Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues.

My father had a dream. It wasn’t for Charlie Pape’s three boys to go to college to learn to speak with fancy words he didn’t trust. It was that each of us would buy a truck, load it up with landscaping equipment and tail him around the automotive arteries of Los Angeles, from gardening job to gardening job. “We could be,” he’d say, “Pape & Sons.”

That was to be our way to live the American Dream. But such dreams are often misunderstood. They weren’t really about the picket fence or the single-family home or, in the late 20th century, the swimming pool in Southern California. It was about economic security, quality of life and improvement; knowing that through your hard work you can provide for your own, for your future, and that your kids could look ahead to better times.

For Charlie Pape, this all required a preternaturally hard-work diet. First, there was his full-time weekday career. He had started as a gardener for the Los Angeles Unified School District, before graduating up to supervisory roles—initially overseeing other gardeners around the district and then LAUSD’s landscaping. In those positions, he burned through two decades without using any of his sick or vacation time. And then there were the weekends when he would spend an additional 20 to 25 hours toiling on side jobs. That explained his sinewy, oversized forearms and biceps that bulged out of his white T-shirts. There was, it seemed, no stopping men like my father.

Why did he work so hard meticulously…