Surpassing Abbott & Costello

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Cantankerously Yours

Surpassing Abbott & Costello

By Wendell Abern

Dear Readers,

          In the 30s and 40s, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were the top two slapstick comedians in the country.

          In 1951, my friend Dennis and I outdid them.

          I had talked Dennis into spending the summer with me, working our way around the East.

          It was a different world in 1951. A simpler world. A safer world. Dennis and I left Chicago in late June in an old beat-up Chevrolet, with big grins on our faces, a full tank of gas and $27 between us. And no camera. (Dennis had forgotten it. My own fault. I never should have relied on  Dennis for anything.)  

          We slept in the car most of the time, and we did find jobs. Beer vendors at the Cleveland Indians baseball park; waiters at a run-down restaurant in Erie, Pennsylvania; pot-scrubbers at a hotel restaurant in Lake Placid, New York; caddies at a posh country club in a Philadelphia suburb. And other jobs for which we were completely unqualified.

          But the highlights (lowlights?) of our trip occurred in Syracuse, New York, and Paterson, New Jersey.

          Syracuse

          Abbott and Costello would have been proud.

          We limped into Syracuse with our last eight dollars.

          After rejections at two restaurants and a hotel, we tried the YMCA. Horseshoe-type dining counter facing long grill. One short-order cook wearing a long apron with badge bearing the name Chuck. One customer.      

          “What can I getchoo guys?” the grill man asked.

          I said, “We were wondering if you might be looking for help.”

          Chuck’s eyes lit up as he stirred two bubbling eggs. “You boys ever work a grill?” he asked. Vigorously, I shook my head no. But Dennis said, “Of course. We’re makin’ our way through college workin’ a grill just like this.”

          I rubbed my forehead, trying to ward off a sudden migraine.

          Chuck turned into a whirlwind with a pair of tongs, a spatula, a wooden spoon and a huge knife, delivering breakfast to his customer in less than thirty seconds. He was a living demonstration of the phrase, “Poetry in Motion.”

          “Dennis whispered, “He’s like a magician out there!”

          “Yeah. How we gonna do that?”

          “We’ll find a way.”

          Chuck made lumberjack breakfasts for us while spelling out what we’d be doing for the next week.

.         “Grill opens at 6AM,” he said. “One a you works from six ‘til eleven. The other takes over and works ‘til five. Then you both work ‘til ten PM. My other grill men, Eugene and Phil, will help. You get minimum wage, 72 cents an hour each, plus tips. Ya wanta sleep in the back on cots, it’s free. Tell ‘em I said so. Eat whatever ya want. I’ll be gone a week. Then you guys cut out again.”

          The next day, Dennis was working the 6AM shift with Eugene, who woke me at 6:10.

          “It’s a madhouse!” Eugene yelled. “You gotta come help!”

          When I arrived at the grill, all twelve stools were occupied, six other guys were standing, and Dennis’s customer was screaming epithets.

          Dennis had rendered the grill unusable by spilling an entire pot of coffee on it. Everyone was yelling. Everyone was hungry. Everyone was in a hurry. By 8:30, mercifully, everyone had gone to work. Dennis was running a rag over the counter and I was mopping the floor. 

          “You guys ain’t never had any ‘sperience, have ya?” Eugene asked.

          “I used to make toast for my little sister,” Dennis said.

          Wonderful.

          Eugene was supposed to leave at nine; to his credit, he stayed an extra hour to show us a few short-order-cook basics. By the end of the week, we were even getting tips instead of curses. And eating enough to feed Romania.

          Chuck returned on Saturday. He said, “We’re dockin’ ya for two pots o’ spilled coffee, four broken dishes, a stopped-up dishwasher, and two dozen eggs thatcha kept oozin’ down the grease gutter. Comes ta just about twenty-five bucks. Take that from the sixty-nine thatcha earned, we’ll round it out at forty-four bucks even.” Then he smiled and said, “Go upstairs. Ask Alice for your check.”

          Alice gave us a check for sixty-nine dollars and change.

          Chuck was just giving us a hard time! We were rich! Sixty-nine dollars! That night, we blew half of it on two fairly clean rooms at a sleepy motel.

Paterson, New Jersey

          Abbott and Costello would have been jealous.

          It was late July. Harvesting month in New Jersey. We stopped at Wilson & Son’s in Paterson and walked inside a huge warehouse. Old man, maybe seventy. White hair, tan face, belly draped over his jeans. Mr. Wilson the elder, I assumed. Barking at his employees.

          “Whatchoo boys want?” he said, finally spying us.

          “Do you need any experienced pickers?” Dennis asked. Experienced, yet.      I almost kicked him.

          “No, I need packers. Now. Right now. I pay more than the minimum, ninety cents an hour. You boys ready to start in five minutes?”

          He assigned us to two long conveyor belts, ten feet apart, and stretching to the windows outside, where the pickers were setting down peaches. Gently. The packers, all Hispanic, were plucking peaches streaming down their conveyor belts and carefully placing them in baskets at their feet. When their baskets were filled, they hefted them over to a fork-lift truck.

          We began packing our baskets. After two hours, our backs hurt. But somehow, we made it until five. We hobbled over to Mr. Wilson and his son (spitting image of the old man).

          “Whatchoo boys want now?”

          I said, “We’d like to get paid.”

          “Both Wilsons: “What!”

          “We worked eight hours,” Dennis said. “Ninety cents an hour. Seven dollars and twenty cents each We’d like to get paid.”

          Wilson the elder grunted and said, “You get paid at the end of the month, like everyone else.”

          Both of us: “What!”

          “You heard me. End of the month.”

          “Dennis shouted. “But we worked eight hours!”

          “Aw, you worked eight hours,” the old man said. “Yesterday, we worked until one in the morning. Now get back to your stations or leave.”

          Dennis said, “That’s not fair! We want to get paid now. I don’t see why you have to be such a louse about it.”

          “Is that right?” the old man shouted.

          Wilson the younger yelled, “Dad, don’t!” as the old man picked up an empty peach basket and hurled it at Dennis. Dennis ducked, picked up the basket and threw it back.

          The old man ducked, picked up the basket and flung it back, yelling, “No one calls me a louse!”

From a re-enactment of the infamous 1951 Peach War. Photo by Karen Gonzalez.

          Everybody had heard what was going on and had stopped to listen. Peaches were pouring down the conveyor belts and rolling around the floor. Dennis and the old man continued hurling baskets at each other. Employees were cheering and laughing. Mr. Wilson slipped on a peach and landed awkwardly on his back.

          Wilson the Younger picked up his father and dragged him into a small office, yelling at the packers, “Pick up those peaches!” And then to us, “I’m calling the cops!”

          Good, I thought.

          The police came, grabbed us by the arms, and pulled us into the office. We all started talking at once.

          Then, Dennis and I were “escorted” outside by two cops, and stood waiting. The lieutenant poked his head out of the door and said, “How old you boys?”

          We told him:  eighteen and seventeen. He closed the door.

          We waited ten more minutes. The lieutenant came out and said. “I got your money.”

          I blinked. Dennis shrugged. “Seventeen’s a minor in this state,” he said. “Assault on a minor’s pretty serious in New Jersey. Take your money and leave.”

          The cop counted out seventeen dollars and twenty cents, then turned to me and said, “You boys ever come to Paterson, New Jersey again, don’t stop. Just drive right on through.”

          We left in a hurry. Have never gone back to Paterson, New Jersey.

          But since that trip, I’ve had a soft spot for ballpark vendors, waiters, waitresses, field workers, short order cooks, dishwashers, and anyone who has to work at minimum wage.