Grinding Out A Living

Apr 5, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Terrific Tales

by Mary Reed

Grinding Out A Living, a guest post by mystery writer Mary Reed, was originally published by Orphan Scrivener in 2003.

Perusing the colorless list of occupational codes in the IRS 1040 form instruction booklet, my attention began to wander and I started to think about jobs that were once common street sights.

Where now, I pondered, might be seen cats-meat men, organ grinders, jugglers and dancers, roving silhouette cutters or menders of umbrellas? Faded into history or at least gone indoors to ply their skill, it seems, along with most of their fellow open air tradesmen–strolling sellers of bird cages, violets, pin cushions, broadsheets and stationery, matches, toys and brooms, not to mention all manner of household necessities ranging from rat poison, cigars, dolls, tea trays, ornaments and trinket boxes, to combs, pipes, griddles, bootlaces, buttons, sponges, penknives and crockery.

Peripatetic purveyors of packets of pornography containing only cut-up sheets of old newspaper–secure in the knowledge few cheated customers would dare complain to the authorities–no longer lurk in dark corners with a wink, a nod and a leer, having to a large degree moved online. Sweepers of crossings, pickers-over of ashes and dust heaps, and collectors of bones and offal are gone, and so are most of the mud-larks who scratched out a living from whatever they uncovered along river margins, including what remained in the pockets of the dead washed ashore. These and similar dangerous and dirty occupations have been largely taken over, if not actually destroyed, by the intervention of local sanitary and public works departments.

Yet on reflection it occurred to me that a fair number of these old trades do in fact persist, albeit in modified forms. The busker loudly works a cinema queue or moves out of the rain to play in an Underground station corridor. One man bands are not completely unknown and a friend reported seeing a girl dancing for money on a London street. Like those shifty customers who smilingly invite the unwary to spot the dried pea hidden under a particular thimble, sharp salesmen (often offering faux name brand watches as their stock in trade, another scam that is popular on the web) linger on kerbs beside cunningly constructed suitcases-on-folding-legs, one eye alert for approaching constables and the other sizing up passersby for possible marks.

Outdoor byways everywhere host sellers of food and drink ranging from soup to nuts. My favorite is a mobile fish and chip shop trading from a converted ice cream van, though I would not want to be aboard when taking sharp corners at a fair clip with a vat of boiling oil bubbling in the back. And of course there are hundreds of open air markets selling fruit, vegetables, antiques, old clothes, silverware, linen, china, flowers and just about all of the commodities once hawked through the streets by footsore vendors. Even yet, the occasional rag and bone collector or sandwich man can be spied crossing the far distance, while a few Punch and Judy men continue squawking and dealing out puppet mayhem at seaside resorts and the occasional village fair.

It was a time ago, but a knife and scissor sharpener carting along his foot-driven grindstone occasionally passed down our street. However, before we obtained a steel poker-like cutlery sharpener my father always honed our carving knife on the back step so the unfortunate grinder got no custom from the Reed household. Bike-riding and beret-sporting onion sellers festooned with strings of their pungent wares are a familiar sight to this day. On the other hand, while it’s been years since I heard a tinker shouting willingness to mend pots and pans as he drove his horse and cart past, there are still gypsy ladies who tap at the door now and then, selling hand-made clothes pegs or offering bunches of white heather for good luck.

If the last mentioned entrepreneurs were common in the US they’d do a fair trade in the white heather business at this time of year, seeing as large numbers of folk are about to peg out from exhaustion after wading through the dense prose of the tax booklets and then finding out, only a day or so before the l5th–as happened to us one year–that the IRS had omitted to send all the needed forms.

Mary Reed and husband Eric Mayer co-author the John, Lord Chamberlain historical mysteries set in sixth century Byzantium and published by Poisoned Pen Press. The current entry is Ten For Dying. You can learn more on their website.


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