|"Work" by Tom Kiske|
|Tom Kiske is a published author who always has an interesting approach to any subject. This foray into the many ways the “kids” of an earlier generation earned spending money is his take on after-school employment. It reminds us of simpler days and some of the many jobs (some of which are now obsolete) McKinley students undertook to have a few bucks in their pockets.. We suspect these jobs helped the blue-collar McKinley students develop some good work ethics. We found it very entertaining, and hope you will too!|
Hay for the Horses
“I’m sixty-eight” he said,
I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that’s just what I’ve gone and done.”
One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.
Hard work never killed anyone, but why take a chance?
The sentiments expressed above would certainly resonate with Maynard G. Krebs of the old “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” TV program. Who can forget the near-apoplexy Maynard would experience upon merely hearing the word “work?”
Nevertheless, many of us who went to McKinley were encouraged by our parents to find gainful employment - often strongly encouraged. If you wanted something special - an article of clothing, say, or a record player, in this pre-credit card era mom or dad would often reply to the request with the three words most feared by a teenager: “Get a job.”
Still, some of us had taken on work-like responsibilities even before high school. Back in those days grade schools chose certain students in sixth grade to be “monitors” responsible for maintaining order in the hallways as classes were let out for recess, lunch and at the end of the day. This job came with an official little button we all wore proudly. Then, in seventh or eighth grade, you might get promoted to “Patrol Boy.” Instead of a mere plastic button, Patrol Boys got a shiny metal badge, in line with the enhanced responsibility of ensuring smaller children make it safely across the street intersections near school. We also got a white canvas belt and bandolier, although nobody ever wore it that way. Instead, there was a special way of folding it up and wearing it on your hip with the badge pinned to it that was considered “cool.” We were paid for our services by being allowed to leave class a bit early to get to our assigned posts and also to get to class a bit late. Once a year, we also got to attend a Cardinals baseball game for free.
For a while, too, I was an “audio-visual” clerk at Humboldt School. Teachers could order film strips, slides, and other visual aids, including stuffed animals from the district. As a/v clerks, we were responsible for unpacking the orders, checking them in and delivering them to the right teacher, as well as collecting the previous weeks materials and sending them back to the district. Larry H. was a year ahead of me and was the lead a/v clerk, so he delighted in “supervising” me, a task which involved a fair amount of punching.
While it may be a stretch to call these “jobs,” we took our responsibilities seriously, and they made the transition to other work a bit easier. At McKinley, the cafeteria offered an entre to an actual earning experience as well as a learning one. My friend Warren worked there washing dishes for six lunch chips a day, while Mitch and I were paid the same for coming in early in the morning and stacking the stools on top of the tables so the floor could be mopped. In the way only kids could do, we made a game out of it: Mitch took half the cafeteria and I took the other half and we’d race to see who could get the job finished first.
My friends and I had another job that paid in fun and perks rather than cash. We volunteered to be registration clerks. Remember when you were signing up for a new semester’s classes and you had to go to a certain desk in a certain classroom to try to get into a particular class? We were the kids you came to. The advantage to us as registration clerks is that we could put whomever we wanted in OUR classes. Naturally, that meant all of us friends ended up in the same class, often to the dismay of our teachers, and that our class had all the cute girls.
When it came to work outside of school, McKinley had a few connections with businesses in the community. Fouke and Fox come alliteratively to mind. Fouke Fur Company provided temporary work for a dozen or so McKinley boys once a year when the buyers came to town. These were great jobs for at least three reasons: we got off school for a few days to work there, it was a link to St. Louis’s fur trading history, and although the pay was mostly in the form of tips from the buyers, those guys tipped really well. I guess there was a fourth reason, too - the work wasn’t that hard. All you had to do was flip out the pelts for the buyer to examine and then, when he was through, fold them and stack them up again. I suppose you could call it a hairy job, but some McKinley kids went on to work full time for Fouke after graduation.
