Dodging Snippy Dogs and Dealing with Cranky Doltish Husbands: a Wheeling Delivery Boy in the 1960s
Even with my limp, I could always outrun a yappy little dog like a Chihuahua or a Pug, and a Dachshund was a piece of cake to evade. But, I knew I didn’t stand a chance with bigger breeds like German Shepherds or any of those Retriever types. As a pint-sized delivery boy in the orderly little suburban neighborhoods of 1960s Wheeling, it was in my best interest to know my breeds and my own limitations for making it to safety.
The little dogs issued more noise than danger, although their needle-like front teeth nips could inflict painful little pinches at ankle level. The big dogs gave you a growl of warning before their lunge and that was usually enough to get me started on a dash for safety either behind a gated fence or beyond the reach of the chain that often restrained them. Sometimes, when there was no fence and no chain, I had to awkwardly scurry all the way back to the safety of our 1961 Rambler as fast as my chubby little legs would allow. Somehow, they never caught me, but they sure did scare the snot out of me.
Most of those critters probably meant me no harm. They were just doing their job of protecting their owners’ territory when I innocently walked into their domain. But then, I was only doing my job of delivering a host of household products to the homes of the housewives who ordered them in response to telephone calls from my blind grandmother, Lizzie Minns.
Today, telemarketers, poll takers, and scam artists interrupt dinners, destroy weekend morning sleep-ins, and generally annoy the hell out of families to the point where most of us don’t even answer our land lines anymore. But in the 1950s and 1960s my Grandma had the field mostly to herself.
Every day, and for hours at a time, Grandma and my Mom, Mabel, sat at the kitchen table and followed a routine. Mom sat on one side with a “Criss-Cross” phone directory opened in front of her. It was a directory that listed telephone numbers by street and house number followed by the name of the resident. That way, everyone on a street could be called one-by-one, street-by street, and neighborhood-by-neighborhood. Grandma sat on the other side of the table with the fingers of her right hand strategically placed in the holes of the telephone rotary dial and the heavy black telephone receiver held tight against her ear. Mom would read out the telephone numbers loudly and slowly and Grandma would dial. While dialing the final digit, Mom would call out the name of the person that went with the number.
I will never forget Grandma’s prattle when the recipient of the call answered because I probably heard it a thousand times before I was old enough to go to school and on summer afternoons all the way through my childhood:
“Hello, I am Elizabeth Minns, a blind person here in Wheeling selling products made by the blind. I have brooms, mops, tablecloths, ironing board covers, pillow cases, mattress covers, floor mats, liquid cleaner, and handmade tea towels made of unbleached muslin. I am calling to see if you need any of these items.”
Polite banter often ensued and if the customer had questions, Grandma was ready. She had memorized all the prices for each of the products and was well versed about the factory where they were made in Pittsburgh. If there was a sale, Grandma would repeat the order and my Mom would write it down.
On Wednesday mornings while my brother and I were in school, my Mom would gather up the week’s orders and go down to our basement where our little inventory was kept in racks my father made a decade earlier just before his fatal heart attack. She would collect all the products for delivery and set them aside so that when either my brother, Terry, or I would come home for lunch we could quickly load them up into the trunk of our Rambler—whoever was attending Kruger Street School at the time had the honor, first Terry, then me.
After school every Wednesday, our big bronze Rambler would be sitting outside our schools—Kruger Street, Bridge Street and, eventually Triadelphia High— with Mom behind the wheel and Grandma in the back seat. We would tumble out of our respective school buildings and hop in to do our two to three-hour after school delivery jobs as a family. Terry and I would take turns as Mom would hand us the product and a hand-written receipt with the total price written on the bottom. Terry or I would then head to the designated house, warily watch for dogs, knock on the door, and execute the transaction. We were always disappointed when the customer needed change because we had to schlep back to the car where Mom kept a change box on the front seat.
We did okay with our deliveries in areas like Edgwood or South Wheeling with nice flat terrain and houses close together. Warwood Avenue was dreadful with long concrete steps presenting tests of endurance in the space between our Rambler and the customer at the very top.
There was the dog challenge, like when the customer would open the door and a noisy little mutt would bark and try to get at me. “Oh don’t worry, he doesn’t bite,” the customer would often say. But, the dog always seemed to be dead set on proving that advice incorrect. I always survived these encounters but only after my little seven-year-old nerves were put through the ringer. Another obstacle we often faced was the cranky husband who didn’t know anything about any mop or broom delivery and was reluctant to execute the transaction without the wife around to make sure it was okay. It was not infrequent that we were sent back to the car with undelivered product in hand after a husband had informed us that he would not be “bamboozled by some little boy.”
