Making a Buck

Making a Buck
By Harry Hallman

Ben Franklin famously said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Obviously, he didn’t grow up in the Kensington section of Philly in the 1950s, where our saying was “A penny found is a penny spent on candy.”

Back then, a penny was worth something, and you felt excited when you saw one just lying on the asphalt, waiting for you to pick it up. Most of us didn’t get an allowance—and if we did, it was minuscule. Our parents were hard-working people who had just experienced the deprivation of the Great Depression and the rationing of World War 2. Beyond providing us with roofs over our heads and food in our stomachs, they didn’t have much to give us.

If we wanted extra cash, we had to find a way to make it, and we had many schemes for doing just that. Aside from finding a nickel or a penny on the ground, our favorite method was checking the pay telephones for forgotten change. It was always exciting to find a dime or a couple of nickels. Vending machines in the Wishart movie theater were also an excellent potential source. A nickel found in a Coke or candy machine was about one-third of the admission price to see the movie. It also bought a substantial amount of candy.

Every once in a while, we would spy pennies, nickels, and even dimes at the bottom of a grated hole outside the bank at Front and Allegheny. A long stick with a piece of freshly chewed gum on the end made a perfect coin extractor. Sorry, Ben: once we got the money, we were off to find Joe the pretzel man.

Every kid tried to find soda bottles to turn in for 2 cents, and winter snowstorms offered plenty of opportunities to make big money. You could make a quarter for shoveling a house, and you might make as much as a whole dollar for a day’s work. Occasionally, we shoveled snow for one of the stores on Allegheny Avenue. The problem was that the pavement was so much bigger, and you only got 50 cents.

Taking orders at the A&P at Front and Westmorland was another source of steady cash, but there were more kids were looking to carry groceries than there were shoppers. You also had to have a wagon. Going to the store for various neighborhood homemakers was also a source of ready cash. You could get a nickel for going to a Front Street store.

However, the absolute best way to make money was to get a job. At 8 to 11 years old, that wasn’t easy, but by the time you were 12 years old, you could pick up a paid chore or two. My friends and I stopped in every store on Front Street to ask if they had any work. One day, a variety store owner hired me to pack up and take out the trash a couple of times a week. Man, they had a lot of trash. I got 50 cents for my labor. The owner always found other things for me to do but never gave me more money. I didn’t mind because the owner always hired cute girls from the neighborhood as clerks, and I got to help them.

There was a kid a few years older than me whom I admired. His name was Tommy McGory, and he had a job at the food store at Lippincott and Front Street. For years, he worked there to help pay his way through college. I saw him in 1966 when I first came home from Vietnam. By then, he was married and a new doctor. Tommy told me he was being shipped to Vietnam, where his medical degree would certainly be needed. I hope he was able to come home safely.

Sixteen was the magic number for getting a good job. You had to have official permission to work. Many kids just quit school and started working as roofers or in factories and warehouses. I was seventeen when I got a job as an apprentice plumber making one dollar an hour, with no overtime pay. I learned to dig ditches, carry bathtubs up three flights of stairs, move materials in the warehouse, and drive a large truck. I didn’t do a lot of actual plumbing.

I had that job for a year before I decided that there had to be something better out in the world for me. When I joined the USAF at a salary of $86.00 a month, it turned out to be the most influential job I ever had and set me on a course I never could have imagined. In the 70 years since I was a six-year-old fishing pennies out of a grate, I have never forgotten the lessons I learned in Kensington seeking out change to buy candy.

 Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.

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