The author and her father in Pasadena, California, 1995.
On the day before graduation, I drove over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco one final time. The water glistened to my right, and the Golden Gate rose above the curtain of fog in the distance. I felt a twist of regret in my gut. I was my best self when I wrote—curious and creative, vulnerable and fearless. I couldn't imagine closing off that part of me. And yet. I'd made a commitment. I'd promised my dad that I'd come back to Los Angeles and join the family business.

He'd started out as a ketchup salesman for Hunt-Wesson Foods, then joined Kaiser Aluminum before starting his own business, Baszile Metals Service, in 1975, distributing aluminum sheet, plate, rod, and bar to the aerospace, defense, and aircraft industries.

My dad hired me as a sales associate. For the next seven years we worked side by side. Our offices were southeast of downtown L.A., near the sad trickle of the Los Angeles River and the crosshatch of rail yards, just down the street from the Farmer John slaughterhouse. On my way to work each morning, I passed trucks pulling long, reeking trailers packed with pigs, their snouts poking through the metal rails, their mud-smeared hindquarters pressing against the mesh. On hot days, the air was the color of sweet tea from all the smog and smelled like blood and death.

If asked, I could rattle off the tensile strength of 7075 versus 2024 or 6061. I knew all about B-1 bombers and which type of aluminum NASA used on the space shuttle. I told myself it was a good gig. I had job security and saw my parents every day, which most of the time I liked. But I hated aluminum. I didn't even like sales. I spent my days answering phone calls from hard-nosed, raspy-voiced purchasing agents looking for the cheapest prices and fastest delivery. Our inventory wasn't computerized for my first two years on the job, so when a customer called, I scribbled his query on a preprinted worksheet, put him on hold, and rushed to the metal cabinet against the wall, where I flipped through trays of yellowing handwritten index cards to confirm that we had the material in stock. And even when we did get computers, Dad didn't trust them, insisting that when I had an inventory question, I "check the tag." That meant going out to the warehouse—15,000 square feet of corrugated steel siding, oily concrete floors, and grimy louvered windows through which pigeons flew to nest in the rafters. I walked past the planer mill and the screeching saws whose blades threw off trails of orange sparks, down the cavernous rows, where aluminum plates as thick as king-size mattresses were stacked above my head.

What could be worse than checking tags? Cold calls. Which is what Dad wanted me to do when the phones weren't ringing. He dropped a phone book on my desk and told me to get busy. My heart sank as I leafed through the listings of machine shops; my stomach churned as I dialed. "This is Natalie, over at Baszile Metals," I'd say, feigning cheerfulness. "I'm calling to see if you need any quarter-inch I beams. Or how about some anodized 7075 tubing?"

I got lunch at a food truck that swung into the parking lot around 11 A.M. As it rolled through the gates, the driver punched the horn, and "La Cucaracha" blared through the speakers mounted on the truck's roof. I got in line and paid three bucks for a greasy egg sandwich and a shrink-wrapped apple pastry, which I gobbled down in the small lunchroom behind the office. Of course, what I really wanted to do was write, which I did every evening, often until midnight, in my little apartment on South Spring Street. I dreamed of writing full-time, of getting my stories published. But I was afraid of disappointing my dad. Every time we called on customers, he'd tell them how proud he was to have me on board, and they'd praise me for being a good daughter. I'd nod and agree that I was fortunate to have such a rare opportunity.


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