Continued from yesterday: An excerpt from my memoir work-in-progress, Walking to New Jersey.
“The Pop Tart Malfunction” is part 2 of a chapter titled The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York. I hope you enjoy it! All comments and suggestions welcomed.
By the time I reached the middle of my sophomore year of high school, I realized that the flame of my old junior high babysitting dream still burned brightly and that the only way to consummate this desire was to get off my ass and go do something about it. So on a cold Saturday afternoon in January, I pinched a handful of index cards that I knew my mother kept in the big hutch in the dining room and wrote my name and phone number on each, along with BABYSITTER in capital letters. Then I pulled on my parka, woolen hat and mittens and told my parents I was going to take a walk down the street and back.
I stuck the cards in the pocket of my winter coat and zipped it up so that no one would suspect anything or know what I was up to.
I walked a block or so, passing Stella Drive and entering the “new development,” a place where most of the houses were occupied by families with young kids and where I wouldn’t be likely to run into anyone I knew. I was more than a little embarrassed regarding what I was about to do and I certainly didn’t want anyone from Ramapo High going around blabbing to their friends about how I must really be a girl.
We hadn’t had snow in several weeks; the sky was clear and an icy breeze blew straight down the new sidewalk as if making an effort to follow me on my rounds. My heart beat out of my chest each time I walked down a driveway, approached a door and rang the bell to pass out my handwritten card to some wanly smiling mother or father who would really rather have been left alone to the weekend chores. They humored this fat kid bundled up against the wind, some admiring the spunk of a prospective entrepreneur, others just wishing I’d get lost.
When my index cards were gone and my cheeks and toes felt entirely numb, I hurried home and hoped for the best. Maybe one of those nice couples would have an event to attend on a Saturday night and their regular babysitter would already have another gig and no grandma or aunt would be available to step into the breach. I didn’t obsess about it; it was as if I had taken a test and now there was nothing I could do but wait for the grades to come back. Besides, I wanted to remove myself somewhat from what I had just done. Perhaps if I pretended that it never happened, no one would know. Well, my parents and my sisters knew, but as far as I was concerned, no one else needed to know until I started getting calls for jobs. Then everyone would be proud of me and maybe even a little jealous because I’d be making my own money. Patience, I knew, was the key. I figured the black wall phone in the kitchen would have to ring eventually.
Only it didn’t. Not to be deterred, a few weekends later I made up some more index cards and tried again. This time I went in the other direction, trudging halfway up Alexander Avenue and then up the big Harmony Road hill before I started ringing doorbells again.
I finally hit pay dirt. A divorced woman on Trinity Place had two little boys and needed someone to be there when they got off the school bus every afternoon and to watch them until she arrived home from work a couple of hours later. And she was willing to pay a dollar an hour, which I thought was a small fortune. From eavesdropping on the girls at the bus stop, I knew that the older ones were getting 75 cents per hour and the younger ones only 50 cents. What I didn’t yet know was that I was going to earn every penny. For the time being, however, I was overcome with joy. I had done it! Now I had to prove to the world that boys could be successful babysitters, too. Why should girls have all the fun and make all the money?
I immediately reread my Baby-Sitter’s Guide — twice. I had kept it stashed clandestinely under my bed for more than two years. The author suggested bringing a special babysitter’s bag to each assignment. The bag, she explained, should contain some toys and games to keep the kids amused in case they get bored or cranky and you start running out of ideas.
My first stop was the broom closet in the kitchen, the place where all the folded-up grocery bags lived beside the broom, the dustpan and the cleaning brushes. But it wasn’t a paper bag from Waldbaum’s I was looking for this time. I wanted something a little more classy for my first job. I pulled all the bags out onto the kitchen floor tiles until I found just what I had been looking for. Hiding in the back was a plastic shopping bag that my mother had brought back from Florida. It was green and white with the logo of Britt’s department store emblazoned on both sides. I raided my own closet as well as the big double closet in Becky and Ruth’s bedroom, harvesting a checker set, an old picture book and some coloring books and crayons. Little did I know that, before long, the checkerboard would be torn down the middle, several checkers would go missing, the crayons would be broken in pieces and the coloring books would be scribbled on in purple and green.
