[continuing, after part 1: https://www.marymuffindonovan.com/post/wages-my-first-job-part-1-of-2-2-20-21 ]
First Paid Pursuits on a One-Time or Recurring Basis That Ultimately Turned into Fashion, While Changing Time Zones
Such as possible, I found freelance gigs.
Yardwork: My friend Mary-Beth and I hacked up a neighbor’s hedges after we knocked on her door and suggested we could “tame that jungle,” then asked if we could borrow her hedge-clippers. Afterward and miraculously, she handed us a ten-dollar bill. Days passed before we could decide what to buy uptown at Marshall Field’s.
Renewing Our Marriage Vows: Also called Confirmation, by choosing a second middle name as long as that name was a Saint’s name. So Twiggy, Cher and Janis were out. Confirmation paid less than First Communion, and we got dressed like for normal church, vaguely mystified.
General Annuity: Surviving another circuit around the sun, some modest payment continued with its bonus of cake and candle-wishes.
Then we orbited back to Maryland, like we had from our Boston duplex. Our father had landed a good job hundreds of miles away from our Chicagoland house and friends, a truth no flat map could rescue. We would live in a new “planned community.”
In the New World of Public School, freelance dollars depreciated. What, wear different clothes from day to day? Happily, our family touched down in a U-shaped neighborhood choked with children, many younger than myself.
Guard-baby: Jackpot! In French class, I’d learned that the word babysitter translates to “garde-bébé,” the guarding of which (babies) sounded more sensible than the sitting. At 75 cents an hour, babysitting outgrew my slotted pig as quickly as we outgrew sneakers and jackets. (In exchange, our faces stretched and reassembled nightly, so our teeth no longer quite dominated. The oldest few of us would not receive braces to realign our teeth, so we would never turn from duckling into swan the day those braces came off. Most regrets, we learned, involved an exchange of benefits. Years later and well into adulthood, we still regularly brace for a new dentist’s recommendation of adult orthodontics.) We opened a bank account at the Village Mall.
This new job of guarding babies required a slow, deliberate orbit around our U-shaped neighborhood, as couples planned their nights out in turn. Babysitting, although unencumbered by overlord, did have its demands: flights of imagination; laughter; an eye toward safety; an occasional eyebrow - oh no you’re not; escorts to playgrounds or the pool; TV-watching; fort-building; snacking and other duties as assigned. Vigilant play.
We could not believe married parents handed us money afterward. Multiples of 75 cents notched incrementally as dusk turned black. We could not believe, on rare occasions when a couple stayed out eight, nine, ten hours! -- through the Late Show movie (back when couples still kissed with their mouths closed), through the Late Late Show (way-back when couples spoke only in typed cards until Greta Garbo demanded “viskey”) -- they would hand us a $20 bill.
“I can’t take this – it’s too much,” per the Math.
“Yes you can. You earned it.”
Half-chuffed, half-alarmed, we’d finally let the father press the twenty into our palms, and only briefly considered Confession.
We could not believe married couples wanted to go out dancing or partying with each other on both purpose and a routine basis. We could not believe the special relativity of space (volume, density, cleanliness and order) or time (hours, degrees of calm and near-competence) inside households with fewer than 6 children. Some couples even talked to us like we were almost adults, with ideas and thoughts of our own.
“What do you think of the mural we painted today?” they asked one night. Their faces really wanted to know what I thought. I, well, I thought it was. “Oh. It’s so. Cooool.”
It was so cool.
Mr. and Mrs. E. had made a bold statement, a shared statement, right on their living-room wall. With cans of paint, they had colored Euclidean nesting circles, alternately orange, red and purple, with a common tangent point at the bottom (or top of the sofa). I wondered if they used a giant compass, or – but they talked with such excitement, I didn’t want to interrupt.
Meanwhile, back home, “Now that you’re working, you can buy your own clothes.” Thus working underage replaced Allowance. In other words, you would learn to make your own clothes.
At first, all that surrounds a parent star is a whirling disk of dust and gas. In time, with enough metal available, discrete planets could coalesce. The coalescing, rotating part could gain enough angular momentum for you and your friend Vanessa to grip arms and spin together on ice skates faster than you could’ve imagined, or could ever spin by yourself. Unique properties resolved.
