Note: I am afraid I overlooked the most prestigious paid position I have ever held, as well as the least recommended, and I must therefore, regrettably, track backward out of order on this curriculum vitae of gainful engagements.
Age 10 Poet You’ve heard about the concept of hot-housing kids, right? Whereby parents and/or the culture at large applies pressure in such a way as to bring them to bloom too early, leading to burnout and despair later? Well, I’m afraid—through no fault at all of my parents or the Wyoming Public Schools—I somehow inadvertently hot-housed myself, so that by the tender age of ten, I was already accomplishing something that others reach toward in vain for their entire lives: earning income and public acclaim as a genuine poet! I worked within the dark confines of a Poetry Machine that my friends and I invented and created from an old washing machine box (which we dragged home from the appliance store and painted and outfitted ourselves, I might add). Our collaboration was joyful and inspired, but at the end of the day, I alone was the poet. I alone crawled into the dark box with a flashlight, and operated the tape-recorded simulation of “machinery” (we clanged metal spoons on pots and pans) to indicate that poetry was in process. I alone faced the pressure of churning out three, five, or ten meaningfully rhymed lines on whatever topic the buyer commanded when he or she slipped her coins and request into separate slots on the Poetry Machine’s face. (Have you ever written a ten-line poem about a motorcycle under pressure?) I earned anywhere from a nickel to a quarter for each and every poem. And that change really added up, thanks to our wonderful fifth-grade teacher Ms. Routson, who allowed us to bring the Poetry Machine to Park Elementary and then invited all the kids from our classroom and all of the other fifth grade classrooms to file through one by one, along with the reporters from the Casper Star (reviews were glowing!). It was glorious, until it ended, which I am sad to say was abruptly. Alas, I have never again been paid to write a poem.
Age 10 Money Finder This position, I do not recommend, however serendipitous and easy it may sound. No, I strongly warn against it. Not that I wasn’t enamored at first myself, when I looked down at the slushy floor of Woolworth’s that early December afternoon when I was plunking down my childhood silver dollars to purchase eggs and whipping cream in order to try my hand at baking cream puffs. I wish I could tell you how or why I came to be so desperate to bake cream puffs that I would trade in my entire life savings of special coins for some dairy products, but I can only say that the urgency was as real as my elbow or my foot or my pounding heart as I reached to the floor and picked up that soggy twenty-dollar bill. It was more money than I had ever held at one time in my entire life.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I imagined—but only for the most fleeting of moments!—sticking it into the pocket of my hideous blue down jacket (two important caveats: 1) a discount down jacket should not be washed and left to air dry lest the down separate and settle into cyst-like lumps surrounded by pockets of thin air between the nylon, and 2) a lumpy blue down jacket does not coordinate well with a too-small orange and yellow calico homemade Holly Hobby dress, no matter how much you love that dress, and now matter how much you cannot bear to admit that it is too small, and no matter how much you resent your sister, who is right, insisting that you are altogether too old to be wearing it).
But I did not stick the bill into my lumpy pocket. Instead, I handed it to the confused woman working the cash register. “I found this on the floor,” I said.
“Is it yours?”
“No, I found it.”
“I’m turning it in,” I said. “It was on the floor.”
“Well, that’s very good of you,” she said. “I’m going to hold it here in case the person who dropped it comes back for it.” Then she looked at me in the softest possible way, as if I were a baby kitten that she was about to scoop onto her lap. “But if no one comes back by tomorrow,” she said, “you can have this money for yourself.”
The way she looked at me made a warm feeling spread like syrup through my whole chest. My head was light on my neck, like a balloon. I think I said thank you, but I might have been speechless. I couldn’t dare get my hopes up about the money, because after all chances were someone would come back for it. Wouldn’t you, if you dropped twenty dollars?
I trudged home in the dirty Wyoming slush, my hair whipping against my face in the hard wind, distracted now by the dual excitement of the impending cream puffs (which I was astonished to find puffed up flawlessly and tasted like heaven) and the possibility of that twenty dollars becoming mine. It was hard to stop myself from spending it in advance, what with Christmas coming.
It was all I could do to wait until the next day after school. I half ran from our house on Wolcott Street to Woolworth’s downtown. I bee-lined to the checkout where I’d purchased my eggs and cream the day before, only to find a different person. “Hi,” I said. “I’m wondering about the twenty dollars.”
