An Oral History Of Mid-Century Lawrenceville Through The Eyes Of Loretta Millender
By: John Dubosky
Welcome to the second installment of our conversation with Loretta Millender. She’s a Lawrenceville staple who’s spent more than 70 years working in this perpetually evolving section of Pittsburgh. In this column we’ll follow a 13-year-old Millender as she transitions from work at Miss Ada White’s boarding house for black railway porters to earning a reputation for herself around town as a clever and trustworthy worker. After becoming known in the neighborhood, she meets a bookie and his wife who involve her in their gambling operation, running numbers for the neighborhood’s betting population.
Miss Loretta Millender, in her own words:
After working with the black porters, I went to work for Zule’s Cleaners. It was right down at 28th Street. Zule’s Cleaners was not far from Klavon’s Drug Store, which is on the corner of 28th Street. I worked for both families. Mr. Zule found out about me through the neighborhood. He found out that here’s a 12 or 13-year-old girl running around with a little red wagon collecting Pepsi-Cola bottles. I’d get two cents from them. Mr Zule got in touch with my mother and asked would she let her daughter help his wife. Mrs. Zule had just given birth to a few children but had become weak, and needed help with the kids and her housework while her husband ran the laundry.
My mom was still working with Miss Ada White at the boarding house. I was only going in when the black porters were in town so I went down to Mr. Zule’s. They had 4 rooms and a bath up there over top of the cleaners in the Strip District. He said, “Loretta, if you help my wife, I’ll give you $2 a week. Then, I’ll clean your school clothes and you can bring your sister’s school clothes down and I’ll clean them, too.” I said, “What do I have to do?” So he shut and locked the front door of the cleaners and he took me through the shop to the back of the house. He was showing me how to go in the back so I didn’t walk through the cleaners. I got up to the upstairs with his wife and her three little boys. So I sat there with his wife, she was frail, tiny. I said, “Miss Zule, what do you want me to do?” She said, “Scrub, mop up, tend to the boys.”
So, I became the nanny, the housekeeper a few hours a week. Mostly on Saturdays. Mr. Zule would do my skirts and stuff, and my sister’s. Back then you washed with a scrub board in a big tub. And people went to the bath house and you could wash for 10 cents and dry for 15 cents. If you couldn’t afford to go there, most people had a gray number two tub. And you had a scrub board and you would wash that way and hang them on the line, then iron and starch them. So, for me to go to the cleaners was like, I was important, I was rich.
Across the street was Klavon’s Drug Store. It’s still there, it’s Klavon’s Ice Cream now. Mr. Klavon was the druggist, the old man. I hadn’t met his son yet, the doctor, who lived around the corner from me. He found out about me and asked me if I would like to sweep out their shop. And I would sweep out the store and he would give me fifty cents and I would have ice cream sodas. I could eat or just ask them for penny candy, so on and so on. Now, by this time people were getting the word that Loretta would do this or do that and work. And I was trustworthy to them; I didn’t steal anything.
This is when, walking up the street one day, I met the numbers man. His wife asked me would I help her, and I said, “Yes ma’am, what do you want me to do? I have to ask my mother.” And she said, “I already asked your mom. Any time after you get done with your homework and you have some free time and want to come here and do something for me, it was ok with her.” They had a pot-bellied stove, a great big black stove you fed with wood and coal. At that time there was electricity, but we didn’t have gas stoves. I sat in the middle of the kitchen, I had to feed that stove to have it ready for her to cook on whenever I went to her. They had wooden floors, no carpeting, no tile, no linoleum, so I wore these pads on my knees and I scrubbed. I had a scrub brush and lye soap—it was tough work. My knees are hurting right to this day because of it. And you would scrub this area and move down, the kitchen was small and then you had another room about the same size. And then her husband came in, and I was sitting there helping his wife with some figures on a piece of paper, and he said to me:
Him: How old are you?
Me: I’m 13 going on 14.
Him: You know arithmetic pretty good. Do you know how to figure things out and all that?
Me: Yes sir.
Him: You want to make some money?
Me: I’m always willing to make some money.
Him: How good is you about keeping secrets?
Me: Secrets? What kind of secrets?
His wife was sitting right there so I knew it was nothing wrong as far as an old man to a young girl. He said, “I need somebody to go down to the incinerator on Smallman Street.” That’s where the rubbish men were. I said, “I know where that is. I go there all the time.” He said, “I know, I’ve seen you. You have a little red wagon. What are you doing with that down there?” I said, “I collect Pepsi-Cola bottles, Coca-Cola bottles. Wash them out, you get 2 cents.” He said, “You’re really a little hustler.” I said, “Ok, so what do you want me to do?”
He asked me to go down there and take little slips of paper from the rubbish men. Then he wanted me to put their name on it and their total. I said, “The total of what?” He said, “They’re gonna’ give you something like this,” and he showed me a number. “It might say five cents, or 12 cents, 20 cents… make sure you put their name there. Can you write like that?” I told him, “Yes sir, I’m in middle school now.” He wanted me to go down there every day after school and get the numbers for the next day, because I was in school and I was too late for the numbers for that day.
I asked the man what his name was. “Skunk Hollow Red,” was his answer. I said, “What?” Again he said, “Skunk Hollow Red.” He had reddish hair. I said, “They call you Skunk?” he said, “No. Skunk Hollow Red.” I said, “Ok Mr. Skunk Hollow Red.” He said, “You don’t have to call me, ‘Mr.’, just call me—,” and I told him no, I had to call him mister. My mother had taught me that. I asked how much I could make and he told me three dollars, six dollars, maybe even eight dollars if I was good at running. “What’s running?” I asked. Skunk Hollow Red told me, “You’re going to be a number runner. But the police ain’t gonna suspect you because you’re young, and you got the wagon and the pop bottles. The police are watching me, but they ain’t watching you.”
He gave me extra money because a lot of the people couldn’t write and I had to help them with their numbers. He told the rubbish men about me one day while I was at school. When I started going down there they had a great big furnace that they threw trash in. And my father was a rubbish worker and drove the rubbish truck after he came from the service, he was military. But, at the time, my father wasn’t there, because he would have been mad had he found out I was making money from gambling.
He did eventually find out what I had done later when he returned, but he didn’t get mad. I was helping my mother who had six kids and they only got so much money from the service. I was the one that was working. I would go and collect the numbers after school, take them back to Mr. Skunk Hollow Red, and after he tallied up everything from the week, I would get paid, five dollars, three dollars, ten dollars. That was a lot for a kid to get paid back then. I was really rich in a sense! I had Mr. Klavon, I had Skunk Hollow Red, I had Zule’s Cleaners. So people started finding out about me; I was trustworthy. And, all these old people, white and black, that couldn’t write because they had only gone so far in school. I would go to their house and I would tally up their numbers. They would have a sheet of paper this long, and it’d only come to 10 cents or 18 cents, it was a half a cent for this number, that number was a half a cent, combined it was one penny. I’d combine half cents; I had to have that knowledge. I was making good grades in school because they were always teaching me on the outside.