In my neighborhood, when you were young and wanted money, you looked to the sky. Summer rains meant lawns to mow, and when snow came down, it looked like dollar bills.
One winter, after years of watching my older brother go out in the morning and come back at night with a roll of bills, I decided to scoop up some cash myself. I got up early, buckled my boots, grabbed the coal shovel from the garage, and tramped into the working world. Only three houses down the block, I found my first customer, an old lady who agreed to my rate of two dollars if I would do the driveway as well.
I started the job enthused, but soon slowed. The snow was thick, the driveway was long, and hours later, only halfway done, I was trying not to cry. At one point, I looked up and saw my brother and mother carrying shovels; I assumed that they were going to earn their own money, but they were coming to help. Realizing that, I did cry. After we finished, my brother told me that he charged two dollars for a sidewalk and ten dollars for a driveway, and more if the snowfall had been heavy.
I should have learned something about negotiations from that experience, but I didn’t. I continued to make bad deals. I agreed to keep a neighbor’s driveway cleared for ten bucks a week; that winter, 1979, had the largest snowfalls on record. I took babysitting jobs without setting a rate in advance. I helped friends rake leaves and do chores, and afterwards realized they were getting paid for my labor.
Clearly, I was never going to be one of those Junior Achievement phenoms who pay for college with a business run from a bedroom. I needed to be on someone’s payroll, so, at fourteen, I submitted an application to a local donut shop. You could work that young with parental permission which mine were happy to give. They had started working even earlier, and this way at least they would know where I was.
I learned a lot at this job, including how to make donuts and coffee, how to run a cash register, and how to deal with drunks who would stagger over from the neighboring bar, squint at the huge sign that said “DONUTS,” look at the trays of donuts in the window, and then ask, “You got anything to eat here?” When the bar closed at 2 am, they would come over in groups and indiscriminately buy sackfuls, some of which they left on the sidewalk as they wandered into the night.
I was there at 2 am because my boss also taught me how to keep two sets of time cards: one for him and one for the state which had child labor laws prohibiting a minor from working in the middle of the night.
The shop did well enough for the owner to drive a new white Porsche which he called a Por-sha, insisting the name had two syllables. Sometimes we would announce our intention to mop the “Floor-sha” or that working there made us feel like “Whore-shas,” but we were careful to do this when his son wasn’t around. Although he often would rip into his father, he didn’t like it when we did. Somehow the son also managed to drive a new car, even though employees made less than minimum wage. The owner could pay us this way since technically the store was a restaurant and theoretically we received tips. No one, however, ever tips a donut counterperson, no matter how drunk they are.
One morning, after I’d done a closing shift, the boss called and told me to come in immediately. When I got there, he asked why I had left the register’s change sack forty dollars short. I hadn’t. I had sorted out the usual hundred in change, written “$100,” as I always did, then locked it in the floor safe. He showed me the sack. Across from the date, it said, “$60,” but it wasn’t in my handwriting.
“Look,” I said, “the number has been erased. You can see the smudge.”
“No,” he said, “It hasn’t. This is a warning. Don’t do it again.”
I couldn’t believe he couldn’t see the obvious discoloration, but, going home, I realized why. If I had done it, it was a mistake. If the number had been changed, it was theft, and that meant it had to be one of only a few who knew the combination, including his son. And, of course, it couldn’t be him. It couldn’t be the son who I had seen giving away dozens of free donuts and, who, more than once, had given friends a twenty with their change when they had paid with a ten. It couldn’t be the son who never had to close or work the late shift dealing with drunks.
I wasn’t surprised. That first time working, trying to earn money shoveling snow, I learned that family members protect each other.
There was, however, another valuable lesson here.
At work, write with pen.
In addition to a donut shop, Joe Mills has worked in pizzerias, coffee shops, a chemical waste facility in the Utah desert, a laboratory devoted to climate research, an Indiana state park, and numerous non-descript offices. He now teaches at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.