Dietrich Schroeder left Germany as the Communists came in, took a ship to New York and a train to San Diego. When he got here, he went to work on a chicken farm. He worked from five in the morning until eleven at night, seven days a week, for $75 a month. From there, he went to work for a nursery, then for a ceramic tile company. Eighteen years ago, he opened Flinn Springs Feed & Supplies, out on Old Highway 80 in El Cajon. “It was not so rosy in the beginning, especially since we didn’t know the language, but we managed,” he recalls. He wanted to teach agriculture, but his East German credentials were useless, and he says he’ll “be damned if I’m going to go back to school.” So he dispenses advice from his store, and tells me, “You wouldn’t believe how many people come to me before they go to [an animal] doctor.”
Dietrich has an open face, framed by heavy salt-and-pepper sideburns and a shock of silver hair, which he pushes straight back. His shirtsleeves are rolled up above the elbows. He speaks like a machine gun, his voice still laced with a German accent but warm and thick, like syrup. He often ends his sentences with “you know what I am saying?” or “you follow me?” (A member of the morning crew tells me that this is “because he doesn’t know what he’s saying,” but he smiles as he says it.) When Dietrich begins speaking, it is as if he is resuming an interrupted conversation. “You want to come in here and listen to all the bullshit we hand out, all the bullshit that comes in here, that’s fine with me,” he tells me. So I do.
It is a half-lit 6:00 in the morning when Wally, one of three full-time employees, opens the door of Flinn Springs Feed & Supplies, turns on the lights, and starts making the day’s first pot of coffee. 6:00 a.m., but Wally has been up since 4:00, doing chores around his own place before coming to work. Wally is tall, with fine features and a neat white moustache that curls down around the corners of his mouth. He’s here seven days a week, from 6:00 until 4:00, and has been for three and a half of the store’s 18 years.
But “store” isn’t exactly the right word for Flinn Springs Feed & Supplies; it’s more of a compound. A curved metal roof arches over a driveway in back, connecting the main building to a large, three-walled storage shed. The shed is filled with pallets of feed. To the right stands a similar shed, though larger and painted an orangey-brown. Behind this lie several greenhouses, some with sections missing. Interspersed among these larger assemblages are two rows of chicken cages, a rabbit hutch, a kerosene pump, several smaller sheds, and the foundation of a small house. A stone chimney is the only part of the house still standing; it rises sheepishly behind a huge cactus.
The foundation hints at the main building's history. I am told that it was once a stagecoach stop, and the now-leveled house was a place where exhausted travelers could stay the night. The worn wooden shingles and faded paint that cover the original building lend credence to its claims of age. Additions have been built, and these, along with the comparatively new metal sheds, give the compound a look of having been cobbled together over several generations.
Inside, the store is cluttered but not messy, worn but not rundown. The linoleum floor is crumbling in places, revealing wood, which changes to concrete where the addition begins. The walls are lined, floor to ceiling, with either shelves or pegboard. The shelves carry all manner of pet supplies and foods and a host of horse-care products. A wide array of horse tack — metal, leather, and nylon — hangs from the pegboard. During the day, the horse gear will bring in several members of the horsey set, carefully dressed and coiffed, clashing with the homey air of the place.
Most of the floor space is taken up by homemade standing shelves, carrying more of the same, with an assortment of household supplies thrown in for good measure. Hardware supplies are in the back room. The ceiling is hung with birdcages and bushel baskets, and feeders and sprayers are hung from these. A freezer lines one wall: beer, milk, juice, sandwiches, microwave burritos. “If it’s not here, you don’t need it,” I am told. Hollywood could not have come up with a better feed store set, nor a better feed store cast.
The first customer arrives at 6:05, running late and needing cigarettes. Wally knows her brand. Soon after, Rudy arrives. Rudy is a slight man, his small head dwarfed by a black cowboy hat. He shuffles in silently, takes a Coors Lite from the freezer, and shuffles out, holding up one finger as he leaves. “He runs a nursery up the road,” Wally tells me. “He buys a bunch of beer and leaves it here to keep it cold, then comes in about every hour and a half, starting around 6:15. He holds up his fingers to indicate how many beers he’s taking.” Later, a man comes in and buys a 12-pack of Coors and 2 packs of Marlboros. He does this every day. “I can’t think when he’s missed,” says Wally.
For the most part, however, beer and cigarettes do not make up the morning menu. Coffee and cigarettes do. The morning rush begins around seven. “We solve the world’s problems,” says Bob, a veteran of Flinn Springs Feed political talk. The paper is read, the news of the day tossed about and judged. The pace of talk and business is easy. Conversation meanders from here to there.
“You got the word to Powell not to run?”
The tone of things changes with the arrival of Dietrich. His voice and manner make you feel both at home and that there is a great deal to be done, and right away. When he takes time to chat, he does so knowing there is not time for chatting but chatting is not to be begrudged. The pace of life here is slow, “hurry up and wait,” as Wally puts it, but Dietrich is not. He is moving when he is standing still.
Despite his bustle, Dietrich enjoys talking and engages every customer in some sort of conversation. He is on a first-name basis with many of them, and they take time to address each other before doing business. He asks how they are doing. Nobody says they are wonderful. Most responses are similar to one man’s “things are kicking, but I’m hanging on.”
