Monday, April 7, 2014

The Chinita Story

                                                   The Chinita Story
                               A true story written 02/05/2014 rewritten 7/29/2016
                                                        Howard Yasgar

      In 1985, I had the good fortune to have a Cuban friend named Miguel Marquez. Miguel was a refugee that had escaped from Cuba in 1964, and he come to work for me just a few days after arriving in the United States.
      I had moved to Florida from Connecticut in 1963 and I thought it was really a neat to know someone that had actually had escaped from Cuba after Fidel Castro took over in 1958, I knew that his escaping must have taken a lot of nerve.
      My friend Miguel and his family had lived on a small island called Cayo Coco, which was just off the North Coast of Cuba.
      Miguel had several brothers, there was his brother Manuel, and there was Mongo, and there was Jorge, and there was Ricardo and also Rudolpho, Those were his brothers and he also had three sisters, who were named Marcia, Rosa and Mercedes.
      Miguel told me they all lived on the island in a big farm house with a thatched roof.
      Being curious, I asked Miguel what he did with a thatched roof when it rained hard and the roof leaked, Miguel said he simply moved his bed.
      Most of the entire Marquez family had thought that Fidel Castro taking over Cuba would be a good thing, but as we all know it didn’t turn out that way.  
     The problems first started when his brother Rudolpho was conscripted by the government to fight Castro, he was machine gunned down by Castro’s forces. Then he was sent home, never to walk again.
     Then there was Miguel’s brother Ricardo, he tried to escape in a boat, and he was caught and imprisoned for several years.
      Once most of the family decided to try and escape Cuba, they all did it with the exception of Miguel’s sister Rosa, as she had married a staunch Communist, and there was Miguel’s brother Mongo who was involved in some crooked deal and didn’t want to go, but he eventually came over on the Mariel Boat lift in 1980.
       As soon as Miguel came to work for me, we became friends and I started to teach him English and in return he taught me his hillbilly Spanish.
       By 1985, almost all Miguel’s family were located in Miami and my wife and I were treated as if we were part of their extended family group. We would attend all the family functions, and parties, and because Miguel had taught me enough Spanish, I had no problem talking Spanish with anyone there.
       Also by 1985, my wife Katherine and I were traveling back and forth to the Dominican Republic, we were trying to establish a business importing Amber jewelry that was mined there.
      So one evening we were attending a party at Miguel’s house, and we mentioned that we would be in the Dominican Republic the following week.
      Miguel’s brother Ricardo, who every one called “Rico” overheard our conversation and he asked us if we would do him a favor when we were there in the Dominican Republic, we said certainly we would, what, do you want us to do for you?
       He looked at me kind of sheepishly and said “Chinita” I need you to bring back as much Chinita as you can. I knew that in Cuban Spanish, Chinita referred to a little Chinese girl, but I knew Rico couldn’t be asking us to bring home a Chinese girl. What the hell is Chinita I asked?
       Rico held up his thumb and forefinger, sort of like he was holding a little bottle or vial. He looked at me as if my wife Katherine shouldn’t hear what he was saying. In Spanish he said it was “Un liquido para sexo”, a liquid for sex.
       I replied to Ricardo in Spanish, a liquid for sex, I had never heard of it, oh yes, Rico exclaimed, “you put a little liquid on you, and you are good for the whole evening”.
      What the hell is it, Novocain, I asked?  No, No, he said it’s nothing illegal it is a special herb.
     Rico, and everyone else that was listening, was now laughing, it was probably because I never had heard of Chinita before and they were  probably thinking how dumb can this guy be, everyone knew what Chinita was.
     So the next week my wife Katherine and I were in the Dominican Republic. We had landed in the capitol city of Santo Domingo and rented a car to drive to the city of Santiago where we were working with an amber dealer.
     The city of Santiago is considered the second capitol of the Dominican Republic.
      But back in 1985, Santiago was just a sleepy town with, with a small park in the center, just like any small town in America.
     You could sit on a shaded park bench there and eventually be approached by every salesman and huckster in town trying to hustle and sell you something.
      By the time we were done with our Amber business, and we had gone to a restaurant for lunch, it was about one in the afternoon, which was siesta time for all the locals.  
     After lunch, Katherine and I started to walk down the main street in Santiago, but we saw that all the stores were closed, and lots of street vendors were now resting or sleeping on the ground. Many were in the doorways of the larger retail stores. Some of the people were laying on blankets and others were just napping in the sitting position.
      We noticed that many street vendors had been displaying their wares that were laying on sheets and blankets, and they had pulled them off the sidewalks and into the doorways with them for siesta.
       That afternoon, Katherine and I appeared to be the only people walking on the side walk. The streets of Santiago were absolutely dead silent, not even a car was moving, I think it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.
       Not being familiar with the time for the local siesta, Katherine and I walked silently up the street trying to not disturb any of the napping people.
        I noticed in one doorway there was a small chubby kid sitting next to a blanket with all kinds of trinkets on it, and I noticed that this chubby little kid wasn’t napping either, he was just sitting there staring at us.
       What the hell, I thought, so I went over to him and asked him in my best Spanish if he had any Chinita.
       He looked at me like he didn’t understand what I had said, or perhaps like he didn’t expect an American to be asking him for Chinita in Spanish. So I asked a second time and his face lit up. He said “No tengo”, that meant, no I don’t have it, so I asked him if he knew where I could buy Chinita.
       The little chubby guy who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old got up and motioned us to follow him, we did just that, as he went out into the middle of the street with us following right behind him.
     In the loudest voice I ever heard, he started yelling “El Americano’s care Chinita.”
     The American wants Chinita. He walked down the street and kept yelling it at the top of his lungs.
     My wife Katherine was so embarrassed that I think she shrunk to half her size.
     Yes, we finally found Chinita for Ricardo they wanted 50 cents for a small glass vial with a plastic screw cap. I bought him three or four of them. I knew it must be some kind of natural deadener like oil of cloves, so I tasted it and it was oil of cloves.
       But Rico was happy, and I bet they are still talking about it in Santiago, when the American and his wife wanted the sexual aid Chinita, and they wanted it during siesta time.




