When every working kid was his own man

The other day, as I was driving through my small Maine town, I saw something that brought back memories: a young teenage boy hiking down the street in his insulated boots, a shovel angled across his shoulder like a musket. I watched as he headed up one of the few walks that had not been cleared of snow. He rang the doorbell and had a brief conversation with the resident. Then he put his back into his work and began to shovel the walk.

I immediately knew why this scene struck me. It recalled a time during my own boyhood in the New Jersey of the 1960s when a kid's work was almost always of an itinerant nature. There was no "crisis of youth unemployment." Kids didn't work in shops or factories or restaurants. It was a game of catch as catch can. We were shovelers of walks, rakers of leaves, walkers of dogs, washers of cars. If a kid wanted work, he had to hustle for it.

The most ambitious of us was George Zolli. I can't recall a time when George wasn't working. I can still see him hauling his ancient coal shovel up and down the snow-laden street, clearing walks and driveways with the alacrity of a prospector. By the end of the day his pocket was abulge with cash. But I didn't envy him. Shoveling snow was hard work, and it seemed enough for me to clear my own walk - after being hounded by my parents.

My attitude changed around the age of 13, when there were things I wanted to have that my parents were not disposed to buy for me. I pulled myself together and accosted 15-year-old George one winter day as he was en route to one of his labors.

"So you want to work, eh?" he said, looking me over to see if I had what it took. I waited apprehensively as he rubbed his chin and rolled his tongue against his cheek. Then he seized the coal shovel from his shoulders and slapped it against my chest. "Can you handle this?" he charged.

I hoisted the heavy thing, which was taller than I, and then assented with a nod. "I think so."

"Meet me at Mr. McInerney's in 15 minutes," George said. "I'll get another shovel."

I did as George told me. Mr. McInerney was a local lawyer. He lived in a nice house and always dressed in suits, so I figured he had a lot of money to hand out. "Get the steps," ordered George when he arrived. "I'll start the walk."

I followed orders, wondering what I would do with all the money I was about to make. There was this bike that had caught my eye.

The shoveling was slow going, as Mr. McInerney's walk was wide and long and the snow was already wet and compacted. Within five minutes I had worked up a good sweat, although my fingers were numb from the cold. Every so often I looked over my shoulder and glanced at George as he aggressively dug at the snow, tossing it aside with practiced ease. In the time it took to finish my five steps George had cleared the entire walk.

"Wait here," he said as he made for the front door. I draped myself over the shovel and watched my breath steam off into the bitter-cold winter air. A minute later George bounded down the steps and handed me a dollar bill. I took it from him with a hint of disbelief. "A buck?" I said.

"Yeah," said George. "I get two, you get one, 'cause I got you the work." Then, after throwing a glance at the steps, "And you're pretty slow," he said with a sad shake of his head.

"Yeah, I know," I sighed. "But a buck?"

George grew impatient with me. "How much money did you have this morning?"

"Nothing," I admitted.

"How much do you have now?"

"A buck."

"Then you're lucky," said George.

Well, I guess I was. But as I watched George wrap his two bills around the wad he lifted from his jeans pocket, I realized that he was a little more fortunate than I. And over time I realized as well that he was the author of his own success, on a year-round basis. When winter turned to spring, he squatted on street corners with his shoeshine kit and did a fanfare business. By high summer he was washing cars. And in the fall he broke out his bamboo rake. He never asked me to work for him again, but I never felt slighted. I just wasn't up to George's standards.

The question, of course, is why one doesn't see kids hawking their labors in their neighborhoods anymore. They seem to have moved indoors - into the fast-food joints and pretzel kiosks in the malls. I think the advent of snow blowers did in the shovelers, and those aggravating leaf blowers have done the same to the rakers. My own son, age 17, wrinkles his nose at the idea of odd jobs. Steady work is what he and his cohorts want.

I was thinking about this the other day when I went outside to tackle the snow in our driveway, with an old coal shovel I had found in the shed. My son didn't seem interested in helping me, but on the other hand I didn't ask. I simply worked apace, moving mounds of snow with a diligence I didn't possess as a kid.

I think George Zolli, wherever he is, would approve.

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