The neighbor kid, Dustin, showed up to school with a new Walkman one day. He was a few years older than me and all the girls thought he was the coolest kid in school. When I asked him if his parents had gotten it for him he said that he had paid for it with his own money. He told me he had a paper route and it only took him a month to save for it. It would have taken me a year or more to save for something like that with the allowance that my parents had given me.
It was my idea. I insisted that my parents let me take on a paper route so that I could be popular just like him; so I could have money to go to the movies and buy cool stuff. I was tired of the two dollar allowance that Mom and Dad had given me since I was only old enough to know that money could buy extravagant things like candy and Slurpees and chocolate bars and such. I figured that I was tough enough to bare the kilometer walk each winter’s day up to the top of Klahanie Road and back to our little place on, Freda Avenue, for that eighty dollar paycheck at the end of the month. If I recall correctly, I had to walk double, no, even triple, that distance to Robert.L. Clemitson elementary school and back each day; it was uphill both ways and I’ll insist on telling my grandchildren the same story. I thought it wouldn’t be too bad; I thought wrong.
My fingers still feel ice cold. Fifteen years have passed and I can still feel the way my breath shot across my face in the wind and went off somewhere. I shiver when I think of the way my toes went numb and my eye lashes froze together when I blinked. I could only inhale through my mouth because my nostrils would stick together when I would try to inhale through them. My teeth bore the cold instead as I opted for icicles to form from the mucus that dripped out my nose. I was only nine; far too young to be working outside in the dead of winter; too little to be carrying one-hundred-some-odd papers over my two little shoulders. I could barley lift them. I wonder if that drain pipe just around the corner from our little blue trailer still has any remnants of the Daily News from 1991.
When the flyers came I couldn’t lift them all so I, sort of, dragged them behind me until I could get out of site from our place; then, if no one was looking, I would hide them in that drain pipe.
The paper called our house and asked me where the papers were after I had ditched them for a couple days in a row. Geeze! I didn’t even have any hair on my legs yet. I’m sure the neighbor kid that inspired me did though. He was nearly six feet tall already. I had such a crush on his little sister, Crystal. I think I wanted to impress her.
I remember, before I started, a man came to our house wearing a black suit and tie. He carried a brief case with him. He asked me a few questions and made my parents sign a paper saying that I wouldn’t quit right away if I lost interest. I remember wishing they wouldn’t have signed it during that first day of delivery. In fact, I remember thinking that same thought quite regularly.
It was probably about minus twenty degrees Celsius outside on average that winter. I didn’t have a very good jacket and I’m sure my boots weren’t that great either. I guess Mom and Dad just didn’t have any money for warm winter clothes at the time.
What was worse was that I couldn’t grab the papers with my mittens on, so, I had to take them off at each doorstep. It made the process last that much longer.
I think I had a frozen tear or two on my face when I returned home that first day but my parents still wouldn’t let me quit. They said that it was my responsibility and that I had begged and pleaded for them to allow me the chance to have the job in the first place. They were right; I had begged them for weeks to let me have my own route. What a dumb idea.
I won’t forget that long, long winter; as long as I live. The way I froze won’t soon be forgotten either. But the day I got my first paycheck, all those feelings of resentment went away. I had never received more than five dollars at any given time but to receive eighty was a serious thing for a nine year old.
I think Dustin was twelve or thirteen. He got paid around the same time as me. We always went shopping together. I bought his sister nice things like teddy bears and such. I think she kissed me once but I can’t remember. I remember the excitement of receiving my first paycheck though. It wasn’t until years late that I would come to realize how fortunate I was.
10 Years Later:
After the flight, our luggage in hand, we walked out from the flight terminal into the heavy gloom of post-industrialized China. The air is a little thicker from the exhaust fumes and burnt coal that linger there and everything is coated in a fine black layer of soot.
A boy in a suit, dirtied from the sands of a dwindling hour glass, swept across the parking lot with the wind. He still follows me in my mind speaking those two words “Hello. Money? Hello. Money? Hello. Money?” He says it as if he has been emptied of all the reasons why not to say it. It seems there is a way of pronouncing words that make them mean existence; words that come not from the throat, but from somewhere deeper yet, from the still pit of an empty stomach.
He begged for pennies. I can still recall the sick pang of hurt that shot through my own stomach as I watched the sight unfold. I think it was Martin who was the first to offer up a Yuan from his wallet; a Yuan was enough to eat a little something in China but, here, in Canada it was the equivalent of four 5¢ candies from the corner store when I was that same age. At least, that is what a nine year old boy from British Columbia would most likely decide to buy for an equal sum. I would have used the money for candy when I was a child, I most certainly recall the times when a quarter meant four candies, five if the clerk was nice enough to, magically, rescind the tax.
Someone else gave a Yuan, too. I can’t remember who it was. But, I do remember the other boys that soon began to run toward us barefooted; in their raggedy attire; from the unseen locations on the periphery of the parking lot. They all appeared to be wearing black suits that must have emerged at one time from the bottoms of garbage heaps. Or maybe they were slaves to some slumlord who wanted them to look as hopeless as they appeared.
The boys followed us through the parking lot, the group expanding to an additional three as we approached our chauffeur’s vehicle.
They begged and pleaded in their foreign tongue and it was a universal cry for help; it was a harmony made by the crashing of symbols in the wind. As our guide, Jenny, pushed us into the vehicle and began to slide the van door closed, I had just enough time to slip a Yuan into one of their little beckoning, outstretched hands before they were gone.
“Welcome to China” I thought as the vehicle began to pull away; and as Jenny, embarrassingly, turned to us to explain that this type of child should be ignored because they are everywhere and because they become bothersome with their numbers.
We drove to our feast. We couldn’t finish all of the food that Jenny ordered for us. We didn’t take what was left over because we still had a long drive and because our hosts insisted what was left could be thrown away. Spare food? Spare change? Rice change?
It is in contrasting my memories of youth that I am fascinated by how reality can change in an instant and become something much different.
-Justin Allen Philcox