In the summer of 1955 I was between my Junior and Senior years at North High in Wichita, Kansas. I had given up my paper route a few months earlier, in part because I got tired of getting up at 5:30 am in every kind of weather and throwing papers every morning and afternoon — except Sunday, which was morning only — and in part because I perceived it to be a kid’s job. To be honest, that job allowed me to establish credit at the local Schwinn bicycle shop, where I purchased my first 3-speed bike, and the office furniture store next door to the bike shop, where I bought a used 30” by 60”, two pedestal, six drawer, steel office desk, with a linoleum top that had only a few small gouges on its surface. But I digress.
Early in the summer of 1955 I got a job by answering a help-wanted ad that was printed in the newspaper I had once delivered to over a hundred customers twice a day, every day (except Sunday, which was morning only), for almost a year. The ad was placed by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the city-run organization that operated the public bus transportation system. In 1955, bus passengers paid their fares with coins. If they didn’t have the correct change, the friendly driver would be happy to give them change for a dollar (or a five or a ten or a twenty). They dispensed coins from a silver metal device with multiple tubes and levers, and bills from a wad they kept in their shirt pocket.
It sounded like a simple job when the supervisor described it to me. All I had to do was stand on the corner of East Douglas Avenue and Market Street, where every bus in the city passed by once on each circuit of its route. When a bus stops, and after passengers disembark or climb aboard, I step into the bus hefting a leather bag filled with rolls of nickels, dimes, and quarters. The driver hands me a fist full of paper currency and tells me how many rolls of coins he wants in exchange.
By the way, a single roll of quarters weighs a half a pound. In order to have enough coins to meet the demand of a typical weekday 4-hour afternoon shift, the bag would have to contain around $400, and would weigh about 50 pounds. Since the bus company office was two blocks from my corner, I would put the bag of coins on a two-wheeled dolly and push it down the sidewalk to the corner.
The supervisor warned that if the value of the bills I returned to the office did not match the value of the coins I took out, I would be held responsible for making up the difference. No one ever mentioned the possibility that there could be a positive balance that I could pocket for myself. It was common knowledge that some of those friendly drivers would try to pass off a stack of 48 singles as $50, so I learned to count quickly and accurately before each exchange, no matter how urgently the driver was trying to speed up the process because he’s “running a bit late.”
For the most part, it was a simple job. There would be times when five or six busses would hit the corner in rapid succession, but there were also times when there were no busses to be seen for four or five minutes at a time. When you are a 16-year-old boy hanging out on one of the busiest corners in town in the middle of summer, you can be reasonably certain to be entertained by the number of young women dressed for the heat passing by. Actually, Count Basie wrote a song about just that, and it hit #3 on the charts the very next summer.
If weather was a bad part of maintaining a paper route, it was also a bad part of selling change to bus drivers. Kansas’ summers are hot and humid, and there was precious little shade on my corner. The worst weather hit one afternoon when it was over 85° in the shade. Looking west, I could see the sky fill with yellow-purple clouds that signaled the rapid onset of seriously severe weather. Within 20 minutes, the temperature had dropped 40˚, the wind was gusting around 20 miles per hour, and black dust, probably all the way from Western Kansas, filled the air. The corner offered no shelter, and busses kept coming. My clothes turned black, my nose and mouth were full of mud, and I could barely see. After about ten minutes the wind slowed down and it started to rain…big drops. Fortunately, it did not hail (I have seen hailstones the size of baseballs in Kansas). And ten minutes after that the sun was shining and it was a pleasantly unhumid 75˚.
The summer of 1955 was a different time. Bus drivers gave change to riders who needed it. A popular song would soon proclaim the glory of “Standing on the corner, watching all the girls go by.” A 16-year-old kid could stand on a downtown street corner day after day with a bag full of money and never worry about getting mugged.
Summer ended, I finished high school and worked (at different jobs) for a year before going to college. When I got home for Spring Break, I had thought I would bring my trusty 3-speed Schwinn back to school when I returned — the bike I had paid for (on credit) with my paper route money. But I learned that shortly after I moved out my mother gave my bike to the son of one of her church friends. And the desk was gone, too.