by Greg McCann
When I was ten years old, I decided that I wanted to earn a little extra money outside of the home. Of course, if I had wanted to I could have simply asked my parents for an allowance; in fact when I brought up the issue, the first thing they did was offer me one. But even at that age I had realized that in order to develop an appreciation for money, it was important that I earn it for myself, from other people. Out in the real world, as it were.
It was with this argument that I convinced my parents to let me borrow the shovel from the garage and venture out into the neighbourhood and see if I could drum up some business. Before I stepped out into the winter morning, my father stopped me with one request.
Next door lived an elderly couple named the Bruces. They would have been both in their eighties at this point, and Mr Bruce was having trouble with his back that could be seen whenever he shovelled the snow – my father and I had gone out and helped him a few times already that winter.
The request was that I do one freebie for the Bruces, and then I could go ahead and make my fortune to whatever degree that I was capable. This seemed like a fair deal to me, and so out into the freshly fallen snow I ventured, crossing over to the Bruce's driveway and setting to work. About halfway through, Mrs Bruce came out and thanked me with some hot chocolate. I drank my fill and finished the job, then prepared to move on to the rest of the street.
It was a bright and sunny day, made all the brighter by the snow reflecting the sun up into my eyes, and as I trudged down the middle of the street, snow shovel in hand, I could see that many of my neighbours were out and taking care of their own driveways. I got a few smiles and nods of encouragement, but obviously there would be no demand for my particular services from those folks. Eventually I found some houses where the driveways were still covered and got to knocking on some doors.
There were interesting lessons to be learned from some of the negotiations I had at those doorways. After a few rejections one person asked me if I had done anyone else's driveway yet.
“Well,” I chirped, beaming with pride, “I just finished the Bruce's driveway and they were very satisfied. In fact Mrs Bruce even gave me a cup of hot chocolate, she was so happy!”
'I see. And what did you charge her?”
I hesitated. “Well, I didn't charge them, but that's because they live next door and they're elderly and my Dad told me I should do one freebie before going into business.”
“Well, if you did the Bruce's for free, why should I pay you anything? Are the Bruces better than me?”
Well, I really didn't have an answer for that, and after a rather embarrassing impasse I left this somewhat perturbed neighbour and continued on my way.
Actually, the truth is, I gave up and went home. To my mind, my father's request had sort of rooked me; how could I justify charging people now that I had done it for free?
As I walked into our home, my father looked at me and asked why I was coming home so soon. I told him that I couldn't continue, for the reason's to do with the Bruce's free work.
My father regarded me with disappointment. “You were so determined to convince me that you could do this, and now you're just giving up?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I don't know how I can justify-”
“You don't have to justify anything to anyone!” He exclaimed. “Look, if someone asks you about the Bruce's, here's what you tell them. The arrangement that you made with the Bruces is between you and the Bruces; they can call them to see if they were satisfied with your work, but as far as price is concerned, that is something to be negotiated between you and them.”
“I can say that?”
“Of course you can say that. Now, I want you to get back out there and keep trying. I'm not gonna let you give up that easy, not after all the arguments you made to me earlier.”
And so, somewhat reluctantly, I made my way out into the neighbourhood again, knocking on doors. And before long the subject of the free work I had done came up again with another potential customer. I screwed up my courage and managed to say something to the effect of my father's advice – check with the Bruce's about my work, but prices are worked out between us.
This was met with an appreciative smile, followed by the comment of, “You're learning, kid...” but, unfortunately, still no sale.
But at this point I was feeling myself a determined young fellow and so I continued on, plowing not through snow, but rejections instead, until I found myself on a street about four blocks away from my house. It was there that I hit paydirt; a brown haired man with kind eyes agreed to hire me, and after I was finished he even recommended my services to a few more of the neighbours on that same street.
Everything was going swimmingly, and after finishing my third driveway, I noticed that another neighbour had emerged from his home and was having a discussion with the first man who had hired me. I thought that I was about to make a new customer, and so when the man began to walk towards me I brightened up with my most cheerful smile.
“Good morning, sir!”
“You see that driveway over there?” He had walked straight up to me and stopped directly in my face, with his left arm pointed towards one of the houses- the house next door to the one that he had emerged from, in fact. His neighbour's driveway was completely covered over, looking as though it hadn't been shovelled in several days.
“I want you to shovel that driveway.”