“Huh?” said the young man now behind the cash register.
“The twenty dollars that I turned in yesterday? I’m wondering if anyone came back for it.”
“What twenty dollars?” he said.
Bile rose in my stomach and most of me wanted to say, “Never mind.” This wasn’t as simple as I’d hoped and my hands were starting to sweat as if I were about to get in trouble, except I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Yet, as much as I wanted to escape, I wanted that twenty dollars more. I took a deep breath, or maybe I didn’t, but I probably should have.
“Yesterday, I found twenty dollars on the floor,” I said. “And I turned it in instead of keeping it.” I said the last words slowly, instead of keeping it, to make sure my extra goodness—the baby kitten goodness I saw reflected in the soft look from the lady cashier the day before—was as clear as possible.
Eventually, the cashier fetched the manager, and after several more rounds of explanation, I left the store twenty dollars richer, but empty. The warm syrup feeling was gone. My head was a regular old head, not a light, buoyant balloon. Was I still good? I wasn’t sure. (And now I had no eggs or cream for baking creampuffs.) Still, I had twenty dollars.
A few nights later, Mom took Laurie and me to Woolco (not Woolworth’s downtown, but the big store near the foothills, in the stripmall by Casper College). Sometimes Mom liked to do this, drop us off at Woolco while she went to night class, to keep us busy. We were glad to go this time, since we had presents to think about. We were both excited about my twenty dollars, because we’d be visiting Daddy in Minneapolis after Christmas, and he had two new kids now, so that was a lot of presents.
Part of that evening Laurie agreed to wander the aisles together, since I had agreed reluctantly not to wear my Holly Hobby dress. As soon as I had come down the stairs at home, Laurie had said, “I will not be seen with her in that. Mom, make her change!” It was actually Laurie’s old dress that Mom sewed, not in the yellow house or the house before that, but the one in Douglas. At first I thought Mom’s feelings were hurt by what Laurie said about the dress, but then she said, “Grab my cigarettes from my nightstand when you go up, will you?” So I changed into my corduroy pants, and now Laurie was willing to be seen with me at Woolco.
We could put both our names on some of the presents to make the money go further. For Daddy, we picked out an incredible soap on a rope, with a rope that was softer than silk, softer than anything I had ever felt. I picked a regular soap with no rope for our stepdad, Mafia. For Mom, perfume. For Daddy’s new kids, Jeremy and Jenny, a plastic horn and a plastic xylophone. It was amazing how far twenty dollars could go. For Laurie, a gigantic chocolate kiss. By the time I was through the checkout with my bulging plastic sack, I felt like a veritable Santa Claus! It was relaxing now, with all those presents under my belt, to simply wander through the fluorescent haze of the store until it was time to wait outside for Mom. I wasn’t expecting that security guard to come up and tap me on the shoulder. I was stunned when took me by the hand and led me firmly into the backroom. Laurie watched helplessly as I disappeared through the double doors, her eyes wide with fear.
“Where is your receipt for these things?” the guard asked. Now my hands really were sweating, a lot. My throat swelled up but I didn’t cry.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I must have dropped it.” I had already dug through the bag twice.
“You stole these things, didn’t you?”
“No!” I was scared, but my eyes flashed anger.
“Did you know you can go to jail for stealing?”
“I didn’t steal!” All the while, I kept rummaging through the thin plastic Woolco sack, removing the soap on a rope (the silky white rope soiled now from my sweaty palms), the horn, the perfume, the kiss. And then, as if by magic, there it was, that coiled strip of paper with line after line of faded purple ink. “Here it is!” I exclaimed righteously. “I found it!”
The security officer eyed the receipt like something dirty before reluctantly taking it from my hand. He combed over it for several minutes, painstakingly itemizing each gift I’d so carefully selected to the blessed receipt that proved I’d paid for each and every one.
Finally, he handed the receipt back to me and placed his hands palms down on his tan polyester slacks and stared at me. I waited for the apology I knew was coming.
Instead, he said slowly, “So, I’d like to know where you got the money to buy these things?”
This was going too far. I’d show him I was not a thief, but to the contrary, I was more good than average.
“I found it!” I snapped, shaking with indignation at the bemused sneer that crept across his face as he claimed the last word.
“Sure you did, kid,” he said. “You found it, all right. Now get out of here and don’t come back.”