Thursday, September 13, 2018

Part III: The Way Mike Worked -- Never Take Your Eyes off of the Cash Box

My first and only job on the beach lasted one day.

I walked from our family's house on Hartford Avenue to a float stand near the Daytona Beach Boardwalk. A couple miles. Daytona is known for its hard-packed beaches that you can drive on. A float stand exists every half mile or so. They offered most items needed by a vacationing family in 1965 Florida: inflated rubber rafts, umbrellas and beach chairs. You rent by the hour or the day. Mom and Dad sit under the umbrella's shade as the kids ride the waves and try not to drown. Lifeguards are spaced in red towers every few hundred yards to keep an eye out.

My float stand was owned by a crusty old codger who probably was in his 40s when this 15-year-old worked for him. Can't remember his name, probably Bob. He wore shorts and his skin was the color and texture of cured leather. A no-nonsense guy with a few employees my age,  We were tasked with charging the tourists (cash only in those days) and setting up their equipment. Most customers were in pretty good spirits --they were on vacation after all -- although many were still a bit jangled after a two-day drive from Detroit in an un-air-conditioned station wagon with six yelping kids. We were tolerant of their gruffness and stupid questions. Is the beach open at night? Any sharks in the water? Where can I buy suntan lotion?

We were happy to answer in the least snarky way possible. Later, we could make fun of them. That was a hobby of anyone who worked on the beach. Plus-sized men and women in too-small bathing suits, their skin so white you knew they would end up in the ER burn unit by the end of the day. We knew better, or thought we did. Here in the 21st century, I spend an inordinate amount of time at the dermatologist checking on my sun-damaged skin.

Bob was a taskmaster. He taught me the ropes and turned me loose with customers. His cardinal rule was "Never take your eyes off of the cash box."  You rent the gear, stash the cash box, and help the tourists set up. We had a device like a big corkscrew to dig holes in the hard sand for umbrellas. A typically busy summer day. Many high school girls to ogle. Many grumpy parents to assuage. At one point, I left to install an umbrella and returned to find the cash box missing. Uh oh. I frantically searched for it. Bob came up and asked what I was doing. I told him. Concern creased his face. "What's rule number one?" he asked. "Never take your eyes off the cash box." My fellow helpers looked on with bemusement. After Bob let me search for a few minutes, he finally reached under a beach chair and produced the metal box. "Let that be a lesson to you." So my task was clear -- at the point of paranoia -- never take my eyes off of the cash box. I didn't know it at the time but my fate was sealed. At quitting time, Bob paid me what I'm sure was a princely sum for 1965 and told me I was fired. "What's rule number one?" I was tempted to say, "Never curse at a leathery old man who tricks you." But I didn't. I just took the money and headed home.

The sand heats up by the end of the day. Although my feet were as leathery as Bob's face -- barefoot is the usual summer state-of-being -- I walked through the shallows. I scattered the shore birds, watched the sand fleas dig into the sand. I watched older teens power their muscle cars down the beach. If I had thought about it, I might have stopped and looked behind me, watch as the waves obliterated my footprints. My life, already, was being born and was disappearing. I had walked on this beach dozens of times and would walk on it hundreds more. I was here with my parents and brothers and sisters. That first day, just moved from Colorado, with my mother shouting at us not to go out too far as a hurricane was coming. I walked the beach with my Irish grandfather, Me, hung over from my brother's bachelor party. my 80-year-old grandfather outpacing me, leaving behind shoe prints from the black Oxfords he wore. I ran the beach. Bicycled it. Played Frisbee on it. Walked it with girls from Kentucky I just met and a hometown girl who would eventually be my wife. I walked the beach in a February chill, taking a break from my dying father's bedside. My kids' footprints are down there, too, during our rare visits to Florida from Out West. Our family's Irish setter Shannon, her paw prints as she chased the gulls and sandpipers, the animal control officer hot on her trail.

All those footprints.

On that June day in 1965, I contemplated the lesson of the day: don't work for a jerk. I knew that my parents would not be pleased. They weren't, just urged me that night to find another job. I did. The following week, I was a new busboy at the Village Inn Pancake House and Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant. I worked pancakes and chicken all through high school. More about that later...

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