Fifty Cents

April 2, 2010

By Jake Jakubuwski

“Readallaboutit! Readallaboutit! Gitch’er Sun an’ News Post papers here!” That was my shout-out in 1950s South Batimore as I sold daily newspapers for a nickel a piece. My cut was a half-cent each, which meant that if I unloaded twenty a day, five days a week, I’d earn fifty cents for the effort. Now, I know that weekly half-dollar doesn’t’ sound like much, but you have to put it into perspective. For a kid today, having a paltry fifty cents in his pocket is the same as being broke. But in those days a nickel would buy me a Coke. A dime would score a hotdog. Ten cents was the cost of admission to a Saturday movie matinee, and candy bars were only a nickel each. So, compared to most kids I knew, my weekly earnings actually put me in a relatively enviable financial position when Saturday rolled around and it was time to take in a Roy Rogers or Gene Autry show at the McHenry or Beacon theater on Light Street.

My family wasn’t exactly poor, but there was no such thing as “extra money” around the house—unless it was for a pitcher of beer or a pack of cigarettes for one of the adults. But there were Christmas cards and birthday cards with a quarter and, occasionally, a buck in them. However, a regular allowance was not possible, so I sold newspapers, collected and sold “junk”, shined shoes, worked on fruit and vegetable wagons (the men who sold from those colorful horse-drawn wagons were called “Arrabers”) and I hauled groceries from the local supermarket for nearby residents.

When I was busy selling newspapers I worked from the corner of Light and Cross Streets in South Baltimore and “hawked” the papers from a bundle I carried under my arm. It was pure hustle. I’d walk the streets around Cross Street Market and hop buses, moving from the front to the rear exit, calling out “Gitch’er papers here!” flipping them from the bundle as requested, my palm up to receive payment, then making change from my jeans pocket, being careful to return small coins—nickels and dimes—hoping to encourage a tip. I’d get off the bus several blocks from where I got on and catch another one in the opposite direction. I had learned early on that if I wanted spending money, I could only depend on “me, myself, and I” to get it.

The old Cross Street Market, a wooden shed that burned down in 1951 and was replaced by the current concrete block building in ’52, is about six blocks south of the trendy tourist attraction that it is today called the “Inner Harbor.” Heading north from the market on Light Street today’s spiffy harbor area was not even a figment of anyone’s imagination in the early 50’s. On the left (west side) of Light Street towards Pratt Street, was the McCormick Tea and Spice Company, makers of Old Bay Seasoning®. No self-respecting Baltimore steamed crab eater would think of using anything but Old Bay on their crabs. Or, they’d sprinkle it on their shrimp and fish. It was—and still is, as we say in Baltimore—a “Balmer” thing.

On the east (harbor) side of Light Street were decrepit, abandoned and rotting warehouses and piers. I can remember stories about the terrible things that could happen to kids in those old buildings. Whenever I passed through that section at night, I always made sure that I was on the “safe” side of the Light Street. Even so, I recall the trepidation I felt being alone there at night with few streetlights and deep shadows, sinister shadows that reminded me of the nefarious doings of Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney in the horror movies I’d spent my earnings to see.

Going south from Cross Street Market on Light Street was the old South Baltimore General Hospital, a jewelry store, a clothier, one or two shoe stores, a hardware store, two drug stores, a second five and dime store within the space of three blocks, and a restaurant or two. It was a great little shopping area that attracted tons of foot traffic and was an excellent place to peddle newspapers. So, long after the Federal Hill area had become decrepit, and long before the area was gentrified, I spent my money where it was appreciated—with the Cross Street Market area vendors—at the lunch counters and candy counters of Murphy’s five and dime—and, of course, at the movie theatres.

Meanwhile, at home occasions sometimes arose when an adult in the family would find it necessary to appropriate the money that I had worked so hard to earn. Once I remember being in the University Hospital for a hernia operation when my father (who at the time had been divorced from my mother for several years) came to visit. After about ten minutes he was ready to leave and only paused to ask if I had any money. I told him I had a couple of dollars and he asked to borrow it. He promised to pay me back on Friday, after he got paid. It was nearly three years before I saw him again.

Yep! Things sure were different for an ambitious boy back then. Not to go too “old school” on you, but if you weren’t a kid in those days, I doubt if you can appreciate how far half a buck could take you.

Copyright © 2010 Jake Jakubuwski.

Jake Jakubuwski spent nearly two decades as an active locksmith and door service technician. He has been writing physical security related articles since 1991. Seventeen years ago, Jake wrote his first article for the National Locksmith Magazine and has been their technical editor for fifteen years. Pure Jake Learning Seminars©, his nationally conducted classes, are designed for locksmiths and professional door and hardware installers. For more information, click the “Pure Jake” link in the sidebar blogroll and under the “business” label. (And to read about Jake’s adventures as an “Arabber’s” assistant, see a short piece on the subject posted September 14, 2009 on this blog.)


Klaatu Barada Nikto!

August 5, 2009

Part Two

At nighttime Wilson had it easy. After the evening editions came in, all he did was sit on his stacks of newspapers under the restaurant awning and customers came to him. Shipyard workers like Daddy came. So did bookies, businessmen, politicians, judges and lawyers — strippers from the burlesque clubs up on Baltimore Street. They all came for the late papers and the big deli sandwiches and kosher pickles, or the prime rib dinner for $3.25. Wilson was on another big-time movie rant. It was my fault because I said Africa Screams was the best Abbott and Costello movie ever made. Wilson came right back at me with, “That’s just a jerky takeoff on a 1930 documentary called Africa Speaks.”

