“I gotta dig three hours to get five worms!”
I would like to give you some tips on keeping worms. Some of the more obvious, of course, I don’t even have to tell you! One: Keep worms in a cool place. Don’t even try to raise worms in your apartment—it will not work. Two: A question—how many of you know what a worm eats? An obvious thing is, a worm eats earth. Yes, he does. However, in captivity, a worm demands more than that. It may surprise you. Primarily because he doesn’t have the area. In the soil, a working worm covers a tremendous area where he’s eating. So obviously, if you’re keeping him in this box with hundreds of them all together, there just isn’t enough room for them to cover.
So what do you feed a worm? What does a worm like? What does he grow fat and healthy on? Well, you’re talking to one of the very few guys who knows what worms love. And man, they go ape! And get beautiful! You start giving them this stuff and within two weeks, you’ve got yourself a three or four-pound worm on your hands. And he’s got a smile on his face. You’ve got a happy worm. Sometimes at night you can hear him down there singing and playing and dancing—because you’re giving him the right stuff.
Well, there was another development which began to cause problems. For one thing, it was causing a lot of trouble because the whole basement was filled with boxes now. It was dark down in the basement and once in a while the old man would go down the basement to look for a screwdriver and he’s falling over the worm boxes and yelling and hollering. “Will you get these worms out of here for crying out loud!” So I built a rack along the side of the wall. Just a plain, simple, two-by-four rack with all my boxes up on it.
And every night I’d water them and talk to them and mess around with them. And I’d bring down the new ones that I’d dug up, see. You have to introduce them to the old gang gently. You don’t just throw the new worms in there and say, “Here, sink or swim.”
And then, as the crowd began to grow and as I began to have more people coming in there, a new idea hit me. Any of you businessmen who’ve gone through this know what this routine does to your business. Up to this point customers had been just coming to me. Guys were recommending other guys.
I’m walking home from the store when it hit me. You see, I was getting greedy, voracious. A man is never satisfied for what he can get. He’s got to have more. That’s why we’re going to the moon. We’re not satisfied with having one earth. Pretty soon we’re going to own the solar system. We just gotta do it.
And I think—why of course—it’s so obvious! Why didn’t I think of this before! I rush like mad. I put the bag of groceries in the kitchen, I run down to the basement and I’m, working away there, making a sign. I saw a couple of big planks and hammer them together. I make a big sign, painted white, and with red paint I put WORMS, and underneath, NIGHT CRAWLERS, GRUBS. I take it out and my mother flips: “You’re not going to put that sign out in the front yard!” So I figure the best place to put it is on the edge of the garage, which you can see from the street as you’re driving past the house. I put the big sign there: WORMS, NIGHT CRAWLERS, GRUBS.
I want to tell you, it was right. All I gotta say is, any you guys who have ever been doubting the value of advertising, don’t. If my experience is any criteria, it was unbelievable. Within five minutes after I put the sign up, guys were knocking on the door. Little fat guys, tall skinny guys, knocking. “This where you sell the worms?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be right with you, hold your water, will ya. I got three other guys ahead a ya, for cryin’ out loud. Wait out on the porch.” Guys are waiting in line.
Then I ran into a disaster. The bigger your business gets, the more problems you begin to run into. I put my sign up and within two days—no worms! The worms were gone and I was out there digging like hell. And the worst part of it is that it was getting later in the season and worms were getting rarer! In the early days of summertime, in the spring, I would dig for an hour and I’d have myself a couple of hundred worms. Now, here it was July and I gotta dig three hours to get five worms! And I was desperate ‘cause now I’ve had business—guys knocking on the door.
“Well, I’m selling them for a quarter a dozen now.”
He says, “Very good worms. How much is that?”
“Oh, that’s a quarter.”
“Oh yes, of course.” He gives me a quarter. He looks a little startled.