The man stood over me, his face set in a stern expression. He was a tall man, with a fat blond moustache and keen blue eyes that pierced directly into me. I took a breath.
“Certainly, sir. And is it you that's going to be paying-”
His hand shot up in a quick cutting motion. “Don't even try any of that crap with me, kid. You've made some money here and now it's time to do your part.”
I looked up at the man. He towered over me, glaring with deliberate menace. Behind him I could see the other neighbours – my customers – gathered around in a loose circle, watching.
“Sir,” I said, trying my best to maintain an even and steady tone. “I'm trying to run a business here. If I start doing free work anytime someone tells me to, then I won't be able to do this at all.”
The man turned back to his neighbours, arms outstretched. “Look at this! This kid is trying to run a business here!” He spun back around on me. “And what gives you the right to come onto our street and run your business?”
“It's a free country!” I said, and then pointed to the other neighbours. “And those people have the right to choose my services!”
Some of the neighbours began to nod in agreement. The big man ignored them. “And they were very generous to pay you for those services, weren't they?”
This threw me off for a second. “Well, no, we negotiated-”
The big man thrust his face before mine. “They were generous to pay you their money, you greedy little bastard, and now it's time for you to do your part!”
He stood back up, hands planted on his hips. I stared up at him, and now that the initial shock of confrontation was beginning to wear off, I found myself beginning to grow angry.
“I'm not shovelling anyone's driveway for free.”
The first neighbour stepped up. “Look, if the kid doesn't want to to it, he doesn't have to-”
“Stay out of this.” The big man hissed, and the neighbour stepped back, hands held up deferentially. The big man turned his attention back to me.
“Look,” he said, his tone softening just a little, “The person that lives there is an old woman. She lives by herself, and she hasn't even been able to get out of her house for several days. Are you so lacking in compassion, are you such a greedy little business man, that you won't even help out an elderly lady in need?”
I looked over at the house. “Actually I have elderly neighbours myself, and I already did their driveway for free.”
“Well then why can't you do hers as well?”
I looked back at him. “Because then I'd have to do every needy person's driveway for free. I'd be a slave to every charity out there!”
“I'm not telling you to do every other driveway, just hers. Come on. It's one driveway.”
“That's where it starts.”
One of the other neighbours stepped up. “Did you really do your neighbour's driveway for free?”
“The Bruces. On Meadowlane Drive.”
The neighbour turned to the big guy. “Well if he's already done his part for charity then that's enough. Let him run his business.”
“He's lying!” He spun back on me. “I don't believe you! You're a greedy little lying piece of shit!”
And now I could feel my anger spiking into a white hot rage. “I'm not lying! The Bruces on Meadowlane Drive! Go ask them yourself!”
“Nobody on this street knows who you're talking about. You're a liar and you're greedy, you're a selfish little bastard and I'll tell you another thing kid, you're not leaving this street until you do your part.”
A few neighbours mumbled their disapproval at this statement, but were quickly silenced with a sharp look from the big guy.
I decide to try to reason with him. “Look. I'm not greedy, but I can't just let you walk all over me. Why don't all of you-” I pointed to the neighbours, “Pool your money together to pay me for her driveway. And then you'll all be doing your part to help out your neighbour.”
The crowd began to nod their approval again. The first neighbour spoke up. “I could do that. Let's-”
“NO!” The big guy roared, his blue eyes flaring brightly, spittle flecking against his moustache, “HE has to do it for FREE!” He thrust a shaky finger straight at me, dangerously close to my eye. “He can't be allowed to make money off of her!”
“Okay,” I said, pushing down against my own anger, “How about this.” I pointed at the big guy. “How about you hire me to do your driveway and then I do the old lady's for free. A two for one offer.”
The first neighbour turned to the big guy. “Come on now. The kid's bending over backwards, trying to be reasonable with you.”
The big guy was shaking his head, looking at the ground and chuckling softly to himself. “I don't need your services, kid. I can do my own driveway, got a nice snowblower in my garage, ready to go.” He hesitated. “But if you're offering a deal, why don't you just tack the freebie onto the driveways you've already done? That's one for three. That's even better for you, isn't it?”
“I already finished those jobs for those prices. Can't make new deals after the job is done.”
