Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why I Work

Why do I work?

For that little red Radio Flyer wagon, the one with the polished wooden rails and shiny black handle.

It was sitting on a shelf above and behind the soda fountain in the Abilene Drug Store in Abilene, Texas.  The year was 1961.  I was five years old and was being treated to a Coke float by my Dad, Bill.

This was a rare treat.  Although mindful of the special treatment I was receiving, as I slurped my drink and used that long spoon to artfully gouge the bobbing blob of ice cream in a glass taller than my head, I kept my eyes glued to that wagon.  At some point, with the verve that is typical of many precocious children (specifically a trait of mine) I decided to test my special status and asked Bill if he would buy it for me.

He was gentle about telling me no.  He explained that the wagon cost money.  In answer to my bold-yet-innocent query, 'So what?' he told me that we--the family--could not afford to buy me--the individual--that wagon.  We didn't have the money.

Now, this may not have been my first explanation of money, but it was the one that has stuck with me ever since.  This first denial of a thing due to lack of money imprinted upon me forever a very important understanding about life.  I realized that having something I really wanted required money. Immediately after this revelation, I was struck with another, even more basic understanding, one that has arguably affected me more deeply and for longer than any other impulse that I can recall (other than sex, but that's another story).

I realized that money came from work.

Now, I am sure that by this time in my life, I'd been told about work.  But the thing is, neither of my parents had a regular job in that respect.  From my earliest memory, they had 'worked' at their own business: the Abilene Bookstore.  The bookstore was actually connected to (and in many ways, a part of) our home, so when Bill and Lynda went to work, it simply meant opening the door to the bookstore, turning on the lights and unlocking the front door.

Thus, my earliest model for work was seeing my parents do the various chores around the store: stocking shelves, organizing books, placing orders and doing a lot of sweeping and dusting.  It never occurred to me that they were doing jobs, or that their activity was in any way related to money.

In fact, I had no practically no inkling that money was related to our lives at all.  To be sure, I knew that money was necessary to get things at the grocery store, thanks to an incident that happened when I was about four:  I took a pack of gum from a shelf in the grocery store without telling anyone.  When it was discovered that I was chewing gum in the backseat of the car, I  was busted.  I had to admit to my crime, return to the store with my mother, pay for the gum and apologize for taking it.  After that searingly embarrassing moment, I knew that money was necessary to get things from a store.

So, although I knew what it was like to want something, it wasn't until I saw that little red wagon that I knew what the lust for money was like.  Seeing that wagon that day--so tantalizingly out of reach (in more ways than one)--ignited a fire in my brain.  I was insistent that I wanted it.  Bill was equally insistent that we simply could not afford to buy it.

He did, however, tell me about a way that I could get that wagon: I could save for it.

Bill explained that by accumulating a little bit of money--like pennies, nickels and dimes--every day, over time, it would add up.  And, if I saved long enough, I would eventually have the money I needed to buy the thing I wanted.

He told me that he would buy me a piggy bank.  He even offered to jump-start my project by donating a roll of pennies to put in the new bank.

We finished our sodas and I reluctantly tore my gaze from the wagon.  We headed over to another part of the store to buy a piggy bank.  The one we settled on was iconic.  It was a hollow amber glass pig with a slot for putting money in and no place for taking the money out.  This meant that once the money was in the bank, I would have to break the pig in order to get the money out.  Bill said that this would help me save, since I wouldn't be tempted to take the money out until the bank was full.

He was right. Although I did manage to extract a few coins from time to time by shaking the bank upside down, the inefficiency of this method of bank-robbing--in addition to the fact that I really wanted that wagon--meant that over time I actually managed to put in more coins in the bank than I took out.

Most of the coins in that glass pig were actually contributed by Bill.  Sometimes he would give me a few pennies from his desktop change dish.  Rarely, he gave me a nickel or a dime.  And, on those super-rare occasions, he would give me a whole quarter.  Being a bright and ambitious kid, I realized, of course, that this was a game, and a potentially easy one at that.  The more coins I could gather in the shortest amount of time, the sooner I'd get my prize.

Seeing how quickly the bank began to fill when that entire roll of pennies was introduced to it in the beginning of the enterprise emboldened me to ask my Dad from time to time for another roll.  At first this request was semi-successful.  Then it it no longer worked.  My shameless begging was treated with a smile and a promise of 'perhaps'.  Soon it grew into an annoyance.  He told me that I couldn't expect him to just give me money.

