In the year 1937 there were eight major newspapers in New York, and all had a want ad section. I found out soon enough which papers carried the ads that would apply to an eighth grade education applicant, with no experience, but big and strong and willing to work.
I would wait for the night issue to come out, read the ads, circle the ones that I could apply for, and then figure out how much carfare it would take to get from one place to another. There were many times I did not even apply because of the fare: some were a two fare trip. Most of the jobs for the inexperienced offered from 25¢ to 35¢ an hour. Of course overtime and vacation were not even considered.
I was lucky enough to get my first job in my neighborhood, working in a bakery, as a saleslady. I was thrilled. No car fare — it was only 14 blocks from my house. I had to be at work at 5 a.m. to prepare the store with the early breakfast items. One of the fringe benefits was that I was able to take home some of the left over buns, rolls, and bread. That in itself was a great savings for our family of six. And I earned $12 a week for a 6 day week. I was in my glory.
When I realized that I could earn more if I took the subway to the city I’d go job hunting on my day off. There used to be an entire area that was lined with employment agencies; they would list the job openings outside of the building, nailed to the wall on a board. Everyone had about the same offers, and the line of people waiting outside scared you, when you realized they were out for the same job you were.
For the inexperienced job hunter there was a danger that all were unaware of — the “agency fee.” This is how they worked it. A nice sweet talking person would interview you and after a few minutes of talking to you would go through his file, and lo and behold he would pull out a card and click his tongue as if to carefully consider whether you’d qualify. Once he made up his mind that you filled the bill he would give you the good news. But before he gave you the address for this job, “just meant for you,” there was a $7.00 fee. Of course he promised that if for some reason you did not get the job, which personally he doubted mind you, then of course he had a file filled with other jobs. You would then be so relieved that you might be lucky enough to get a job without walking the streets, that you never even questioned him. Then after travelling for an hour or more, you get to the address given and while waiting in the personnel office you meet someone who answered “the ad in the paper” for the same job.
When you returned to the employment agency and told him that the job was already taken, the man who sent you out was really sorry. He suggested very subtly that maybe you did something wrong. But not to worry there were other jobs he could send you on. If you even suggested that you wanted your money back he would look at you with a surprised look at the mere thought that you were under the impression that the fee was returnable. That’s when you grew up and fast. Many times the money you paid him was the last few dollars you had, which meant of course that if you saw a listing in one of the other agencies then you had to come up with a fresh fee. I once was sent on 6 jobs until I got one, and even at that I only took it because that was the only way I could earn enough money to go back to another agency and try for a better job. A vicious cycle. I was very happy the day the state had an investigation on the operations of these agencies and enforced the rules in such a way that the poor job hunter was protected.
Unfortunately in those days the odds were against you, the supply was greater than the demand, and the bosses knew it. Very often you were asked to do things that were not part of your job and if you questioned the orders, you were told in no uncertain terms that there were plenty of people walking the streets that would grab at the job that you were complaining about. Of course in time, Franklin Roosevelt was able to do more for the working people than any president. The greatest laws were passed in his administration. The 40-hour week, the overtime, the clamp down on unscrupulous bosses, and a minimum wage that was livable.
I haven’t looked for a job lately, at least not for myself, but just one glance in the want ad section makes me feel good. Words like equal opportunity, vacation, sick leave, pension plan, health insurance, payroll savings, paid schooling, annual leave and salaries in four figures. A far cry from the ads of my times. So, if you are looking for a job, good luck. At least when you get one, you have a chance of making it until the next payday. If not I’m sure there is a way you can get an advance.
Rose Safransky Scheinberg
Costa Mesa, California
I work in Los Angeles as a Maintenance Electrician. I was neither the best nor the worst beginner to be hired by my company, but as the only woman in a crew of fifteen or so, I did receive an extra share of attention. I love my job. I love climbing ladders, working outside, moving around and using my body.
The men I work with know I am different, unlike them in more ways than mere gender would indicate. I have come to know them all. I’ve found things to like, or at least to respect, in each even in my implacable enemy, superb mechanic of the fast hands, Bill. He shows he is my enemy by speaking ill of my work or ridiculing me when I am not around, and by maintaining an air of quiet contempt in my presence. He cannot afford objectivity, to submit would be to give it all. He has no defenses and must love or hate me. In that sense I see him as a victim of his own stereotypes in that there are no subtleties in his appraisal of me . . . expand to all women.
They know I’m different, but by and large they don’t hold it against me. They don’t intellectualize, but they sense I am, aside from inexperienced, temperamentally unsuited for sustained purposeful manual work and I think this puzzles them; they can’t really understand why I want to do it.
I am much stronger physically now, more resilient mentally. I wear my tools with confidence and know where my hands are. My throwing and catching skills are also much improved. The greatest changes have been conceptual. How to explain the tremendous impact of realizing that a wall is no more solid and impenetrable than a drill or a hammer will allow. Of actually doing it, opening and closing spaces I’d never truly, in my gut, considered accessible. Each act, each job completed has tuned and attuned my body/instrument. I needed, and need, to hug the earth.
