Odd jobs

Some odder than others.

In my high school summers I did some actual work. I can’t get the sequence quite straight, but I spent one summer selling souvenirs at Independence Hall in Philly. In those days, no one expected terrorists to come in to blow up an old building. I don’t know when or why anyone decided they might want to do that, but after 9/11 the whole area was cordoned off, and the park director suggested putting an eight-foot fence around the complex to keep out the baddies. What a wonderful example of fearlessness to shake in the face of terrorists! 

In the earlier days, you could walk right into Independence Hall, unaccompanied, pat the Liberty Bell like an old friend and press a button that would play a bit of resonant patriotism recorded by Edward R. Murrow.

The souvenir shop was located in a wing to the west, separated from the main hall by an open arcade. When the complex had been city offices, before the erection of Philly’s monumental City Hall at the end of the 19th century, the east and west wings had housed “row offices” – various city departments. That term is still used to identify support departments, but few know where it comes from.

The souvenir concession was overseen by the local park-service office. My boss, Bob, was a funny, cynical guy in his 30s with some sort of health problem. We worked in an enclosed oval of counters in the center of the room. It also fenced in a park-service employee who dispensed information. The first dispenser was a quiet, unemotive woman with the most sensual walk I’ve ever encountered. Her successor, a redhead, was a sexual firecracker, without trying. But I was hung on fellow employee Pat, who of course had no idea I gave a damn. She had one of those mouths …

Two other things I remember from that time: First, a short, pinch-lipped fellow teen was caught stealing from the till after Bob arranged a clever sting. Second, when busloads of Boy Scouts came in, every single one would buy a small, boxed replica of the Liberty Bell that sold for $1 plus four cents tax – and every single one would hand me two filthy dollar bills. I got so I could pull up 96 cents in change with one quick swoop of my right hand. Today, my right hand, missing parts of two fingers, can’t successfully pick my nose.

*   *   *   *

The summer after (or before?) Independence Hall, I worked in the Mayor’s Office for Information and Complaints. But, as introduction, it’s good to know something about the local politics of the time. 

In 1951, a reformist Democratic ticket swept into power following the establishment of a new city charter, breaking 67 continuous years of Republican mayors. (At the time of this writing, the Democratic machine has been in power for 71 continuous years.) 

Joseph Clark was the first reform mayor, followed by Richardson Dilworth, perhaps the only politician I truly revere. Oh, he and his decent cohorts made mistakes: They led the way in the construction of high-rise housing projects that later became social bedsores; their Redevelopment Authority extended the concept of eminent domain to the destruction of long-established, primarily Black neighborhoods; they championed construction of the Schuylkill Expressway, which effectively cut parts of the riverbank off from Fairmount Park. They believed in Progress without side effects.

But Clark and Dilworth also resurrected the most moribund big city in the U.S., cleaned foot-thick pigeon shit off City Hall, dragging Center City, at last, into the 20th century; encouraged new retail stores and restaurants (with few exceptions, the only place to find a passable meal had been Chinatown); replaced a century-old squalid wholesale produce outlet with a modern food distribution center; and, far more important, established good government that traded in an all-pervading patronage system for merit-tested civil servants.

The Mayor’s Office for Information and Complaints was typical of the Dilworth era. Set into one of the immense, gloomy open-air archway corridors leading to the central courtyard of the world’s largest City Hall, it was open to any citizen strolling by and manned by an array of bright, informed functionaries hired for their willingness to serve the public.

I don’t know if any other American city had such an office (or indeed if any does today). In summer, when foot traffic was heaviest, the staff was expanded to include a couple part timers like me. We all worked in an uncubicled space clearly visible through the pedestrian glass door.

A pol named Farrell was nominally in charge, the only one with his own office. He did nothing obviously useful but had enough sense not to interfere with those who did. Second in command – in the big room – was Sullivan, a superbly irascible older man who would slam his desk drawers in rage and frustration which, amazingly enough, never seemed to be directed against either his co-workers or the public.

