• Art Nomura

Chapter 14, segment 1 of 2, 'Cash and Carry'

Leaving the Terminal Island cannery after a year of working at the cannery proved a more difficult transition for Mizuko than Kazuichi had portrayed. For her it was especially trying because she had met many women who worked on the cannery line who had become more than co-workers. And the money, when the fishing was good, was more than adequate.

The cannery business itself, boomed as canned fish once merely a novelty, was fast becoming a staple in the American diet. Furthermore, Mizuko had become a valued employee, acknowledged not only as a top producer, but also for her hearty personality and devoted work ethic that had a positive influence on everyone during the most demanding work shifts.

But Kazuichi’s ‘idea’ was not to be denied. Disregarding his wife’s desire for continued stability, he was adamant that his vision of opening a grocery store in downtown Los Angeles would be the best course of action.

On the day after his financial goal for the family had been reached, he borrowed a car and drove everyone and their belongings the twenty miles from Long Beach to central Los Angeles. They found a 'room' in a barely habitable building near the Southern Pacific rail yard east of downtown.

As the family settled in, he began a frenzied search for a place for his dream enterprise.

Kazuichi scoured Central Los Angeles for desirable properties. He quickly discovered that vacancies in the city center were difficult to find and when available, very expensive.

Ranging away from what he deemed the best area, he came upon a two-story structure at 259 E. 23rd Street between South Main Street and Maple Avenue. Although it was almost two and a half miles southwest of the new Los Angeles City Hall and the central downtown area, it had a storefront on the first floor and living quarters on the second.

Mizuko and their eldest son Takuma accompanied Kazuichi for the lease signing.

“So you’re telling me that a guy was killed right here?” said Takuma nervously, standing inside the first floor entrance.

“That’s what the owner said,” Kazuichi deflected.

“No wonder it’s available,” continued Takuma shaking his head.

“Are you sure that it is safe here?” Mizuko inquired.

“I’ve asked around the neighborhood and that was the first time that anyone can remember an armed robbery in the area. Listen, we have to act fast. The rent the owner quoted won’t last. It’s way below the market price,” said Kazuichi, his voice rising.

“It’s a big, big city. Maybe there’s another place we can…” Mizuko’s gaze wandered over the water-stained walls, cracked ceiling, and worn floorboards.

“I’ve been looking non-stop for nearly a week. We won’t find anything better at twice the price,” Kazuichi uttered with an air of finality.

“We can always move if it doesn’t work out,” Takuma said defiantly.

Damate-nasai, be quiet!” Kazuichi scowled at his son.

“The lady said that the location of the store practically guarantees success. We’re through talking. I’m signing the papers.” He walked out on his wife and son before they could say anything more.

Despite the risks associated with his decision, Kazuichi’s choice of the two-story rental did have its merits. Foremost was the store’s proximity to the produce market. The Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market at 7th Street and South Central Avenue, was just a mile and a half away, ensuring a convenient and cheap source of vegetables and fruit for the fledgling venture.

The ‘New’ Wholesale Market, started by Issei farmers and entrepreneurs at the turn of the century, was a natural fit for Kazuichi, the former produce broker and farmer. By 1928 over half of the produce sold in Los Angeles came from Japanese-run farms in the area via the Wholesale Produce Market. The Market provided Kazuichi with a direct connection to an essential, economically vibrant segment of the Japanese community.

Thankfully, the widow of the former deceased storekeeper was right about the store’s viability. Grocery stores were few and far between in the inner city. Many of their neighborhood customers chose to shop at the Nomura Cash and Carry because they did not want or could not make the longer trip to the Safeway Store where prices were cheaper and the selection greater.

Unlike Kazuichi’s soon-to-be-exploited sphere at the Wholesale Produce market, the people who frequented the Cash and Carry were largely non-Japanese. They gravitated to ‘Mary’ or ‘mama’, as Mizuko was known, and appreciated her ready smile and quick sense of humor. Although Mizuko’s rudimentary command of English was adequate in most circumstances, it occasionally created problems.

An immigrant Russian Jewish woman was a regular, if not a completely desirable customer. She had the habit of squeezing the fruits and vegetables in search of those she felt were at optimal ripeness. Her rough handling often left bruises on the produce that made them unfit to sell.

In totaling up the cost of purchases Mizuko used the Japanese way of counting where the numbers from ten to nineteen began with a word pronounced ‘ju’. In addition, the numbers twenty, through ninety-nine included the same sound. The produce-squeezing customer took umbrage at Mizuko’s use of the word ‘ju’, mistaking it for ‘Jew’, and stopped patronizing the store. From that incident on, Mizuko made her arithmetic calculations silently. Even though the customer had routinely damaged merchandise, Mizuko was still unhappy to lose her.

