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Two Men of San Pedro

AT LENGTH-Over the past four decades, I’ve had every kind of person enter my offices, including, paupers, politicians, procrastinators, princes, pickpockets and plutocrats.

This has given me some extensive experience in judging human character as not all or perhaps even many of these people were what they appeared to be upon presenting themselves at the counter. Some of the most honest and honorable of these have frequently been the ones with the least financial resources — the ones who stand out, have something that can’t be bought — integrity. Here are two examples in contrast:

Back in the days when our offices were located on 7th Street in Downtown San Pedro, two different men walked into my office.

Both were much older than I, and by appearances could have been the average old working man. Neither wore a suit, nor had a fancy car parked at the curb. And neither tried to impress me with a long line of credentials or even a business card with a title.

In fact, the first man who came in to see if we’d cut off the top of his old letterhead because he was so cheap he wanted to use the paper for writing notes.  I tried to sell him a fresh ream of paper but he was adamant about saving on the paper. He didn’t look like a tree hugger, but more like a guy who had worked on the docks wearing a double pocket work shirt and work pants.  So we lopped off the letterhead and figured we’d never see him again. Not so.

He came back a dozen or more times and slowly I began to realize who this elderly gent was and he wasn’t your average working stiff.

The second man came in one day with a sheaf of yellow ledger paper under his arms and asked for me personally. He was similarly dressed. His goal was to have me transcribe all of his scribbling into what amounted to be his oral history. I remember saying, “You know, there’s plenty of secretarial services that can do this kind of thing.”

His response was, “I don’t trust anybody else to do this but you.”

We negotiated over the price and I had one of my staff who has far more patience than I to help this old codger spill out his story. I later learned that this transcription went to the archives of Temple University.  This caught my passing attention and was filed in my mental-rolodex. I never saw him again. But a decade later, his name appeared in a book by Kevin Owen Starr, California’s state librarian, best known for his multi-volume series on the history of California, collectively called  Americans and the California Dream

Now, the first man I came to know by name was Robert Sutro. Only later did I come to understand that he was a very wealthy Los Angeles mortgage lender who was heir to the San Francisco Sutro fortune. He had multiplied his holdings by buying up much of what is now called Silicon Valley when it was mostly orchards and then selling it off for a huge profit when this became the home to many start-up and global technology companies. Apple, Facebook and Google are among the most prominent. It’s also the site of technology-focused institutions centered around Palo Alto’s Stanford University.

One would never presume this man to be a multi-millionaire; he never came off as anything but a smart,  humble guy who in his later years would walk from his home at Point Fermin some 30 blocks to the hardware store. He once told me, “I’ve never worked a day in my life.”

“But Robert,” I said, “you’ve worked for years turning deals and buying properties.” 

“Oh, that’s not work. Working is having to do something you don’t enjoy.”

Sutro did teach me a thing or two about buying commercial real estate and which pitfalls to be wary of.

In his later years, my wife passed him by in her car as he was walking down Pacific Avenue one evening. She stopped to offer him a ride. He graciously accepted and after arriving at his place on Paseo del Mar, he asked if she’d like to have dinner with him and his wife.  She declined saying she had to go home and feed her cats. “Well, why don’t you go home and get the cats and bring them to dinner, too?” was his response.

The second man’s name was Pat Chambers. He was a retired labor organizer who had spent years in the fields of the Central Valley. By the time he landed in San Pedro, he was living in a retirement home and had spent some time reflecting on his life. He was at home here with the union workers and the blue-collar ethic of this town.

When I ran into his name again, it was a decade later in the book I mentioned above on the history of California. In the chapter on the 1930s labor struggles, I read about a famous cotton strike in the Central Valley. In that chapter, the author referenced a common police practice of arresting everyone on the picket line. The author noted that there was one guy at that time who held the record for the highest number of arrests in a 30-day period. That man’s name was Pat Chambers.

You see, Chambers was arrested some 90 times during that month. This means he was arrested, posted bail and was back out on the picket line three times a day for a month. Starr went on to say that only the communist organizers had money for bail.

So, here we have it. The capitalist and the communist — at first sight you couldn’t tell the difference. Both men came to San Pedro near the end of their lives for pretty much the same reasons with far different life stories. Neither one was full of hubris. Both were men I’d gauged as having something that couldn’t be bought —integrity.

Terelle Jerricks is Managing Editor at Random Lengths News.  During his two decade tenure, he has investigated, reported on, written and assisted with hundreds of stories related to environmental concerns, affordable housing, development that exacerbates wealth inequality and the housing crisis, labor issues and community policing or the lack thereof.