Monthly Archives: May 2010

I Can Relate

Yesterday this appeared in our (real, not virtual) mail box:


I really want to help this kid.  Aside from the fact that I have a lot of distasteful chores around the house that I can outsource to him, I admire his attitude.  At least he wants to earn the money.

But the main reason this flyer caught my eye is because it brought back memories of my adolescence when I was a “kid slave.”  In those days we didn’t have school trips to China to fund, but we did have parents who thought that instead of spending our summer vacation indulging our proto-hippie tendencies and listening to rock music and growing our hair, we should be working.

Invoking the child labour laws did no good.  My father informed me that they didn’t extend to what he called “casual labor,” which has to be one of the cruellest oxymorons ever invented. 

My lack of enthusiasm in finding casual labor resulted in parental intervention.  One of my father’s friends heard about some old lady who I will call Mrs. D.  She was looking for someone to cut her grass.  Everyone thought I would be perfect for the job. 

Everyone but me.  Working outside?  In public view?  I was hopeless—beyond geek or dork, I was charting new territory for the terminally uncool teenager.  I had friends in rock bands.  And I was “volunteering” to help old people.  I could picture them jeering at me as they drove by in their VW vans on the way to the lake.

The next day I reported for duty. 

You know how in every neighborhood there is a house that the little children say is probably haunted?  Or that a crazy person lives there?  Well, that was Mrs. D’s house.  It looked like it was full of cats and newspapers dating back to the Civil War.  It was in a shocking state of disrepair and the grass, the cutting of which was my objective that day, was knee high. 

I so wanted to be somewhere else.

“Hello Mrs. D, I’m Tom.”

“Hello Steve.  Nice to meet you.”  She always called me Steve for some reason.

 “So you want me to cut the grass?”

“Yes, Steve.  The man who used to cut the grass brought his own mower.  But I have one in the garage.”

She escorted me to the garage.  I guess it could be called a garage in that it was a small structure at the end of the driveway.  There wasn’t a ninety-degree angle in the entire building.  And although at some point in its existence it may have been painted, now it was just bare gray wood covered with leprous chunks of flaking paint.  It was right out of a William Faulkner novel.

“I want you to paint the garage, too, Steve.”

Alien abduction seemed like a preferable alternative.  “I won’t have time today.”

“No.  Not today.  Maybe tomorrow. First we have to cut the grass.  And get the doors open.”

That’s right.  Because of disuse, warping and shifting, the garage doors would no longer open.  The structure didn’t have a normal garage door.  It had double doors that were supposed to open out.  You have no idea how ludicrous I felt pushing and pulling on those doors and succeeding in opening one of them with the help of this 75 pound octogenarian.  “Please don’t let anyone I know see me,” I prayed to the same God who had already brought me into Mrs. D’s employ.

After about fifteen snarling cats ran out, I looked inside.  The windows had either been painted over or opaqued by about a hundred years of dirt.  The only light came through the slightly open door.  If the painting of the windows made me think that perhaps at some time in the past unspeakable rites had been performed in that garage, the stench convinced me.  It was like opening a newly discovered tomb.

Except in this case the mummified corpse was the object of our entry into the garage.  There, covered with spider webs and cat pee was the lawn mower.  I only recognized it from pictures.  I’d never seen a real one before.  A push mower with two wheels.  Just wheels—two rusty metal circles with no rubber on them.  No way!

I wrestled the device out of the garage and the rush of fresh air to my oxygen starved brain led me to see the true horror of my situation.  I couldn’t run away. Sure I could walk home–preferably run.  But she would find me.  And she had an ally in my father.  Together they would make sure the sick ménage a trois of me, that lawnmower and the jungle she called a lawn would be consummated. 

I was able to finish the job only because I had no mind for physical pain.  My mind was solely focused on coming up with an exit strategy for getting Mrs. D out of my life and vice versa. 

But that didn’t happen.  I continued to suffer through the summer and into the fall, riding my bicycle over when I could to do odd jobs.  Artful procrastination meant I never did paint the garage, but we did get the yard looking respectable. 

