Big Brother just clued me in on what he’s been watching all these years: my annual income since I was a teenager in the 1960s – and what that’ll get me now that I’m in my 60s. That’s if and when I decide to retire; more on that later.
This dubiously reassuring intelligence came in the form of my Social Security statement and its lifetime accounting of my wages and taxes. It triggered memories of some of the more formative moments in my lifelong quest for the almighty dollar.
My first taste of getting and spending was shagging golf balls for the Courier-Express hole-in-one contest. Things were going great until our gang started bringing baseball mitts to work. Contestants did not appreciate the athleticism of our cross-fairway sprints to intercept their short and/or errant shots; our bosses at the late morning paper were likewise teed off. Lesson learned: Use only the proper tools for the job.
Fresh from reading Jack Kerouac, I hitchhiked across country right after high school. Short of cash and curious, I took a job as an agricultural worker in Watsonville, Calif. The trabajadores with whom I picked apricots and thinned lettuce plants swore allegiance to Cesar Chavez, mourned the death of Robert Kennedy and taught me curse words in Spanish. Most of them had been at it for years. I was lucky to eke out a week.
If that was the hardest work I’ve ever done, then my job as a bricklayer’s assistant at Bethlehem Steel was the most dangerous. The uniform was regulation issue: hard hat, safety glasses and metatarsal boots. As in any combat zone, wounded warriors were not uncommon – I quickly lost count of how many long-timers were missing fingers. Weaponry was also evident. My first day on the job, our foreman threatened an interloper with a shiv. And it was dirty. After a shift shoveling soot off a roof, I joked that you could blow your nose and pick up the tissue with a magnet.
I left the army of industry for a hospital in Washington, D.C. Wheeling patients and their charts to treatment rooms, I learned what terms like “cerebrovascular accident” and “mandibular sarcoma” meant (stroke and cancer and everything that comes with them). I also had the task of taking those who didn’t survive their accidents and illnesses to the morgue. It became matter-of-fact – like the row of brains floating in buckets on a high shelf in the pathology lab.
Because our break room adjoined the operating theater, I often had the chance to watch surgery. My years spent mumbling “et cum spiritu tuos” as an altar boy led to the recognition that the rituals and body and spoken language of priests and surgeons were uncannily alike. The proscription against touching sacred objects on the altar mirrored in the antiseptic procedures around the patient on the table; the vocabulary of anatomy and traditional Catholicism both from the same Latin root.
My Social Security statement also included what I earned as a taxicab driver, textbook salesman and teacher. The bottom line of my bottom lines? I learned the most at the jobs where I earned the least. And what they taught me made it possible for me to do what I do now – which I like a lot and plan to do for a long time.
So I’ll rationalize deferring retirement as a way to save Big Brother a few bucks. After all, it’s not easy running a country. And besides, if 60 is the new 40, I’ve got at least 20 more good years until I retire.
Mitch Flynn, the founder of the Ride for Roswell, lives in Buffalo. He has been self-employed. He has been self-employed since 1986.