‘Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t love this job’
Okay. Enough already with the Holidays. Everyone’s back at work. Even those of us who are, shall we say, ‘underemployed’, are working. See my riff ‘I love the smell of Soft Scrub in the morning’ for what I’m up to when I’m not writing brochures for Botox.
Like practically everyone where and when I grew up, I started working young. We were expected to do ‘chores’. Back in those days, these were sexually segregated. Boys did things like mow the lawn and wash the dog (harder than it sounds). Girls did things like peel potatoes and watch the little kids (much harder than it sounds).
Of course boys and girls alike did things like wash and dry the dishes, there being no dishwashers (except children) till I was, oh, a teenager. Actually, I kind of enjoyed the old pre-labor-saving-device method. For one thing, it was companionable, since two of us teamed up, one to wash, and one to dry. (If the ‘dryer’ caught up with the ‘washer’, the dryer got to quit.)
And, unless there were big icky pots to scrub, doing dishes was fun. We’d put on Radio KXOK, the ‘rock’ station out of St. Louis, and dance around the kitchen to the Turtles, say. We even played this silly game with the dish towel, which I’ll get into another time. (It involved making a hair bow, a bow-tie, and a mustache out of the towel and ‘doing’ a silly Snidely Whiplash voice, among others.)
Oh, we did get an allowance for doing said chores. A whopping 25 cents a week. Which got docked a nickel if you forgot to make your bed. Some weeks, my brothers owed my Mom money.
But back to babysitting. And money. As the oldest of our batch, I had of course been in charge for short periods of daytime care, like if Mom had to go make a Piggly Wiggly run, or if she left for an hour or two of Mom-appropriate recreation, like Magazine Club.
But nighttime was a different story. Then babysitters were hired. (Now, before you get the idea that my parents were out painting my hometown red, let me assure you that their nights out were mainly to other fellow parents’ houses to play cards and/or drink coffee.) Anyway, I considered it a great victory when I convinced my mom to pay me to watch the Littler Kids instead of this older couple who sat on the couch watching TV and smoking cigars (well, just the guy smoked cigars. But still.) while I did all the actual child-bathing and story-reading and tucking-in.
Now I didn’t get paid a lot. But, hey. Money is money. And it feels really good to earn some. I remember when I retired from the whirlwind world of full-time advertising. Someone asked me if I was going to go back to school. I’m like, no way. Going to school means paying someone to do work. I like it where you do work, and someone pays you.
Anyway, once word got around that I was a pretty good babysitter (well, except for the time I got really mad at one brother, and locked him in the pantry. Sorry, Roger!), and available most nights (the cute cheerleaders got most of the dates in my high school), I was in great demand.
There were just two problems. The pay was awful — I’m remembering 50 cents an hour; an improvement over the allowance for sure, but still — and the people in my hometown had huge families and you didn’t get paid more for more kids. That was 50 cents an hour for one — or for 4 or 5. I remember this one family, the Heiligensteins, who had two kids when I started sitting for them, and six when I finally threw in the spit-up-stained towel. In fact, two of the times I sat for them was so that Mr. H could take Mrs. H to the hospital to give birth to numbers 5 and 6.
The other problem was that it was boring. It’s only in the movies that 1) babysitters get stalked by serial killers. And, as the oldest (and very naive) child in my family, I had no one to tell me that 2) babysitters invite their boyfriends over for wild assignations. I didn’t realize this till I saw the movie Halloween. Of course, the girls who did invite their boyfriends over got killed, and in really gory ways. (See 1, above)
So my Dad, who knew everyone in town, including the editor of the local weekly, got me a job there. So I traded changing diapers for answering phones and stamping addresses on freshly-pressed newspapers. (Hey, you’ve got to start somewhere.) I went in every day after school plus half a day on Saturday and earned much more money. Why, in the summertime, when I could work full days, I made a whopping $32.75 per week. Which helped pay for college so I could get my J-School degree and my first job in advertising. And they finally did let me do some writing, so there’s that. Good switch, I’d say.
Once in a while, though, even in college, I’d go back to babysitting. I remember a particular job I did as a favor for one of my professors. He had two little boys around 2 and 4 who were cuter than cute and beautifully behaved when I showed up for the gig. But the second the prof and his wife were out of the house, it was like someone threw a switch. They turned into demons.
I had finally gotten them both fed, bathed and into clean jammies (not easy with all the fighting, kicking, and biting going on) when I saw the older one march over to the little one — and pee on him. Well, I couldn’t help myself, people. I grabbed that kid and gave him a well-placed swat on the behind. It was just one swat, and I hated myself immediately, but it was indeed a swat. Which is Babysitter Behavior of the Worst Kind.
But that swat seemed to do the trick. Both of those boys now knew I meant business, so off they went to bed, meek as little lambs. But the Peeing Offender must have had fantastic hearing, since the minute he heard the crunch of car tires on gravel he was up and out of bed.
‘Mommy!’ he wailed. ‘She spanked me!’ Well, Mommy gave me such a how-dare-you-hit-my-child look that I just blurted it out: ‘He peed on his little brother.’
So she spanked him herself right then and there. And not just one little swat, either.
New York City. January 2016