Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

South Side Boy in Flight:”I’m Fourteen. I Need a Job”…by Robert M. Katzman

By Robert M. Katzman © July 18, 2018:

“I’m Fourteen. I Need a Job”

At Midnight, June 8th, 1964, I escaped an insane home on the South Side of Chicago where beatings with thick leather belts, belt buckles, rubber hoses and clenched fists were an everyday event. I left running with only the clothes on my back, in freezing rain, two weeks before graduating eighth grade at Caldwell School.

Met up at some point with my father who took me to live with him in a one-room studio with a small kitchen and bathroom in Hyde Park, across the street from the Museum of Science and Industry. I was going to need the industry part. He wasn’t working. This is what happened next when I was essentially on my own.

After graduating from Caldwell and no more daily trekking back to 85th and Cregier, where the damn school was five miles south of that new home for me, I settled in to my new situation. I had zero money and the little refrigerator had eggs, butter and cold water in it. My dad had two TV dinners in there, too. We ate them that first night.

The next morning, though, I discovered my father had no frying pan to make the eggs, which at first seemed a dead end. Then I got an idea. When a person is handy with tools and also hungry, innovation is possible.

I took those two TV dinner tins out of the garbage, washed them off in the sink, twisted one very tightly into a handle shape, then flattened the other one with the heel of my gym shoe. I bent the edges up a little with my fingers.

Then, I found a rag, wrapped the rag around the handle, my Dad found a safety pin which I used to connect the two transformed TV dinner tins and create a frying pan. This totally fascinated my Dad. He always boiled his eggs in a little pot he already had. I melted some butter in the flat pan, cracked the eggs and poured them into the bubbling butter atop his gas stove and made eggs for both of us. I think it was one of the best breakfasts I ever had, but then, I was really hungry.

I had to find work. Not for movies. Not for a girl friend. For food. For clothes. For a used bike somewhere, because I left that behind, too.

I sure missed that old bike which I bought at a rummage sale in 1961. No one wanted it because it was dented, the paint chipped off, no bell on the handlebar. Looks were nothing to me. A bike meant freedom, freedom to move fast. Unwanted stuff at rummage sales went cheap. I got it for a couple bucks.

I had never received any allowance as an even younger kid. Beginning when I was five in 1955, I pulled a little red metal wagon, and collected empty glass pop bottles in the prairies surrounding my home, thrown there by older kids from the nearby high school and Catholic school. Coke, Pepsi, Seven-Up.

Other kids, sometimes bigger kids, also did this bottle searching too, sometimes, so I learned to be quick about it. Keep a sharp eye out for my quarry, toss it in the wagon and keep moving. I learned to pay attention. When the wagon was so heavy I could hardly pull it, I dragged it to the Rexall Drugstore down the block from my house for instant cash.

Winters, I shoveled snow. Chicago received a lot more snow those days than it does now. If you shoveled tons of it as a kid like I did, that was something you would notice. An incredible amount of work for spare change, but the steady shoveling all winter made me stronger. Made me more confident about what I could do.

Two years earlier, when I was twelve, I sold firecrackers to my classmates in 6th grade after a perilous trip to faraway Chinatown in 1962. Buses, trains, bad neighborhoods, local gangs of nasty kids. A big risk, but a big profit, too.

I knew very well what a buck was and that I had to start somewhere.

Starting on 48th Street near Lake Shore drive as a starting point, deciding to go two blocks east or west, I started walking south on the last week of June 1964 in my sweaty T-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers, I was five foot four, one hundred twenty pounds. I probably looked twelve, long dark hair hanging over my dark brown eyes, but so what? I stopped at every single small store I encountered, usually heard bells jingle when I opened the door, asked for the boss, and said, robotically:

“I’m fourteen. I need a job.”

Some laughed at me.

Some told me they had nothing.

Or nothing for a kid.

Or I was too young.

Or I had–“big shock”–no experience.

Or I wasn’t big enough to do the work.

Didn’t matter what anyone said. I kept going, store after store after store.

49th Street.

50th Street.

51st Street

52nd Street

It was hot.

I was thirsty.

A cold Coke would have been a miracle.

But a kid needs jingle to buy a Coke.

I kept going.

53rd Street.

54th Street.

I stopped at construction sites, which made me seem smaller still to the big guys working there, lots of muscles, big hard hands, serious faces, laying bricks, pouring cement, hammering long nails into two-by-fours, driving trucks, white dust everywhere, settling all over me, sticking to my sweating skin, making me look like a ghost. A skinny ghost.

But here’s something I remember vividly, fifty-five years later.

Not a single guy laughed at me.

Somehow, they got it, that I had to do this, that it wasn’t a choice.

Some wished me luck, or said they wished they had something I could do.

One gave me a buck.

I bought a Coke.

These are things I don’t forget.

It was my first face-to-face encounter with working class men, all of them one injury away from unemployment. It was the beginning of my respect for them.

How could I dream within a year I would be one of them?

The Coke was manna from Heaven.

I kept going.

55th Street.

A Greek grocery store.

