MEMOIR: NIGHTS WITH JEAN SHEPARD AND CRIPPLED JOE

June 30, 2014 at 6:44 pm 1 comment

It was a time before cell phones, before computers and instant messaging. It was a time before people felt obligated to be at the beck and call of anyone who has anything to communicate no matter how insignificant the information might be. To many today, the ability to communicate – to use the technology – is more important than the content of what they have to say. It was a time of relative freedom, when you could truly be alone without getting away, when people did not feel uncomfortable to be out of the loop, for the loop for most did not yet exist. We were individuals, not part of a grid. It was a time when people were allowed to live their lives without the constant intrusions that today we consider to be normal – no telemarketers, no beepers no SPAM – the only SPAM being that fantastic pink brick. You could answer the phone at dinnertime and be fairly sure it was someone you wanted to talk to instead of someone trying to sell you something.
Growing up, my family did not have a phone. We lived in a four family house and only one family had a phone, a family on the second floor of our two-story house and you only asked to use it if a there was a real emergency. I’m talking seizure or some other life-threatening event. About the time I entered my teenage years we did get a phone, but in those days it was on a party line and, with our plan, you were limited to thirty calls a month, then you paid extra for every call over thirty. Imagine those limitations today in a family of six that included two girls.
But don’t get me wrong, when I was young the exchange of information was important – but there was just so much less of it. Or maybe it is that today, what we call information is not information at all, only considered so by those who generate it. What was communicated had importance, not the latest Hollywood starlet’s drug problem, not the public following the antics of an individual acting like a fool and wanting to be the first to know what outrageous or sick thing they do next. Long gone are the days when social media was comprised primarily of face-to-face conversations.
I watched my share of TV while growing up, maybe more than my kids do now, but I would never admit that to them. I listened to the radio, there always seemed to be a radio on in the house. That is why now, when I hear just the first few bars of a song from the late 50’s or 60’s I can usually share the song’s title and the artist singing with my children although they could care less about this information. I would listen to talk shows. These days I still listen to quite a bit of radio, usually National Public Radio when I’m not listening to an oldies station.
I would listen to Jean Shepard during the final hour of my shift working in a newsstand at the corner of Broad and Market streets, the heart of Newark, New Jersey. I was addicted to his show broadcasted on WOR weekday nights from 10:15 to 11. What a fantastic storyteller. For those not familiar with Jean Shepard, if you have ever watched A Christmas Story you have heard his voice and watched his work. We have a local station here in Pennsylvania that shows the movie nonstop for 24 hours beginning on Christmas Eve. When he died at the age of seventy-eight, his obituary read, “A Twain of the radio.” He would start each show and off he would go on a forty-five minute monologue about what it was like when he was growing up in Indiana or his observations of life around him, and you never knew where he would end up by the end of his show. He was genuine, one of life’s observers, and listening to him relate his memories and thoughts was a true treasure. He would conjure up stories of his childhood, remembering things that happened to us all but take a slightly different slant in his observations and in doing this create those wonderful views of his youth.
I would be counting up the papers and magazines and get the place ready for my relief as I listened to the radio. I worked at this newsstand for most of my high school and college years and came to know quite a collection of characters, old men haunting the nights on Newark’s streets. Talking to one another, carrying newspapers days old and talking to me for I was a regular of Newark’s night too. One individual, who could have been a character in a novel, was the man who would relieve me, a man with the most unpolitically correct name I have ever had the honor to hear – his name was Crippled Joe.
Now Crippled Joe must have been in his 50’s and walked with the use of a cane. His deformity was one leg that had an almost ninety degree bend in the top before it entered the hip. Crippled Joe had worked for my boss, the owner of the newsstand, for years and years, working the 11 PM to 6 AM shift and he was my relief of the Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays that I worked. And every night all papers and magazines would have to be counted and the money counted and locked up for Crippled Joe would try to steal whatever wasn’t accounted for, and my boss knew this and that was the relationship they had, Crippled Joe could be trusted as long as he was not given an opportunity not to be trusted.
Joe also had a little side business going. He used to run a numbers racket at the newsstand. Everyone knew about it, my boss, the other workers – everyone, yet every night Joe would complete these transactions secretly, and I suppose he really thought they were secret. Men would come up while I was changing over with Joe, whisper something in his ear and handed him some bills but would never take a newspaper or magazine. Being just fifteen or sixteen when I started to work, and quite naïve. It took a while for me to figure out what was going on and used to think it funny that, after all the years I worked there, every night he would still try to hide.
