Tommy began looking for work the next morning. Dutch even put a free shine on his shoes for him.
“You have to look respectable, Shakespeare,” he said, bending over Tommy’s shoes and working with his cloth to bring out the shine. “You’re smart enough, but you’re going to be up against kids with connections, you know.”
And indeed Dutch was right, Tommy learned. At the first business where he saw a sign that said, “Office boy needed,” he walked in.
His school clothes were not fancy, but they were clean and well-cared for. The man at the front desk asked him to take a seat and wait.
A few minutes later, another man opened a door and gestured for him to come into the office. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“And what other jobs have you had, Tom?”
Tommy swallowed hard. “None yet, sir. I’ve been in school. But I can write a good hand, I read well and I’m good at figures.”
The man looked at him. “How old are you, son?”
“Twelve,” Tommy said, then added, “and I know some Latin as well.”
The man smiled slightly, “I’m afraid Latin isn’t very useful to us here,” he said. “What we need is a boy with experience.”
By afternoon, Tommy was discouraged. He could copy letters in good handwriting, he could write down figures in a ledger and add them up, he could do everything an office boy was supposed to do.
But he didn’t have experience, and the only boys without experience who were getting jobs had fathers who worked at those businesses, or else they were the sons of important customers.
Tommy stopped looking for signs that said “Office boy wanted” and just looked for “Boy Wanted.” If they didn’t care for his education, they could at least hire him to run errands. But, again, he had no luck.
When he came home, his baby sister, Bride, was sitting on the floor playing with scraps of cloth and a tin pot. His mother was sitting by the window, sewing a shirt.
“Brown and Company went out of business so fast that they left me enough cloth for two more shirts,” she explained. “I have to do something with my time. Maybe someone will buy them.”
“If they did, that would help until I can find something,” Tommy said, and told her about his discouraging day.
“I think I need to work in the streets like the other boys,” he concluded. “I don’t want to be a bootblack like Dutch. He’s always got blacking all over his hands and clothing. I think I’d rather sell something.”
His mother held up the shirt she was working on. “What about shirts? Do you think you could sell shirts in the street? I had three ready for the store, and soon I’ll have five made.”
Tommy smiled. “I think I could,” he said, “and it makes sense. Brown and Company was selling shirts for a dollar, and the stores downtown sell them for even more. If I offered them for fifty cents, they’d sell quickly and you’d make more than you did before.”
“But not enough to get more cloth,” his mother reminded him. “Brown and Company provided that.”
“True,” Tommy said. “But if I sold them for seventy-five cents, it would still be a bargain for the men who bought them, and then we’d have money to live on, and money to get more cloth for more shirts!”
Mrs. McMahon had four shirts ready by the next morning. Tommy was waiting at the ferry landing as the first group of businessmen came across from Brooklyn. He held the white shirts high, so they would be easily seen and to keep them out of the dirt of the street.
“Would you like a well-made shirt, sir?” he asked one pleasant-looking man. “It’s as good as any you’d buy in the store for a dollar and a half, and it’s only seventy-five cents! This one will fit you well!”
The man paused and looked at the shirt, then reached out to touch the cloth. “It looks well-made. Where did you get it?” he asked.
“My mother makes them,” Tommy said.
The man ran his hand to the end of the sleeve and looked at the stitching on the cuffs. He took the shirt from Tommy, held it up to his chest to see if it looked as though it would fit. Then he started to give Tommy seventy-five cents.
“I’ve got another the same size,” Tommy offered, and the man laughed and bought that one, too.
“Did you see, Dutch?” Tommy called. “It worked!”
“That’s good, Shakespeare!” Dutch said. “If I get two shines off a ferry, I’ve got twenty cents at the most. You’re doing a lot better than that!”
Tommy and Dutch walked over to the edge of the slip to wait for the next ferry. But their smiles suddenly faded. “So, Shakespeare, who gave you permission to sell shirts down here?” a voice asked.
Tommy turned to find himself facing Stork Shanahan and two of his tough-looking friends.
Text copyright 2007, Mike Peterson Illustrations copyright 2007, Christopher Baldwin