Summer Jobs on the Waterfront and in a Tabloid Newsroom

Panoramic view of Boston in Massachusetts, USA showing its mix of modern and historic buildings by the Charles River.
Panoramic view of Boston in Massachusetts, USA showing its mix of modern and historic buildings by the Charles River.

Ah, those gritty summer jobs. From the time I was 13 to when I was 16 I had a series of the usual lightly paid chores - mowing lawns, cutting shrubs, delivering papers vis bicycle, briefly busboying. But when I turned 16 I started working at a company on the Boston waterfront called Mills Transfer Co., which picked up stuff brought in by ship to the Port of Boston and trucked it around the Northeast.

Mostly what I did was Dickensian clerical work - filing multicolored bills of lading and, a bit better, making some deliveries around Boston. Occasional excitement was provided when the IBM punch-card machines malfunctioned, exploding those "do not fold or mutilate'' cards all over the floor.

But the floor where I worked had a superb view of Boston Harbor and Logan Airport, and it was fun to be sent down to the loading dock to talk with the truckers. Best was that docked nearby by a lunch boat that my office mates (all of whom were full-time employees; I was the only summer worker) took a couple of times a summer around the inner part of Boston Harbor. The wind was soothing on those hot days, albeit often smelly. Boston Harbor was far more polluted than it is now.

Much of the waterfront then was still decrepit. Boston's redevelopment took a while to get to the waterfront, and arson seemed to be the most common method of removing the eyesores of crumbling old building and collapsing piers. Still , there was a certain romance to it.

So through the hot and humid days of July and August I would trudge from South Station, where the bus from Cohasset, Mass., where I lived in the summer (I lived at school in Connecticut most of the rest of the year) stopped, to Mills Transfer, walking over the foul Fort Point Channel. At 5 p.m., I reversed the trip, noting that upon entering August, the light became noticeably dimmer. And then came the tedious traffic jams on the Southeast Expressway that often maderest of the trip home take more than an hour.

Still the boredom involved led me to become a loyal newspaper reader: There was nothing else to do.

So as the summer of 1969 approached and I was looking for a new kind of summer job, I lucked out when an AA friend of my mother, a natty sports columnist called Joe Purcell, helped get me a job as an "editorial assistant'' (i.e., "copy boy'') at the Boston Record American, a Hearst tabloid heavy on murders and "The Daily Number.''

The Record was in a beautiful granite building on Winthrop Square in downtown Boston. But other than the executive offices, the facility was not air-conditioned . The filthy newsroom was stifling. There were jars of salt tablets around to try to ward off collapse and a couple of weak fans.

I helped by cutting the teletype paper before handing wire-service copy to rewritemen (there was only one lady journalist in the room), made "books'' - 2 carbon sheets sandwiched with three sheets of paper for writing stories, was given money by editors to give to the bookies in the composing room and was sent on rather pleasant errands around Boston. It was always cooler on the streets than in the newsroom. (The composing room and press room must have been close to 100 degrees.) For instance, I had to pick up stuff at the Boston Stock Exchange and the Associated Press.

It was the summer of "Woodstock'' (which of course didn't happen in Woodstock but rather in Bethel, N.Y.), the moon landing and Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick scandal. The Record being only about an inch above a scandal sheet, the last story drew the most attention in the newsroom in the Capital of the Kennedys. I heard many salacious remarks, but don't remember details all these years later.


Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com) is a former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune, a former Wall Street Journal editor and a former Providence Journal vice president and editorial page editor. He is currently overseer of newenglanddiary.com, a partner in Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com) and president of Guard Dog Media, in Boston.