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I WAS A JUMPER IN DETROIT IN THE MID-1950S

 

In the mid-1950s I was a jumper for a milkman in Detroit--for about two years, from the age of fourteen to sixteen-years-old. I worked at it full-time in the summers, and every weekend when high school was in session. 

 

A friend told me that there was a milkman at Twin Pines Dairy who needed a jumper. So I went over there and started with him. There was no training period. The milkmen owned their trucks and employed jumpers to go along with them on the routes. On the route the milkman generally drove and stayed with the truck, and the jumper got out of the truck and brought the milk products to the customers. 

 

I got to the dairy at about 5:30 am. The milk truck pulled into the refrigerated part of the dairy, and I pulled crates of milk from all the crates that were stacked on the platform. The milkman had a list of the stuff he needed for the route, and I loaded the truck from that list, which was also coordinated with the dairy. But the list usually wouldn’t vary that much from day to day. It was pretty consistent. But there were seasonal things like egg nog or buttermilk. 

 

The product had to be loaded into the truck in specific spots depending on what it was. I had to make sure that the most frequently needed items were the easiest to access. And if I screwed up I made a lot more work for myself. Each case of milk had 12 1-quart glass bottles. They were made of wood and metal. I loaded about 20 crates into the truck each day. They were loaded very tightly into the truck. 

 

Then the truck had to be iced. It was driven to another platform in the dairy where the blocks of ice were stacked. The blocks were 25 or 30 pounds each, and I picked them up with ice tongs. It took 10 or 12 blocks of ice to ice the whole truck, which is a lot for a person of that age. It could be a daunting experience. The first couple of times wiped me out. But you got used to it after a while. But it was a challenge.

 

But it was also a kick because in those days the kids were into the macho stuff and who is tougher than who. There was a whole status thing to being a jumper because of the physical work, and you had to be tough to do it. Everybody knew what it took to be a jumper.

 

And there were guys of different sizes and strengths. There were guys who could carry two 12-quart crates in each hand by putting them together where the hand hold was and putting their hand through the hand holds of two crates at once and picking them up like that. Any jumper who could do that was really a big deal. 24 quarts of milk in each hand. All the guys were in awe of guys who could do that. 

 

When I got each block of ice into the truck I used an ice pick to break it up into small pieces that could be spread over the crates of milk. Every block had to be broken up to fit in the spaces around the milk. It takes a lot of strength to break up that many blocks of ice, and there’s almost an art form to it. The other jumpers showed me how to do it.

 

There are places where hitting it with the pick would give you a much bigger shatter. If you didn’t hit the ice in the right place you’d have to use a lot more effort. I would look for an air pocket, or white area, or other irregularity to hit with the pick, and a bigger piece would break. Then those pieces were broken up into the smaller pieces. 

 

My milkman’s name was Howie Rosenberg, and he was a very nice guy. He was a good boss. There were only two Jews working at Twin Pines Dairy at that time and he was one of them.  A very nice guy. Very focused on what he was doing. 

 

The milkman drove the truck standing up. There were no seats in the truck. And it was a standard transmission, not automatic. Both of us were on our feet the whole day. There was no way the milkman could do the route without a jumper. If I was sick then he would have to get someone else. There’s no way to do the route without a jumper. 

 

On the route, while the truck was moving down the block, I loaded the milk carrier. I loaded it based on the list the milkman had of all the customers and the products they needed. He would tell me what type of product to load into the carrier, for example:  a quart of chocolate, two homogenized, maybe eggnog, cottage cheese, butter, full cream, half-and-half. 

 

Then the milkman would stop and I pulled a lever down, and the door folded open, and I went out. If I didn’t need the carrier then I carried two bottles in each hand, holding them between my fingers. Some guys could carry three bottles in each hand that way.

 

Some stops had milk chutes. I opened a door on the side of the wall, set milk inside, and shut the door. It was built into the house.  Then the customer would open a door on the inside of the house and get the milk. But most of it was door-to-door--a lot of two-floor walk-ups. It was mixed, with some houses and some apartments.

Sometimes Howie would make a delivery himself, if it was a block where he could park the truck, and the customers were close enough together. Then he would take one side of the street and I would take the other. But in general he stayed in the truck and did the driving. If he wasn’t making a delivery he would advance the truck down the block and I would have to catch up with him. He would just drive slowly along.  

Because my boss was Jewish we would always eat lunch in delicatessens. It was my first exposure to Jewish people. I didn’t know Jewish food at all. I didn’t have a clue. But we always ate at Jewish delis. So I was eating hot pastrami on hard rolls, with extra mustard, and all kinds of things I never would have been exposed to. I learned a lot of Yiddish. Mostly swear words. I learned as much from him, and his perspective, as I did from the community I worked in. 

 

At that time Detroit was fairly segregated, and I lived on the fringe of the black area. The dividing line between the white and black area was 8 Mile. I lived on 7 Mile. High schools were not integrated. The plant my father worked at was not integrated either. 

 

The Jews usually lived between the more upper class people and the blacks. They lived on the fringe of the black area. In terms of my route, we had one section that was primarily Jewish and the rest was black. The black section was about 7 times bigger than the Jewish section. 

