As a child, my family (which was composed of just Mom and me most of the time) was about as poor as we could get. I got free lunch at school, wore hand-me-down clothes from neighbors and ate a steady diet of government cheese... the only thing missing was the van down by the river. (who could afford a van?) Mom was divorcing her husband at the time - he was a Green Beret at Fort Bragg - and we were going through some generally hard times in Fayetteville, NC.
I was 11, and attended Alger B. Wilkins elementary. Oddly enough, my most vivid memory of that school was breakfast. I had never attended a school that served it, (it was free for me of course) and it was always the same thing... a lump of grits, a flat, dry sausage patty and some powdered eggs. I remember how thankful I was because sometimes it was hard for Mom to afford to do breakfast. (I also remember how hard school was in Carolina, they were almost a year ahead of the schools in California and it took me a while to catch up)
Money had always been scarce, so I found ways of scratching together occasional candy funds by doing odd jobs for whomever might pay me. About a block up the street from us was a laundromat, and one day I dropped in to see if the attendant might need some help. She said she didn't have money to pay me, but if I wanted I could sweep the floors every day and keep any money I found. Opportunity had knocked and (since the door didn't have a peephole) I answered!
Most days I'd find 75 cents or a buck, some days a quarter is all I could scrounge, but it was great extra cash for a kid. Eventually the attendant started letting me fold laundry, and in return she'd round my findings up to the nearest dollar. Mom asked one day if I had been hired on full-time, because after school I'd make a beeline straight to the laundromat from the bus stop, and sometimes wouldn't make it home until dark.
And I'd never go straight home - always took a detour across the parking lot to the liquor store for the ritualistic "spending of the cash." Candy bars were 10 or 20 cents (Three Musketeers and Bit O Honey were cheapest) and sometimes I'd even splurge for a soda, which was 20 cents. Then I'd get home and slip the rest into the piggy bank for a rainy day.
That rainy day came when Mom decided to move us to Missouri where my Grandparents lived. We needed gas money for the trip and the extra cash was a godsend. We never would have made it without the laundromat money and I'll never forget how proud it made me feel to contribute.
Life wasn't always easy, but I wouldn't trade the lessons or memories for anything. I wish my kids knew the value of a dollar.
Too bad we don't live anywhere near a Duds in Suds.