“I’m just a typical American boy from a typical American town.”
—Folksinger Phil Ochs, “Draft Dodger Rag”
Between the ages of nine and sixteen, I spent the days before Christmas hustling or, as some might put it today, grinding. For most of this time, I had two jobs, the second, which I started at the age of eleven, was delivering the daily early morning paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, which is a story for another time.
My first job was selling shopping bags on the blocks of the Italian Market, or Ninth Street as most of the locals called it, a huge conglomeration of open-air produce stands, along with poultry shops (where my sister’s friend, Ernest Evans, who later became Twist King Chubby Checker, would kill chickens right before your eyes), and cheap clothing and jewelry stores in South Philadelphia. Most of the shops were owned by Italians, some by Jews. No black people owned any of the stores but I did not think this unusual or unfair. It was simply the way of the world I lived in.
I sold bags with my other friends—Destry, Bobby Bones, Oscar, Earl, Red Dog, Henry—on Friday evening and all day on Saturday, when the market was at its busiest. We ran up to anyone who seemed overburdened with purchases, asking “Bag, Miss?” (Sometimes, “Bag, Mister?” But most of the shoppers were women.) Sometimes they would buy a bag; not infrequently, they told us to stop pestering them. It was tough, competitive work. Not only was I fighting for customers against my friends but I was also fighting against the other black boys I did not know who were also trying to sell bags. (No white boys and no girls ever sold shopping bags during my years on the circuit.)
I wanted money and, strangely enough, I wanted very much to work for it. I could not think of anything else to do or any other way to get money. When it came to jobs, Bobby could always think of one.
Bobby Bones introduced me to the trade. When I turned nine, I found I had a desperate need for money. My mother gave me a little, maybe a dime or a quarter a week, but my appetite for things was growing. I wanted dollars, not dimes, to buy candy, Philly cheesesteaks, grape soda, glazed donuts, and comic books. I asked Bobby how he got his money. He said he hustled bags on Ninth Street. He had learned about from Henry, who was a bit older than we were and was very serious about work. (Bobby was a year older than I was.) I wanted money and, strangely enough, I wanted very much to work for it. I could not think of anything else to do or any other way to get money. When it came to jobs, Bobby could always think of one.
Bobby took me to an old dark shop on Third Street where a strange-looking old white man wearing dark glasses sat at a machine stapling handles onto shopping bags. (Bobby told me when we left the shop that the old man was a Jew and for some reason that fact, if indeed it was a true fact, fascinated me.) The shop was filled with all kinds of paper but mostly shopping bags. I never really knew what kind of business it was, exactly what was sold other than the shopping bags to young boys like Bobby and me. But the strange old man could not have made much of living simply selling to us. Bobby was a regular customer. He told me I could buy bags from the strange old man and sell them at the Italian Market. I could get 33 bags or a load, as the boys called it, for a dollar or three cents a bag. I could sell them at the Italian Market for five cents each. (The strange old man did not like selling you less than a dollar’s worth.) I would make a profit of 65 cents. If I sold two loads, I would make $1.30 and so forth. Modest as that may seem, for a working-class black kid in 1961 that was respectable money. It was bottom-feeder employment, so while it was not highly profitable, there was the comfort of being on the bottom and knowing there was nothing below you. It was like living in a basement apartment. Entrepreneur that I was, I got my mom to finance my first load. After that, for all the years I worked the Market, I was self-sufficient. I could buy my own bags. My mother never gave me an allowance for the rest of my childhood.
It was no easy work. Some boys would try the job and quit after one day because they found it too arduous. I had to walk up and down the Italian Market, six blocks up and six blocks back, one side of the street and then the other. I had to do this over and over again for hours in the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. My arms ached from holding the 33 bags I started out with and it took months before I acquired the strength to carry them without great strain, and great perspiration even in the coldest weather. Some boys, to ease the load, stashed some of their bags in what they thought to be safe place and would return for them later. Often places turned out not to be so safe and their bags were stolen. The only safe storage place would be one of the shops along the way, but the shop owners rarely permitted us to do that. In fact, the owners saw us mostly as street urchins and usually chased us away if we tried to warm up in their establishments on especially cold days.
It was bottom-feeder employment, so while it was not highly profitable, there was the comfort of being on the bottom and knowing there was nothing below you. It was like living in a basement apartment.