A bell goes off in my head. He goes down the steps with my can of worms and I turn back and walk through the living room and I say, “A quarter. A quarter. Ah-hah. I’ll be darned!”
So that night I find out that worms are not sold by the can, they’re sold by the dozen. And, as a matter of fact, worms go for anywhere from a quarter to a half-dollar a dozen. I’ve been selling worms for two-bits for a whole can. A large bunch of worms—I just put worms in there and cover them up and the guy gives me a quarter. Well, then the cold light of monetary calculation begins to settle in my head. I become unbelievably financial. You know how so many kids get hung up on counting their pennies—“Heh, heh, heh!”—cackling? Worms sell for about two-bits a dozen and night crawlers went for anywhere from thirty-five to fifty cents a dozen. Now a night crawler is a different breed of worm, you know. He looks like a regular earthworm but he’s about one-and-a-half times as big. This is a big worm.
So I’m out there digging up the night crawlers, digging up the worms, and the business is beginning to pick up. Sherbie is going fishing a lot more. And I remember the day I raised the prices. The old man comes down in the basement. He says, “Gertz wants a can of worms.”
I say, “How many does he want?”
“You know, a can of worms.”
“Does he want one dozen, two dozen, three dozen worms?”
“What do you mean, ‘dozen’?”
“Well, I’m selling them for a quarter a dozen now.”
He says, “Twenty-five cents a dozen? That’s twelve worms. That’s better than two cents a worm!”
I say, “Yep.”
“I guess I’ll have to find out how many he wants.”
He goes upstairs and calls up Gertz and he comes down and says, “He wants three dozen.”
I say, “What does he want? Does he want night crawlers or does he want regular worms?”
“You mean you’re charging extra for night crawlers?!”
I say, “You bet. For every fifty little ones, you only dig up one night crawler.”
“Oh, well, I’ll have to call him.” So he goes back upstairs and calls Gertz. He comes downstairs and he says, “He wants three dozen night crawlers.”
“Let’s see, that’s thirty-five cents a dozen, that’ll be about a dollar-ten, give or take a couple of nickels.”
“That’s what he wants.”
I fill the can with three dozen night crawlers, and I realize well over a dollar for my work.
Now this began to be something. By the end of that month there were two or three dozen people showing up a week. Total strangers looking for worms. Apparently there weren’t many people selling worms in the area. Word was getting around. When fishermen find out the word gets out. Just a fantastic business. At that point I must have had ten or fifteen boxes, all spread out in a row next to the wall in the basement. I’d given up baseball and everything else. Because when you start digging worms and raising worms, believe me, it becomes a full-time business. A worm doesn’t just lay there. A worm demands constant care.
He also demands constant solace. They’re very nervous. If you leave the worms down there without anybody messing around with them, they’ll form a whole ball about the size of a tennis ball. That’s the beginning of the end of the worms. So you have to keep going down there and telling them it’s going to be alright. That they’re going to like going fishing, tell them how exciting it is to belong to Mr. Gertz and all that stuff.
“I’m ready for the influx of this business.”
That was a new idea! Up to this point I’d been digging worms every time there was a demand—I’d run out and dig worms. Now, to keep worms—to lay in a stock!
I say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea!” So I went out and really worked all day digging up worms. I must have dug up three or four hundred worms. I’ve got a big wooden box down in the basement now. I put dirt in there and put in the worms. I’m ready for the influx of this business. Sure enough, it comes. Monday morning the old man says, “Listen, Zudak wants some worms, he’s going on vacation. I rush down to the basement—they’re all dead!
Aha! Through adversity, one learns one’s business. You do not think that the first Ford that Henry Ford made turned into the Mustang, do you? Not at all. I run out and I dig up more worms, and it was that week that I began my research into worms. I consulted with other eminent worm men, I went to the library and found out all I could about worms. Some kids have got that kind of mind and I became really hung up. By the end of the week I knew more about worms—theoretically, see—than almost anybody ever knows in a whole lifetime. I just discovered what you have to do to keep worms going.
