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Lou Charloff: The Greater Depression

Lou Charloff
June 12, 2011
by Lou Charloff You call this a Depression? Sure the economy is bad right now, but it is vastly superior to the time of the Great Depression that we had when I was a young guy. Like every other brand-new high school graduate in January of 1938, I started to look for a job. A friend of the family told me about Frank’s Place, a luncheonette on lower Fifth Avenue. For a kid not yet 17, that sounded like a good prospect. When I got there, I saw that it was a nice-looking place with a counter and an area for tables that were served by three waitresses. I spoke to Frank, who told me that he had nothing available at that moment. However, he had two busboys and, since there was a certain amount of turnover, a place could open for me at any time. My job would be to bus the tables for the waitresses whenever I had some free time. My main work, however, would be to make deliveries to people who called in to have lunch brought to their offices. To my delight, I received a post card a week later (who had a telephone in those days?), instructing me to show up by 9:00 on the day after the card arrived. And I now had a job! The other busboy gave me some instructions regarding my duties, emphasizing that I was never to touch the bread slicing machine. It was not until I had been on the job for a week that I learned that I had been hired because the busboy I replaced had mishandled the bread slicer and was in the hospital having lost two fingers. It was horrible to learn how the job had become available to me, and I felt a little better when I found out that Frank’s efforts to cheat the busboy on his Workmen’s Compensation had not been successful. My salary was five dollars a week and lunch, of course –- a lunch that I could never have afforded if I’d had to pay for it. In addition, since we were closed on weekends, when we left on Friday afternoons, we divided and took home the uneaten pies. My favorite was the Dutch apple. My major income would come from the tips for delivering the lunches. A dime was a good tip, although most of the time we received a nickel. Coffee or tea cost a dime and was brought to the customer’s office either in a paper cup with a lid or in a thermos bottle. We disliked the thermoses because, after lunch, we had to make a second trip to reclaim them. Most annoying was the fact that the extra trip never earned us a tip of any size. There were two secretaries who worked across the street who always ordered one tea. Since they always asked for it in a thermos, it cost us two trips every day. Sharing the cost of that tea was fine with them, but they had a problem: Since a thermos of tea cost only ten cents, how much could you possibly tip a busboy who brought it to you? Their solution to that puzzle was no tip at all. I realized that they earned very little money, but couldn’t they have fetched their own tea? Or, since five deliveries totaled fifty cents, couldn’t they have each tipped us a nickel every Friday? Alas, neither of these solutions occurred to them. I once brought a lunch to a young man in his twenties whose order came to 34¢. He gave me a quarter and a dime and I couldn’t believe it when he said, “Keep the change.” Ever Cool Cucumber Lou became sufficiently annoyed to put a penny on his desk and say, “Here, you keep this. You need it more than I do”. Saying that was worth every fraction of that penny. The three waitresses had a deal with Frank. Whenever the total day’s receipts for all their tables reached a certain amount (I never learned how much), he gave each of them a bonus. The cashier kept a running total of the day’s receipts and let them know when the sum came close to the magic amount. The emotion resulting from that news was wonderful to behold. The excitement in the air was almost tangible as they kept flashing broad grins at one another. The rest of us felt that excitement, too, and grinned as broadly as they did and we congratulated them every chance we got. And on those days when they really did reach the required sum, we actually all cheered aloud. On those triumphant days, Frank gave each of the waitresses a quarter, in addition to her regular salary. What size bonus would that kind of excitement require today? Lou Charloff is featured in Old Jews Telling Jokes, both the website and the book.