I worked year round while in high school and summers while in college. The newsstand was a good-sized booth with the front open to about waist level. We sold all the Newark and New York City papers. Back then Newark had two daily papers and New York at least six or more. We sold comics and magazines and some kind of dream cards that told you which numbers you should play according to the dreams you were having. Working at the newsstand during the winter was a real challenge. The wind would whip around into the booth and all the papers had to be held down with heavy metal weights. The change was kept in a metal change holder, a series of metal cups nailed in front of where you stood in the booth. When it was cold, I mean really cold, the change would freeze to your bare fingertips. You kept gloves on when no one was buying anything, but when the time to make a sale came, off came the gloves and those warm fingers would freeze right to the coins. Snowstorms were a real challenge. I had what some might determine to be a twisted sense of duty. During one particular storm, the snow was drifting against the door on the inside of the booth. We had electric heaters but unless you were right on top of them, you froze. I kept the stand open even though no one in his or her right mind was out on a night like this. Finally I got the word to close down. It was the first time I ever saw the newsstand closed.
During the summers of my high school and early college years I worked days and ran the newsstand for my boss who would drop by once a week to pick up the deposit slips and see how things were going. It was about this time that my well-established hormones began to really kick in and along with fantasies about some of my customers. I can recall one shorthaired blond girl, who must have been a secretary, and every day would pick up a paper – perhaps for her boss. I was in college at this time and she was about my age, probably working right out of high school. By the time I would sell her a paper I was dirty with newsprint from the early morning rush hour. I would see her every day and she would never say a word. Thinking back it was probably good that she hadn’t for I probably would have answered with some garbled response. So I would have my fantasies of meeting for a soda after work, maybe a movie but all I did was keep folding her papers and taking her money.
There was another girl I remember but she haunted the nights. I first noticed her while I was still in high school. She was about my age, maybe seventeen, not pretty but not unattractive either. She was very slim with long red hair and would hang out on the corner where I worked. She usually had other kids with her but she was the oldest. I never knew if the other kids were siblings or just friends. She was not well dressed and just looking at her you could tell she had very little money. I just wondered what she was doing night after night on that corner. Even now, when I think of her, I can hear Frankie Vallie singing ‘Rag Doll’. I wonder what became of the ‘rag doll’ as I wonder about other people that crossed my path during those night and days I spent selling papers.
On Mondays and Wednesdays my shifts were from 6-11PM, but on Fridays I went to work straight from school starting at 3PM and working until 11. I got quite a few stares and have to do some explaining after gym in high school as I was putting on my long johns in preparation for a winter’s night work.
Fridays, I would get home about 11:30 have some dinner and go to bed. My bed by now was a single pull-out bed in the parlor next to the kerosene stove which, during the winter, you could almost sit on and have no fear of injury. But my radio listening for the day was not yet over, or just beginning, depending on which way you wanted to approach the time of day, for another of my favorite radio shows was about to begin – Long John Nebal whose talk show on WOR radio ran from midnight to about five in the morning. The topics would vary but the subject often discussed that stirred my interest was flying saucers. Nebal would sometimes have on his show the editor of Saucer News, a local magazine-type publication although calling it a magazine was quite a stretch, and of course I immediately sent away for a subscription. It was just a few pages long and would be filled with pictures of flying saucers along with local sightings and editorial comments. The funny thing was that most of the editorial comments were about the editor’s ongoing divorce. For some reason I’ve always been drawn to slightly wacko subjects, here’s where my kids could provide an editorial.
Anyway, I would listen to these shows as late into the night as I could. Now I wouldn’t use my newsstand radio for that would be a waste of batteries, I used my crystal radio. Let me explain what this is, although my theoretical knowledge may be a little rough. The radio actually contained a crystal and onto it pressed a thin piece of wire called a ‘cat’s whisker’. The pressure generated electricity and it was also the way you tuned in a station, by moving the ‘cat’s whisker’ around the crystal. My radio was in the shape of a rocket and about six inches long, a black and red beauty. Coming out the rocket were three wires. One wire ended in and alligator clip for the ground, one wire was an earpiece and the last wire was the antenna. The antenna was rather long, somewhere between twenty and thirty feet and I would stretch it through the whole house before climbing into bed. I tend to toss and turn in my sleep so I would always wake up all wrapped up in the earphone and antenna wire, but no electricity was wasted although every night I listened to my crystal radio I risked death by strangulation.
Looking back, they were rough days, hard days but good days. I was easily entertained. I worked hard, and ever so slowly I matured.

Entry filed under: BIO, memoir, OBSERVATIONS & OPINIONS, Walt Trizna, WALT'S OBSERVATIONS, WALT'S OPINIONS. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

REVISITING MY MEMOIR GOING PAPERLESS

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. sherriepalmer  |  July 1, 2014 at 1:03 am

    This is full of wonderful imagery. I feel like I have made a trip in time.

    Reply

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