The Fox theater, when it was owned by the Arthurs, offered McKinley girls the chance to work at that big candy counter they had in the main lobby. I can’t be sure if appearance was a hiring criterion, but it sure seemed to me all the candy girls were good-looking. This may have been a brilliant strategy for the Fox. I know I spent more money (and time) at the candy counter there than any other movie theater.
Spiro worked down the street from the Fox as an usher at the old St. Louis theater (now Powell Hall). Spiro says that after working there a few days one summer the assistant manager approached him with a proposition: “Don’t worry about showing up for work,” he said, “I’ll fill out your time cards and we’ll just split your checks.” This deal worked pretty well until the manager became suspicious and demanded that all ushers show up in full uniform late one afternoon. Spiro was at football practice and couldn’t make it, so he was fired from the easiest job he ever had.
Schneider Packing, down below Broadway, also provided employment for McKinley kids. Johnny M. worked in the office there after school in the early 1950's, and Warren took over that job later in the same decade, typing letters, collecting kill sheets and calculating price per pound yields.
Warren also found summer work at a gas station down in the Missouri bootheel, and supplemented his earnings with several odd jobs, including shingling a roof, painting rooms, umpiring little league baseball games and as he phrased it, “polluting the roads around town with used motor oil to keep the dust down.”
Several kids worked at neighborhood grocery stores or butcher shops. Johnny M was a stock boy and cashier at Boyers at Menard and Barton. Joe P. was employed by the butcher shop on 9th street near Soulard Market, and Bryan delivered groceries for Wagners. Kids whose parents owned stores often found themselves pressed into unpaid (or low-paid) labor. Gloria and Angelica were among this unfortunate number and Bill S. claims he was “enslaved in my parents store from the age of 5 until my release in my late teen years.”
A McKinley teacher recommended Mitch and I for jobs at Sunshine Laundry one summer, where we lugged carpets from one storage location to another. It was a truly lousy job: hot, dirty and hard work for sixty-five cents an hour. Still, it had two undeniable benefits: it built up our biceps and, because we ate lunch at Mitch’s house, it allowed me to meet his lovely sister.
I also worked after school and Saturdays at Soulard Branch Library, which was a lot cleaner than the laundry and offered at least a modicum of intellectual challenge as well. There were two nice features about this job, too. First, the McKinley GAA (Girls Athletic Association) sometimes met in the basement of the building, and secondly, after my first year on the job, my old nemesis from Humboldt, Larry H. came to work there. By this time I’d grown some and was bigger than ol’ Larry, so it was payback time. Still, once the score was evened up, we became friends and had some good times together.
McKinley kids also worked at local dime stores, clothing stores, other retail establishments and as pin spotters at bowling alleys until that job was taken over by machines. Steak ‘n Shake offered the opportunity to work as a car hop for a buck a night plus tips. Sometimes those tips could add up to $50 a week or so, which was not bad money back then.
Wherever you worked, if at all possible, you might cut another McKinley kid a break. I recall going with Warren once to the Highlands swimming pool. A McKinley girl was working the ticket counter, where there was a turnstile that controlled entry to the pool. She took a quick glance around to make sure nobody was looking, then whispered “Jump over!”
Today, many parents are sufficiently affluent that their children do not have to work as we did back in the Dark Ages.. I suppose that’s OK; maybe it’s a sign of progress. But I wonder if the kids aren’t missing out on something. There are lessons a job teaches that can be found in no classroom or book: punctuality, industry and perhaps most importantly, the true value of a dollar. When you realize how hard you have to work to earn a buck, you’re far less likely to squander it on foolishness. Well, unless you’re a Congressman or a hedge fund manager.
From my own experience and from those I spoke with for this article, it seems most of us look back on our school jobs with a degree of nostalgic pride. It could be, of course, that it’s because we survived them and because they’re behind us, but more than that, I think it’s because the jobs we had long ago became part of who we are. And they remain part of us still.