Next in line was Hansen, known to everyone as Swede. Chunky, slick, slightly florid, Swede could easily have been mistaken for a self-aggrandizing do-nothing – except that he was totally dedicated to the public good. In his top desk drawer resided the business card of anyone of significance who had ever existed, and he was on the phone to any dozen of them for much of the day, straightening out citizen problems. 

A heavyset, Mafia-looking figure had one of the middle desks, usually brimming with laughter over some obscene tale. He may have been a police lieutenant. Two or three others sat at the remaining desks (including one woman?), but I couldn’t now say who they were or what they did. 

I was seated in one of three or four bank-teller cubbies up front, facing the entry. Other rotating staffers who sat by me or waited inside the door when things were slow included a short, intense yet friendly law student whose name escapes me, and two young cops. One, King, was almost obscenely handsome, to the point that he left a certain kind of female week-kneed.

Beside each cubby hung two telephones. One communicated with the outside world. The other was part of a relic system set up by a defunct AT&T competitor, Keystone Telephone, that had become a dialup intercom between city departments. The two systems did not connect. If I received a call from outside, I needed to dial up the appropriate city department on the Keystone line and perform as an information shunt. My favorite contact was a woman named Love in the marriage license bureau who invariably answered her phone with a cheery, “Love in the marriage office!”

*   *   *   *

Five or six years later, back from my abortive grad-school career at Stanford, I needed to find a full-time job. At least, that was the implication. But I had no earthly idea what I wanted to do or how. Responsibility terrified me. But then, so did most aspects of “real” life. You’d think, having majored in journalism I would naturally gravitate to newspaper work. Truthfully, I don’t naturally gravitate to work – of any kind.

A classified ad landed me at a small architectural engineering firm in an aging downtown highrise across from the Academy of Music They wanted someone to do publicity, and I must have looked good on paper. Unfortunately, I had no conception of how to do publicity and less interest. They sat me down with a pile of newspaper clippings which I dutifully ingested for a couple weeks while wondering what came next. 

What came was a contested case to establish the sale value of a bus company in New York. Our firm represented one side – the buyer, I guess, because our job was to undervalue every single item inventoried (including “trash piled in corner”), while the other side overvalued same.

I was diverted from my lonesome seat at a table piled with clippings to a room with five other schleps to add up penciled figures jotted on page after page after page, then call figures off from an adding-machine tape to double check. One of the part-timers was a disturbed young guy who wrote poems about buckets of blood.

That January, while the temperature hovered around zero, the transport-workers union called a strike. As I trudged the two miles downtown from 34th St., the wind along the Schuylkill River at the Market Street bridge zipped between the buttons of my wool overcoat, my ears turned brittle and my nose dripped icicles. 

Two relative high points: a glimpse of Chubby Checker in the elevator; he recorded somewhere in the building. And I was sent by train to New York to deliver paperwork to a pleasant fellow on the 54th floor of a glass tower. Together, we happily watched a helicopter flying 100 feet below us.

I quit in early summer to take my only European trip. Later, when I asked for a reference, I received a supportive one that listed my job as “Economist.” I’ve often wondered what economists do. 

*   *   *   *

Next (or soon after) I ran rats in a psych lab at Drexel University during the lat of the stimulus-response, Skinnerian days, when you shocked rodents’ feet with different response delays to see how they would react. (Hint: They didn’t like it.) I fed and watered about 100 rats in tiny single cages and “trained” them with food-plus-shock.

If a rat exhibited anything approaching aggression it got a little “X” marked on its number tag. One X-rat bit me and damned near removed the end of my finger. But I grew fond of #413. His X resulted from friendliness. He’d prop his paws on the front of the cage and glance around with a “Well, my golly-gosh” look. I’d pat his head.

I had the hots for the head lab tech, a very attractive young lady with the odd habit of standing with her hands and forearms raised while she talked, like a rat on its hind legs asking for a pellet. (I met her briefly some months later. She’d had a nervous breakdown and her personality had morphed from distanced reserve to controlled manic.)

When the experimental run was over, she stuffed the rats, about a dozen at a time, into a 5-gallon bucket and gassed them with chloroform. In case you weren’t aware, once a rat has learned anything it becomes useless to science. 

