Herb had a harder time finding a job than Mary Ellen did. He had twelve jobs the first year he was in the city, but finally found one he liked. He also found an old pal, and together they found a Sunday school full of self-described “party girls.”
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Chapter 13: Herb Finds a Job
Herb arrived in Kansas City in 1921. The Great War was over. The world had been “made safe for democracy.” New amendments to the Constitution made it possible for women to vote and impossible (in theory) for men to get drunk. Voting women were expected to ensure public virtue; sober men, domestic tranquility. And in Missouri, the voters passed a bond issue to “Lift Missouri Out of the Mud.” It offered towns a choice between a certain number of miles of paved road eighteen feet wide or twice as many nine feet wide. America was on the move!
But that feeling of confidence was tempered by a sharp recession in 1921 as the economy adjusted to the end of the war. Unemployment hit double digits; the stock market nosedived from 119.6 to 63.3, and many businesses failed, among them a haberdashery at 104 West 12th in Kansas City owned by Harry Truman and Eddie Jacobson.
Herb got off the train that had brought him to Kansas City and looked around at the cavernous, Beaux-Arts Union Station. How was he was going to get to his uncle’s house way out in Mount Washington? He was overwhelmed. Too many people moving too fast. Too many things, too many possibilities. Did he still have his billfold? He shifted his suitcase to his other hand and checked his pocket. Where was his uncle’s address? Putting his suitcase down, he flexed his fingers. It was heavy because his traps were in there. They were his insurance. If worse came to worst, he figured he could always make some money by trapping muskrats. (That was how “green” he was.)
Herb’s uncle, Archibald Hicks, and his wife, Gertie, welcomed him with whoops and hollers and “set him up” on a cot in the basement beside the furnace.
“Now, here’s some advice,” growled Uncle Arch, the stub of his cigar wigwagging beneath his walrus mustache. “No need to jump in the harness. You take some of that money your grandpa gave you and get the city out of your system. The work’ll wait.”
That sounded good to Herb, but first he bought a safety razor. Back in Columbus men used straight razors, but those things were tricky, so nobody shaved every day. Some of the more affluent citizens had barbers shave them two or three times a week. And on Saturdays, the barbershops stayed open until after midnight to take care of the farmers. But in the big city, nearly everybody had a safety razor and stepped out with their faces “slick as a whistle” every day.
The first things Herb “took in” were the vaudeville shows at the brand new Mainstreet Missouri Theatre. The Mainstreet had a nursery where parents could park their infants and toddlers with a nurse while they watched a show, and a sub-basement where the animals for the vaudeville acts were kept. There was a pool for seals down there, and an elevator big enough to lift the elephants to the stage. Headliners included Cab Calloway, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, and Harry Lauder. At its peak the Mainstreet drew 4,000 customers a day!
Then Herb went to The Century which featured theatre acts and headliners like Al Jolsen, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Foy, plus wrestling and prize fighting. Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey did an exhibition bout there, dancing around and throwing soft punches, being careful not to hurt each other. It wasn’t a prize fight; it was show business.
Finally, he went to a movie—the first movie he’d ever seen. It was a silent movie, of course. “Talkies” wouldn’t come along for another seven years. He may have seen True Heart Suzy, with Lillian Gish; or maybe A Day’s Pleasure, starring Charlie Chaplin, both of which were playing in Kansas City at that time.
Someone told him about a zoo, so he took a trolley to Swope Park. “How much?” he asked the fellow standing beside the entrance.
“Two bits,” he shot back.
That evening, as he told his uncle and aunt about his day, he happened to mention that Swope Park was a heck of a bargain for two bits.
“Two bits?” exclaimed his uncle, rearing up. “Two bits?”
Realizing he’d been snookered, Herb blushed and braced himself to take his medicine.
When everybody finished “ribbing” him about paying to go to a free city park, Aunt Gertie brought him a glass of iced tea and Uncle Arch promised to sponsor him for the Masons.
In the next six months, Herb had twelve different jobs.
The first was at an oil company. On the basis of his high school transcript, he was hired as a stenographer. His first day he took five letters before noon. During his lunch break, he sat down to transcribe them. Four of them went pretty well. But the last one . . . His shorthand made no more sense to him than hen tracks. He fled—too ashamed to even ask for his pay.
