By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, March 9, 1940
In which Greg and Jim learn it’s not easy job panhandling or selling on the street
Jim Frise and I were walking back from lunch when a young man with his coat-collar turned up stopped us and whispered:
“Could you spare me the price of a cup of coffee?”
I fumbled and Jim paid. A quarter. And a kind smile.
“Jim,” I said, “how much do you give away in a week to panhandlers?”
“Bread on the waters,” said Jim. “Get a line of credit. Some day I may be wanting a dime.”
“I bet,” said I, “it costs more than two bits to work up courage enough to beg a dime on the street.”
“It would take more than I’ve got,” said Jim.
“That would make an interesting story for the folks,” said I. “You and me trying our hand at bumming dimes.”
“You do the bumming,” said Jim, “and I’ll follow at a distance and make sketches.”
“You’re afraid,” I declared.
“So are you,” said Jim.
It was a sunny March day. Spring was in the air. The noon streets were crowded. I made a quick, rabbit shooter’s estimate of the throng and selected a tall, solemn man wearing a hard hat and smoking a cigar.
“Excuse me,” I said, touching his arm and falling out to the side of the pavement. I turned up my coat collar.
“Could you spare me a dime for a cup of coffee?” I muttered.
“Ha, ha!” laughed he.
“Please,” said I: “I ain’t had nothing to eat or drink since the day before yesterday.”
“You’re a comic, Mr. Clark,” laughed the tall man, all his solemnity departed.
I looked at him. But his face was unfamiliar.
“I’m not worrying about that $47,” he smiled. “Take your time. I know you’re good for it.”
Forty-seven dollars! Let’s see, who did I owe $47 to? Sixty-five, 40, nineteen… ah. yes! Forty-seven dollars to the insurance company that insures my car. I suddenly recognized him as the cashier who accepted my cheques through a cage at the insurance company.
“Ha, ha,” said I. Jim was right at my elbow by now. “I was afraid you would be getting after me for that money. Ha, ha.”
“Quite all right,” said the cashier. He was still chuckling. “You’ve got a great line, Mr. Clark.”
“Good-day,” I said laughingly.
“How much did you get?” asked Jim, very puzzled.
“Hang it,” said I, “I owe too many people money to attempt panhandling. I knew that guy. He was the cashier of the insurance company that handles my car insurance and I owe them $47. He thought I was kidding him about owing the money.”
“Try again,” said Jim. “Pick somebody not so well dressed. See what it feels like to be turned down.”
“Don’t Spend It on Drink”
We came to The Star lane and there was a seedy-looking man in a derby hat standing watching the crowd pass. I sidled up to him.
“Excuse me,” said I, “but could you spare me the price of a cup of coffee?”
He looked sharply at me, up and down.
“Listen, buddy,” said he; “I’m working this side. You pick another block, will you?”
“You’re pretty well dressed to be working this game,” said the man in the derby. “Are you really hungry?”
“Haven’t et since Thursday,” said I.
“Here,” he exclaimed sympathetically. He dug down into his pocket, pulled out a half a dozen dimes and nickels and handed me one dime.
“Don’t spend it,” said the man in the derby, “on strong drink.”
Jim and I shuffled off down the street.
“I’ll frame this dime,” said I. “The first dime I ever panhandled.”
“This adventure,” said Jim, “is going all flooey. We ought to think up something else to study the situation, I tell you. Let’s sell something. Let’s put up one of these stands in a lane or in some nook along the street and sell things. We will see what it feels like to make an honest living.”
“How about stuff to take spots off vests?” I asked.
“Or corn killer?” said Jim.
“You’re a good spieler,” said Jim. “You make up the spiel and I’ll handle the sales in silence.”
“But let’s get something unusual to sell, something useful. The big thing in all merchandising is the idea,” said I.
“One thing I always want and never have around my house,” said Jimmie, “is nails. No matter how many nails and tacks and screws I buy I never can find them.”
“That’s an idea,” said I. “We could get a little tin box about the size of a tobacco tin and fill it with an assortment of tacks and nails and sell them like hot cakes. After we have exhausted the street corner sales we could go from door to door. We could organize a company and hire hundreds of unemployed men, and not only would we be relieving the economic situation but we would be rendering real public service to the homes of this city. And at the same time we could make money. “Suppose,” said I, “we only made one cent on each box of assorted nails. There are at least 90,000 homes in Toronto alone. Let’s not think of Canada yet. But 90,000 cents is how much, Jimmie? Nine thousand dollars! Nine thousand dollars! Jimmie, at one cent profit. That’s $4,500 apiece.”
Jimmie was walking with his head in the air, thinking.
“It’s $900, not $9,000,” said he. I did a little figuring.
“Well, anyway,” said I, “that’s $450 each. Just from Toronto alone. You take Ontario-“
“Wait a minute,” said Jimmie. “We are going to do this for a story. Let’s go down to one of those wholesale hardwares and get a supply of them and try it. Are you game?”
So we went down to Wellington St. and went into a hardware supply house, and while Jimmie did the buying I leaned on the counter and wrote out the notes for my selling talk.
A young clerk with red hair waited on Jim.
Ten of these little boxes,” said the clerk, “at seven cents each. And nails?” He did a little figuring. “One-inch brads, one-and-a-half, two-inch, two-and-a-half and three-inch nails, a couple of packages of tacks, some screws, assorted screws.”
We laid the empty boxes along the counter and with the nails and tacks spread out we took a pinch of this and a pinch of that and filled the boxes.
“What do these come to?” asked Jim.
