In 1942 I had a summer job on the New York Times. Half a century later, there are huge gaps in my memory of the experience, but I do have two very vivid and precise recollections. Both of them imply that the institution I was working for had a certain Through-the-Looking-Glass quality. So, indeed, I thought at the time.
It was not easy getting a job on the Times in 1942, but I had connections. I never even had to show my Targum clippings. The Targum was the student newspaper at Rutgers, where I arguably demonstrated a certain rough-hewn talent on the freshman wrestling beat. My doting Aunt Anna, secretary to the head of the art department at Young & Rubicam, was capable of mentioning the wrestling coverage to her boss, but I doubt that he passed these details along to the friend at the Times who agreed to hire me.
My job description was “messenger—advertising department.” The pay was 37 1/2 cents an hour, definitely not enough on which to raise a family of four. To be sure, I did not exactly have this problem, as I was only 17. My only problem, at least in the early weeks at the Times, was getting the proofs of display ads to advertising agencies and their local clients, mostly department stores.
This proved more difficult than foreseen. The deliveries were virtually all in midtown and were supposed to be made on foot, so I did a lot more hot-weather hiking than my tender soles were used to. After a while, my feet blistered bloodily, and our family doctor told me I had to spend some time in bed.
This brings me to the first Through-the-Looking-Glass recollection. I called in sick and explained the medical situation to the dispatcher. He said, “Fine, take a couple of days off, and by the way, kid, where do you live?” Two hours later my mother was startled to find at our door a grim-visaged nurse from the Times’ medical department. She was not there to treat my blisters, only to verify their size and existence--to make sure that a teenage messenger earning the minimum wage wasn’t trying to put something over on the New York Times.
After a while, the world’s greatest newspaper began moving me around to other jobs. This seemed reasonable enough, as people all around the company were on vacation or getting drafted. I worked in the accounting department, and later in classified ads. The drill in classified was that you showed up at 5 AM and sorted mail for four hours. Then, at 9 AM, you might get asked to work another four hours behind the counter, serving clients who came in to pick up responses to their ads. More often than not, management simply told me to get lost at 9 AM. This meant I had earned $1.50 for the day, which was coincidentally what it cost to spend the next eight hours or so with the Giants at the Polo Grounds. Ten cents for the subway, $1.10 for grandstand admission, another dime for a scorecard, the balance for hot dogs.
My second Through-the-Looking-Glass recollection arose out of my posting to the personnel department. Here, incredibly, I found myself serving as No. 2 man in the department. I am not joking: personnel in the dog days consisted of minimum-wage me, a senior person whose name I cannot recall, and a couple of typists. I was a trusted manager, with access to confidential records, and proved it by spending hours looking up the salaries of all the sportswriters.
I also dispatched cold-call job-seekers. One day, the door to the personnel department swung open, and there stood a Rutgers fraternity brother who also happened to have been last year’s editor-in-chief at the Targum. It turned out that he now worked for a small-town paper in New Jersey but was eager to move up a few rungs. So he had come to the personnel department, and there found himself incredulously confronting pimply me, the wrestling reporter who kept mixing up hammerlocks and half nelsons. I may not have the dialogue down perfectly. But I guarantee I was wearing my standard embarrassed smirk as I rose to greet the poor guy, also that my message was some very close approximation of, “I’m sorry, Lenny, but we’re just not hiring.”
He turned and left without a word, but one sensed that he too felt some thing crazy was happening.