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Hooked on Worms

Growing up with an unabated work ethic while stooping low in the rain

Illustration by John Kachik

I used to have worms.

Even at 13 I knew that wasn’t very funny, but it seems to be a crack common to the night crawler business, and I used to be in the night crawler business.

It was 1974 in Joliet, Illinois, and I wanted cash.

We stuck a shingle on the utility pole—shame on us—at the end of our block, where it crossed a busier street. “Worms & Nite-Crawlers, 917.” Our address on Sheila Drive.

It worked. Folks heading out to fish stopped by and rapped on our door to buy their bait. Today it would probably be mistaken for drug deals. Strange cars pulling into the driveway, a dollar handed over in exchange for the goods.

It’s not a job for the squeamish. First you must collect the worms. That means going someplace with lots of grass—a park or a schoolyard. The worms come out of the ground after a good rain, especially at night.

My dad, God bless him, and I and sometimes my younger brother and sister would traipse through the grass in the dark, bent at the waist with a flashlight and old milk jug in one hand. We’d pluck the worms off the ground and drop them into our gallons, which had been cut open at the top to create a larger opening.

We’d be out there for an hour, maybe more—how does a kid measure time hunched over in the total darkness, sometimes in the rain? When we thought we had enough, either worms or of the experience, we’d head home.

There, we dumped them onto newspapers on our basement floor—a writhing mound of slimy, yucky … things. Earthworms produce mucus that keeps their bodies moist to help breathe in oxygen through their skin. In those milk jugs, they seemed to need a lot of mucus.

On good nights there’d be more than a thousand of them squirming on the sports section. My bread and butter.

I counted them out by the dozen and put them, with a bit of peat moss, into old oleo, sour cream and similar containers that friends and relatives saved for me. Then into our basement fridge. Chilled, they went dormant but stayed alive.

And so the anglers came to our door, sometimes in the middle of the night, and bought my worms. Fifty cents a dozen. We’d open the container and stir the peat moss a bit with a finger to show the customer they were getting lively bait that couldn’t fail. Then we’d wish them luck.

Barely more than a decade later, I was a newspaper designer and editor—still working at night, hovering over sports pages, but no longer knuckle-deep in slime.