My brother walked me to and from school when I was in the first grade. Mama didn’t want me to walk alone through town consisting of a general store, a post office, a gas station, one church and four beer joints.
We walked on the opposite side of the street when we got to the beer joints where men gathered on the sidewalk, drinking out of paper bags. My brother told me they had beer and whiskey in the bags. I asked him “Why doesn’t the beer leak through the paper bag?” My brother said, “Shut your mouth and grab that beer bottle in the bushes.” We took the beer bottle into the General Store and redeemed it for 2 cents.
We pressed our noses to the glass candy case and discussed the merits of one candy versus another. Candy cigarettes or wax coke bottle filled with cool-aid, which meant we could chew the wax all the way home. When the decision was made, two cents worth was carefully weighed on a little scale. Inside the glass case, the clever storeowner also displayed various dolls and other tempting toys.
One of the dolls had a fuchsia colored dress that fanned out behind her. She had beautiful brown wavy hair and movable arms. Her lovely eyes opened and closed. Never in my life had my five-year-old eyes beheld anything so beautiful. The candy lady said she cost a dollar, a considerable amount of money in 1948.
I doubted that mama would buy me the doll. What was the likelihood of getting a beautiful doll that cost a whole dollar? We were lucky to get one small toy, a pair of pajamas and a new sweater for Christmas. I cried and begged, promised I would go to bed without a fuss, eat all my Brussels sprouts and brush my teeth five times a day if she would buy me the doll. My alligator tears fell on deaf ears. Mama said she wouldn’t give me a dollar if she had one, what with the economic climate we lived in. I pointed out to her that since the sun had been shining for a straight month without a drop of rain, I didn’t think buying the doll would affect the climate very much one way or another. She rolled her eyes and said, “Go talk to your Daddy.”
Daddy was not impressed with my argument either. “Furthermore,” he said, “Mama works in the apple packing plant and earns less than a dollar an hour. You can buy three pounds of hamburger for a dollar. You can buy several loaves of bread for a dollar or three gallons of gas for a dollar. I will not pay $1.00 for a doll. You can’t get blood out of a turnip.”
Well that was pretty obvious, even to a five-year-old. I had seen blood squeezed out of beets but never from a turnip and it seemed like a pretty poor excuse for not giving me a dollar.
I left Daddy with a better understanding of the value of a dollar. It was also obvious that Daddy didn’t know much about his vegetables. I still had no idea of how I could obtain the dolly, now an unreachable, impossible dream. And yet, every day on the way home from school, we stopped at the General Store where I stood for ten minutes dreaming of what it would be like to own that dolly.
Perhaps I had enough in my piggy bank. I shook out all the pennies and nickels on my bed; there weren’t that many. I had 24 cents. I sat with paper and pencil and struggled with the math. As a first grader, I could add and subtract. If I had 24 cents and needed a $1.00, how much did I still need? I wrote out the equation. $1.00 minus 24 cents. It didn’t make sense. How could you subtract 24 from 00? My brother explained how to “borrow” from the $1 and “add” to the 00’s. The concept was beyond me, but he said I still needed $.76
Begging my mother had resulted in a vague speech about the weather. Daddy had discussed what things cost and demonstrated his poor understanding of vegetables in general. My piggy bank left me wanting, and my brother’s confusing lecture told me that if you borrow a zero; you could make nothing into something, but I still needed $.76. After discussing it with all the family members, I figured I would have to earn the money.
That night I dreamed about the dolly. In my dream, I could feel her soft wavy hair. I sat her up and laid her down and watched her eyes blink open and close, open and close. When I awoke, my fingers were still tingling, feeling the smooth texture of her satiny skirt and the rough edges of the lace. I was obsessed with the dolly.
I remembered the men standing on the corner, or squatting by the wall, drinking from paper bags near the beer joints. I remembered seeing them toss the bags containing the bottles into the bushes. I remembered that each bottle was worth 2 cents! Daddy had said, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” which made slightly more sense than his lecture about not getting blood from turnips. If I walked around the back of the beer joint, I could pick up the beer bottles, cash them in and save up the .76 cents.
For several weeks, I dragged dirty beer bottles out of the bushes on the way home from school. Each was worth several pennies, so each night I dropped a few more pennies in the piggy bank.
When I had saved a dollar, I rushed to the store. My dolly was waiting for me in the glass case. She would be mine at last. The store lady rang up the sale. “That will be $1.03,” she said. I knew I had exactly $1.00. Tears sprang to my eyes and down my cheeks.
“Why is it $1.03?,” I asked. She explained that the government didn’t have enough money to pay all the relief checks to lazy men who squatted on the sidewalk and drank beer out of paper bags, so that’s why a little girl had to pay 3 cents more than she should have to, in order to buy a dolly. She said the government needed my 3 cents to help pay off the 258 billion dollar national debt. … (that sounds pretty good by today’s standard, doesn’t it?)
Before you could snap your fingers, the store lady agreed that I could take the dolly home. I would give her my dollar today and bring her 3 cents tomorrow. If I couldn’t get 3 cents, I would bring back the dolly and she could keep the dollar and sell the dolly to another little girl. I was the one gambling, not her. They say a con man is born every minute. She fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. I figured if I couldn’t find two more beer bottles on the way home, mama would be so embarrassed by my gambling, she would give me the 3 cents. I would probably get a spanking, but it was a risk I was willing to take.
I walked home, clutching my dolly to my heart, scanning the ditches. It seemed as if someone had gleaned every single bottle. I scoured the bushes and searched the garbage cans outside the beer joints. Near my house, two beer bottles were lying under the rose bushes. With the 4 cents from the bottles, I was able to square my debt with the candy lady.
Mama was mad when she heard how I got the money to buy the doll. She forbade me to collect any more beer bottles. She said, “If you ever want something that bad again, you should ask me for the money.”
Now isn’t that what I had done in the first place?
She went on to say, “Going around beer joints is a bad influence on a little girl and you aren’t to go near one again. The government should never have repealed the prohibition back in 1933. It’s a shame you have to raise kids in a town where there are four beer joints and only one church.” She didn’t count the Chinese church outside of town, but she always said they were heathens.
At that point, I stopped listening and rocked my dolly up and down so I could watch her eyes open and close, open and close.