Norma Jean Salina
Love at First Sight
I was 16 and had dropped out of Hollywood High so that I could work full-time as a boxboy at a Ralphs Market near where I lived with my divorced mom. I had hopes of becoming a professional commercial artist or cartoonist,
and didn't think getting a high school diploma (much less a college degree) would be all that helpful in learning to sell my artwork.
At Ralphs, Frances was my favorite cashier, and I would jump at every opportunity to work at her side, while pretending not to notice if any of the others needed some help. I liked Frances a lot, and she liked knowing that whenever I was on duty she would never be without a boxboy.
What was so special about Franny? Well, she was just a nice person who always had a warm smile and a pleasant word for everyone (and she bore more than a passing resemblance to the actress Celeste Holm). She exuded maternal compassion and was ever willing to listen to anyone's tales of woe (including mine). And she loved to visit. Customers would frequently pass up a checkstand with no line just to wait in a long one at hers.
Everybody loved Franny. In fact, the only thing I didn't like about Frances was her boyfriend. He was a loutish lug with a permanent scowl who always seemed to be out of work. In fact the only time he ever came into the store, as near as I could figure, was to borrow money from Franny and/or place a bet with Al, the small-time bookie who worked in the stockroom. What could she possibly see in this bum, I wondered? (I had this vague feeling that Frances and my mother must have done their boyfriend-shopping at the same second-hand loser shop.) "Franny, Franny," I would silently fantasize — "if only I were twenty years older"
And she could handle the "wolves." There was this one guy who'd asked her out several times, but she always had an excuse for turning him down. One time she told him she had to go home and make her bed. "Well," he smiled in his most seductive voice, "I'll be glad to help you make it."
"Sure," she replied in her most seductive voice, "but you'd really rather help me mess it up, wouldn't you? Now go away."
I have to admit the thought of helping Frances mess up her bed had crossed my 16-year-old mind more than once, but of course I'd never tell her that. She had already become a big sister, a best friend, and even a substitute mom. In fact she had become the preeminent female in my life. (Since dropping out of school I'd never gotten around to calling
Then someone came along who was able to take my mind off Franny — and just about everything else. Norma Jean Salina was a vision of teenage loveliness who made my heart stop the first time I saw her.
Yes, Zelma had been warm and friendly and had made me feel good about myself. But there was something about Norma that was different. As she came through our checkstand with a basketful of groceries I judged her to be maybe a year or so younger than I.
She had lustrous brown hair and beautiful brown eyes that sparkled when she smiled. And, to my amazement, they seemed to be smiling at me. I had to look over my shoulder to see if there wasn't some handsome guy standing behind me at whom she was actually looking.
Pretty girls usually didn't smile at me.
Okay, Zelma did — and there was one other who did — only she wasn't exactly a girl — she was a sultry divorcee in her thirties who seemed intent on seducing me. (But that's a whole other story.)
Back at Ralph's, Norma Jean's smiles weren't "sultry" or "knowing." They were warm and enchanting and said, "Hi — you look like a nice person — I think I'd like to know you better — wouldn't you like to know me better?" And, to my delighted amazement, these smiles were indeed meant for me. I finally became convinced of this when I noticed that each time she came to the store she'd get in the checkout line where I was working (usually Franny's, of course). And if a customer ahead of her needed help out to her car, I would be devastated at not being there to bag Norma's groceries — and get another one of those heart-stopping smiles when she said, "Thank you."
I finally got up enough nerve to ask her name and where she went to school. I was surprised when she said "Immaculate Heart Catholic Girls' School." I had the idea that somehow Catholic and Girl and School all added up to Nun — but nuns couldn't possibly be this pretty, I thought, and they certainly didn't go around smiling at strange boys.
Franny, of course, was taking this all in, and as soon as Norma was out of sight, she'd say, "Well, look who's in love. So, when are you going to ask her out?"
Well, I was way too timid to ask her out right there in the store — I mean, what if she said "no" or, worse yet, laughed at me right in front of everyone?
But the next time she came through our line she had a check in her hand — and asked Franny if she could use it to pay for the groceries.
"Of course," replied Frances, "as long as you have your address and phone number on it." Franny and I didn't have to look at each other to know what we were both thinking (perhaps what all three of us were thinking).
After Norma Jean handed Franny the check bearing her address and phone number, I could hardly wait for her to leave, so I could ask for a peek at the check.
When I did, Franny replied, in mock surprise, "I thought you'd never ask."
Copying the phone number down was easy — making the call took all the courage I could muster. But that evening at around 7:00, after what must have been the thirtieth or fortieth attempt, I finally managed to dial all seven digits. It was her mother who answered the phone, and she sounded vaguely suspicious when I introduced myself and asked to speak to Norma Jean.
Well, about the only thing I can remember about the ensuing conversation was that, after asking how I got her number (as if she didn't know) Norma said she'd ask her parents if she could go with me to the movies the following Saturday night and that she'd stop by the store the next day to give me their answer.
That must have been the longest day of my life, but Franny kept assuring me that not only would Norma be there, she would say yes — it was okay for her to go to the movies with me.
Well, Norma showed up at about 4:00, and, for the first time, wasn't smiling as she approached our checkstand. She wore an expression that said something serious was on her mind. She asked Frances if I could be excused for a moment so we could have a few words in private. Franny was beaming as she said, "Of course."
"You don't have a car, do you?" she began. "My mother won't let me go out with anybody who has a car." No, of course I didn't have a car.
"Just how old are you?" she asked next. My mom doesn't want me going out with any "older" boys. When I said I was 16, she said her mom really didn't want her going out with anyone who was old enough to drive.
Norma was only 14 and had never been on a date before — and I would have to come to the house to meet her parents before they would give us a definite answer.
"When can I come over?" was all I wanted to know.
"How about this evening after dinner — say at 7:00?"
I could hardly wait.
Meeting the Family
Well, she had kept referring to her "parents" — but it was her mom who would say whether or not she could go out with me. Her dad was a house painter, who had a ready smile and a hearty handshake. I could see right off he was the good-natured type who'd leave decisions of this magnitude to his wife, who had a much more pragmatic air about her.
In any case, she seemed satisfied that I wasn't Jack the Ripper or the Black Dahlia killer. In fact she actually seemed to like me. (Her dad struck me as being the kind who liked everybody.) Norma also had a kid brother of about 10 who looked like he could hardly wait for the chance to tease his big sister about "having a boyfriend."
Anyway, I promised to have Norma Jean home by 10:00 on the Saturday night of the date. This would be easy because the Campus Theater was only a couple of blocks from her house and, in those days, walking a girl home at 10:00 PM in an urban area like the intersection of Santa Monica Blvd. and Vermont Ave. in Los Angeles was not considered a dangerous thing to do.
I couldn't wait for Saturday to arrive. Nor could I wait for the following morning to arrive so I could tell Franny the good news.