This past Christmas through various relatives my son managed to accumulate what to a four-year-old must seem like a vast amount of money. His newfound windfall has gone largely to the purchase of various treats and toys much to my mother’s merriment. She specifically instructed me that this money was for “toys and bullshit.” Translation, she didn’t want her money going to anything practical. My son, being of like mind, when asked why he doesn’t buy his own pizza and junk food when we go out answers “You’re the grown-up, you’re supposed to pay for it.” Fair enough.
The other part of being the parent of a newfound hundredaire is attempting to teach the value and meaning of money. It’s a tall order, especially when you are dealing with a child who is still more entranced by the shine on a quarter than the dull crinkle of a twenty dollar bill. I watched recently as his mother laid out every denomination from a penny to a twenty and attempted to explain the value of each. “This is a penny, with a penny you can buy a single sprinkle. That’s not very much is it?” To which he replied a succinct and slightly disinterested “No.” She worked her way up the line of money. A quarter for a bag of chips. A dollar for a drink. Ten for a toy and so on. At the end, he acknowledged the lesson and asked if he could go back to playing on his tablet. The lesson made me think back to my first real and, in my mind, tragic lesson on the value of money.
Before I tell this story there are a few things you have to keep in mind
One. As far as I can tell, the 70’s and early 80’s were a very strange time.
Two. My parents were even more strange than the times might have dictated
Three. Parents in general approached child welfare with a much more laissez-faire approach.
I don’t think I was much older than five years old. Much like my son I had accumulated some money between my birthday and Christmas which were only about a month apart. In truth, I always seemed to have more money than any child my age should reasonably have. I distinctly remember my mother borrowing money from me and paying me back with interest. I think ten dollars cost her two. This was either a product of my mother being kind or slightly embarrassed hitting up a five-year-old for cash. Either way, I was fine with it.
Somewhere along the line, probably when I was closer to two or three, I developed the habit of stealing sips of my parent’s beer. At some point that turned into my having my own full bottle of beer (there is a picture somewhere in my parent’s photo albums of me in our tiny backyard wearing nothing but a diaper holding a seven-ounce bottle of Budweiser). Now would be a good time to re-read the three points of reference I wrote earlier.
For the record, my parents weren’t awful or neglectful. My parents may have had their issues but I was loved and always attended to; it was just a different time with very different values. Children were seen as more resilient creatures than they are today. Looking back you could almost be tricked into believing this was done on purpose. We were given playgrounds made completely of steel and asphalt. We drank from hoses. During the summer we were put out of the house at dawn and told not to return for at least ten hours with the only exception being lunch (maybe) and (severe) injury. Oh, and car seats? Please. You were lucky if the seatbelt in the family car didn’t sit so high as to run across your throat. But yeah, we were loved.
One evening, my father was heading to the bodega (corner store for the uninitiated) and asked me if I wanted anything. “Pick me up a six-pack,” I said straight-faced. My father, just as straight-faced, asked “Seriously?” I told him that I was, in fact, serious to which he replied,”Go get your money.” Looking back I feel like my father looked at the situation with one of two thought processes. Either a) he was tired of my stealing his beer and appreciated his son stepping his game up or b) he was going to the store to buy beer anyway and realized he could simply mooch off of mine. Either way, it was a win for him. My mother, however, was far less forward thinking in her response. “Fuck no! You are not buying a five-year-old beer.” I’m guessing this was her response. I was five and this was thirty-five years ago. My mother did tell me later that she called my uncle who told her to let me buy the beer. “It will be a good lesson.” A lesson in what exactly? Who knows.
I gave my father five dollars and waited for him to return. When he came back he handed me my pack of seven-ounce Buds and fifty cents in change. I looked at the two quarters and I was confused. I assume the conversation with my father went something like this.
Me: Where is the rest of my money?
Father: Rest of what money? You gave me five dollars, the beer was $4.50. You get fifty cents change.
Me: But gave you paper money. I want paperback.
Father: It doesn’t work like that.
Me: THE FUCK YOU SAY TO ME OLD MAN!?!
Ok, I’m sure that last part didn’t happen seeing as how I am alive to write this story but I was still pissed. I cried to my mother about how my father cheated me. She also explained how money worked. From what I understand I wasn’t trying to hear it from her either.
Under normal circumstances, where normal means that it’s ok for five-year-olds to buy six-packs of beer, my father would have given me my five dollars back, took the beer away, and explain what was a hard-learned lesson. No. Not at all. None of that even came close to happening. I was out $4.50, I’m pretty sure I drank at least one tear-soaked bottle of the worst American beer known to man and went to bed.
This was an experience that would change my life forever. It didn’t make me more responsible with money. Not by a long shot. I am terrible with money. But, I didn’t drink another beer until I was twenty-three years old.
I did not pay for it…