IT WAS DURING the summer of 1933 and the two summers that followed that I learned about the minimum wage law, first saw hogs and cattle being slaughtered, formulated Hume's Law of Falling Bodies, and learned to spell Bydgoscz.
I also visited my first bar - which was called a tavern in those days, which was right after FDR repealed Prohibition. In those same summeres I lost an indeterminate number of carloads of pork bellies, beef liver and who knows what else. I also walked hundreds of miles all over the city of Chicago in temperatures that went from 110 in the shade down to a cool zero. Sometimes I was carrying certified checks for more than a million dollars. I was working in the Chicago Stockyards for Swift and Company.
In those days the stockyards were a huge, stinking collection of buildings, cattle pens, loading docks, and people. It was a better place to work than it had been back in the days when Upton Sinclair wrote "The Jungle," which took the lid off the intolerable conditions in the yards just after this century began. I suppose what really made the stockyards seem horrible was the smell. It was something so tangible and so pervasive that it easily traveled 10 miles or more in any direction, depending on the prevailing wind. Compared to that permanent, ingrained stench, the noises that filled the yards during the daytime were mild. The interminable squeaking of the wheels of the elevated trains that ran around the yards, the switching of freight cars that backed in and out of the various loading areas, the roar of the huge trucks that were even then moving in on the rail business, all mingled with the ordinary racket made by thousands of people working in a rather small area.
The stockyards were bounded on the east by Halsted Street, on the west by Ashland Avenue, a distance of just under a mile, while their north and south area was a bit larger. They were dominated by the big three meatpacking industry in those days: Swift and Company, Armour, and Cudahy, in addition to which there were a few small independents. They aren't there any more. While the area is hardly a ghost town, the whole packing business has been decentralized and is now carried on in a hundred small yards spotted around the country near the sources of supply.
Working in the yards was not made any easier on the night of May 20, 1934, when the Elevated burned down. But that was just before my second year of working for Swift. It all began because my father died when I was 12.I don't mean that I quit school and went slam bang to work in the stockyards. The first few summers after his death. I worked around the town where we lived at things like caddying and softening people's water. (They tell me that you can't say something like "softening people's water" and go away and just leave it hanging there, so I guess I had better explain.)
In many Chicago suburbs the water came from artesian wells, which gave you very fine drinking water. But when it came to things like washing the dishes or the clothes, the water left lime depositson the bottom of glasses and rings around bathtubs that made them look strangely like miniature Grand Canyons. In its natural state the water would leave your hair, after a shampoo, feeling as if you had dipped it in iron filings. And your clothes came out stiff and fatigued. People in those suburbs weren't going to put up with water like THAT. So companies manufactured ingenious machines called water softeners. The two brands I remember best, because they were the ones on my circuit, were the Graver and something called a Permutit. (Get it: permute-it!) They were a combination of a large and a small tank. The large held a variety of minerals that would, when stirred up, produce a softening effect on your household water. The stirring was done by a process of running a salt solution from the small tank through the minerals in the large tank. It was a fairly easy but tedious job that required somebody - ME - to spend an hour or so attending to these tanks, which were installed in basements.
Naturally the plusher types in the town where I lived all had water softeners, but they also had no attention of spending an hour in the basement babysitting these awkward contraptions, some of which were occasionally so ungrateful as to strip the threads that held down the cover on the smaller tank. Families without sons of their own got in the habit of hiring strong young boys to do this thing called "softening the water." It had to be done every five or six days. Through the power of word-of-mouth advertising, I built up a clientele of four or five families - the Henrys, the Egberts, the Fishers, the Halls, and once and a while the Elliotts or the Kilgores when their sons went away - whose water I would regularly soften at 50 cents a throw. In a good week I could average around $2 to $2.50. That, plus infrequent caddying, something I did only for our closer friends, brought my monthly income to something like $12-14 a month.
This was very important to me since I had around the age of 14 contracted with Lyon and Healy in Chicago for an Aeolian grand piano to be paid for at the rate of $14.28 a month for 36 months, a debt I assured my widowed mother would never be an adden burden on her limited income. You can imagine, therefore, my pleasure the year I graduated from Lyons Township High School - it was 1933 - when a friendly neighbor, named N. Raymond Clark whose water I had never softened, but who was a vice president of Swift and Company, told me one day that he thought I might get a job as a messenger in his company if I was interested. Since one of Franklin Roosevelt's earliest improvements in the general economic situation was the enactment of a minimum wage law of $15 per week, you can see why I thought Swift and Company would be an improvement over the water softening-caddying business. Besides which, I could keep on softening some water or doing some caddying on Saturdays and Sundays. Mr. Clark also told me that since I had gone to summer school one year while I was still being "touch typing," I might get some unusual opportunities even while working as a messenger.
So early in the summer of 1933 I went to work as a Swift and Company messenger. Each company in the yards had a squad of messengers to handle errands around the yards and in and out of the downtown business section. In the summers, these high school graduates, which most of us were, also sometimes acted as short-term replacements for vacationing stenographers and secretaries. Those who could type, or by some remote chance take dictation, were, naturally, first in line for the cushier jobs. The next most prized spots were the city runs, four a day, on Elevated to the loop and back.
