Shedding Cement Shoes

As a young teenager, I found working to be uniquely exciting. Since I was always drawn to independence, working eventually led to a freedom of choice in the clothes I wanted to wear, the food I wanted to eat, and the things I wanted to buy.

Share your gifts with those around you.

So I went the “typical kid” route and cut lawns. My dad suggested buying a good mower with some of my savings, but I thought it possible to work that expense into my fees.

I approached people with the proposition that I would cut their lawn with their mower and their gas, and instead of charging the typical $10, I would cut the lawn for $8–taking a dollar off each for gas and wear-and-tear on the mower. I found most people agreeable to that, and when it came time to pay, most (not all) would still hand me $10 and say, “Oh, just keep it kid, you do a nice job.”

Instead of dragging a mower around the neighborhood, this idea allowed me to bike from job to job more quickly, creating a much larger customer base. And I never had to pay for repairs. By design, doing the job well earned that $2 bonus more for integrity than anything else.

Fairly soon I had 10 regular customers, and I spaced out the cuttings so I had two a day with weekends off. Once $100 a week was coming in regularly, I became known as a reliable entity. My customers often had other jobs, too, like washing windows, cleaning out garages, and trimming hedges. I seized these opportunities, and before I returned to school in the fall, I had about $3,000 in the bank.

In mid-August, I took $100 of my stash, biked up to the army/navy store, and bought 10 pairs of khaki pants, 10 T-shirts, 10 flannel shirts, a pair of work boots, and a dozen pairs of socks. With the money left over, I took all of the clothing to the dry-cleaners and had them washed and pressed.

Later that month, my dad asked my mom if she needed to buy my sisters and me some school clothes. I interrupted and said, “No–I’m all set.” They just smiled like I didn’t know what I was talking about until I took Mom into my room and opened the closet where the new clothes were neatly hung and all in dry-cleaner plastic to boot.

Looking back, I wish I had captured this army/navy fashion thing which is so big today, but it was 1974, and I didn’t know I had lightning in a bottle. I was just proud to have money in the bank to save my dad a couple bucks. I felt great, independent, strong, and capable.

I was simply becoming who I am now. I’ve never been without a job since that summer.

Bitter Enemy

Later that year during the Christmas break, a friend of my parents said he knew of a pizza place in town that was hiring kids to stock and load supplies. I went over, got the job, and started the next morning.

When I arrived, I met another kid who had been hired (he was 6 or 8 years older) and the full-time guy (about 65), who would be in charge of us. He was an unsmiling, bitter old fellow. He immediately began yelling at us, but the older kid wasn’t afraid of him. He yelled back, cursed at him, and often said, “No” when he was told what to do.

By the end of the first day, the other kid had quit. I wanted the money and thought I could stick it out just by complying with the old guy.

He started picking on me, but then slowly began to see I was hard-working and well-meaning, so he started explaining things to me more slowly and gently.

Over lunch he regaled me with tales of his childhood and family. He had lost his only son in a car accident many years before, and it tore him up so badly his wife divorced him and he lost his job. That’s how he came to be a simple handy man at the pizza joint, living in a one-room rental that belonged to the owner of the shop. The rent came directly out of his check.

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