I could have snuck 413 out under my shirt. Damn me that I didn’t.

*   *   *   *

Somewhere along the line, in desperation, I answered an ad to attend a free “course” in salesmanship. Turned out we were being set up to hawk, door to door, Britannica Junior, the poor offspring of Encyclopedia Britannica. Never heard of it? I suspect it didn’t last long. 

A few of us ill-abled goofs sat in a room in the Suburban Station Building where we were exhorted by a burly pitchman who said he used to peddle vacuum cleaners. He delivered a stream of loud, upbeat bullshit detailing how to confuse and overwhelm innocent housewives.

He then explained the “questionnaire” we would present at each stop, a list of seemingly innocuous queries about education that ballooned into a wedge to get your foot in the door so you could present your sales pitch. He made it sound like fun. I hate the underhanded, in myself or others, and this weasel-concoction combined smoke, mirrors and snake oil. 

I should have become terminally suspicious when he drove us to our assignments in his over-the-hill, suspensionless car – this was the vehicle of a successful salesman? But hell, it was all going to be a hoot – selling “knowledge” to easy marks.

I have a vague memory of being chased by a dog, but that’s likely conflation with elsewhere else. I did tear the bottom six inches of my pants on a gate, and I had trousers few enough to spare. I was amazed that no one threatened to hurl me down the front steps when they realized the “questionnaire” was a gussied-up sales pitch.

I did wangle myself into a single living room following the prescribed regimen; in a second instance, just to amass the required number of “presentations,” I honestly told a pleasant lady, “Look, I need to go through this to make the day’s quota.” To her everlasting glory, she invited me in to fill out my meaningless form.

I called next morning and resigned my one and only attempt at salesmanship. That is, until I came up here and started plugging for ads to fill our theater program – something I actually cared about.

You want a half page? I could cut you a deal (but I won’t).

*   *   *   *

And this, copied from a disintegrating bit of yellowing AP Telex paper, a carton of which I’d heisted from the Daily Pennsylvanian newspaper office. It’s self-conscious and snippy, but it represents something real from that weird and wonderful period (1962-64) when I lived in the House on 34th St. (Of that, more later – or earlier, since I think I’ve already sent it out.)

“A typical rainy day, one of five (I have found that it always rains for five days in our city), the atmosphere like a damp washcloth, daring me to rouse myself from under the covers. I take the dare not by choice, but because I have that horror of my disordered youth, a job. I am to apply a razor to my face, bemonkey myself in clean white shirt and jacket, ride a school-girl-clogged trolley into the middle of our most populous suburban county and there meet a man who will instruct me in the stacking of cleanser and detergent. The job, I muse, fighting back the irrational terror which so often heralds the transition from sleeping to the almost awakeness of my daily life, is temporary, lasting only until each and every shopping center supermarket has been heaped with cleanliness and signs proclaiming the advent of half a million dollars worth of genuine U.S. currency to be spewed into the hands of the bedraggled, curler-haired women who hold the lucky numbers.

“My (temporary) boss is a very quiet man to be in the promotion racket. He is, in fact, so quiet that he unsettles me. He has the bad habit of leaving me beside several unopened cases of cleanser without instruction while he wanders through the far reaches of the storerooms. Should I open the cases and stack them or should I peer behind the Campbell’s soup to have my role clarified? No matter how small a step I take on my own it turns out to be contrary to his wishes and, again without speaking more than three words, he undoes my misdemeanor. If only he would get angry. But, like most men without chins, he does not get angry.

“I don’t think I could ever like a man without a chin. One of my housemates has this affliction. He is a southern aristocrat who typifies the degenerate – chinless, washed out blue eyes, washed out blond hair (thinning), washed out posture, the basic beginnings of a pot. His father is a successful surgeon and he, with a fearful intensity, must also be a successful surgeon. He passes you in the hall without a word, eyes straight ahead, in dead ernest haste to, probably, the library. Yet, largely because of the region where his chin should be, he looks as though he might at any moment melt down into his basic protoplasm, an amorphous jelly surmounted by the same intense head and gaze, ready to slither and ooze at obscene flow to its destination.”

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