The big guy held out his hands and turned to the crowd. More of the neighbours had emerged from their houses, to see what all of the yelling was about. “You see? I'm the one trying to be reasonable here, and he's not willing to negotiate at all. He's only in it for the money. This guy comes onto our street and thinks he can take our money without doing his part.”
Then it struck me, like a shock to the chest. “Wait a minute. If you've got a snowblower in your garage, if you don't need my help doing your own driveway, then why haven't you cleared her driveway?” Everyone turned their heads towards the old lady's house, then looked back at the big guy.
He kind of froze up a bit, looking momentarily abashed. “Well, I just woke up a little while ago,” he started to regain his composure, “and that's besides the point. I'm not the one trying to make money here, you are and that's why you should do it.”
“But she's your neighbour. I already helped my neighbour for free. And you said that she's been snowed in for several days. So why haven't you done it yet?”
The big guy's face took a darker turn. His fists clenched at his side. I took a step back and held my shovel a little tighter, but continued on.
“You keep telling me I need to do my part, but you haven't done anything for her yet. None of you have!” As soon as I said this I knew it was a mistake, but I just couldn't help it. A sort of ruffle seemed to pass through the crowd, with the people equally avoiding my gaze, while others stared back at me defiantly. I turned my attention back to the big guy. “You live next door to her. Why didn't you do your part? Where you just waiting for me to show up?”
He folded his arms and glared down at me. “I'll have you know I've been away for the past few days.”
The first neighbour let out a quick laugh. Big guy spun to face him, but he didn't back down, just gave him a flat look and said in an equally flat voice. “C'mon.”
I smiled. “Yeah, you've been away all right.”
The big guy turned slowly back towards me. He was really seething now, his chest rising and falling, teeth clenched tightly beneath his quivering moustache. “You little piece of shit. You think you can come here and tell me what to do? You think you can come onto OUR STREET- “ he turned to the crowd again, “And lecture all of us? You think you're better than us?”
A few of the neighbours were nodding their heads at this. I realized that the “None of you” comment had hit a little too close to home for them. And so I decided to make the fullest concession that I could.
“We'll all do it together.”
The crowd all froze, staring at me. “Everybody pitches in, and I'll help out too. Anyone got an extra shovel for him?” I motioned towards the big guy. “Using your snowblower kind of defeats the purpose.”
The first neighbour spoke. “I've got a couple of shovels.”
“Great.” I looked at the big guy. “How does that sound to you?”
He stared at me, unmoving, his expression unreadable. Behind him a few of the neighbours were already expressing their assent, moving back towards their homes to get their shovels. People were smiling, coming together. There was a sense of relief in the crowd.
And then the big guy spun around on his heel. “NO!” he exclaimed to the crowd. “No! HE has to do it! HE came here to make money and now he has to do it!”
The people hesitated, looking from the big guy to me. I could feel my energy suddenly deflating. I didn't know what else I could say to this man. Suddenly the winter air started to feel much colder, and I began to realize that because I had been standing in place for so long, the snow had gotten into my boots and soaked my socks.
The big guy began to take on an imploring tone as he addressed the crowd. “Listen to me! I'm doing this for all of you. We can't just let outsiders come in here and start taking advantage of us.” He turned back to me and pointed his finger straight at me. “You need to do your part.”
“But YOU haven't done it yourself! Why don't you do YOUR part?”
The big man straightened up with pride and looked me right in the eye and said:
“I do my part by making you do it.”
I can still remember the effect that statement had on me. It just – stopped me cold. I remember standing there, unable to process what this man had just said to me. Or even the way he had said it, pointing first his thumb at himself then his finger at me, speaking slowly with this smug, insolent grin on his face. I was floored. After a few seconds I looked around at all of the other people and what I saw was just a sort of general blankness, like a collective shrugging of the shoulders.
“That,” I stammered, “That doesn't even make any sense! You're crazy!”
The big guy shook his head quickly. “Okay that's it.” He reached out and grabbed my jacket. “No more talk; you're doing it.”
“Let go of me!” I tried to pull away but his fingers were clasped tightly around the hem of my jacket. He began to drag me towards the driveway. The first neighbour stepped forward and put his hand on his shoulder.
“Ron, what are you doing? Let him go!”
“No! He's gotta do it!”
Instinctively, both of my hands grasped the handle of my shovel. “LET GO!” I yelled, bringing the shovel up and knocking the big guy's arm away.
Both men stumbled back a step, eyes wide with surprise. I also took a step back, raising the shovel over my shoulder.
