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My first job was plucking gray hairs off my mother’s head, nickel a hair. I was eight. She would sit on the couch and I would stand behind her, picking through her black hair for offenders. I’d find a gray one, pull it out by the roots, and place it in the ashtray she had cleaned out just for that. Sometimes I pretended to drop the tweezers and pull one gray hair in half, making two.
Every time I had six hairs, I would cash them in for a quarter and a nickel: the nickel for the collection basket at church on Sunday, the quarter for me and our next trip to the grocery store. Seemed like a fair deal.
A machine in the lobby of the grocery store dispensed one toy for a quarter: one ring, one whistle, one fir tree magnet. These toys came in round plastic containers with replaceable caps, which I coveted as much as the toys inside. My mom would let me buy one, and only one, each time we left the store. Traversing through the aisles with her for an hour, holding on to the cart lest I be kidnapped right out from underneath her nose, I could barely contain myself through the check-out process before the toy machine pulled me from my mother’s side like some kind of poltergeist.
Some children spent their earnings on candy. I spent mine on fake tattoos.
It wasn’t long before my work ethic had been coaxed from the core of my being. My desire to work evolved quickly into need, fluttering in me like a new addiction, setting the stage for my next job: working for my father as a lumberjack. I was ten, again being paid by the numbers.
The three of us would pile into the cab of my dad’s truck and go to the woods. I wasn’t big enough to haul timber yet--my mother took care of that, dragging trees my father cut down into the bed of our truck--but I got a quarter for hauling in any piece of wood that was thicker than my leg.
I earned more for stacking logs back home: a dollar per foot of firewood in the basement, up against a wall in a row about ten feet across. I hauled it in from the big pile that my dad left in the backyard, my summer playground now a sawmill.
If I was working alone after school, it took many minutes to get ahold of enough pieces of wood to make the trip to the basement worthwhile, but if I was working with my father, he would tell me to stretch my arms out in front of me, palms up, loading me down with as many pieces of wood I could hold without pitching forward.
He knew I was in it for the money.
Teetering under the weight of cut logs, peeping through the cracks, I would stumble down to the basement and heave this load onto the basement floor before picking up each piece again to stack one against the other.
My mom wouldn’t let me stack wood if it was below zero because the open door let in too much of a chill, counteracting the productivity of the wood stove. I had to stack when the stacking was good. That it always took me two hours to build up one foot of logs deterred me not.
This was my first dependable source of income, my first taste of dollar bills.