“How’d you kids like to make 50 cents?”
Growing up, no matter how many times I heard that phrase, I always fell for it.
“Let’s see how fast you kids can wash the car. Get it done in under 15 minutes and there’s a small DQ cone in it for you.”
Neighborhood kids would follow him to the shed for a rag and a bucket, squeal-y with the anticipation of working their collective asses off for a 30-cent cone.
My father worked as soon as he was old enough to consider working, and he sought to instill in us the same burning desire to toil as soon as we were old enough to hear about it. Like my mother’s belief in the medicinal properties of the Hot Wet Washrag, my father believed in the healing power of work, in the self-affirmation of a steady paycheck.
“I had a paper route when I was a boy. Did you kids know that? Did I ever tell you about the route I had when I was a boy?”
I apply for my first job in fourth grade by filling out a form in the back of a comic book. There, next to advertisements for x-ray specs and garlic chewing gum is the opportunity to earn extra money I've been looking for: door-to-door sales. Candles, greeting cards, little porcelain salt and pepper figurines of angels, windmills, and mushrooms. Who wouldn't want to buy these things?
I am, of course, hired immediately.
My father is sitting at the kitchen table when my first catalogs come in the mail. He pats the chair next to him, holds his hand out. I hand him the catalogs.
He flips through one.
“See? You’re thinkin’. You’re thinkin’,” he says, tapping the side of his nose. “You’re in a trailer park, you got all these doors right next to each other. Boom, boom, boom, you’re up and down the streets in five, six hours.”
He pauses, lights a cigarette.
“Let me hear your patter,” he says.
“Your patter. Your spiel. Your opening line when they open the door.”
I hadn’t considered my patter.
He slaps his left hand on the kitchen table.
“You lost me,” he says. “You lost me. You lost me and I’m closin’ the door.” He leans forward in his chair, ready to slam an imaginary door.
I put my arm out. “Wait!” I pause. “OK.” I say. “Knock, knock.”
“Who’s there?” my father says.
“Hi. My name is Pearl and I’m 10 years old and I’m selling candles and cards and cute little salt and pepper shakers because I want to buy a bike. Would you like to see a catalog?”
My father sits back, taps his cigarette into an ashtray shaped like an outhouse.
“OK. Not bad. Not bad. But hand them the catalog, don’t ask them if they want to see it. You asking gives them the chance to say no. And when you hand it to them, have it open to the candles. Women love candles.”
“And how old are you again?”
He looks at me, frowns. He seems perplexed. “Tell ‘em you’re nine.”
“Nine sounds better.”
“It just does. Trust me.”
He pauses again.
“Oh, and don’t tell them it’s for a bike. Bikes are iffy. Tell ‘em you’re going to band camp or something. People always want to send kids away for a couple weeks.”