An Only Slightly Fictionalized Memory
Adolescence (First Job)
We couldn’t wait until we turned 14 so that we could get working papers. It’s like suburban kids wait to get their learners permit. We went to Honduras the summer after sophomore year. I was 15 when I got working papers. Like my classmates, I applied for jobs at the local five and ten cents stores. Most of the white girls and two of the very fair-skinned Black girls got hired. I was not even given applications – except once. I was so excited to take the test. I got 100%, and no job. I knew I was going to college. It was a given. I wouldn’t have minded working in a factory, sewing clothes, like my mom, but no. I was going to go to college.
In the spring of my junior year of high school I got my first job. One of the nuns had a relative that worked for a brokerage house on Wall St. They needed a few young girls to fill in for the regular workers over the summer. I wrote the story of my hiring a while back. I’ll stick to the money part here. I got paid for two hours a day after school. I earned $1.50 an hour. Minimum wage was 1.25₵, so that was a 20% premium. In the summer, I got paid for 40 hours, although we worked “banker’s hours,” (~10am-4pm) like most people in the financial sector at the time. My weekly take home pay was $54. I compared my paycheck with that of my uncle, who worked in a restaurant and got paid every other week. His check was just few dollars more than mine. I think there was a fluke in the wage laws for restaurant workers; he was paid less than minimum wage, and they deducted for the meals that they gave him.
I opened a savings account with my first paycheck. I saved $44 of my pay check every week. I would need the money for college. I remember my budget:
- $3.00 subway tokens
- $1.00 two pairs of stockings
- $.75 for a toasted English muffin every morning in the company cafeteria
- $1.00 for lunch on Friday; I took my lunch on other days
- $1.00 for a 45 (record – mostly Motown)
The rest I could blow on a movie (50₵) or save for a dress ($3-$7 on sale) or more likely fabric for my mom to make me a dress.
I was extremely judicious with my money. A fast food joint opened around the corner from my house. Most of my ‘round the block friends weren’t working, but they always seemed to manage to get some money. While they walked to the new restaurant to buy buttered corn for 25₵, I walked in the other direction to the A&P to buy 12 ears for that same quarter, boil them and join my friends on the stoop. They made fun of me and swore that their corn tasted better. I ignored them. I was saving for college. They laughed at that too. We were living in Brooklyn. Although there were lots of “Spanish people” moving into the neighborhood, my friends were all southern Blacks. My Black friends at my Catholic school were, like me, mostly immigrants. All of my school friends went to college right after high school. None of my neighborhood friends did.
My dad was forced to retire from his seaman’s job for health reasons early in my senior year. I paid $250 of my $275 senior year tuition. That was about half of what I had saved for college. I was proud to be able to help out. My mother would never accept money from me. Other friends had to “pay rent” when they started working. I didn’t. My mother said that she would not be able to help me pay for college, so I needed to save everything I could. I think it instilled a sense of self-sufficiency, financial independence, and delayed gratification in me. It’s funny how those early money lessons stay with me.