“So?”

“Since they got popular, Abbott and Costello mix in old stuff with new stuff. It’s a trick to confuse the American movie public. Tell me I’m wrong.”

My ears got hot and my brain went mushy — that lasted five seconds, then I got mad. Who did he think he was to dispute my word?

“Nobody with five brain cells would call it a comedy,” Wilson said, and smiled like he knew he had it all over some hillbilly kid up from Virginia. “It’s just delayed reaction and overreaction — predictable, predictable and predictable.” Right then some guy he knew came by and Wilson got more big in his moves, talked different. “How you doin’, Slick!”

“Ain’t nothin’ to it!” the other guy went. “You makin’ it?”

“Hey, man, gettin’ there!” Wilson slapped his leg. “Gettin’ there!”

The other guy said, “Down on it!”

“Yeah,” Wilson laughed. “Down on the end of it!”

They jabbered in African for what seemed like five minutes, until the other guy went off. Then Wilson turned back at me, but before he could say a word I got in my two cents’ worth. “Paper says Africa Screams is number one box office. Why, the fat guy does—”

Wilson interrupted with, “Just stupid Abbott and Costello delayed reaction gags. For instance, in the lion cage it takes Costello —”

“Costello is the fat one, right?”

Wilson did a slow-motion double take at me. “Hey, if you can’t even tell them apart —”

“I know one’s fat and one’s thin, it’s only the names mix me up. Anyways, people laugh so hard they pee their pants!”

“Yeah, fans eat that shit up.” Wilson yawned again, then glanced around. “Look, Andy, check out The Boy With Green Hair, it’s playing at the Garden. That’s a movie!”

“Boy with what?

“Green hair.” Wilson smiled. “It’s a symbol.” Wilson took a big pause. “The Boy With Green Hair has an important message for American citizens—it’s a bombshell that’s hit Baltimore City — a total bombshell!” I kept my peace and he kept on. “See, it’s a fable — which is sort of like a fairy tale. See, this kid’s a social outcast because he’s different — green hair, but it could be anything.” Wilson cut his eyes at me, sort of squinted to see if I followed what he said. “Like wrong color skin for instance?” Another dumb pause, then nicer. “No bad jokes and half-naked savages, like in Abbott and Costello. Take my word, Andy, The Boy With Green Hair is an A-Number-One bombshell that has hit this town.”

The number six bus pulled over at our corner. Mike, this girl who dressed like a boy so the state law would let her sell newspapers, she was across the way with an armful and must have figured it was her turn, her bus. While she waited for the light to change, I quick grabbed my stack of papers and jumped up for the bus and yelled back over my shoulder. “How about when Abbott and Costello join the French Foreign Legion? In the desert they see a mirage, a kid selling newspapers. They ask how come he’s there and the kid says, ‘Can I help it if they gave me a bad corner?’” Wilson didn’t laugh, and I told that joke good. I jumped on the bus and flipped newspapers out to sell. Out the back window I saw Mike run across Light Street after the bus, yelling, mad as hell.

After school me and Mike watched Blind John tap, tap, tap, across the street, trip on the curb and go splat on his face. Mike laughed. At first I didn’t, then I did. But not as much as she did. Blind John got up but didn’t know which way he was. He turned left and left and left again. He paused, spun right, and paused again, then he went off toward his house on Barney Street.

“Now how did he know which way?” I said.

Mike said, “Blind people got radar we don’t, Andy.”

That night I went everywhere in our house with my eyes closed, upstairs and down, even in the dark basement, which didn’t make a difference because I was being blind. Nobody home but me. I felt everything. It took forever but I didn’t care. I put my hands on every stick of furniture and everything else, even food in the icebox — and Momma’s underwear, which was thin and slippery and snagged on my fingernail. It was all too beautiful, too beautiful. I loved being blind. I felt everything.

The next day on the corner I asked Wilson had he seen the movie Where the Sidewalk Ends? Wilson being Wilson, he said, “Yes, but the real question is, Was it any good?” He took a pause, smiled. “And should I apologize if I didn’t like it?” He didn’t know a thing about that movie and proved it when he went into a fake know-it-all speech about not-important details, using fancy show-off words like “directorial intent,” for God’s sake — which I bet he didn’t know what it was any more than me. But he left out how they’d made the city look at night, wet streets, lampposts, three kinds of beautiful shadows — light, dark, and darker. Four if you count pitch-black.

Wilson must have seen my smirky face, so he changed off the subject and stuck his fist straight at my head. He hollered, “Klaatu barada nikto!” I froze, couldn’t figure him out.

“Say it, Andy,” he said. “Say ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’” Wilson jumped on his stacks of papers, one foot on the News Post pile and the other on the Sun. He was off-kilter because the stacks were uneven, but he did a bunch of bounce-squats like Cheetah anyway. “Say it, Andy! Say it!”

“Tell me what it means.”

“Trust me, white boy.” Wilson’s fist was still in my face. “Say ‘Klaatu barada nikto!,’ then we bang fists. It’s a greeting.”

“From Africa?”

“From outer space.”

“What?”

“Just do it, goddammit!”

I did like he said, we banged fists and yelled it together, “Klaatu barada nikto!” Wilson laughed and fell on his newspapers, sprawled flat out, his eyes all wet, tears down his cheeks from laughter. My knees went soft and I slunk to the sidewalk next to him. We laughed for five minutes with no idea why, like hyenas in a Tarzan movie.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

The third and final part of Klaatu Brada Nikto! will post Friday.