The Making Money Story

                                                    The Making Money Story
                                                        Written 3/3/2014

                                                          Howard Yasgar

     Back around 1955, I had just gotten my drivers license and I thought I was the luckiest guy in the whole world, but I had no money.

     I was living in the suburb of Westville Connecticut and going to Hillhouse high school in New Haven at the time.

     My cousin Allen, who was the son of my mom’s sister Adele, was about a year younger than I was, and we were both shared an interest in anything to do with automobiles, and because of this we often hung around together working on cars in my backyard.

     One day Allen told me he had found a job at a local gas station and he said that they needed more part time help.

      Since I had just gotten my drivers license and had just purchased a green 1940 Ford convertible, what could be better than a part time job in a gas station. My old Ford used

gas and a lot of oil.

      The gas station was owned by Gulf Oil Company and located on the corner of Whalley Ave and Emerson Street in Westville. It was just about 10 blocks from my home if I ever had to walk there.

      The station was being managed by a fellow named Tony Navarro, who was a Korean War veteran.

      Tony had been at the battle of the Chosin reservoir in Korea. He said he was returning from a patrol, and he could only watch from a hill top as the North Korean soldiers climbed into the Red Cross trucks and killed every one of his buddies.

      Naturally Tony was never quite the same after seeing that.

      Tony said he needed me to help pump gas and do odd jobs. Those were the days when gas station attendants actually washed every ones car windows and checked your water and oil, and air in your tires.

      The Whalley Avenue gas station had an office and two bays. In one bay it had an air operated lift so we could lift up the cars and lubricate them, or change the oil.

      Once we had a car in the air, we could also fix any exhaust problems, as well as check the oil level in the differential.

       I thought the air operated lift was like a gift from heaven as I could put my own car up in the air and play with it every time Tony wasn’t around.

       We had a nice office with a metal desk and wood chair and a back room where there was the air compressor and several cases of oil and Coca Cola.

