Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history
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Let Us Consider Case of Robert Martinez
Robert Martinez, I met by degrees.
There was the first letter from him six weeks ago. In spelling that was hampered by the fact that he never got beyond the eighth grade, he told me that he was an ex-con looking for a job.
It's the kind of letter that I get ten, maybe a dozen, times a month.
I used to catch work for a few of them now and then, but the parolee grapevine just about ran me out of business. I suspect that each one I helped told five of his job-hunting friends, who in turn, passed the word around to five of their friends. Invariably, the mail load boomed after each success I scored.
And I'll tell you honestly, my successes weren't much to brag about. Not many employers in town were willing to "gamble" on men who've made mistakes.
And those who were, I generally managed to alienate by pestering them once too often.
But back to Martinez.
| Most guys in his predicament write me once, and accept my short answer that I'll let them know if I run across anything.|
Not Martinez. Before I had a chance to answer his first letter, a second one was on my desk. He wanted to give me a few more facts on his background. Then, just when I was ready to answer that, a third letter came, and a fourth and a fifth.
After three weeks, it reached a point where I could just about expect a daily letter from him in my morning batch of mail.
He was 32, able-bodied, married, with two kids, he informed me repeatedly.
I got all the details of his unpleasant past. He'd been in and out of institutions since the age of 12. He was the product of a kid-gang in Watts. He was caught trying to use a straight razor on an adult before he was even a teenager.
The only serious crime he'd been convicted of after he turned 21 was burglary. That was 10 years ago. It was a conviction that would ordinarily keep a man out of circulation for two or three years.
But with his behavior at San Quentin and Folsom, Martinez managed to stretch it into a half a dozen. "I was a bad trouble-maker," he'd write.
About the fourth week after his correspondence began, Martinez's agitation began to show. "I've been honest with you," he'd write, "but you're not being honest with me. You're not really trying to help me."
It was about that time that the phone calls started, too. At night, when he'd get home from job-hunting, he'd dial my office. I get a little nervous when people get so persistent, so I wouldn't talk to him.
But my secretary did. She's a good listener.
He'd tell her where he'd been applying that day, how many applications he'd filled out. He was ultra polite, apologetic for taking up her time.
She'd give him a few suggestions. He'd follow them and report back what happened. She asked questions and learned that he and his wife were staying with his sister until he could find work. They were getting by on what little his wife made taking in washing and ironing.
At least three times a week, he took the long trip downtown -- six miles each way -- walking, to save bus fare.
My secretary checked a couple of the references that he gave. One was the pastor of his church. Both said that he should be a fine employee for somebody. They'd been trying to help him get a job, too.
Then, late yesterday morning, when I arrived at my office, I met Robert Martinez. He was waiting for me. It wasn't noon yet, but he'd already been to two state employment offices and three factories.
I asked him in and we talked for quite a while about his activities with the church, about his kids, his mistakes, his hopes, and, of course, his problems over the past four or five months, looking for work.
The Fortunes of War
"I've just been unlucky, I think," he said, almost casually. "They say a man makes his own luck. I guess that's true, too. I did. I've got a past that doesn't look very pretty to an employer.
"But if I keep doing right. Keep trying, somebody's going to do right by me."
There was no bitterness, no rancor in Robert Martinez. There were no threats of "returning to crime because society forced me to."
Why society is so fearful of its Robert Martinezes, I can understand to a degree.
But what surprises me is that so many Robert Martinezes have the strength and patience and wisdom to understand it, too.
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