I loved all of my paying jobs (not counting bringing out the garbage and cleaning up my room, which were another matter), with one major exception that I will describe another day. The Mouse Patrol was likely my first real job, and at one cent a mouse and five cents per rat the profits accumulated slowly, only to disappear in bubble gum and Tootsie Rolls. When I was slightly older, Corky and I cut down paper birch trees that grew along the Passaic River. We cut the logs into two foot lengths, drilled two holes in each of them for candles, and decorated them with pine cones, fresh evergreen boughs and a red ribbon. After supplying family and relatives we actually sold several each Christmas. Not sure of the price, but it may have been as much as two dollars each, including the red candles.
We also collected soda and beer bottles when walking in and to and from the woods. These brought us a nickel for the quart size and two cents each for the small ones. We liked to go “down the dumps” to what may now be called a landfill, where we found some treasures. The best place was near where the Meadowlands Stadium, home of the football Giants, now stands. Here, the Becton & Dickenson medical instrument and syringe company discarded its faulty syringes and, most valuable, liquid mercury. I still cannot understand why the mercury was thrown out. Maybe it was contaminated with an ever more dangerous substance, but in any event, B&D obviously could not put it to use in its thermometers and blood pressure gauges.
In those days, each glass syringe had to be mated to a glass plunger that fit it exactly. The mismatches and seconds were discarded, usually intact. Our job was to mate them up so that they became very effective water pistols. The big “horse syringes” were most in demand. We could not ever imagine that syringes might some day be put to illicit use, and neither, apparently, did the B&D company.
We could sometimes sell the syringes, for 5 cents or even a quarter apiece, to classmates, most of whom were deprived of the adventure of actually collecting them in the field. It was the mercury, the quicksilver, which attracted the most attention. Sometimes we would find an entire vial that might contain an ounce or two of the liquid metal. We would use it to coat pennies and make amalgams with other metallic objects. We could drop a nail or ball bearing into it and see the steel object actually float on top of the liquid mercury. It was fun to just spill it out and watch it dance across the floor at school. At home, most of my mercury that was not coating the coins in my pockets and piggy bank disappeared between the cracks in the hardwood floors, to slowly evaporate into the room air. Can you imagine how such a “toxic spill” would be handled nowadays? Springfield Avenue would be blocked off for several weeks while Hazmat workers with respirators and whole body protective gear tore up the floors of our homes! Our school would have been relocated.
The order of my next few jobs is not clear to me, probably because they were quite similar. I think I first did odd jobs such as sweeping up and stacking boxes after school for Klemeyer’s beer and liquor store on Union Avenue. Klemeyer’s had a neat panel truck for deliveries, and I so envied Cyrus Minor, the high school student who eventually drove it. I had a nice bike with balloon tires and a sturdy basket on the handlebars, so I offered to deliver groceries for other stores after school.
Phil Blank, a Kosher butcher only about four doors down Union Avenue from the White Front Market probably gave me my first steady job. He paid me about 10 to 25 cents per hour to deliver orders, mostly to neighbors who lived within about a half mile of the store. If there were no orders when I reported for duty, he would not pay me, and he would send me home as soon as I finished delivering the three or four orders that were commonly waiting for me. I did get tips, usually a nickel or a dime, and there was another perk. I found it easy to sneak an occasional slice of cold cuts out of an order as a snack to provide fuel for my mission. No one ever knew, and I did not even think to confess this sin to the good father.
Blank’s butcher shop was taken over by Johnny Provenzano, who was related to an infamous family in New York. Johnny was always neatly groomed, wore a pinkie ring, and did not spend a lot of time in the store. He employed an extremely obese but affable butcher who came from Italy. They gave me lots to do. I learned to make hot and sweet sausages and stuff the casings, using a spout that attached to the meat grinder. I got to know the names of the various cold cuts and pastas, and memorized forever the Italian on labels of canned goods, such as “Salsa di Pomodori Pelati Italiani con Basilico.” I cleaned the butcher block, which was a huge relic that looked like a miniature landscape, complete with hills, mountains, rivers and lakes. I now wonder how many noxious bacteria hid in its recesses after it was scrubbed with a steel brush and then sponged with ammonia water and dried with a cloth. I made twenty-five or maybe as much as thirty-five cents an hour.
Provenzano was related in some way to the Bivona family, who operated the shoe repair store next door to the butcher shop. I sometimes did odd jobs for them as well. Charlie was an extremely hard-working cobbler. Dye from the shoes permeated the skin of his hands, so they were never clean. He always had a huge backlog of shoes to repair, and he worked late into the night, cutting, stitching, grinding, buffing and polishing. I remember bringing my Dad’s shoes to Charlie to have him fix a hole in one of the soles. Mom had told me to have “half soles” put on. Charlie asked me if I wanted full soles. I said yes, and they probably cost my Dad a week’s salary when Charlie finished. They looked like new. Then Goodyear came out with rubber half soles that could be cemented over a hole, and I think that cut Charlies business in half overnight.
Charlie’s brother Joe spoke very little English. One day he asked me to go out to his car and get him his “sleepin-a-pill.” I went out and looked all over the car for a bottle of pills to no avail, and came back empty-handed. Charlie emphatically told me it was right on the “front-a seat” of his car. He wanted the “pill you putta you head go down to sleep.” A pillow, of course!
Most of my friends and family bought our meat and groceries from the A&P, so the customers at both the butcher shops (as well as the well-heeled that shopped at White Front) were new to me. When a hen got “broody,” Pop would buy a dozen eggs from A&P to set under her, and almost every one would hatch. Not so for the cage eggs from the fancy shops!