West Side Stories | Essay | Chicago Reader

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My mother could see the Depression coming for our family before the Depression actually hit, because of all the strikes and stuff that my father was on.

In 1927, when Marge was ready to go to high school, my mother said, "You've got to take a two-year commercial course so you can learn something that you can earn a living with." We found out that Providence High School had a course where you learned typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, and commercial law, all in two years. You got a commercial degree.

My mother's theory was, if you learned how to do something you could advance yourself. You could get into an office, and you won't have to be a housekeeper like these Irish girls, come over from Ireland and all they can do is clean house.

So when I was in first year they came to the room and said there was one vacancy in the algebra course. Was there anybody in the commercial course who wanted to take it? So I took it. This was part of the academic course where you took algebra and geometry and science and all that. We just took typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, commercial law, and religion. Five subjects. No history.

I can't remember taking English as English. But when you got out of eighth grade at Our Lady of Sorrows you were supposed to know English, and we did. The sisters saw to that.

I took the algebra class and got a feeling for it, and then I wanted to go on and do more school. But instead I left school in my second year.

Someone that my mother knew from the Court Douglas Lodge heard about this job where they needed someone right away. So I left school near the first of May 1930 to take the job. Missed the graduation, the whole bit. I would have had to go to June to graduate. Anyway, since I didn't have my tuition paid, I wouldn't have got the diploma anyway. Years later I did go back and get the diploma. I paid the tuition.

So I left school and went to work at the Jay Company. It was an old building at Clinton and Jackson across the street from the Mercantile bank. The company was owned by two men, Anthony and Joseph. That was how they got the name. J, A, and whatever. The Jay Company.

I was there about two months. I did everything in the office. I took dictation. I typed letters. I took phone calls. I wrote out orders--anything they wanted done. I could type 60 words a minute. And take dictation, 125 words a minute. I'd had a course in business law where you learned about checks and that sort of stuff--bills of sale, invoices. So I knew all that stuff, and I wasn't even 16 years old.

But that was because my mother was very smart. She could see the writing on the wall, and she knew that we'd need to go to work to make money to keep the house going.

Well, anyway, orders weren't so good. They weren't making any money, so they asked me if I would go in the factory and wire lamps. Which is probably the only practical thing I ever learned in my whole working life. I can still wire a lamp when I need to.

So I stood at a table and wired lamps. I'd be looking out at this big clock on Union Station, and a clock never moved so slowly. I was insulted that I should be doing factory work. This is at 16.

I always brought my lunch, and at lunchtime I'd eat in a hurry. Then I'd walk all the way down Jackson to Michigan, and then I'd turn around and walk back. I'd never go in a store and look or anything. I just walked. It was strange. And I felt so lost in this great big world out there. I knew nobody, so it was safe to be inside wiring my lamps.

Besides lamps, they also made radio benches. They were sort of kidney shaped, with an upholstered seat. People put them in front of their radio and sat and listened. They also made bookends. "Old Ironsides."

One day I told the boss that I liked those bookends. I said, they're very nice. And he said, you can have a pair. He called the factory boy in and said, "Would you paint up a pair of bookends for..." They were metal ships. They painted them black. He said, "Paint up a set of these bookends for Jo to take home. In fact, if you like 'em you can take a set home too."

The kid said, "Oh, I took a set home last night."

That finished him. "You're fired," the boss said.

Anyway, you don't take the boss's stuff home without asking, that's for sure.

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