A little man who looked like a Hollywood actor playing a minor Nazi official ran the messenger office, where he got a certain pleasure out of his suzerainty by handing out the best jobs to the boys who addresed him with the greatest respect. There were, naturally, various occupational hazards involved in the work, of which the most obvious was the temperature. Air-conditioning in large offices was very new in those days. Swift and Company was proud of the fact that its central office was kept at an even 72 degrees. But the messengers who ran errands around the yards were continually going from the building out into the midday sun in notorious Chicago summers when temperatures regularly ran up to 100 during the day and often refused to drop below 90 at night. From that kind of blazing heat, a messenger would walk directly into the packing-house where they kept things around zero and the men worked all day in heavy clothing with special coats. But for some reason, messengers rarely caught colds.
The dullest job of all was to be told some morning, "Here take these upstairs and match them up." "These" were bunches of pink or yellow or white freight car orders. "Upstairs" on somebody's desk - it could be on any one of 30 or 40 desks - were duplicate copies of the coded wire orders you had just been given. All you had to do was to match them up. WHERE they were depended on WHAT was being ordered and FROM where TO where. The codes referred cryptically to such exotic places as Eutaw Street Market in Baltimore or the Omaha Packing House or some place in Kansas City or Fort Worth. In addition, they were made more mystifying, if intriguing, by the symbols of all the great railroads that were then the pride of he country: MoPac, Katy, D&RG, C&NW, C., Milw., St. P., & Pac., B & O.
One wire would say something about 6,000 pounds pork bellies or 12,000 pounds sheep dip, or 8,500 cases of something else I have long forgotten. Most of the time the job was fairly easy: The duplicate for the order you were holding turned up about where it was supposed to be. But there were times when, no matter how hard and long you looked, you simply could not find that damn duplicate. At the end of some days, you would just put those one or two elusive orders in your desk drawer down in the messenger office. Maybe the next day they would turn up. Usually they did, and you could match and forget.Now and then, however, you never found the twin. That is why I have the feeling sometimes, even today, that there may still be standing somewhere on a long-abandoned siding Santa Fe Car No. SFX-298616500, its primitive refrigeration only a dim memory after the heat of a thousand summer suns, its malodorous burden long since carried off by silent marauders. Sorry about those.
That first summerof 1933 went by fairly quickly. I got used to the continual sound of the elevated trains running around the yards; I soon stopped watching the slaughter of the squealing pigs, the silent sheep, the lumbering cattle. I was fascinated by the way absolutely nothing was wasted, from what they euphemistically called "specialty" meats - brains, heart, liver, kidney, sweetbreads - to the byproducts that took care of hides, feet, bristles, fats and all the rest of it, to make glue, gelatin, brushers fertilizer and whatnot.
Fairly soon I was put on the downtown runs. I guess I spoke respectfully to the boss. These runs meant four trips a day to the big LaSalle Street banks - the Northern Trust, the Harris Trust, the First National and the flossy new Continental Illinois. They also took me to the railroad offices scattered around the city's outlying rail yards and the older office buildings near the stations. The first time you went on one of these runs, you were accompanied by one of the older messengers who would show you the ropes, the shortest routes from place to place. The older messengers would also, in a kind of Dickensian way, introduce you to the older boy's way of killing a little time on the run. Which is how I landed in my first bar. It didn't matter that I was still only 17. In those days, when "that awful man in the White House," (which was the only way I heard Roosevelt described for years) had just gotten rid of Prohibition, no self-respecting bartender would have dreamed of asking for proof of age. Besides, there was no such thing as an ID card back then.
I remember feeling very sneaky if not downright wicked - remember, I had been brought up a proper Presbyterian in a suburb where everyone said, "Nice people thought it was nice for nice people to be nice" - the first time my friendly guide and mentor asked me if I did not want to stop for a drink. He looked and sounded very sophisticated to me as he said, "I'll have a brandy Alexander." In my deepest voice, I allowed as how I would like a ginger ale. At that point I had not even been introduced to that ghastly collegiate mixture, bourbon and ginger. But in the course of three long, hot summers, I did discover the pleasures of the bars that quickly sprouted along my routes.
Early one Monday morning, when I was on my first run of the week, I was walking along the north side of Jackson Boulevard, across from the Board of Trade Building. In those days, the Board of Trade and Samuel Insull's Civic Opera House were both quite new, and both, at 44 stories, the tallest buildings in the city. My runs regularly took me to a number of offices in the Board of Trade building. Every once in a while I would goof off and enjoy taking the elevator to the observation platform at the top to marvel at the spectacular view of the whole city. This particular morning, however, I was on my way to one of the nearby banks when I heard a strange sound from across the street, a kind of crashing thud. It was one of those bad Monday mornings in that summer of 1933 when the weekend had put the last, unbearable squeeze on one of the men who worked in that building. He had jumped out of an upper window and his body had landed between a lightpost and a mailbox where it wedged itself in with a sickening noise. As I stared at the mess and the crowd that instantly began to gather, I saw one of our family's oldest and closest friends, a man who had acted as a kind of surrogate father to me after mine died. I had always called him Uncle Arthur. He was one of the city's leading realestate brokers. As he was walking to his office on Michigan Boulevard, the hurtling body had missed him by inches.
