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I Can Relate

May 27, 2010

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.”

14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2010 12:09 am

    In the days of every imaginable power tool available my father still cuts his grass with a pushmower. He insists he gets a better cut, it doesn’t cost him anything but time to cut the grass, and its good exercise.

    My parents had the same attitude about kids needing jobs to do. I was always jealous of my brother who got to be outside cutting the grass while I was stuck in the dungeon with the scary octopus looking furnace sorting out clothes for washing, drying and folding the clothes for a family of 8.

    My husband and his brother were sent by their mother to a woman’s house to clear the ice and snow from her sidewalk one winter. They cleared the show and chiseled the ice for hours only to find out the women didn’t have indoor plumbing and had been emptying her chamber pot out the window all winter hence the ice. To make matters worse their mother had sent them to the wrong home and they still had the original work to do.

  2. May 28, 2010 8:40 am

    In your days, kids slaves were not saving for geography trips to China, I bet. What a motivated kid this slave must be.

  3. May 29, 2010 2:22 am

    Hmm… the lawnmowing looks pretty good compared to my first paying job, age 16, working in the kitchen of a hospital and heaving globs of salt-free mashed potatoes onto plates as they came down the conveyor belt.

  4. Gail permalink
    May 29, 2010 1:39 pm

    Tom, don’t know if you have heard of the old term “bob a job”. This is how scouts used to raise funds, a bob (a shilling – 10 cents) for a job done. Doesn’t sound much now, but was good money “in the good old days” Gail.

  5. June 1, 2010 10:57 pm

    I pretty much had the same attitude about what I called manual (like with your hands..?) labor. Until I found painting. There was, and still is something that I find so cathartic about covering up old, bleary surfaces with pristine, new paint.

    What caught my eye was $15 an hour…? Is that the going rate? I’m going to have to move back to the states and make my fortune.

  6. June 2, 2010 12:44 am

    Well, an advantage of living in an apartment is never having to cut grass.

    My father was so inept at any house job he couldn’t ask me to do what he couldn’t do himself. Although his discipline concerned other fields.

    And yes, the kid seems motivated – by the trip and by the $15 per hour rate possibly, which seems quite high to me. At that age I’d have been a slave for less than that for sure.

  7. June 2, 2010 7:19 pm

    School trip to China? Is that code for something? In an old movie, I recently heard the phrase, “I’d like to take her on the slow elevator to China.” I strongly suspect these words were spoken without an actual elevator in mind.

    Hope the kid won’t mind if I crib the text of that flyer and use it for myself, with minor modifications (“Fundraising for a trip back to Austria … so hire a local former teenager!”)

    It’s perfect.

    • June 3, 2010 3:15 pm

      I think you’re right about the elevator to China. But I think the school kids are really actually going. I remember when a field trip to the zoo was a big deal! Anyway, hope the flyer works for you. Don’t forget to add your own inimitable talents to the list, e.g., food service? Also, “fairly good with technology” might need some tweaking!

      • June 5, 2010 8:26 am

        What do you mean? I am fairly good with technology. I even know how to leave comments on a blog.

        But before you include food service among my “inimitable talents,” please consider my résumé in that particular line of work. (Inimitable? Perhaps. Talent? Not so sure. )

  8. June 5, 2010 3:36 pm

    Exactly–“fairly” doesn’t begin to do your talents justice!

    Your resume is awesome and I love the Raffella review. Each of those employement increments is a story in itself, with the shorter increments being more interesting I’m sure.

  9. Frau Freud permalink
    June 9, 2010 1:30 pm

    I took a look at Cyberquill’s resume. I think it must be a hoax on his part to get a job as a comedian. However, I noted that his tenure at Julians defies Newtonian physics. It would be great to hear the details behind his Raffella experience–why would someone quit four times and get fired twice?? Is that a story for the comedy club?

    • June 9, 2010 2:02 pm

      I wish my resume were a hoax, but tragically it is 100% accurate, except for the little counter-Newtonian slip there, a typo I hadn’t noticed. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

      I worked at Rafaella on and off for seven years; plenty of time to quit and get fired multiple times a combined total of seven times, which averages about once a year, so it’s not really as often as it sounds.

      The funny part is that only once out of the four times I quit (separately from the three times I got axed) did I do so upon giving proper notice. The remaining three times I simply walked out in the middle of my shift: once after deliberately smashing a glass on the counter, once upon throwing my apron into the manager’s face, and the third time without physical violence.

      They loved me there. I was very good, so they cut me a little slack.

      Julian (the owner of Julian’s) fired me twice and also hired me back both times (although the second time I opted out), but he was a bit of an erratic pothead to begin with, so his actions didn’t really mean much.

  10. Len Skuta permalink
    November 17, 2011 12:12 pm

    I remember my first job. Working on a farm.. .330 cents per hour to start. By the end of the summer my pay rate jumped to 37.5 cents per hour. The fresh vegetables we ate were worth it.

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