Hot weather, school vacations, and high unemployment -- that was June 1936 when the Student took to the streets of his Southport Avenue neighborhood, and it brought out a human mix at John Meighan's Candy Store: candy and chewing gum, ice cream, newspapers and magazines including a few on the soft porn side that you had to buy to thumb, also tobacco, lotto tickets, pinball-machines, also it was a bookie-joint, and a hangout, a salutary place on the whole, no violence, no liquor, no hard drugs, no hardened criminals, no heavy cussing, John himself on the benevolent side, belly-slopped-over-belt, platter-faced, gold-rim-spectacled Celt who might be a Hollywood priest.
"Hello, how's it going, how'd you like college, you going back, what-rr-yah-gunna do now?"
"Hello, Jack, Bill, Mike, John, Johnny, Steve, where's Tim, O.K., fine, maybe if I get a scholarship, I dunno, anybody working?"
"Once in a while."
"John, can I have a ginger ale, never mind the straw."
The trolley car banged by every few minutes, its ends and windows open to catch a hot breeze. There was enough traffic on Southport Avenue to concentrate all the action on John's side, the Student's side, with Eddy Street dead-ending between them. Nobody had a good car; they parked their several heaps in front and on Eddy Street. The Restaurant below his family's apartment was rarely busy. Most of its noise came from Wally, a dim-witted huge awkward German who washed dishes and cleaned up the place and peeled kartoffel by the bushel. He was often excited by the heavyweight prizefighting scene, which makes you think that he may have been hit too hard himself once. When Uncle Charley showed up from one of his around-the-world-in-six-months tramps he spent half his time below there eating apple pie, drinking coffee, smoking Camels, and bursting with the loud laughter of the cauliflower-eared deaf. Wally welcomed Charley, the real fighter. None of the De Grazia's patronized the restaurant; that would insult the Mom: "What's the matter, isn't the food at home good enough for you?"
Cold drinks and ice cream from John's place were all right though. There was no place to sit at John's. You just stood around or oozed out onto the sidewalk with the others if there were no room or you felt like it. You noticed Slim Mustadim there, as he passed into the store. He opened the coin boxes of the slot machines or pinball machine and poured your nickels and mine into a black satchel, drank a bottle of soda pop, exchanged a few words -- he was a taciturn type -- and went out to his not-so-old Chrysler sedan, put the satchel (the cynosure of many eyes) alongside of him and drove off. Of an evening, Slim might be seen at John's, sipping a pop, from which you gathered he belonged to the neighborhood, so you said hello and had a few words and looked at each other more closely.
Slim was past thirty, over the hump. He was no enviable youth. He was tall, wiry, sienna-skinned, wrinkled, hooked-nose, long-skinny-faced, could smile but would rather not. He had this Chrysler, not kept up so well as to appearances but solid and a motor that hummed strong without coughing. It was his work car. Christ knows what was in the trunk, but the back seat held partial skeletons of pinball and slot machines, little motors, levers, plastic signs, wrenches, screws scattered and spilling, and coin boxes, plus rags, plus cleaning fluids and oils and tiny colored bulbs in boxes or escaped from them onto the mat of the seat or floor.
Slim worked for somebody who owned a lot of slots and pinballs and placed them at many locations, in taverns, restaurants, candy stores. The somebody was mysterious and immaterial. Nobody at John's store wondered who it was. Slim was a big enough man in his own right, just look at those heaps of coin, and every day pouring into his bag like the tributaries of the Mississippi. The Student got along well with Slim. There's something in the Levantine background (the Jews of course have prototypically exemplified it) that turns on to the pursuit of learning: a Student is not quite the same as the other guys who hung around John's place. Slim didn't have a real need for help -- he heard that the Student was looking for work, who wasn't, for that matter, all the guys were wanting a job -- but maybe he could come along now and then to lend a hand. Like tomorrow.
The Student climbed into the Chrysler next to Slim, pushing aside the black leather bag, weightless at nine in the morning, and they began the rounds. The Student had half an idea that the slot machine business was not only crooked but also conducted at a turbulent series of locations and markets such that his main job might be to act as a bodyguard to Slim. Not at all, at least not on that day. Slim would park the car next to a saloon, they would go into the dark interior from out of the sunlight, inhaling the cool smell of beer; they would say hello and go over to where the lurid lights exposed the machines, purples, greens, bright blues and roses, colors not seen otherwise west of Karachi, of different shapes and sizes from one joint to another, each and evey one, however, carrying the all-important coin box like cows of varied species all with a same-seeming drooping milk sac.
