Monday, August 17, 2009

The Summer of Growing-Up

The summer of 1973 was a watershed in my life, packed full of changes and transitions, life-lessons and tons of other stuff. And I've never blogged about it, which is a little odd, since it was such a pivotal time in my life.

Several factors in my life all converged in that summer of '73 (I was all of 17 years old). In April of that year, two months before I was due to graduate from high school, my dad took a new job, and our family moved from Up North, Michigan to a huge city a couple states away. Culture shock does not begin to describe it. I lobbied hard for my parents to let me finish out my senior year with my classmates Up North, stay at my grandma's house, whatever, but they weren't buying, and when the family moved to Urban Megalopolis, I went with them. (My one small parenthetical victory was that I was able to get such credits as I earned at the New School transferred back to Up North High, so I was able to graduate with my class, albeit after a couple months away; but my diploma properly says 'Up North High School' on it, so I was happy enough.)

But leaving my home Up North, and every friend I had, threw me into a deep funk, and once I'd gotten back from my Graduation Reunion Tour, I spent a lot of my time being depressed and basically doing nothing. Which wasn't my dad's vision for how I ought to be spending my time. He had thoughts more along the lines of getting a job, and putting some money in my pocket for when I went off to college in the fall. But my depressive funk was pretty deep, and my motivation level stayed accordingly low.

And so it came to pass that, at the beginning of July, my dad made perhaps the single most significant parental move that he ever made in my life, short perhaps of adopting me in the first place. My orientation at Mega-State University was coming up, and so Dad handed me $50 and a round-trip bus ticket. "When orientation is over," he said, "I don't want you to come home; I want you to stay in OurTown and get a job. You can stay at the YMCA. Hang onto the return bus ticket, just in case you need to come home. But I want you to find a job and stay there, if you possibly can."

Holy shit! He wasn't exactly kicking me out of the house, but that was the 'existential effect' of it. And it scared me shitless. Which was not such a bad thing, all things considered. I mean, when you have to focus your mind on where your next meal is coming from, there isn't a lot left over for feeling sorry for yourself. But I'm getting ahead of myself. . .

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I went to my university orientation, and when it was over, I duly made my way to the YMCA in downtown OurTown. What I didn't understand, at least at first, was that it was roughly five miles from the university to the YMCA downtown. I had no clue how to use the bus system (uh, we didn't have buses Up North), so I ended up walking five miles. Once I found the Y, I booked a room for a week (for something like $20, which was almost half of what I had in my pocket), and tried to think about how I was going to go about procuring employment the next day.

As I lay in my bed that first night, in the sweltering summer heat, I heard police sirens off and on for most of the night, which was another thing we never had Up North. It seems almost funny to look back on it. OurTown is what might be considered a 'medium-sized' city; maybe even small/medium. It's a long way from a place like Detroit or Chicago. But, from where I was coming from, OurTown was a scary big city, and I remember crying myself to sleep that night.

Next morning, for lack of anything better to do, I started walking around donwtown OurTown, popping into various establishments and asking if they had any jobs available. Nobody did, but they all told me I should go check with Manpower. I had no idea what Manpower was, but by the end of the afternoon, I was running out of other ideas, so I found the Manpower office and went in to apply. And the gentleman told me to be there the next morning at six o'clock. It was just that easy.

Except, you all being older and wiser than I was that summer of '73, you know that it wasn't that easy. I showed up at the appointed time, along with 15-20 other guys. I joined a Euchre game to pass the time, and a few of the guys got called up to the desk and given some instructions, and then they left. By around nine o'clock, the guy at the desk said, "OK, that's it for today." I really had no idea what was going on, so I went to ask him what he wanted me to do. "Come back tomorrow," he told me. "Maybe we'll have something for you tomorrow." And I suddenly had an uneasy feeling that this 'job' I'd gotten for myself might not be quite all I might have hoped for.

Still, I showed up the next day at six, and the day after that, and the day after that (oh, my horns in those days were very, very green). That first week, I actually worked two days. Which, for $1.80/hr, netted me about $28. So, after I paid another $20 for my room for another week, left me $8 for anything else. Which included food.