 

During the week I would just drop off the milk. But when payment was due for the week, on Saturday, I would see the customers face-to-face. During the previous week Howie would keep track of what each customer bought. Then at the end of the week he tallied it up and gave me a bill that told me what to collect from each customer. I always went to the customer with the bill in my hand, and a certain amount of money to make change. 

 

Being face-to-face with the customers on that one day a week was a total education. I was young enough that some of the customers in the black community called me “that little blond-haired milk boy”. I was brought up to be respectful of age, so I wasn’t threatening to anybody. I learned a lot by talking to our customers. That was my first exposure to any minority community, and I learned a lot. Later I got into trouble with my parents because of my parents' racism.

 

The interactions I had were fantastic. I was particularly fond of the older black customers. They were much more friendly than the younger customers. Their sense of humor was fantastic. They could make jokes out of anything. I remember delivering a quart of chocolate milk to one guy and I asked him if he needed another quart and he said “No son, I’m just chocolate enough.”

 

It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed meeting our customers. There were a variety of people. Some were grumpy sometimes, but nobody ever treated me badly.  They spent a lot more time with me than with the milkman.  I got to know most of the customers by name. But I never actually went into the residences. 

 

But I remember one very attractive woman who came to the door in a robe. I had two quarts of milk in one hand and the bill in the other. So I had to hand her the milk. She reached forward and her robe came open at the top, and she grabbed the milk but she also grabbed my hand along with it and took it to her chest. Of course I let go of the milk quickly, but that was one memorable experience. All the jumpers had a story like that. 

 

But I did have one altercation.  The door to the truck was open and a guy came up to me and says “Give me a bottle of milk”.   My boss wasn’t there. I was alone on the truck at the time. I said “Ok, where’s the money?” He said “I’m not going to give you any money” and he sticks his hand in his pocket like he’s got a knife, and he’s pulling it up. I saw the pearl handle. And I said “You’ve got to give me the money or I’m not giving you the milk”. He said “You better give me the milk, man”. So I picked up an ice pick and said “I’m not giving you the milk”.

 

So it was kind of a standoff, and then my boss came back, and then the guy backed off. I told my boss about it and he told me not to sweat it--that “the guy’s just being a pain in the butt”. He didn’t know the guy, just that things like that can happen. But it’s the only time it happened to me. 

 

I don’t remember many other specific encounters. With customers it was just everyday stuff like the weather, or how are you doing. But we had one customer, Mrs. Thomas, who never missed paying her bill. Which wasn’t true of most people. Sometimes people wouldn’t pay for a week or two. But with Mrs. Thomas it was pretty amazing. She always had it down to the exact pennies, and she would count out every one. She was one of the older people, and I remember her saying “I always pay my bills, I always pay my bills.” 

 

So I had a lot of exposure to part of the black community, and the range and types of behaviors didn’t seem anything out of the ordinary. Then I would go back to my home where the “n” word was used all the time, and eventually I couldn’t quite get that. It didn’t make sense to me after a while. I would try to give my father an instance where I’d have a joke with a guy, and my father couldn’t see me relating to black people in the way that I did. I had a much more personal experience with the black and Jewish communities than my parents did. 

 

After all the deliveries were done we went home. I usually got home at about 4 or 4:30 pm, so the days were about 11 hours. We didn’t go back to the dairy. The milkman kept the truck at home. Sometimes he would drop me off on the corner near my house, and sometimes I would get a ride with another jumper. Then I had to be at the dairy at 5:30 am again.   

 

At the end of the day I was pretty exhausted, but I got used to it over time. The worst was when I worked on a Saturday, and I also had a job at a beer store at night. I had to be there at 7 pm. Those would be the nights I was totally wacked out.

 

But I got used to it, during the summers particularly. It was worse when I was working on weekends during school. I felt more tired then. At the beer store when someone came in to buy a case of beer then my job was to take it out to their car. 

 

Other than that, I was tired at the end of a shift, but I still could go out to see friends and do something afterward. I was going to the drive-in hang-outs--I mean the drive-in restaurants, with the car hops. There were several drive-ins in that area.

 

One car hop--we just called her “the eyes”. She had a medical condition with her eyes, I don’t remember what it was called, but there were all these sparkly things. She was extremely attractive—she had the whole package.  She was the primary reason people would go to this drive-in, Daly’s Drive-In. We would go to that drive-in just to see her. She probably accounted for 90% of their customers. She was exceptionally attractive and outgoing. Everybody knew who “the eyes” was. 

 

Daly’s was mostly for street racers. There was racing on Grand River Avenue. It was something we did almost anytime we were in the car. On the weekend that was the primary activity. There were no bets placed. It was more recognition than anything else. On Grand River Avenue there were quarter-mile intervals between lights, so you could drag from light to light for several miles easily. Same thing on Telegraph Road. 

 

You could usually identify what drive-in a particular car was from, because people from one drive-in would favor one type of car over another. For example, one group would have old Mercurys, ’49 or ’50 Mercs. 

 

These cars were all modified. In Detroit at that time everybody drove a modified car. I didn’t know anyone with a standard car. Even my father drove a modified car. Bubble-skirts and chopping was very prevalent, and channeling. The engines were bored and stroked. Anything to make the engine more powerful. Adding another carburetor, a blower, that kind of thing. 

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