Slim had the key. He opened the box. The Student held open an envelope. Slim poured the contents of the box into it. Almost all. He stuck a handful of coins into his pocket. He brought the envelope over to the bar. He split the contents with the bartender. Not quite. He gave the bartender a little more than he took back in the envelope. He told the Student to put the envelope in the black bag. He said good-bye to the bartender. They left.
The same happened in a half-dozen places. A couple of times Slim was told of a mechanical difficulty and would, from the clutter of his car, find a replacement for a spring, or a pliers with which to move a pin from here to there. "Time for lunch," said Slim. "Here's some dough for yourself." He gave the Student a handful of his own coins from growing collection at the bottom of the black bag. They amounted to several dollars in nickels, dimes and quarters. He ate a double hamburger, a piece of apple pie a la mode, and drank milk and coffee. They talked about the human condition and whether philosophy was of any use.
This was fine work, he thought. No violence, either. Everyone seemed friendly, glad to see them, pleased with the extra bit to their share of the swag. He'd like more of it, should it be possible. "Let me know if you need someone to go along with you again," he said to Slim and Slim said "Usually I don't need anybody, but if I do I'll get a message to you." "See you around." "Yeah."
The Student did not sit by the phone. He continued each morning to read the Want-ads. A week and more had passed since he returned home. An ad appeared promising large returns from selling subscriptions to magazines. He put on his best suit, a shiny sharkskin maroon three-piece with sharp-fin shoulders that he had recently been given via the Mom and Aunt Lilly from Uncle Joe who come passing through Chicago on the way to another of his questionable ventures in the carnival trade. He showed up at the office downtown. A man there, not too prosperous-looking himself, said that a person could count on a good income from selling subscriptions to any and all of a score of magazines that he represented. All you have to do is get their name and address and fifty cents down and you keep half and you'll get another dollar or two depending on how much the magazine costs and how long it's for." And he showed him on the map of Chicago the neighborhood on the northwest side that he might canvass.
The Student started out the next morning full of foreboding, as well he might be. He found almost total happy illiteracy among the potential clientele manning the brick bungalows of mid-morning Ravenswood. It might have been a good way to discover sex-hungry housewives, for he had less trouble striking up friendly conversations than in closing a sale. With zero results after several hours, he quit for the day. He thought it over at home, and decided to quit for good.
He spotted another ad: this one called for persons with clerical training and experience to apply at 4000 Fullerton Avenue between 8 A.M. and 4 P.M. He appeared there the next morning early; it was a large square unadorned new office building tenanted by "the Mills Novelty Company". He entered, was sent to the Personnel Office in the rear, filled out an application form like the one given to a dozen other applicants, mostly young women.
He watched them come and go,and then was called in for an interview with Mrs. Lorna Henry, Vice-President for Personnel. A high position for a woman, he thought. "I see from your application," she said, "that you've had some good education and experience." (She was refering to the work with burly dusky kind Mr. Rathbone, he thought.) "I see you play music," she said, "Isn't that nice!"
"Yes, and I really like it."
"Here you say that you were born on December 29, 1917, so you are 18 years old, but here in another place asking for your age, you say that you are 17. Are you 17 or 18?"
Dismay cowered beneath the sober calm surface! He had been afraid of rejection on grounds of youth. He seized the bull by the horns: "I am neither 17 nor 18. I am really 16 years old."
She was beaming, delighted, for she had trapped him, he had replied with this altogether funny answer, which showed that he was a bad liar and preferred the truth, and besides she liked nice neat bright young men. "I think that we can use you. It is to help out in the sales department, to keep books and records. (!Sounds nice!) Your pay would be $12.50 per week. (!That's not bad!) That is for five days a week (!No work on Saturday!) You can start tomorrow." (!Fine!)
"Thank you, ma'm. I think I`d like the work here. I appreciate your help."
"But, you realize that this is a permanent position. With such a good scholastic record, won't you be able to get another scholarship and go back to school?"
He had to tell another lie. "I doubt it, because I would need a lot more money and I might like to work for a long time since I am still young and I haven't heard from the University about the scholarship." She need not have asked; she did not want to keep him from the job.
His thing of youth, it had always been a mixed blessing, a source of pride, but what else, like saving up bonds and then losing most of their value in an inflation -- unless you could cash them in beforehand. How and when do you cash in on saved precocity. Time is a great equalizer. As you grow older it matters less and less how old you are, until, when you die, it matters nothing at all. He lived in this paradox of time.