But he liked the idea of being a stenographer. So he applied for a steno’s job at the Eagle Bottling Works. His boss there chewed tobacco while he was dictating. He also interrupted himself to shout instructions to his employees. Herb couldn’t understand half of what the man said, so he quit that job, too.
The “derndest” job he had during his first year in Kansas City was at Emery, Bird, Thayer, the department store. He answered an advertisement for a decorator, and . . . Well, how was he to know? He was a country boy. At first he just handed things to a man who set them in the display window. Then his boss told him to deliver two glazed china cats to a woman at the Sofia Plaza. She had him put one by the door and one by the couch. Then vice versa. Then she thought the one by the door might be better by the window. “After three hours of moving those dadgummed cats, I’d had enough of the dadgummed decorating business.”
Next he went to Wilson Packing. He worked in the accounting department. The stench from the slaughterhouse next door was so bad, he was ready to quit after his first day, but the other fellows assured him that he’d get used to it. He did, but it was a week before he could eat the lunch he took to work.
Everybody in the accounting department worked late once a month—until nine o’clock. On the way home after one of those long days, Herb met some young men at a streetcar stop who were taking night classes at the Kansas City School of Law. He decided he would do that, too. A person who couldn’t afford to go to college could always become a lawyer.
He began attending night school at the Kansas City School of Law and found a day job that was more to his liking. He was hired as a timekeeper at the American Sash and Door Company. That was where he “anchored.” By this time the recession was over and, though Herb didn’t know it, a decade of prosperity—“the roaring twenties”—lay ahead.
Kansas City School of Law in the 1920s had sororities and fraternities. The students wrote and published a class yearbook, the Pandex, and held an annual ball, to which everyone wore tuxes. Herb became a member of Pi Alpha Delta, which had a spacious fraternity house at 3618 Summit. He maintained his membership all his life but was never an active member. The Pi Alphas were a little too sophisticated for a country boy. He did not own a car, so he rarely visited the fraternity house, and he did not know any girls, so he did not attend the ball.
Some of his classmates had college degrees; most did not. Many were women, both slim singles and more substantial marrieds. Almost all of them had day jobs. They worked as accountants, insurance adjusters, bankers, pharmacists, schoolteachers, and policemen. One wrote that she was associated with the “Dramatic Arts,” and one, who was a county judge (an elected office), would eventually become President of the United States.
Harry Truman attended night classes at the Kansas City School of Law from 1923 to 1925, so although he was 16 years older than Herb, they studied law at the same school at the same time. Truman dropped out. Herb stuck to it and eventually received a bachelor of law degree, but by that time he had a family to support, the Great Depression had begun, and he decided it was not a good time to start over, so he never took the bar exam. His bosses at the American, however, took note of his degree.
Feeling he was in the way in Uncle Arch and Gertie’s tiny house, he resolved to move into town. They implored him to stay, but he figured they were just being nice. Besides he wanted to be closer to his job and to the Kansas City School of Law. So he moved from his uncle’s basement to a room in the downtown YMCA.
Sauntering through the “Y’s” lobby, he heard a familiar voice call, “Hey, Herb!”
“Gibbie! What the dickens you doin’ here?”
Right off they agreed to cut their expenses by bunking together. Gibbie had a desk job at the Long Bell Lumber, but he was angling for a job as a salesman. To show he had the means to get around a territory, he had bought a car. And that fall, on weekends, he and Herb drove to Lawrence, Kansas, or to Columbia, Missouri, to watch the college boys play football. They liked to arrive early so they could walk around the campus before the game and imagine that they were college men.
Gibbie bought a raccoon coat.
The following spring, after a softball game between a pick-up team from the “Y” and a team from the Church League, an older man named Mark Miles came over to them and asked if they were Presbyterians. “You look like Presbyterians,” he joked.
He invited them to try out for his team at the Covenant Presbyterian Church but warned that to be eligible, they would have to attend church and Sunday school.”
“I’ll know if you’re there because I teach the men’s class.”
Then, grinning, he added that his wife taught the women’s class, and that it was a big one.
Herb and Gibbie jumped at the chance to attend a church that offered not only an opportunity to play baseball but to meet girls. Soon they moved to a room in a house at 4006 Prospect, just two blocks from the Covenant Presbyterian Church where Mary Ellen Coleman was member of Mrs. Elva Miles women’s Sunday school class. Several years had passed since she stood timidly outside the tent meeting where she had been sent to be purged of pride and willfulness. During those years the church had flourished and now occupied a brick building at 43rd and Prospect.