So it was off to Southern Records, another record warehouse located in Hialeah, Florida. This was a much smaller ‘red-headed stepchild’ version of Tone. I pulled up to the front of the building in my battered beige Plymouth Valiant--the one that had been purchased for two hundred bucks at a police auction and looked up at the building with a heavy sigh. It was a lackluster, beige building with a chain-link fence on the right, heavy locks bolting the fence behind which was the receiving department. I could spy a few sweaty Cuban men hard at work unpacking record boxes. The front door was bolted shut and one had to knock hard, then be buzzed in by Ron who worked in the 45 record department which was the first thing you saw when you entered the facility. Ron was another (hey guess what? Musician!) who was stuck working as a buyer in the 45 department. Many of the folks who worked at Tone or Southern did so because they were musicians and were hoping to somehow get discovered by someone famous while pulling records off the warehouse shelf. Not sure how this was exactly supposed to happen, but heck, it beat working at McDonald’s. Ron waved me in, and I headed straight for the time-clock which was dead ahead to clock in for my first day of work.
I walked through the warehouse and up the rickety homemade wooden stairs to the second floor of the facility. When I say that the stairs were homemade, I’m not kidding. It was like they had a few two-by-fours left over when the warehouse was through being built and someone said, “Hey! Let’s build a staircase!” I held onto the rail, my wooden Scholl’s exercise sandals thunking heavily on the narrow wooden planks. Looking at the hand rail, I noticed that someone had carved into the wood “Big Ben Was Here” How charming. I had been instructed by Lynda to report to one of two upstairs offices where I would be greeted by a man named Danny. I walked past more homemade wooden shelves, these built to house the cassettes and opened the door to my new office.
“Hello! You must be Jennifer,” said a short squat Cuban man wearing an all white outfit including white shoes. He had so many heavy gold chains around his neck that I’m surprised he was even able to walk upright. His black hair was slicked back with what smelled like Vitalis. But he was super friendly, welcoming me with a broad smile and a firm handshake. “Sit down, sit down. Let me run down and get you a cup of coffee while you get settled at your desk.”
While Danny ran downstairs, the entire second floor vibrating from the sound of him descending the stairs, I sat at my desk and took in my surroundings. The walls were cheaply paneled in what looked like another leftover construction project castoff, the wall on the right was lined with an inventory card system just like the one at Tone, four desks were set up in sets of two facing each other so that you would have to stare at the person sitting opposite you. There was a large plate glass window so that I could view the warehouse, this time from a high perch. The walls were decorated not with rock and roll posters, but with grandma-style oil paintings of flowers in vases. A wall air-conditioner blasted refrigerated air. The room smelled of stale smoke and boredom. I already missed the excitement of Tone and my friends Norman, Robbie and yes, even Lynda. Suddenly the door opened and a middle aged Cuban woman carrying a brown sack lunch walked in and sat down at one of the desks. She wore large glasses, her papery skin almost translucent. “Hi, I’m Alicia,” she said as she sat down wearily. Alicia was a family friend of Danny’s and he had gotten her the job at Southern Records. Her job, as far as I could tell, was to answer the phone, eat lunch, file her nails and regale me with stories about her ex-husband who was an alcoholic.
“Here’s your nice hot coffee,” said Danny as he entered the room. “Just the way you like it,” he said laughing at his little joke because he had no idea how I liked it. The way he liked it was the way it was served; plenty of Cremora and four packets of sugar.
“Roach Coach!” came a loud announcement over the public address system. I would find out that a Cuban woman named Barbara, who worked downstairs in the billing department (which was basically a desk set up right next to the one smelly cubicle of a bathroom) was the person responsible for announcement of the breakfast truck. I can guarantee you that Barbara didn’t miss many meals.
“Jen, can I call you Jen?” said Danny. “Come on, let’s go out and get some fresh air.”
We headed out to the Roach Coach which was the Cuban lunch truck along with all the warehouse workers. Barbara, who had to stay at her post to man the phones yelled to Danny, “Get me some Cuban bread mi hijo and make sure they put extra butter and toast it just the way I like it. Make it nice and greasy.”
I may as well have been working in Havana the way this neighborhood was set up; rows of warehouses with Cuban workers clocking in for a days work, a Cuban coffee stand at the end of the block which was not much more than a closet sized restaurant with a window where one could order coffee so strong that you’d need a twelve step program to rehab from. And the Roach Coach--a truck run by a Cuban man and his harried wife who were busily frying up greasy offerings like fried egg sandwiches, Cuban pan de agua (Barbara’s favorite) and all kinds of junk food like candy bars and potato chips. I decided to play it safe by ordering a canned grapefruit juice since Danny was paying. There was one place in the neighborhood that had good food and that was the Jewish Deli that was a block away. I suppose that must’ve been a hold over from times B.C. (Before Cuban).