“The red-headed clerk added up the cost. “Seventy for the tins and 45 for the nails and screws. A dollar and 15 cents.”
“Let’s see,” said Jim. “That comes to 11 ½ cents a box. We will charge 15 for them and make three and a half cents a box.”
The clerk listened and nodded.
So Jim and I sunk the boxes in our coat pockets and went out to look for a good place to stand.
“Let’s get well away from the office,” said I. “Our friends will buy them if they see us. We don’t want any sympathy buying. Let’s sell on our merits.”
So we got on Church St. above King. There was a vacant store front, with dust and papers gathered in the doorway.
Jim held a box in each hand and I started my spiel:
“Come this way, gents; come this way!” Three men were passing, but none of them looked at us. “Here y’are,” I shouted louder. “Here y’are, gents! A boon to every household. The secret of domestic happiness. No more quarrels about where the hammer and nails are. No more fingers smashed trying to straighten old nails. No more lockjaw from fooling with rusty nails. Here y’are, gents, the discovery of the century. Something you have been looking for all your life. This way, gents.”
Jim had the lids off and the boxes held forth to the public view. But seven more people passed and none of them paused.
“Sensational value!” I yelled. “A dollar’s worth of handiness for only 10 cents.”
“Fifteen,” hissed Jim.
“Fifteen cents,” I bellowed. “Come this way, ladies and gents, and give your wife a surprise! Bring peace and comfort to your home. Hang that picture! Nail up that fruit shelf in the cellar! Mend that broken window sill. For 15 cents, gents, a box of nails that will last you a lifetime.”
There are not many people on Church St. anyway.
“Make it louder,” said Jim. “And funnier.”
“Take a box of nails home to your little boy, ladies and gents. A boy can have the time of his life with this little magic box. He can nail up everything. Every boy is yearning for a box of nails like this. Look, 15 cents!
Not as Easy as It Looks
One man stopped and looked at us.
“That’s a good idea,” he said. And walked on.
“Make it 10 cents,” said Jim.
“Ten cents,” I bellowed. “Less than cost, ladies and gents. The greatest boon to the housewife-“
“Appeal to the men,” growled Jim. “There aren’t any women.”
“Hide this box of nails in your collar-box,” I cried, “and you’ll always have nails-“
“Men don’t have collar boxes any more,” said Jim. “Your spiel is rotten. Offer 11 ½ cents worth of nails for 10 cents.”
“Going out of business,” I bellowed. “Selling at a loss, 11 ½ cents worth of nails for 10 cents!”
A man with a tool-bag stopped and looked as us.
“Do you mean to say,” he demanded sourly, “that that is 11 cents worth of nails?”
“Counting the tin box and the nails,” said Jim, “there is 11 ½ cents worth there.”
“Well, then,” said the man, “don’t offer 11 cents worth of nails for 10 cents, because you haven’t got ’em.”
A young fellow was standing out on the curb.
“Ten cents,” I yelled. “A box of nails for 10 cents. How about you?”
The young chap came over.
“How many have you got at 10 cents,” he asked.
“Ten,” said I.
“I’ll take the lot,” said he. He held out a dollar bill.
Jim and I unloaded our pockets, and the young man took them all and stuffed them into his coat.
“Excuse me,” said Jim, “but aren’t you the fellow at the hardware store that waited on us?”
“Yes,” smiled he, and I saw his red hair under his cap.
“Well,” said Jim and I.
“I make 15 cents on this deal,” said he. “In times like these, 15 cents isn’t to be sneezed at. It buys my lunch.”
Jim and I went one way and he went the other.
“The trouble was,” said Jim, “your spiel was no good. You have to be a special kind of personality for selling things.”
“All you did,” said I, “was stand there like a cigar store Indian with the boxes in your hands. You should have used gestures. You should have held them and demonstrated them.”
“Like a cloak model,” said Jim.
“I guess panhandling and selling things the street isn’t as easy as it looks,” said I. “But I wish we had kept one of those boxes of assorted nails. That was a swell idea. They’d come in mighty handy around the house.”
So we both turned back down to the hardware supply house and got a box each from the red-headed clerk.
He charged us 15 cents.
“Labor and overhead,” he said.
Editor’s Notes: This story seemed too “Depression related” for 1940. The style seemed a little off too, so I decided to investigate further. There are so many stories, that I have not read them all, and usually only read them for the first time when I randomly choose one to feature. I knew that there were stories repeated when Greg was away on different occasions as a war correspondent in World War Two, but was not aware of the extent. So I did a more extensive review of the stories , and this is indeed a repeat of “Dimes Come Tough” from November 19th, 1932, one of their earliest ones. I’m still missing some time periods from the war, but there seems to have been extensive periods of repeats in early and late 1940, and from the summer of 1943 right to the beginning of 1945. The images at the bottom are from the 1932 story.
“Cast your bread upon the waters” is from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 11:1. Nowadays we would say “pay it forward”, meaning, do a good deed and someday someone will do a good deed for you.
It may be confusing when Greg mentioned the well-dressed man had a “hard hat”. In this case he meant that he was wearing a Bowler hat, which is made of hard felt, rather than a fedora, or other style, which would be made out of a softer felt.
Greg was also showing his age when he suggested the nails could be kept in a collar box, and Jim told him so. Circa 1860-1920, men’s collars and cuffs were detachable from shirts. The idea was that you could change the collars and cuffs to keep them looking nice without having to change the shirt. They could also be made of separate material like celluloid to keep them stiff. The collar box was somewhere where you could store them to keep them clean.