Not too many years ago, kids sang “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It
Snow” with acquisitive enthusiasm each time the weatherman hinted that we
might expect a covering of the cold white stuff. It wasn’t love like that
that inspired the man who wrote that lovely song; it was the prospect of
making money that excited every kid who could lift a snow shovel.
Neither my wife nor I can remember how old we were when we first
approached a neighbor with an offer to clear his sidewalk. We both
remember charging 25 cents for the sidewalk and front steps. We would
scatter salt or ashes over the cleared ground to make the ground less
slippery, if the customer provided it.
I can remember Mr. Miller coming out to inspect our work when we had
finished the sidewalk, which was half a block long. My brother and I had
worked on it for over an hour. It looked pretty good, and his smile
encouraged me to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse: “We’ll clear your
driveway for 50 cents.” He looked surprised and asked why he should pay
us twice the amount we had charged for the sidewalk to clear his
driveway. When I told him that we would not pile the snow along the side
of the drive, but carry it all the way out to the street, he said, “It’s
Now, 75 cents for almost three hours of work may not sound like
something to get excited about when you think of it today, but back in
the ‘30s, that much money could put a very nice dinner on the table for a
family. Money was tight, and kids were proud to be able to contribute. It
wasn’t just snow shoveling that gave them that opportunity. Lawn raking,
apple picking, garage cleaning, and errand running all gave a kid a
chance to earn pocket money.
In Pat’s hometown, where few people had telephones, calls would come
in to the candy store. A kid who ran to give the message that “Mrs. Jones
is wanted on the phone at Harry’s” received a nickel from Mrs. Jones as
she ran out the door to get her call.
My mother baked cakes for the local grocery store. The storekeeper
kept her account in a notebook he kept under the counter. The money he
received for Mother’s cakes were applied against her grocery bill. Uncle
Dick painted his neighbor’s house while his neighbor rewired Uncle Dick’s
cottage. They called it “one hand washing the other.” Barter? Yes, I
suppose you could call it that. It was a system that made sense to those
who traded chores for work or groceries.
With the start of World War II, men went to war and women went to
work. Women who could not work outside the home supported their working
sisters by cleaning houses, taking in ironing and sewing, and providing
child care in their homes. All payments were made in cash. It was the way
things were done. No one was trying to hide income. It was just that
checking accounts weren’t that common. If you had to mail in a payment,
you got a money order at the store.
This way of doing business continues today, and it has city, county,
state and federal governments very concerned. The barter and “cash and
carry” economies are costing these agencies lots and lots of tax money
from billions of dollars in unreported income. Economists call it a
shadow economy, and most of us contribute to it without thinking.
When you receive a hillside brush-clearing notice from “the law,” you
either do it yourself or you look for someone who will come out and do it
for you. You don’t need a landscape gardener; you need a laborer to pull
and bag the weeds. Where do you find him? Chances are you remember the
group of men you saw standing in that temporary workers’ shelter on San
Fernando Road in Glendale, or in front of the Home Depot. You drive over
and find someone to do the work.
When it’s all done, you pay in cash. They don’t have checking
accounts, and check-cashing places charge up to 15% of the total to turn
that piece of paper into cash. That makes working for you less than
profitable to the men who do so. And so stone walls are built, beautiful
cement work is done, woodwork and painting are completed and there is no
record anywhere of payments made. It’s the way things are done.
The government doesn’t like business conducted this way. Unions don’t
like it either; they can’t collect dues from “shadow workers.” But I
doubt that anyone is going to put an end to it. A fellow who is out of
work will paint your house if you will tutor his son in algebra. A
stay-at-home mother will take care of your children each day if you will
pay for her child’s camp fees.
From the beginning of time, people have helped one another. No one
thinks of it as being dishonest. It just makes sense. It’s neighborly.
How come the government doesn’t understand that?