       Our two bay Gulf gas station was pretty typical of most small gas stations at the time.

       Besides from the bay with the lift in it, we had a second bay for washing cars and doing minor repairs. That second bay had a small work bench in the back and an assortment of hand tools hanging on the wall

      About 30 or 40 feet out in front of the office was a concrete Island with two gas pumps. One pump was for High test Gulf gas and one for regular Gulftane gas which sold for about .18 cents a gallon at the time.

       The concrete island also had a free air pump that was used for filling tires. I also had an oil rack that held around 12 quarts of Gulf oil. The oil rack a special drain feature built into it, designed to save every drop of oil, after we sold a can.

    . When we saved enough of the oil, it was put in one of those old glass oil bottles with a tall metal spout. That oil we saved was sold cheap, as it was all profit.

      I think those old oil bottles are collector items now.

      The station had a long hose that ran out to the island and when a car ran over it, it rang a bell so we knew a customer was out there.

       When things were quiet and Tony was out, I could sit in the office with my feet up on the desk like I was the owner.

       Some days there was little to do and my entertainment was watching all the neighborhood kids that would come in for air in their bicycle tires, some came on their bikes and some came with their repaired tire only. They came to get free air from our pump.

        I would yell for them to be careful as the air pump had too much pressure, but no one ever listened to me and I would hear the loud  bang, and watch the kids jump as their tire blew up in their hands, it happened every time.

       Outside the station between the two bays, we had a Coca Cola machine. When I first came to the station, it started out as a metal box with the cokes in cold water, but Coca Cola kept coming up with new models for Tony to lease and as Tony was a soft touch, and wanted to be a modern man, we always had the latest model machine installed.

       On the most modern one, you put 5 cents in, a big wheel rotated and a green bottle was released from a little door. I had the key to this modern technology, as my job was to fill the machine every day.

       As you walked inside the station office we also had a modern cigarette machine.

       A pack of cigarettes was .25 cents. You put in a quarter or two dimes and a nickel, then you pulled a knob under the brand you wanted.

       Our cigarette machine was pretty smart as it could also give you change.

       Sometimes people walking up Whalley Avenue would come in and ask me to make change for them so they could buy cigarettes, or sometimes they wanted to use the restrooms.

       Tony would curse under his breath every time some one came walking in with out a car as he knew they probably wanted to use the restroom. He called those people S.H.I.A.W, customers. That meant shithouse, information, air and water. None of which he made any money off of.    

      Once a week Tony would point to the water hose and it was my job to hose and mop out the restrooms. They needed it, and the hose was the best way to clean them. You didn’t have to touch anything.

       I had started smoking, so I thought having a cigarette machine right in the office was very convenient, but having .25 cents to buy the cigarettes wasn’t always that convenient.

       I sat at Tony’s desk, thinking a lot on just that problem.

      We didn’t have a cash register in those days and all the money was in a cash box in the top drawer of the desk. The money was always available to me, but I was too honest to even think of using any.

       I opened the drawer and studied the little black tray that held all the change.

       I picked up a dime and noticed that a copper penny was just a little bigger.

       I had a pocket full of pennies so I borrowed a dime from the box and went out to the work bench in the shop.

       I put the dime tightly against the penny and locked them firmly in the benches vice.

      Then I took down our file that was hanging on the wall. I then proceeded to file the copper penny down until it was the size of the dime.

      As soon as I had three copper pennies filed down, I put them into the cigarette machine, pulled the handle and out came a pack of Camels and 5 cents change.

      I  really found a way of making money.

      I spent the rest of the afternoon filing down all my pennies.

      It wasn’t easy filing all those pennies down, and I started sweating, but I knew that making money was never easy.

      By evening I had about 6 packs of cigarettes on the desk.

      The next day, the cigarette salesman came and opened up the machine. His job was to collect the money and re fill the machine with cigarettes.

       I watched his face as he dumped out all my filed down pennies into his hand.

       He looked at me and the 6 packs of cigarettes piled up on the desk.

