A Memory

September 1, 2010

Cousin Raymond’s Schwinn

By Jake Jakubuwski

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I learned to tie my shoelaces—probably five or six—but it was my paternal grandfather who taught me how to do it. I do remember that training my fingers to perform the intricate contortions necessary to accomplish the task was stressful. Intellectually, I could envision what my fingers had to do, but making them do it was a whole ‘nother matter. My grandfather—not the most patient person—exhibited enough restraint to spare me bruises and bumps when at first I was unable to make my fingers obey. Then, suddenly (or so it seemed to me), I sat on the floor by Pop’s chair and flawlessly did the job from beginning to end. Pop reached down and, with a gentle tug, untied them. Then I tied them again!

I ran to the stove, where my grandmother was fixing breakfast, plopped down on the floor, and demonstrated my new skill for her approval. As I recall, she grunted something neutral and then, her attention still on her cooking, said: “Where in the world did I put the lard can?” Later, when she sat the plate in front of me, I wolfed down the eggs and toast and jelly, gulped a large glass of milk, and bolted out the door, on the way to my cousin Raymond’s house to show him my new trick. I had eaten so fast that as I ran up the street I burped and snorted at the same time, and had to return to the yard and wash off the front of my shirt at the water pump. In those days (1943-44), I was living with my father’s parents in Glen Burnie, Maryland. We did not have running water. Instead, there were two water pumps and an outhouse. One pump was under the grape arbor behind the house, and the other was upstairs in the “Summer Kitchen.” I used the one under the grape arbor.

Cousin Raymond was four years older than me and had an electric train; he had an air rifle; he could ride a two-wheel bike—God, I envied him! He was so cool. Raymond rode his bike like a pro. He would pedal his Schwinn full-tilt into my yard and throw it down into a sliding stop that would scatter dirt and gravel all over. He also had a real wristwatch with numbers that glowed in the dark. As I said earlier: I was about five then—maybe six. Raymond would have been nine or ten.

On that day, I ran up the back steps at Raymond’s and pushed through the door and into the kitchen where Raymond and my uncle and aunt were having breakfast. I blurted out the news of my recently acquired skill. Raymond was unimpressed. Aunt Sadie told me I did a good job and Uncle Pete gave me a fifty-cent piece. When Raymond was finished eating we went outside and into the wooded lot behind the house where he had his “fort.” Raymond wanted to know if I thought I could learn to ride his bike. Could I? Full of shoelace-tying confidence, I said, “Go get it and I’ll show you!” Raymond wheeled his bike out of the garage and told me that my lesson would cost twenty-five cents. Being fifty-cents flush, I didn’t hesitate—I gave Raymond the half-dollar. He promised to make change later.

Raymond held the bike steady while I got on it. I settled myself on the “saddle” and grasped the handlebars with a death grip. Raymond told me that when he pushed I was to start pedaling. We started down the driveway, Raymond running as he pushed the bike. He yelled: “Pedal! Pedal!” I tried—but I was on a 26” bike with legs that were not yet long enough. So, I had to stand up to pedal. Then pedal I did—frantically. Raymond let go of the bike and I zipped completely across Fourth Avenue, a busy Glen Burnie street. Cousin Raymond was now yelling: “Steer it! Steer it! Pedal! Pedal! Watch out for the curb!” Too late—I bounced over the curb, ran up a slight grassy incline and into Mrs. Sauers’ flower bed, then tilted over in what seemed like slow motion and nose-dived into the lower branches of a fir tree. At that moment Mrs. Sauers chose to come around the corner of the house. She was pretty calm about the flowerbed and seemed more concerned over the scrapes I picked up when I dove into her tree.

Once Raymond and I retrieved the undamaged bike, I was ready for another lesson. He said it would cost me another quarter, so I told him to keep the change from the fifty-cent piece. This time, Raymond decided it would be better if I rode the bike down the street towards our grandfather’s house. Before I know it I’m back on the bike. Raymond pushes me off to a rolling start. I pedal like a madman. The bike begins to fly down the street. I’m going too fast to turn into the yard! Raymond’s yelling: “Hit the brakes! Hit the brakes! Steer! Steer! Hit the brakes!” Unfortunately, Raymond had neglected to tell me where the brakes were or how they worked. The bike picked up speed and began to wobble out of control as I bounced over another curb. Raymond was further behind me now, but I managed to turn a blind corner, only to run into the back of my Uncle Joe’s 1934 Plymouth. No contest. The Plymouth won.

There must have been a lot of hollering. Raymond now yelling: “My bike! My Bike! Look what you did to my bike!” Me screaming in pain as I slid off the hood (Yeah, I went completely over the car) and into the loose gravel that covered the driveway. My Uncle Joe yelled something I couldn’t make out as he ran away from the Plymouth, which he had been washing when I dropped in—unannounced.

After he realized what he thought had happened, Uncle Joe carried me into the house and laid me on the old mohair sofa. Grandma brought a pan of warm water and some clean cloths. She cleaned my cuts and abrasions. Pop came in and demanded to know what was going on. Raymond was still hollering about his bike. Uncle Joe explained that I must have fallen out of a tree.

Grandma tried to shush us all and shoo us out. And, even though I hurt in places that I didn’t even know I had, I was smiling. In the space of only an hour or two I had learned to tie my shoes; ruined a flower bed; nearly destroyed a bike; dented the hood of my Uncle’s car—and lived to tell about it; had been gifted fifty-cents and had spent it on bike-riding lessons. (How well I rode the Schwinn doesn’t matter—I did ride it.) I figure it was worth every penny.

Text Copyright © 2010 Jake Jakubuwski. “Bikers” Photo Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

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. (The photo at right is Jake at age 12 or thereabouts. To access all of Jake’s adventures as a Baltimore boy growing up back in the 1940s and 1950s, type his name in the sidebar search window and press the button.)



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.)