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July 7, 2012

First job taught me value of a buck

We all have our first-job stories. After mowing Grandma's lawn for a few years and caddying to pick up some pocket change, I was hired at a nursing home as a kitchen helper. It was the first time I earned a paycheck that included deductions for Social Security and federal and state taxes.

I was 12 years old. Every Saturday and Sunday, I punched the clock at 6 a.m. and punched out at noon. The pay was the minimum wage, then $1.25 an hour. But it sounded pretty good, even though the hours and the working environment were less than pleasant. After all, my good friend, Timmy, was working at a fruit stand for 50 cents an hour, while his father, an immigrant from Ireland, was sweeping a subway platform floor for not much more money than I was earning. And he had 10 kids.

The nursing home also beat being a caddy, as the tippers were erratic. A dreaded duffer we knew as Muckah was renowned for being a cheapskate.

I caddied for him once and he fulfilled the advance reviews. A tobacco chewer, he bought you a hot dog at the ninth hole. But before he gave it to you, he had to take a bite. Then, at the end of 18 holes in the hot sun, Muckah tipped you 50 cents. I pocketed the two quarters from Muckah, gave up caddying and took the job at the nursing home kitchen.

After that, there would be a string of other minimum-wage jobs: bag boy in a supermarket, pot washer in a Jewish bakery and counter helper at a drive-in movie concession stand.

I could afford my personal necessities: Having enough money to squander at the pool hall and buying the occasional pair of Converse sneakers for the basketball court. Of course, I had no one else to support.

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