Scraps to fill a lifetime
The hunter-gatherers brought home food, but for just joan it’s always been about paper. As a child it was paper dolls, all neatly sequestered between my play sessions in tidy flat boxes stacked neatly on my closet shelves. The an entire lifetime of clipping and saving scraps of paper to keep for that yonder day I might have some use for each. I seem to never really catch up with the filing process, though I try mightily, and I purge those extensive files occasionally.
A few random papers made their way to the surface to inspire this column. I’m intrigued by the styles of prose and character of reporting that comes through in different eras. Except for introduction of modern elements, the humor doesn’t seem to change much.
I read that a certain film star was famous for keeping an old yellowed piece of paper. In fact he hung it in a frame over his fireplace for all to see. Dated 1933, the MGM interoffice memo issued after this wannabe star’s first screen test reads, “Fred Astaire. Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.”
One clip recalls how short a time ago the strategy for making a spontaneous phone call while away from home was to find a pay phone and drop coins into the slot. I remember when it cost only a dime to make a local call. Could it be that the rise to 25 cents helped motivate the development of cellular phones.
California raconteur Jerry Parker, now deceased, sometimes wrote of watching costs rise throughout his lifetime. New York City provided an abundance of odd jobs to an industrious youngster in the 1930s, even in the heart of the Great Depression. From the age of 12, when he entered high school, Parker worked continuously. One example of how he was employed as an ambitious little kid was delivering merchandise. A New York tailor employed him to deliver suits after school on weekdays and all day Saturdays for a sum total of $2 for the week. He figured that was all of seven cents per hour.
When Parker became a full-time errand boy, he earned $1 a day six days a week and in his spare time studied typing and shorthand on his own. Thus when The New York Times advertised in 1939 for an office boy, he nailed the position. With only one cent per hour for Social Security deducted from his $15 weekly salary, he proclaimed, “I was affluent!”
The conclusion of this autobiographical essay published in The Sonoma Index-Tribune exactly some 20 years ago tells us, “I eventually became an editorial assistant at The Times and went on for another four decades working for magazines and newspapers.
“But best of all about my getting on at The Times was that my real education had begun. And what tutors I had – some of the most brilliant newspaper people in America. I began to develop that luxury one cannot buy – free thought.”
In a newsletter I’ve saved from the 1970s, a quote from Abraham Lincoln precedes a pair of jokes typical of the era you may or may not enjoy. The famous president’s quote: “I don’t know who my grandfather was; I’m much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.”
And the jokes: 1. A professor wanting to demonstrate harmful effects of a popular substance dropped worms into two glasses, one filled with pure water and the other pure whiskey. As his students watched one worm squirming with the spark of life, the other writhing in agony toward death, the teacher asked, “What is the moral of this story?” One kid’s ready answer, “If you don’t want worms, drink alcohol.”
2. A very nervous passenger on a cross-country flight appealed to her seatmate as the plane jerked and bounced around in a thunderstorm.
“You’re a clergyman,” she wailed. “Do something.”
“Sorry, madam,” came the reply. “I’m in sales, not management.”
During my own turbulent years of the 1970s, I made a list on New Year’s day I’ve kept all this time. That was a period of upheaval as my 28-year marriage disintegrated and broke while my teen-aged sons still at home and I negotiated the challenges of fluctuating emotions and losses along with financial concerns. Among the five of them, as you might suspect, a range of responses to the difficult circumstances kept me on my toes and them on their guard.
I decided on that New Year’s day, to make a list of dreams, not resolutions. These dreams remain spelled out on a fading 3-by-5 inch card: 1. To acquire and maintain a strong, sustaining faith in God, 2. To help my family do the same, 3. To have basic harmony in my home among all family members, 4. To satisfy my creative urges in many ways, 5. To take an active part in community affairs and work for programs I consider important.
Number 6 is revelatory and amazing to just joan as I read it decades later: I aspired “to be well-read, well-informed and to have carefully formed opinions.” The words amaze me today because at the time I was a woman who’d quite completely submerged her sense of self-worth and mouthed only her husband’s sentiments on important matters.
From a copy store’s monthly newsletter in 1981, a piece entitled “Remember Me?” reminds us of a completely different era of customer service when you’d never think of pumping your own gas or helping yourself to merchandise to take to a check-out counter.
“I’m the fellow who goes into a restaurant, sits down and patiently waits while the waitresses finish their visiting before taking my order.
“I’m the fellow who goes into a department store and stands quietly while the clerks finish their little chit-chat.
“I’m the fellow who drives into a service station and never blows his horn, but lets the attendant take his time.
“You might say I’m the good guy. But do you know who else I am? I’m the fellow who never comes back. It amuses me to see businesses spending so much money each year to get me back – when I was there in the first place. All they needed to do was give me some service and extend a little courtesy.”