I remember the moment I my first paycheck was placed in my hand as if it happened yesterday, even though decades have passed since that day. I remember the sense of pride I felt when Paula, the cashier at the restaurant we both worked in, handed me the fruits of my labor. Paula didn’t last long at the restaurant, for reasons endemic to her character, but her face is enshrined in my personal Mount Rushmore of memories. The lessons my father and grandfather taught me about the value of a dollar might have been nothing more than a creative way they found to avoid giving me more money, but whatever it was their lessons did to me was born the day I received my first paycheck.
I don’t remember the bus ride over to that restaurant, but I remember stepping off the bus, knowing that my paycheck was waiting for me inside the restaurant. I remember waking with anticipation. It was the first morning I woke with memorable anticipation since a certain someone ruined Christmas for me. I knew I would no longer have to endure the guilt and embarrassment of asking my father and grandfather for money. I was as free as a teenager could be. That day was the day I learned the power of the dollar, firsthand, and it is still one of the top ten greatest days of my life.
The hairbrush I purchased with that first paycheck was my argument against the accusation my father and grandfather made that I would never learn the value of a dollar. My grandfather lived through The Depression, and my father lived in the aftermath of it, and they knew the value of a dollar and the subsequent scarcity of it much better than I did. I knew nothing about it, so their words went in one ear and out the other until I cashed that first paycheck. Buying products with my own money, introduced me to the power of the dollar, but the more profound lesson I learned occurred soon after the intoxication of my financial freedom led me to blow that first paycheck in one weekend. I went from being a power player in control of my financial fate to the vulnerabilities inherent in being dead broke in the course of one weekend, and the only thing I had to show for it was a hairbrush.
My father and grandfather informed me that when I purchased a product, I was to care for it in such a way that extended its life cycle beyond generally accepted norms. Doing so, they said, paid homage to the cogs in the system that made that product available for my convenience. Caring for it also suggested an appreciation for the idea that I was only able to demand that my fellow man provide a service to me by providing a service to him. This newfound purchasing power, and the subsequent values inherent in the dollars I earned, taught me more about the power of the dollar than their theoretical lessons ever could. If I purchased a meal, for example, they suggested I should all but lick that plate clean in appreciation. If I purchased a rake, I was to hang that rake in such a manner that it wouldn’t fall off its peg, and/or collect any water that might cause rust. There was no excuse for a rake falling off a properly secured peg, in their world, and if it did, its rattling tone would reverberate throughout our genealogical tree.
Their lessons also suggested that the care I was to show my products should pale in comparison to the care I showed products another person might lend to me. If a man were generous enough to lend me his rake, in my time of need, I was to treat that rake with reverence. Not only was the rake not mine, it was not mine. I was to treat such a rake as if the Baby Jesus himself had once suckled on it. Not only was I to return it in a timely manner, but I was to return it in the condition in which I received it, or replace it for the man if it was not. The horrible responsibility inherent in borrowing things from others has led me to just purchase brand new rakes at hardware stores. If I were to encounter a moment of desperate need, without the resources to purchase another one, it’s much less taxing emotionally for me to do without.
Purchasing a new rake is not easy for me either, for doing so is a condemnation for how I treated the previous one. I would much rather use a rake that is no longer 100% productive than endure the personal embarrassment and remorse I experience when replacing one. Even if my standards and practices lead the productive lifespan of the lawn tool to last ten years beyond its life expectancy, I still experience a small scale Oskar Schindler dilemma when I throw away an old rake thinking there was something I could’ve and should’ve done better to extend the life of that old rake.
I know most people do not receive such philosophical training, but when I decided to loan my beloved hairbrush to a friend, and he disrespected it, I considered him unprincipled. I worked hard for that hairbrush. It cost me approximately one half hour of manual labor. As a general practice, I didn’t keep that hairbrush in the family bathroom, fearing that others in my family might use it. I knew where it was at all times, and I developed a spot for it that I thought might prevent me from losing it. When I did loan the brush to my best friend, I monitored his usage and stipulated terms of its usage. Once he no longer needed it, I told him, he was to return it in the manner I loaned it to him.
On another occasion, I loaned a Queen’s Greatest Hits cassette tape to another friend. Although this tape endured hundreds, if not thousands of plays, its condition was excellent relative to usage. The friend I loaned it to managed to lose the case and the jacket within a week, and he had to spend another week locating the tape. He never found the case or the jacket, but he did manage to locate the tape a week later. The friend didn’t offer to compensate me for my loss, or display any of the guilt that should follow such an egregious violation. I would’ve considered this a reflexive response, he did not. When I informed him, in a heated argument, that I would be compensated, he said. “It’s just a cassette tape geez.”