My parents told me that if I wanted money, I would have make it.  That is, to do something in exchange for it.  I would have to earn it.  To this concept, I was immediately and enthusiastically agreeable.  Why not?  To an ambitious lad like me, the possibilities seemed unlimited.  I immediately offered to do all the things I was already required to do--like making my bed, organizing my laundry, brushing my teeth--in exchange for the new object of my desire: money.

Bill and Lynda quickly put that critical misunderstanding to rest.   Those things, they said (no doubt with a wry smile and a small bit of admiration for my ambition) were off the negotiating table, so to speak.  After all, those chores were my responsibility to the family.  As such those tasks could not be sold for profit.

Undiscouraged, however, I resolved to find other things to do--tasks not already in my contract, so to speak--that were also apparently helpful around the house.  I came up with chores like sweeping the kitchen, helping dust books in the bookstore.  I even helped my parents take inventory in the bookstore every month because I could climb around and count the books on the bottom shelves.

Eventually, I took charge of mowing the lawn (a task I really hated because the mower was so loud and difficult to maneuver) and helping with the annual raking of the Pecan leaves that flooded our backyard every winter (a task I loved because it meant many 'pecan feasts' with my brother on the stone barbeque grill that dominated our backyard).

I helped Lynda hang out the laundry and scrub out the bathtub.  I helped Bill count the money in the cash register change drawer and bring in the books from the second-hand book table that sat in the front yard of the house/bookstore.  For every 'job' I received a few coins.  I promptly put them all in that amber glass piggy bank.

Soon the bank began to fill up.  I reveled in each clink, thinking about the wonderful day when I would finally get my wagon.

Eventually, the bank was jammed with coins.  I had packed in the last possible piece of copper and took it down to Bill to show him that it was time.  He went to the garage and got a hammer.  We took the laden glass bank out to the driveway and placed it on top of an upturned garbage can lid where I smashed it.

It was a glorious feeling, liberating all that money toward the object of my desire.  I wanted to scoop it all up and carry it down the street to the drugstore and get my wagon right there and then.  Bill somehow held me back, and we carefully extracted the coins from the glass without severing an artery.

We took the money inside to the kitchen table, where the coins were sorted, stacked and tallied.  Months of saving were finally measured.  The result was devastating.

Not only was there not enough money in the bank to buy the wagon, but it wasn't even close.  I turned to Bill, who had assured me that this plan would work.  He had even told me--in my many moments of high anxiety about the seemingly small sum of these savings--that when the time came, even if it were not enough, he would help me make up the difference.

Well, when the time came, I learned an important--if difficult--lesson.  It was a double blow, a little about Life and a little about Bill.  He was not able to make good on his promise.   This was in part because the amount in my little glass bank (being made up mostly of pennies and nickels) was so small, but it was also because, despite his good intentions, my father simply didn't have the money to give.

This was a tough lesson to take.  It certainly felt like a betrayal to me, and though I am not proud of my reaction, I know that I internalized it as such.  I don't want to overstate the effect however.  It's not like I never forgave him, but I learned from this experience that promises--even from loving and well meaning people--aren't always kept, often for very good and logical reasons.

The net effect of this lesson was actually positive.  Although my faith in him had been shaken, I continued to worship my Dad and followed him around closely for many years. This dual feeling of love and mistrust that I had for Bill would have a long run, and this incident was an important early indicator of that how our complicated relationship was going to develop.  While had most of our differences when I was at my most difficult--my teens and early twenties--these were mostly resolved by the time of his death in 1981.

Needless to say, I did not get the wagon.  I processed this event mentally and emotionally as a disappointment and an opportunity lost.  Although I may have repressed much of the memory, this event was crucial in ways that are not as obvious as it might seem.  Ultimately, this moment raised in my consciousness an important revelation.  I resolved that I did not have to accept future such losses.  I realized that I could--had to, really--control my own monetary destiny.

Now, with that realization pressing me forward, I came to the next logical step. I needed a regular source of income.  This too seemed almost trivially easy to my six-year old brain.  I simply resolved to be responsible for getting money on my own.  I realized that I didn't need to beg my parents for money, or badger them into inventing jobs for me to do.  I realized that I all I had to do was just go get a job.  Then I could make all the money that I needed for all the things that I wanted.