The Nomura Cash and Carry became popular for another reason. Although the store was billed as cash and carry only, Mizuko offered credit to many of her customers whenever she was asked. Mizuko never felt that her generosity and trusting nature would lead to future problems.

Finding enough room for eight people in their 2nd floor two-bedroom apartment would have been challenging for a typical family. But for a group accustomed to living in shacks, barns, boxcars, subterranean caverns, and flea-bag boarding rooms, the new dwelling proved to be more than adequate.

Kazuichi, Mizuko, and their rambunctious toddler Ayako shared one bedroom, and Shigeko, Yosh, and Kaworu, the second. The older boys, Takuma and Jiro slept in the living room. On the first floor, behind the storefront in a room next to the kitchen, a large table surrounded by chairs doubled as a dining area and gathering place for the family.

Kazuichi soon discovered that the anchored life of a storekeeper did not suit him. He much preferred to be out and about, especially in a community of Japanese that numbered in the thousands rather than in the dozens as had been the case in rural Washington and remote Montana. While working in the Cash and Carry store, his restless pacing and constant complaining about the smallest issue made life difficult for the entire family.

One afternoon he left the store in Mizuko’s care and rented a vegetable cart from a vendor at the Wholesale Produce Market. The next day he began hawking vegetables in the inner city. Because of his innate performing ability he enjoyed immediate success and quickly assumed the life of a roving vegetable peddler. His sales route took him throughout the central city, including the bustling Little Tokyo area just east of City Hall.

Kazuichi’s salesmanship enabled him to sell out his allotment of produce in half the time of his competitors. On the weekends and during school vacation, Takuma and Jiro assisted him in making his rounds. Through him they developed connections with wholesale produce vendors that would lead to lifelong business relationships.

Meanwhile the store, bolstered by the continual stream of the best and freshest produce brought in daily by Takuma and Jiro, prospered. Mizuko expanded the store’s offerings to include meat and poultry that she bought from butchers in nearby Chinatown. It appeared that Kazuichi’s dream of a chain of markets might actually be possible.

On December 14, 1929 at 10:30 p.m. Mizuko gave birth to her third son, Yoshito in a Los Angeles hospital. The birth of her sixth and final child marked the only time Mizuko gave birth in a physician-assisted setting. As was the case in every prior delivery, Kazuichi was nowhere to be found.

When Kazuichi finally met his newborn son several days after his birth, he said callously, “Another mouth to feed. What a burden!”

“He is a beautiful child. Big and healthy. I think he will be tall like his uncle Katsumi,” Mizuko said proudly.

“Who cares about that!” Kazuichi exclaimed. “My plan to expand our business depends on putting money aside as quickly as possible. The expense of raising another child will do nothing but hurt us.”

“You should have thought of the consequences before he was conceived. Now that he is here, we are obliged to do our best to raise him.”

“We’ll see about that,” replied Kazuichi ominously.

A week later, after Mizuko and the newborn had returned home from the hospital, Kazuichi brought a fellow issei home for dinner. “You remember Nagai-san don’t you?”

Mizuko looked closely at the gaunt man standing nervously, hat in hand. “Of course I do. You used to work with the Morita rail gang out of Three Forks in Montana, right?”

Hai, so desu, onegai shimasu. It is good to see you. The food was never the same after you left us, Nomura-okusan. Thank you for inviting me to your home,“ he replied politely.

After a largely silent meal of fried chicken, boiled vegetables, and steamed rice, Kazuichi broached the reason for Nagai’s presence. “Nagai-san is doing quite well for himself since he came down to Los Angeles. He owns a very successful produce brokerage in the Wholesale Market.”

“It’s nothing special,” Nagai-san said modestly.

“I wish that it was my business,” countered Kazuichi. Mizuko listened patiently with Yoshito resting in her lap.

“He has everything a man could want, except for his own family. I suggested to him that perhaps, when our new son is a little older that he could…“

Before he could continue, Mizuko snapped. “That idea is out of the question. Why would you even suggest such a thing?”

Nagai looked from Mizuko to Kazuichi and back to Mizuko and flushed with embarrassment. “I’m very, very sorry, I thought that you had already approved of this matter. I would never…, please forgive me,” he stammered.

Mizuko got up from the table. “Please excuse me Nagai-san, its time to feed my son.” She turned abruptly and left the dining area.

The next day nothing was said about Nagai-san’s visit. Kazuichi did not bring up the matter again.

end of Chapter 14, segment 1 of 2, 'Cash and Carry'

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