Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Work
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread . . .” —Genesis 3:19
We were talking about the jobs we had after school when we were boys, and while neither of us delivered newspapers, John mowed lawns and I shoveled snow, a difference accounted for by the fact that he had lived in a suburb while I lived in Passaic, New Jersey, on the banks of the historic Passaic River about which Dr. William Carlos Williams wrote his epic poem “Paterson” (he was incidentally, my doctor when I had polio; in later, more literate years, I was sorry to have missed the opportunity to talk about poetry with him). Passaic was an industrial city of 60,000 souls. My high school adapted to its working class clientele in this way: when I was first there, the girls were courteously let out 10 minutes before the boys, but the order of preference was reversed when it was pointed out that the boys had to hurry to get to their after-school jobs while the girls dawdled along, crowding the hallways. There were three streams in the high school — General, Commercial, and College — and out of a senior class of 210, only 25 were in the College stream. There was a separate vocational high school, too.
My first real after-school job, in my senior year, was in what is now an extinct profession — I was a soda jerk, compounding milk shakes, frosted, malteds, sundaes, banana splits, and sundry other delights I have now forgotten, in the Royal Sweet Shoppe on Broadway, a busy commercial street of stores and apartment houses. Not a drug store but a soda fountain: a long marble counter with stools, a few booths against the opposite wall, a bookcase containing a lending library, a rack of magazines and newspapers, a glass case containing cigars, pipes, tobacco, and cigarettes. Besides the delights that I put together, we sold sandwiches, pastry, coffee, and ice cream. It was a busy place catering to the storekeepers and residents of the neighborhood. Across the street the Broadway Sweet Shoppe served a more youthful crowd, and was more like the soda fountain of song and story. I do not exaggerate: there was even a comic strip called, I think, “The Sugar Bowl,” devoted to youthful intrigues in such a place, but the Royal was the chosen haunt of the older citizens, and there, wearing a snap-on bow tie, I got to know the local worthies. My employers were Muffy and Sara, brother and sister, and by mid-December they decided, quite rightly, that my demeanor was a bit too spritely and irresponsible (working on a farm in the summers with just a few well known country people, I had not yet learned how to comport myself in a more constrained environment), so I was forced to relinquish my bow tie and look for another job.
I went to work in the Christmas rush at the Post Office. I doubt if such a phenomenon exists any more. In those days a huge volume of Christmas cards and packages was mailed during the couple of weeks before Christmas, and a veritable army of young men — high school and college boys and casual laborers — were employed to sort and deliver mail. It was desirable work because it paid well, and if you were a postman you rode the buses free. Once, I was the only postman at work during a raging snowstorm, and when I finally got back to the office, soaking wet, the postmaster sent me home to change my clothes and then come back and punch out on the clock. I made my last delivery on Christmas day.
In the new year I got another job at a much larger, more pretentious soda fountain further down Broadway in the heart of the city: Welling’s Lunchroom, which did a very brisk business in breakfasts and lunches. Two of us, I and one of my classmates, were hired from five to nine cleaning the long counter and the serving area behind it, steam table and all, and setting up for the next day. This was a much more laborious job than it sounds because the master of the kitchen (and he was an acknowledged master) wanted everything just right. We had the privilege, when we were done, of having a snack, and we made the most of it. I have a photograph (of which I am a little ashamed) showing us seated in a booth with a mound of sandwiches and couple of milkshakes before us, looking dissolute. It is amazing how much a growing boy, given the opportunity, can eat.
That had its consequences. In the senior play I had the role of a professor, and I wore my new gray flannel suit, an outfit just beginning to be fashionable in circles far beyond the horizon of Passaic High School (here I may be permitted to tell my favorite story. At the after-graduation parties it was then the custom to kiss all the girls in sight, and after I had kissed Lorraine — I shall ever remember her — she said, with great surprise, “Ooo! I thought you’d kiss like a professor!”) Of course my relatives came to see the play. Afterwards they all remarked on the way my fat posterior made the back of my jacket stick out! So I joined the YMCA and worked out regularly that spring. I planned to join the Marines, but my brother said I’d be too muscle-bound to throw grenades.
Another result of the play was that I met girls from other than the College stream, girls who were — how shall I put it? — more worldly, more cosmetically glamorous than the girls I knew. They were dangerous to know too well because they were, not exactly “gun molls,” but girlfriends of older men who wore tight suits and picked up their girls after school in flashy convertibles. Once, riding in a crowded car to a rehearsal, one of the molls, sitting on my lap, leaned close to tell me I was “cute.” I was terrified, picturing my body in the Passaic river wearing cement overshoes.
I quit Welling’s in spring and went back, at the owners’ request, to the Royal. By then I had enough experience to temper my sprightliness, and I could have stayed on for the summer, but a friend got me a job as a Good Humor man. I don’t know if the company still exists, or if my readers will know anything about it. In New Jersey in the ’30s and ’40s it was a highly regarded institution. Small refrigerated trucks painted white, equipped with tinkling bells, plied the streets selling ice cream in the form of ice cream bars: small slabs of ice cream covered with chocolate (or coconut). The Good Humor man used to turn up in our neighborhood after supper, and we would rush to congregate around the truck. Most of the drivers were young (probably college boys) and were greatly admired. I looked forward to this job, and was sadly let down when I learned I would be only a bicycle man, pedaling a bike with a refrigerated chest on the front, covering areas a truck would leave for me, the truck from which I received my supplies. What I was doing, in effect, was extending the truck’s range. I enjoyed the job, pedaling around suburban streets, and I was a good salesman. All went well the first week, but at the end of the second week my accounts didn’t balance. According to Ralph, the truck driver, I had received from him so many boxes of various popsicles, but my cash in hand fell short. So Ralph in the truck, and I in my car, drove to headquarters in Newark to lay the problem before the manager. In the end, the manager took me aside, telling me that in the future I was to make a written record of the supplies Ralph gave me. It took some time for the penny to drop, but before I got home I realized that Ralph had been cheating me, crediting me with ice cream he never gave me so it was charged to me and not to him. Well, I said to myself, I will be more careful but I won’t quit. The manager had told me I was the best bicycle salesman in New Jersey.
The day after settlement was always our day off, so I didn’t go back to my bike until a day later. In all the fuss about the faulty settlement, we had forgotten to load the ice chest with dry ice, so when I opened it that morning all I saw was popsicle sticks floating in a many-hued soup. I walked into the gas station where we stored the bike, turned over my Good Humor cap and my money belt, and drove home. After that I got a job as a greenskeeper on a golf course, my last job before I went to college.
I must say something about my earnings as a soda jerk and what I did with them. At the Royal I was paid 35 cents an hour, and when I went back I got a raise to 50 cents. Doesn’t sound like much, but consider my hours: 4 PM to midnight six days a week, Sundays from 6 AM to noon, 54 hours. I had never had an allowance, so this was a fortune to me, and because my father, bless his soul, was always preaching frugality, I spent it like water. But you are not to think I wasted it entirely. My English teacher (who persuaded me to go to college instead of the Marines) had been recommending books to me, and now I began to buy them, something I had never done before. I had always been something of a reader, but now I was dimly purposeful, and I think it is not too much to say that I became a professor and then a writer because I was first a soda jerk. *