Sunday, October 28, 2012

Old Skool Los Angeles: When Everybody Did the Hustle

The Hustle was a line dance popular in Los Angeles (and across the country) in the mid-seventies. Music producer, Van McCoy came up with a song to go with the dance, and "The Hustle" made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 the week of July 26, 1975.
However, 'hustling' or 'doing the hustle' was more than just a song and dance in L.A.'s working class neighborhoods in those days. It was also a way of life, and hustling was a term commonly used to describe doing whatever it took to bring in additional income. Today, we would call it being entrepreneurial.

Now I cannot deny there was an illegal side of hustling used to describe gamblers, pimps, and those who carried on a black market trade in the community. And for some, their hustle was their main source of income.

However, for most families hustling meant doing side jobs, or bartering for goods and services.

My dad, my uncles, family friends -- it seemed like all the men in the community I grew up in had a side hustle. Their hustle was a supplement to their day job at one of the manufacturing or aerospace plants. (Which offered numerous decent-paying jobs for low-skilled workers in those days). Some worked at government jobs, mostly the post office. I think all of them just expected to have more than one job whether they really needed it or not.

I remember some of the side businesses my uncles and family friends had and realize now that many were ongoing small businesses -- gas stations, burger joints, trucks for hauling, and a neighborhood tax firm. Again, all of these were in addition to 9 to 5 day jobs (although some worked at night, or what was called the graveyard shift (midnight to 8am).

Side hustles for women included cooking or baking items to sale, fixing hair, sewing, and the staple -- keeping kids.

For a long-time my dad had a TV repair business which was his side job. By day he worked at a Sears Service Center (where appliances and electronics were repaired) at the corner of Slauson and Central. Eventually, he became the manager of the center... but by then he had another side hustle which lasted the remainder of his life -- photography.

My dad's side gig was taking pictures. He never really referred to what he did as photography, although he got to be quite good at it and invested a lot of money in top-rate cameras.

It started at my graduation from Bret Harte Jr. High in south L.A. in the early seventies. This was during the Polaroid era when instant pictures were the rage. My dad was the family picture taker. Mostly because he enjoyed it so much and was the best picture taker in the family. (As a result, he is missing from many of our photos taken back then.)

Anyway, my dad noticed this guy taking pictures after the graduation while families were lingering outside the auditorium with their graduates. The guy offered instant Polaroids, and he even put them in a paper frame that he had stamped 'Graduation.' He charged $5.00 per picture or five for $20.00.

He set up near the school sign and had a long line of eager family members waiting to purchase a framed photo. Now mind you, many of the families had their own Polaroids that they brought... but this guy was considered a 'pro,' so they wanted at least one shot from him.

My dad, who had taken about 40 pictures of us by then, said, "I can do this." He calculated how much this guy made just from the one graduation, and his side hustle was born.

Over the next few years, Dad started taking pictures all over south L.A. at entertainment and club events on weekends. Eventually, he started working weddings and receptions. He hit the jackpot when he was allowed to set up at a club in Inglewood which also had banquet facilities and hosted events every weekend. He became their in-house photographer, although he would still go to outside venues just to see if he could get more business.

Dad's photo of a young Mohammed Ali and Marvin Gaye
Sometimes, if he saw celebrities he would sneak in a couple of shots for his own enjoyment. That was how he got the picture of Marvin Gaye and Muhammed Ali at a nightclub.

By the time I was in college, I would often run into my dad at events, although being a typical young adult I tried to avoid places I knew he would be.

The extra money dad made became significant to our family coffers and helped raise us from working class to a comfortable middle-class and helped get me through U.C.L.A.

These days of high unemployment, I think about my dad and the neighbors of long ago who didn't have the luxury of sitting around bemoaning the economy or waiting for opportunities to come to them. I also realize that for some Angelenos hustling has been a way of life for 30, 40, or 50 years.

I have fond memories of the 'Monkey Bread' guy in the Crenshaw / Leimert Park / Baldwin Hills area. It's been about 15 years since I last saw him so I don't know if he is still around. All he had were business cards with a phone number and the words 'Monkey Bread.' You could call him, order your monkey bread loaves and he would deliver.

Needless to say, this was the best monkey bread ever! Buttery, with just the right amount of sweetness. I don't know where he made the monkey bread... or even if he made it, but I can tell you his business was booming for years... just from the churches, hair salons, and barbers alone he had lots of orders each day. He is probably retired on a tropical island now.

My mechanic, who grew up in East L.A. during the time I grew up in South L.A., says it was the same in his neighborhood. "Everybody had a side 'hustle' back in the day, he says. "selling tamales, doing yard work, doing day labor."

"We've been here before!" he tells me as we discuss today's hard times and he relates how two of his unemployed grown children have moved back home with their own spouses and children. He is working more hours at his garage and trying to expand into fleet service because he has more mouths to feed. Again.

We laugh and decide you aren't a real worker these days unless you have at least two jobs. I tell him about all the "Professionals" I know of who have three or more business cards for different jobs.

"Yeah... we've been here before," he reminds me. "We got through it then and we'll get through it now. We just have to hustle."