“There is a built-in sense of indebtedness in the consciousness
of man, an awareness of owning gratitude, of being called upon
at certain moments to reciprocate, to answer, to live in a way
which is compatible with the grandeur and mystery of living.”
It was the summer of my twelfth birthday. A number of physical and emotional milestones were in the process of being reached. A winning basket in our half court games became a not unusual occurrence. My first axillary hairs, closely coupled with a new-found interest on girls, parties, cologne, and physical conflict with other young males. Acne. Another year of glowing academic performance, coupled with a few flings at writing stories and poetry, which were well received by my teachers. Life was great, and I could do no wrong.
I had plans. Which consisted of having no plans. Baseball in the morning; basketball under the withering sun in the afternoon; late afternoon in the cheap movie theater, followed by endless evening cruising (on foot) in front of the houses where the cute girls lived.
Or maybe it was basketball in the morning. No matter. Even though school came way too easy for me, I convinced myself that I had worked hard. I deserved this. So when my father asked me what my plans were for the summer, I enthusiastically dove into my carefully documented schedule.
“You’re too old to be doing nothing.”
It did not occur to me to respond that I was only twelve. Or would be in a couple of weeks. I had always been treated as if I was much older than my chronological age. Even in play, I was the one who cautioned my friends that maybe it would not be such a good idea to get into whatever trouble they had cooked up. Other parents quickly picked up on this fact. Any neighborhood child who said “I’m going with Paco” was automatically granted permission to leave his home, even if they had been grounded. This made me very popular among the guys, even if there were times that I restricted their pursuit of fun.
“I think that you should have a job. Make your own money.”
I was twelve, for God’s sake! Of course I remained quiet.
“The husband of one of my friends has a store that you can help him with. You start on Monday.”
“You can play on weekends. You need to go to work.”
I knew that further pleas would be as useful as asking the sun not to rise the next day. I mournfully told my best friends that I wouldn’t be there for play on Monday.
I was there bright and early Monday. Maybe not as angry and upset as I pretended to be. My new employer owned a store where he sold hardware and appliances. I was excited about being able to deal with the public. I have a competitive streak in me; for sure I would dazzle all others with my ability to close on sales.
It was not to be. He was also a contractor. He did complicated installations for many construction sites. He was able to buy many of the materials that he used from himself, thus increasing his profit. This is where he wanted me to work.
But I wanted to be in the store selling things.
“You’re too smart to be there. I need you running my inventory.”
I could not think of a more boring title to apply to a job. Or useless. I said something to the effect that I wanted to do something important.
“That’s exactly why I want you in the office. Inventory’s vital. I will pay you ten dollars a week. You work from Monday through Saturday afternoon. I will pay you in cash every Saturday.”
Another crushing blow. There went my Saturday basketball games. On Sunday everyone went to church in the morning, and most families were together in the afternoon. There would be no sports and very little time to flirt with girls. My life was over. Now I was really upset.
It took me a few days to fully understand what my father had gotten me into. My boss was despised by everyone: his employees, the people that he did contracting work for, the people that he hired part-time to help him when it got busy, his neighbors… It went on and on. He was a short man, reasonably handsome, extremely smart and well-spoken. He had a knack for analyzing what was needed in a job, and he knew the best and the cheapest ways to get things done. He had two employees who helped on-site (at constructions and at the store); these people he treated reasonably well and with moderate respect. Everyone else was nothing more than an animated piece of meat to him, and he did not hesitate to show his feelings to anyone who faced him. Things had to be done his way.
I soon found out that he did not like to pay his bills. For the hardware, he waited until his suppliers threatened to stop selling him stuff before he wrote a check. His full-time employees got paid on time; the part-timers had to settle for whenever. Sometimes they agreed to take hardware from the store (at the usual markup) as compensation. I learned early on that one of my jobs was to tell people that he was not in the office. If anyone ever waited outside his place of business for him to come out, he would lash out at them with a stream of profanity that would intimidate them. They were trying to get paid, and he made them feel as if they were harassing him. Once the “harassers” left, unpaid most of the time, he would have a wicked grin on his face, and he rubbed his mustache with both hands, as if he were making sure that it was in place and attractive enough.