The Great Depression was tightening its hold on many men who worked around LaSalle Street that summer. However Uncle Arthur told me that what happened that morning was very unusual. That was what he thought. Five days later, I was finishing my final Friday afternoon run. This time I was inside the Board of Trade Building, walking toward an exit on its east side. Just before I reached the door, I heard another sound, similar to, but different from the thud I had heard on Monday. As I walked out of the building, I saw why the sound had been different: this time there had been no lightpost and no mailbox. The body landed directly on the sidewalk. It was in the days immediately after that week that I formulated Hume's Law of Falling Bodies: Do not invest in the market, stocks or commodities, and you will not be tempted, in times of great economic stress, to test the law of gravity.
During the night of May 20, 1934, there was a big fire in the stockyards. It did not damage the city the way that big fire did back in 1871, the fire that Mrs. O'Leary's cow did NOT start. But it certainly changed things for all the stockyards messengers that summer. It completely wrecked the elevated spur that ran from the Halsted Street station on the main line into and around the yards. That meant that on every four-run day, you had to walk from Halsted all the way in to the company offices, a distance of nearly a mile. Four round trips a day meant eight extra miles of walking - in that heat!
But I hit a jackpot that summer. Shortly after I started my second summer as a messenger, Charles Swift, one of the sons of Gustavus H. Swift, the company's founder, called down to the messenger office for a replacement for his secretary. She was going on her vacation and he wanted someone who could type. He hoped he might even get someone who could take a little dictation which he said he would be willing to give slowly. Probably because I had just had my hair cut and was wearing a new pair of pants that week, I was chosen. Up I went to the row of executive offices where the vice presidents - Gustavus Swift Jr., Harold H. Swift, Edward Swift, Charles Swift, and my friend N. Raymond Clark - all had their offices. In his elegant mahogany-walled office, with its deep pile rug, Charles Swift said to me, "My wife was born in Bydgoscz, Poland."
There I sat, thinking, "Boy, here's your big chance and you have never even heard of this place where he says his wife was born." But in less time than it took for me to think all that, Swift, who was one of nature's more courteous gentlemen, said to me, "That's B Y D G O S C Z." And even as I was thinking, "How fascinating to be married to someone who was born in Bydgoscz," he turned my world all bright gold. "Her name is Claire Dux," he said. Now of course Charles Swift neither knew nor could he have cared that I had been going to the opera in Chicago for four years, and that he was dictating to someone who was already hooked for life on anything and everything that was even remotely connected with opera. He was simply sitting there dictating to me the story of his wife's life. He was doing it because, although they had been married in August, 1926, he was only now getting around to putting her official biography into the Swift family archives.
Charles Swift enjoyed talking about his beautiful and glamorous wife, and he liked to talk slowly when describing her, which made it very easy for me to keep up with his dictation. He did not know that I already knew that Dux was one of the world's exquisite lyric sopranos, the first to sing Sophie in "Der Rosenkavalier" in England where she sang it for Sir Thomas Beecham; that she was as famous for her Mozart as for her Strauss. What Swift did not say although he had heard it from a number of his friends, was that his lovely wife, who had come to the United States shortly after World War 1, had said that she was coming to this country "to marry a rich man and get fat." She did both.
She and Swift were married in Bond Chapel at the University of Chicago. After the ceremony she gave a half-hour recital for her old and new friends. As a condition to their marriage, in one of those moves that has such rank snobbishness that it is hard to believe, Swift told Dux that once they were married, she could continue to sing in recitals and concerts and with orchestras, but that she was no longer to sing in opera - it was undignified! Apparently Dux did not object to the requirement.Those were the days when, in Chicago's social whirl, the wives of the leading meatpackers were working very hard to create new images.
The most famous story from the period is of the day when Mrs. J. Ogden Armour, the wife of the Swifts' chief rival complained loudly in a beauty parlor about being kept waiting while Beatrice Lillie's hair was being done. Bea called out in her most enchanting but penetrating voice, "You may tell the butcher's wife that Lady Peel will be out when she is through!"
Nothing of that world bothered me while Charles Swift was dictating his wife's history. To a young opera-struck idolator there was thrill enough just to be writing about such a star. And when finally got up enough courage to tell Swift how much I admired his wife's singing, he could not have been more cordial. Dux continued to practice her art to perfection in concerts with the Chicago Symphony, with whose conductor, Frederick Stock, she carried on a mutual admiration society.
Today the stockyards are gone. But sometimes when I drive past a vast railyard and see all those freight cars, I wonder if there in not some kid still wandering around, perhaps in one of the smaller, decentralized offices that now handle today's meatpacking for today's transportation and today's freezing methods, who might be looking desperately for a pink order blank that says "26,000 chicken livers Wichita Amarillo SoPac 358882971 fast."