When I was a kid, I found a hundred ways to make money. I had a paper route starting at eleven, delivered prescriptions and telegrams shortly after that, and then started my first real job at 14–clerking at a neighborhood drugstore that was, in fact, next door to my house. I worked fifteen hours a week for what I remember was around $2.00 and hour when I started ($2.10 comes to mind) and $3.40 an hour when I left the job three years later. I worked my five three-hour shifts around school and sports, working three evenings a week and then one shift each on Saturday and Sunday.
It wasn’t much of a job really. You can see from the picture above, taken about a year after I left the store, that it was small. We would have a pharmacist and one clerk, and the evenings especially dragged on. The first year I was there, the store was actually a little busy, but then a CVS opened in the center of town, and that, as they say, was that. They might as well have sent an assassin over to put bullets in our head. It was that dead. I remember one evening deciding to count the customers that came in from 6:00 to 9:00 pm. There were seven of them.
The rest of the time I was supposed to be busy, or at least appear to be busy. But there’s nothing to restock when people aren’t buying anything, and you can only dust and sweep so many times. If I was really lucky, there would be a delivery to one of the ancient customers who hadn’t caught on to the existence of the CVS. I would milk those, standing outside chain-smoking cigarettes in even the worst weather. The boss always complained, but I always had the same excuse. “Oh, you know Mrs. Walsh. She loves to talk.”
I actually liked every other kind of work I found, no matter how dirty it was, no matter how much it paid, though it almost always paid better. My friend Sean got me on a crew that cleaned supermarket floors overnight. Sean would slosh some kind of nasty stuff onto the floor, and I would put on hip waders and gloves, and get on my hands and knees and scrape gum and other crud off the floor. Sean would follow behind with a buffer. We would work like maniacs, finishing the job in two hours and getting paid for eight.
I would stop by a barber some afternoons, sweep the hair, clean the floor. They would give me a few bucks. One day they told me they had bought the vacant lot the day before, and would be expanding, but in the meantime they would need to keep it clean. It was rubble, overgrown with weeds as tall as me. I grabbed a sickle from my mom’s basement, and went at the weeds, hacked them down, bagged them. They gave me $10 bucks.
Word must have gone around that there was a big stupid kid who would do dirty jobs, because this woman found me. Her house had burned down, floors collapsing into the basement, leaving just the frame standing. Soggy furniture, clothes, belongings lay in a giant heap, an empty, 40-foot long dumpster in the driveway. I put on some gloves, jumped onto the pile, and like breaking every OSHA and public safety rule ever written, I filled that freaking dumpster in a day. She gave me $50 bucks. I am sure I saved her hundreds.
But I didn’t know any better, and even if I did, I probably wouldn’t have cared. In 1976, $50 was a small fortune for a 17-year old kid. We both looked at the dumpster, the empty basement, the charred hull of the house. It was a job well done.