This is why inventory was so important. His employees would steal him blind if he did not have a reasonably rigid system to keep track of thousands of pounds of steel and wiring. It was my job to register every piece that left the store or the warehouse. One of his trusted underlings made sure, at the end of each week, that the amounts matched what had been taken from the stock.
He supervised two full-time people to do the job that he had hired me for. He told them that I was a family friend who needed to keep busy for a couple of weeks. After they trained me, and once he was sure that my work was up to par, he fired the two men. They made $60 a week each (In those days you could buy a Coke for six cents, and go to the movies for 75). He hired me for $10, and he paid me in cash, off the books, so he saved himself all the payroll taxes. He could buy a lot of Cokes with that money.
Or shoes. He wore nothing but the best, even to the construction sites. The kind that had dozens of little holes in them, that had to be cleaned and polished one by one. He drove a late-model luxury car. It had air conditioning and power windows; steering; brakes; everything. Very unusual in those days. Monster fins that looked like wings on a jet plane. A beautiful home; two smart kids; a brilliant wife who had professional success of her own. He had everything, and nothing was ever enough. He was relentless.
After two weeks of what can best be described as amazement and utter fascination (not in a positive sense), I was firmly entrenched in the business. I realized that my predecessors worked slowly, because I was able to get done long before quitting time on most days. Then it was a struggle to find something to do. I asked the boss if it was OK for me to go to the store; they were always busy and I wanted the social contact.
“I told you; you’re too smart to be there. Come with me to the construction site.”
He told his wife, who would sometimes come by to help out, that he was taking me to the projects. We got into what I had begun to describe as his rocket ship, and he drove off.
But we never made it to the projects. He told me that he needed to make a side trip, and we found ourselves at the main town square. In Puerto Rico every town has a central plaza. It is usually anchored by the largest Catholic church in the city. Dozens of businesses, many of them bars and restaurants, are arranged in a rectangle around the church. There is usually a central fountain, or meeting place, where people of all ages and social standing mingle, each stratum holding to its own members, of course. My boss began to circle the plaza in his big, expensive vehicle, until he caught the attention of a couple of women. He slowed down and motioned for one of them to get in. He asked me to move to the back seat. Once the woman was seated next to him he began the circling routine again, all while flirting with the woman and rubbing his right hand along her left thigh and up her dress. This went on for four circuits, at the end of which he had secured a date with his new friend. He dropped her off, asked me to come back to the front seat, and flashed his wicked grin, followed by the mustache tweaking.
“No time for the project today. Some other day.”
He drove me back to the office, where his dutiful wife waited for him to drive her home.
This distraction happened twice more. By then I had entered a mental state that I was utterly unfamiliar with. It was as if I had entered the twilight zone by mistake. I knew that this was a short-term arrangement, so in the worst of cases I only needed to live with this state of affairs for a few more weeks. And the ten dollars, which doesn’t sound like much these days, was a veritable fortune for me. Late Saturday afternoon I would get off the bus and walk into my “hood” a rich man. If any of my friends was thirsty, I could offer to buy a coke. Or spring for thirty cents to go to the “bad” movie theater. There was one time where we were able to get a Sunday baseball game together, but we had no ball to play with. I came up with the needed cash. Right then and there, I became the most popular guy in the neighborhood, by far. No one dared mess with me, or make fun of my new sneakers (other mortal kids had to suffer through the ordeal of having everyone step on their shiny new shoes. All I had to do was to give anyone who dared to come close an angry look. They backed off).
I learned, like my boss had, that money gave you power. Yet I still had an uneasy feeling about all of the victims that his wealth had left behind. One day, a few weeks in, my father asked me how things were going.
OK. The work is a bit boring. I wanted to be around more people.
“I spoke to your boss. He’s very impressed with what you are doing. I’m very proud of you.”
It’s not hard, believe me. It’s only for a little while anyway.
“He told me that he wants you to come in every Saturday during the school year. He’ll pay you every six weeks. This way you’ll have money during school.”
NO! I don’t want to do that.
“I think work has been good for you. I want you to do this.”
NO! You have no idea who this man really is. Everything that you and mom have taught me… I mean everything… He’s not a good person.