“Stay away from me!” I shouted. I could feel my legs trembling beneath me, hot adrenaline dumping down into my feet.
The big guy's face turned a harsh crimson. His eyes bugged out of his face, bright with rage. He raised his hands up before him.
“You wanna fight me kid? Is that what you want?” He clenched his hands into fists, adopting more of a boxer's stance.
“Ron, come on man. This is crazy. He's just a kid!”
“Yeah, he's a kid that wants to be a man! So come on then you little fucker!”
Big guy made a couple of feinting moves, making as though to grab my shovel. I quickly switched my grip into reverse, with the shovel blade pointed down. I remember thinking that if he stepped forward I would hit him in the knee then bring the blade up into his face.
“Leave me alone!”
“You wanna be a man, kid? I'll fucking show you how to be a man!”
The first neighbour pulled back on his shoulder. “Ron, c'mon-”
Big Ron spun and shoved his neighbour back. “Fuck you Bill! This is your fault for being the first one to hire him in the first place!”
Bill's face crinkled up in disdain. “You trying to tell me what to do with my own driveway, Ron?”
“I'm trying to help you! I'm trying to help all of you!” He spread his arms out to the crowd again. “This is important! We can't let him leave until he does his part!”
A trembling panic began to rise in me when he said this. I had to get out of there. “I am leaving. I'm leaving right now.” I started to turn and walk away. Big Ron immediately began to stalk alongside me. A small group of men trailed after him, exchanging glances at each other.
“Leave me alone!” I cried out, trying to walk quickly, but the snow kept sucking at my boots, and my legs were shaking. They were shaking so much. All I could think at that moment was that I had to get away from this crazy man.
“I mean it kid. I gave you a choice before. But now you're gonna do her driveway and you're gonna pay back all of the money that you stole from these people.”
A few of the neighbours spoke up, still following the big guy. “He doesn't have to pay us back.” “Leave him alone...”
“I'm not a thief!” I said, trudging along, and there was something about that part that made me feel the first beginnings of tears welling up behind my eyes. I blinked them back and looked away.
Big Ron continued alongside me, relentless. “Last chance, kid. Don't be stupid. You can't win this.”
I stopped. My head lowered to the ground. Big Ron stopped alongside me. “One way or the other, kid.”
My feet were soaked. My heart was shaking in my chest. A few minutes earlier I had been filled with the will to fight. I could see myself beating him to the ground with my shovel. But now I only felt cold and small and weak. I remember thinking to myself: I don't want anyone to get hurt. I don't want to hurt anyone.
I just want to go home.
I turned my head to look at Big Ron. The expression on his face was one of impending triumph. He knew I was going to give in. He knew he had won.
And that was what triggered something deep inside of myself; one last final flame of defiance. I couldn't let that look on his face be the final expression of our situation. I held my pose, body turned sideways away from him, my lowered head turned towards him. I looked him right in his eye and said:
A long moment passed. Big Ron slowly raised his hands. “Your choice.” He braced himself. I stood perfectly still.
Suddenly hands grabbed Big Ron's arms. Four of the men surrounded him and held him back.
“What are you doing?!!!” Ron shouted, looking around in bewildered shock.
“That's enough Ron. No more.” said one of the men, an older man with a bald head. He pointed at me. “You. Get out of here. Now.”
Ron began to fight back against the men. They held him fast. “NO!! You don't understand! This is important!”
The bald man turned to Bill. “Bill, walk the kid to the end of the street, and make sure he doesn't come back.”
Bill stepped forward and put his hand on my shoulder. “Come on, son. It's over now. Let's go.”
I hesitated, watching Ron and the struggling men. Several of them were yelling at me to get out of there, and I was confused for a second because they seemed really angry at me. But then I snapped out of it and started to walk away with Bill.
Big Ron was yelling incoherently. “What- you're letting him GO? He's getting away with it! I'm doing this for your own good!”
The men were reassuring Ron, telling him he was right, it was okay, just let the kid go, you've done your part. You've done your part.
Bill and I made our way silently down to the end of the street, where it intersected with the main road that led back to where I had come from. As we passed his driveway Bill looked at the work I had done.
He motioned to his driveway and spoke up. “You really did a good job there.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled.
Bill looked back at me. “Yeah, you did a good job all right. And I really would like to hire you again. But you understand: there's no way for you to come back to this street.”