And I will never forget the heady thing that happened. It must have been about the first week of July. Up to this point, remember, I am dealing only with Zudak, with Gertz, and I now have a new customer from my old man’s office, a guy named Sherbie. Once in a while I would provide worms for Flick’s old man. Schwartz’s old man particularly liked grubs and I would provide him with grubs. But these are all people.
Then one afternoon I come home from playing second base and my mother says, “There’s a man looking for you.”
I say, “Who? What?” Immediately a little fear in the gut. No telling what man.
“Some guy came around here looking for worms.”
“Who was it? Mr. Sherbie? Was it Zudak?”
She says, “No, I never saw him before.”
“Just a man came here?”
“Yup, just knocked on the door and asked if you were here. I said ‘No, what do you want?’ He said he wanted worms.”
“A man just came up here and wanted worms?”
“Yes. He said he’d come back.”
I’m all excited, walking around. It’s about eight o’clock and sure enough the bell rings. My old man says, “Yes, who’s there?”
“This is Mr. Gumpocks. Is this where they sell the worms?”
The old man calls out, “Hey, Jean. Your customer’s here.”
I come running up from the basement. I’m all excited. There’s a guy, just a guy I never saw before.
He says, “Do you sell worms?”
I say, “Yes sir, of course. Yes. What sort of worms do you want?”
“You know, worms. I’m going fishing and I heard that you sell worms here and I’m looking for some worms. I want a couple of dozen earthworms. Throw in about a dozen night crawlers.”
“Yes sir, yes sir.” So I run down to the basement. I now have a box of worms. I fill a can full of worms and I put in a dozen night crawlers and I come back upstairs.
He says, “Yes, they look very good.” He shakes the can and looks in.
It’s kind of nice to know that guys are approving of your merchandise.
So, about Tuesday of the following week, the old man has gone fishing, he came home mad as he always did, smelling of beer, his hand had a cut. Every week he’d go out and get cut. I’m walking around in the house, the old man comes home from work. “Hey,“ he says, “Jean, do you think you could get some worms for Zudak? I met Zudak in the office and he said he’d like to go fishing. He’s going up to Wisconsin and he’d like to know if you could get some worms for him.”
That’s a new thing—worms for Zudak. Up to this point it had been worms for the old man.
So I said, “Well,…ah, yeah.”
My old man said, “Don’t worry, he’ll pay for the worms. He’ll give you a quarter for the worms.”
I said okay, by George! I rushed out to the back porch, got my shovel out and a couple of cans. Not realizing what a can of worms I’m opening by doing this. So, shoveling away in the vacant lot, within an hour or so I got myself a can of worms which, the next day, the old man takes into the office, and that night, now I’ve got two quarters. This is beginning to look pretty good, just out there shoveling worms.
With no warning at all it began to build. By Friday the old man has come home and he says, “Hey, Gertz wants to know whether you can get him some worms. He’s going fishing down at Ash Lake.”
“Oh really? How many does he want?
“A regular can full of worms. Just get him some worms.”
“Okay, he’s going to pay me?”
So I dug some worms. Fifty cents from total strangers in one week, and a quarter from the old man. I had made more money in a few days, just messing around with worms, than I did on my paper route in a week. This was really great. I’m walking around with my pockets full of dough—nothing but worms!
It was now June and I’m out of school so the old man one day pops up with this one. He says, “Listen, why don’t you dig up some worms? Just dig them up and put them down in the basement. And keep them down there, and when Zudak or Heine or any of them guys want to go fishing, you can just go down to the basement and get the worms.”
In the Springtime, digging for worms is groovy, because there’s been snow and rain, and there’s a lot of worms. This is a great time for wormers. That is one of the reasons I’m telling this story now. Because these are exciting days when you’re an ex-worm man. You walk out and you smell that brisk spring air out there and you know that this is worm time. Once you’ve been steeped in the worm mystique, there is no conceivable way you can ever get it out of your gut. Like old fire horses—every time they hear a bell they want to run off to the fire. Well, this is the way with old worm men.