       Do you know anything about this? He said.

       Absolutely not, I sheepishly replied.

       I followed him out to the work bench where he examined all the copper filings that were still on the vice and on the floor. I knew the jig was up.


The Barney Kaplan Grow House Story

                                          The Barney Kaplan Grow House Story

                                      A true Story rewritten 07/17/2015 unedited
                                                            Howard Yasgar

       At this writing in February 2014, my good friend Barney Kaplan is now 96 years old.
       I first met Barney Kaplan, back in 1975 in Detroit, his company was called “Barney Kaplan Surplus” later he shortened it to “BKS”. His business was extremely unusual, as Barney, who all his life was a specialist in rebuilding automotive electrical parts, bought and sold all kinds of spare parts that the big automotive electrical manufacturers were throwing away. Barney’s warehouses were absolutely loaded with all kinds of wonderful things that parts rebuilding companies like mine needed for doing our business.
       Once I met Barney, from 1975 on, he became one of our major suppliers, and then besides from being one of our suppliers, he also became our good friend as well as a mentor.
       As one of our major suppliers, for 35 years Barney kept us supplied with tons of new, as well as used and surplus automotive electrical parts, they were automotive parts that helped to make our company highly successful.
       Being one of our major suppliers, Barney searched the entire Midwest market place for us, to find the types of items we needed. When he found something, he would always call to advise us of what he was buying, then he loaded everything up in trailer loads at his warehouse in Detroit and shipped it to us in Miami.
       As we became friends, Barney would call me several times a week, usually in the evening, he would call to talk about our mutual friends, what was happening in the rebuilding industry, as well as tell me lots of funny stories, all about things that happened to him in the past. And then there were the jokes, some of which over the years, I had heard over and over from him.
       Every month or so there would be a UPS package coming to us with several small kosher salami’s in it, they were  dry kosher salami’s that Barney always picked up when he was in Chicago. He said they were the best in the whole world and I think he was right. We hung the salami’s from our office ceiling to dry out, as per Barney’s exacting instructions. The first time when the salami’s turned white with mold and I was going to throw them away, Barney yelled at me, he said just rinse them off with water, and he was right. Everyone visiting us that was in the rebuilding industry, and who saw the salami’s hanging in our office said, “So you know Barney Kaplan too”. It seems Barney never went anywhere without carrying a few of his gift salami’s. Once when I was fishing with him in the wilds of Canada, nothing was biting, so Barney put a chunk of that kosher salami on his fish hook, for the fun of it, but it didn’t help.
       Becoming our mentor, Barney never stopped advising me as to how to improve our business to make it grow and be profitable. His advice was absolutely nonstop for over 35 years, Barney seemed to have an idea for solving just about every problem. He would advise me on how to set up work benches, he advised me on shop lighting as well as ventilation, and over the years I probably heard some of the same advice repeated hundreds of times.
        When Barney first started mentoring me, and telling me all the things I was doing wrong, I took offense with him, but then over the years I had to call Barney up many times to tell him he was really right and I was wrong. I eventually calculated that Barney was right over 70 percent of the time and he probably was right more than that, but I was too stubborn to admit it.
      With Barney always being so free with his advice, it made him many friends in the rebuilding industry, but it also made him a few enemies. I know there were people that took offense at listening to Barney’s advice, they were mostly the “Knows it all” guys that felt that they knew everything already.
       Right from the beginning, when we started doing business with Barney, we knew that in the Midwest area, there were several other companies similar to his, but they were all concentrated on selling more of the common every day type of parts, but Barney’s type of business was totally different, and that’s what made him stand out in the crowd. Barney specialized in finding, buying and stocking all kinds of hard to find parts, the kinds of parts that were used in odd ball applications like industrial machines, ships generators, farm tractors, and fork lifts. In other words Barney specialized in what no one else wanted to specialize in, and consequently that’s what made Barney an icon in the rebuilding industry.  Many companies just like mine, became dependent on Barney as a supplier. Over the years he became well known as a specialist in having things that no one else had, and that’s what ultimately, after many years, almost tripped him up.   
