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The Making of an Activist

Vivian Rothstein

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Original photo image: Tony Zinnanti

In the summer of 1963 between high school and college I badly needed a job.  A friend from my class at Hollywood High School, who thought of himself as a free thinker and was headed to Reed College, told me his dad had a position open for a secretary and, with his help, I could get hired.

Quality Collection Company was located in a grungy office building in downtown L.A. and was run by my friend’s father and uncle who pretended they were lawyers.  The company purchased contracts for items sold door to door in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles and attempted to collect what was owed on those contracts.  Families may have signed up for a deep freezer, not realizing that expensive monthly purchases of meat were part of the deal; or found they had committed to purchasing aluminum siding they didn’t need and couldn’t afford.

My job was to send out the increasingly shrill collection notices on these contracts that included more and more bold black or red lettering and exclamation marks threatening to garnish their wages or repossess their belongings if they didn’t pay up.  Sometimes a family would show up at the office to either make a payment or ask to see the boss to get out of the contract they hadn’t realized they had signed.

While the “lawyers” lunched at their desks on take-out Chinese meals, I had to tell the families that the boss was not available.  Sometimes grown men would break down in tears about the predicament they found themselves in.  I was mortified to be playing a role in this charade.

I couldn’t quit the job because I desperately needed the money for college, but before I left that August, in my first act of civil disobedience, I mixed up all the index card files of clients and contracts so no one could figure out who had received which threatening letter, effectively destroying the company’s system of harassment.

And when I went off to Berkeley the first thing I did was join the civil rights movement on campus.

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