“It’s my cassette tape,” I said, “and you do not dictate its usage.” He decided to compensate my for the loss later, much later, after I offered him a month’s long sampling of my father and grandfather’s many lessons on value, relative value, and the penalty of violating those standards. In the aftermath of this incident, my friend found it less stressful to buy the products he wanted, rather than borrow anything else from me.
The thing that still grates on me is that this friend who borrowed my cassette tape knew the story of my hairbrush, and the friend to whom I loaned it. He even joined me in condemning my hairbrush friend. To have him say, “It’s just a tape geez,” seemed a violation of a value I assumed he and I shared. I wasn’t sure if I should continue to befriend him if our values were so disparate, and I told him so. “It’s just a tape geez,” he said, and he added my name at the beginning as if to strengthen his case that I should rethink this line of thought.
There wasn’t a clamor for usage of my beloved hairbrush, and that’s the way I preferred it, but anytime one values a possession in the manner I did this hairbrush, there are always going to be some who are seduced by its tangible and intangible qualities.
After a couple years, a piece of plastic splintered off the mainframe of that hairbrush. The splinter started as a simple fracture, but it grew over time, until it was sticking out from the brush at a length as long as the average person’s index finger. The splinter that became an embarrassing break was an eyesore, but I didn’t want to cut that piece off or try to fix it in anyway, for it had been my experience that whenever I tried to fix something I only made it worse.
When my friend asked if he could borrow the hairbrush, I was reluctant. As I said, I considered the practice of lending items out so rife with unforeseen ramifications that I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to enter into such a transaction. I laid out some of my stipulations for him to consider before using it, and he said, “It’s a brush. I’m going to brush my hair with it a couple of times, and I’ll hand it back to you. I promise.” His intention was to make me feel silly for valuing a simple hairbrush in such an unusual manner. When he added the words ‘I promise’ after evaluating me, it revealed how uncomfortable I was with the notion of lending out my beloved brush to anyone, even someone I considered a best friend. I felt foolish, and I begrudgingly acquiesced, but I watched him use it intently.
He watched me watching him use it, and he informed me that I might have some hang ups that a psychologist might find fascinating. He then pretended to throw it, and my near hysterical reaction caused him joy. As anyone who knows anything about psychology can probably guess, my friend asked me if he could borrow my hairbrush as often as he could. He enjoyed watching my squirm. I lied at times, and told him I didn’t have it. He knew I was lying, and he capitalized on it. He enjoyed doing something that might cause me to lie, and he tried to force me to prove that I didn’t have it by opening up my school bag. I told him that I would not be emptying my bag to show that my hairbrush was not there, and he would just have to believe me. I also speculate that he knew I wouldn’t be able to use the hairbrush for the rest of the day, in fear of revealing the lie. If I wouldn’t allow him to use my brush, then he would develop a way to prevent me from using it too.
To avoid having to go through that again, I told him he could not borrow my hairbrush on another occasion, and I offered him a pre-planned explanation. I informed him about the hygienic concerns he should have when using another’s brush. I wasn’t concerned about such matter, but I considered it an excellent excuse regarding why he shouldn’t want to borrow another person’s hairbrush. When he proceeded to rip my excuse apart, I endured with the knowledge that my rationale was sound.
On one of the other occasions when I did lend it to him, he began fiddling with the splintered piece of plastic that hung off the brush. His fiddling included twisting the splintered piece in such a manner that it would fall off. I caught him in mid twist, “Wait a second,” I said. “What are you doing?”
“Oh, you want that left on there?” he said.
A brush is just a brush, and a rake is just a rake, but it seems common sense to me that when two parties enter into a social contract of lending, an unspoken stipulation accompanies that agreement that suggests the recipient of another’s largess has no standing when it comes to the condition of that product. These are ancient rules compelling both parties to recognize guiding principles restricting both parties to act in a conscientious manner regarding the item in question no matter how inconsequential one party regards said product.
I understand that a rake is just a rake, but if I was to borrow another’s rake, and I damaged one of its rake teeth, I wouldn’t say, “It’s just a rake. Just favor the left side going forward.” I would consider such a statement an atrocious violation of my personal constitution that I wouldn’t be able to look the owner in the eye ever again, and I don’t understand how other grown adults, with presumed mentors teaching them about guiding principles, can violate such principles and absolve themselves of guilt by commenting on how inconsequential the item in question is.
I have tried to understand such matters in an objective manner, but I can tell you with these two friends of mine, it does not involve an attempt to excuse away guilt. I think they genuinely believe that my tape and my brush were disposable items that would be lost, broken, or in some way ruined eventually. The fact that it happened while in their possession was simply the laws of chance occurring in that brief window of time. In the case of my friend who lost the Queen’s Greatest Hits tape, he wanted me to buy the idea that because I owned the product for twenty years, it was bound to be lost sooner or later whether I loaned it to him or not. He didn’t say those words, but that was the gist of his reaction to my righteous anger.