      When I first met Barney he had a warehouse located on Wabash Avenue in Detroit.
Barney had that Wabash building so filled up with odd ball parts that you could hardly walk in it, you even had to step on a big locomotive starter when you entered his front door. By today’s standards we would probably call Barney a hoarder, but to those of us that knew him, we knew that he was a hoarder of “Gold”, the valuable hard to find parts that we needed to keep our businesses rolling.
       Barney contacted factories as well as junk yards, he looked everywhere to find anything discarded that was electrical, and that is how Barney found electrical parts from locomotives, to lawn mowers.
       Finding the parts was just the beginning for Barney, then he had to buy them and store them, thus he needed lots of warehouse space.
       Around 1976, Barney had absolutely filled up his Wabash Avenue warehouse to capacity, and that’s when he decided to rent additional storage space upstairs from a scrap paper baling company. When our company first discovered Barney in 1975, he had already run out of room in his Wabash building, that’s when I started going with him to his new rented space above the scrap paper company. I just loved going there with Barney as we would stand downstairs next to one of the big scrap paper baling machines, and Barney would reach in and pick out all kinds of books and interesting papers that the scrap company was baling up. He would find and show me all kinds of interesting reading material that was being thrown away as scrap, and Barney would take lots of it home, just to give it out free to his customers.
       Barney knew that his looking for used and surplus electrical parts was an addiction, he just couldn’t stop doing it.
      When I first met Barney in 1975, for us it was like a marriage made in heaven, Barney was buying tons of excess marine electrical parts from a manufacturer called the Prestolite Company and at the time, his only customer for it was a Michigan company called “MEC”. For one reason or another MEC, had stopped buying parts. So when we met Barney, he was overflowing with tons of the very parts we needed, and loads more of it was coming in to Barney’s warehouse weekly. So when we came along and started buying it all, it really made Barney’s day, but I don’t know who was happier, Barney or me.
      In 1975, when I first started traveling to Detroit, it started out as fun, but after a couple of years, of flying back and forth from Miami, the city of Detroit had started to become a little scary to me. I could see in front of me the beginning of the deterioration of what was once a great city. There were already lots of abandoned houses everywhere.
Barney told me that the city of Detroit would sell them to anyone for only a few hundred dollars, and I saw it was happening right across the street from Barney’s Wabash Avenue warehouse.
        Across the street from Barney’s, there was a two story wooden house with families living in it. Then one day, I noticed that the families seemed to be gone, and I wondered what had happened to them. On my next trip to Detroit I kept my eye on that house, and I saw that the City of Detroit, had nailed up plywood covering all the doors and windows. Now on every trip, I kept my eye on that house, and it wasn’t long before I saw that some of the pieces of plywood had been removed from the doors, Barney said it was probably done by drug addicts. A few months later, I noticed smoke and burn marks around the windows, a sign that there had been some kind of a fire inside the house.
       Barney told me he had watched from his loading dock, as some guys ripped out all the plumbing and the electrical wiring out of the house. By the time I made my next trip to Detroit, the house was nothing more than an empty wooden shell that you could see through. That was when the city came in and knocked down what was left of the house, leaving nothing but an empty lot.
       I joked with Barney back then, telling him that pretty soon all of Detroit would end up the same way. I think that Barney watching that house deteriorate right in front of him, was his wakeup call, he saw his neighborhood was deteriorating, and since he needed more space anyway, Barney decided to look for a larger building in a better location.
       At the time Barney started looking for a new and larger warehouse, he had remarried and moved to Southfield Michigan, so sometimes when I came to Detroit I would stay with Barney and his wife Sara Lee.
       Staying with Barney and his wife was an experience, as they had a large dog named “Red”.  Each morning Barney and his wife, would drive to work with their dog Red sitting behind me. Barney would go out of his way to drive to several street corners where he would roll down the windows so  Red could bark, saying hello to his friends who were all always sitting there waiting for him. As Red barked to all his friends he would drool on my shoulder, naturally unnoticed by anyone but me.    