They needed a kid to sell fruit and vegetables.

75 cents an hour. Five hours a day, five days a week. Cash.

He thought I was Greek.

I didn’t try to talk him out of thinking that.

I took the job, started the next day. Same clothes.

By then it could have very well been my one-hundredth store and it was the beginning of my separate education about determination and a goal. But I got the son-of-a-bitch job.

75 cents an hour x five hours x five days?

I did the math in my head, like my dad taught me to do. Told me it would help me one day to be fast at that, with no paper, no pencil.


So, what does that translate intoin today’s money?

In 2018 dollars, $152 for a five-day week.

That’s a lot of Cokes, eggs, T-shirts, jeans, underwear, socks, butter, TV dinners, toothpaste and soap, isn’t it?

First thing I did though, was buy a used frying pan for a buck. Imagine what a difference it made in terms of all the kinds of foods we both could cook?

Within two weeks I bought a rusty Schwinn bike with good tires, a wire basket to carry things and a bell at a junk store for $10 bucks and I was mobile. A bike meant choices. I made one.

As soon as I had the fruit and vegetable job nailed down, I went looking for more work for the weekends. The bike made everything go faster, and was a clincher for my next job, as a dishwasher at a lunch counter inside of a drugstore. The boss, Betty, was a tough Irish immigrant woman who admired spunk. She didn’t care if I looked Greek. She wanted a kid who could hustle. She decided that kid was me.

Free meals came with it. Didn’t tell me how many meals I could eat in a five-hour shift on Saturdays and Sundays. It was a buck an hour for slave labor. But I managed to (very quickly) eat three meals in those five hours twice a week

But Betty cared a lot one time when I dropped a big metal bin of dirty dishes, breaking some of them. Words weren’t necessary to stop me from allowing that from happening again. Her angry face darkened and looked like thunder. And doing the harsh endless labor made my thin arms stronger.

They needed a kid to deliver medicine to sick customers who couldn’t get to the drug store. The bike got me the job, though, and delivering drugs to sick people got me tips.

$1.00 x five hours x two days = $10.00 then, or $81.00 today.

My two jobs got me $28.75 a week, or $233 in today’s money.

Now I could even go to a movie, and get popcorn with butter, too!

With that rusty Schwinn, lots of things were within my range.

But one of my first purchases was a heavy chain and a good lock.

Protect what ya got or someone else will take it away from you.

No, no girlfriend in 1964, but even then, money couldn’t buy me everything.

That would take another three years. No cash was involved, however.

I kept those two jobs for a year through my freshman year in high school, until August 1965, when a quiet kid from Bowen High School whom I knew from Caldwell, Richard Munden, asked me if I would open a newsstand with him. We argued over the site of the thing and we agreed to start out in Hyde Park and if it didn’t work out, we’d move it closer to him where he lived on 85th Street near Caldwell. But we needed an actual newsstand to do this thing.

I had tools, knew how to use them, built the first newsstand in a backyard near Rick. It was four feet by four feet, five feet high, with folding doors at the bottom to lock up unsold newspapers when we closed at night, and a shelf to stack the newspapers on when we were open. The roof projected out a foot over our heads to keep the rain off of the newspapers, but not us.

Rick’s father rented a small U-haul trailer, attached it to his car, delivered the newsstand to 51st and Lake Park, one of the many places I passed when trying to find that first job and I stayed there for the next twenty years.

Rick left after sixteen months to explore the world.

At my father’s suggestion, I later named the shack Bob’s Newsstand. Some people who read this may remember that business which eventually grew to five stores, fifty-five employees and also where in 1975 I met the beautiful woman who made me fall in love with her, a decade before I closed the last and original store on July 29, 1985, thirty-three years ago next week. Gone a year now, she meant more to me than anything.

Thinking back, I think that Schwinn was the key to all of it.

Wheels made me move fast.

Hope this little story inspires someone’s kid to look for a job.

Don’t be proud.

Ignore rejection.

If you’re willing to do hard labor as the price to being hired, grab it.

Take the first offer you get, then with some money coming in, look for a better job.

Having an income allows a person to begin to have control over their life.

Worked for me.


Publishing News! 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: http://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998  (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

Books cost $29.95 each, plus shipping

For: (1)$3.95; (2)$5.95; (3)$7.95; (4)$8.95 (5)$9.95;(6) $10.95

(7) $11.95; (8) $12.95; (9)$13.95 (10)$15.95 (15)$19.95

Outside of USA: ($99.00) due to the weight of the two large books.

I am also for hire if anyone wants me to read my work and answer questions in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Schools should call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books. Also: businesses, bookstores, private organizations or churches and so on.

My Fighting Words Publishing Co. four original books, published between 2004 and 2007 are now out-of-print. I still have some left and will periodically offer them for sale on my new website.


Comment by Charlie Newman

July 18, 2018 @ 7:41 pm

Kudos, Bro!

Comment by Bob

July 18, 2018 @ 8:17 pm

Praise from you matters to me.
Thank you, C!