The final perverse twist to the story came later that year in school when I met my first girlfriend.  Everything was going along nicely and one day we were staying after school for some reason and I offered to walk her home.  She agreed, and when I asked what street she lived on, she gave me the name of Mrs. D’s street.  I was too young for a coronary, so the symptoms I was suppressing must have been a panic attack.  What if Mrs. D was outside and saw me.  How would I explain that?

We walked past the house, which looked unchanged.  Fortunately, no one was around and as we passed the house Laura said quietly.  “A crazy lady lives there.  She has a zillion cats.” 

I couldn’t say to her, “I know.”

Travails of Modern Youth

My sister in law is doing student teaching this semester, so we are keeping an eye on the boys, ages 9 and 7, after school.  Up until recently I had been meeting them at school and walking home with them.  But now I’ve decided to outsource the walk to them–part of growing up is learning to walk home from school unsupervised. 

Plus I was getting tired of having the yummy mummies look at me as if I was something they might have scraped off the bottom of their Balenciaga Boho Chic boots.  They really do dress up to pick up the kids after school.  I don’t.

Yesterday, the boys were a little late and I decided to go out to check on their progress.  I spotted them halfway down the street, limping painfully along, backpacks unslung and dragging on the sidewalk.

I knew there was no problem.  In fact, their exaggerated air of fatigue and exhaustion made me think they were trying out some histrionic ploy in the hope of avoiding extra math drills or something like that.

On reaching the front door they threw themselves over the threshold and collapsed like beached dolphins. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

They emitted groans so patently manufactured I burst out laughing.

Seeing that the game was up, the younger boy slowly got to his feet.  “We had cross country today.”

“What’s that?”

“The whole school had to run from Coyle Park back to the school.  Twice.”

I wouldn’t want to do it, but it wouldn’t exactly qualify as “cross country.”  Or even a marathon.  It’s about four kilometres, or two and a half miles.

We made it to the kitchen and my wife provided cold drinks while they related the tale of horror.  Once every semester, in order to promote fitness, the entire school goes on this, admittedly poorly named, “Fun Run.” 

The boys think that even their normally sadistic and unreasonable teachers would never make them do anything so awful and that it must therefore be a government mandate that all children be made to suffer by running. 

They confessed that they had prayed for rain.

I decided to find out more about the dynamic of fitness in today’s elementary schools.  And, as usual, learned that things are very different than when I was in school.

First, technically, everyone has to participate.  According to the older boy, only “people with broken legs” are exempted.  But further questioning revealed that any malady can get you a pass, but if it is not obvious (e.g., you’re not in a cast) you need a parental note requesting that you be excused. 

In this era of all-inclusiveness, the non-participants are not excluded.  In order to make them feel as if they are almost participating, the walking wounded are brought to the start/finish line where they are allowed to sit on the ground (as befits their incapacity) while the rest of the students run.

“You know, a lot of people cheat,” the nine year old informed us.

“How can you cheat?”

Apparently, Wall Street instincts are present even among elementary school students.  Some of them have found a way to beat the system.  Plus, like Wall Street, the regulatory system isn’t what it should be. To be excused, you have to give your parental note to your own teacher in class.  But when everyone gets out to the starting gate, different teachers might be supervising.  So a bunch of future Madoffs without notes just sit down with the infirm and watch the rest of the suckers run.

Once the running starts, the teachers form a gauntlet to protect the kids and also to exhort stragglers and the lazy to actually run.  I asked, “What do they do if you just walk?”

“They tell you to run.”

“But what if you still don’t?”


Now that is another big difference.  In high school I had a gym teacher named Mr. Bonfiglio, who I’m sure was in the witness protection program.  He had tattoos before it was fashionable. 

He used to run with us and if you finished behind him you were subjected to verbal abuse that would make a rapper blush.  Worse, you then had to “give” him as many push ups as he thought you needed to do in order to build character and prove your worth. 

Plus he would not suggest that we run faster.  He didn’t know the meaning of the terms “request” or “recommend.”  He would say things like “If you don’t get moving, I’ll put my foot so far up your ass your breath will smell like shoe polish!”

In those days they could get away with things like that.  And we believed him.

Things have changed.