"TREND FORECAST: Automotive insiders in Detroit, quick to spot a trend or to start one, say the next great market for new cars is the teenage child. First the car was a family purchase, they say, and next it was a second car, for the wife. Now it is a third new car, for junior. They point to the large number of Mustangs, MGs, Corvairs and Triumphs that are being given teenage boys and girls as Christmas presents and graduation gifts. Many children have their own credit cards, and in fact a new credit system for teens is already in operation ....."
Dimly the article I had just read began to filter down through the coffee grounds that I have begun to suspect fill the cavity between my ears. As I stood in the muddled mass of waiters and watchers pressed against the Formica wall of my favorite Chock Full 0' Nuts, ticking out the minutes until I would be allowed my few fleeting seconds on a stool that had not cooled off since early in the morning, to quickly inject a turkey salad sandwich, a bowl of chicken clam gumbo, a minute brownie and a cup of scalding, justly famous Chock Full 0' Nuts coffee into my boiler room, the better to play suppliant for the ordeals of the afternoon to come, a fleeting but startlingly vivid image of the Brave New World emerging flashed into what is left of my consciousness.
At first it was out of focus, but quickly adjusting the knob brought it in clear and strong-a picture of a thirteen-year-old, fish-eyed, flaxen-haired youth tooling his Eldorado convertible into a magnificent Great Drive-In In The Sky that featured Braised Squab Pizza-Burgers. Already his Teen-A-Diner card is out as he tuned up the volume on his Stereo Multi-Speaker FM Hi-Fi radio, the better to hear the twanging sounds made by another kid singing of the trials and wretched tribulations of youth.
A short, stout lady carrying three Macy's shopping bags dug her elbow into my kidney as she leaped off the mark, neatly cross-checking an elderly barrister who had been waiting for a stool, loudly calling for a hot dog even before her girdle had stopped squeaking as she slid onto her ill-gotten throne. Without thinking, from an old automatic reflexive action, my hand slid into my right pocket to check whether I had enough cash on hand for the chicken gumbo when an old pang of ancient pain thumped dully somewhere down in my basement. All of my life, it seems, had been spent Checking To See Whether Or Not I Had Enough Money.
I shifted position slightly in the mob to ease an incipient cramp in my left instep, starting a wave of protest muttering that rose and fell around me. Again my mind returned to the urchin in the Caddy. I noted he had finished his Squab-Burger and had ordered Drambuie, the fourteen-year-old carhop Lolita smiling sensually as she undulated away.
I watched the scene in stark, unmitigated, keening envy. Of course I instantly reproved myself for the meanness of my thoughts. I have always felt that a lot of the resentment and anger over juvenile delinquency stems from a sense of having been cheated. A sex orgy at the Warren G. Harding School in my day consisted of throwing a snowball - at long range - at Esther Jane Allbury. This was followed by a prolonged period of hiding under the porch while Junior Bruner, a fellow snowball thrower, said dirty words.
My mind, being what it is, returned to the subject of money and how I had gotten it as a kid.
My mother and I had a deal. Every time I went to the store I was paid, or perhaps a better word would be bribed, three cents. How this figure of three cents was determined I have no idea. Perhaps it was the prevailing scale at the time. But three cents it was, and it was an excellent deal on both sides.
There was another pact with my father. It had to do with Taking Out The Ashes, a form of strip-mining that had elements of slavery as well as excellent training for a GI career to come spent mostly digging holes, breathing dust into the upper bronchial regions and in general sweating out horrendous as well as demeaning tasks. For this job, which occurred roughly every two weeks on a Saturday morning, I received five cents.
There was, of course, no allowance. In fact, the word 'allowance' was never heard in the neighborhood, except when it occasionally popped up in Andy Hardy movies. Judge Hardy was always about to cut off Andy's allowance for some disastrous escapade. But then, Andy Hardy lived in a strange world where fathers were called 'Judge' and had a place they went into that Andy called 'Dad's study.' Girls were either blonde or Judy Garland, drove convertible Chevys, and could tapdance.
No one in our neighborhood ever tap-danced, as far as is known, at least in public. Convertible Chevys were occasionally seen, but only at a distance and on the great superhighway that led to Chicago. They never stopped in our world of panel trucks, dessicated Nashes and tractor-trailers. We did have a few blondes, but they usually had pimples.
From time to time conjecture would break out in the more serious and literate circles at recess time as to just exactly what an 'allowance' was. The prevailing opinion was that it was some sort of an inheritance, or maybe something to do with religion. It would never have occurred, and didn't, to any of us that a parent would simply fork over dough to a kid for doing nothing. Apparently for just being a kid.