Any time you sniff that air and you see the slight hint of rain in the air your hand itches to get at the shovel. You want to see the sight of a great big night crawler quietly attempting to elude your shovel as he goes deeper and deeper and you start digging faster and faster until finally you pull him out and you’ve got him! He struggles to get away and you drop him into the Prince Albert can and once again you have brought home another trophy, a magnificent worm!
The old man would say, “Get me some worms.”
In the beginning of spring it was great. You’d go out and half an hour later you’ve got a couple of hundred worms—no problem. Well, as the year would progress and as the sun would get hotter and as summertime would get more malevolent, the worms would become more and more scarce until finally, around the middle of July, if you want to dig up a worm you’ve gotta go halfway to China. And even then, the worms you get are very reluctant. These are not cooperative worms. So there’s a big difference between a July worm and a May or a June worm.
As an old worm man, I’m going to tell you how I got into the worm business. It’s like Henry Ford talking about how he finally started to make them cars, you know? Well, this is the way it happened, see. I’m about fourteen and I’m feeling my oats, walking around, and the old man, one weekend, says, “Listen, I gotta have some worms. We’re gonna go fishin’, me and Gertz and Zudok, next weekend.”
Immediately, because it is late in May or early June, I gripe, “Ah, gee, why? I don’t wanna dig old worms.”
He says, “Look, I’ve gotta have these worms. I want to have them by Saturday. I don’t want to hear any crying or complaining.” With that, my mother, who’s hanging over the sink, says, “The least you can do is offer him a quarter!” Well, this is a new concept to the old man, see, because I have this allowance, which is seven cents a month—give or take, and the idea of giving me a quarter for digging worms is a new idea. He says, “Alright, okay, you get me some worms and I’ll give you a quarter.”
That puts a whole new light on the situation, so now I’m out in the vacant lot and it’s about Thursday, because, you see, I’ve learned something early in the game, that if you dig worms on Monday for the following Saturday, forget it—they’re just gone. So I’m out there Thursday digging away there, and I come across these worms. It’s a typical day, so I have myself a can of worms now, and I bring it in and I’m very proud of my worms, because, you know, I’m getting paid for it.
So the old man comes home from work and he says, “How about them worms?”
I say, “Okay,” and I reach under the kitchen table. We’re all sitting around having dinner and I take out this big can of worms.
My mother screams, “Get them off the table aaaaagh!” My mother never did get interested in worms. Funny thing. There’s no accounting for taste. I always thought they were beautiful. I still do. They’re so…so earthy.
He says, “Let me take a look at them.” He shakes the can. A real fisherman can tell how the worms are by just shaking the can and looking in. “Not bad, not bad!”
He reaches in his pocket, gives me the quarter, and I am now a professional. The minute that you change your status and leave the amateur ranks in anything, your whole outlook changes. I became a pro that minute. No longer am I a dilettante. I have the two bits in my pocket, the old man has the can of worms, and Saturday he goes off fishing. I do not at that time realize the import of that exchange—which became very interesting later on.
The Worm King of Cleveland Street
This is a long story. Shepherd gives an idea about learning to be an entrepreneur; how a business gets started; how one becomes emotionally attached to one’s endeavour; how one even becomes attached to one’s employees (in this instance, worms). And, by the end, how a business can go bust!
There was one time that I was known as “The Worm King of Cleveland Street.” I probably know as much about the lowly earthworm as any man that you will ever encounter in your life. I’m not talking about scientific knowledge. You’ll have to go to a scientific worm man for that. But for pure, pragmatic worm operation, the knowledge of the worm’s subtle needs and desires, I am a man who has thought a great deal about the lowly worm.