       It wasn’t long before Barney called me in Miami to tell me he had purchased a large 28,600 square foot warehouse building on Epworth Street in Detroit and he said he was moving his entire company. The building he purchased now gave Barney the additional space to spread out and buy more merchandise, so over the next 20 years he continued to do so. This now made the company, now called BKS, one of the largest stockers and sellers of specialized odd ball electrical parts in the United States.
        As I stated, over the years Barney and I had become good friends. And he was always proud to take me along and introduce me to all of his suppliers. He was anxious to show me how he was always welcomed by the factories that were selling to him, so as my mentor, Barney and I traveled to many places together, which included the attending of  the conventions held by the  Automotive Parts Rebuilding Association. (APRA). Wherever we traveled, Barney always introduced me to all his customers and I could see that some of them, like me enjoyed our relationship with Barney.     
       Eventually by the late 1990’s the market in the United States started changing. As now many more items were being imported from Taiwan Japan and China. The market for older odd ball U.S. industrial parts diminished, and Barney’s business began declining with it. The America Barney loved, was now becoming a throwaway society, and the rebuilding business was in decline.
       By 2006 Barney, was now eighty eight years old, and his heart broken over the change in the market. He no longer had the items that were needed to rebuild the Asian products being imported. Reluctantly Barney decided it was time to liquidate all of his inventory. That immense job took him several years, but with the assistance of his son Jerry, Barney was eventually able to sell off and scrap most all of the inventory that he had accumulated in over seventy years.
       By year 2012, with most of the inventory now gone, Barney now had his empty warehouses to contend with. With the city of Detroit also now in a tailspin, and the entire United States economy in decline, there were no customers to be found for his buildings.
       Barney called me in the evenings, he was getting depressed and lamenting the cost of taxes, and the insurance expenses, and all this with no income coming in. Then the coup de grace, the graffiti artists found his Epworth warehouse, and the city of Detroit wanted to fine Barney unless he cleaned up the mess they made.
       I spoke to Barney often, and my only advice to him, was to sell his building at a loss, sell them at any price, I felt Barney needed to get the building out of his name, and as soon as possible. It was the only advice I could give him. The building was now a liability for Barney, with the taxes, insurance and fines from the city.
       Eventually, Barney reluctantly agreed, he realized there was no way he could ever recover his original costs, so he then put the buildings in the hands of a real estate agent.
       By 2013 Barney now fully realized that just getting rid of the buildings at any price would have been a blessing, and he was calling me every evening, Barney was now 96 years old, and he fully realized that there was no hope of profiting anything from the properties.
       Then at 96 years of age, with the assistance of his two sons Larry and Jerry, Barney came to visit us in Miami, we all felt would be Barney’s last trip.  
        When Barney returned to Detroit, I received a call from him, he said the real estate agent he employed had found a client, but the client was only offering $35,000.00 for the warehouse property. I advised Barney to take it, as fast as possible, and he agreed. Barney said that after all the commissions and taxes were paid there would be little or nothing left over, but the buildings would be gone, and they would be out of his name.
       Barney called to tell me that the sales transaction went like clock work, the buildings were sold and the new buyers had even agreed to keep all the left over furniture, it was  truly a blessing for Barney.
       About three months passed, when I received a large brown envelope in the mail. It was a picture of Barney’s building and a story right out of the Detroit newspaper. The picture enclosed was of the open front door of Barneys building, with his big BKS sign there for everyone to see.
       It appears the Detroit police had just raided Barney’s building. The new owners were using the warehouse as marijuana grow house. The BKS Epworth building was now pretty famous in Detroit. Many of my good friends in the Detroit area, knowing that I was friends with Barney sent me, all the stories and pictures out of their local newspapers.
       It was ironic, because the front door of Barney’s building was wide open, and the scavengers were ripping out of the building whatever was left, like the plumbing and electrical wiring, it was just like they had done to the house across the street from Barney’s warehouse on Wabash.
      My friend and mentor Barney Kaplan, died peacefully on October 1, 2014.