On my most recent birthday, via Zoom, my family asked a bunch of questions (favorite vacation memory? if I could live anywhere in the world ... ) My niece Emily asked, "What was your first job?" Had to smile, since that was harder to answer than I'd guessed, when I tried to write something about exactly that a few years ago. I promised Emily I'd share it, and this seems a convenient place. Since it's on the longer side, here's part 1 of 2:
WAGES: My First Job (part 1 of 2)
My first job? Hard to say. Depends on how you define “job.” The first pursuit I was ever paid for? Or first ongoing, regular pursuit I was ever paid for? Or first ongoing, regular, paid pursuit from which Social Security was deducted? I waver, in part because I’m a bit of a waverer, and in part because the meaning of “job,” once you start thinking about it, expands -- like a balloon with pennies placed on its surface, then inflated to illustrate the expansion of space-time. The meaning of “first” also expands, once you start thinking about coins and balloons, or space-time and singularity. (About the “my” I’m reasonably clear, most days.)
First Pursuit Ever Paid For
Surviving infancy. The first birthday I remember must’ve been in Kensington, Maryland: I’m holding the shape and weight of a silver dollar in my pliant palm. My grandfather Downs had pressed the coin there, not inside a card; he figured I couldn’t read. He was right. Back then, we didn’t learn to read as toddlers so we could “get into” a “top kindergarten.” We played outside for several years after birth, until we walked to the nearest kindergarten. At the nearest kindergarten, we made a circle and played Duck-Duck-Goose, and fashioned clay into ashtrays for our parents. (Ashtrays, even ones that came out of a kiln lumpy as asteroids, were obligatory in a 1960s household.)
I’m not sure I appreciated the concept of payment on that birthday. I remember liking the coin's shape and heft and gleam. I probably mouthed it for a moment. My dresser held a new piggy bank with a slot cut into its back, as if that were normal for a pig. If I stood on my bed, I could drop the silver dollar right in. My first paycheck, for obeying gravity and wheeling around the sun again without dying.
First Paid Pursuit More Frequent Than Birthdays
Removing teeth from my mouth. Around the time we started Reading in old-school school, we learned that baby-teeth equaled top-dollar. We checked for latent wiggle, bit into apples at the sign of kinetic wobble, and delivered the displaced tooth under our pillows at night. To compensate us for that work, the Tooth Fairy left wages. We understood teeth did not directly correspond to coins, so we could not drop them into our pig’s slot; teeth were too chunky, and the T.F. needed the work. An exchange was required. We also understood the T.F. to be female, without concerning ourselves why. We did not concern ourselves much over how she used all those teeth, even if we could imagine a dental necklace that went all the way around the world.
We could not hope to remove all our baby-teeth in, say, one day, so we had no hope of earning enough from them to join the Monkees Fan Club. Opportunities landed sporadically, like freelancing in a recession.
The T.F. made deposits, house-by-house, in accordance with socio-economic status. Children in houses with central air-conditioning and wall-to-wall carpeting (the 1% of the tooth-losing workforce) received as much as a buck per tooth. Most children in the later ‘60s received a quarter. In the morning, under our pillows, a quarter felt as big as planet Earth if Earth were still flat. We felt buoyant and a little bit wicked. Now we could pick out a Milky Way Bar or, literally, a Payday.
Once I woke to find two dimes and a nickel. Sure, the same take-home, but come on. The T.F. could fly but couldn’t stop at the bank, when she only worked nights? That nickel mocked me with its pointless bulk. I dropped the wafers, barely audible, through my pig’s back. Sometimes even a salty Payday could wait.
First Paid Pursuit While Wearing a Wedding Dress
Marrying Jesus. Soon after we could apple-bite a tooth out, we (meaning girls, in Catholic subculture, any combination of friends, sisters, cousins) became Brides of Christ. (No disrespect, folks. The nuns called us that for our First Communion. They had married him, too.) First we practiced our Bridehood – paraded, knelt, did not stick out our tongues too far -- and on the big day, wore white dresses and veils to prove our troth. (Boys wore suits and miniature ties. No one referred to them as Grooms, or Male Brides, or Jesuses; boys were basic Communicants. Boys knew the horizon would right itself the next day and belong to them again. At that time, not one woman had ever been elected Senator, or punched through the atmosphere in a rocket-ship, even after marrying a Savior.)
Marriage, thankfully, paid a premium. This was like removing all your milk-teeth in one day. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents all stepped up and slipped a dollar or two in an envelope. We tried to remain holy all day – the body and blood of Christ was no small transubstantiation – but we couldn’t help mentally calculating the gross: an Etch-a-Sketch all to ourselves; a new set of Viewmaster wheels, like “Lost in Space” or “Our National Parks”? What did things cost, bigger than candy? Guilt over the calculations weighed upon our veiled heads, but the catastrophe that our status lasted one day weighed even more.