I’m just going to give a word of advice to any of you kids—if you want to get into the big dough, you’re tired of scratching around, clinging to your old man’s knee trying to gauge him for another forty dollars, and you’d like to go into a great, very satisfying business, I couldn’t too highly recommend the worm business.
It’s highly competitive. And furthermore, it has its elements of speculation. Because you can be wiped out in twelve minutes and all your worm stock is gone and there you are, standin’ around shifting from foot to foot with customers banging on the door and you got no worms!
How I got started in the worm business—I’m gonna give you that, because most of the great tycoons, really great men, all can tell you almost to the day when they began to be involved in the empire that they later built. And there was a time that I actually had an empire. Even now, when I’m visiting somebody and I’m walking down some suburban street after a rain and I see an earthworm crawling across the sidewalk, it’s an exciting sight for me. When I see a big, beautiful, healthy earthworm crossing from one side of the sidewalk to the other, I can hardly restrain myself from picking him up and bringing him home and adding him to my stock. It’s exciting! To most people, a worm is just a worm. I imagine they don’t think of worms, but I often think of worms because they provided one of the cornerstones of my life.
How it happened. My old man, in the springtime, like a lot of office workers, was a once-in-a-while-rarely-weekend fisherman type. There wasn’t much fishing around there. There were a couple of lakes in our area. Cedar Lake, Wolf Lake. Once in a while the old man, on a Sunday, would announce that the next weekend he’s gonna go fishing.
I kind of festered as a kid in this place out in Indiana, and worms are not plentiful out there. Well, all of you had little jobs when you were a kid that you had to do at home. The old man says, “Now look, I want you to clean out the garage this week,” or, “Don’t give me any argument, I want this basement cleaned this week.” This is the kind of thing that kids are used to. One of the ones that would always bug me is the old man would say, “I’m going to go fishing next Saturday with Zudak and Gertz and the gang. I want you to go out and dig up some worms.”
So I would go out with a shovel into a vacant lot and start digging around for worms. If you’ve never dug for worms you’d think this is a fairly dull job. It is not. It contains all the excitement of hunting. Furthermore, it contains the excitement of suddenly finding yourself back in your basic element, that feeling that man has sprung from earth like toadstools and mushrooms. The deeper you dig into the earth, the more you’re driven to dig deeper. I can’t explain this. It is a fact. That if you start digging a hole, you want to dig it deeper!
This can be carried to ridiculous lengths. In fact, I understand that out on the West Coast someplace there’s a company that’s dug a hole that’s twelve miles deep. They haven’t found anything yet. They’re still digging.
I’ve often wondered—if you dig deeper and deeper, what is in the middle of the Earth? There’s a lot of conjecture, but nobody really knows. There’s the golf ball theory. That the earth is like a big golf ball and if you were to slice it right down the middle at the Equator or from Pole to Pole, in the middle is this great big center of tightly wound rubber.
It’s just a theory. Don’t yell at me. I don’t invent these theories.
Much more “Worms” to come!
So I’m peddling along, nine-feet tall, and I’m throwing the papers and making the collections. Two-and-a-half-hours later I arrive back at George the Greek. Flick is sitting on the floor working on his book. Schwartz is over there working on his, and Martin is over there. Shepherd walks in, striding in there ten feet tall.
George is back around by the candy counter. He says, “Hey, Shepherd!”
“What’s up, George?”
“Don’t give me that ‘what’s up’ stuff. What did you do to the guy at ten fourteen Arizona Avenue?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just tell me what you did to him.”
I said, “Nothing, George.”
“What do you mean, ‘nothing’? That guy called up here, he dropped all the papers and says he’s never gonna buy another paper from me again. That guy’s been on our route for twenty years! What did you do?”
That was big, fat, rotten, stale-beer Charlie of ten-dollar-bill fame. Now, I ask you, friends, who won that battle? Ultimately? Let’s put it this way. There are some people who win an occasional skirmish. There are even some people who win an occasional battle. But then—there are those—wondrous, favored few—those beautiful, wondrous, favored few—who win the wars.