“I understand. He’s a businessman; we’re professors. Different ways to look at life, particularly at money. I want you to stay with him. You need to learn what you won’t do to earn a dollar.”
He walked away, like he always did to indicate that the conversation was over. Now, for sure, I knew that my life was ruined. I had trouble falling asleep that night.
I finished the summer out. I had saved more than half of my salary. I began to work on Saturdays, which was torture for me. I had to correct many of the new hire’s mistakes. I knew that the boss would take pleasure in dressing down the new hire; telling him that a young kid was better prepared than he was. There was little movement at the construction sites on weekends, so my work load was diminished. By noon there was nothing left to do. I decided that I would go to the store to help when the boss was not around. Whenever I saw his car drive up I ran up to the office.
This worked out well, for a while. There was this Saturday afternoon when this kid, at least two years younger than I was, walked into the store. He came right to me.
“I want that one.”
He pointed at a transistor radio that was in the display window. In those days, transistor radios were all the rage in the teen community, much like boom boxes became the norm later on. I had managed to buy one of my own, so I knew the thrill that it was to walk down the street with a piece of hardware stuck to my ear, blaring my favorite song or a baseball broadcast. Some of them came with headphones; those were particularly cool.
I was happy to help him. He had a stash of coins with him, so we took the time to count his money. He had enough, and he would have a quarter left over. I asked the store manager to unlock the case. I opened the radio box. My client was beaming.
I did not notice that my boss had driven in. Not finding me at the office, he had come to the store.
“What are you doing here?”
There is no more work to do. I figured that the store could use some help, this being a busy Saturday. Plus, I have made a sale!
He looked at the kid. With some skepticism.
“Does he have enough money?”
Yes. He even has an extra quarter.
“Let me handle this.”
My jaw dropped. My first big sale, and he was taking over. I felt resentment and anger bubbling inside.
“Let me see your money,” he told the kid.
Out came the stash of coins. He proceeded to count away. Halfway through the process he distracted the child, and he slipped a quarter into his pants pocket. Once the money counting was finished, he announced to the child that he had enough. He could take the radio. A puzzled look came over the child’s face.
“But… There was more.”
My boss pointed to the coins. He shrugged his shoulders.
“That’s all that you have,” he said.
The child looked at my boss, then at me. I knew that he wanted me to say something. For the first time in my life, I was terrified and completely at a loss as to what to do. I said nothing. Then the child looked at the radio, and the smile returned. He grabbed his package and ran off.
My boss took the stolen quarter out of his pocket. He flipped it up in the air, caught it, and put it back where it came from. He flashed his evil grin and he rearranged his mustache. He walked off.
That happened to be my payday. That afternoon I did not bother to look for my friends when I stepped off the bus. I went straight home and looked for my father. I went in his bedroom. He was reading the paper.
I don’t care what you say. I’m not going back to work.
The first time that I had ever stood up to him. He nodded. He went back to reading.
I never saw my boss again. His wife being a family friend, I was kept up to date. Eventually his dishonesty and philandering did him in. There were numerous lawsuits stemming from his reluctance to pay bills. Competitors who were honest, or less dishonest than he was, got most of the business that he was used to getting. One of his many mistresses died mysteriously. He was accused of murder. It took whatever he had left in his bank account to hire criminal defense lawyers, who managed to get him off the hook. By then his wife had left him, and his kids stopped communicating with him. The rocket ship that he treasured so much seemed to have dug a deep hole to sink him.
He got sick. He died, alone, in the public hospital. One of his kids was nice enough to make arrangements to bury him. He was the lone witness to the end of this incredible life.
At this time of year, I think about this guy. In a weird way he was a mentor to me. Like my father had told me, he taught me what I wouldn’t do for a buck. The humiliation that I suffered when the child with the radio looked at me, asking for help without saying a word, will never leave my mind.
Today, I want to give my thanks to this monster who helped me gain a real-life ethical perspective on my life. I want to ask for forgiveness from the abused child. His pain solidified my belief in the core principles that my parents carefully nurtured in me. I’m not sure that I would put any child through the harrowing series of events that I lived through, but somehow I think that my dad was confident that I’d make it through. Thanks to him too.