You could walk or bike up to the fabric store together and chip in for one Young Junior pattern, without asking permission from either of your mothers. On a planet’s crust, very small surface changes -- color, pattern, machine-washability, maybe a matching shoulder-bag if remnants allowed – may predict a hyperbolic path in relation to a parent star. Ordinarily parallel lines may curve away from each other, leaving their common perpendicular to recede. Take-home message: an adolescent, once guarding bébés, may acquire unexpected skill sets – such as sewing and non-Euclidean geometry.
First Paid Pursuit on an Ongoing Basis
from which Taxes and Social Security Were Deducted
Lifeguarding. Guarding the youngest of our realm transitioned naturally to guarding all the ages. Relative to bodies of water, lifeguarding evolved from swim-team practice, where each summer a new workforce emerged like juvenile frogs out of tadpoles.
Water Safety and Rescue posed many paradoxes. Sitting meant guarding, finally: in a high chair with an aerial view. Eyes constantly moving -- from striped lanes to deep diving-well to shallow splash-water – meant working. Learning to break the holds of panicked swimmers became essential for saving their lives. If you did not break their holds, you could save neither them nor yourself with the cross-chest carry. About this, there would be a test, using both paper and muscles.
Our planned Village hired lifeguard labor at minimum wage, or $2.00 an hour, once they were of legal age. I was not yet of legal lifeguarding age, but I didn’t know about legal lifeguarding age, and no one had asked my age. Thus having not lied, working underage was not at all a sin. The force of sin had dwarfed in any case; even our father might prefer to skip church on Sunday, much as that pained our mother. We weren’t sure if the New World of Public School had had an impact, or if the threat of Heaven versus Hell had given way to moon-rocks and newer medications, as long as the newer medications were taken with compliance.
(If a central star stopped taking its medications, it would try once again to extinguish itself, like it had from inside a war. Then it would go into the hospital again for a couple weeks. The orbiting bodies would breathe more easily, literally, their atmospheres cleared of cigarette smoke. But laws of the universe prevailed, and before long, the air would choke again. (And only in retrograde motion, or hindsight, from years later, might a system appreciate the impact of misdiagnosis and only somewhat effective medications, at any point in space-time prior to appropriate diagnosis, many years later.))
In any case, no one had me asked how old I was, and Marie needed a substitute. Conveniently, I needed minimum wage. One hour of lifeguarding equaled almost 3 hours of baby-guarding. Seasonal bonus: many of my beloved young charges would be at the Stedwick community pool. So at fifteen, I began to pay federal and state tax, and into a Social Security fund I might never recoup upon retirement, squirming onto the planet in Late-Baby-Boomer Era.
Full-time Permanent Summer Hire: Once 16 and now completely legally, I worked a summer at Watkins Mill Pool, just one bike-ride away. (Minimum wage had skyrocketed to $2.10 every hour.) Biking remained my mode, since, although I was sixteen, my Dad would not let me take my driver’s test on account of insurance premiums.
My manager, Scott, and fellow guards Will and Marie – the same Marie – took turns sitting up in the high chairs while the radio played through mounted speakers. In-between chair shifts, we’d swim, pick up litter, or lounge on cots in the pool office. We were fashioning a pop-top necklace that circled the office once, twice, then half-way-around again. Soda cans in the ‘70s opened with a pull-tab that came off completely -- a ring with a curling, metal extension shaped like a tidal wave. The curled metal, if dropped on the deck, could gash the bottom of a rescuable patron’s tender foot. It could also be linked, by manual pressure, to the ring of another tab in an infinite progression, meaning through sunset on Labor Day.
Marie needed substitutes that summer, too, so a guy named Chris might join our pop-chain task force. My brain resisted crushes on all these guys. I needed older brothers – both my brothers were younger, and my older sister was a sister – and these guys were in college.
I needed, for example, someone to notice, then ask me if those were bruises, or the ground-in burn scar on my face, or whatever. Then I could try making up a new answer. Coalescing into an individual planet of teen-age sometimes encountered enraged, even violent resistance from a parent star. No one within close range (at home) might even acknowledge the after-effects of such a burn at all. Likewise, if a hostile meteorite landed where your hair was thick and long, some bruises were not even naked to the visible eye. Much less a lit cigarette, intentionally driven into your right cheek’s surface one night, from inside the star’s alchemy of rage, misdiagnosis and bourbon.