I could go into further details on this matter to break it down into the minutiae involved in such an agreement, but I consider them so fundamental that neither party involved should be required to undergo the near-militaristic training I received, in this field, to understand its fundamental role in a civilized society.
In my friends’ defense, neither of them intended to lose, ruin, and destroy my products. They were just careless people who hadn’t been taught the same principles I was. In the case of my hairbrush friend, he was also an unconscious fiddler. He fiddled with everything he could get his hands on, and that fiddling often led to an unconscious destruction of everything he didn’t lose. I knew my friend’s habits, and I knew that the subtext of his condition involved a mother replacing everything he lost or destroyed. I also didn’t want to lend him my hairbrush because I knew that his mother would not replace anything of mine he destroyed with anything short of a civil case brought against them. I knew that if he destroyed my hairbrush, I would have to work another half hour to buy another one, and I would have to budget accordingly. He didn’t understand any of this, because he didn’t have to, and he considered my desire to have my hairbrush returned to him in the condition he received it quaint and quirky.
I spent most of my teen years with this friend, and I watched him blow through money like a high stakes Vegas gambler. He had no regard for the various components of power money wielded. He spared no expense when it came to having a good time. He didn’t make discerning choices with money in the manner one might to make his good times last as long as possible, but, again, he didn’t have to. I was the tightwad who made discerning choices. I decided, for example, not to throw a softball at the target to win my girlfriend a prize at a fair, because I knew I would not hit the target. I also knew that when I didn’t hit it, I would play the stupid game until I did. I knew that my competitive instincts would override good sense, and I would end up blowing through whatever money I did have to win her a prize of minuscule value. I also knew that standing next to her, as a man with money in his pocket who chose not to spend it, that that placed me in a much more prestigious position than one who spent it all on something frivolous. At various points in my life, I was the kid with money, making decisions on how to spend it. At various other points in my life, and I was the kid without money who lost the power to decide. I knew that the kid with money had a lot more power and prestige than the kid who didn’t. I decided against playing the stupid softball game, enduring the abuse for doing so to spend my limited resources on tickets for her to ride the rides at the fair with me, and I bought food for her too. I thought the fun we ended up having proved that I made wise, thoughtful choices with my money, but the only thing they remembered from this weekend was my refusal to play that stupid softball game.
In the course of that night at the festival, my friend played every stupid game the festival offered, and he ran out of money. He called his mom to inform her of this, and he added a forceful chastisement for her lack of foresight. “I told you that $20.00 wouldn’t be enough,” he said. Not only did my friend’s mom avoid commenting on my friend’s irresponsible spending habits, she accepted her role of not showing enough foresight to give him more than $20.00, and she felt guilty about it. The heated exchange that occurred outside the fairgrounds, in which my friend said his mother made him look foolish in front of us, was so foreign to my experience that the only reaction I could find was laughter.
Most authors reserve this space for a conclusion that reveals how his antagonist’s lack of principles eventually led to his downfall, and how the author wallowed in the glory of that man’s eventual realization. This is not one of those stories. My grandfather, my father, and I thought my friend’s story would not end well. We thought he would eventually learn the responsibilities inherent in responsible spending. “One way or another he will learn them,” they told me. “Every man does in his own ways and on his own time.” My friend did go broke numerous times in his adult life. After an employer fired him, he filed for unemployment, then disability, and then welfare. He said, “I don’t agree with the idea of government assistance, but I can tell you they saved my tailbone.” After discovering a loophole in the bankruptcy laws, he found a way to file for bankruptcy twice. When he needed a loan from a bank, he knew his credit rating was such that they would turn him down, so he and his wife filed for it under his wife’s name. I thought our principles would reveal our characteristics over time, but they didn’t. The reader might suggest that falling to a point where he had to use such resources was a punishment in and of itself, but my friend had excuses all lined up for anyone who might condemn him for such actions. As far as any shame or remorse he might have felt, I can tell you that he took some pride in figuring out how to manipulate the system.
“She always believed in me,” my hairbrush friend said at his mother’s funeral. “Even when she probably shouldn’t have, she always had my back.” I considered that sentiment a touching testimonial to his mother, and in my experience with the two of them, it was 100% true. As a person who spent most of my maturation without a mother, I envied her unconditional loyalty to him, but that jealousy blinded me to the idea that although unconditional loyalty can be a beautiful thing to watch, it doesn’t always serve as well as I thought it did in the moment.