We Swam Naked Back in the 1950s

me at 12
Me at 12

When I was 12 (1957) I looked like I was 9 years old. By the time I was 17 I looked like I was 13 so I got stopped a lot by cops who just had to check my driver's licence.

I remember one time in the Catskills when I was 19 I tried to pick up a 17 year old Jewish girl who thought I was kidding when I offered to drive her to another Hotel that had a really good band. She asked me if my mother knew I was flirting with older girls and shouldn't I be in bed already. She even doubted I was Jewish because of all my freckles. Most people who met me for the first time took me for Irish. (Click on photo to see freckles)

But back to when I was 12. I was selling fireworks to my friends back then. I had rather a clever routine: I would take the train from Jersey City to lower Manhattan on a Sunday and walk to China Town where I bought fireworks from a Chinese merchant I knew. Years later the Mafia took that over and most Chinese stopped selling it retail. Eventually Giuliani killed that business. Regardless, I would fill up two shopping bags with fire-crackers, ashcans, and cherry bombs. Rockets were too expensive for my clientele, mostly grade-school kids.

A year later I started making my own bombs. But I digress.

So I would come home and call my friends and take orders, package them into small boxes, and wrap them as if I were sending packages by mail. I bought used stamps from the Littleton Stamp Company which advertised in the back of many comic books along with X-Ray Glasses and booklets on "How to Grow Taller." I would glue the stamps on the packages and the next day after school I would go to the Bayonne Post Office where I would meet my "customers". I would hand over their orders and take their money and they would simply walk out of the post office just like many others with letters and packages. This went on for about 4 years until I found other ways to make money. No one at the Post Office ever paid attention to kids coming or going with packages. If I tried to deliver these items in a park or schoolyard I would have gotten caught early on.

You are probably wondering 3 things:

1) How much money did I make doing this?
2) What did I need money for?
3) Weren't my parents suspicious I had lots of money?

1) I sold fireworks for 50% more than what it cost me. I bought them for 10 cents a pack and sold them for 15 cents wholesale. I did not sell individual packs. The regular price in Bayonne for a pack of firecrackers back then was 25 cents, so I left a lot of room for others to make money too. Here's how the trip broke down:

Cost for transportation both ways: 60 cents.
Lunch in Chinatown:.70
Cost of fireworks: $64.00
Packaging, used stamps, glue: 1.20
Total Cost $66.50

Total Sales: $99.25
Net Profit: $32.75

I did this about every two weeks. In addition, I shined shoes on Saturdays not only for the pleasure of the routine (I was quite good at it) but also because I made good money from it. Since I looked very young to be hustling so hard, my customers out of pity would tip me more than what I charged for a shine: 10 cents. Wearing my oldest pants and shirt helped. After only a couple of hours I would have over $3.00.

2) I used to read about 20 comic books a day, easily. This cost me two bucks a day. I bought a coke and a pretzel at the corner candy shop every weekday which cost me 12 cents a day. I would go to the movies twice a week at 35 cents a pop not counting 15 cents for a hot dog and 10 cents for a soda and another 15 cents for popcorn. I bought toys with the balance so this would leave me with about half a buck at the end of two weeks give or take a quarter. Yes, as a twelve year old I was spending over $17-$19 a week! But I never, ever asked my parents for money.

3) My parents had no clue how much comics cost or how many I had under my bed, in my closet, in the attic. Since they both worked in my father's store until late at night they assumed I was out shining a storm with my shoe shine kit. They never did the math. They did not know how often I went to the movies nor did they truly perceive the depth of my comic book addiction.

ymca pool 1950s
Flickr User: Michael Golrick.
On Sundays that I did not go into China Town, I would go down to the Y for a swim. There were only boys and men at the Y so when you went swimming it was butt naked. The lifeguard would check you over when you came in to make sure you took a shower before coming in to swim. You had to show the bottoms of your feet to show they were clean as well.

When I told my wife about this a few months back, she thought I was having delusions. But I assured her this was the norm back then, not just at the Y but at many schools and colleges. Indeed, even in Harvard when the men went to swim it was naked as jaybirds.

Because of the times we live in, things that were innocent back then would look sinister today and I doubt mothers would let their young sons go naked into a pool area filled with older men. We no longer live in innocent times. 4 year old boys are suspended for hugging a teacher too sexually. 9 year old boys are expelled for giving girls a peck on the cheek. 15 year old girls are sent to prison for having oral sex with a 14 year old boy. The world has gone nuts.

Sometimes when I think of what we have turned into in regard to innocence, I long for a Saturday afternoon at Al's Candy Shop, reading a comic with a coke, or spending an afternoon watching 25 cartoons at the Victory Theater for a quarter, or swimming the way humans were meant to swim: naked and free.

### End of my article ###

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