We did have one word, however, that never seemed to be mentioned in the Andy Hardy movies or the Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire epics that provided a deep, rich undercurrent of culture for the neighborhood. That word was 'Depression.' As kids, naturally, we had no idea what it meant since none of us had known anything but. However, the parents talked about it incessantly, in the same way that they discussed great natural phenomena such as tornados, monstrous snow-storms, searing heat and driving, torrential flood rains.
No one seemed particularly angry or hopeless about it, or even really very irritated, contrary to most writers who write about it in retrospect as well as from that wonderful nirvana, that Never-Never Oz of great passions and giant causes known, to me at least, as Writerland. No one in our neighborhood, as far as can be determined, had ever even heard of THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and if the name 'Steinbeck' had been mentioned to any of the citizens of the time they probably would have confused him with a practicing, moderately-inept, notorious part-time Utility Outfielder who performed for the Chicago Cubs by name of Tucker Stainback, better known as 'Tuck.' They would have been astounded to hear that old Tuck had written a book, especially one about grapes.
We were far from the literary currents of the age. There were no colorful Henry Fonda type Okies in the neighborhood, no twinkling-eyed-with-hearts-of-gold-and-rough-exterior itinerate grape pickers, no flaming-eyed young men who waited for someone called Lefty and who spoke in purple, orotund blank verse, no angry screenwriters who dreamed of great Utopias to come, no simple, noble common men-just a lot of plumbers, machinists, and foundry workers, open hearth melters and tin mill hustlers who were out of work.
It is hard to say at what point a fixation starts. When did Ahab stop just going out after whales and begin to have that thing on Old Moby? It is not easy to tell. Somewhere in the middle of my ninth year I met my own personal White Whale.
I was hanging on the wall of Milliken's Sporting Goods Store; trim and neat, irresistible, a split-bamboo bait casting rod with chrome guides, green silk binding and a magnificent pistol grip cork handle. It cost $1.98, with case, the case being a limp blue cloth snake-like sheath.
At the time, as the coke dust slowly settled on the eaves and the neighboring refineries deposited their viscous pungent film on my bedroom window, I read and re-read torn and tattered copies of FIELD AND STREAM and OUTDOOR LIFE. I was a fishing nut, not the barefoot cheek of tan school but rather the sort that fishes almost completely in the imagination. While other kids dreamed of becoming airline pilots or left-handed pitchers I saw myself forever in coldwater waders, breasting a remote Alaskan stream pursuing a record steelhead.
My actual fishing consisted of going on a long bicycle trip with two other dreamers to a sludgy, murky stream bracketed by high octane gasoline storage tanks and junkyards, named, ironically enough, the Grasselli River, Grasselli being the name of a nearby chemical corporation. The stream had no current whatsoever, but plenty of action. Great bubbles of gas burst continually on its surface and occasionally it just caught fire from sheer spontaneous combustion, sometimes burning for days. We would throw our lines into the gooey liquid - thick green dimestore string tied to bamboo poles - scrunch down in the odorous mud and wait. We caught, at rare intervals, tiny wizened petroleum-colored catfish, catfish that I suspect were not actually caught but which in reality had committed suicide.
Never in my life had I had such a fantastic sum of money as a dollar ninety-eight. Once when I was seven I had received a dollar on my birthday from my Uncle Tom. This dollar had seen me well into my eighth year.
I remember very well the first night of my long ordeal. The Chinese say a thousand mile journey must begin with one small step. I made that step. It was not easy. On a damp November night I took my three cents and put them into an empty Prince Albert tobacco can, and the thousand mile journey had begun.
The next night I backslid, buying two black jawbreakers and a small wax bottle full of a green liquid for two of the three cents. The wax bottle turned to ashes in my mouth as I struggled through the howling gale, loaded down under twenty cents worth of soup bones and a ten pound bag of flour. I put the remaining cent in the tobacco can. It landed with a solitary, lonely clunk. Already I was learning the evils of profligacy.
I drove on, day after day, advancing, receding, striking out and tottering by the wayside - a top spring here, a yo-yo there, but always that cursed Prince Albert can with its flaming red hide remained mute and unfilled. By the first of the year I had just cleared fifty cents and a few weeks later it became obvious that there would be another Summer. With renewed frenzy I sifted ashes, cleaned garages, polished headlights, sold magazines. My tiny cache grew painfully, maddeningly slow. Every Saturday when we went into town I would look at the split-bamboo casting rod. It hung, chaste and prim, and grew even prettier as spring came on. I would ask the salesman if I could hold it to see how it fitted me, and occasionally I felt the yielding softness of the cork grip in my sweaty palm, the rod tip quivering like a thing alive.
After such a moment I would hurl myself back into the fray like a madman. I now had over a dollar, a whole gigantic dollar! The pennies on the bottom of the can had become green and moulded, the nickels blackened and sear while the can itself had become heavy and swollen with wealth.