I'd love to claim that this thunderbolt of a realization occurred on the very day and at the very moment when that little broken amber glass bank failed to fulfill my dreams, but it just ain't so.  This powerful understanding about my character did not come to me anywhere near the disappointing experience with the wagon.  It was actually a couple of years later--when I was eight--that I finally decided to take matters in to my own hands.

I decided to look for work.

Abilene had, at the time, a road not too far from our house that was lined--on both sides--with small businesses: cleaners, used car dealers, pet shops, barber shops and dress stores.  I set out early in the morning and arrived on this street as the shop owners were opening up their stores and getting organized for the day.

The scenario was always the same.  I walked in and introduced myself.  As the adults' eyes and smiles grew ever wider, I explained that I was looking for work.  I told them that I was prepared to do whatever I had to to make some money.

Place after place, time after time, I was presented with gentle smiles, pats on the head and back, and even some genuine encouragement.  But no jobs.  I somehow set my disappointment aside with each rejection and remained undeterred.  I decided that it was just a matter of asking enough people, a matter of making all the rounds.

So I did.  From early morning until late evening that day, I walked up and down the entire length of the strip, going into every single business to ask for a job.  Eventually, I ran out of places to visit and light to see by.  It was getting dark by the time I headed home.

In those days, we children were sent out to play in early morning and were really not expected back home until dusk.  As crazy as that sounds to today's generation of new parents, this is just how it was.  As kids, we really did not suffer from an absence of moment-by-moment attention, nor were we placed in any sort of exceptional risk.  I like to think that had someone tried to kidnap me, they would have found me to be so difficult to handle that they would returned me promptly, as in that O'Henry tale about the Ransom of Red Chief.  My difficult nature aside, kidnapping just wasn't a valid concern for me or my parents.

But coming home after dark certainly was.

Dusk is not dark.  That sounds obvious, but to a mother--even one as tough as Lynda--used to seeing her boy come bounding in starving and bouncing around the kitchen before dinner, dark that evening became a very serious moment.  Lynda experienced what every parent dreads: that moment of panic when your child is missing.

She was standing on the porch as I walked up.  Absent, however, was the pride I expected her to bestow upon me when I told her I'd been out looking for a job.  Instead, I got a serious scolding and was sent to bed without dinner.

Later that evening, I finally saw a glimpse of the pride I'd hoped to see in Lynda's face when she brought me some dinner in my room.  She had calmed down and explained how frightened she'd been.  of course, she made me promise not to go off and do it again.

She needn't have worried.  I got all the realization about the futility of that exercise that I needed from the shopkeepers that day.  I knew that getting a job was not going to be as easy as I once thought; perhaps not even easy at all.  I could tell that it was going to take time, and that making money would take some persistence.

Child labor laws being what they were then, this is when I started selling things door-to-door.

The first thing I sold was TV Guide.  On the back of comic books in my day, there were ads for TV Guide salespeople.  It was something kids could do for money.  They way it worked: they sent me about a dozen Guides, and it was up to me to go door-to-door to sell them.  For each one I sold, I got to keep a few cents.  The ones I didn't sell I could return, but if I didn't sell at least a dozen, they would not keep sending me the product.  For several weeks, I managed to sell my twelve copies and in some weeks I did even better.

Selling door-to-door was very hard work, not just because it meant a lot of walking, but also because it meant taking a lot of abuse from folks who quite frankly had no desire to be solicited, even by an ambitious eight-year-old child.  In six months or so, I saw a lot of strange people and some very strange (and messy) houses, but I never made enough money to make it worth the abuse.

I didn't give up my dream of making my own money, however.  During the years that I was legally still too young to work, I also tried selling Grit (a kids newspaper), Fuller Brush, Amway and even Time Magazine subscriptions.  When we moved to Austin in 1968, I immediately got a paper route, delivering about 50 Austin-Americans on my bike every afternoon after school and with Bill in the car on the early weekend mornings.

Sadly--or perhaps to my eventual benefit--none of these ventures ever actually panned out.  It wasn't until I was semi-legally old enough to work (15) that I got my first paying job, as a typist for a patent attorney with an office on Congress Avenue.  By the time I got that job, it was already part of a long personal history, part of a deep desire to work.

And to think, it all started with that little red wagon.

1 comment:

d2 said...

Fascinating insight, especially into Bill. This was a story I've never heard from you.

The picture of Lynda waiting on the porch for you to return after dark, like Atticus, is priceless, too.

Thanks for posting.