At the television station, I had to relieve the switchboard operator when she took her lunch. She was a formidable presence, with an enormous blond beehive hairdo held in place with a layer of hairspray. She gave me a cursory introduction to the board, since she didn’t find it very difficult. She forgot that she had been doing it for years and I had never seen one before!
I sat down and waited for the phone to ring. I answered it properly, learned it was the head of CBS wanting to talk to our station manager. I told him just a minute, and promptly disconnected the call. I had no way of either calling the man back, nor did I know how to reach the station manager to let him know I had just bungled a call.
When the real switchboard operator returned from lunch, I confessed my mistake. She easily called New York back and connected the two men. She didn’t find it amusing, so I acted very penitent. However, I returned to pulling dimes off index cards, pleased that I had had contact, however fleeting, with the head of CBS. Fortunately, he had no idea who I was!
The summer after my first year of college, I returned to Portland for my summer job at a television station. This promised great excitement as I imagined learning all about the ins and out of television production. NOT!
I was assigned to the mail room replacing an employee who was away for some reason or another (probably terminal boredom!) Every morning I opened all the mail, sorted it, and delivered it to the appropriate department. I dreaded Mondays because there were two huge bags of mail, from both Saturday and Monday. However, one of the piles was for me, anything addressed to KOIN Kitchen. Yep, I was KOIN Kitchen’s mail recipient.
A viewer could request a copy of the day’s recipes featured on the show by sending in 10 cents with a self-addressed stamped envelope. I had to open this letter, insert the recipes into the return envelope and send them out in the mail. Easy-peasy, right? Apparently anyone sending money in the mail was paranoid about it being lost or stolen. So those poor dimes were glued, hidden in stapled packets, wrapped in aluminum foil, or scotch taped to an index card.
I had to remove the dimes, count them, and give them to the finance office. You got it. I spent most of that summer removing dimes from clever wrapping strategies. Television was certainly a thrilling employment opportunity!
Besides the baby sitting jobs on the board, there were frequent offers to participate in psychological experiments which took place in the imposing William James Hall. These jobs were very lucrative, paying $10 or $20 for one hour or two of participation. The descriptions of the experiments were very vague, and it was hard to determine what I would have to do to earn the money.
This was just a couple of years after Timothy Leary had done LSD experiments with Harvard students, though he had been fired. It was also around the same time that Stanley Milgram at Yale was using paid volunteers in his infamous experiments with subjects believing they were administering electric shocks to other subjects. In other words, some dangerous trials were going on in Ivy League labs.
Fortunately for me, I took part in perception studies involving shapes and colors. I don’t remember any of the particulars, just that they were quite boring and paid well. I am glad that I wasn’t asked to ingest any substances nor that I had to interact in a malevolent way with anyone else. I’m not sure that I would have known how to say no to a Harvard professor running such an experiment. And I am grateful for all the signed subject consent forms that protect people today.
Once I got to college, I had a new way of earning money. The college office had a job bulletin board which looked somewhat like the one pictured above. The jobs were neatly typed on 3X5 index cards and tacked to the board. Each one gave a brief description of the work, the location and the pay. The board I used was in the women’s employment center, so all the jobs were applicable to me. In the 1960’s jobs were clearly segregated by gender; there was no equal opportunity law.
To my delight, the baby sitting pay in Cambridge was $1.25 an hour, much better than the prevailing 50 cent an hour rate I had left in Portland. While my roommate thought that was ridiculously low, I was impressed with its promise. I was able to pluck a job for 4 hours or so most Friday and/or Saturday nights. My dating life was slim, so I often had both evenings free.
One family that I met my freshman year, I babysat for throughout my four years of college. They had four little girls who had a set bed time and were basically cooperative. Apparently one of the girls was a challenge to previous sitters, but compared to the hellions I had watched, she was easy. Better yet, dinner was ready for them to eat, I wasn’t expected to clean up the kitchen, and the house was neat and quiet. I was able to read and do my assignments in a spacious, comfortable setting unlike the noisy, crowded dorm.
Throughout my years in college, I frequently sat for faculty families. While I never had regulars among them, I did have a chance to see the insides of many professors’ homes and pore over their splendid libraries. I had but to put kids to bed and sit in peace until 1 or 2 am. And they paid me. Such a deal!
The picture is not of the rooming house from my high school days. Those have all been torn down to make room for an expansion of the University. But the houses that my boss owned looked very much like this one. They were old single family homes which had been converted into rooming houses. Most of the rooms came without bath or kitchen. The baths were shared, as were the kitchens.
We required nothing more than a month’s rent and a security deposit to rent a room. My job that summer was taking the keys for the front door and the available room and escorting the prospective renter to look it over. The houses were all in about a ten block area, close to the office, so we simply walked over.
The rooms were adequate, furnished, and clean. I didn’t find out about the renters, because we didn’t ask them any questions. The only time I was curious was when an obviously pregnant woman, alone, wanted a room for four months. I wondered where she had come from and why she had come to Portland to have her baby. But it wasn’t my place to ask.
Looking back, I am grateful that I didn’t have any bad experiences. I was alone, young, and showing rooms, usually to single men. Only once did a man ask if I came with the room. I quickly said no and escorted him out of the building.
When I was in high school, everyone I knew had an after school job and a summer job. It was just assumed that we would work. The only way to buy things for ourselves was to earn our own money. We weren’t deprived, we just were carrying our own weight in our families.