He thought it was fine and others agreed it was remarkable and applauded that at fifteen he could act like seventeen or eighteen and be as clever and agile as his elders. They all believed that he had "gained" two years.
Actually it could be said that he had "lost" two years since what he "really was" was what was significant and what he "really was" was a chronological cripple, if I may use an awful word to describe a desperately optimistic character. In effect, he was a handicapped eighteen-year-old. He should have stood stock-still in place for three years; well, in a way, he did, not three but six, and then for four years after that in the Army, an infernal whirling dervish, he was, but unmoving still in a way. Despite all this, he could never recover from the psychic crippling, the beneficial crippling, of precocity: it was his most important minority status, the equivalent of Jewishness or femininity or negritude or homosexuality, one leg shorter than the other, his secret Martian otherness, his third eye.
But thus he entered by another door Slim's games-machine industry, for that precisely was what the Mills Novelty Company was all about. A clean industry, a profitable one, depression-proof, teetering on the edge of legitimacy and racketeering in most places in America and the Caribbean. As honest, apparently respectable, well-run, well-paid, and technologically state-of-the-art operation just like the Tennessee Valley Authority of the times, or, should I say, the Nuclear Power Industry of 1950.
The Student was put to work at a table with a great many record trays; each corresponded to a salesman of the Mills Company's sales force. Every week a salesman would turn in an expense account. His sales orders and his salary and commission were handled elsewhere, but Curt Olson, the Student's boss, had charge of the reimbursement of their expenses. As it turned out, obtaining the "much needed help" was a kind of fringe benefit for Olson, because there was little left for him to do save to jest with the hard-working, intensely concentrating Student, smoke large cigars, and confab with the regional sales directors, the other men of the office, who hitherto had at least a secretary to overween him but who now had to take him as more of an equal because he had someone under him, too, and a somebody whose powers of arithmetic and neat rows of figures came in on the very heels of the data itself and had to be acknowledged by all. You would think that Olson was the innovator and hirer and professor in the act, he was so proud. His underling became legendary, a living legend, grossly caricatured as happens with legends. Olson was a nice guy. He never tried to make his big round pink face stern or narrowed his heavy blue eyes. He even would tell the Student on occasion to take it easy, and never dreamt of correcting him or timing him for lunch or the toilet break. He even brought him cokes from time to time.
"How much do you think I make?" he once asked.
The Student wondered before replying. Should I guess low, would he feel bad or does he want to ask for a raise? Should I guess high, would he feel bad because he's not making that much? He decided to double his own salary and guessed $25.00 a week. "That's pretty close," said Olson, but he didn't say exactly, and the Student sensed it to be about $22.50. It must have been much less than the regional sales directors earned, because they picked up commissions on their agents' sales. As his Uncle Bill was often saying, "The money is in Selling," even and especially in the Depression.
So when the time came for the Student to quit, which was two weeks before he would have had to quit to enter classes in a timely fashion, and thirty years before he would have retired as Vice-President and Treasurer of the Mills Novelty Company married to Mrs. Henry's daughter if he had stayed on the job, it was all too soon for Curt Olson, who was downcast at losing his arithmetic champ, staff and companion.
But more could hardly have been expected of the Student. It was the dullest of lives, and so typical of America, whether white collar or blue collar, and especially then when almost all of the country's workers could sense over themselves the shadow of instant firings and had little or nothing in the way of social welfare benefits or savings. He arose at 6:30 in the morning, took the Southport trolley to Fullerton Avenue, arrived at the office by eight, worked steadily until 12 noon, was given half an hour for lunch that would allow him a sandwich, a glass of milk and a walk along the steaming hot noisy streets, worked until 4:30, took another hour to get home, and that was the day. The work was mindless. He could not feel his muscles grow; he could not use his mind; it was worse than ditch-digging, this "clean job" was! He paid 15 cents carfare, about 30 cents for lunch, had no deductions from his paycheck, bought some gas for Bro Bus to teach him how to drive his De Vaux coupe, and saved therefore about ten dollars a week, amounting in eight and a half weeks to a hundred and seven dollars and fifty cents, which guaranteed him coverage for one-half the tuition and left him fifty-seven dollars against all other expenses. He wanted to get back to the University early to find additional work. Mainly he wanted to get back because the University was now his real home. No matter that it afforded him yet no bed.