The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer
THERE WAS only one job I wanted, if I had my choice. That was on one of the newspapers. I wanted more than anything else in the world to be a reporter -- to write -- to cover big events -- to see the police and fire stories as they really happened, instead of just reading about them.
When Father's first story was published, a reporter and a photographer were sent out to our house on Seymour Avenue.
I listened to the interview and watched, fascinated, as the photographer set up his tripod, screwed his camera on top of it, put a black hood over it, filled a tray with flashlight powder, and posed Father and Mother on the flowered davenport in our small living room. The flash went off with a big boom, and a heavy cloud of
smoke filled the whole house. Mother had to open all the doors to get it out.
I asked the reporter every question I could think of about the newspaper business. He was a tall, good-looking young man, and to me he seemed a great adventurer, a man who lived in another world -- a world of romance and tragedy and history, where things of importance were always happening -- and where he was always present. That was where I wanted to be.
Father suggested that I try The Leader. "You know where it is?" he asked.
"Yes, Dad, I know," I said. "I think I can find it."
"It's a long way to walk, and I guess there is no other way to get there right now," he said. "It must be better than four miles. Do you think you can make it after school?"
"I'll go right from school, Dad," I said.
I was happy and he saw it in my face.
"Mother, I think no matter what happens we've lost a schoolboy in our family and acquired a young man," Father said.
I couldn't keep my mind on school that day. Dancing around in it was a kaleidoscope of pictures -- a newspaper office - reporters - writers -- big presses -- noise and excitement and lots of action.
When the final bell rang, I couldn't get out of the building fast enough. I ran down West Twenty-fifth Street, and then caught myself, thinking, better slow down, you've got a long way to go and you can't run the whole distance. Besides that, I told myself, I ought to be calm enough to talk sensibly when I got to the
Paco Building on Superior Avenue where The Leader was put out.
It was a long walk. I hitched a ride on the back end of an ice wagon for part of the way. After that, a man in a wagon loaded with furniture motioned to me, asking, "Want a lift across the bridge, Sonny?"
He looked like a nice man, fat, good-natured, and accommodating, so I climbed up on his wagon.
"Where are you headed for, Sonny?"
"I'm going to The Leader to get a job," I said, and just saying it made me feel big and important.
"So," he said. "What kind of a job you going to get?"
"Well, I don't know," I said. "I guess I'll take any kind of a job I can get. I'd like to be a reporter, though."
"You're kind of young to be a reporter, aren't you?"
"I'm almost thirteen," I said.
The big, fat man turned his attention to his horse, as the bridge lifted for a river boat.
"The Leader is just on the other side of this bridge," he said. "I just hope, Sonny, you get that job -- I wish I had got a job like that when I was your age." He pulled up his wagon in front of a building and pointed at it. "There it is, Sonny."
After he said, "Giddy-yap," to his horse and started moving away, he looked back, and I did, too. We waved at each other, and his big face with its beaming smile gave me just the courage I needed to go inside and try for my first real job.
It was dark inside the front door. There was only a
faint light from the ceiling. An elevator came creaking down to the ground floor, with the man who ran it pulling on a cable. It was open all around except for iron bars with a design like a big flower at the front.
When I got in, the sour-faced operator snapped out at me, "What floor do you want?"
"I don't know -- the floor where the City Editor is," I said, feeling my courage sink.
On the way up he didn't say a word. Neither did I.
"Over there," he directed, when the elevator reached the third floor. The sign on the door ahead said: "Editorial Offices." Cautiously I pushed it open and slipped inside.
I wasn't prepared for the sight that met my eyes. I thought it would be a small office with the City Editor sitting at a desk. Instead, it was a big office, the biggest one I had ever seen. There were many people in it, all rushing around. Typewriters were clattering. People were shouting. Men and boys were running from one desk to another. I stood paralyzed just inside the door. It opened again behind me and I jumped hastily out of the way as a big man came in.
"What can I do for you, Son?" he asked in a surprisingly gentle, low voice.
He was rather stout, his hair touched with gray.
"Sir, I came to see the City Editor about a job," I said, and after I got the words out sweat broke out all over me.
"All right, Son, I'll take you over to him," the man said. "What's your name?" he asked.
