of their ability to see something that had to be done, and then going about their doing it without any fanfare whatsoever (like stopping some of the grossest evils mankind has ever seen in Nazi Germany, Imperialist Japan or despotic fascist Italy). They believed in duties, not rights.

Just this last week, I heard the call of the Watermelon Man. I hear it occasionally, maybe four times in the last five years. "Watermelon Man. Fresh, cold melons. Get your melons. Watermelon man. " I can hear the octogenarian driver as he barely above a whisper calls to his former clients over his loud speaker, many who are either no longer alive, no longer hear, or have moved out of the ole neighborhood. I'm not sure what's the bigger surprise, that his truck still operates, or that he's still working at 82? What doesn't surprise me, is that good people from all walks of life work hard, and find tremendous satisfaction in a job well done. Especially if that job helps men and women with calloused hands meet the needs of their families in a very expensive City of Angels.


Anonymous said...

Helms is all about chocolate covered sugar doughnuts! The tastiest memories in my life involves great products from the Milk man and the Helms man. My mom would talk about the ice man; but that's before my time and a whole other conversation.


Anonymous said...

Wow ... never thought about the ice man; now that's really old school!! It reminds me of the nickname for George Gervin of NBA fame. The IceMan from San Antonio Spurs in the 80's!