About my cheek scab, I answered Will, for example, “Oh I was just doing some ironing. I don’t know what happened,” thinking that would be a funny deflection.
My appointed older-brother Will did not laugh. He stared at me and my burnt cheek long enough that I wondered if he figured something out. Like the actual thing. And that would be a mortal sin, of my doing, to reveal. Besides, who would ever believe the actual? (So I needed a better answer, didn’t I, for example.)
At other times, the guys guarded me way too protectively. Case in point: they would not take me with them to see the Rolling Stones.
“Too raunchy,” they insisted.
“What do you mean? I’ve loved them since I was young,” I insisted. “Brown Sugar!”
My college-aged work-brothers described an arena performance the other night where Mick pounded a giant inflated phallus, singing, “Star-f*@#ing, Star-f*@#ing!” They whisper-yelled the actual word so no patrons would hear.
“I can handle that,” I whispered back, now attending Public School.
“Yeah but we can’t.”
So I closed up at dusk, while they drove to Landover to see Mick and the lads again.
One gray morning soon after, I hoped to swim laps before Scott and I opened to all the ages. I pedaled my bike up the last hill to discover Scott standing on the deck.
Something was up. He wasn’t skimming bugs with a net, just standing there. As I squeezed the brakes, Scott’s face turned toward mine through the chain-link fence, like a sunflower seeking light as long as possible before having to explain what the men in windbreakers were doing on the deck. A police car strobed red, white and silent, near the pool entrance. Scott met me in the office.
“What’s going on?” I asked him.
He blinked at me for a few seconds. I knew Scott wore “contacts,” a new invention of clear, hard, convex lenses that replaced eyeglasses. They irritated his eyeballs, but not enough to revert to glasses. I waited for an answer -- intrigued by the strange refraction of his winking lenses, was that the outline of me there, wavering? -- an answer he was trying to temper.
“We’re.” He swallowed and blinked. One thumb launched toward the diving well. “Not opening today.”
My manager added nothing. He was drifting away, untethered.
(Toss a buoy.) “Who are those men in windbreakers?”
He gasped once. “Investigators.” Then, looking directly into my eyes, “We’ve had a fatality, Mary.”
Of gravity, electromagnetism, strong- and weak-force interactions, gravity is the weakest. You would never believe that if you only lived and died, human-sized, on planet Earth. I blinked with him.
“What?” I asked. “You mean a person?” We hadn’t even opened yet.
Scott’s mouth opened, not very wide, but enough for the story to tumble out.
A kid, maybe thirteen or fourteen, had climbed over the tall, chain-link fence some time during the night. He had tied a cinder block around his waist with a length of rope and stepped into the diving well. The cops got a frantic call early this morning from his family, there might’ve been a note Scott wasn’t sure, and the cops called him to come open up. An ambulance had already taken the body away. The boy had been especially close to his grandmother, who had recently died. That’s all they knew at this point.
Sweet Jesus. “Do they know his name?” I asked.
Scott told me the name.
I knew the name. My youngest brother’s friend; he’d been over to our house. One of those rising stars who excelled in school, sports, friends, a future. I felt my planet’s metal-rich, molten core pull my shoulders down, down.
How would his family ever get over this? I already wondered, still standing in front of my first real supervisor at my first real job.
“Sorry,” Scott added. “You won’t get paid for today.”
I shrugged a shoulder. I knew I was hourly. He would call me when we re-opened. I nodded, then rode away on my bike in a random pattern around Watkins Mill. I wondered if my brother had heard yet, so I rode home to check on him. Billy had heard, I think from Serge, our brother-from-another-mother, through the telephone on the basement wall. We cried for a few minutes together, until the phone rang again.
I couldn’t talk about this yet, even to Barb or Vanessa. Nothing else to do but ride up to the indoor pool, where I could swim laps along the trusty black line of a closed and chlorinated system.
How had he lifted both himself and such a heavy, huge brick over that tall fence, without it falling and shattering into a thousand gray chunks?
