My mother had come from money, but after her marriage economic conditions took a dive, never fully to recover. My father was born into a working-class family, though as an adult he became a white-collar worker. As a result, I was raised in lower middle class circumstances. I was born during the Depression, and kids who could earn money were expected to do so, after they got to be 12 or 15 years old (boys more so than girls).
For me, work started when I was 10, delivering newspapers. Peoria had morning and afternoon papers in the 40s and 50s, and eventually I had three routes at once, two in the morning and one in the afternoon. It amounted to about 500 papers every day, which netted me about $15 a week.
It was a tremendous amount of labor. One morning route was downtown, which meant running up the stairs in tall buildings with a big sack of papers on my back (I had great legs in those days). The other one was in a very poor, mostly black neighborhood, which was an eye-opener for a young white kid. The afternoon stint had many apartment buildings, houses, and bars.
Some of the customers paid at the office, though most of them did not, so I had to go around once a week and collect.That took a lot of hustle. The paper was 20 cents a week daily, or 25 cents daily and Sunday. No days off for me, of course, during the whole six years I did it.
I didn't like going into the bars, and I just couldn't bear to collect at some of the houses where there were no windows and maybe just an old woman and some starving dog.
At one such house -- literally one very old woman and the sorry-looking dog, with cardboard where the window glass had been -- I couldn't bear to ask for the 20 cents. But I didn't want to stop leaving the paper, either. My mom told me to ask the woman first if that was all right, so as not to offend her pride: I told her the paper I was bringing every day was an extra that I didn't have to pay for, so she could just have it. This also taught me the virtues of innocent fibs.
Saturday nights all the carriers went to the branch office (in a row of garages on a downtown alley) to settle accounts. That was pretty rough and tumble, older boys fighting and shoving, much smoking, swearing, and boy-type overcompensation.
I learned a lot from the whole experience, most of all how to take care of myself. I did not, unfortunately, wise up about money until many, many years later.
When I was 16 I started to work in the editorial room of the morning paper as a copy boy, a half-time job, four hours a night, 6:00 to 10:00 p.m., six nights a week.
The duties included making the rounds of the various editorial desks, picking up the edited copy and sending it to the composing room using a pneumatic tube delivery system. Type was set in lead on Linotype machines back then. Every 15 minutes or so, I went downstairs to the composing room and picked up galley proofs, to which the original copy was clipped, and returned these to the editors' in-baskets. Despite the large amount of hustle this required, I managed to find time to read a bit, and I must admit it was very exciting to be in a newsroom when a big story came in. Soon I was tending a flock of teletypes that brought us the various news wire services -- UPI, AP, Standard and Poor's, etc. And in due course I also became responsible for sending and receiving photos over the AP photo newswire, including the darkroom work for incoming photo copy.
90 cents an hour was actually a decent wage, back then. The lasting benefit, I think, was a love of newpapering's many technical aspects, which included the stink of molten lead, the hive-like clatter of half a dozen Linotypes, the smell of ink, and the roar of the huge rotary presses. As each edition came off the press, I would dash down to the basement and collect enough copies for our staff. I rather liked the idea of knowing the morning's news the night before. Commercial television existed already (this was 1951-53), but had not yet completely displaced print media for news scoops.
Perhaps even more valuable, I gained an enormous respect for people who write with deadlines to meet, and I learned to interact cooperatively with the sometimes temperamental and often intoxicated working reporters and photographers of our staff. Boozing seems to be an occupational disease among journalists.