It was now Easter and an unexpected windfall - my Aunt Glen gave me a quarter to buy a chocolate-covered Easter egg with bunny ears. Into the can it went. Now I knew there was no stopping me. I could hardly wait for each weekend so that I could polish the Oldsmobile, cut Mr. Scott's lawn, scratch out somehow another nickel, another dime.
From time to time I would spill the coins out on my bed to count them, running my hands through them, trickling the pennies and nickels through my fingers like a classical Victorian miser, cackling fiendishly as the coins clanked.
The weather softened; birds sang. The waters of the Grasselli River warmed while the catfish waited expectantly for my new rod. By now the whole family had been sucked into my ferocious madness. My kid brother was not allowed within five feet of the Prince Albert can. My mother, on the other hand, tried to get me to - Go out and play, or something! - instead of spending hours in the dark, gloating over my mounting fortune. My father constantly made sadistic jokes such as:
"Well, I just got fired today. It looks like we'll have to use the money in the can." Or, "Say, can you loan me a dollar seventeen? I'm a little short."
Maniacally I clung with a single-mindedness, which even to this day I have not matched, to that rapidly approaching goal of a dollar and ninety-eight cents. I achieved it on a Friday night in late Spring. The last three cents went into the can just as The Lone Ranger was coming on for his nightly adventure. Of course, the stores were not open on Friday night. I tossed and turned in my bed, excitement racking my body in wave after wave. I was up at dawn, waiting for my father to take me into town. By ten o'clock I was in Milliken's, the palsy of lust upon me. My father hung back. It was my show!
The store was crowded with lead sinker buyers and Just Lookers. I rushed back to the fishing department and joined a jostling crowd of fellow dreamers. It was Spring, of course, and the new stock had come in. Dozens of unfamiliar rods, reels I had never seen, hundreds of red and white lures covered the counters and the walls. I waited for the salesman as impatiently as only a ten-year-old can get after finally sighting the target, the way Ahab must have been when the cry of "Thar she blows!" echoed from the mizzen and a great white fluke slapped the sea.
At long last my turn came. In a daze I asked the salesman for the split-bamboo rod with the green binding and the chrome guides, for a dollar ninety-eight. He paused slightly and reached under the counter.
"This is the lowest priced rod we have. Is this the one you mean?" He held up my rod, with a price tag that read $2.98.
I reeled, staggered. "It costs a dollar ninety-eight!" My right pocket hung heavy with pennies, quarters and nickels.
"I'm afraid you must be mistaken, son. We did have a dollar ninety-eight rod last season, but we don't carry that one any more."
"IT'S THE SAME ROD"
He moved on to another customer, leaving the rod on the top of the glass counter, within arms' reach. I stared at it. The tag read $2.98. I could smell the varnish and the cork. Suddenly my father reached over my shoulder and picked up the rod.
"Is this the rod you've been saving for? It's not a bad rod." He flipped the tip whippily and laid it back down on the counter. The clerk returned. My father said: "Wrap it up."
The man picked up the rod and went back to the wrapping department.
My father handed me a dollar and said: "That's not a bad rod."
Ten minutes later we were back in the Olds on the way to the A & P and more shopping. I don't remember much more about that morning. It went by in a delirious haze. I know I clutched the rod by my side for at least three days afterward and slept with it all that summer.
Suddenly I saw my opening. An empty stool! I darted forward like a shot, just as the body of a truculent twelve-year-old bounced off my spinal cord.
As I wolfed my two minute and forty second luncheon, I fell into a somewhat meditative half-trance, a trait I am developing more and more these days. I found myself musing over another victim of lost identity. Everywhere, writers are squeezing out sweaty novels and epic poems about young men (themselves) struggling to find what they continually call their Ĺidentity' in the mid 20th Century. But no one ever seems to say much about the true victim of creeping identity loss - THE DOLLAR.
As I moodily gummed my brownie I tried to think hard and long about the good old dollar, the symbol, the life force, the very blood of the American way of life. The dollar - that carrot which lures millions of scurrying men and women through the great Rabbit Race of Life, the dollar which when presented as a gift to a growing child in the not-so-ancient past was a statement of love so magnificent as to stun the senses. The poor old dollar, which seems to be destined to go the way of the late, unlamented Indian penny.
I was now out on the street, being carried on the current of humanity back toward the impersonal, fluorescent-lighted combination machine and office where I spent most of my life, an office dedicated wholeheartedly to the reaping, sowing, and gathering of as many dollars as is inhumanly possible. Only a very few of them ever actually filtered down to me or my fellow workers, but we slavishly, nonetheless, help keep the vast machinery going.
The sun was shining. It was a pleasant day, so I felt free to allow my mind to wander into the more sticky philosophical thickets. There are times when it is good to do this, if only to find out whether the old mind still functions.
I beg the reader's indulgence, to quote 18th Century essayists who wrote with a quill pen and not a SCM portable electric, and beg to be allowed to commit a few of these random thoughts to these august pages.
