What a difference between the labor market today and that of 50 or 60 years ago. Back then, you could land a job almost anywhere, anytime. If you had an education, all the better, but with the area’s strong industrial base, little if any education was needed.
My first real job came shortly after I quit school at 16 to work at J.W. Clements as a “fly boy” on the five-color presses that printed pages for Life magazine. For 90 cents an hour, I scooped up sheets as they rolled from the press, shaped them into neat bundles on a vibrating box and stacked them on skids. Monotonous, yes, but we had fun on weekends with no bosses around, when we had oil can wars and raced forklifts around the plant.
Another of the roughly 50 jobs I held in my youth was in a wax factory on Seneca Street. My friend Bob worked in one section, where he froze, while I worked in another, where I melted with the wax. That job lasted until lunch time.
Bob and I also landed a job in a factory in Tonawanda. After saying we were experienced painters, we were put into baskets, or boatswain chairs, and slung up like Michelangelo to a 40-foot ceiling. With aching arms and necks and resembling an artist’s colorful palette when we came down, we finished the day and never returned.
With more than 20,000 employees, Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna was then the region’s major employer. It brought prosperity, but when layoffs occurred, businesses everywhere suffered. I remember first working there as a helper to a mechanic. One morning he told me to follow him “up to heaven.” I wondered what he was talking about until we started climbing a metal stairway up the side of a smokestack that seemed to reach the clouds. Looking down through the grating as we climbed ever higher made my head whirl. I shook. When I looked out and saw the massive roofs of the buildings far below, I broke into a sweat that fogged my safety glasses, almost blinding me. When we finished our task, I descended so fast I almost tumbled headfirst the last 20 feet to the ground.
Yes, you might have to climb chimneys, broil near open-hearth furnaces or shovel slag, but at least you had a good-paying job.
In the late 1950s, I worked with the steamfitters for the genuinely huge wage of $3.49 an hour. Wrestling pipe you could fit a Volkswagen into at the Huntley Power Station was hard, but better than laboring inside the water intake tunnels. Heavy vibrations from drilling equipment threatened to collapse the walls and let the Niagara River in to drown us all. That was almost as scary as balancing on steel beams with the iron workers a year later.
Scarier yet was the time I worked as a claim agent with the New York Central Railroad. One of our workers was killed on the job and it was my duty to attend his wake and “keep the family in line” by promising company support. If the malice oozing from their eyes when I introduced myself could kill, I’d be dead today.
Back then, Buffalo was a vibrant city with steel plants, flour mills, railroads and stockyards, all of which helped businesses flourish throughout the city: restaurants, theaters, department stores, all of which in turn provided jobs for still others. Quitting was easy then, when all one had to do was saunter into any business and get hired on the spot. I doubt those days will ever return.