Episode 2 “From the Pen of the Captain’s Kid”
During the summer of 1952 I entered the entrepreneurial world of a resort town that must make its annual budget in three months, so I learned quite young that summer commerce in Ocean City was intense: I became a “newsie” making my fortune at two cents a paper. Harry Truman was still President, and all I knew about him was that he had said “The buck stops here.” I asked my parents what a buck was, and I learned it was a dollar, but in Truman’s case the saying referenced “passing the buck” and was all about responsibility. “…and speaking of responsibility,” Dad started to seque to a lesson in life: “I think it’s time for you to get a summer job and start earning some money for college.”
“Dad, I’m only eight,” I whined, but to no avail.
Job prospects were limited, since my portfolio and employment experiences were nonexistent: drying dishes after dinner apparently didn’t count, and most “help wanted” signs targeted older kids. To me, an employed teenager seemed as old as Methuselah, but I was tall for my age and just pudgy enough to look like I might even be ten. So I applied to become a newsie for the Baltimore Sun newspaper. The Sun was an afternoon rag whose sports and cartoon sections seem to draw the most attention as I observed locals’ reading habits. Down at the docks the focus was not on journalism but on wrapping fish in the newspapers, a practical application to be sure. But for an eight-year-old selling newspapers, the Baltimore Sun was the means to begin a college fund.
So I embarked on my career with an inventory of one bicycle, a deep rectangular wire basket affixed to the front wheel, and a developing talent for folding, locking the fold, and slinging daily papers all over town onto front door stoops and upper porches, showing great skill because I barely slowed the bicycle. Moreover, I could peddle my bike from the route 50 bridge to the 15th street water tower on a paper route of my own devising.
I was not given a route with established prepaid subscribers because most vacationers were in town for only a week. Thus, sales by Ocean City newsies were mostly day by day without repeat customers. I soon discovered that selling to down-for-the-dayers was harder work than if I could develop my own weekly customers, longer-term vacationers renting apartments for the whole week. At best, however, this commercial enterprise was never one of high finance. Profits were measured in copper coins with Lincoln’s picture on the front, and daily accumulations rarely involved paper money. Moreover, this was not spending money: following the captain’s encouragement [Dad], income steadily made its way dutifully into the sacred vessel of the cult of summer employment: the college fund piggy bank.
The Ocean City intermediary between the Baltimore Sun publishing house in the big city across the Chesapeake, and Ocean City newsies, was a grandmotherly and toothless matron we knew as Miss Lauer. She resided on a rocking chair on the front porch of 302 Sixth Street, only one and a half blocks from my house. Siblings ‘Sis” and “Ted” were part of the distribution network—suppliers of bulk newspapers to local pharmacies, news stands, and various retail outlets throughout the resort, a town which in 1952 had barely expanded beyond 15th Street. I knew “Sis” (who occasionally substitute for Miss Lauer), and I could wave at Ted when I saw his van double parked at Bailey’s Pharmacy on 8th Street as he unloaded stacks of twenty to thirty papers at one go. But my dealings as a newsie were always with Miss Lauer whose memorable daily accounting and reconciliation of newspaper stock advanced to newsies versus stock returned, and monies collected, all remains fresh in my mind even today, six and a half decades later. “Three aughts is naught” she would multiply, calculating at the end of the day what I owed her for the papers I sold. The daily Sun cost patrons five cents; I kept two cents, the Sun got two cents, and Miss Lauer got a penny for every paper sold.
Ole Lady Lauer had a small platoon of newsies, and every afternoon she would ask each boy how many newspapers he wanted to try to sell that day. She’d record the number in a small spiral notebook send us off on our bicycles or toting canvas sacks, and at the end of the day we’d return to her porch, hand over unsold papers, and cash out, giving her three cents of the five cents collected for every paper we sold. I always thought I had somehow failed if I brought back any unsold papers, especially when Miss Lauer reminded me that Tommy Gibbs had taken out fifty papers that day and usually sold all he took.
