Monday, July 12, 2004

PART 7 - Money

Blogging abounds today - the writing muse is having a particularly long visit with me, so I will take advantage of the ramdom mental misfirings and forge ahead with this story.

For dedicated readers, congratulations for making it this far. For new readers, you really should start at the beginning of my blog. It is much funnier.

And with that, I will complete our trifecta of Pink Floyd, hearing the tinkling of coins in their classic, "Money"

It's a hit
Don't give me that do goody goody bullshit

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I received a statement from the Social Security Administration the other day. The insert urged me to carefully review the statement for any errors or omissions in my work history. With a mixture of pride and sadness, I glanced over the extensive list.

The first job that I held that withheld Social Security was in 1979. I was born in 1966. You do the math. (OK, I won't make you do the math; I was 13).

Even that doesn't tell the whole story. 2 years before that, I was babysitting kids in the neighborhood. The two little girls that lived behind me were my full-time charges when I was 11. I arrived at their house when their mother left at 7:45 am to go to work at Southern Bell, and I was there when she returned home at 5:15, Monday through Friday all during the summer of my 11th year. I fed those girls, did laundry, dusted and vacuumed, played with them, put away toys, and started dinner for their mom, for $16 a day. The mom thought I was a godsend - her money was tight, and her daughters loved being able to be home. I told her I knew just how they felt.

Doing all of that at 11 was no stretch. I had been performing those chores for several years by that time. I learned to sort laundry, measure soap, and operate the machines when I was about 5. Mostly because I just got tired of having dirty clothes, and I found out that it wasn't hard to wash them, so I did. From then on.

At home, I was treated as an equal in the house, even though the other kids were much older than I was. By 8, I was a fairly experienced cook. Nothing terribly complicated, but I could brown meat, add tomato sauce, boil noodles and spread margarine on bread. I could also cook eggs and make toast. Again, out of necessity. My mother wasn't home much, but she stocked the kitchen for us, and it was an unwritten agreement that she would buy it if we would cook it. It was like living with roommates.

I guess the trust wasn't misplaced - I was a trustworthy and responsible kid. My grades were good - I was one of those kids that could listen in class and ace the tests, with no further effort. No one ever checked my homework at home, and no one ever asked me much about school, period.

I didn't have many friends at school. I felt older, and I guess I was. Kids at my school came from privilege - we lived in an exclusive neighhorhood, remember. These kids were pampered, given homemade lunches with sandwiches cut into cute shapes, and they were walked to the bus stop by their moms, and waved off with a kiss. I couldn't relate to them on any level.

I was like a adult in a kid's body, and my cynical, morose, world weary moods aged me even more. I got along well with my teachers, and most of the time, I ended up being a teacher's helper and confidant. I knew more about my 4th grade teacher's boyfriend than I knew about the little budding romances in my classroom. That was just the way it was. I was grown, my body was grown, but I still had years to serve out my childhood.

By the time I was 9, I was a big girl. I was tall and heavy, and my clothes were ALWAYS ill-fitting. My mother was reluctant to spend any money at all, and the few times that she caught a clearance sale and purchased clothing for me, it seldom fit correctly. It was always a struggle to find clothing that wasn't too small, too short, and quite often, I ended up in my 18 year old sister's closet, which she was somewhat tolerant of, but even SHE had her limits.

My sister's wardrobe was beautiful. She had started gainful employment much the same as I had, babysitting. That turned into nursery work, restaurant work, and retail work. My sister made her own money, and spent it her way. Her money had granted her freedom and choice. By the time I was 9 or 10, I was learning the lesson of financial power. I wanted the same.

