“—Opening of a new barbershop on Main Street, just west of Lind’s Cafe, has been announced by L.A. Smith and K.M. Wisted. The two had operated a barbershop in the basement of the David George Hotel building until recently.” From “Fifty Years Ago, 1952,” Valley City Times Record, July 9, 2002.
It was in 1952—I was 12—when Dad decided it was time for me to enter the world of work. He had come home from the barbershop that afternoon, resplendent in the smell of lilac aftershave. “Mickey,” he says, “How would you like to have a little job to earn some spending money?”
“Doing what?” says I, quick on the uptake, and wary of where this conversation was going. I was fond of the carefree life that had come to be mine. I had managed to grow a few inches in the past year, and the girls in my class were no longer towering over me. And this new skyward movement had discouraged a few of the perennial schoolyard bullies happy to take a swipe at me.
“Shining shoes,” says Dad. “Smitty said if you come down on Friday nights and Saturdays you could make pretty good money. Smitty’s got a shine stand with three chairs and all the brushes you’ll ever need.” In those days, “pretty good money” was a standard used by older folks who had known a period in their lives when it was damn hard to acquire two dimes to rub together! I thought about it for a moment, perhaps thirty seconds, and then gave my studied reply—“Naw, I’d rather play with my friends on Saturdays.” I raised my eyes up from their focus on kitchen floor and looked at Dad rather sheepishly. He gazed back, his eyes betraying no emotion whatsoever.
“You start Saturday morning. Smitty said all you have to do is furnish your own polish.”
With a heavy heart I trudged off toward East Main the following Saturday morning. My friends were still lagging behind in bed—exactly where I wanted to be. When I arrived at the barbershop I was hesitant to go in. It was not a place that I chose when sent by Mom to get a haircut. I knew it to be peopled by a certain strata of our small town society, people with whom I did not identify. In my immature view of the world they were largely unkempt people, severely working class. Never mind it was into this class I was born! They were farmers, blacksmiths, plumbers, tradesmen of all sorts. It was not a place mothers and daughters would get their hair cut.
I, on the other hand, wished to be shorn amid that other society who frequented the barber shop on North Central Avenue—men in suits, bankers, lawyers, merchants, shopkeepers and doctors. It was there I went when Mother gave me fifty cents and booted me out the door with directions to “get it cut.”
The pleasantries soon over, Smitty introduced me to the other two barbers as Bill Morrissey’s kid, and I was standing in front of my work station wondering what came next. At the back of the shop stood an old-fashioned shoeshine stand, three tiers, with the customer occupying the top shelf, as it were. It took two fairly steep steps to get to one of the three chairs perched on the top. An assortment of brushes, rags, and old polish tins littered the space beneath the chair legs, untouched in God knows how long; an assortment of dyes used for coloring the edges of the soles of shoes stood in bottles whose applicators had long since dried up. All of this embodied the tools of my new trade. I stood with my mouth hanging open, wondering what my next move would be.
Smitty seemed an old man to me. He might have been in his late sixties at the time, with a white mane and stubble of the same color. It was his shop; the other two barbers were tenants. He was affable in a formal sort of way and told me I was welcome to use the shaving lather to clean my clients’ shoes before shining them. I wanted to slink into the woodwork and disappear. As I sized up my situation, it was clear to me the most difficult part of this job would be soliciting clients—asking this motley collection of scuffed shoes and boots waiting for a haircut if they would like a shine.
I approached an old man reading a newspaper while waiting for a cut. “You wouldn’t want a shine while you wait, would you Mister?” “Nope,” came the answer.
“That’s not what you say—you say, ‘How about a shine, Mister?’ It’s only two bits,” was Smitty’s advice to the apprentice. And so I tried again. Eventually a farmer in high tops, feeling sorry for the skinny rag-tag towhead said "yes," and a career lasting two years was launched.
My father’s intention in leading me to employment was honorable. He wanted me to learn about the world of work, and where the money I wanted for spending actually came from. But there was a dark, make that shady, side to the employment to which I had been conscripted—one that I would greet with mixed emotions. Among the stacks of dog-eared magazines that had come to their final resting place in the space beneath my newly acquired shoe shine chairs were titles I had never seen before, never even imagined existed: True Detective, Crime, Saga, Cavalier, Esquire, and others, the Playboy wannabes of the 1940s and ‘50s were stacked in random fashion, many with their covers long gone from heavy use. The magazines opened readily to those pages or sections dog-eared from frequent visitation.
Soon my presence in the shop was no longer a curiosity to the regulars, and banter ensued which had a particularly sexual content. It was a new world to me, one of which my father would not have approved. I whiled away long periods between customers, fascinated with the pictures and new information, and there were new stirrings in my body—stirrings not well understood, but I was quickly getting the hang of the cause/effect relationship. One slow Friday night I happened upon a magazine that was all photos—black, white, and gray tones. There were women with bare breasts, and even more forbidden, full frontal nudity. Something I had only imagined before. Ah, sweet mysteries of life....
I soon began to reap the benefits of the employed. On a good Friday night, plus the nine-to-five Saturday, I sometimes went home with twelve dollars in quarters. Tips often equaled the price of the shine. I spent the money in outrageous fashion: hamburgers and cherry cokes, comic books, and Pearson’s Nut Goodies®. Once I bought a dozen and took them home and stashed them in my sock drawer. I took my sister Maureen to see them and her eyes opened wide. “Boy, you must be rich,” she said, the look on her face reflecting envy of the nouveau riche!
Into my thirteenth year I began to loathe my employment situation. Friday nights found my friends at football games or dancing at the Teen Canteen. I hated missing the action but knew that I wouldn’t be permitted to quit the job without good reason. Suddenly it came to me as I walked home past a baseball diamond. Athletics would be my ticket out. If I could play, I couldn’t be at work at the same time. In August I informed Smitty I had to quit. I had donned football pads and cleats.
One’s first job probably teaches the most. Little could Dad have imagined that in addition to throwing open the doors of employment and experiencing the relative value between work and money, he had managed also to open the shutter slightly to the salacious and the titillating, the exotic and the scatological. I had sneaked a peak at the world of soft porn, such as it was a half century ago. Over the next several years jobs came and went. Reasons for being hired and quitting have faded into the mists. Somehow I managed to stay employed for the next forty years. The details of many of the jobs I held now escape me, but the memories of first one are still crystalline. (From a family history/memoir still in the birthing process entitled A Long Way From Tipperary.)