I’ve been a hustler all my life. In high school I was the richest kid in my class and if I wasn’t sleeping, going to school or running, I was working. After a photo appeared on the front page of our newspaper with me holding a BIG check for a Grand Champion steer I became the bank for any kid wanting to borrow lunch money at extortionate rates. But I was a fair loan shark, everyone paid the same 20% per month, including my mother.
I lived in the self-proclaimed “citrus capital of the world” and one of my many jobs was running my own smudge crew. I went “on call” when it looked like it might get down to 28 degrees, which meant I even got paid for sleeping. If I got the call we’d light smudge pots all night and fill them the next day. I also had my own team of valet parkers for weddings, anniversaries and such. I got the jobs because my mom was the seamstress for all the rich folks in town and my team was composed of fellow cross country runners. This was important because the size of your tip was based on how fast you retrieved a car. Dawdle and you might get a dime, but if you were fast, and huffed and puffed a little for effect, the sky was the limit.
The party-goers whose cars we parked belonged to one of three sub-species of agriculturalists. The citrus growers drove big black Cadillacs that had the turning radius of an aircraft carrier. Surprisingly, these weren’t the best tippers. The avocado growers were. They drove brightly-colored Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles and could always be counted on for fifty cents.
Then there were the folks you tried to avoid because they gave you excuses instead of cash. “I’m sorry I don’t have any change.” I’m ashamed to say the cattlemen fell into this category. They drove pickups and the forerunner to the SUV, the International TravelAll. Besides not getting a tip, no young man wanted to be caught dead behind the wheel of those seriously uncool “sports futility vehicles”. They were made by a tractor company, for gosh sakes!
The one vehicle you tried to avoid belonged to the richest man in town. Mr. D drove an old Ford flatbed with smoke belching through the floor boards and you could hear him coming before you saw him. His rig popped, fired and exploded and sounded like we were under an artillery barrage. Mr. D NEVER tipped, and you’d never find any loose change hiding in the seats either.
I’m proud to say there was never a complaint about my team, despite the time a lima bean grower who hit a once-in-a-lifetime bean market showed up in a brand new Chevy Corvette and we all took turns driving it. The poor guy arrived with a full tank of gas and left with barely enough to limp into a gas station.
I had very strict rules for my team: open doors for ladies, never change the radio station, adjust the seat or, in the rare case it had one, touch the air conditioner. And, most importantly, NEVER peel out, throw rocks and leave rubber in front of the guests.
Ours was a car culture back in the ’60’s and we were all car crazy. We were as consumed with cars then as young men today are with video games and cell phones. Your maleness quotient depended on how many of the 350 models you could identify and if you knew their motor’s number of cubic inches. To not be able to “pop the hood” on any car branded you as a wimp and your status was determined by the car you drove. Guys who drove ’56 Chevys with mag wheels had cheerleaders for girlfriends, Chevy Nova drivers with a 396 dated the more promiscuous types, while station wagon drivers and guys like me who didn’t have a car couldn’t get a date with the homeliest girl in school. I didn’t buy my first car until I was almost graduated from college. It took me 20 years to go from zero to 60.
Those silly cheerleaders, they didn’t understand that I could have bought a 396 Nova Super Sport AND a ’56 Chevy and had enough change left in my pocket for a downpayment on a house!