“You lose any more weight, you’re going to fade away,” Dietrich says to another.
“Yep. I heard that.”
“Yeah, but he’ll live to be a 100,” adds a third party.
“Yep. That’s right.”
Mel the barber arrives, his standard feed-store attire of plaid shirt and work pants accented by rainbow suspenders. Every morning he brings something from the bakery for Wally and Dietrich. Today it’s “cow pies” — apple fritters. Dietrich leans close to me. “When he’s here, he’s number one. When he’s home, he’s number two.”
Mel has a cold. “Goddamn lozenges don’t do any good,” he laments. “You gotta take the wrapper off,” comes the reply. The weather is cloudy, “but it’s not going to rain,” concludes Mel.
“If it was going to rain, your wife would have called me,” replies Dietrich. “Yeah, that wooden leg she’s got with the Civil War ball in it starts acting up,” Mel finishes, and as the room dissolves in laughter, I realize I have just been witness to an exchange that has been hallowed by time and a thousand repetitions.
Mel’s tone in joking about his wife is light, lighter than the one I pick up during a discussion of how one man’s dog would push him into his electric fence if she got the chance. “We could talk about our wives and what they’d do to us,” says a young man as he leaves, “but I don’t think we’d better do that. ”
A newcomer ambles in, clad in overalls. “Coffee any good?”
“No, but we’re trying to get rid of it.” Dietrich turns to me. “We always save yesterday’s coffee for this gentleman right here.” Of course, the notion of yesterday’s coffee is absurd. The pot is forever being emptied, and the brewing of a fresh one is a near-continuous ritual. The customers vary from Mexicans in the earliest part of the morning to the eventual arrival of the day’s Odd Couple: a tall man in red tank top, aqua shorts, and black high-tops — odd enough in this place of workshirts, jeans, and boots — and his companion, outfitted in sportcoat, plastic rosary around neck, and white cotton gloves. They buy coffee, smoke a cigarette, and disappear down the road.
The Odd Couple comes at the end of the morning rush, when the crowd has dwindled to three and moved out onto the porch. There is a bench here and an old vinyl stuffed chair, occupied by Collins, an old black construction worker who hangs around because he has “no work and no place to live.” Like Dietrich, he has a word for everyone. “Gimme ten on the spot,” he hails a customer.
“I don’t got ten.”
“Get gone then, I don’t want to listen to you,” laughs Collins.
Rudy reappears, shuffles past. “Rudy-Toody, back again? You gonna be drunk before six o’ clock!"
Talk takes one of its rare turns toward women. “We know you’ve had your share of heartbreaks,” Bob says to Collins.
“Women will stick the knife in and smile while they do it,” comments another Bob.
“They’ll turn it to boot,” rejoins Bob.
“That truck’s carrying a pretty full load,” says Collins, shifting attention to the hay truck across the street. The others take his non sequitur in stride and begin discussing trucks. A rig-sized forklift called a squeeze begins unloading the truck, taking five-bale-by-five-bale cubes in its forks and toting them across the street. The driver moves fast, and a big Ford has to swerve and slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. Flinn Springs Feed trucks begin their county-wide deliveries.
Collins and one of the Bobs leave, and I am left with the other Bob, who sits under a thermometer mounted on a tin backing, which advises me to drink Bireley’s, since it “Happifies Thirst.” He is retired, having worked 20 years with the Navy and 20 more with the civil service, and is now a “professional couch potato.” His face is weathered and unshaven. A Maryland native and seafood lover, he proudly shows me a photo of his son, who is holding a 35-pound salmon. His wife is deceased, and he comes here every day for coffee. While we are speaking, a steady procession of trucks arrive, driven mostly by women, coming to pick up feed.
One woman pulls up in a van. A huge, beautiful black German shepherd occupies much of the back. She raises shepherds, trains her own for competition, says Bob. “They’re easier than children,” she says. “The only problem is, they don’t last as long, but of course, sometimes that’s not a bad thing either.”
“There’s no law says you can’t give them away, either,” adds Bob.
Bob goes home to his National Geographies and Louis L’Amour novels, and a long dead period follows. Of course, slow business doesn’t mean slow Dietrich. He is on the phone, hassling his suppliers, giving advice about animals, then checking his stock, showing me around more than 70 sizes and varieties of cat and dog food alone. “We have customers for all of them,” he tells me.
He is on good terms with his customers, partly because he pays attention to each of them. A man comes in with an impeccably dressed Peruvian and translates for him. He is looking for a certain size of syringe. Dietrich does not have it, but he gets on the phone to “Chicago, Illinois, Illinois, Chicago, whatever it is,” and after some haggling, gets it put on next-day delivery. He is a master on the phone, capable of inspiring fear in suppliers lest they foul up his operation. “I’ve got the customer here,” he warns.
After he gets the order through, he turns to me. “Service. It’s all we’ve got left. All you’ve got to do is spend a little time. Do it, you know what I mean?”
The translator picks up on his accent. “Sprechen Deutsch?”
“Do you still follow German soccer?”
“I don’t have time.”
“You’ve got to make time to enjoy yourself.”
“I enjoy myself here.” “That’s good. I used to enjoy myself at work. I used to work in a shipyard. I retired, and now what do I do?”
If he lived around here, he could spend the day at Flinn Springs Feed & Supplies.