We had reached the end of the street by now. Ron was shouting in the distance, his voice reduced to more of a petulant cry. The men had backed away from him a little, but were still forming a general circle around him. They were all casting wary glances our way.
Now that the danger seemed to have passed a warm sense of relief bloomed within my chest. Relief and also a feeling of distant sadness. I looked up at Bill. “It just seems unfair that a bully like that gets to tell everyone else what to do.”
Bill rubbed his chin and looked in Ron's direction. “Yeah, it isn't fair. But we all have to live on this street together. And when you live with other people sometimes you've gotta make compromises.” He turned back to me. “That's one of the things you've learned here today. Life isn't always fair, and everybody has to make compromises sometimes.”
I tried to let that sit with me. It didn't quite settle.
“Okay,” I said, “If that's the way it is then that's the way it is. But can you do one more thing for me?”
Bill shrugged his shoulders wearily. “What is it?”
“Get together with your neighbours and come up with a plan to shovel the old lady's driveway. You can all take turns.”
His expression turned warm. “Sure, kid. That's a great idea.”
“And be sure and check to see if he takes a turn. Because I bet you he won't.”
Bill smiled and looked back at Ron. “You might be right about that.”
And with that I shook Bill's hand (Big Ron in the distance hollering, “You're shaking his hand??!”), turned away and made my way back home. As I walked along down the main street there were other people out in their driveways, and everyone seemed to be staring at me, even after I had gotten far enough from the street I had been on. Maybe they sensed a change in me. Or maybe news had travelled fast.
When I got home, my father asked me if I'd had any luck. I told him I'd shovelled three driveways at a dollar each. He seemed satisfied with that. I wouldn't tell him the full story until many years later.
A few months afterwards, I was walking along the main street past the intersection to the street where the confrontation had occurred. I remember I was carrying flyers that I was delivering for a local business; the snow shovelling thing had kind of drifted apart after a short time, and now with the warm spring weather I was trying something else. As I was passing by I spotted Bill washing his car in the driveway. He looked up and recognized me.
“Hey, you're that kid!”
I waved and walked over to him. “How's it going?”
“I'm good, everything's good.” His eyes turned down to the bag of flyers at my side. “Trying something else out?”
He smiled. “That's good. You're an industrial fellow. Don't lose that. Don't give up.”
“Thanks...” I cast my gaze up the street towards Big Ron's house.
Bill chuckled to himself. “Don't worry, he's away on vacation.”
I turned back to Bill. “So did you all take turns shovelling the old lady's driveway?”
“Yeah, we did.” Bill brightened up at this mention. “Made everybody feel really good about themselves. We all got to know each other more.”
“That's good. And what about Ron? Did he pitch in?”
Bill smiled sadly at me. “No... No, he did not.”
We stood there together for a moment longer, looking back up at the street at Big Ron's empty house. Then I said goodbye, and that was the last time I spoke to anyone that lived on that street.
I'd like to say that I had followed Bill's advice, that I had never lost my sense of industriousness. But if I'm to be honest with myself, I'd have to say that I have not truly lived up to the promise that I showed back in those days. It seems to me that when I was a young boy, I was actually much braver than I became in later years. Shortly after the time of these events, as I approached puberty, I began to fall under the illusion that I had more to lose than I had thought during the fearlessness of my childhood. I had begun to see things in a much more equivocal way; I began to go along to get along. I was following the wrong part of Bill's advice – the part about compromise. Not negotiation, but rather compromise of one's own values.
Worse than that, as a way of compensating myself for buckling under to the coercion of the social group, I had stopped being honest about things, had decided to try to manipulate the system to my benefit. Slowly my perspective shifted from earning to getting. And of course, like most people that see life in those terms, what I got was just that: got.
Over the years there were a few flarings up of my independent spirit; but these I would always allow to be put down under the pressures of resistance. And it is only in the last few years that I've come to understand that the world is such that one cannot afford to be flighty about one's values. The less consistent you are about these things, the more you will have to give up a part of yourself in order to get along.
It has taken decades for the lesson of that time to begin to sink in: negotiation and compromise are not the same thing, not at a fundamental level. Hopefully for the rest of my life, I can reconnect with the clarity that I enjoyed in my childhood, and combine it with the experience of the years to develop the strength of a better man than I have been. Time will tell.