That night in bed, my intensive job-training could not unwind inside the borders of my head. To save him, one of us – Scott, Will, Marie/Chris, or myself – would’ve had to sense something wrong, wrong enough to wake us up by vibratory connection to his broken adolescent heart. Then we would’ve had to believe that sense of something, enough to get out of bed, put on our swimsuit, ride our bike up to Watkins Mill, scale the chain-link fence (if we were not Scott who had the office key), then notice a boy -- at the bottom of deep-blue water inside the darkness of night – then kick off our flip-flops and dive into the well, oh, holding some sort of saw, if not a true carpenter-saw then strong, pinking shears from our sewing box, the teeth of which could bite through the rope so we could grab the kid and cross-chest carry him up to the surface while his heart, lungs, brain still persisted. That seemed much to ask, even if saving lives was our job.
Would we even think to bring along our sewing shears, in the foggy urgency of wee hours? (Years later, I learned from my brother that they had also found scissors at the bottom of the pool. So D- had hedged his decision. The weight of the cinder-block and water pressure must have overwhelmed him. I wondered where Scott was today, to tell him I’ve never forgotten either. He may not have known about the scissors, or he may have spared me that point.)
Watkins Mill pool stayed closed through the next day.
For the rest of the summer, we staff extended our pull-tab chain, now a big enough necklace for a mythical giant, or water itself, if those were different. Scott and Will talked about books I’d never read, philosophers I’d “appreciate when you get older.” They quoted Monty Python’s King Arthur movie for days at a time, taunts and quizzes about coconuts, wingspans, shrubbery. (When I finally saw the movie seven years later in Paris with my Aussie boyfriend, I laughed even harder at the familiar dialogue. It smelled like chlorine and warm skin.) Up in the guard chairs, we tried to find delight in watching our neighborhood families splash and bob and scream, in total trust of our savinghood.
But we had failed. Or I felt I had failed.
Deep down, our young brains knew we were powerless about almost everything that happened anywhere, all the horrible inequities, conflicts, and suffering throughout the modern world, day and night. But why did this kid, inside the familiar tempest of young-teen hormones, have to die, for good?
Especially while, for other people -- adults who’d sailed into conflicted foreign zones and tried, in their own way, to use rope and concrete periodically for years now – someone always managed to find the shears in time? Those rescued-adults’ families wouldn’t have to get over their dying, but get over their surviving.
The outcomes felt as random as the colors of countries on a map. Who got to decide these things, and why?
Up in the hard-molded chair, I twirled my metal whistle and blinked in the sunlight without corrective lenses. By noon each day, the morning fog would step out of the trees and ascend, like layers of cigarette smoke in a living-room with the roof blown off. By afternoon, that haze might have been just the hangover of an unsettling dream. No matter how intensely or scientifically you thought you observed this progress, you could never catch the moment when morning became day.
My eyes checked the bottom of the diving well, then the springboards. Children leapt up in parabolas, now shrieking, now weightless, now gone.
What would it mean to his family, never to be able to forget? That perfect blue water right down there, seventy-percent of Earth and our own selves and the locus of one boy’s last breath.
Sweat trickled down the small of my back and glued my suit to the molded chair. The Sun loomed closer to keep a better eye on all of us. Even the Moon, although transparent, loitered in the white-blue sky above the pool office. Our only natural satellite had been jabbed by American flags and golf clubs and asteroids, and who knew what all? Some days the world was just a star-f*@#ing oven.
Didn’t clay blobs temper in high heat? And depending on which glazes you brushed on, the pliant and irregular messes transformed into brilliant colors, ready to catch ashes, ashes, falling down. Inside my failure to preserve life, I would keep my eyes moving and keep my saving muscles ready. I would bike my wages up to the bank for college, and go away to college, in due course. After college, I would aim for other time zones such as I could afford, while pulling the freight of student loans.
What did I think I’d be doing some day? Would I draw and color the rest of my own imagined scene? Take any job that presented itself? I probably would; I needed the work.
Per the news, the cost of living rose every year, regardless of socio-economic status. “Cost of living” depended on what you meant by “cost,” and “living.” Adults who owned cars had to wait in line for an hour (we knew time equaled money) just to buy gas, before some lifeguards even had licenses. Worse things could happen on our overcrowded Earth. The planet’s resources did not approach infinity -- that we knew for sure. Why did newsmakers in the ‘70s act like they did?
