When I was thirteen or so, Dad told me to get off my derrière and earn some money. Up to that point my responsibilities consisted of emptying the household trash and helping dad maintain our gargantuan lawn I called Sandspur Central. I was productive in a minimalist way.
So, understanding Dad ruled the roost and would probably begin taxing me soon for room & board, I maximized my productivity by pushing a four-ton lawn mower around the neighborhood. Thankfully, since we had a corner lot, he’d bought one of those new fangled self-propelled machines. It made it easier, but no less tedious, to mow that eleven-thousand acre yard in the hot Tampa sun. I won’t even mention all the orange, grapefruit, and mango trees I had to maneuver the Green Behemoth around.
Now, this was before people started mowing yards for a living, and before other people became willing to fork out forty bucks an hour to have someone maintain their 1100 square feet of Saint Augustine grass before the chinch bugs discovered fine dining. For a small lot, say the kind where you could reach from your kitchen window into your neighbor’s kitchen window and help them with the dishes, I charged two bucks. For a larger yard, the kind where the trampoline and the kiddie pool were the yard, I charged two fifty. (Don’t you wish I were still mowing yards?) On those rare occasions where the Lady of the Manor asked me to rake the clippings, and after I picked my tantrum throwing self up off the ground, I didn’t charge any extra. I don’t know why I didn’t charge extra. Too polite maybe. Or afraid of being browbeaten.
Except for the Lady of the Manor at the other end of my street. I would have mown her yard for free. I don’t remember her name, and I don’t have a clear image of her in my mind (it’s becoming clearer now…), but I do remember her bringing me iced sugar with a little tea in it while I sweated my buns off in her yard. I also remember she was very pretty and — I swear (sorry Mrs. Porter) — she walked around outside in a, I don’t want to call it a negligee or nightgown, but something airy. Very airy. It may have been my imagination. Maybe. But she was nice and I was shy, so it made for…and she was at least twice my age. She moved me to maximize my productivity. I loved mowing her lawn.
That summer, I was jealous of Warren Wester, a family friend who lived on 25th Street a few houses down from the Wilsons, after his mom, Fran, bragged endlessly that Warren had bought his own school clothes with the money he made mowing people’s lawns. All I ever seemed to buy with my lawn mowing money was gasoline, Archie comic books, Zagnut candy bars, and RC Cola.
Our rivalry didn’t get any easier (not that Warren even acknowledged I existed) when I grew older and became a lowly busboy at the (Dow Sherwood’s) Village Inn Pancake House on 30th and 113th. Warren was a well-paid short order cook! He threw perfectly cooked food onto previously dirty dishes I had cleared from debris-strewn tables only moments before (washed, of course, by Russell Labbe, the dishwasher, who also made more money than me). To make matters worse, I had to walk among the tables smelling that delicious food (German pancakes!) that Mr. Superior-in-every-way Wester had cooked mere seconds before.
I had my revenge, though, one day when I was asked to fill in for a hostess who called in sick: I was asked to work the front desk. That was only one step below the guy who had the honor of using the long pole with the suction cup end to change the sign out on the street. Yep. The Big Time. It was a busy Sunday and the after-church crowd was ravenous. I ran home to put on my suit and ran back and began the arduous task of seating people where I thought they should sit rather than where the waitresses would receive an equal number of tipping diners to serve.
It eventually dawned on me that my dark green, double-knit Easter suit, probably not worn in two years, fit a little snug. I’m sure the sleeves extended to my elbows, and the pants at least three inches below my knees. I’m sure those people at the table by the front door weren’t laughing at me. I’m pretty sure I joined the Navy the next day. And that, folks, is where I maximized my productivity.