As part of the Federal Writer’s Project, writers interviewed ordinary people in twenty-four states about life and lore related to traditions, customs, work, birth, death, and everything in between. Notable to Newsies fans is an interviewee in May of 1939—quoted extensively by Susan Campbell Bartoletti in “Kids on Strike!”—Philip Marcus.
The son of a Romanian Jewish restauranteur, Philip Marcus was born in St. Louis around 1900, where he lived until he was about ten, selling newspapers and sleeping in burlesque houses and pool rooms. He finished sixth grade in 1915, in Detroit, and later apprenticed in Chicago, where he settled down as a sign painter. Apparently, Philip had a self-acquired knowledge of Shakespeare and quoted it at length, but also “played the ponies.” (As any respectable newsboy would in order to uphold the stereotype.) By 1939, when he was interviewed by Abe Aaron, he was married and had two adopted sons, the youngest of whom was named after Clarence Darrow.
During the time Abe Aaron spent with him on the job, Philip discussed working as a sign painter, going to the races, things he overheard in taverns, and growing up as a newsboy. Here is what he had to say about the unwritten newsboy code:
There was a certain code among us kids, an’ the guy who didn’t live up to it, that was just too bad for him. You observed it, or else!
One of the things was, you couldn’t sell on the corners where the big fellows was. There wasn’t stands in those days, they just piled the papers on the curb an’ put stones on top of ’em, an’ every busy corner was held down by some big guy. Us little kids, we ran around the streets, an we wasn’t allowed to sell on any o’ those corners. If we did, we had to buy the paper back from the guy whose corner it was; an’ besides that, he’d boot us a good one.
We were little kids. The women, especially, would buy from us in preference to the big guys, not realizing, o’ course, what they were lettin’ us in for. I remember one time. I sold a paper an’ I had to buy it back. But I got a kick that time that hit the bull’s eye. It was so terrific I felt it for days. But not only that. Every time I saw that guy, I would feel that kick.
This is about that code again. The corners, the good spots, I told you about—the big guys who were on them, they’d make up with one of the younger fellows in the newspaper salesroom before going out on the street to buy them out at about midnight or one a.m. when the final lull begins. One of the big guys would say to one of the little guys, “Hey, punk, wantta buy me out tonight?” An’ the little guy, if he said yes, it was his ass if he didn’t, no matter how many papers the big guy had left over. Only this time, it was the wholesale price, not like when ya got caught selling on a corner an’ had to pay what ya got an’ take the swift kick besides. No matter how often ya sold on the corner, there’d be the big buy standin’ right behind ya, an’ ya got what was comin’ to ya; right then or maybe later—ya always got it.
Well, if ya didn’t keep your promise to buy the guy out, it was too bad. That was the code.
I’d made a deal with a guy; I’d said I’d buy ‘im out. Along about twelve o’clock, when I looked at all the papers he had left, there was more than I thought I could sell. But there wasn’t two ways about it, I hadda buy them, an’ I did. But I started to bawl.
While I was standin’ there cryin’, I sold all them sheets. There I was, bawlin’ like hell, an’ I ended up askin’ all the other kids when they straggled by if they wanted to sell me any o’ their sheets, sayin’ “If you’re stuck I’ll buy some,” and cryin’ like all hell all o’ the time.