For us boys, this was a dog-eat-dog enterprise. When I started, I was very shy and would only sell a bag when a customer called me over or explicitly indicated that she wanted one. Other boys aggressively approach people and really hawked their bags, crying up and down the Market: “Shop-ping Bags! On-ly a Nic-kel!” Some boys would cut in front of me when I was approaching a customer and beat me out. “Hey, clown face,” one boy who cut me taunted smugly, “You ain’t got no business out here. You ain’t got no hustle, clown face.” These were hard lessons but, as it is said, experience is a tough mistress, and at this point I had no other. I learned that the meek may inherit the earth but they did not get far selling anything on the earth. And only Jesus seemed to like them; customers rarely noticed them. I got more aggressive and sold more bags, with a winsome smile and a polite but determined manner. Boys mocked you if you could not take the teasing and if you could not get competent with the practice, master the hustle. I endured the teasing, got competent with the practice, mastered the hustle. In the early days, there were many times when I wanted to quit but I did not. I got better and better, selling more bags. Over the course of Friday and Saturday, I might sell three or four loads of bags. At Christmas, it was definitely four or more because business would be really good.
Despite the competition, we boys formed a kind of confederacy. If you became a veteran, returned week after week, you earned respect. You made your bones. Some of us often ate lunch together—a hot dog or a pork sandwich if we were being extravagant, otherwise glazed or jelly donuts, potato chips, and a cherry or grape soda. Some would start pitching pennies, a game to see who could throw a coin closest to the wall. If you did, you won all the other coins that were tossed. That was no game for me. Then, we would start sounding, an insult ritual of who could best crack on someone else or who had the best comeback. I was never good at this game, never had a nimble tongue or a slick or humorous way of cursing (and a few of the boys cussed like sailors; others of us never uttered a profane word, good church boys we were, but we—the profane and the sacred—lived together like lions and lambs.) When I was cracked on, I could never return fire. With insults, I could never think of one. But I would laugh uproariously when two boys went at it with great skill. I suppose this was some kind of ur-rapping, if only we had known we were harbingers and this sort of braggadocio, street busting, as it could have been called, would one day make people who are good at it a lot of money. Sometimes collectively we would chant, with great gusto, rhymes like this:
Up on the roof, oh yeah
One hundred proof, oh yeah
Down in the street, oh yeah
We drink it neat, oh yeah
Up in my locker, oh yeah
A fifth of vodka, oh yeah
And with my Colt, oh yeah
I got some Malt, oh yeah
Go get my dagger, oh yeah
Wine makes me stagger, oh yeah
Who drinks the most, oh yeah
Us colored folks, oh yeah.
In Pennsylvania, liquor could be sold only in State Stores, establishments run by the state government. There was a State Store between Eighth and Ninth on Christian Street, right by the Italian Market. We boys passed it nearly every day. On some days, there would be a long line of black people waiting for the store to open. We boys were all fascinated by the black people who drank, fascinated by liquor, by the ritual of drinking liquor among the black adults we knew. Some of us, alas, became too fascinated and would become alcoholics while still teenagers. At any rate, everyone particularly liked this chant and we would recite it all the time.
Hustle, colored boy, hustle
Get that nickel for a pickle
Get that dime for a lime
Get that dollar till it hollers
Don’t want nothing funny
Just give me some money
Hustle, colored boy, hustle
Christmas was always a good time to be hustling bags. Ninth Street would be packed with people, so packed you could hardly walk, and I could move my bags pretty quickly without much effort. In the holiday spirit, people would often give me a dime and tell me to keep the change, sometimes some customers would even give me a quarter. One time, a man gave me a dollar for a bag and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. “I like to see you boys out here working hard, staying out of trouble,” he said to me.
It was around 1 pm. My feet were frozen. My hands were frozen. My face was frozen. But I was happy.
This is not much of a Christmas story, but it is something I know. As I remember, this incident occurred during my second Christmas hustling bags. I was in the fraternity by then, one of the hustling boys. To borrow Jimi Hendrix’s phrase, I was experienced. I knew how to sell bags. It was a cold Christmas Eve but the crowds were enormous. The trick was to get up early and hit the streets no later than 7 am. The crowds would be intense, shoppers on top of each other, almost unbearable, until around 3 or 4 pm, and then things would start to drop off quickly.
It was around 1 pm. My feet were frozen. My hands were frozen. My face was frozen. But I was happy. I had sold nearly all the bags from my third load. I had made a lot of tips. I was rolling in money. As I walking along Catherine Street, taking a break and getting away from the Italian Market for a spell, I found Bobby Bones sitting on a stoop, a few fugitive bags scattered at his feet, crying his eyes out. I had never seen my friend cry before and it unnerved me, stunned me, as if something was not right in the natural order of things. It is bad to see someone you like cry. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me that a group of gang boys had robbed him. That was another occupational hazard. We bag boys were not uncommonly the prey of gang boys who would waylay us if we were alone and away from the Market and take our money. They were merciless and we feared them greatly, perhaps because when we looked in the mirror we saw one another.