And these were good kids already. It’s just that Scott and Jason were four and six years old. I was fifteen years old, and each of those boys independently had far more energy than I did. Sharon Sherman’s book notwithstanding, I really had no idea what I was getting into. I jumped in blindly and figured things out as I went along.
My boys were latchkey children from a very early age. Jason carried his house key on an elastic cord around his neck, much as my sisters and I did. After being cooped up in school all day, they tore off the bus at the corner, running as fast they could up the grassy slope of lawn (or the driveway in winter) to unlock the front door.
The first order of business was always a snack. Scott and Jason were creatures of habit; each day, their mother left three Pop Tarts on the kitchen table, one for each of the boys and one for me. We’d unwrap, toast and eat. Dishes went in the sink and the boys were off to watch a half hour of cartoons, lying on the floor in Mom’s bedroom. Once Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig had done their thing, the show belonged to me. At least I thought it did. It didn’t take too long before I learned that it was entirely their show and that I was little more than a pawn in this operation.
We’d do whatever the boys wanted to for the next hour or so. This could involve crawling around on all fours to give piggyback rides up and down the hallway, wrestling and roughhousing on the carpet, or on the rare occasion when I was very lucky, playing a board game from their huge stash.
For a little while, my employer had a man named Vince living in her home. I never figured out whether he was a boarder or a boyfriend. He was always just — there. He generally stayed downstairs and did not bother us.
One day, I nearly set the poor woman’s house on fire. Let’s just say that we experienced a Pop Tart malfunction. I don’t know whether it was an electrical problem or perhaps the toast crumbs hadn’t been cleaned out in a while. All I can say is that the toaster became stuck. And I mean really stuck. And I couldn’t unstick it. The Pop Tarts were burning black, smoke was starting to fill the kitchen, and I was unable to force those toaster handles up. I pulled and yanked at the plug in a desperate attempt to separate it from the outlet before we all went up in flames. By this time, both boys were yelling “Vince! Vince!” and, horrified, I joined in the chorus.
Just then, that dastardly plug popped out of the wall. Fortunately, none of the houses in our neighborhood had smoke detectors back then. Vince finally climbed halfway up the stairs to the landing and poked his head up. I assured him that everything was okay, we had it under control.
From the time I stepped off my own school bus in the afternoon, I had about 40 minutes before I had to meet the boys up the hill at their house. After a while, my initial feeling of responsibility waned. With everything in my Britt’s bag destroyed, I didn’t bother to bring it anymore. In fact, I didn’t bother arriving at the boys’ home on time after the first couple of months. I knew they would let themselves in and would be munching their Pop Tarts or watching Bugs and the Road Runner whenever I sauntered in. I knew I’d get my dollar regardless.
After about four months of babysitting every weekday afternoon, I decided I had had enough. My excuse for quitting was that I had final exams to study for. I had already stayed a month longer than I wanted to, but I kept putting off my departure for the sake of those boys. At the end, I was dragging myself up the hill every day. On my final day, I felt a little guilty about abdicating my responsibilities, but mostly I just felt liberated. Free to relax when I got home from school every day!
The dollar bills had piled up. I would throw them loose in the top drawer of my dresser until I had built up an impressive collection. The funny thing was that money didn’t mean anything to me in real terms. There was nothing in particular I was saving for, nothing I dreamed of buying. I just wanted to have some money of my own in case. That is, in case I had a hankering for something that my parents didn’t want to buy for me. What never occurred to me was that:
- My parents weren’t going to allow me to purchase anything that they disagreed with, whether the money was mine or not.
- When I did ask my parents for something special, they would remind me that I could now buy it with my own money if I wanted it that badly.
This wasn’t working out the way I had planned. Not at all.