Now, I don't know where I got the idea from (the church I'd grown up in certainly didn't teach it), but I had the conviction that I should tithe. So, I sent $3 to Billy Graham, which left me with $5, plus what was left of the $50 Dad had given me, for food and other sundry expenses. Now, urban downtowns are not known for their abundance of grocery stores, so it was a bit of a trick to come up with economical ways of procuring food. In fact, I burned through my 'Dad money' pretty quickly, eating burgers at the restaurants I could find downtown. So I pretty quickly found myself in a serious cash crunch. I recall one day, it was about a Wednesday or so; I was due to get paid on Friday, and I had 50 cents in my pocket. And the only thing I could think to do was to buy an ice cream sandwich from the vending machine at the Y, and hope it would last me for two days. One day, I think the job I was on gave us free Coke; so that was my 'nutrition' for those couple days. . .

But then, I wasn't quite left alone in all the world, either. One day, as I walked through the lobby of the Y, on my way up to my room, the desk clerk called me over and handed me a letter. Which was odd, because my family, and one or two of my closest friends, were the only ones who even knew my address. The letter was from John, my best buddy from high school, and a fellow Jesus-freak. "I was praying for you the other day," he wrote, "and God told me I should send you $20." And enclosed was a crisp $20 bill. Which was food for a week, at least. I wrote him a letter back, thanking him, and encouraging him to keep listening to God.

Another day, I didn't get sent out to work, so I grabbed my guitar (I get a certain amusement, looking back, that the 'worldly possessions' I saw fit to carry with me that summer included enough clothes to fit into a pillowcase, and my guitar; how very hippie-like of me. . .) and went to the park across the street from the Y, to play and sing, and watch the squirrels. A fellow came and sat on the bench next to me, and we started talking. I think he meant to be 'witnessing' to me, but once we ID'd each other as fellow-Christians, we had a wonderfully warm conversation. As it drew near to lunch hour, he invited me to join him for lunch; I initially demurred, but he pressed me. I finally had to admit that I didn't have any money until Friday, and so he bought my lunch for me. And then, when we'd finished our lunch, he handed me $20 to tide me over until payday. All through that summer, in ways small and large, I experienced what I can only think was the hand of God, providing for my daily sustenance (and protecting me from my own naivete).

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This is a good place for me to mention another of the factors that was shaping my experience that summer of '73. A couple years previously, my stepbrother, who was essentially the same age as me, had run away from home. And he hadn't returned. It was a painful episode in the life of our family, but it also formed in me a grudging admiration that my brother was actually living on his own. I was really too young and inexperienced to understand everything that it meant for his life, but I really admired that he could make his way in the world, and not die. I wasn't at all sure that I could do that, if I had to.

So, part of what was percolating in the back of my mind that summer of '73 was that I was being given a similar opportunity, even a 'test', to prove to myself, or whoever, that I could make my own way in the world, like my brother, and not die.

And so, as the summer wore on, I slowly grew in confidence, as I saw that, scuffling though the summer as I was, I wasn't dying, either. As I kept faithfully showing up every morning at six o'clock, the dispatcher started giving me more work, and I could usually count on getting three or four days of work in a given week. I wasn't quite at the point of positive cash flow yet, but I was getting close. And so, when I got to a point, about halfway through the summer, where I was coming up just short of what I needed (and lacking another 'last-minute miracle'), I decided to cash in my return bus ticket, in order to cover the shortfall. It was, in some ways, a gutsy and risky move, but by that point, I had confidence that, when I needed to have a bus ticket, I'd be able to get one. So, I cashed in my bus ticket, paid my bills, and finished out the summer in OurTown, always having enough work to meet my daily needs (and, as the summer wore on, sometimes even a small surplus besides). Then, the last week, instead of renting my room again, I just bought a bus ticket instead, and returned to my parents' house.

And when school started up that fall, I was there. Minus the depression I'd been nursing at the beginning of the summer, and with a freshly strengthened sense of myself, reinforced by the knowledge that I could live on my own, and not die. . .