I told him. He looked at me again.
"That's a familiar name," he said. "There's a Charles Alden Seltzer who writes short stories. Are you related to him?"
I was never more proud. Here, in a big newspaper office, someone knew my father. Suddenly all my courage came back.
"Yes, sir, he's my father," I said.
"My name is Slayton -- Victor Slayton," the man said. "I write editorials for this paper. I met your father once." He put his hand on my shoulder. "Come on along with me, Son -- and I'll introduce you to the City Editor. His bark is worse than his bite."
Overwhelmed, and yet fascinated, by the noise and confusion, I went with Victor Slayton to the far end of the crowded room.
"Sam, here's a young man who has come in looking for a job," Mr. Slayton said.
The City Editor wore a green eye shade and glasses. He was big and redheaded, and to me he looked definitely unfriendly. I remembered Mr. Slayton's comment that his bark was worse than his bite, but the minute I saw him I was scared.
"He looks like a good boy to me, Sam," said Mr. Slayton, patting me on the shoulder and walking away.
"Well, young man, what is it?" the City Editor asked.
"Sir, I want to be a newspaper reporter," I said, and then quickly added, "I would like any kind of a job that you have open -- any kind."
Under the grim face I thought there was a faint smile.
"We haven't any jobs open for reporters," he said.
"And you're just a little too young for that kind of a job. We might have a job for you, though -- a job as office boy. The work is hard. The hours are long. It's a tough job. It doesn't pay much. We could give you $3.25 a week."
He watched me closely. I couldn't believe my luck. Everything was happening just right for me -- Mr. Slayton coming in behind me at the door and knowing my father -- getting the very kind of a job I wanted at the first place I tried.
Sam Anson, the City Editor, brought me up sharply.
"Do you want it?"
"I do -- I do -- I do," I said, repeating myself so rapidly that, in spite of himself, he smiled.
"All right, when can you come to work?" he asked.
"Right now, sir," I said.
"That's fine, but not necessary," he said. "You come to work -- let's see," he said, looking at the calendar by his desk. "You come to work next Wednesday -- the first of the month. This is a morning paper. We start our day at noon. You report to me at noon -- and no telling when you'll leave."
I thanked him and reached out my hand to shake his, but he had already turned to someone else at his desk.
I went over to a corner where I saw Mr. Slayton sitting at a desk.
"I got a job as an office boy," I told him. "And I'm supposed to start next Wednesday morning. I just wanted to thank you, sir."
Mr. Slayton invited me to sit down. He asked about
Father. He wanted to know how far I was in school, and why I was leaving.
"It's too bad you can't finish your schooling, Son, because later in life I am afraid you're going to miss it, especially in this business," he said. "However, if you have to leave school, don't ever let it worry you. You'll have to work twice as hard as other people to make up for it though. Do you like good books?"
I told Mr. Slayton that Father had fixed up a program for my reading way back when I was a small boy.
"That couldn't be too many years ago, could it?" he asked, with a smile.
"It seems a long time ago to me," I answered, very seriously.
"This job is a pretty tough one, Son," he said. "You'll do errands for a lot of people around here; and sometimes they'll shout and scream at you. You'll have to learn to take a lot, and keep smiling."
I walked slowly out of the big, noisy room. This, I thought, is where I will work. These are the people -- this is the newspaper office I had dreamed about almost since I could remember. It was the first time I had ever been in one, and it wasn't quite like I had imagined it. It was bigger, noisier, more confused, disorderly, and dirty. But I liked it. It thrilled and excited me. The only thing I regretted, as I walked out of the City Room toward the elevator, was that my first day at work seemed so far away.
On the way home I didn't get a lift; I walked all the way, but the distance seemed short. I couldn't wait to tell Father and Mother. The last half mile I ran.
Sunday passed so slowly, it made me nervous. That was always a day for rest in our house. Mother saw to that. She also saw to it that we got all fixed up for Sunday School, something she insisted upon even when our clothes were patched and frayed -- as, in the earlier days, on Seymour Avenue, they frequently were. It was not uncommon for us to wear pants and shirts and underclothes made over from those worn out by either Father, Grandpa Lucien, or Uncle Ray. But we went to Sunday School, come bad weather or good, little food or poor clothes -- so persistently, in fact, that Father once said, "Ella, I believe you'd send these children to Sunday School dressed like they were in the Garden of Eden."
