10. Soup Run

by H. W. Moss

I carried a full load my first semester of City College.

Psychology 1A was taught lecture style in an auditorium sized room that held at least 300. Seats were in a semicircle with the professor lecturing from a podium down front.

Smoking was not banned in those days and I had a pack a day habit. We used to call City College, “high school with ashtrays.”

It amused me when I noticed that if I pulled out a cigarette and lit it, the same action was duplicated around the room. It was like watching The Wave wash over an audience at a football game, only The Wave had not yet been invented. This observation gave me a much greater appreciation for the psychology class.

I also took a U. S. History class, a “newswriting” course from the Journalism Department, something called “Intro to Government,” and, for my physical education class, I took football. That totaled 15.5 units. You can guess which constituted the half unit course.

If you wanted to graduate or if you intended to major in literature, there was a low level skill requirement called English 1A which taught reading and comprehension. Anything below that, such as Literature 101 or 102, was known as bonehead English.

The classes that followed 1A were 1B and 1C.

In order to be allowed to take the course, students had to prove they were capable of forming complete sentences and developing a thought by writing an essay. If you flunked the essay, you had to take bonehead.

That summer I washed dishes at Seal Beach Spanish Food owned by Louis Avery who refused to hire me unless I promised to go to college in the Fall. He insisted I could not work there otherwise. He made me swear I would sign up for school. This for a dish washing job.

Plus, when you think about it, he was guaranteeing his own need to fill the job again when the summer was over. He would have to advertise and interview prospective employees and there was a certain amount of paper work he would have to perform.

By which, all I am saying is he did not get me to make that promise out of his own best interests.

I already planned to enroll, it was practically pre-ordained in my family that I would; therefore my promise must have sounded sincere. And because I worked with Louie, I wrote an essay called “Soup Run” in class under professorial scrutiny which allowed me to take that English 1A class.

So that’s how I got my first dishwashing job and there was a sign above the sink that read: “There are fast cooks, there are slow cooks and there are half-fast cooks.”

I did not get the joke. I read it several times a day while glancing up from the sink, but the literalness of it was all the meaning I could imagine. Louie had to explain it to me.

Must have thought I was darn dumb.

There were slow periods at work, particularly during the afternoon when preparation was the primary task, when Louie and I could talk informally. One day he told me as a young man, when he was about my age, he met Ernest Hemingway.

Naturally this was of interest to me. Hemingway had not been a favorite of mine, but he was a genuine talent and I had read “Old Man and the Sea” plus a few short stories including “The Killers,” and I vaguely knew what physical problem Nick had.

That much my buddies and I sniggered about when drinking and smoking in the back of my station wagon parked in the orange groves off Victoria Avenue in Riverside, CA.

Plus, I knew Hemingway had committed suicide a few years before I got my dishwashing job.

I wanted to know more, so Louie described how at a party one night Hemingway learned what Louie’s job was. Louie ran soup. He said Hemingway was quite interested in learning about Louie’s driving skills.

Again, the literalness of it was all the meaning I could imagine and, besides, weren’t we in a kitchen? Louie might have been working in a Depression era soup kitchen at the time, for all I knew. So I asked and he told me, no, he worked in the oil fields of Texas in the 1930’s and soup was nitroglycerin.

“You only have one accident,” Louie said with a wink and a grim smile.

That’s the essay I wrote in class to prove I could write something so I could stay in the class. We were allowed to pick any topic, but it had to be at least one page and you had to write it long hand in class within the first hour of the first day and you were judged on that one task.

Class met three times a week. On Wednesday, we learned our fate. The professor was a young man with a pipe who cultivated an avuncular style meant, I believe in retrospect, to engender the idea that literature can be cool. He told us that everyone made the cut. I suspect there was not much of a bar if everyone passed, but I was quite pleased when he said he would read two of the essays to us, one of which turned out to be mine.

He read the first and, when he got to mine, he prefaced the reading by saying, “This is an ‘A’ paper even if the author misspelled both Ernest and Hemingway.”

News to me, but quite natural since I paid little attention to such subtleties.

I had told Louie Avery’s story and saved the punch line, explaining what soup was, until the last. But I had named the author “Earnest Hemmingway” and misspelled “nitroglicerin.”

At the end of the semester, I passed the class.