Friends, I’m a guy who has won quite a few skirmishes. I’ve even taken a battle or two. The previous, true, paperboy story is a salute to misspent youth.
End of paperboy story. new kid story coming next.
My previous ARTSY post completes all the 121 short illustrated essays on my life in the world of artsy-fartsydom. There may be more if some come across my old and frustrated mind.
Since late March I’ve sent book-queries to four major people in the art-and-literature field who I thought would find my artsy idea interesting and quirky enough to respond.
Since late March I’ve sent queries to five New York literary agencies I thought might be interested.
So far I’ve gotten no responses from any of the above. Maybe somewhere over the rainbow.
It’s a good thing I do my stuff for my own amusement.
Anything more would be gravy.
(I really do like gravy an awful lot.)
I still have 19 transcribed Shep Kid Stories ready to post. The next one is what I consider to be one of his best–it’s about him being “The Worm King.”
I was sitting folding my papers one day and thinking about this, and it hit me. It was an act with this guy, and there were about five people on the route doing this. I turned to George the Greek, who ran the news agency. “Hey, George, can I borrow from you ten dollars in change?”
“What do you want it for?”
“I want ten dollars. I’ll give it back to you.” I never had ten dollars. “I want to collect form some guys. Gimme ten ones.”
Now I’ve got ten one dollar bills stuck in my left-hand pocket and my working change is in my right pocket. So I go out on my route this Saturday. I’m peddling along. Some people pay and some don’t. I can hardly wait because I’m setting this guy up. This stale-beer-smelling slob. I knock on his door. I’m ready. I’ve got my book out, playing it like I always did.
The door opens and there is big, fat, slob Charlie. “What do ya want, kid?” He knows what I want.
“I’m here to collect for the paper.”
“Ah, ya woke me up. Alright. Hold on a minute, kid.” He comes back out. “I’m sorry, kid, ya got change for a ten?”
“Why yes, I certainly do.”
“I certainly do. I have change for a ten.”
“Ya hear what I said, kid? I said do ya got change for a ten.”
“Why yes, sir, I have change for a ten right here. Do you want it in ones?” I take the ten ones out and his face falls—like a giant lantern that’s been blown off its hook. All of a sudden he becomes a small child, just like that.
“You sure you got change for a ten? Lemme see that.”
“Yes, sir, here,” and I count them out. And then I realize—he doesn’t have ten. He is faking.
“Well, listen. Can you come back next week?”
I say, “Yes sir. I certainly can.” Down the steps I go. I didn’t care—I didn’t get the dough but I won. I really won.
ALLISON MORGAN BERGMANN
Allison seated in my faux-Eames Chair.
My wife, Allison, and I are a somewhat unusual couple. For one thing, I robbed the cradle: when we married, she was 33 and I was nearly 49. We met through the ad she posted in a booklet advertising adult evening courses:
Of the hundreds of responses Allison got, I was one of the very few who recognized her reference to the Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. We first met on the telephone, when we talked for thirty minutes, an experience I later described as my having fallen in love at first-phone-call. We immediately recognized that we shared numerous sensibilities, including interests in many of the arts, especially in literature. (She had a Masters Degree in Victorian Literature, and would soon have a masters in Library Science—I recall that I’d always dreamed of being a librarian and winning the Nobel Prize in literature.
Allison’s, previous totem was the owl. —It represents wisdom/the life of the mind. She has a considerable collection. Desiring something more cuddly and emotional, by the time we met she had switched to teddy bears (which also connects to Teddy Roosevelt, one of her favorite people, with whom she shares a birth date). She has a considerable collection. Owl and teddy bear are so wonderfully appropriate for Allison. As for the owl and bear:
Albeart is the Perfect Synthesis
of Intellect and Cuddliness
I’d once been asked what my favorite bird was—this would indicate my general attitude toward life! I chose two: 1. Hummingbird, because it can remain motionless in the air and is surrounded by beautiful flowers (art); 2. Penguin, because it is so distinctive/amusing.