Comment by Herb Berman

July 19, 2018 @ 7:30 am

My God, Bob!

At 14, I went to school, started flirting, kissed my first girlfriend, played basketball in the backyard, took long walks in the wooded, hilly park down the street, laughed at my father’s lame jokes, happily devoured the wonderful food my mother cooked, dutifully did my homework, learned to play golf and tennis. I did have a part-time job supervising (just being there) at the playground at Adath Jeshuren (my father was president) for 65¢ an hour, which I spent on junk candy and sports magazines. I went to movies and basketball games with friends, had my first real date walking Betty to the Bard Theatre—chocolate soda or hot fudge sundae afterward at The Cream Top next door. I got A’s in most of my classes, starred in school plays, and generally had a wonderful time. It was idyllic—just like your childhood, I think.

Somehow, Bob, you survived. God knows how, but you did. I am in awe.

Comment by Bob

July 19, 2018 @ 7:40 am

Herb, if God has any interest in me at all, before we have more intimate contact, he’ll send me a new girlfriend. A good one.
I wonder why I write at all. Maybe if the life I’ve led inspires people with no hope, to have hope, than that might make sense.

Comment by Brad dechter

July 19, 2018 @ 7:57 am

So I get you. I worked as a caddy at South Shore Country Club-as an Italian- but only lasted once golf game- I could not stand the constant usage of the derogatory words for either Blacks or Jews. (Multiple times in 4 hours.) Then I worked at Monarch Cleaners on 87th and Cregier- lied about my age too but it helped me to eat. Eventually, my family got out of our upside down mortgage and sold our house and I moved to 89th and Cranden – got a job at Markons Deli- didn’t last because I was constantly eating at the Bus Boys station- starving- but a NO NO, and they booted me after a few months.
Good thing Pot was selling well back then. Saved me from starving helped us to survive…..

Comment by Bob

July 19, 2018 @ 11:04 am

I wrote what I wrote for the secure kids who will suffer no consequences if they don’t work, except for not developing any character, Brad. “Secure” is not distributed evenly. You are what you are today, because of all the decisions you made a long time ago. You have friends like me–treasures!–because you deserve us. When I go back in time seeking to change this or that, either cancer kills me at 19, or if a marriage at 21 never happened, my daughter and two of my grandchildren evaporate. One thing changes everything, just like in the movies. I’m glad you wrote to me. I figured there were more than a few kids from fucked up homes who easily understood that what I went through wasn’t exceptional. It was normal, or perhaps my normal: Get a job. Get a bike. Get another job. Save money. Move up.

Comment by Leslie

October 26, 2018 @ 5:11 pm

Folks were reminiscing about you on FB so I added your link & the Reader’s write-up. The one time I traipsed up to Skokie the repairs to the EL had interrupted your biz hours! Hope you’re well!

Comment by Jim Payne

June 7, 2019 @ 11:13 am

In work you give relentless more meaning than anyone I know. How naturally you are relentless about words and writing. In the world of work, words, and writing relentless wins. You are a winner.

Comment by Don Larson

June 14, 2020 @ 11:38 am

Hi Bob,

Somehow I missed this story when originally published.

You have a good work ethic from the start.


Comment by Deborah Bodnar

June 14, 2020 @ 6:31 pm

I thought you had a good mother. Were you a victim of a step father? Couldn’t Jewish Social Services been of help (thought it is obvious you did not need it).

Comment by Bob

June 15, 2020 @ 8:40 am

Letter from Don Larson:
Hi Bob,

This is my second post on this story, twelve years apart.

One of the reasons you and I are friends is because of our young lives involving violence.

I think I told you my story years ago. Perhaps not. I will not repeat it here. I will say it was not by my family. The violence was only once. But other psychological torture came in other ways, also not by my family.

Twenty years later, some months after my daughter was born, the rage within returned to me. That rage was intense. I felt the need for many weeks to seek those who harmed me out.

Fortunately, I never acted out my rage. Instead I found a better way to resolve my feelings.

It took me six weeks to forgive through sincere prayer, those who beat me and mentally tortured me at age seven.

The result was the rage dissolved in me and rinsed away. The burden lifted like a too heavy a weight.

I’ll never forget what happened to me at age seven. I could never forget that.

I gave a speech in my Toastmasters club over twelve or so years ago about that event. It wasn’t easy and the audience reacted poorly because raw child abuse is horrid to hear about.

I may never present that speech again. I felt I could write it hear tonight because you have written extensively about your experiences. I’m not sure how it will be received. As you know, I write for me.

Stay well my friend, I hope you and Nancy enjoy your new wind chimes. 🙂


Comment by Kumari

June 24, 2020 @ 2:04 pm

I was born in 1963 and I fondly remember Bob’s news stand. My dad used to stop and get a newspaper every day from the original stand. When I was 20 my mom died, I ended up staying in Hyde Park for a couple months to help my dad after her death and I rediscovered the bigger Bob’s new stand – I was like Holy Cow they have (you had) Everything there! It made a difficult time in my life much better. . . Regarding your lovely wife, I am sorry for your loss

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