All over the world the dollar represents America, I thought. Could it be that if the dollar loses significance so shall America? I am no materialist, never having had much material actually in my possession, but nevertheless it is interesting to speculate on the meaning of the dollar as a philosophical concept rather than a means by which tennis shoes are bought.
Sociologists have claimed that the vast population explosions have reduced the individual's worth to almost nil. He becomes uneasy, fretful, finally vengeful, eventually burning down the City Hall. Anything to make some kind of noise in a world that no longer hears. Well, that's people. What about dollars? My mind attempted to grapple briefly with a few of the fantastic figures reeled off in the President's State Of The Union address. Like measurements of the power of nuclear bombs, they have little meaning. The mind is unable to comprehend such vast forces. Megatons. Megakill. Megabucks! Multi-Tri-Megabillions!
In such a vast avalanche of dollars does a single clam, a solitary simoleon have any meaning at all, even to itself? Rarely today, I thought, do I ever consider a tip anywhere of less than a dollar. I slap dollar bills into palms the way I used to distribute largesse measured in quarters. Barbers, hat-check girls, passers-by on the street, St. Bernard dogs, all receive no less than a crinkly dollar bill for their slightest ineptly-executed alleged service. With surly growls of discontent they scurry off to fleece other handers-out of the sacred dollar.
My mind slowly began to gather momentum, like a lumpy boulder, lichen-covered, rolling down a muddy hillside. By George, I was on to something! In many circles with which I have had brief contact from time to time the dollar itself is considered an archaic symbol of the old, square, Benjamin Franklin America of yesteryear. I have known men who prided themselves on never having seen an actual dollar for years on end, carrying instead great, luxurious bales of shiny, plastic-sealed, slithery credit cards in red, white and blue shades. In my own wallet, I thought, now bulging inordinately like some small, growing softball there were at least five magic keys to infinite wealth, with embossed numbers, inscribed signatures, flowing engraved seals - promising me unbounded gasoline, food, sumptuous hotel rooms, booze and football tickets. I never paid any of the little bills that arrived from their use with dollars but with pale, flimsy blue checks, also containing mysterious, incantatory serial numbers. Could it be that the dollar as a living force, an actuality, is going the way of the buffalo? And one day will there be a corral down on Wall Street where a few rare old worn, crumpled bills will be preserved so that children will know what their forefathers lived and died for?
I laughed my famous dry, acid, satiric cackle. Immediately that little voice inside of me said:
"Don't laugh, wiseguy. The Indians laughed when their medicine men predicted that one day a great iron horse would replace the pinto."
True, there are some isolated spots left in this great abundant land of ours where dollar bills moulder in mattresses and actual cash changes hands when bread and eggs are bought, but they are shrinking. Inevitably one day they will disappear.
Already there are plans well underfoot to issue to each child born a permanent credit card number that will remain with him for life, and even beyond. The plans also include a provision for capital punishment upon conviction of a major crime. It will consist of cancellation of the sacred credit number.
Of course, with the dwindling identity of the dollar bill other symptoms of creeping anonymity of all of us have appeared. J. Paul Getty, that eminent collector of bucks, recently said, (and I quote): "A million dollars isn't what it used to be." And he was not kidding! Few people feel as insignificant as a simple, run-of-the-mill, down-at-the-heels, common-clay Texan with one million, three hundred thousand dollars in his shaky bank account, walking into Neiman-Marcus on a sunny day.
When I was a kid a millionaire was a mythical being, like the unicorn or the balloon fairies. There was even a common phrase that referred to "The Life of Riley," a famous legendary millionaire of the past. Kids used to say:
"I'll bet a million bucks the Yankees win the Pennant." Today that phrase is rarely heard, since it is virtually meaningless. A single unproved twenty-year-old Texas lineman from a second-rate football team was recently given nine hundred thousand dollars just to sign a contract. That, of course, did not include salary, convertible Lincolns and other emollients.
Run that over your tongue. Taste it. Nine hundred thousand bucks just for signing! Few major movie stars today would even care to consider working for less than a million dollars a picture and 50 percent of the gross. We all remember when "four bills" meant four dollars. Then suddenly "four bills" meant four hundred. Now four bills means four thousand. Already, in many theatrical circles, four bills translates: four megabucks.
The poor, tiny, atom-sized green slip of paper with the gracefully engraved figure One is slowly slipping into that great sea of the eternally lost. It will join the doubloon, the piece of eight, the King's gold farthing and the twenty dollar gold piece as another temporary symbol of a past era.
My office loomed ahead. Reality crept back into my consciousness. I became aware that the sole of my right shoe was flopping again. I made a mental note to have my shoes resoled and maybe they'd last another month or so. I went through the snicking doors of the automatic elevator. I was back in the air-conditioned entrails of my office - the dollar farm.