My wife asked me a while ago how I was doing. It was a beautiful summer day and I was at the grill flipping burger and cooking brats. I didn't put a lot of thought into my answer but I meant what I said.
"Baby, as long as there aren't wheels on my house or crackers in my burger, I'm good."
That sums up my view of success. I want to make sure my children are never hungry and they have a stable home with stairs on the inside and no wheels on the outside.
After my parents divorced, my dad moved to the south side of town and we moved to a trailer court on the north end of the lake. My mom knew that she would be trapped working crap jobs the rest of her life unless she got a degree, so she went back to school. She also worked a crappy job. I was a latchkey kid at 12 before I'd ever heard the term.
Money was very tight. Paydays happened, as they often do, every two weeks. By the end of those two weeks, there were times when the cupboards were bare and the fridge was empty. We were around $5,000 under the poverty line and one day my mom sat me down and asked me if I thought we should take welfare. We could get money and food stamps. I could tell that she hated the idea and even though I was not quite a teenager, I had been raised by a man that didn't believe in asking for help to do things you could do for yourself. I told her no. I told her I could work and she seemed relieved. She also told me it would be hard. She was right.
There were two exceptions to our decision not to take a hand out. The first was free lunches at school. I got a pink meal card instead of the blue ones other families bought with cash. During the school year, that one meal made a huge difference and I would often stay late and take advantage of the seconds that were offered at the end of mealtime. Most often these seconds were burgers or pizza, and on rare magical days, there were pizza burgers.
The other exception was butter and cheese. This was a program started by Reagan. The cheese came in five-pound blocks, and the butter in one-pound squares. Each family that qualified got one of each per month. I would like to believe that their choice of distribution locations was unconscious. I would like to but I just can't. They handed out the free cheese and butter at a building right next to Paul and Babe. We waited in a long line that stretched into the parking lot next to the main road that ran north and south through the town. People that didn’t need the free dairy handout would stare and sometimes honk, pointing. I hated that line, but I loved the cheese. I still have occasional cravings.
For those of you that are too young to remember, the recession back in the late 70's and early 80's was a real ball buster. We also had gas shortages and a long line of cars at the gas station was a common site, even in Bemidji. Those were scary times in America and the first major wake up call we'd had since before WWII.
That summer, I got my first job. It was at a restaurant washing dishes. I started off working mostly weekends, but got up to forty hours a week by the time I was fifteen. They didn't have a machine, and all dishes had to go through three large stainless steal sinks, the first with a harsh cleanser, then a rinse and finally plain water. My hands peeled down to the meat from the cleanser and I always smelled like a combination of detergent and grease. I would get a meal and minimum wage, which wasn't too shabby. Still, there were times, especially during the week in the summers, were food got a bit scarce.
Those were the days when I would visit Bill's house around lunchtime. Bill's was a regular hang out regardless of the time of day and I don't remember ever making a conscious choice to go to Bill's in hopes of being fed. It wasn't a plan or a strategy. Or perhaps, I just wouldn’t admit it even to myself at the time.
There were no wheels on their house. It even had stairs, both up and down. That vision of "home", has stayed with me for the rest of my life and it is what I have tried to replicate for my family. We fall short of course, we aren't like Bill's mom, but even close is good enough. Bill's mother is one of the kindness, most generous women I have ever met. Her house was always meticulous and the overall sensation of her home was like being wrapped in a warm blanket of love. In retrospect, it's obvious that she knew about my situation. There are no secrets in a town like Bemidji, but she never let on that she knew and I'm pretty sure she never said anything to Bill.
It seemed that she was always baking or had just finished baking. There were always leftovers in the fridge along with fruit, snacks, cold cuts and Cranapple drink. The pantry was stuffed full of pasta, soups, crackers, cookies and chips. Bill's mom was always smiling, always welcoming and always offering me something to eat, especially her world famous lemon bars.
There was one small problem. Bill was not exactly appreciative of his friends coming over and eating his food. You see I wasn't the only one. Jason would also show up at opportune times. We seemed to be able to sense or perhaps we could smell the lemon bars from miles away. Bill loved those bars more than life itself, as did we all. Resentment began to build, though it was never malevolent. Bill's mom insisted that he be a generous host even if she wasn't around, but she never said he couldn't play dirty. We all loved games, war games especially, and at some point, Bill invented his own game. The goal was simple. Find something that Jason and I didn’t like to eat. This wasn't a fast game, oh no. This was a strategy game that spanned years.
While he mounted his campaign to find food we would refuse, he tried to achieve smaller victories, some that succeeded and some that failed. It was common for him, to hide the tray of lemon bars. Like bloodhounds though, Jason and I could track the scent and find the tray. His love for Cranapple drink was legendary, and there was always a gallon jug in the refrigerator and a back up in the pantry. His mom made it clear that he couldn't refuse our requests to share the tasty beverage, but she wasn't always in the room with us, and on those occasions, he would pull out a juice glass so small, that it was just the next size up from a shot glass. Then he would fill it just over halfway.
In the larger campaign, Jason was the first to fall. His Achilles heal was Raman noodles. Bill was not put off by his earlier failures. Instead, he evolved his tactics. He read the ingredients to Jason. They included pig intestine. Jason said "No thanks." And Bill smiled. Every time Jason came over near a mealtime after that, Bill made Raman noodles. He'd won his first round and I could tell by the look on his face the next time I showed up that he was sure he had the magic bullet to take me down too. I hadn't heard about Bill's victory and came over while he was preparing the noodles. He asked if I would like some.
He smiled and read the ingredients.
"Sounds yummy, serve em up."
It was a small loss, but he took it well, sure he was only one or two food choices away from finding my weakness. Two years later, and it was the summer after our senior year. I'd forgotten about the game and my mom and I were doing better financially. We still qualified for welfare, but we had figured out how to make ends meet and how to stretch the food budget. Our meals were basic, with cod and rice being a staple. When we splurged on burger, it was what is now called 80/20 with a higher fat count and even then only when it was on special. Those were also the days of cheaper generic brands and our house was filled with them, which is one of the reasons I love the 1984 movie Repo Man. A half-pound of burger, mixed with a lot of generic brand crackers, stretches into a pounds worth in size if not actually by weight or substance.
The point was, that I had made a tactical mistake in a strategy game that had lasted more than five years. I literally wasn't as hungry for victory and I'd gotten lazy to the point where I believed I’d already won the game and it was over. But it was never over for Bill. It was a day much like other days, except that I had about a month before I went off to basic training. It was lunchtime and with a resigned sigh, Bill offered to share his tomato soup with me.
"No thanks, I can't stand tomato soup."
He smiled, and there was a look in his eyes that I didn’t recognize. That is until I came over two days later. He offered me some lunch as a gracious host does, as his mother insisted that he always did. He offered to share, his tomato soup. The look was there and this time I recognized it. It was victory.
He'd bested me at last, and just in time. He savored his victory as much as he savored his soup that he ate with brand name crackers. Right then, in that kitchen a month before basic training, I knew.
Most times we don’t appreciate what we have when we have it, especially in our youth. I was as guilty as everyone else for most of my youth, but at that moment in time I knew I would miss that kitchen. I would miss the love and the smells and the comfort. I would miss watching Bill practice the piano while I waited impatiently to hang out. I would miss listening to Garrison Keillor and The Doctor Demento show on the radio. I would miss his basement and the games of chess, miss making his normally reserved father laugh out loud and miss his mother's beautiful smile. I would miss feeling like I had a brother and was part of a family where the mom and dad were still married.
And I would miss the lemon bars.