In high school I worked for a man who had a business mind as sharp as any I encountered before or since, a brilliant schemer who had worked his way out of a factory job and now worked for no man but himself. When I started working for him and his wife he owned an industrial laundry, a concessions business, and a string of rental houses.
A veteran of the Korean War, Jerry had a large tattoo of an anchor on his arm, bright brown eyes, and dark curly hair he insisted was natural. (Photographs of him as a young man indicated otherwise.) He loved games and tricks and fun, and he teased everyone he encountered. He had married his wife Inga after knowing her for six weeks. Inga worked in the laundry too. Unlike Jerry, who carried on a constant, joking patter, she barely spoke. Although she communicated with quiet smiles far more often than words, I soon learned that Jerry deferred to her in everything important.
The contrast with my own parents was clear to me, even then. My mom and dad performed their parental duties with admirable, steady blandness. I could count on them being home by five-thirty and in bed by ten. I could also count on a full refrigerator, new clothes when I outgrew the old ones, and a parenting style full of unconditional love, firm guidelines, and reasonable expectations. Jerry and Inga pulled their kids out of school to take two-week trips to Mexico and laughed in the face of a principal who demanded they never do that again. The idea of my own parents doing anything like that seemed incredible to me.
I thought of Jerry and Inga as being much younger than my parents, and it surprised me to learn that my father and Jerry were exact contemporaries—they had even in fact briefly attended the same college. Here again the differences were striking. My father stayed in school, for one thing. He lived in the same dorm room for four years, because he was happy where he was and saw no reason to move. Jerry, restless and unwilling to submit to professors, only attended for “two weeks and a half a day” before dropping out and signing up for the army.
Their personalities carried through into their adult lives, giving me two distinct examples of grownup men: my father, the B-plus student with perfect attendance, who brought in a decent salary and did everything society could have wanted. His best skill was showing up on time and working hard. Jerry had an A-plus intellect but could not follow anyone else’s rules or instructions. Everything he did was marked by his grifter’s delight in working the system.
Their influence on me was enormous. My father doled out practical advice that no one could contradict: don’t break any rules, you’ll only make things harder on yourself. Jerry roped me into his cons, delighted by my shock at his willingness to take risks. My father gave me an example to live up to. Jerry’s example was more like a dare.
Those were glorious summers. Every day was different. I would turn up at the laundry as dawn broke. Steam would already be pouring out of the small brown building. Inside, Jerry would be stuffing shirts into one of the giant machines as Inga pulled pants out of the dryer, snapped them straight, and folded them over wire hangers. I would fill the back of the truck with hundreds of work uniforms, hanging on two long bars in five-pack bundles, the hangers tightened together with a twist tie. Then I would head out to the factories and small businesses on the route to deliver a week’s worth of clothes to the lockers or work stations of the men and women who welded machine parts and processed food and manufactured cardboard and assembled airplane governors in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Back in time for lunch, and the cool, quiet afternoons in the laundry before an early evening swim in the pool behind Jerry and Inga’s house, which was out in the country, or the pond they owned a mile away.
On one day I might be sent to a rental house to paint a living room before the new tenants moved in. Or I’d be sent on a special project: all the way to Chicago to pick up a set of bags covered with soot from a fire, which no other industrial laundry in all of Chicagoland was willing to touch. On Fridays I made a circuit of gas stations and banks, where I rolled up their rugs and unfurled clean ones.
But the best weeks of all were the ones when we hauled our popcorn wagons to carnivals and boat shows and softball tournaments and county fairs, selling high-margin products through a small glass window. (Even now, the numbers of cotton candy and popcorn and sno-cones astonish me. Cotton candy was two and a half cents of raw materials including the cone and the bag, sold for a dollar-fifty.) Those days had a lot of slow afternoons. Jerry and I sat on overturned buckets in the wagon, listening to baseball and waiting for the stray customer to pass by. At night we’d stand in the back pouring Cokes out of sixteen spigots, sending trays of Cokes into the grandstand, a team of twenty hustling kids filling those white pails with cash that Jerry and I counted and bundled until long after midnight.