First Paid Pursuit, Secondarily to a Functional (Non-cash) Prize
Imagining Sugar Bear in a Tableau. Eating cereal in Cambridge, Massachusetts – carefully, so whole puffed pieces did not transit the gaps in my teeth to choke me -- I learned of a contest from the cereal box. We, the children of North America, were challenged to consider a “scene” around the image of the Super Sugar Crisp Bear, the outline of whom was already placed inside a blank, white square on the box. What did we think he was doing? Would we draw and color the rest of that imaginary scene, and air-mail it to C.W. Post? We certainly would; we needed the work.
The outline of Sugar Bear was bending perceptibly at the waist and holding one of his arms slightly higher than the other. The rest of the scene? Up to us.
It soon appeared to me, the way the answer in a Magic 8 Ball suddenly resolved, “Reply Hazy, Try Again.” Sugar Bear was busy carpentering, it was so obvious. He was good at it, too -- the teeth of his saw just so, biting a piece of two-by-four atop a saw-horse. Obviously, Sugar Bear labored in a modest clearing surrounded by pines and tall oaks. Nearby stood Sugar’s log house, partially built of pine and tall oaks. (No bricks in a fresh forest, despite tall tales of little pigs.) I labored for quite a few minutes with pencil and crayons, until all this would be obvious to C.W. Post as well. My mother helped me mail it off with a stamp.
Weeks later, a letter arrived to announce that my Carpenter Sugar had won 3rd prize; a box would arrive with a “Lino-printer” inside. Soon my family and friends were hand-cranking a barrel printer. We changed the colored inks and plastic plates to make tickets, cards, whatever held our interest (except money, which could not be home-made, much as we discussed the possibility) on the front porch of our Cambridge duplex.
Soon after that prize landed, a letter arrived from my Uncle Jim, about to become a Father-Uncle Jim priest. He sent congrats and a $5 bill. I am reasonably sure that was my first fiver. Take-home message: even a child could be paid handsomely -- by someone who had almost taken a vow of poverty -- just for reading the back of a cereal box and not choking to death.
First Paid Pursuit from Half a Planet Away
Not going inside a war. Like comets, households may return to a locus of origin, or Maryland, if origins of ellipses can even be located. Equilibrium might step aside in favor of chaos. When a central star, or Dad, applies for a job in a war in Southeast Asia, any revolving body’s core begins to vibrate with uncertainty. The vibration becomes a constant hum, a background noise against assurances that he will wear a suit-and-tie and sit at a desk in a place called Saigon. Bonus assurance of vague impact: wages increase when a person labors inside the waging of war.
That belly-hum persisted well through the holidays, when we pressed the stems of whole cloves into oranges. Their lined pattern suggested longitudes, or meridians. My class had just learned about those in school. (Even today, decades later, that sinus memory, tethered to the scent of orange-peel mist and cloves, collapses to Christmas and War.) I made repeated trips to the basement, where a world map hung on the wall. If I put one thumb on Maryland and another thumb on Vietnam, I could prove they were less than two feet apart. (Who got to choose which countries got to be which colors, and why? Some unknown artist knew a way into knowing things. I imagined all artists knew ways into knowing things.)
Even two feet away on the wall, a Dad’s office desk equaled half-way around a planet. Accepting new dimensions had come into play, like a flat balloon could become a ball.
Once or twice we talked to him on the kitchen wall-phone. Through the static of twelve meridians, we were pretty sure the voice was his. Those of us who had not gone to war baked and boxed up chocolate-chip cookies. They were the only dessert we’d ever seen him eat, besides cigarettes and coffee. He would dip the cookies in his coffee with a cigarette puffing between his fingers. We hoped the cookies, when they finally arrived, had not transformed into rocks. If people drank coffee in Indochina, it would have to be some powerful liquid to make those rocks edible, or someone could break a tooth.
Now and then an almost see-through letter would arrive. Once, a letter arrived with strange currency enclosed for each of us. Our mother passed them out. Mine said, “To Mary from Daddy” written right onto the money. (On one side of complicated green etching, the money featured a blank white circle, like the disk of a very hot Sun.) Before that moment, I had not even considered that money could aim for a specific individual; there was so much to learn, growing up. I put the Vietnam money in my scrapbook, not my pig. It seemed more like artwork. If I understood correctly now, something could simultaneously exist as art and money.
We children were not allowed to write on money. That was like a sin. Not quite murder, but. We lacked both the maturity to do so, and the amplified wages of war.