A recent New York Times article (in the Style Section—which I inevitably dismiss as being superficial)–had a short article on the newest thing in wedding cake-toppers. One can have the little bride & groom with photos of the bridal couple, or even bobble-head representations of the couple. Allison, years before, had chosen our cake-topper and made the bear’s dress and headpiece:
Allison not only has the IQ genius of an owl,
but the loving/nurturing of a teddy bear.
Penguin & Bear: the Loving Couple.
Thank You, Allison Morgan Bergmann, for Supporting Me
in My Artsy Fartsy Activities.
I used to pretend I was involved in various sports. It would vary by the season. How many of you have sports fantasies when you’re doing things? You come into the office and you take this piece of paper and crumple it up and zap, “Shepherd cans another one! Wilt Chamberlain to Shepherd at the center line…. There’s a real playmaker, that Shepherd!” If it was springtime Shepherd was always making these spectacular throws from third, picking off a runner—what a play!
These various fantasies are part of the day-by-day life. I wonder if anybody’s ever written a major philosophical treatise on the daydreams of ordinary work. The little satisfactions that carry us through our daily life.
When you’re about eleven years old and you’re delivering papers, you are almost at the mercy of everybody. Because they don’t take you seriously. So then, the greatest satisfaction of all—and this is possibly why I turned out to be such a sneaky person—is out-euchring the great, unwashed, slob-public. They are the ultimate enemy of the paperboy. It took me about six months to realize I was being had.
There is a certain kind of customer, and you find this guy a lot in life. Here it is Saturday morning, collection day. The guy who hides behind the curtain is the guy who isn’t going to pay at all—he’s the deadbeat. But I’m referring to the sharpie. Sharpies are another thing, which is not exactly the same as being a deadbeat. So I would come up to this door, like any other door. I’d knock and the guy would come out. “What do ya want, kid?” He sounds hung-over and I smell stale beer.
“I’d like to collect for the paper, please.” I have my little book out. “You owe eighty-six cents.”
“Just a minute, kid. Hey listen, all I got is a ten dollar bill. Ya got change for a ten?”
When you’re making eighty-six cent collections you’re not going to have change for a ten. And he knew that. That’s why he did it. “Sorry, kid, all I got is a ten.” So there you are. What are you going to do? You couldn’t collect so you go peddling on. Sometimes this would go on for a month. What he was doing was seriously not paying.
Early Image of Bill (Riff)
My close intellectual friend for over 30 year was known as Riff. We met as designers at a commercial exhibit company, and immediately knew we’d discovered someone special–with intellectual interests in books, art, music, dance, film. For decades we would meet Friday nights and see some foreign film, then walk to MacDougal Street and chat for hours about intelligent, artsy stuff while having coffee at Reggio’s. Riff admired steadfast defenders of the arts they practiced, such as Maria Callas and Frank Lloyd Wright. He took the day off from work to attend the opening of New York’s Guggenheim Museum so that he could see Wright in person. Together, Riff and my good friend Dick and I visited Wright’s Falling Water masterpiece.
Typical of Riff’s way of thinking and responding was where we both worked as designers, a carpenter complained that he intensely disliked his own first name because it gave him the image of being a country hick: Homer (as in “Homer and Jethro”). Riff immediately disagreed, pointing out that Homer is the name of the renowned, ancient Greek poet of The Iliad and The Odyssey. One of Riff’s favorite sayings was, “If you get a lemon, make lemonade.”
Usually, when we met, Riff would be carrying a bag full of newspaper clippings for me on artsy subjects I liked—in addition to the comic strip pages. At a memorial gathering for him, I found out that he did similar thoughtful service for numerous other friends of his I didn’t even know. He never created great art, but he was a constant encourager of myself and others in whatever our efforts, artistic or otherwise. As he often said to me: “If you don’t write, you’re wrong.”