Jerry loved cash, both for the success it measured and the freedom it bought. Fifties and hundreds were deemed “vacation money” and went into the bottom of the cash drawer, later to be transferred to a safe in his bedroom and used for winter trips to Mexico, where he traveled among ruins, dreaming of the past. When I ran the route I had to memorize a hundred different places to pick up cash—envelopes in lockers, ones and fives and quarters tucked into shirt pockets. As he was teaching me the route he swerved down a one-way street in reverse; a woman came running out of a house and handed him six dollars and twenty-five cents through the window, the cost of her husband’s weekly laundering.
I shook my head at the ritual. “Can’t you get them to mail you the money?” I asked. “Pay you once a month or something?”
“Let’s go get lunch,” he said, dropping the cash into a box he’d been filling all morning.
The cash came in handy for the lunch trips to Taco John’s, where he ordered the same thing five days a week (even now I know his order by heart), and the follow-up stop at the Burger King, where we bought a plain hamburger for his beloved and pampered dog.
And all day long I saw an entrepreneur’s mind at work. It was intoxicating, even though I was headed for other things. When college began I alternated school years of Great Books with summers filled with trucks and nachos and cash. And when graduation came, Jerry made me an offer.
“Ever think about being the ambassador to Mexico?” he asked.
I admitted I had not.
“Okay. Second best job: why don’t you buy the laundry?”
He had it worked out: I would keep working for him, gradually buying it from in increments, until finally I owned most or all of it and he could retire. He astonished me by telling me a young man with ambition could turn it into a million-dollar business, which I believed. (I’d seen him turn down more than one potential account by saying, “But if we do this, we won’t be able to go to Mexico!”) I remember looking around the laundry, a place I had come to love. It was early afternoon now, and the machines were quiet. It was a hot day but cool enough inside; soon I would be headed home, stopping for a swim and a trip to my girlfriend’s house on the way.
It was a good life. I too could live by my wits, subject to no man but myself, floating on a comfortable cloud of cash. And unlike Jerry, I could skip the twenty years in a factory. But factories were not part of my future. I was an English major, captivated by Shakespeare and Homer and Tolstoy and Austen, and something about the grit and grease of Jerry’s world seemed more fun than meaningful. It felt like I would be underachieving, somehow. I thought I might someday have regrets.
I fumbled out an answer—I think I said I was honored that he thought of me in this way. I don’t remember exactly what I said; all I remember is trailing off. He smiled sadly, as if I had missed the point, and knowing I was about to turn him down. Somehow I managed to continue without tearing up. He took the news the same way, joking to cover the pain of his rejection, and I teased him back, because this was how we expressed our affection for one another.
“So you don’t want to spend your life cleaning dirty clothes and scraping cotton candy off your arms! Come on, what could be more dignified than this life?”
“I don’t know, Jerry. Paying taxes?”
“I knew college was a bad idea. Do they give you drugs before they brainwash you?”
“Do Great Books count as drugs?”
“Books! Right there’s your problem!”
Inga had been watching the conversation with the interest one takes in a potential adoption. Over Jerry’s shoulder I saw her turn away, hiding her tears by busying herself with the dryer. My nose itched and it was all I could do to keep my own eyes dry until I got into my car.
But as soon as the door closed and I pulled away—waving at the two of them as they stood on the loading dock to watch me leave, something they had never done before—I wept freely.
I had not realized until that moment how much they loved me, or how much I loved them.
Adapted from The Blow (forthcoming).
Another somber post. Well, what can I say? My history is not all moonbeams and rainbows. You can find other work-related posts in #3 – The Blood Cake and #6 – The Mugs. High school and college era stories are in #4 – The Sweater and #1 – the Padlock and #10 – The Spitwad. Oh, and #15 – The Coffepot, but don’t read that one, because I am ashamed. And of course, you can find all of the 100 Objects on the main page. All this free fiction! The Internets are awesome.
Or if you’ve found yourself in possession of five dollars and would like something to hold in your hands, you could just head over to Amazon and pick up The Promotion and The Race: for a few bucks you can own one of my short novels and see where all this history took me in the end. E-books (even cheaper!) also available for smartphoners and tableters and e-readerers.
Still too expensive? Tell me you’re a reviewer and I’ll ship you copies for free! And my thanks to all my reviewers and commenters and rebloggers and everyone else who has helped to get the word out. Onward and upward, everyone!
Image Credit: mgmelectricalsurplus.com