I started working when I was 7 years old. One of my older brothers had a paper route on 94th Street in Jackson Heights, N.Y., and I was his assistant. We had 16 apartment buildings, with 120 papers to deliver. The four buildings with elevators were his; the other 12 five-storied walkups were mine. He did his two on one side of the street while I did my six, then we'd meet and cross the street to do the other side. We used to race on both sides to see who'd finish first, but no matter how fast I ran up and down those stairs, my brother always won.
Most days I couldn't get my arms around the papers, especially on Thursdays, when they were loaded up with ads. My brother used to count them and stack them on top of my head, leaving me to wobble off with both hands raised to keep them from falling off. I'd climb to the fifth floor first and drop them off at doorways coming down, because I thought it was faster. After two or three buildings, I could usually slip them down under my arm and balance them on my hip.
My brother had the route for two years. During that time, we worked seven days a week, 365 days a year. On Sundays, my mother would wake us up at 5 a.m. so we'd get back home in time to change clothes for the 9 a.m. Mass. It was still dark when we left and scary going down into the unlit cellar for our shopping cart-lifted from the local A&P-so we'd joke and push and shove one another, hoping our little subterfuge would frighten off anyone lurking in the shadows.
My brother made about $20 a week. Two of those dollars were mine. That was a lot of money for a 7-year-old in the late '50s. I had a little bank shaped like a cash register that only took dimes, and that's how I made him pay me. Every time I put one in, I'd pull the lever down slowly and watch the total go up accordingly.
When it filled at $10, I'd take the money out and bring it to the real bank in a sock. I'd walk up to the counter, and the nice woman would spill them out and count them by twos so our figures would jibe. When she finished, she'd ask for my passport savings book and take it to this huge machine that looked like a typewriter. She'd roll the book through it like a piece of paper and type in my deposit, including any interest I'd earned since my last visit, which showed up in red. I was in awe when she gave it back, not so much for the amount I had, but for what I thought it would soon become. One day, when I had enough, I was going to buy my mother the mink coat she always wanted, just as I'd always promised her.
No matter how much I put away, I always kept a little for myself. I loved Venus Paradise coloring sets, all those cool-colored pencils I could use to fill in all those numbered spaces. If I kept the points really sharp and pressed hard, I could hide the numbers I was coloring over, leaving me with a beautiful picture. Since I couldn't draw for shit, those pencils made me feel like an accomplished artist.
One year after shopping for Christmas presents, I had a few bucks left over, so I bought myself a new Hardy Boys book-a real treat, as all my others were used and didn't have covers. When I went home and showed it to my mother, she scolded me for being selfish. Her criticism angered me. I kept hearing my father's voice telling me that if I wanted something badly enough, I'd find a way to get it for myself. Wasn't that what I'd done?
I never read that book in front of anyone. I saved it until late at night, when my other brothers and my sister fell asleep. I read under my covers with a flashlight, which I sneaked from the hallway closet. The book was The Missing Chums. It's still my favorite.
My brother lives in Baltimore now and has his own business. Sometimes when we joke around and rehash the old days, he tells me he feels bad for exploiting me, but I tell him not to worry, I never saw it that way. I was happy working for him; I had more money than anyone I knew. Besides, when we went collecting on Thursday and Friday nights, he always took me to the candy store, where we'd pig out on ice sodas and candy bars, at his expense. I can still see myself sitting there, 7 or 8 years old, 8:30 at night with a spoonful of whipped cream in my face-that said something, didn't it?
As for me, I'm still the assistant, though I like to think of myself as a facilitator. There are those who give orders and those who make them happen. I've had at least 40 or 50 jobs since then, some better than others, some worse, but I've always managed. It's taken me a long time to realize that all skills are marketable, even if it's just a warm smile and some flexibility. People need that in the workplace, and I've gotten very good at it. Just keep them happy and feeling good about themselves, and they'll take care of you-that's my mantra.
I still have a jar in my closet where I keep my change and never use my debit card. I like to pay in cash, if only for the feel of it.