This is a picture of my Dad and my Mom when they were dating followed by a picture of Mom and Dad with all eight of us. This picture was taken for the GE Newsletter. My father worked for GE for 30+ years and this job usually provided the entire income for our family of ten. Often it was difficult to make it stretch to cover things like school clothes, shoes, Christmas and birthday gifts, doctor’s bills (there was no health insurance in those days) and buying a mind-boggling processions of used cars that were clunkers more often than not.
My father called upon an ever-changing portfolio of odd jobs that allowed him to seem as if he had a magic pocket, a very meager magic pocket it is true, but still a pocket that could somehow find, after Mom nagged at Dad for a while, money for a new dress for a school function, or a fishing license for the boys, or the fee for a field trip, or money for new shoes, ice skates, bike repairs and other extraordinary expenses which were not a part of the regular budget.
Dad left school in the eighth grade to work because his family needed him to contribute. He was very smart and sorely missed having a sound education. He taught himself electronics through a series of correspondence courses while he was at GE, and he just had a head for mechanics and for mathematics. He was an engineer trained mostly by practice rather than formal education. We called him “Brain”, but his real name was George.
Dad could fix almost anyone’s TV. He had a workshop with shoe boxes full of TV tubes (yes TV’s had tubes that looked like skinny light bulbs dipped in metal at the top end with prongs extending from the bottom end). Each tube had a number and each tube controlled a separate function of the TV. My father could usually tell which tube or tubes to replace just by asking what function of your TV was haywire or was nonfunctioning. Some people paid Dad to fix their TV’s, some bartered to perform other jobs for Dad and some were fixed for free just to establish good relationships with neighbors.
Dad also saved newspapers and collected old newspapers from all over the neighborhood. He was one of the first recyclers. He would take the papers, once he had a fair amount to a local vendor who would pay him for the paper by the pound. I bet he didn’t get much money this way. He did the same with metals which he also exchanged for cash. In the 1950’s the cost of living was much lower than it is today and small amounts of cash went much further than you would think. We could get a pair of girl’s flats for $2.99; we could go to a movie for 50 cents; a gallon of gas cost 35 cents and so did a loaf of bread.
He could fix almost any car. In fact, when he was first married he and a friend had a gas station, but his “friend” absconded with the funds and the gas station closed. He fixed most of those junker cars he bought. If the car was fixable he could do it. He knew exactly where the problem resided and he would wander around the auto junkyard until he found a good part that he could buy for next to nothing. He could rebuild a carburetor or take a brake apart, replace a disk or a pad or both and put it back together just like new. People would pay him to fix their cars, but he had no place to work in the winter. He taught my brothers all he knew and they helped him with the car repairs when they were old enough. We all spent a lot of time leaning over front bumpers with our heads stuck in car engines.
Dad could, in fact, fix almost anything and would often be called out to consult with neighbors over repairs that they did not feel confident to make alone. However, once TV’s shed their tubes and cars required computer input for healing, Dad’s skills became obsolete and he became dependent on others to fix things. You can guess how much he disliked this and, in fact, it made him feel incompetent. He didn’t need his magic pocket as much by then because many of us were grown and had our own jobs, but his ego really suffered and he started to feel that he was old and that the world was passing him by.
The kinds of odd jobs my father did to supplement his income are almost impossible to find these days and they do not supply enough extra cash given the much higher costs of living which we find in 2013. With $5 my Dad could buy the pair of shoes, send a couple of kids to the movies, buy several gallons of gas and several loaves of that day-old bread he loved to buy. Today, with $5 you would get one gallon of gas or two loaves of bread, forget the movie.
If you want to fix cars these days you need special and very expensive equipment. Paper recycling is free these days and no one will pay enough for bulk paper to help anyone make it through the month. Metal recycling still pays, but it apparently pays best to thieves who steal copper. TV’s are never repaired anymore, as is also true with a number of other small appliances which Dad could keep functioning indefinitely. Today we discard nonworking small appliances and electronics and just go out and buy new ones. Today the tax structure does not really allow casual work for money, all income is taxable, but in the 50’s it was not criminal to find these small sources of income which often went undeclared. Things are much more formal today, more institutionalized, and all income, however supplemental is taxed. People these days tend to take a part time job in addition to their regular job, or to start a small business for a repair service, or a yard service, or child care and these business proceeds are taxed.
So when people say that we should just let people hit bottom and that they will, if they are strong and competitive and creative, find ways to “pick themselves back up and dust themselves off and start all over again”, we have to ask what odd jobs are left for them to enrich their families with. I suppose if a small nest egg is available you could operate a lunch truck or some other very small business which might become a larger business, unless it fails, as many businesses do and leaves one poorer than before. I don’t know how easy it is to find the kinds of small jobs that my father did to bulk up the family coffers. I am thinking that many of these opportunities no longer exist and that such earnings would definitely be taxable.