This Sunday morning Mother brushed my hair, and, had I permitted it, she would have shined my shoes. I expect she was thinking how soon now I would be grown up and away from her care.
"I want you to be shined and polished up this morning," she said. "And when you bow your head in prayer at Sunday School today, you thank God for the wonderful opportunity he has given you."
I thought Monday morning would never come. I wanted to get up, go to school, and tell my teacher, Miss Money, all about my job. I lay in bed going over and over in my mind what I would say to her. She had been my favorite teacher, except for Miss Effie Pekar, but even so I was a little afraid of her.
Father said to me at breakfast, "Son, would you want me to go up to school some time today and explain to Miss Money why you are leaving?"
"No, Dad," I said quickly, "I want to tell her myself." One thing that made it easier was the fact that Miss Money was leaving herself in about a month, to be principal at another school. The afternoon she had broken the news to us, the whole class cried, including even Dogs Marquette. We would never get another teacher like Miss Money.
"You will like the new teacher," she assured us.
"No, no, no," the whole class shouted in unison.
Whitey Richards, who had really caused Miss Money more headaches than anybody else, got up and said, between sobs, "We'll never forget you, Miss Money -- never."
The rest of the class took up Whitey's words, and we began to chant, "We'll never forget Miss Money -- we'll never forget Miss Money --NEVER, NEVER!"
And we never did.
"I don't think we ever forget a good teacher," Father said, when I told him about it.
As I started to school for the last time, I met up with Dogs Marquette, Whitey Richards, Orin Canfield, and a bunch of the other fellows in my class, just as we were passing Miss Money's house on Archwood Avenue. It was a big house, set well back from the street, in the midst of flowering quince and apple trees. We came to a stop in front of it, paying a sort of silent tribute, I suppose, to the teacher who was leaving us.
I thought how many times I had delivered the afternoon paper there. Miss Money always liked for me to lay the paper down carefully on the large porch which stretched across the whole front of the house, but I
rarely got to do it. She was almost always at the door when I came up the steps. Sometimes she would wave at me through the window.
She let me pick apples and quinces for my mother when they were in season. It was always hard for me to tell about quinces, because they seemed to look and taste, when they were supposed to be ripe, just the way they did when they were green. Miss Money would say:
"I can never remember whether you mother likes quinces, Louis, but you take some anyway because they do make such wonderful jelly."
Occasionally I would run an errand for Miss Money, to the hardware store, or the apothecary shop, and sometimes to Mr. Corlett's grocery on West Thirty-third Street, right around the corner from where she lived. For this she always gave me candy, always the same kind -- a delicious chocolate cream. I never saw them in any store, and I supposed she made them herself. She gave me only one, handing it to me on a small piece of white paper. I always tried to make it last, and it never did.
"We'll miss her, all right," Orin said. "Did you fellows know anything about it, before she told us?"
We didn't. We were surprised as much as he was, we said.
Dogs turned to me, and whispered, "They're going to get another surprise, aren't they? Are you still going through with it?"
"Yes, Dogs, I've got a job," I told him. "I'm going to work on Wednesday."
I didn't tell him where. I wanted him to ask because I was proud of the answer.
"Where you going to work?" he asked.
"I'm going to be office boy at The Leader," I told him, and then, in a rush of ambition, I added, "And someday I'm going to be a star reporter. I'm going t0 --"
I realized how foolish and young I sounded when Dogs put his hand on my shoulder.
"Can I tell these fellows?" he asked.
"Maybe I better tell Miss Money first," I said.
All morning I tried to get a chance to tell her, but she was too busy. At recess, she walked right out of the classroom to the principal's office, and she didn't come back until the school bell rang.
At the end of the afternoon I waited around after everybody else went out. The classroom was very quiet. Miss Money sat working at her desk. I found I didn't know how to tell her after all. All the words I had planned so carefully, I forgot.
She looked up. "Well, Louis -- is something wrong?"
When I didn't say anything, she got up. She was small and trim, dressed as usual in a black skirt and a gray blouse, her black hair done up in a round bun on top of her head.