You had to be vigilant, careful, always ready to run whenever you saw any group of black boys you did not know. They were going to shake you down for all the money you had. Bobby was inconsolable. All that work all day hustling bags, and now he had nothing. Other bag boys began showing up, one by one, wondering what was wrong with Bobby. I felt so sick and sad, I wanted to cry too. I felt as if I could feel every bone in my face. My stomach felt bad. My lunch had turned rancid. Bobby was my best friend. “Why did you go off by yourself?” I cried. “Why didn’t you wait for me? It wouldn’t have happened if I had been with you.” Guilt made me say this foolishness. The only difference my presence would have made is that the gang would have robbed two boys instead of one. It was the guilt that derives from “There but for fortune go you or I,” as Joan Baez sang. If someone had to be robbed in this awful world, and in the world I lived in as a boy someone definitely had to be robbed sometime, it was better Bobby than I. It made me feel guilty even as a kid to think that way. But there was so much misfortune in this world and I did not want more than I was supposed to get, or even as much as I was entitled to.
We bag boys were not uncommonly the prey of gang boys who would waylay us if we were alone and away from the Market and take our money. They were merciless and we feared them greatly, perhaps because when we looked in the mirror we saw one another.
I told everyone what had happened. Bobby was too distraught to say anything. We all just stood there. No one said anything for a while. Then, Destry put two dimes down on the step next to Bobby. Red Dog put down a quarter. Then I put down a quarter and a nickel. (I felt bad that I did not think of doing this first.) Someone put down two quarters. All six or seven of us standing there put down some money. Then we each gave Bobby some of our bags. “It’s not too late. You can sell these extra bags and make up the money,” Destry said. Bobby sort of smiled at us, stood up, gathered up the bags and walked back to Ninth Street. I put my arm around him. We all circled him like a flock of caring mothers. I told him what he, religious boy that he was, always liked to tell me when I was down, done in by life, “God hates a coward.”
Some of the Italian produce merchants saw us all around him and asked what was wrong. When they learned, they lamented, “Ah, what a shame! The scum, they always go around making life hard for everybody. And you boys work so hard for your money. Bobby, he’s a good boy. He don’t make no trouble. And he lose all his money and it’s Christmas.” The merchants gave us pieces of fruit I suppose to sustain us for the afternoon. Bobby sold bags with almost desperate energy. The rest of us slacked off a bit, so Bobby could get more customers. It was getting on to late afternoon and the crowds were thinning. We all knew that Bobby wanted so much to recoup as much of the lost money as he could. Many of the merchants helped out by slipping Bobby a quarter here, a quarter there, maybe fifty cents. It must be remembered that this was at a time when you could buy five pounds of white potatoes for a quarter. One of the shop keepers gave Bobby a bottle of cheap cologne to give to his father for a gift and another gave him a cheap necklace for his mother because when Bobby was robbed he lost all of his gift money. So, all of us were cutting into our profit margin, such as it was, to help Bobby. It was Christmas and Bobby was a good boy and we worked hard for our money. All of that must mean something. What is the point of a God and His Son if this hardship does not mean anything, you know, the hardship of this life, the grinding of it cannot be pointless, can it? Why hustle if that will not even help you survive? There had to be something more in the world than living between the poles of mercilessness and fear, the terror of the gangs that made us run like hunted deer.
At 5 pm, the Market was nearly empty. Bobby had sold all the bags he had. I do not know if he made up the loss but he was in good spirits as all of us bag boys stood around a roaring barrel fire, trying to get warm as the merchants began to break down their stands and pack their unsold produce. It was dark and cold but I felt good. Everyone looked happy, almost gleaming in the firelight, hoping for Christmas future and Christmas now. I still felt bad for Bobby but I was happy too. It was good to be standing there with my friends, it was good to be bone-tired from working all day, it was good to have money. It was, alas, good to be alive on this Christmas Eve and to see the bright, spangled world of Christmas lights and feel the rushing of the homeward bound and know that Christ was born this day. It was good to be amazed by humanity. It was good to be a Christian for a little while, at least. And it was good to know that we all done what our parents would call a Christian thing. Yes, I was happy too. I wanted to have words for it, for being happy and the world being righteous for once, words like the boys who were expert at sounding always had, a smart-aleck quip of gratitude at the ready, but I could not think of even one.