June 1991

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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Summer Jobs and a Year at the Rochester Business Institute

The great depression and its tragic deflation was still a hard force in 1936, though eased a bit by Federal spending programs. In 1933 four-thousand banks failed. In 1937 they were still failing; seventy-five that year. Many city dwellers had migrated to rural areas to get closer to a food source, often moving in with their farming relatives. This made jobs even more scarce for me and my peers. I managed to find a few short-term jobs: laborer on the Dundee central school construction, a clerk at the local A & P grocery, and clerk at the Deluxe Ice Cream store that dad was managing at the time.

That is when I met Esther Weichenthal. She had moved with her family from Nebraska to a farm near Penn Yan in 1935. The next year Esther found work in Dundee caring for Walter and Theresa Brewer's little son. When Esther wheeled Dickie down Seneca Street for treats at the Deluxe Ice Cream Store, the ice cream dipperman was often yours truly, happily ogling the new girl in town. I soon arranged a date.

Esther and her brother, Paul, were always watching for jobs, and in 1936 they found a few weeks work picking apples in an orchard near Hall, New York, and I, also out of work, joined them. The pay was four cents a bushel, and each morning at daybreak we started, each hoping to pick about a hundred bushels to earn a tidy four dollars a day.

In July of one year we worked through the pea and corn harvest at the Comstock Canning Company plant in Penn Yan. The thirty cents per hour was low even then, but we often worked fifteen to twenty hours a day which boosted our earnings. During the longest days we were given two- or three-hour breaks to catch some much needed sleep on piles of cases of canned peas in a warehouse. I worked in the steamy-hot cook-room as the electric crane operator, perched in my tiny cab above and in the center of the cook room, endlessly rolling the crane around on its circular track, hoisting and lowering large steel baskets of cans in and out of twenty-four pressure cooking retorts below. The retorts were partly buried below the floor in a circle under the crane track.

Around 3 o'clock one afternoon, while waiting for a cook to come off, I climbed down the ladder from the crane cab, thinking to help the men on the floor open the retorts. With a work-numbed mind guiding the foolish move, I loosened wing nuts of the cast iron lid of a cooling retort without first checking to be sure the pressure had been completely relieved. Instantly, scalding water gushed over both of my legs. When the cook-room crew stripped off my trousers and found skin peeling from my legs, they loaded me into an auto and hustled me to a doctor's office. The doctor, without anesthesia, cut away more skin, covered the injured areas with a thick black paste that I believe was a sort of tannin derivative, and sent me home, which at the time was the Weichenthal farmhouse.

The black paste hardened and became a source of torment for the next two or three weeks while I laid around the house, nearly immobilized. Eventually I picked the accursed patches off as new flesh grew in, but recovery was slow. For almost the next thirty years, each time I bathed in warm water, the front of my legs, above my knees, would turn lobster red.

Charles Cameron, a recruiter for the Rochester Business Institute (RBI) hired me to drive him around the country side to visit prospective students, and quite naturally he applied his recruiting efforts to me.

I had little savings, and dad, earning little more than I, had mother and my three younger brothers to provide for. But Grandmother Dillistin, still determined to get me out of town, (so I could amount to something, remember?) came up with the cash portion of the tuition, as well as $15 for room rent and $5 for personal expenses, per month. For food I would have to shift for myself. RBI had promised to help with that. Their program, in retrospect, was generous. The tuition for the cheapest course, Secretarial Science: bookkeeping, typing, shorthand, and a little business law, was $30 a month, $15 in cash. The balance was covered by my promissory note to be paid by installments after RBI placed me on a job.

So in the fall of 1936, at age eighteen, off I went eager to explore the innards of the big city. After a brief stay at the central YMCA, RBI, as promised, aided me in finding lodgings—at "Ma Brown's" rooming house at 66 Joslyn Place (the beautiful old dead-end street that has since been excavated and absorbed into the north section of Rochester's Inner Loop Expressway) for $15 a month. RBI also found me a "position" as dishwasher and bus boy at Wegman's Cafeteria on South Clinton Avenue, near RBI. Ma Brown was a venerable, kind-hearted lady who cheerfully housed about ten boys in her three-floored house.

Wegman's wages consisted of two meals per day—limited to 75 cents each. That covered food needs except breakfasts and Sunday meals. I managed breakfasts by buying a 12 cent box of shredded wheat that I ate in my room at Ma Brown's after moistening it with hot tap water from the bathroom down the hall.

