As a youth there were several things I did to earn spending money. I made money by muskrat trapping, crabbing, shoveling snow, caddying and collecting scrap metal.
Collecting Scrap Metal
At the time I was collecting scrap metal, iron was selling for $.01 per pound and scrap copper was selling for about $.32 per pound. To collect scrap iron I would comb the beaches looking for timbers from old ships and docks. Some would float in and had large spikes in them. I would chop out the spikes with my ax and retrieve the iron. I would often have to spend many minutes and exert significant effort to garner one small spike. Since I covered a large territory along the beach the effort to carry the iron home was often exhausting. Carrying 50 cents worth of iron meant I was lugging 50 pounds of rusty spikes. Often two trips were needed. I realized early that I was not going to make a fortune collecting iron spikes. Occasionally I found boat parts that had brass or copper on it but iron was the predominant metal found while beach combing. At least it was enjoyable to walk the beaches on my search.
My approach to find copper was different than beach-combing for iron spikes. Often I saw electrical repairmen working on the overhead power wires around town. They went from pole-to-pole repairing or replacing some of the wires. On my bike I would go from pole to pole along the highways and search the surrounding brush or woods for pieces of cut and discarded wires. It was amazing how often I found short pieces of discarded wire. Although each of the wires was covered with insulation, its core was solid and pure copper. By the time I finished my search my bike handle bars were fully draped with copper wires. Often the telephone company repair service worked on the telephone wire and encase their splicing with a lead covering. This usually resulted in finding pieces of lead under the poles as well.
There were also several areas in my town were people dumped some of their unwanted items such as old sinks, toilets, piping etc. I often visited these areas and retrieve iron pipes, lead sink traps, cast iron radiators etc.
All of my collected scrap metal was stored in and behind the chicken coop in my yard. The area became a mini junk yard. When I had accumulated enough scrap I began preparing it all for sale. One of these efforts involved burning off all the insulation from the copper wires. I am sure the neighbors were not happy when they saw the black smoke and a bad smell coming from the area near the chicken coop. Later I did my “burn-offs” in a field nearby rather than in our yard. Now that I reflect on this experience I am sure that my parents were not happy with the junk yard or the burn-offs but tolerated it because I was learning that earning a living was hard work. I weighed the copper carefully and recorded the exact weight to the ounce. Then I called Mr. Goldberg, the junk dealer. To me he was Mr. Goldberg but to my father and all his many other friends in Tottenville he was Abe. Mr. Goldberg had a large junk yard in Tottenville. In the early days of his business, which would have been in the early 1900s, he drove a horse pulled wagon around town buying junk metal through-out the neighborhoods. His wagon was adorned with cow bells hanging on ropes so the neighborhood could hear him coming up the street. By the time I was a youth he had exchanged his wagon for an old truck but continued to utilize the cowbells as he made his rounds. He always wore a black suit and a hat like Tevye in the play “Fiddler on the Roof”. His suit was somewhat shiny, possibly from excessive wear and limited washing.
When I called Mr. Goldberg he always seemed to be expecting my call. As I reflect back on it now I am sure my father had prepared him for that call. He came to the house and drove in our long driveway with one of his trucks minus the cowbells. We loaded the scrap iron on the back of his truck. The copper, which was in its own container, was put into the back of the cab. Then Mr. Goldberg and I drove to his junk yard. Once there we unloaded the copper into a separate building. He always trusted my weight count for copper. Then we pulled the truck up to the scales and got its weight. After offloading the iron in his yard we weighed the truck again and hand calculated the difference to get the total weight of the iron. Usually it was around 500 pounds which earned me $5.00. I was always amazed at how large his piles of scrap in his yard were. My little contribution to those piles was truly insignificant. The copper usually yielded me about $30.00 so the total of my efforts often totaled about $35.00. It was a big payday for me but not a very productive one for Mr. Goldberg. He always paid me in cash which was far better than getting one of those checks. I am sure Mr. Goldberg saw much of my father in me (at least I hope so) and was glad to help reinforce my entrepreneurial spirit. Mr. Goldberg was a fine man who worked hard at his craft while putting all his sons through college. I doubt that they became “junk men” and I doubt that they could have made as great and positive an impact on the community as their father did.
In my youth the woods, fields, streams and marshes on Staten Island were numerous and full of life. Most of the ponds and streams were clear and full of fish and other wildlife. Among the aquatic wildlife were muskrats that frequented most ponds, marshes and streams. The pelts of muskrats were in some demand for fur coats and jackets. The muskrat trapping season on Staten Island was usually from mid-January through February. This short and very cold period was the time when the pelts were “prime” and at their thickest. I think I trapped each of my high school years as well as my last two grammar school years. Each year I looked forward to the opening of muskrat trapping season. I had scouted the swamps, marshes and ponds to determine the most likely areas. My traps were readied and tagged with my name and address. It was not necessary for youths to get trapping licenses but we all had to know the rules and make sure we were in compliance. On the first day of the season I set out my trap-line and hoped for great success. I usually had about 20 traps so setting and tending traps was often time consuming. On weekdays I had to get my traps set before dark and get home to make sure my homework was done before getting to bed as early as I could. Then I had to get up very early and check my traps before school. This often required me to begin my trap checking in the dark or as the sun first rose. I often set and checked my traps using my bike but at times I had to take the bus which ran hourly throughout the day and night. I usually reserved my bus travel trapping for the weekends when I was not rushed to get home for school. I wonder if the bus driver ever knew that I was sometimes carrying dead rats in my pack or pockets as I rode on his bus. Muskrat trapping posed several major challenges for the trapper. One was the very cold and wet environment. I can remember many times that I was setting or checking my traps by cutting through ice while trying to endure the wind and freezing conditions. My hands were often chapped and bleeding at the end of the season from being wet and cold.
Skinning the muskrats was at first a huge challenge. Although I had read about it and saw pictures of the process I had not actually seen it done before I had my first rat hanging before me. I hung it in the chicken coop with two strings to its back two legs. According to the instructions I was to cut with a razor around both back legs and the tail then cut from both legs to the tail. The instructions then called for me to begin peeling off the skin cutting the fat as I go as the fur peeled over the carcass. This was supposed to be like rolling a sock off the foot except it was not working that smoothly for me. First, I was not comfortable seeing what was under the skin and fur. Second, as I peeled the fur down, cutting as I went, I obviously cut too deep entering the internal organ area and releasing “stuff” and a smell that sent me scurrying out of the chicken coop gagging. I had to make several trips back into the “slaughter area” to peel off a bit more, than gag and head back out. Eventually I leaned the skill of skinning the rat very well. Once I was skilled I could skin a rat completely, mount the pelt on a rack and trim off any fat in less than four minutes. This was important in that it was best to skin all your catch before school. Once I mastered the skill of muskrat skinning I was able to move my skinning area to the basement. Although I trapped muskrats several seasons my most successful season was one of the shorter ones when I trapped 57 muskrats in 17 days. Most other years my take was far less.
One of My Chores
As I grew older I had several chores in order to earn my weekly allowance. In the Spring and Summer I had to mow the lawn. When we first moved in my father had several loads of manure delivered which was spread and cultivated into the planned lawn area. For many years the lawns were very green and plush. There were full lawns on both sides of the driveway as well as alongside the house and in front, on the water side. The first terrace also had a plush lawn. Our mower was a sturdy but old Jacobsen gas walk-behind mower and the job took many hours to complete. I often did it is sections spreading the chore out over several days. As the years went on the lawns became sparser having used up most of the nutrients in the soil.