The Sheeneyman was a man (haven't heard of a woman) that had a horse and a cart that traveled the streets of the city and residential areas selling goods and picking up metal from the junk stacked along the streets and alleys. In those days (40s-50's) you could not throw metal in the trash, so the sheeneyman sometimes would give you a few pennies for that metal. Kid cash for candy.
Upon entering the neighborhood he would announce his presence by blowing the bugle or ringing the bell, not unlike the ice cream man of today. The kids would bring out what they had and sell or give it to him. He sometimes would pick up items on one street and sell it on the other. Kind of a rolling garage sale. He would also carry a small amount of ice or coal if you were in need. Almost always happy to chat with you and while he was in having a tea or adult beverage, the kids would steal small amounts of junk they wanted. "The cool stuff." As with recycled items, he would get it back sooner or later anyway. Patience was the mode of the day.
When the kids were bad, mothers would say " you behave or I'll set you out for the sheeneyman." I've never have seen any kids for sale.
In most larger cites across the East and Midwest was the Sheeney. They were of different ethnic backgrounds, Black, White, Jewish, and Poles. It was a social position that keep you from the factories and your bounty could get you through the winter by selling from the house or a little shop. It was a very interesting place to shop for the everyday and the unusual. A great place to get supplies for that special project you just had to build or something for that corner window seat and didn't have any money. A trade is sometimes as good as a sale.
If you take the time to ask about the Sheeneyman form your parents or that nice old guy in the park, you will hear all sorts of stories about him and what is more interesting, if you are so inclined, is to find out where he went. Some now, or family members, own scrap yards and foundries, one of them was on 60 minutes in July.
Sheeneyman of old was a derogatory remark in the Jewish community although that attitude is still kept by some. It was a job not a classification. They will no longer run my free ads on the Lansing Michigan radio station because the small Jewish faction in that area called the radio station and said they would boycott the station. I pled my case but to no avail. It's OK.
Sheeneyman of the new age: "Asset Reallocation Engineer" Liquidator for the mechanized world, robotics, machine tools, boats, tractors, computers, airliners, and exotic metals, power generation and tax land. Neither putting a small dent in the global economy, nor impacting world markets but it keeps me out of the factories other than a visit to help out with clearing out, and freeing up of valuable storage space and returning dollars to the bottom line of unused assets good and obsolete. Even then "I'll get it back sooner or later." Your junk is another's treasure and or your new car. 80 Semi loads in one location is not unheard of.
What the Sheeneyman waits for: Free Lunch as always, but more often then not he buys, honest dealings, nice people, great stories, sharing fun with others, and a happy family.
I better include monetary values- Good conversation that leads to a great deal from everyday items to housing, lakefront property or that purchase from an auction that nets you $1,250,000 on a $300 purchase. I'm still waiting.
P.S. This synopsis was never meant to offend anyone, if so I'm sorry. Get a life. It's only a story, I didn't ask you to believe it, I just told the story. You make up your mind.
John R Gregor
Box 350 Howell Michigan USA 48844 (Near Detroit)
Michigan, Atlanta, Vancouver, Southern California, Oklahoma, Toronto
Mobile 517 404 3073
Traveling and Weekend Mobile 313 530 0442
This is just a story that I found. People send me this stuff because of the name.
(This is not the John Gregor the Sheeneyman)
Living from Junk
They bought Crumpled Fenders, Old Bed sheets, Broken Bulldozer Treads, Dead Batteries and Cast-off Furnaces.
It Put Food On the Table, and Taught a Boy About Life.
Los Angeles Times Magazine, Sunday, September 5, 1999
By MARVIN J. WOLF
Dad twisted the valve and the torch hissed acetylene. He clicked the sparker, and orange fire blossomed in the wind. Pulling down dark goggles, he adjusted the oxygen and then the fuel, creating a stream of hot blue flame capable of cutting through steel. He lit a Winston with it and bent to his task: chopping huge steel bulldozer tracks into sections small enough for me, Ted and Matthew, my brothers, to wrestle to our truck.
We sat on a river of earth 20 feet high and hundreds wide, stretching miles north through the San Fernando Valley toward the heights above Sylmar. Ahead of us, open-topped semis dumped dirt for bulldozers to push around. Enormous yellow trucks towed ponderous rollers, tamping, compacting. Behind us, dozers spread gravel, carpenters hammered together forms, a parade of cement trucks filled them with gray slush. They were building the San Diego Freeway.
In the late '50s, freeways were a growth industry, and when Dad could find a foreman to sell him worn-out tracks for beer money, we went to work. For reasons I never understood, when the rubber cloaking the steel treads of bulldozer tracks wore out, it was cheaper to replace the treads than to send them to Caterpillar's factory for repair. Sparks flying, molten metal snapping, Dad's flame melted the steel links between treads while we dragged, pushed and rolled heavy, still-smoking sections onto the lift that would raise them to the level of the truck bed. When the lift stopped, I drove the Dodge forward, then slammed the brakes so that the steel slid or tumbled forward into the truck bed. Then I backed up and we did it again, until the truck could hold no more.
If there was more to cut, I drove the load 50 miles to Terminal Island, seven or eight tons on a truck built to carry a ton-and-a-half. God help me if I had to stop suddenly because the brakes were never intended to restrain that much weight. At the waterfront, a Volkswagen-sized magnet sucked the steel off the truck's scarred bed and swung it into the hold of a Japanese freighter.