Riff was one of the best parts of my life.
Riff Didn’t Like Having His Picture Taken,
So Here’s His Drawing of Me,
Made Soon After We Met.
(I was driving an MG-TD at the time.)
I Believe He Would Have Liked My Artsy Fartsys
and Encouraged Me in Doing Them.
There was one specific doorway that I always remember. I used to look forward to this point on my route. There was a long stairway lit by light bulbs that went right up to the second floor on the inside of the building and the downstairs door was always open. You could see the landing up there and there was a scrub pail set right in the corner. The first couple of weeks I just threw the paper up on the landing. One day, just by accident, when I threw the paper up, it hit the wall behind, and it went katunk! It bounced right off that wall like it was a backboard on a basketball court, and landed in the pail. Shepherd had canned another three pointer.
The next day I tried to do it and I just missed, but every day that was my big moment, and I got so I was really great at it. Remember, I was riding on a bike—this was not a stationary shot. I’d go swooping past this door—and zap! Oddly enough, I never saw it go into the pail because I was already past the door, but I’d hear it go bump-bump and bang. Oh! That meant it was going to be a good day!
These little things are very important to a newsboy. Another little satisfaction is to learn how to really fold papers. You can tell how good a newsboy is by how small he can fold the paper. The smaller the paper is folded the more you can get in the sack, the less bulk the sack takes up, and the better the paper throws! At first I really envied the other guys. Flick had started before I did and he was fantastic! He could fold fifty papers in about five minutes flat. Hard as a rock. I had no more papers than he did, but my sack was gigantic, like Santa’s bag, and Flick would just have this little sack hanging on him. He would take a ten-pound, end-of-the-week-and-full-of-ads Chicago Tribune and fold it to the size of an Eversharp pencil. Unbelievable! I began to work on my paper-folding technique and after about a month-and-a-half, I was one of the great paper-folders of our time. Even Flick came over to me one day and said, “By God, you can do it!” Like being told by Roger Maris, “You got a good swing, kid.”
You can handle this newspaper—it’s just a poor little piece of paper and you can learn to control it. You can ultimately learn to be a pretty good shot riding a bike and throwing a side-arm shot to the upper deck.
More to come of “Paperboy.”
Featherwork has become an important part of
our household decor because of
an Inca belt and elegant feather hats.
This piece (a belt or what?), also bought in the Cuzco fabric store, is 38” X 2.5”, with the repeated feather-motif of llamas in orange, black, and white. I showed it to the world-renowned anthropologist who specialized in pre-Columbian textiles at the museum where I worked. He turned the feather work over to view the backing cloth and immediately told me that it was authentic Inca (pre-1520).
(He was amazed that it had cost me only $15. He seemed unperturbed that I’d bought pre-Columbian material. The younger anthropologist I worked with on our permanent South American Hall much disparaged buying this material, because those who found it were in the business of digging up pre-Columbian sites, thus removing the material that belonged to that country’s heritage and destroying accurate, scientific investigation of it–I understand that view in theory, but in practice, I’ve bought minor pieces. When I discovered, in an auction catalog, a large casting of a famous pre-Columbian piece for sale (the Raimondi Stela), he wanted it for our Hall, but would not set foot in the pre-Columbian sale gallery for fear of being seen there, so I went to the auction with Museum money and won the piece for our use.)
A few years ago my wife, Allison, became interested in feather hats and has acquired over a dozen. (They were very popular from the nineteenth century until recent years when new ones were prohibited because of endangering various species of birds. One can still buy older ones in some vintage clothing stores.) They are truly beautiful and varied in their colors. We have some on the walls in our living room, dining room, and bedroom.
(Photos for “Cloth, Bone, and Feathers”
by Allison Morgan Bergmann)