Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How Poor People Get Money

Here is one of my stories published this past summer in Steam Ticket, a print journal out of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse English department

How Poor People Get Money

I’ve done many things for money. I rode a bike retrofitted with an ice chest and sold Rocket Popsicles and Drumsticks and other novelty ice creams. I had a paper route where I had to get up at four o’clock in the morning. I did that for a week before I dumped the papers down a sewer. Next, I left leaflets on car windshields. I got in trouble if they blew off, so I pasted them on and that got me fired. Of course, there was also the usual: babysitting, mowing grass, taking out trash, and blackmail.

I’ve dogwalked, found lost dogs and gotten a reward, and stolen dogs only to later be rewarded. I’ve sold lemonade from a card table at the end of the driveway. Told jokes for a penny, though to be honest only my mom ever paid. I told her a hundred jokes and earned a dollar—that was before the cancer. After a snowstorm I shoveled Mr. Meyer’s driveway and charged him $15, figuring he’d give me $20. He did. And, from my older brother Cal, I extorted $50, in two $25 allotments.

There was one ambitious summer where Cal and I constructed a putt-putt golf course and charged the neighborhood kids admission. We decided to expand and made an amusement park with lumber raided from a nearby housing development. The real money, though, was in concessions. We were able to charge twenty percent over what we paid for a case lot of Zagnut and Zero Bars. It all came apart after Cal and I fought. He took his half and I took mine and later Dad paid us to clean up the yard.

I’ve collected the nickel deposit on soda pop bottles. We found wagonloads of them discarded at construction sites and out by the highway. One time Cal and I discovered a stash of old Playboys under a bridge. Cal brought them home and hid them behind a row of books on a shelf in our room. When I threatened to tell Mom, Cal freaked out until I mentioned I could be persuaded not to snitch if he gave me money. I sucked him dry, eventually getting his half of the amusement park money. That was the summer Mom died.

In high school I worked at Pizza Hut to pay for my car. I stayed at this job the longest—especially after the accident to reimburse Dad. I was a pizza maker. Late at night on slow weeknights I’d get creative with the toppings, borrow stuff from the salad bar to concoct one-of-a-kind masterpieces that my cohorts and I would sit around and eat. I invented the grilled cheese pizza, the broccoli baked potato pizza, and a fried egg pizza. The French do it all the time. I read about it in a book. This was before the manager turned the surveillance cameras on the cook line trying to figure out why every week the inventory came up short. One time I worked my alchemy and came up with a desert pizza with Jolly Rogers melted over the crust. It looked like stained glass and shattered when bit into. I had the idea to patent it. I’d name it after me, Jolly Ryan’s—except the boss 86ed my ass on that one, mainly because the candy seeped over the side and stuck to the pizza oven and smoked for a week or more until the sugar burned off.

Speaking of smoke . . . Wait, I’m getting out of order. That comes later in this list.

Lunchtime at school I’d bet on flicker ball, where I’d win some, lose some. Flicker ball was basically a sheet of notebook paper folded into a dense triangle. One guy would sit across from me at the table and make a goal post with his fingers and I’d flick the triangle up and over. I’d bet I could do it, and then I upped the ante and bet I could do it five times in a row, ten times until I’d wasted the entire lunch hour. I never won much, but the exercise carried over into weekend boys’ poker night, where the stakes became much higher.

I got into a bit of a cash flow problem. We had a nice turntable, receiver, and Boise speakers. I pawned them and got $160 bucks. Where the fuck is my stereo? Cal couldn’t believe I’d hocked his stereo and when he went to get it back it was gone. I really did feel bad when I saw his face coming back to the car empty handed. I thought he was going to beat the shit out of me like he did over the amusement park fiasco. All he did was get in the car and grip the steering wheel. Not a word. He left for college that fall, and, not surprisingly, hasn’t talked to me much since.

A year later when I packed up for college I had a garage sale to get rid of a lot of my crap. I wasn’t planning on coming back. Dad had remarried and even though Carol was nice and didn’t try to be our mom, she changed things. She repainted the living room and moved the old furniture into the basement and bought new stuff. She had two daughters off at college and wanted to make over a room for them when they visited. I said, Hey, take mine. Carol got this furtive stuttering look on her face and Dad tried to talk me out of the offer. He said she hadn’t meant to make me feel unwelcome. I told him, I completely understand. But, what I couldn’t say was, it didn’t feel like my house anymore. So I left for college $300 richer.

In college I did the student work thing to help pay for tuition. My freshman year I shelved books in the library and my second year I put together the audio/visual carts. I also got the idea of getting old computers off of Freecycle, refurbishing them, and then selling them on eBay. I answered an ad on craigslist looking for people willing to participate in medical studies. I got paid to test green tea and its affect, if any, upon a person’s overall health. I joked with the nurse, Why can’t it be beer? I drank so much tea over the course of the study that the thought of it now makes me sick. I once got $50 bucks for an MRI, and over winter break I stayed at the facility and was a guinea pig for a new kind of chewing gum drug that supposedly controls blood sugar. That worked out well since I didn’t want to go home for Christmas and could really use the grand I was paid—especially after the fire.

