* Making life work in Conejo: A Reminiscence

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Story told by Carol Venus and written by L. R. Ames

In 1974, the air pollution was really bad in Whittier, so my first husband and I decided to move to Thousand Oaks, which was better for his heart condition. We were lucky to find a house in the Conejo Country Homes, built in 1958 — the first tract in the city. We got the house for $20,000, and I still live in it. The going rate for that tract at that time was $24,000, but this house had a cracked slab, so we got the cut rate and we happily waived the inspection.

You may be wondering how I got a last name like “Venus.” My husband’s family came from Greece, and their name was Ventsanos. They wanted to open a flower shop and thought “Venus” would be catchy, so that’s the name they gave to the immigration agents.

Making the most of a tight budget

My husband’s disability meant he couldn’t work, so we bought a book, “How to Live Cheap But Good,” and decided to live by it. That meant me having to saw up firewood to burn in the fireplace (we couldn’t afford the gas bill), doing the household plumbing repairs, and doctoring the sick cats. I’ve always had trouble saying “no” to stray cats, and I do have an R.N. license from many years ago. Over time we took in a half-coyote pup we found in Wildwood, a crow with a broken wing who lived in our back yard for two years, and a bunch of baby possums, who eventually ran away.

With five kids to feed, I had to scramble. There were times I’d go behind the food stores to see if they’d gotten rid of any good food. You’d be surprised what I found. A dozen eggs thrown out because one egg in the carton was cracked … a crate of canned tomatoes thrown out because one broke and stained the other cans.

When I couldn’t afford to pay for cable TV, the men in the Jehovah’s Witnesses (my husband and I were JW’s back then), got up on my roof and installed a 40-foot antenna for me — exactly the maximum height the City of Thousand Oaks said they would allow.

Working hard: A generational history

I guess “making it work” has run in my family. Grannie earned money on the side by making moonshine. I grew up mainly in Covina, then Rowland Heights. I kind of ran free, because it was pretty much just farm country then. My momma was an invalid, so I learned to take care of myself.

Momma’s grandparents owned a grocery store that they lost in the Depression. Back then, people paid their grocery bill at the end of the month. The customers couldn’t pay, which meant Grandma and Grandpa lost both their grocery store and their house. So they started a chicken farm selling eggs from Grandpa’s truck.

Thousand Oaks was really country when my first husband and I bought our house. No Oaks Mall, but Sears was here, and the Melody Theater at Janss and Moorpark Road. There was no traffic at all on the 101. There’s only one business I went to, that is still in its same spot today — All-Med drug store.

Discovering the farmers market

My first husband died, then eventually, my second husband, too. I started selling produce in the farmers market, taking fruits and veggies from a farmer in Santa Maria and bringing them to the market in Bakersfield. This meant waking up at 2 a.m., leaving the house at 3:30, and driving my Econoline van over the Grapevine on Saturday and then once again on Sunday.

You probably think it wouldn’t be worth it to drive all the way to Bakersfield, but I actually sell about $5,000 worth of fruits and veggies in a good weekend.

There have been times when I’ve lost money, though. Last winter, I was driving over the 5 freeway at about 4:30 a.m., and the heater hose busted. I waited for more than an hour for a tow truck on the side of the freeway, hoping the truckers could see me as they rushed by in the dark. The van had to be towed to Castaic, where I rented another van so I could get the product to market.

Of course, I can’t complain — Huey (that’s the Econoline) has more than 300,000 miles on it and is still on the road.

The risks of running a business

Another weekend, I got all the way to Bakersfield with $1,000 of produce only to have the manager tell me we weren’t allowed to sell because of high winds, which meant we couldn’t put up the canopies. There I was, stuck with all that inventory. It was just before Christmas, so I drove to a local Bakersfield church and donated all the produce to them. I hoped maybe that would make someone happy who didn’t have money to buy food for the holidays.

In order to pick up some more cash, I also got certified as an FFL (Federal Firearms Licensee) so I could register people’s guns, and I started an online vitamin business. Both businesses have actually done better since the virus started. There has come to be kind of a “survivalist” mentality that makes many people feel safer if they have a gun for home protection. And people are buying lots of vitamins because they’re wanting to stay healthier.

Recently, the farmers market in Bakersfield had to cut back because of social distancing rules. To make up the loss, I found a businesswoman who wanted to overnight veggies to customers through UPS, and I supplied her. Some customers were ordering veggies to be delivered to their homes from as far away as New York!

My challenge at this point in life is accepting being a granny. The joints don’t work like they used to. Nowadays it’s a lot harder to get under the kitchen sink to replace a pipe, and I can’t get under the van any more to change the oil.

But life goes on, and we just adapt to it. Every season has presented new challenges, but I’m still enjoying the journey.

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