Britta Gustafson: Grit — one quarter at a time
Sitting at our desks each Thursday afternoon, we wiggled and writhed with anticipation watching the minute hand slowly creeping toward 3:15. One little boot-clad foot poised to make a dash, backpacks in hand, the bell would finally ring, and we would stumble off. Bottlenecked in the Yellow Brick Elementary doorway, we scrambled to untangle ourselves and began running, full speed, down the pathway past Clark’s Market. Elbows were swung, knees were scraped, chins hit the pavement; it was a virtual battlefield as we raced to be the first in line to pick up our newspapers at the old Aspen Times’ press doorway.
Back in the late 1980s, when there was only the weekly Aspen Times —which was not free — ambitious elementary age kids could hawk the papers on the streets each Thursday before they hit the stands. We could purchase a large, logo-imprinted canvas sling-satchel for $7 or a better one for $12 (but who needed that) and for $0.25 a paper we could buck the odds on purchasing as many papers as our little shoulders could carry in hopes of selling out for $0.75 a rag. It was a delicate balance; how many could you afford? How many could you carry? We learned quickly how painful it was to cut our losses if we ambitiously overestimated.
After waiting in line one kid at a time to load up, the press workers would stuff our satchels, weighing us down with papers hot off the press still smelling of fresh ink. We would hand over a Ziploc bag full of precious quarters, turn and run back up Mill Street, our bags crashing against our thighs and packs slamming against our backs, trying to beat the others to the golden sellout zones.
Carl’s was an excellent first stop. You could peel off at Bleeker Street and circle around (if no one followed you) and catch the first round of shoppers and shopkeepers. If you were the first to arrive, you could move half of your stock in 20 minutes at the Main Street entrance. With substantially lighter loads, my friend and I would often take the earnings from that round and buy a nickel Vitamin C tablet in the back of the store, convinced this gave us an edge up on the competition. The short break allowed us a moment to catch our breath, our little cheeks burning red with adrenaline and exhaustion.
Back at it now, town crawling with little newsies ducking in and out of every business, we would start up the steps of the Mountain Forge building only to find someone running back down. Foiled! Off to the next locale — bus stops, alleyways, apartments, no place seemed off limits.
It was still an era of feral children and my parents both worked, so I was left to my own devices until around 5 p.m. At which time I would find my dad in his office and he would take me back to Snowmass, where I could often finish my sales, lucky to be one of the few who could spike the untapped Snowmass market at the center.
However, there were many weeks I broke even, or ended up with a stack of Weeklys. I would try, in vain, to pawn off leftovers on neighbors, eventually giving up and with resolve planned to run faster next week.
It was hard work with little return, but the experience was priceless. We learned creative business strategies, bargaining skills and how to wager on anticipated sales. I personally fell in love with the newspaper industry, acquiring a habit of reading my leftover products.
We also came to recognize that fair was a relative term. Some parents would back up to the Times’ press, allowing their kids to load-up into the car and then whisk them off to town in a fraction of the time, leaving the rest of us rolling our eyes, far from impressed.
It was about grit and determination, a little cuteness and big, pleading eyes didn’t hurt either. But I didn’t grow up in the generation of prizes for all and participation awards. Being a kid didn’t mean that you were the center of the adult world around you. It was their world, we just lived in it. We still learned how to lose back then; actually I was fairly adept at it by the time I was in fourth grade. We often wore hand-me-downs, and if you wanted a skateboard you paid for it with your own cash, no “bank-o-mom-and-dad.” You did your own hair, however that turned out, and you definitely did your own homework. Grades were A through F. F for failure because, yes, sometimes you were a failure. No stars for effort. Perhaps for some that was harsh, but for many of us it prepared us for life. The entitlement attitude was deflated.
Maybe we have all become a little softer, or perhaps just more paranoid. I’ve personally seen one too many “Law & Order SVU” episodes to allow my kids to run free, combing the streets, even in Aspen, for two hours of unsupervised time. Still, I can’t help but to pine for the days of a little less coddling, a little less helicopter parenting and a few more of those scrappy character-building failures.
Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.