Vere in San Jose (Summer 1960)

California.  My first time there.

Following my first year at a small Iowa church college, I caught a ride to California with a friend, Don, and his family that summer, destined for San Jose.  I stayed to work for the season at a fruit cannery, one serviced by the many orchards and farms that dominated the agricultural economy of the pre-Silicon Valley version of that city.  While standing in line with dozens and even a few hundred of workers looking for jobs at the canneries and processing plants in the area, I met one of the few white and English-speaking contenders for work, Vere (pronounced “veer”), a young guy about my age who had driven from Ohio in his  olive-green circa 1950 Pontiac.  We were both hired after a couple of weeks of standing in the hot sun waiting to see if our names would be called before the daily announcement that hiring had been concluded for that day.   California Fruit Concentrates (responsible for processing delicacies such as Mott’s prune juice and Sunsweet products) was just one of the canneries we visited daily, but the place finally took us on.  Vere and I not only became good friends, but we decided to split housing costs — my share was $30/month — as well, and took occupancy of two rooms with a hotplate in a ramshackle faded gray house near downtown San Jose.

We lived a life of poverty through the summer, but managed to save enough for a trip to San Francisco before I was to return to school in the midwest.  We weren’t able to depart from San Jose until after nightfall, but as San Francisco was only about an hour distant, we had plenty of time to drive through the darkness in Vere’s faithful Pontiac in search of the sights and fabled haunts of the city, including a nighttime cruise across the Golden Gate Bridge.  Quite memorable was the challenge of driving the many steep San Francisco streets.  When we got our bearings, we headed for North Beach in search of our real priorities, places like The Hungry i and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore.  I have a distinct memory of sitting on the sidewalk near the curb at midnight, smoking cigarettes and talking about Jack Kerouac, directly across from the Hungry i’s basement entrance.   What little sleep we had that night (and morning) was taken in the Pontiac before our early daylight return.  Unfortunately, no photographs were made to document that high-point-of-the-summer trip (I never then imagined that with the appropriate equipment and skills, night photography could have been possible).

When I discovered these photographs of Vere a couple of days ago, I also found a hand-written list with columns for expenditures and receipts showing that I had spent $1.70 for gas to San Francisco, and had borrowed $.35 from Vere earlier in the month, but had been able to repay $.20 of the debt within a few days.  Other line items from that financial account showed grocery shopping totalling little more than $1.  The most expensive item on the list, excepting rent, was about $3 worth of film and film processing for my plastic (specifically, bakelite) Kodak Hawkeye Brownie camera (using 620 film with a square negative size of about 2.3 inches).

As soon as Kim saw these photographs and learned how I spent that summer — something she had never known of previously — she asked questions that led to a full afternoon,  and occasional spurts in succeeding days, of tales and accounts and descriptions and impressions that I hadn’t thought about for many, many years.

File this under Brownie Hawkeye/Stand-With-Your-Back-to-the-Sun Era.


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