I went to work that day, the good little worker that I was, posting the packing slips to the inventory cards, calling in my orders to the distributors, answering the phones once in awhile and waiting for something exciting to happen. Danny, whose job title was “Export Buyer” had gone downstairs to help out in the warehouse pulling orders. I think that working in the warehouse was really the main job for him. That and sweeping floors. There wasn’t much to do here. I walked down the rickety stairs to get a drink of water from the water cooler and talk to Danny out of sheer boredom.
“God damn it!” I heard a woman yell. “Danny, where the hell did you put the order for the DeLeon’s? They’re gonna be here soon and I want that ready. Now!”
The woman was barreling towards me, a woman who was probably in her fifties but looked older on account of the heavy cigarette smoking she’d done all her life and what I imagined was some pretty serious drinking when she got home from work--probably to a single-wide trailer where she would don a ratty bathrobe and tune into Bob Barker and The Price Is Right.
“Danny! Ya better answer me. You know how the DeLeon’s are. I don’t want them waiting around.” She took a long drag off a Winston and eyed me suspiciously.
“Who the hell are you?”
Once I got to know Jo Jo, she turned out to be an okay person. She was a hard worker, kind of a mother hen to everyone in the warehouse. She’d been with Southern Records for many years and probably died with a headstone that read: “God damn it! Where’s my clipboard?”
The DeLeon’s turned out to be a family of a mother, father and a teenage son with red hair who owned a record store. The father was a man who looked like he’d had a few nips off the ol’ bottle of whisky that morning; a little too happy as he stood by Barbara’s desk while she added up his order for payment. He spoke in a boisterous voice, his arm resting on the counter by Barbara’s desk, while his wife and son roamed the warehouse pretending to be vaguely interested in various records and tapes while Mrs. DeLeon stealthily slid cassettes and whatever she could steal into her oversized faux leather bag that she’d probably purchased at a flea market. I don’t think they ever got caught doing this. I found out about it later from the person who would become our new warehouse manager.
As I stood by the water cooler, a cone shaped paper cup positioned under the dispenser, a short, nervous looking man with dark hair, neatly pressed jeans and a freshly laundered navy blue polo shirt cleared his throat and said, “Hi, I’m Mannis. You must be new.”
Suddenly the public address system sprang to life. “Macias, line two please, Macias, line two.” A Cuban man who didn’t speak a word of English ran over to the telephone on Barbara’s desk and snatched up the receiver. Macias would work in the warehouse for a few months more before abruptly quitting without notice. The day he quit, he was helping to unload an order from Columbia records. This involved a fireman-style bucket brigade assembly line of one person throwing a box to the next and the next, to keep from having to lift and carry one heavy record box and risk hurting ones back. As the assembly line was working smoothly, the person ahead of Macias threw the next box to Macias and he was simply gone. Poof! Vanished into thin air.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like meeee.” A pleasant looking black woman with thick glasses and a serene smile was walking toward me and singing with her clipboard in hand. “You must be the one and only Jennifer,” she beamed. “I’m Barbara Siplin. Work in the warehouse but also do the Gospel Record buying. You need anything at all, you just come to me honey,” she said with a wink.
I sat at my scarred desk, starting to get used to these little tete a tetes that Lynda liked to have with me. I picked up my grapefruit juice, took a long swig.
“Things are going good at Tone,” she said. “My dad’s given me control over both the companies, and I’ve got some ideas. You were the first part of my brainstorm in bringing Southern back into profit. I’ve decided to bring Norman and Robbie over to round things out. Robbie’ll be the warehouse manager, Norman’s going to sit right here next to you as head buyer.”
Sounded fine to me. Maybe we’d add a little excitement to the place.
The following day, Robbie DeFreitas and Norman Nessis reported to work at Southern Records, excited about their new roles in the company.
“I’m calling a meeting of all the warehouse workers this afternoon,” said Robbie as Norman was spooling calculator tape onto his scratched beige calculator and I was just hanging up the phone. “Meeting’s at two o’clock. Sharp.”