My friend Shari’s parents owned a number of rooming houses and one large apartment house(shown above) in downtown Portland just a few blocks from my high school. Shari, her sister Mary Ellen and her parents ran the business out of the basement of one of the rooming houses. When Shari knew I was looking for work, she introduced me to her parents, and they hired me. I could come in after school, three days a week, for three hours each day. I would earn $1.00 an hour!
That first school year, I did paper work in the office. I would make bank deposit slips from the checks and cash that came in each day. I would keep track of when tenants were leaving and who was behind in their rent. It was easy work and I enjoyed it. And I suddenly had money in my pocket! I was ready for more responsibility, and that summer I would get it. I would get to actually show the rooms and rent them out. I could hardly wait.
When I was a junior in high school, I decided to volunteer for Helen Gordon, pictured above, in her innovative nursery school. Located just a few blocks from my high school, the school was an easy walk away. I had been reading child development books, particularly Bruno Bettelheim, and was interested in children with special needs.
Helen was doing a first in Portland in 1963, she was mixing neurotypical kids in the same classroom with autistic and intellectually limited children. Prior to this, the kids had been separated on the theory that they couldn’t progress together, but needed separate classrooms. The classroom was a delight for me, and I went there two afternoons a week to help out in any way needed.
Looking back, I realize that volunteering was my own idea, and not done for any ulterior motive. Now I hear that high school students volunteer to “build their resume” for college applications. There was no such pressure when I was in high school, and my volunteer work was done for me.
The oddest moment when I was helping out came one afternoon. The school had an observation room behind a one way mirror at one end of the classroom. That day the conversation in the room was too loud. One little boy, already struggling with the distinction between reality and fantasy, told me “the mirror is talking.” I didn’t know what to say.
Back before social media, helicopter parents, stranger danger, and being chauffeured everywhere, I was a Camp Fire Girl tasked with the job of selling Camp Fire mints. That meant I was expected to take my carrier of six boxes of mints door to door in my neighborhood and sell them to kind people. I was to wear my uniform, have a good attitude, and sell, sell, sell.
I was shy and little. But I had a deep sense of responsibility to my group, so I would set out each year with my boxes of mints. Each year I dreamed that somehow I would sell enough mints to earn a scholarship to camp. Each year at Camp Namanu they would introduce the girls who had sold that many mints. I think you had to sell about five thousand boxes to get a scholarship.
In my neighborhood, houses were sparse and spread out. I trudged along walking up long driveways, knocking on doors, gathering my courage and smiling. I usually sold about 10 boxes for several afternoons worth of trying. I hated every minute of it.
Needless to say, I buy anything that any kid knocks on the door to sell me. Cookies, candy, wrapping paper, cookie dough, and magazine subscriptions. Usually, though, I see a parent hovering in the background. Some things have definitely changed!
I started babysitting at the ridiculous age of 11. Either I was incredibly competent (I would like to think so!) or the neighbors were terribly desperate(more likely.) At any rate I babysat through elementary school, high school and college. Today, however, just my first encounter with babysitting someone else’s kids(i.e. not my siblings. By the way, I didn’t get paid to watch my siblings.)
The doctor and his wife down the road had five boys under the age of eight. I probably did seem very mature to the mom since I was a girl, fairly competent, and used to little kids. I earned 35 cents an hour watching these kids, the standard rate in 1959.
The littlest ones were no problem. I was used to diapering my little sisters. Fixing snacks was also simple. Watching the boys race around the back yard was a no-brainer. However, the second oldest kid, probably six years old, climbed a tree and challenged me to get him down. Apparently this behavior got a rise out of his mother, and he thought it would alarm me.
I remember very calmly telling him I wasn’t going to call the fire department. He could stay up there as long as he wanted. It gave me one less little boy to tend to. I went into the house to prepare snacks, and he climbed back down. Safely.
My brother and I were always looking for ways to make money. We each had a stamp collection, and stamps cost money. We had a small weekly allowance, but deductions were regularly made for bad behavior. This usually entailed fighting with each other or with one of our sisters. Needless to say, with four children, bad behavior was routine, and our allowances sometimes even sank into the debit column. No, we didn’t have pay money, but we would go a week without an allowance at all.
In those days, stamp companies would send you packs of stamps “on approval.” If you wanted some of them, you mailed back your coins to pay for them. Otherwise, you sent them back. The company I remember was Harris Stamp Company, and the stamps were in little paper envelopes and sold for around 25 cents a packet. We earned one penny for every dandelion we dug up, but that took quite a while to accumulate 25 cents.
So we were both intrigued by the ad for “Grit” that came with every stamp mailing. We really liked the idea of earning money and prizes. The problem was we had no idea what “Grit” was. We couldn’t really tell from the ad, and our mom didn’t want to be bothered by any more of our money making schemes. So instead of sending for the information, we spent time planning how we would spend our earnings.
I actually never knew what “Grit” was until I looked it up while writing this post. It turns out “Grit is a magazine, formerly a weekly newspaper, popular in the rural US during much of the 20th century. It carried the subtitle “America’s Greatest Family Newspaper”. In the early 1930s, it targeted small town and rural families with 14 pages plus a fiction supplement.” Needless to say, in our prosperous suburban neighborhood it would have been a very very tough sell!