Being well schooled in my Mother and Grandmother’s aversion to all forms of alcohol and the bad behavior that sometimes went with it, I was always shocked (and a bit curious) when I was dispatched into a South Wheeling bar alone to make a delivery. For example, apparently, the bar tender at the Trophy Club was a loyal customer and old family friend from their South Wheeling days. About once a year, always in the daytime, I gingerly entered the mysterious establishment with a broom or mop in hand to execute the traditional transaction with Mom watching closely from the car out front. The muttering conversation and laughter among the men at the bar always ceased when I made my appearance and they gazed with surprise in my direction. It seemed like Bob Prince was always calling a Pirate game over the radio when I timidly approached the man in the white apron behind the bar and the smell of spilled beer, cigarette smoke, and chili dogs mingled in the air. He would always smile, take the little receipt from my outstretched hand and spin around to open the cash register. He would place the money in my little hand and wish me a wonderful afternoon before I scampered out the door and back to the Rambler.
Every month or so, if sales had been good, we got a treat when our Wednesday work was done: we stopped at Burger Chef in Woodsdale for 15-cent hamburgers. When we worked in Warwood, we sometimes stopped at what we called the “Harry Sez” restaurant on North River Road—so named because of a big sign on the roof of the cement block building that always featured some saying or observation that changed every week and was attributed to someone named Harry. For example: “Harry Sez, Ironmen can’t be beat.” Wheeling’s semi-pro football team was called the Ironmen.
Every couple of months, our inventory ran low, which required a long trip to the Skilcraft factory on Craig Street in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh where scores of blind people manufactured the products we sold. Before the days of I-70 and I-79, my Mom and Grandma drove Rt. 40 and Rt. 19 to Pittsburgh. Timing was important because they had to be back to Wheeling in time to be home before Terry and I got out of school. But, in the summertime, Terry and I got to go along and see what went on up there.
Mom always skillfully backed the Rambler up to the Craig Street loading dock—sometimes between two hulking tractor trailer rings—and opened the trunk. Then, she and Grandma got out and led us inside to meet with a stern-looking man named Mr. O’Toole who seemed to run the place and started the paperwork to fill our order. He was tall, lanky, and wore flannel shirts and khaki pants. He was completely bald and wore little steel-rimmed glasses. He frightened me with his frank no-nonsense approach but he always proved me wrong by the end of the visit with his kindness and curiosity about my school life. Sometimes, he would even give me a Clark Bar.
The rolling metal on metal sounds made by the red Pittsburgh trolley cars as they moved over the rails embedded in the brick streets, and the sparking noises that their electrical connections made on the overhead lines that gave the big vehicles power were always in the background of our visits to the Skilcraft factory.
The place smelled wonderful, if you like the smell of straw and hot rubber. On the upper floors, blind men and women were at work cutting, bundling, and stitching straw to make brooms. On another floor, workers used big hot machines to cut old automobile tires into long strips that were then fashioned into doormats.
Terry and I got in trouble there one hot summer afternoon. There was this big orange shoot that workers used to send bundles of brooms down to the loading dock. Terry had always told me how much he wanted to go upstairs and take a ride down that shoot. One day, we did it. It was much dirtier than we anticipated and Mom was very unhappy with our untidy and disheveled appearance. Mr. O’Toole was very unhappy with our irresponsibility in tempting fate. Some of the sightless workers who were expecting brooms at the foot of the shoot were unhappy with our sudden and unexpected arrival in place of their products. When told of the escapade, Grandma just gave us her quiet little smile and an admonishment to not do it again.
All those Skilcraft products and the jobs they represented for blind people were the result of the Wagner-O’Day Act signed by President Roosevelt in 1938. That legislation directed the government to purchase products manufactured by blind Americans. The National Industries for the Blind was created and after World War II, when it was decided to sell the products to the commercial market, a brand name, Skilcraft, was established. The Pittsburgh factory was one of 62 workshops established nationwide. Grandma and Mom never called it a factory. They called the Pittsburgh location “the shops.”
We were kids. As much as we enjoyed the occasional Pittsburgh supply trip adventures, we hated the Wednesday delivery days. Sometimes, we complained and Mom would raise a finger to her lips to shush us so Grandma wouldn’t have to hear it. Later, when Grandma would be out of the room, Mom would explain it to us.
“This is Grandma’s livelihood and our family’s livelihood,” she would say. “This is how we put food on the table and how Grandma maintains her independence. We don’t ask much of you boys. She depends upon you to help with the business. I don’t think it is too much to expect. It’s only one day a week.”
Then we would remember Grandma surprising us with some little treat or another like homemade pizza, an apple pie, or her special applesauce cake. We would recall how she would come up with an unexpected five-dollar bill that she would slip us when we needed school supplies, were getting ready for a field trip, or just needed funding for a bus ride in town for a movie and shopping. We thought about our warm comfortable little Elm Grove home and our plain but tasty and nourishing meat and potatoes dinners. All those comforts and kindnesses—edible and material—were all made possible by that little business that she and Mom worked on almost every day and we worked on just one day a week.
We were poorer than we realized but because of Mom and Grandma’s attention to that little business, we always had what we needed.
Looking back, it was worth our Wednesday evenings and it was worth dodging snippy dogs and putting up with cranky doltish husbands. It didn’t really require much of an effort on our part, and it really didn’t last very long in the grand scheme of our lives.
Our childhood delivery careers contributed to shaping our work ethic and our ability to hack our way through successful lives of our own. That’s why we ended up grateful for the experience—as well as the cakes and pies.