Long before people spoke of recycling, my father the junkman bought almost anything that could be melted, smelted, shredded, compressed or otherwise turned into a buck. He began when we lived in Chicago, patrolling tenement-district alleys behind a tired nag dragging a battered wagon. "Rags! Old iron!" he cried. "My wagon's broken! My horse is croakin'!" Housewives and janitors brought bundles of rags and newspapers, beat-up pots and pans, broken appliances, ancient plumbing.
Dad replied to everyone in what sounded to my ear like the same language of those who spoke to him--Russian, Polish, German, Armenian, Spanish, Italian. Growing up, however, I slowly discerned that he actually knew only English and Yiddish; he had a gift for mimicking accents. By my teens it made me cringe.
We moved to Los Angeles in 1957, and for a time Dad tried to make a living at his trade, sheet metal. But as soon as he scraped together enough for a down payment on the venerable Dodge, he went back to junk. I worked with him on Saturdays and school vacations, looking for things discarded, used up, worn out, left over, broken.
He followed electricians and telephone crews to the housing tracts sprouting beside the new freeways and bought color-coded communications spaghetti and short lengths of house wiring. He battered old coal furnaces into heaps of iron and ash with a sledgehammer, and carted cast-iron window-sash weights from demolished homes. He sniffed out back-alley machine shops and out-of-the-way factories to buy barrels stuffed with the shredded aluminum, brass, bronze or stainless steel turned by lathes and metal-boring machines. He cultivated hospital janitors and bought threadbare sheets and battered plumbing. He found auto-repair shops and schmoozed men with grease-stained hands into parting with strips of wrinkled chrome, crumpled fenders, dead lead batteries, chipped gears, worn-out generators. He bought buckets of blackened motors and switches from electricians, and cajoled or bribed purchasing agents into telling him how much to bid at closed auctions for aerospace effluvia: rejected circuit boards with gold-plated connectors; obsolete prototypes and models, bars, rolls, plates and sheets of exotic alloys, exhausted machinery, outmoded fixtures.
Increasingly deaf, he refused to wear a hearing aid, ignoring unwanted answers, repeating his offers until people said yes. "Yes," he always heard. Dad dropped out of high school during the Depression, but he taught himself cookbook metallurgy; he could identify most metals by scratching, tasting or smelling them, by watching what a drop of acid did to them. He knew the uses of many alloys and when to suspect that a plate might be of nickel, a shaft of bronze, a pipe of zinc, a panel of some little-known stainless steel.
My father often said that making a living from junk meant buying right. "Any fool can get a newspaper and see what No. 1 steel sells for at Wilmington," he'd say. "You have to know what you buy, and then how to buy it." Dad never weighed a purchase if he could avoid it. He was not quite 5 feet 7, and never weighed more than 150 pounds, but he managed to lift 55-gallon drums brimming with scrap. Face purple, veins popping from his neck, he'd grab a drum and pull it onto his knees, gasping, "Two hundred and sixty, maybe 270. Call it 300," he'd offer, magnanimous, and pay for that amount. At the yard where he sold his gatherings, the scale would groan and settle at 530, 540. If a customer insisted on a weighing, Dad unloaded an old balance beam scale and wrestled each barrel aboard. He'd secretly slip a small magnet beneath the balancing weights, making the drum appear lighter. If the scale read 100 pounds, the barrel might hold 120. When he bought his first new truck, he built in another trick by concealing a pair of 80-gallon water tanks beneath the bed. Water goes eight pounds a gallon; filling tanks before loading his truck, and emptying them before stopping at a public scale, he made off with well over half a ton per load. He knew no algebra but multiplied eight-digit sums in his head faster than most people could crank the adding machines of the day. He did the longhand on a scrap of envelope under the seller's nose, and made a math mistake almost every time. I never saw anyone catch him, and when I questioned him, he just grinned. "If they see it, I apologize, and I screw them double next time," he said.
I came to resent this. He lectured me on right from wrong, sent me to Sunday school to learn moral values and beat my backside for lying--but bragged at taking bronze for the price of brass, at stealing half the weight, at buying a load out the back door from someone who shouldn't have sold it. There came a day when I called him on it, and though he grew angry, he never raised his voice. "In business, only the ganef feeds his family," he replied. "If I don't screw them, they'll screw me. When you have your own little bellies to fill, when the landlord comes to put you in the street, you'll understand."
Once, after Dad suffered a heart attack, medical expenses took every cent he'd saved. I put up money and became his silent partner in the business. I soon discovered that sellers concealed worthless steel under valuable aluminum, yardmasters found pretexts to shave prices, smelters reneged on deals after melting his scrap, competitors slandered him shamelessly to steal customers. It wasn't for me, and dad's greatest disappointment was that none of his six children joined him in business. Near the end of his life, broke and trapped in a nursing home, he fantasized about returning to the streets, buying scrap, making a buck, regaining his independence.
After he died, I struggled to make sense of his junkman's life. Finally I understood his ethos: When everyone was a thief, joining the fraternity was dad's only option. I saw, too, that in salvaging the ordinary and the exotic, he'd helped turn them into new and different objects that were again valued. To this day, I cannot see a new car without wondering whether it might contain a few molecules from one of those dozer tracks that he cut up. And I see now that my writer's work is much the same: I support myself finding value in ideas cast off by others: ephemeral words and fleeting thoughts. Recycled and reworked into my own observations, they become components of articles or books, amusing or enlightening many more than the few who first heard or saw them. I am the junkman's son, and in a curious way I have, after all, followed in his footsteps.