Through his dentures clamped, my father talked about a “homeless” man he passed every day downtown, a relative rarity. As I understood it, this man lived without the simplest comforts of shelter, or warmth, or a piece of fresh fruit. (In a few short years, American sidewalks would become a diaspora for patients ejected from mental hospitals – just not profitable.) I wondered about this homeless man often, when my mind could go on break. He couldn’t even hear the news about his own sidewalk’s inflation, with its ballooning and persistent economic impact.
I felt so fortunate. $2.10 every hour. For even the chance to save someone.
Sometimes in the bright sun, every living thing seemed to waver. The tall trees took back some of the morning fog they’d donated. Maybe trees had tiny slits just for this wavering, invisible to the human eye, where the atmosphere gave a portion back to the living things. Like deductions from a paycheck, to even things out, some decade later. Maybe everything just kept exchanging, back and forth, all the time, even if we couldn’t see the exchange.
What did my older-brother guards say about Aristotle’s cycle of elements? Fire then air, water then earth?
Please, I thought toward the radio speakers, please play Earth Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star” next. Who in the world got paid a living wage to listen to such good songs? Would we ever find a better job than this? I checked the shallow end, lap lanes, diving well, concrete deck. So many patrons on a blistering day like this. I blew my whistle at a cluster of running kids.
Children just didn’t perceive the dangers. The true cost of living might never be greater than the cost of growing up at all.
Maybe our semi-permeable surfaces would always carry some impact scars, from errant projectiles or burning cigarettes. Maybe scars were just the coin of the realm.
An Unexpected Deduction
Wait. To grow up at all, maybe we had to pay out -- from everything we had ever banked, to earn our own orbit?
Was that possible (we could really only save ourselves)? Would that be some kind of sin?
Vigilance! Diving well, roped-off lanes, shallow end, deck. “WALK.”
But to certify, didn’t we have to demonstrate the cross-chest carry on a panicky victim (one of our massively muscled instructors)? The key: don’t let the other’s panic pull you under, too. To save us both, we had to limit our own risk, by limiting the other person’s reach.
My whistle whirled and banged against the fist giving it momentum. If I understood myself at all, I could live with that cost.
My skin felt an exchange, a wavering of its boundaries, even a momentary excuse from gravity. The slightest wind brought relief from our burning star. (Our Sun, like all stars, only seemed eternal. However sustaining during our measly lifetime, stars, too, would all die.) Still, nothing compared to the relief of water.
Without taking my eyes off my job, I wondered why, of the four elements, the group Earth, Wind & Fire had decided against Water. The only one with two syllables, or something more?
Just as I wondered why I wondered things like that, Will’s finger tapped me from behind.
“I’m up,” he said. We both checked the clock and blew our whistles for adult swim. I climbed down the ladder.
Sixteen, yes. But, bonus, being on the payroll meant adult enough for adult swim. I needed to prepare for my future wages of sin: dive off the lip of the deck, change my state of matter.
I held my arms out and sailed through the diving well where a boy had surrendered and no one had rescued him during the night. For some reason Skylab, up in orbit, landed in my brain. Who knew how much farther humans might roam than the Moon? The Apollo-Soyuz mission would begin soon. U.S. and Soviet crews would link and work together, up in their space station. Colleagues. Office-mates. Inter-dependents. Almost impossible to imagine in my lifetime, throughout which a Cold War had always waged.
When I reached the far wall of the diving well, I remembered I was still getting paid. That hot afternoon at Watkins Mill pool, Will’s eyes were working up in the chair. Children were not allowed in the water for another 14 minutes. I was earning actual bank-money to float in the well, by myself, on my back, with a vast, blue summer sky above.
I thanked my lucky stars. Of all the first jobs I ever had, this was real. Part of me wished I could retire at 16.
I closed my eyes. My face felt sun-warm but my butt water-chilled. If only our bodies had evolved to be symmetrical from front to back; then we could turn over and still breathe. But then we’d have eyes constantly facing backward as well, and that would be worse. Remembering was plenty.
We had been fashioned exactly how we needed to live on our own planet, with the same invisible slits in all living things. Somehow, our planet’s elements, and life-forms, and air- and ocean-currents move about and break away. They leap and fall onto other lands entirely, lands we can only dream of stepping onto, subject to gravity.
I pulled water and dropped another coin into myself.
Thank you for reading this longer thing, in its two parts.