When she sat at her desk going over our papers, she wore big round glasses with shiny metal around them. I liked her better without the glasses because they seemed to make her look stern. As she walked toward me, she saw me looking at them and took them off. When she did, her whole appearance seemed to change. The
quiet, gentle expression came back to her face, and her bright, kind eyes reassured me.
"We're all sorry you're going to leave, Miss Money," I said, trying to cover up my nervousness.
"I am, too, Louis," Miss Money said, and smiled at me, adding, "But that's not why you stayed after school, is it -- just to tell me that?"
"No, Miss Money," I said. "It's something else."
"Is it something very serious?" she asked, sitting down in the seat at the desk ahead of mine.
"Yes, Miss Money, it is." I stopped for a bit, trying to find the right words, finally adding, "It is for me, Miss Money."
"You're having a little difficulty telling me, Louis," she said. "Why don't you just tell me -- right out. What is it?"
"Well," I said, "I am leaving school, too." Then I hurried on. "I have a job, Miss Money, as an office boy at The Leader. I start next Wednesday. I'll have to get all my things out of my desk tonight and get my report card. And I have to have a note from you and the principal so I can give it to Mr. Anson -- he's the City Editor at The Leader. He's the man I'm going to work for."
Miss Money looked at me for a long moment without saying a word. I felt uncomfortable.
"But, Louis, you're so young to be going to work," she said. "So young to be leaving school. It doesn't seem right."
To take the finality out of it, I said, "I might come back sometime, Miss Money, if things get better at home; or maybe, if I don't keep my job."
She almost snapped at me. "Louis, don't talk that way -- of course you'll keep your job. Of course you'll make good at it." My eyes must have shone in response, for she said, "Now, that's better. You must never say that again. You will always make good at whatever you do. Always remember that."
"This is something I never expected," Miss Money said. "I always imagined that you would go right on through school, to high school, and perhaps even to college. Louis, I am really sorry to see you go."
As she said it, tears came to my eyes. I was very close at that moment to changing my mind.
"I can't say that you've been one of my best pupils," she said. "And I can't say you have been the best-behaved boy in the class. You have done your share of the mischief around here, and I am not sure that I caught you at all you were responsible for."
In my heart I knew that there were many resourcefully executed maneuvers in which my part was not a wholly incidental one. Dogs Marquette's image jumped into my mind when she said this, and for some strange reason, I remembered how small Miss Money looked when Dogs stood beside her at the desk while she was giving it to him for some prank he had led us all into. I couldn't hide a smile, and Miss Money quickly went on.
"Well, we won't go into that now -- we'll let bygones be bygones."
I was willing.
"I suppose you know that this is a big step you are taking."
I liked to hear Miss Money talk. Her voice was rich and low and quiet, her words always well-chosen and clear.
"You might come back some time when family matters are cleared up," she said. "Perhaps not. You really are a good boy. You try to do the right thing. That's the most important thing of all, isn't it?"
I didn't quite know whether Miss Money expected me to answer her. Before I had time to make up my mind she went on.
"I only hope that wherever you are, or whatever you do, you will always try to improve yourself," she said. "Look for the principles and ideals you think are the good ones, and keep to them, fight for them, make them your own. Be a good boy, and make me proud that I was your teacher."
I got up to go. Miss Money put her hand in mine.
"Goodbye, Louis, and good luck," she said. "I believe in you."
I ducked my head to get my belongings from my desk, but really to keep Miss Money from seeing the tears in my eyes. She suspected as much, for she patted me on the back and returned to her own desk. I left the classroom, not even stopping to take a last look.
The whole thing hit me suddenly. It was going to be tough to leave school. Until now I had been more interested in my job, and the adventure before me. Now I realized that I would not go to Lincoln High School -- nor to college. I would not have a chance to be a great
student, or a star athlete. The door behind me was securely locked, and I was out in a different life.
I didn't go home right away. I walked down the broken path into Brookside Park, and gradually my mood changed. A fellow can't go to school forever. He has to leave some time. I was just leaving earlier than the rest. And I was going to the best job a fellow could have, and a job that would help my mother and father.
And with that comforting thought, I walked back up the hill and toward home -- putting school behind me, and my new job ahead of me.
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