Friday, July 25, 2008

Herbert Hoover's Bench

[Here’s another story from my past. Once again, it takes place in 1973. I read this aloud last night at the Moon News Bookstore in Half Moon Bay where I’ve been reading every couple of months - a great store, by the way. I’ll be reading there again on September 25, if anybody would like to come listen. Bring something of your own and share it, too. It’s an open mic - but you have to call in advance if you want a spot.]

Herbert Hoover's Bench

Jan Anderson was my landlady. I was her handyman. She’d been on the planet since 1892. We called her Jan when she was friendly and Mrs. Anderson when she was acting like a landlady.

One day Jan showed me a bench. Or at least, she said it was a bench. All I saw was a rotten pile of wood. “Can you fix it?” she asked.

“No. It’s too far gone.”

“Herbie Hoover gave it to me.”

“Herbert Hoover? The president?”

“This was after he got fired.”

Jan had run a taxi company. When Mr. Hoover left office, he settled in Palo Alto. Upon his arrival in California, he called for a taxi. Jan sent her best driver, a man who was polite and reliable, and that driver never came back. Hoover hired him as chauffeur.

Jan and Mr. Hoover met frequently. She owned a peanut factory next door to the taxi company, and Mr. Hoover used to wander into the taxi office with a bag of fresh roasted nuts. “Want some?” he’d always ask. He loved peanuts, but he was not an interesting man. “Not a conversationalist”, Jan said.

Jan grew up among the fruit orchards and dirt roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains near Los Gatos. She rode a donkey to school. Some days the donkey would stop at a creek, bend down for a drink, and then buck her off into the water. Furious, she would chase the donkey, which stayed just out of her reach all the way home.

Jan grew up fast. At age 11, she confided to me, she was “fully developed” and grade school was a humiliation. She transferred to a new town, lied about her age, and graduated from high school at age 15. She wanted to be a pharmacist but found that nobody would respect a female in that field. She found few opportunities for a woman to do anything except making babies, at which, she said, she was a failure. With peanuts and taxis she found some success.

To me she seemed a piece of living history. She remembered the 1906 earthquake - it ripped her house into three pieces. These days, a widow, she lived at the edge of the Stanford golf course on land that Leland Stanford had been “furious to discover he didn’t own,” she said with satisfaction. She rented cheap cottages and invited tenants over for whiskey sours and conversation. I happily obliged.

“Did Herbert Hoover flirt with you?” I asked.

“No.” She sighed.

“Did you flirt with him?”

“Well of course!” Even at age 81 Jan was a coquette, especially after a couple of whiskey sours, sometimes batting her eyes at me. Once after a third whiskey sour she showed me two nude photos of herself, taken by her husband on a hill near Half Moon Bay. She’d placed hands in strategic places and smiled warily at the camera. Quite the babe. Now with failing body and bad cooking she could still summon the come-hither smile but carried the permanent smell of urine and burnt cheese.

Jan told me that Herbie’s wife, Lou Hoover, used to call for a taxi about once a week, and she always asked for Car Number Seven.

One day Jan pulled the driver of Number Seven aside and asked, “Why are you Lou’s favorite?”

The driver just smiled. “I’ll never tell.”

After Lou died, the driver revealed that Lou used to smoke in the taxi. He’d give her a pack of cigarettes and drive her around for an hour while she smoked. He also bought beer for her, which she drank in secret at home. Herbie wouldn’t have approved.

“So that’s the worst you have on the Hoovers?” I teased. “His wife smoked cigarettes and drank beer?”

“Sometimes what’s normal is the scandal,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Scandal is what people are ashamed of. Some things are accepted, so they aren’t tittle-tattle.”

“Like what?”

“Herbie had a sign posted at his ranch: HELP WANTED. NO JAPS OR NEGROES NEED APPLY.”

“He had a ranch? I thought you said he had a house in Palo Alto.”

She looked at me darkly. “Now you’re the expert on Hoover?”

“No ma’am.”

“He loved peanuts.” She ran hands through white hair, once blond. “Can you take me for a ride?”

“Where do you want to go?”

“A little hill I know. Near Half Moon Bay.” She smiled like a kitten. “There’s something I want to show you.”

“I can’t today. Sorry. Did you ever ask Mr. Hoover to take you to that hill?”


“What did he say?”

“Same as you: ‘Not today.’ He was a gentleman. Anyway, if he’d said ‘Yes,’ I don’t know what I would have done.”

“You might have kissed him. Just for fun.”

“I might have. And then we’d have tittle-tattle, he and I. Everybody should make some gossip. So what can you do for this bench?”

“Burn it.”

“Everything rots.” She sighed. “I’m next.”

“Not yet. There’s still time to make some gossip.”

“Go ahead. Burn the bench.” She winked. “And some day, you’ll take me to that hill.”

“Yes, ma’am. Some other day.”


[About those two photos: Yes, they’re the real deal. But Jan is not her real name, and I've changed some details. I asked the (mostly female) group at Moon News if I would be a cad to post those photos, and they unanimously said it would be okay and in fact, given their impression of Jan’s character and the fact that Jan showed me the photos in the first place, they suspect Jan probably would have wanted me to post them. Jan died 25 years ago, had no children, so who’s to hurt? Jan’s spirit still hovers over the shady acre of land that Leland Stanford forgot to buy - though now it’s got McMansions on it. If anybody thinks I’m doing wrong, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail, and we can discuss it. I was very fond of Jan and wouldn’t want to hurt her in any way.]

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