Learning to Earn


I got my first crappy job when I was thirteen.  It wouldn’t be my last.

It was a gig delivering the daily newspaper in my area, the New Haven Register.  I had to wake up at 5:45 AM every day and head outside where a stack of papers bound up in a sturdy plastic band greeted me.

The very first day was so bad I considered quitting.  I woke up to the sound of my alarm going off and rain beating against the single window of my bedroom.  It was one of those March days where it seemed like the whole world was made of water.  The last thing I wanted to do was get out of bed and swim around my neighborhood slinging papers.   But at that point, I had no choice.  The decision had been made weeks ago when I signed up.  I’d been attracted by the idea of earning some real money to support my video game addiction and whatever else I thought I needed.  My parents didn’t give me an allowance, and I wasn’t yet old enough to get a real job, so my options were pretty limited.

Out on the front porch, as I slipped papers into individual protective plastic sheaths one at a time, I started thinking about all of the things that could go wrong.  What if I didn’t bag one of them properly and it got soaked?  Would the customers complain?  What if I delivered to the wrong house?  What if I didn’t have enough papers to distribute to my entire customer list?

By the time I was ready to go my hands were blackened by newsprint, as dark as the yet unlit sky above me.  Rain continued to fall out of nowhere and into the world.  I grabbed the list of customers, tossed the papers into a wagon, and spent the next forty minutes half-walking, half-jogging down streets in my neighborhood, squinting at numbers on the sides of houses, placing copies of today’s edition inside of screen doors and mailboxes.  When I’d delivered the last one, I checked my watch.  Six-fifty.  I barely had any time left to get ready for school.

I ran home through the rain, pulling the empty wagon behind me.  As I pulled off soaking wet clothes and started getting dressed, all I could think about was quitting.  I can’t do this, it sucks, this isn’t worth it.

Later that night my Dad asked me how my first day was.

Terrible, I said.  I hate it.

How do you know that?  You’ve only done it one day!

Yeah but it sucked.  Wet and tired and dark.  I can’t do it.  I was sulking, my arms folded together under my chest.

Well if you really feel that way, that’s fine, but you have to finish out your month.  Tell the paper company and they’ll assign someone else to your route.  But you committed to this and you have to do it.

What if I can’t?  I remember thinking distinctly that I couldn’t do it, that it wasn’t possible for me to do what I did that morning again and again and again.  I didn’t have a choice.

Well, my Dad started, thinking carefully.  If they’re not delivered, you’re a quitter.  When he said this, my heart sank and I found myself looking at my feet.  Plus, you signed a contract to deliver the papers.  So you’ll be breaking some kind of law.  You might get sued.  Go to court, even.   I wouldn’t be surprised if the cops might show up for you after a day or two.  

Suddenly I felt like I had a choice in the matter after all.

So I kept at it.  Over time I got faster at it and started to set my alarm clock just a bit later, allowing me to get a little extra sleep.  And I found that not all of the days were as bad as that first one.   As the month passed, the sun started to come up a little earlier each day.   It got to be pretty bright outside by six thirty or so, when I was finishing up.   I remember one morning where it seemed like the only sounds in the whole town were my shoes against the concrete sidewalk, the wheels of my wagon, and a billion birds singing about whatever it is that birds sing about in the morning hours in march.  That was the same day I decided not to quit after all.

I’m not going to get all romantic on you and say that I was happy working.  I wasn’t.   Work was painful — I would never choose to do it for free.  But I learned that it wasn’t all bad.  Some days were better than others, and a small number were good, even.  And the money was life-changing for me.  I bought a used Nintendo Entertainment System and a few games.  I was able to go to movies and McDonald’s with my friends.

Maybe most importantly, I was able to look my Dad in the eye at night.

I found that earning money was, overall, a pretty terrific thing.

Even when it sucked.





For this work I was paid seventy cents a month per customer and I had about forty of them.  This came out to close to forty five bucks a month, though, because a few people would give me a couple of dollars tip along with payment.  This was in the mid-80s.  Inflation adjusted, this is about ninety bucks a month.  At the time, it felt like an absolute fortune, is what I remember.  Even so, I spent it all, down to the last dime.    I hadn’t yet learned to save.




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