First Paid Pursuit on an Ongoing Basis, Albeit My Friend Sharon’s Basis
Substitute-Delivering “The Oak Leaves” When They Went to Michigan. By now, most of our replacement teeth were growing in as freakishly enormous, permanent Chiclets. Our mouths were caricatures of Mary-Tyler-Moore, Carol Channing, The Joker. We could only hope our lips would close, so bugs wouldn’t fly inside when we rode our bikes. Privately, while gooshing our pillows and trying to sleep, we reminisced about the ease of whistling or smoking candy cigarettes, in that sea of tranquility known as kindergarten.
Now we toiled in the harsh economy of pre-pubescence. Our locus? Hundreds of miles from kindergarten or clove-studded oranges, carried against prevailing winds toward Chicago. And we were almost out of baby-teeth.
If you were my enterprising friend, whom I’ll call Sharon, you took over her big sister’s paper route the minute her big sister discovered boys. All year in Oak Park, Illinois, through sunshine or snow, Sharon delivered The Oak Leaves to subscribers from whom she’d also collect cash. (Every newspaper back then was news on paper.) She’d roll each issue individually and secure it with a rubber band, ink-bruising her hands and forearms. Then from her bike, she’d hurl the cylinders into the general area of subscribers’ porches. Oh, all this after she’d convinced her father to drive her to the drop-off corner to pick up flat stacks tied with string, blocks away from their house.
I knew only of the “hurl from your bike” part when I said, “Deal.” Sharon’s entrepreneurial family took a vacation to an Upper Peninsula in August, and she asked me to “cover her route.” She would pay me out of her collections envelope when she got back. Get paid for riding my bike? “Deal,” I said.
I could not wait for her to get back from her peninsula. My bike had no basket, my arm inconsistent aim, and my father no interest in driving to the drop-off corner for pick-up.
My father had not worked in almost a year by then, but that didn’t inspire him to want to leave the house. His primary tasks were smoking, pacing, and sometimes, going back into the hospital for a few weeks. So, unlike Sharon, I would ride my bike to the drop-off corner and roll and band the newspapers right there, with my knees impacting the sidewalk.
Oh, maybe Sharon forgot to mention but, “you’ll have to do the collections, too,” while she was away.
Most subscribers were also away. My summer substitute-entrepreneurship evolved into daydreaming about homework. Whatever cash she pressed in my palm -- belatedly (and a few bucks short?) -- mocked me and my freakish smile. “Thanks.” Working for a living was going to be just groovy.
First Paid Pursuit on an Ongoing Basis Not Sharon’s
Allowance for servitude. Children in those days walked freely and unsupervised, in pairs or clusters, to places like Kresge’s or Woolworth’s. We walked without much fear of being snatched (or run over by texting drivers).
Many children we knew received an “allowance,” a dollar or two per week, for the sweat-equity of dusting, vacuuming, hauling trash bins to the curb. Pocketed weekly, wages turned into unsupervised consumerism. Our parents relented to the communal tyranny of allowance when they realized that unsupervised consumerism got us out of the house. Our existing lists of chores grew longer. Back then, a single hour lasted for hours, so we still had time to skip up to Woolworth’s before dark.
If I understood correctly, a human man would soon drop onto the surface of the Moon. All bets might be off, dark-and-day-wise. We could feel a kind of realignment well above our heads, as the year 1970 approached. No one’s allowance could deflect the end of a decade or the sudden abundance of Volkswagens.
In any case, Allowance replaced Indentured Servitude for the people younger than the mother. I mentioned this obvious transition to my Dad one day after school; he was home being out of work. I understood that I.S. meant lodging, food, clothing (in exchange for chores), not cash wages.
“So now only Mom is an indentured servant, right?”
When my teacher had used the term, my father’s dentures appeared to me. They sat in a dedicated glass overnight in the bathroom. (“They pulled all my teeth out in one day, just before college,” he answered, when we asked how come he wore those. “Back then they didn’t bother with root-canals or crowns.” We couldn’t imagine what those words meant: “back then.” I didn’t ask if he’d hit the jackpot with the T.F. that one day before college. Already I knew that by (anyone’s) college, the T.F. had replaced her entire workforce, and she had been our mother.)
“You can thank your lucky stars you’re not an indentured servant!” he said. Then he delivered a stern lecture on the history of slave labor and migrant tenancy in the United States. When he was “incensed” -- which, I’d learned, meant more than church smoke -- my dad spoke with his upper and lower teeth clenched together. After his lecture I went to the powder room to see if I could close my lips all the way. The rest of me was still catching up -- to my curiosity, and my mouth.
(to be continued …)