During my third year I lived off campus. A couple of us guys rented the top floor in an old factory building down by the river. The place quickly became party central. We didn’t lock the doors so I never knew who’d be crashed out on our couch. Strewn across the floor and piled high on the coffee table were empty beer cans and pizza boxes and black plastic ashtrays full of butts and ash and little aluminum tabs. We never cleaned, so it always smelled rank like wet towels tossed behind a radiator. After a month I was so sick of the place I could care less if it burned. In fact I could care less just about everything. Suddenly my double major clicked into sharp focus and I wondered why the hell I ever wanted to be an architect/civil engineer. So I switched to pre-law, which was like having no major at all.

In there somewhere were several gigs that called for costumes. I dressed up like a hot dog outside the ballpark to advertise Red Hots. For Liberty Tax Service I passed out handbills dressed as the Statue of Liberty, Lady Lib. At a party I was a stalk of broccoli working the crowd with a plate of hors d’oeuvres, ironically serving raw veggies: carrots, celery, cauliflower, and broccoli. Earlier in the day I’d ingested some of my roommate’s Paxil and was feeling pleasantly numb until I bottomed out contemplating how we end up eating our own, cannibalizing each other.

Midway through the semester the factory caught on fire. At the time I was indisposed with a girl. We heard shouting and smelled the smoke and without getting completely dressed climbed out the window and dropped to the ground where I heard my ankle go SNAP. From the back of an ambulance I watched our apartment go up in flames. There was so much combustible material, the place pretty much exploded. We wondered if we might be able to recover our losses until the fire inspector blamed us for negligence (apparently someone had left a cigarette burning on the armrest of our black and orange couch) and our landlord tried to sue us. I called Cal.

He said I could come stay with him for a while.

So I got a job at an Internet startup, a that sold cheap toys. Lots of glue and balsa wood and plastic parts with a lifespan of maybe two months. I worked full-time pulling invoices and operating the forklift. Someone else put the orders together while someone else did the shipping. This job was perfect—there was no one around at night to annoy me. I had the whole warehouse to myself during the third shift. Just me and a juice/soda machine that when it kicked in sounded like a mainstage generator. Sometimes I talked out loud, the sound of my voice lost in the acre-high ceilings and labyrinth of metal shelving. One time I asked Mom where she was and what she was doing. She never answered.

Cal had a theory. He said I needed to face up, face myself and stop making excuses. I accused him of trying to manipulate me with psychological mumbo jumbo. Again he played the quiet game. I screamed, TALK TO ME.

He shook his head and walked away.

Yeah, well fuck you! I started looking for rentals in the area. A few days later he rang me on my cell and said he had a job for me, if I needed it. Okay. What?

It’s Julie, he said. Julie was his girlfriend. She worked at a shelter for women and children. She needs someone to drive a mom and her kids to the bus station Monday morning.

How much? I asked. I needed to come up with enough for a deposit.

Twenty bucks.

That’s it?

Just there and back. About an hour’s worth of work.

I left the warehouse at dawn and drove to the shelter to pick up Julie and her client. We crammed them and all their stuff in. Is this everything? I asked. It didn’t seem like much. The woman said it was enough.

Julie and one of the kids sat up front with me with the other four in the back seat. We had two more people than seat belts and I worried about the cops stopping us. I didn’t need any more trouble.

The lady said she had a whole house of stuff back in Ann Arbor. I asked her if that was where she was going and she said no. She was starting life over in another state. Somewhere where her ex-husband wouldn’t find them.

I glanced at her in the rearview mirror. She had a round face the color of an acorn. Two of her kids were squished up looking out the window in anticipation of new scenery. The baby on her lap sucked her thumb and stared back at me with eyes half hidden by long lashes. All of them were dressed in their best clothes. Crisp white shirts tucked into belted trousers. The little girl next to Julie wore a pink sundress with a matching pink bucket hat. She clutched a Hello Kitty! daypack. The boys, too, each had a travel bag in their lap. I want to get them enrolled in their new school before it start, the mom explained. Julie nodded and told me where to turn.

The morning sun Tasered in through the windshield just as a tension headache was forming at the base of my skull. The woman rambled on, I’ve got a job lined up. At a nursing home, doing laundry. Internally I cringed. It sounded brutal, that kind of work. I imagined carts heaped high with urine-soaked sheets.

Mom, one of the kids spoke up. You said we might be able to get some treats, you know, for the road.

The mom looked like she was weighing the idea. She opened her purse and pulled out a well-worn envelope. Inside were bills stapled and paperclipped. It seemed as if each one had been reserved for a special purpose.

I can stop, I offered. I saw a mini mart across the street. Maybe I’d pick up a pair of sunglasses.

Okay, she said and then directed her oldest boy, Go get some drinks, chips, and stuff.

When we got to the bus station I had to let her off in the street since there weren’t any spaces close to the door. The woman heaved a good-size black garbage bag out of the trunk. Julie got out to help. The boys each took hold of the little girl’s hand. Take care, Julie said, and gave them a hug. Good luck!

We got Jesus.

I know, Julie said. Still, good luck.

We’re gonna be okay. We got each other.

Julie patted the boys on their shiny heads.

Wait! I shouted before they started for the door. I jumped out and crossed in front of the car. My head throbbed. Here. I thrust a bill at the woman. The $20 Cal had given me.

Sir, we don’t—

Please, I begged. Just take it.

The mom studied me. I must’ve looked a wreck, in need of sleep and a shave. The back of my shirt was wrinkled and blanketed in perspiration. Bless you, she said. She turned and wove through the human traffic, hauling her possessions out in front of her and her children straggling behind. I ripped the tag off my new sunglasses and quickly put them on so that no one would notice the sweat stinging my eyes.

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