Tommy Gibbs, in my rookie mind, was the model newsie: the top seller. His beat was on the beach, walking across the hot sand with canvas bag full of papers over his shoulder, whereas I was already embracing modern technology: I had a bike, and I literally peddled my wares. But selling fifty copies in an afternoon was a great achievement—Tommy earned a whole dollar, and he set the bar. I consoled myself that there was no skill to Tommy’s job trudging across the beach from umbrella to umbrella. He merely handed newspapers to Coppertone-saturated sun worshippers, whereas I was master at real newsie skills: folding and interlocking sections of the broadside so that it would not unravel when I tossed it elegantly up to the second floor porch of an apartment fourplex. That took skill. Moreover, I had regular weekly customers who collectively comprised a paper route of my own making, albeit never large and varying week to week as renters came and went.
Monday, therefore, was an important day. As I peddled my bike along Baltimore Avenue and crisscrossed town on various side streets, I hollered that melodious chant, “Git yer BALT’MER Sun Pay-y-y-y-per,” and almost daily I was forced to endure the same joke from older boys on holiday, half-wits we privately referred to as smart-assed yokels”
“Hey kid, ya gotta a Sun?” a voice from nowhere would shout.
“Yes sir,” I’d respond looking around for the source.
“Aren’t you a little young [to have a son]?”
“Ver-r-r-y funny,” I’d respond knowing no sale was imminent.
More productive was the vacationer who bought the Monday edition and then responded positively to my Dale Carnegie inspired sales pitch.
“OK kid, how much?”
“Five cents,” I’d say as a nickel was already being flipped my way.
“Hey, mister, I can deliver a paper here every day; how long ya gonna be on vacation?”
“Sure, kid, All week, ” and he’d toss me a couple of quarters for the whole week’s deliveries as I stood eagerly anticipating the always hoped-for additional incantation: “And keep the change.”
“Ya want Sunday as well?” I’d offer. “It’s fifteen cents more ‘cause the paper’s heavier than all week combined.”
And then I knew I blew it: “Sure, kid, take it out of the second quarter.”
That’s when I learned to say, “Damn!” as my tip evaporated.
Getting tips was always a bonus, but the real jackpot was finding a two-week holiday maker, or even someone renting an apartment for the whole month. That was real security, and from such arrangements my paper route evolved, and I started selling more papers than Tommy Gibbs!
I thought I was a real big shot when I landed customers on fishing boats or yachts at the Ship Café, located bayside at 15th Street and Mallard Island. (The café burned in 1977 and was replaced by the Harbor Island development, but in 1952 all that was a quarter-century in the future.) Bill Chew was one of my newspaper customers at the Ship Café marina, and (puffing out my chest) I always looked around to make sure someone saw me deliver the morning Sun to Mr. Chew’s boat, one of the largest in the marina. This important man had negotiated this business arrangement with me! I was instructed to toss the paper “astern,” and I thought I was practically in the Navy, as I said “Aye Aye, Sir.” Mr. Chew must have been rich because he owned a private home right on the boardwalk at Surf Avenue, and he owned this huge boat as well? Geez! I would later learn he built the Royal Palm townhouses filling the whole block between 12th and 13th Streets along St. Louis Avenue with units that were among the first in the town to be condominiumized—developed the whole block, he did! He later let me use the townhouses’ community pool to teach swimming lessons when I was the ripe old age of 18 and when I had two other jobs that summer, having failed to build up an adequate college fund at 2 cents a paper.
“Ya gotta start somewhere,” Dad observed philosophically, and I was a newsie for five summers. Throughout that time I was constantly amused by Miss Lauer’s arithmetical mumblings as she calculated what I owed her at the end of each day. “Three aughts is naught,” she continued each summer to intone, and for years I wondered “three oughts is not what?” Was there something I ought to have done and failed to do three times? It might have been during my final summer that I figured out that she was multiplying: three times zero is zero. Good ole Miss Lauer—I remember her fondly: she gave me my first job and hired me back four times.
Ocean City in the 1950s was a special place, and so for five summers I was a newsie. I thought I was amassing a real fortune for college and I still recall during that first summer when I was eight, that when I turned in my loose change for a crisp twenty-dollar bill with Andrew Jackson’s mug on the front, I realized I had sold 1000 newspapers. One thousand papers and twenty bucks! Imagine! I was almost ready for college.