My job is multi-leveled. There are hundreds of different jobs, from changing a light bulb, repairing an electric motor, to the electrical aspects of remodeling a room, or set of rooms. The people I work with are full dimensional human beings with strengths and weaknesses and slowly, after almost a year, we are beginning to communicate. I have not been the only one to make adjustments. The tone of break conversation has shifted radically to vegetables, or children (complete with pictures) or travel plans. I speak little. Attention is a powerful thing and often a few words are sufficient to hurtle a conversation down an entirely new path. Between subjects and ideas I have time to rest and space out.
We’re developing nicely. I’ve spotted an artist and an intellectual, hidden very hidden, in the group. I am very encouraged, these are things I enjoy.
There is much more: electric shocks and a tendency to daydream, the time the management tried to fire me, why the carpenters like me more than the electricians do, the egos and the who-goes, the incredible amount of money going through this place, and the women who circulate in a man’s world. This is a great job. Its unique perspective gives me things I need right now. An opportunity to stretch.
Vida B. Durem
Los Angeles, California
I worked for Gabe that summer; board, room, and a dollar a day, a boy’s wages then for market gardening. Black hair, parting in the middle, moustache on full-moon face, moist eyes twinkling like dew in sunlight whenever the spirit moved him. Wearing clean bib overalls over a Sunday dress shirt, sometimes Gabe got carried away while driving the road to market.
Up before sunrise on this certain Monday morning, on our way to market as the first slivers of silver sunlight came filtering through the trees, Gabe started to laugh the way thunder sometimes comes just rolling out of nowhere. While under the influence of —, Gabe passed a Model “T” on the wrong side of the road. “You crazy fool!” a voice yelled, but Gabe was riding the waves, “They thought the apostles was drunk,” he said, but Peter answered them, “These fellows ain’t drunk, my friends, it’s too early in the mornin’.”
Home for Sunday dinner, I told the folks what happened. Mama thought that Gabe had “gone off on religion.” Gabe’s version of the gospel didn’t take into account that on their journeys then men were walking and not driving. My father seemed fascinated by a man with nerve enough to act out an original script in the marketplace. Gabe never turned away the hungry who were short of money. Our pickup truck was the only one that always came home empty.
From her point of view at the dining room table, Mama could look down the driveway and see the main road. “Gabe Cumly’s coming.” That was all she said, and like the updraft of a flame in the fireplace, Mama left the room. My father winked at me. Gabe was my father’s friend. When Gabe came in the house he looked straight at me, “The boy’s a good worker but he sure don’t have much to say.” Then laughing contagiously and raising his voice he said, “And the Lord said to Zaccheus, ‘Come down from out of your tree.’ ” Owning his own land, Gabe wasn’t in bondage to any man or to his woman either.
For Mama life seemed too easy for a simple-minded man, a man “not quite all there, talking gibberish.” Her idea of the promised land wasn’t living in a rented house with cold floors and a tin roof enduring an Iowa winter. In her father’s house were many rooms, an organ in the parlor waiting the touch of her hands. There is the wonder of growing up without rejecting anything of life: there is music and there is the humiliation of being “dirt poor.” I should like never to be unfaithful to this double memory of feeling both loyalty to my father’s friend and love for my mother.
I had long thoughts that summer growing up in a garden where time is only a shadow and space is everything. In a garden you allow each seed its own private space and at that eternal moment when the seedling bursts up through the earth’s crust, you can only stand and stare with a broken tongue. In this world within a world that we call the mind-brain, there are two hemispheres. The left hemisphere is reserved for staying true to the outer world of the senses. The right hemisphere is my mother’s world — the world of intuitive knowing. Pitiable is the man who has been taught to believe that anything ever could or should completely unite these two complementary worlds. For his own life and breath is the result of neither chance, nor design, but rather the result of blissful interaction of life against itself. Why this wonder, these surprises, that all men wrapped-into-one are my father, and all women — including you, daughter, are my virgin mother. To be reborn again and again, one must have many fathers, and many mothers, if he or she is to be a true original. Gabe Cumly was an original man. Something in the creative dark of the unconscious was working in his favor.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
I spent half of my 25th year working as a pharmacist’s assistant, which was not very unusual in itself but for the fact that I had been busted for possession of amphetamines a month before I got the job. (I just lied on the application form where it asked for “other than traffic violations.”)
I counted pills, dusted shelves, got to know the “chronic” customers — most of them over 50 and on medicare, there every day for beef tonic and laxatives. I also read a lot on slow days in the Physicians’ Desk Reference, read about the speed I’d taken or the downs — what they were supposed to treat and the hazards. We didn’t dispense many controlled substances. They were locked in a metal safe-type box in the back of the pharmacy. But I got to know those prices and how much the mark-up was from store to street prices. (Lots cheaper to get it from the ole Doc.)
The irony of it all was that my fascination of pills was cured as I counted thousands every day. Admittedly it had been tapering off the past year before I was so rudely reminded of the illegality of it all. It was as if I had “sentenced” myself to a punishment of theoretically having all the pills I could have wanted at my fingertips and then I just didn’t want them anymore.
I still don’t.