This snowy morning I was reminded of how important it is to be specific when you say to your children “please go out and clean the snow off the cars.” I should have added: “and please do not to clean snow off of the car with our snow shovel.” I spoke up when one took a big swing with the shovel toward the windshield. Tragedy averted. They’re kids! Can you blame them? We clean the driveway with a shovel. We certainly don’t “sweep” the driveway with that weird broom / ice scraper thing that we all have in our cars. Shovels move snow. Snow is on driveways and cars. If we could get a snowblower up the steep grade of the hood, we would. Shovels are so effective on a driveway. On a car, too? Sure. Cars, however, are not made of driveway materials (except for those pesky Renaults). Modern cars are made of scratchable glass, metal, plastic, carbon fiber, and expensive parts you can only buy at a premium from dealerships. This is the marvelously advanced yet surprisingly fragile world we live in.
When I was a kid, one of the neighbors offered me and my friends a dollar each to clean off her car following a pretty major snowstorm. Her 1982 Oldsmobile Cutlass was parked in the road, plowed in and snowed under big time. Looking back, the Olds Cutlass was a very popular car in our neighborhood, and I’m not sure why, except for the sheer variety of body styles that fit many different personalities. The four door version looked like a police car, and the two-door coupe looked like the kind often pulled over by the police. Hers was the two door, if that seems important. It was a dark, almost burgundy color that would soon match the growing rust common on vehicles in that era. Back then cars did rust in a matter of a few years. Michigan + salt + untreated steel + what did we care? = rusty but trusty. Plastics were still in their infancy in those days, and there was more lead and other toxins around than we would today care to admit. The days were easier, in part because we just didn’t know better.
None of this crossed our minds back then. When you’re 10 years old, you don’t think about moral fragments that start spinning into a vortex of endless enigmas of metaphysical quagmire. We were more into living in the moment and getting away with whatever we could. At that point, we were thinking 1) get the snow cleared off and 2) get our money and 3) go to the store with our money. Four bucks was a worthwhile investment on the neighbor’s part. She saw us playing on Krauter Street and stepped out on the porch that morning, her hair wet from getting ready to go to work. “Hey, boys — I’ll pay you a dollar to clean off my car!” We cordially accepted and became professional car preppers. Being professionals, we knew that it was important to use the car sweeping broom thing and not a shovel. We commenced to clearing it off. Of course it became a competition between us to see who could move the most snow. Whenever kids are put in charge of moving snow, someone always ends up with a bunch down their backs. Yes, it’s so cold, but you get used to it. No time for shenanigans today, though. A dollar! I was put in charge of the windshield and hood because of my reach. My friends brushed off the side windows, front and back bumpers, and made sure that the license plate was within easy view – yet another example of us just going the extra mile. After all, she was paying us handsomely. As we cleaned, we talked about the wonderful things at the convenience store on the corner that would soon be ours. How many things could we buy with $1 each?
As it turns out, about a dollar’s worth. Correcting for inflation, that dollar a piece has the same buying power as $1.91 today (thanks internet). So we planned on buying ourselves some pops and a bags of chips. The pop and chips would be common Detroit originals: Faygo in a glass bottle and a little yellow bag of Better Maid chips, regular, slightly burned but without the taste of burning. No one is exactly sure how they pull this off, but I encourage you to try a Better Maid chip today and see for yourself. It’s like the Mystery Spot near Irish Hills: a distinctly Michigan artifact that’s hard to explain but essential to our sense of state identity.
This was turning out to be the best snow day ever. And we spent a measly 20 minutes of it getting the neighbor’s car cleaned off. With it parked in the street, it had more than just the soft puffy snow on it. Hard, packed, ice-like frost encased it from the multiple passes by old man snow plow. Covered? More like encased. No wonder she was quick to pay us a premium.
Finally the neighbor lady came out, dressed for work and in a hurry. She confirmed a job well done and flung a crisp dollar bill at us. Not four dollars. Just one. Someone spoke up. “You said a dollar each.” She said “no, I didn’t. I said I’d pay you a dollar to clean off my car.” We assumed she meant a buck each. We assumed wrong. The remaining $3 was tuition for a lesson in verbal contracts.
The English language is so many splendored and varied that it’s understandable how one might be lead to the stark understanding of just how simple it would be to, say, count on one thing but receive another, and without any recourse from referencing a phrase spoken not 20 minutes prior. What did we learn? Get it in writing and have a trusted attorney look it over. Or at least listen and ask for clarification. Would we have done it for a quarter? No. But a quarter each? Perhaps. Indeed that’s exactly what it ended up being, but only after another neighbor, Joe, gave us four quarters for that crusty piece of green. Twenty-five cents each.
Ah well. Who needs Faygo, anyway?
By the way, our kids weren’t paid a nickel for their services this morning. How much would I pay them? I don’t know. Not $1.91, I can tell you that. But we pick up so many patterns when we’re kids that it’s not unlikely that I may have said something like “I’ll pay you fifty cents to clean off the cars.” Our older son has learned to ask for clarification, and that’s where he would’ve gotten me. “Each?” A wise child.
I like to remember that story on a day like today, when the thin windowpane is the only barrier between us and the frozen tundra, where ladies with wet hair hire the neighborhood kids to do a rather laborious chore, especially in the month of March and in the fine state of Michigan. We’ve had less than our share thanks to El Nino, but we’ve now reached capacity. Soon the only frost will be on the walls of our old freezers.