For food on Sundays and Holidays I worked within three options: One: Fast for the day, which early on I often did. Two: Hitchhike home to Dundee Saturday afternoon and back on Sunday, a trip that took three to five hours each way, and was also life-threatening in winter. Three: (This one took a little longer to catch on to, but hunger sharpens the wits.) Identifying and cultivating girls at school who had homes in the city, with the hope of being invited for Sunday dinners. I soon refined this by selecting young ladies who were pretty heavy, homely, or both, and who had mothers that were happy to feed me, or perhaps any boy the hapless daughter could drag in. The pangs of shame were soon bested by the pangs of hunger, and I continued the practice.

I learned, however, that all mothers were not gullible, and that one at least, had a shrewd sense of business. After eating at her house for several Sundays, she asked me to help with the dishes and sent her daughter on an errand. The ensuing conversation all too smoothly drifted to the subject of my background and future plans. Then she came to the point. It seemed that mother was manager of an RBI branch in another town, a fact that could make it possible, upon my graduation, for her to arrange a better-than-average job with good prospects for my future. "This is something I want you and Carolyn to think about."

It took a moment or two for the implications to sink into my young and helpless mind. In 1936 it was hard to imagine a woman manager of anything, but I sensed this one could manage everything. Then I recalled that at Wegman's, Lizzie Law, cafeteria dietitian, was my boss. A numbness crept into my stunned conscience. Awkwardly I assured "mother" that I would certainly think about it, (no lie there—I thought about it for days), and managed not to drop any of her dishes. I mumbled something about some much needed homework and left.

When I boarded the Charlotte-Main Street trolley visibly shaking more than the cold night warranted, other passengers heard me mutter several times, "Damn the luck—her mother was a good cook, too." The shaking persisted all the way to Ma Brown's rooming house.

Back in my room I shared the story of my near loss of batchelorhood with my roommate, Orlo Zeh, a shorter and slightly older boy than I with curly black hair, an ever-ready grin, and a generous heart. He thought the story and my panic hilarious.

Orlo had a car and often took me to his parent's farm in Cohocton for weekends; we became lifelong friends. Together we explored Rochester, shared our cash to buy nickel beers at Bob Clifford's East Main Street grill, and hunted odd jobs for spending money. Jobs such as elevator "starter" at Sibley's department store during holiday seasons, or typing for business men staying in downtown hotels.

In time Orlo loaned me $40 to buy an engagement ring for Esther. I repaid him in many installments. Orlo married Kathleen Fairbrother of Atlanta, New York. They moved to Rochester where Orlo found work after finishing at RBI. We kept in touch until his death in the early 1980s.

Working one hour at noon and about three hours in the evening at Wegman's made quality homework difficult. It took me a couple extra months to finish the one-year course in 1937 due to (I claim) this part-time work, though I admit other divertissements. I am grateful for this bit of education at RBI, for it did open the needed first doors for me.

RBI placed me on a short-term job as billing clerk at Brewster-Crittenden, a grocery wholesaler on King Street, that paid $16 a week. It was the most dismal work I have ever experienced. The office was a typical old-time sweatshop where president Manning oversaw the staff from his desk on a dais in the middle of the dimly lit room of clerks and bookkeepers. I was happy to be laid off six months later, about a week after I spent New Years day recording inventory with the rest of the staff.

On Friday before New Years, I caught a ride to Dundee with Kenneth Kent and his wife Lois, both from Dundee but now working in Rochester. Kenny was a pretty wild driver, and we were really moving after we passed the hamlet of Potter heading toward Penn Yan. About three miles east of Potter, we came to a curve at the bottom of a short hill where the road was covered with black glare ice. The car spun out of control, crossed a ditch, narrowly missed some large trees that seemed to jump up to my window as the car changed directions, and did at least one roll-over before it came to rest in a field, right side up. I crawled out to help Kenny and Lois, unhurt except for Kenny's bloody nose. A passing motorist agreed to send help. We could only wait in the cold dark for what seemed hours. To my surprise Esther and my friend, Tony Klug, appeared out of the night.

Esther had been waiting with my Dad and Mother in their restaurant when she got the news of the accident from the motorist we had talked to at the scene some eighteen miles away. Tony had walked into the restaurant looking for me, and Esther insisted that they drive out to find me.

Sunday I borrowed dad's car, picked up the Kents, and got to Rochester for the New Year's inventory. I had not been told that I was about to be laid off.

© 1991, Edwin N. Harris
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