I got my first summer job the year after I turned thirteen, the earliest I became eligible for a work permit. It was in 1943, WWII was going on and so there was a manpower shortage and I probably could have gotten an office job, but although I was smart in school, I knew almost nothing about the business world and this didn’t occur to me. I did know that New York City had a garment district so I scanned the newspaper for summer jobs there and was hired for the first one I went to. It was at N&M, which was a wholesale button company at 34th Street, right across from the Macy’s store. This was convenient for me as I could take the IRS subway from the Simpson Street station in the Bronx (I lived on Simpson Street) to the 34th Street station, about half an hour.
My job was to work in the stockroom in the morning and to deliver buttons in the afternoon. I also swept the floors. Every morning cartons of buttons were delivered and I learned how to cut the metal strips holding them together and empty out the boxes of buttons, then put the buttons in their proper places in the stockroom. The person in charge of the whole operation was a small man named Leo who seemed to be mad at the world (and who, I later learned, lived in the Bronx). The person in charge of the stockroom was Andy, who was what’s now known as an African-American, but back in those unenlightened days was just a black guy, like Slim, one of my handball partners at MacCombs Dam Park. There was also a girl, maybe in her twenties, named Betty; I don’t remember exactly what she did, and a few other people, maybe salesmen and another delivery/stockroom guy, Chuck, who was older than me and a permanent employee.
Chuck showed me how to load a “trolley” with boxes of buttons and tie them down securely. The next thing I had to learn was where to find the places I was to deliver the buttons to and the first week Chuck went with me as my guide. I’m sure that during the summer, July and August, New York’s weather was as hot and humid as it is now. I’ve written elsewhere that when I played handball, which was on every weekend, I didn’t seem to notice the weather. I did notice it when making my deliveries in the garment district, maybe because the streets were crowded and the building kept the heat in. For whatever the reason I knew it was hot and after a while, when I became familiar with all my delivery places, I planned my routes so that I could stop at candy stores on the way for a cold drink, usually a cherry soda, sometimes for an egg cream.
I’m also certain that inside the N&M premises there was no air-conditioning and I remember Leo working in his undershirt so maybe I also took my shirt off. My mother must have made sandwiches for my lunch as I’m sure I wouldn’t have wanted to spend my hard-earned money on eating out. I do remember that after quickly having my sandwich I’d go across the street to Macy’s and spend the rest of my lunch hour in the first floor book department where it was air-conditioned. I must have read quite a few books there over the summer.
My pay was the minimum wage at the time, sixty cents an hour, so it came to $24 dollars a week. I don’t recall if anything was taken out for taxes or anything else. I do remember that when I got my first paycheck I put it in my pants pocket and kept my hand on it during the subway ride back to the Bronx and until I proudly presented it to my mother. At the time my father, a plumber, was off somewhere working in a war plant, something he started doing even before the war and would continue to do until its end. I was now also a contributor to the family’s income.
Of course that first job was many, many years ago, but I still remember a few things about it. After I’d been there a few weeks I was told that Chuck had been fired. He’d been stealing buttons. I guess there was a black market for buttons and he was selling them to someone. Chuck had been nice and very helpful to me and I was saddened that he’d been let go even if he was a crook. Maybe he had a reason for what he did.
Betty was a young and pretty girl who was engaged to a soldier who, I suppose, was somewhere overseas. One time I saw her in one of the aisles kissing, of all people, short bald Leo. I didn’t understand it, but I was coming to realize that all kinds of funny things happened between people. I hope that what I saw meant nothing and Betty married her soldier when he returned home.
At several of the places where I delivered I had a glimpse into rooms where young women were painting buttons. The rooms were as hot as furnaces and the women wore loose-fitting smocks. I wondered how they could stand these working conditions and wondered at what kind of lives they had that led them to endure them.
I noted above that this was during WWII and that manpower was scarce. Once when I was delivering somebody stopped me on the street and offered my another job. If I was smarter I would have asked him how much more I”d be paid. However, I was loyal to N&M and told him I wasn’t interested.
I must have done my job reasonably well, or maybe it was because WWII was still going on, but I was hired again by N&M for the next summer. I can’t recall if I got any kind of a raise. By the second summer I was a veteran stock room/delivery boy so had no problems at work. This was in the year 1945 and I remember being at N&M when V-J Day was announced and confetti being thrown out of windows, maybe including our own. I think we were sent home for the rest of the day. However, by the next year, 1946, veterans were returning and so that was the end of my career in the garment district. Instead, a friend of mine from high school had worked out West in the Forestry Service the summer before and he told me it was a good deal; he was doing it again this summer and he was sure I could get a job there as well. But that’s another story so I’ll close here.