That afternoon, all the warehouse workers huddled around the large packing table that dominated the front of the warehouse. Mannis, the short nervous guy looked extra nervous. Barbara, the Gospel Record buyer and order puller clutched at her gold cross necklace. Jo Jo took a long drag off her cigarette, muttering under her breath. Ron, the 45 buyer raced in at the last minute, wiping his mouth from lunch.
“Hurry up!” yelled Robbie. “I told you two o’clock sharp.”
We all stood silent, waiting for our new leader to take charge. Hopefully someone would call him something other than Darth Vader.
“You know why I called you all here today?” he began. “Lynda put me in charge as warehouse manager. So what that means is I’m responsible for everything that comes in and goes out of this warehouse,” he said motioning around with his hands, one which held a lit cigarette. He took a sip off his styrofoam coffee cup. “I’m fair but I run a tight ship. I work hard and I expect all of you to do the same. Anyone has any problems, you come straight to me. I don’t know what’s been going on around here before I got here and I don’t care. This place is a joke. But we’re going to work together and make it profitable again.”
I looked around at the others. Everyone seemed to be happy that someone had finally taken charge. Robbie would turn out to be just like he promised; fair and an extremely hard worker. Many were the nights that the entire crew would go home and Robbie would stay behind in that creepy, dark warehouse with only the grey mice for company, working, working, working.
“I expect everyone to be on time. Lunch is no more than thirty minutes. And no lingering around the Roach Coach. Now let’s make this place better than Tone.”
Robbie could be found in the warehouse, keys jangling off his blue jeans, his dark curly hair towering over Jo Jo or Barbara as he patiently helped them pull orders, restock shelves, sweating it our in the receiving department when new orders arrived, working with customers in making sure they had everything they needed (and even some things they didn’t need that he would talk them into) and trying (unsuccessfully) to catch Mrs. DeLeon in the act of shoplifting.
Our little office of four desks was now full. There was me, Norman and two new salespeople that Lynda had hired.
One was a southern boy with blond hair, a charming smile and the gift of gab named Dale Crigger. “Used to work at MCA in sales,” he told me as he sat at the desk behind me and plunged into one of his stories about life on the road. “Used to pad my expense account so’s I could take girls out for drinks,” he said as his face broke into a grin.
The other was a curly haired brunette named Nancy who used to be a nurse. Why a nurse wanted to work in a smoke-filled office with a bunch of rocker wannabees is anybody’s guess. “You know Jen,” she told me one day. “When I was nursing, I had people dying on me all the time. It’s not fun to be in a job where peoples lives are at stake.” So I suppose talking to folks on the phone all day about what records and tapes they wanted to order wasn’t so bad.
I was promoted to Assistant Buyer, a title that was bestowed on me by Norman who decided that he liked the idea of having an assistant. Norman also decided that he liked me but no one was supposed to know that.
“Hi, my name’s Jim. Lynda told me that if I need to place a special order for a customer, I’m supposed to come to you.”
A special order was a record or tape that was usually so obscure that it was rarely carried by any record store, or even so obscure that it would have to be pressed by the record pressing plant especially for the customer. Due to the relationships that I’d built with the various distributors, I knew who to call.
“Sure, what do you need?”
Before long when groups of us would go out to our thirty minute lunch down at the local Jewish Deli, or Taco Bell, Jim and I took to sitting next to each other. If we needed to drive to wherever we were going, I made sure to sit in the front seat with Jim, my leg grazing his blue jean clad leg. Jim was a low key, easygoing guy who certainly wasn’t looking for trouble. That’s why he wasn’t too happy when he got an irate visit from my sleazeball of a husband one day at the warehouse.
“You sure do talk about Jim a lot,” my betrothed said to me one day after work as he was working his way through a six-pack of Budweiser and taking a hit off a joint.
I guess he was becoming suspicious about something that wasn’t happening. I had a crush on Jim but that was about it. Nothing ever happened between us, although now, looking back on it I wish it did. All the heartache that stupid husband of mine gave me, it sure would’ve been fun if I at least had a make out session with Jim to show for it.
One morning as the warehouse was just humming to life, my husband decided it would be a good idea to show up at Southern Records and threaten Jim. I don’t really know what happened because I was hard at work in my office upstairs, and maybe I really don’t want to know but there was some kind of altercation. It was just terrible. I felt like I wanted to die when I heard about it. All because of me, some innocent person was collared and threatened by the man I lived with who probably had beer on his breath when he screamed in poor Jim’s face. I was mortified. Everyone in the office and warehouse had seen what happened. My resolve to leave this marriage was solidifying. But that wasn’t even the worst thing that happened before I finally decided to call it quits with this loser.