It was around this time that we were all reeling from a freak incident that had happened at my Aunt Rita's house. I was visiting at her house in Alabama for a week. My aunt was a stay at home mom, and I was loving the rare treat of having a mom at home to watch me. One evening, me and my cousin Tracy were laying in the floor of the den, watching Sonny and Cher. My Uncle Sonny was on the couch behind us, reading the paper, and sipping a Scotch. I heard the glass fall to the floor, and when I turned to look at him, Uncle Sonny's face was contorted into a grotesque mask, his eyes were bulging, and he was purple. I remember screams and ambulances, EMTs and being taken to the neighbor's. He was dead on the scene. At 38, a vein had burst in his head. My aunt, who never graduated high school, was left destitute with 3 kids. No money. Absolutely no money. I learned a permanent lesson that day. Earning your own money provided safety and freedom.

Because my dad sent home *exactly* enough money to cover essentials only, money was always scarce at our house. There were no allowances, no extra "mad" money. Ever. Most of the time, my mother remembered to leave out lunch money for me. Sometimes she forgot. Sometimes LP swiped it (he got VERY adept at stealing money from all of us). It was a humiliating experience for me to tell my teacher that I had come to school without lunch money AGAIN. Calls to my mother resulted in scoldings for me. It was MY responsibility to collect my lunchmoney from my mother and keep it in a safe place. Sometimes I forgot. It wasn't long before I hatched a scheme.

I don't know where the idea originated, maybe it just dawned on me one day when I was sitting at the lunch table lunchless in ill-fitting clothes. I decided that I would parlay my lunch money.

In my school, bubble gum was gold. There was a small convenience store up the street from my house, and I began to use my lunch money to purchase Bubble Yum and Hubba Bubba. I then proceeded to sell the gum at school for 50 cents apiece, a horribly high markup, since you could get entire packs for 50 cents, but what the fuck, all the kids at my school were rich. Most of them wore braces, so bubble gum was prohibited at home. I was their salvation and their dealer.

Every pack netted me 2 dollars above cost, and I could sell 1-2 packs a day. Everybody knew the rules, if you got caught with the gum, it was sure detention. That made it even MORE attractive. Over time, I had a few competitors, but none were as dedicated as I was. I stocked an array of flavors, etc. and I rarely missed school, so everyone was assured of their gum "fix". I never had to worry about lunch money again. I had solved my own problem, my way. I even had money to go to the movies, if I wanted to. It was a skill that I would rely on many, many more times in my life.

That little venture gave me ideas. Lots of ideas. I was ready to move up my earnings. I started getting babysitting jobs, and at 13, I struck paydirt. I was at the mall, and saw a kid I knew working at an ice cream shop. He was older than I was, but not by much, just a couple of years. I devised a plan: I photocopied my birth certificate, changed the birthyear, made ANOTHER copy, and walked into that shop and asked for a job. I looked older, I acted older, I got the job.

I didn't tell anyone until after my first shift. I rode the schoolbus to the mall, and called my house at closing time, telling someone to come and get me. I walked out with an extra large chocolate shake to reward the driver (it was GB) and thereafter, I never had to worry about being picked up. GB and his friends, and my sister and her friends were always glad to pick me up in exchange for 31 flavors.

I didn't make shit at that job, $1.55 an hour. I made it work for me, though. Artie, the guy that owned the place, made a killing by working us all at that rate, waaaay under minimum wage, and charging $2.00 per cone for ice cream, and $3.75 for milkshakes He was the only game in town, and people flocked there. He let the place run itself, he was a hands-off owner, and had hired an 18 year old to oversee the place. Knowing what I know now, it was likely that the whole place was a writeoff, but I digress.

I opened a savings account for myself at the mall bank. I formed alliances with the other mall workers, the ChicFilA kids and the McDonalds kids. Using the maze-like hallways that connected the back of all of the mall stores, we planned our clandestine tradeoff times and places and bartered ice cream for food, clothes, you name it. I soon had a closet full of clothes that fit, I traded chocolate chip shakes for trims and highlights at the mall's salon. I was 5'6 and was wearing a 38C cup, according to the girl that helped me get fit into an absolutely beautiful lace bra at Frederick's in exchange for a banana split with extra pineapple. I was carving out my own life, on my own terms. And I was 13 years old.

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