12 comments:

Cocotte said...

Wow! Not sure what to say... what an incredible learning experience. But not something I'd suggest a parent do today.

Michelle H. said...

Incredible story. A life lesson, but a tough way at it. We are all rewarded in special, and unexpected, ways.

for a different kind of girl said...

I'm not even sure that today, with a bit of experience behind me, I'd be able to do what you were set out to do at 17! I'm also not sure I'd be able to send my son out to gain such experience when he graduates high school at 17, either (despite the fact that today, he clearly knew that if he wanted a hamburger at McDonald's with his friend, he'd have to find the money in his piggy bank!). What impressive life lessons you packed in during that summer!

Sailor said...

What an impressive summer. I'm not sure that if I'd tried that on my kids, it would've worked at all.

Cool stuff!

FTN said...

That's a great story. And you know what? I'm pretty sure it would make a kick-ass country song.

A "freshly strengthened sense of self." A summer at independence could do that for you. Can you still stay for a week at the YMCA for $20?

Everyone needs a story like this, but few of us have one. I've got the "going away to college and being all by myself" story, and I guess I have the one summer I stayed in that town and worked at the local TV station, but it was more "playing videogames and hanging out with my friends and roommates until 3 AM" rather than struggling to survive.

Suldog said...

Excellent story. God does look out for us now and again, eh?

lime said...

wow, i can certainly see why it was such watershed of a summer.

the bike trip summer was kind of like that for me only my wanderings were voluntary...however, certain aspects of my "job" were sprung on me after i was already well out of range of home.

but the daily provision and finding out you can survive, that's big stuff.

Desmond Jones said...

Cocotte - As learning experiences go, it was right up at the tippy-top. . .

Michelle - Good to see you here! It might've been a little tough, but the lesson most definitely got through. . .

faDKoG - See, even just knowing that, in order to eat, you gotta have some cash in yer pocket, is a real crucial life-lesson. . .

Sailor - Well, my kids have tried variations of this, all on their own initiative. With, uh, varying degrees of success. . .

But it is invariably good for their souls to realize that, even if they screw up spectacularly, they can make their own way in the world. . .

FTN - Actually, the downtown Y I stayed at no longer exists; and the two new 'suburban' Ys in OurTown are both pretty much just gyms; no rooms. . . So, I really don't know what a room at the Y goes for these days. . .

And I really do have a sense of just how precious it is for me to have an experience like this in my repertoire. . .

Suldog - He really, really does. (And at this point, I'm remembering a line from Archie Bunker, to the effect that 'there's a special Providence what protects drunks and dingbats'. . .)

And honestly, at least as much as it was good for me to know that I could 'live on my own and not die', it was good to know, on a down-and-dirty, 'existential' level, that I could put my life in His hands (yeah, like I had a choice), and not die. . .

Lime - Things have a way of 'getting real' once you're 'out of range of home', don't they?

flutterby said...

That was a crazy dose of Scary Reality.

I'm feeling a bit like a coddled, pampered little brat. My growing up experience had nothing of the sort.

Has your Dad ever talked about how that decision was for him? What your parents went through that summer?

Desmond Jones said...

Flutter - Yeah, but you had Canadian winters, so you get some Hardship Points for those. . .

When I talked to my dad about it, he said, "That's why I gave you the return bus ticket, so you could come home if it didn't work out." Plus, they knew I'd be going away to school in the fall anyway, so this just moved up the whole 'Missing Each Other' schedule by a couple months. And Dad had lived enough that OurTown wasn't quite the Big Scary Place that it seemed to me. . .

Dad is just one of those 'Greatest Generation' guys, who grew up on a farm during the Great Depression, and spent his formative years fighting Nazis. You just do what you gotta do. . .

Sensuous Wife said...

I love this post. Absolutely love it.

Desmond Jones said...

Glad you like it, Shula. It's really one of the best stories I have to tell; I'm a little mystified with myself, that it took me so long to post it. . .