The Occupy Wall Street Movement and the plight of those who are watching their 401Ks (whatever they are) disppear into the maw of the one percent, have brought to mind my own memories of participation in capitalist America. They began early.
My mother gave birth to me nine months and one day after her 18th birthday. My father, whatever his sins may have been, did not engage in conception with an underage female. My mother was not prepared to be a parent. My parents had me call them Edith and Bill, and that is what they were, an Edith and a Bill. Edith struggled with parenthood, with a spectacular lack of success (that is another story) until Bill dumped us. I was three at the time. She left me in Vermont where I ended up living with my grandmother. My grandmother was less than thrilled. Nevertheless, she took up this role of caretaker with a grim and Vermontish determination to do it right.
For my sixth birthday I received several greeting cards, from friends of the family, that each contained a dollar bill. Visions of ice cream cones and barrettes danced in my head, until my grandmother announced that it was time for me to learn thrift and the value of money. She took me to the local bank and opened a savings account for me, with these dollar bills. She was the co-signer on the account, due to my extreme youth. I stood in the cavernous, Dickensian lobby of the bank and watched my birthday money disppear, to be replaced by a small ledger book, with my deposit recorded by hand. The bank manager came out from behind the massive mahogany counter and shook my hand. He welcomed me to the family of depositors at the First National Bank of North Bennington, Vermont and gave me a short lecture on the importance of saving money for one's future.
On a happier note, she also opened a Christmas Club for me, which I was to pay into at the rate of fifty cents a month, money that I could earn by doing extra chores. The following November I would receive $12 to spend on buying Christmas presents. I thought this was cool. The happiest day of the year at our house was the day we went to the nearby metropolis of Bennington and did our Christmas shopping, at Woolworths, which had a vast array - a Sultan's treasury - of fabulous gifts that could be purchased for five and ten cents apiece. Twelve dollars was a fortune and I was able to amaze my friends and relatives with little glass animals, a ceramic rooster, hair bands, and once some very cute little glasses with people dancing on them, that I bought for my grandmother. They were shot glasses. My teetolling grandmother had years and years of fun telling the story of how she received a set of shot glasses from me when I was in the third grade. Christmas shopping day was also the one day of the year that we ate at a restaurant, always the same one - The Green Mountain Diner - where we would have a hot turkey sandwich and a piece of apple pie. This was our yearly glimpse into lifestyles of the rich and famous, and we both savored every moment of it.
As the years rolled by, she continued to deposit my Christmas and birthday money into the savings account, and to show me the little book that slowly grew until, when I was a senior in high school, I had almost three-hundred dollars. It was in April of my senior year that my personal 1K (as opposed to 401K) bit the dust. I came home from school and walked in to find my grandmother smiling from ear to ear as she gazed down on a long-held dream come true - a brand new vacuum cleaner. She had closed out my account and bought a vacuum cleaner and a few other incidentals. She was ecstatic!
My reaction at the time was a kind of weary, "whatever." The money had never seemed like mine anyhow. In retrospect, I am able to be even more forgiving. My grandmother had known very little in her life but hard work and deprivation. She grew up working on her father's farm. When she was 16 her father sold her to a French Canadian logger who walked down to Vermont looking for a wife. When she was 17 she had her first baby. Her husband turned out to be a hopeless alcoholic and she spent the rest of her life working and raising children. She really wanted that vaccuum cleaner and by God she saw a chance to get it and got it she did! Good for you, Gramma, wherever you are. You were right - I was young and I had a better shot at life than you ever did. I didn't need the three hundred dollars.
The day after I graduated from high school she put me on a plane bound for Oklahoma City, where Edith had been living all those years. She had re-married and produced two more children. I was to spend the summer with her and then start life at the University of Oklahoma. Despite the demise of my savings account, I had money with me, $400 I had earned writing the best essay on "Why I Want to Be a Vermont Tree Farmer." This essay contest was sponsored by the Vermont Tree Farmers Association and was open to all Vermont high school seniors. I had no desire whatsover to become a tree farmer but I did know that I had a talent for writing and to heck with the poor sods that actually wanted to become tree farmers.
I graduated from high school on a Saturday night, boarded the plane on Sunday morning, and arrived in Oklahoma City Sunday night. Edith, who was the manager of Manpower Inc., a temp agency, gave me the glad tidings that I had a job, beginning at 8 a.m. the following morning, as a file clerk at the Oklahoma Department of Motor Vehicles. I had a pretty good case of whiplash that might be called Solomon Grundy Syndrome. Remember him?
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Grew worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday.
This is the end
Of Solomon Grundy.
When Edith helped me unpack she discovered the money order for $400 and suggested that I let her deposit it into her account, where it would be safe until I left for college in the fall. Here we go again....(my private thoughts), but I was a compliant child and I signed the money order over to her. The Department of Motor Vehicles paid me $35 a week. Edith gave me an allowance for busfare and nylons and that sort of thing and put the rest of my princely income into her account.
In the fall - surprise! - she told me that she had borrowed my money to cope with unforeseen expenses. I asked when she was going to pay me back and she snapped, "I've provided you with free room and board all summer and you have the nerve to ask me when I'm going to pay you back?" I concluded that the answer was "never," and indeed it was. When she and her husband dropped me off at the dorm her husband slipped me ten dollars and I began life on my own in capitalist America.
I did have a job, however. I was enrolled in the University's Work Study Program. There was one hitch. The University had a Student Minimum Wage of 60 cents an hour. The program was actually a form of indentured servitude whereby students bussed tables, scrubbed pots and pans, reshelved library books, cleaned the football stadium, raked leaves, pulled weeds - etc. etc. - for sixty cents an hour. Banking was not a problem. Even in the fall of 1963 sixty cents an hour disappeared so fast, I even had to shop lift an occasional tube of toothpaste, just to get by.
When I got real jobs, later in life, and had a little real money, I still never put much away into banks. The way I saw it, you could spend your life working at the Widget Factory and saving for your old age, or you could spend your money going places and having experiences and doing whatever it was you really wanted to do. So I opted for that. Let the ants have a safe old age. I would be a grasshopper (or as James Joyce so wonderfully said, "A Gracehoper.")
That was my heritage from Edith and my grandmother - don't spend your life working and banking - you may lose it all anyhow. Follow your dreams. Thank you, oh my distant progenitors, for this wonderful lesson. Even if I wind up spending my old age living under a bridge, I will be grateful for the wonderful life I've had.