Now and Laters. And Cinnamon Toothpicks.

I visited Scotty recently, my friend with cancer. I do this about once a month, take him groceries, his latest GoFund Me installment. This time I brought a potted Gerber daisy for his balcony. His favorite. A little color and Spring for the sickbed. It rained most of the visit so although his strength was good, we were forced to spend most of it watching movies or talking on the couch. To break up the monotony, we’d venture forth in between squalls to gather sustenance for the next bout of verbal tennis, or to restock our supply of movie snacks, particularly Skittles. Go figure. Man is on a low-residue diet but Skittles don’t bother him. Cancer sure is strange.

Sunday afternoon found us at “The Sev”. Our pet name for 7-11. We were doing the usual, going down every aisle, seeing what looked promising. One steadfast cancer rule, it doesn’t matter what current state I find my stomach in, if my friend wants tropical flavored Skittles, so be it. I’ll jump in and participate, raise him in the junk food poker stakes with two bags of Starburst. When it comes to cancer visit movie snacks, The Sev is a safe zone with no regrets or judgment.

While I was making my selection, trying to decide between the original flavor and Summer Splash, I had an epiphany. One so strong and fast I went completely silent. Overhead speaker playing the latest hit by The Weekend or whoever is big this week, register tinging, Scotty making obscene gestures with the giant-size Slim Jims on display, me laughing in mock shock which broke the Starburst spell abruptly. Our usual convenience store antics. I’d done this before. Not visited a convenience store and made a nuisance of myself, that’s a given. I’d done *THIS* before. Tried to decide which flavors of candy to buy. But that time, I was deciding which ones would sell faster.

In the Winter of eighth grade, a fad went around school. Kids began soaking toothpicks in cinnamon extract for days before wrapping in aluminum foil and selling them for a nickel a piece. Fake candy to suck on and chew during the doldrums of Algebra. They did a brisk business, pulling in sometimes $10 or $20 a week. A king’s ransom to a 13-year-old. To my young entrepreneurial brain, this seemed like a lot of work for too little payout. There had to be a better way. Which is when my thoughts settled on Now and Laters, those square-shaped hard yet soft candies. Harder than a Starburst, softer than a Werther’s Original. They came in all flavors, but grape and cherry were my favorite.

I can’t remember if I got the idea or borrowed it from someone else. But I do remember discovering an entire pack of 10 pieces only cost a dime at our local Lakeside Standard Drug. If I sold each piece for a nickel? An entire pack for a quarter? That could make a tidy profit. Cautiously, I asked my Dad for help. Would he be willing to buy me 10 packs for a dollar to start? And could I borrow that dollar and pay him back with interest? Turns out he would. Just like that, my first business was born.

Three things made this particular business a great model for an eighth grader back in 1981. First, I didn’t have to make anything. I didn’t even have to go buy the product, Dad would pick up a few packs for me on his way home from work. Second, most of the kids my age always had a nickel, a dime, or a quarter somewhere on their person. Last? Kids love their candy. As long as middle school remained full of drill and practice interspersed with periods of droning, and lunch seemed incredibly far away, and their parents continued denying their children sugar, I would become and remain the Tycoon of Taffy. Which is exactly what happened. I was able to pay back my Dad next day. Before long he was bringing me home entire BOXES of Now and Laters and my school bag grew heavy with quarters. Once word got around? I’d have crowds of kids surrounding me before homeroom eager to stock up.

Before long I had a system. I’d set a portion of the profits aside to restock and put the rest of the cash in a shoebox. I was, in fact, an eighth grader with her first disposable income, so, unfortunately, none of that profit got saved. We were middle class with borderline periods of lower so all my extra cash went to records, comic books, and candy. Just not Now and Laters. After gorging myself the first week, I grew sick of the taste, the sticky residue that never left my hands, and the smell, a sickly sweet mixed with the wax paper wrapper they came in. If you look at pictures of my room from this era all you see are empty Now and Later boxes stacked like dominoes.

Eventually, I also got tired of kids coming up to me demanding candy. Yelling if I was out of their favorite chocolate. Yelling if I didn’t have change for a 5-dollar bill. Or just yelling. I got tired of my customer base. But still, I sold, realizing that as long as this milk train ran, I’d be stupid not to ride it.

So what happened? Why do I sit here, a newly-minted 50-year-old woman who is in fact NOT the CEO of some candy company? Pretty simple really. The Man stepped in. In the form of a teacher whose class I didn’t even have but who was patrolling hallways that particular morning just before school let out for the summer. Business had been particularly brisk that day. It was May, only two weeks left in the school year, so thoughts were already on trips to the beach, Kings Dominion, and hours-long card games of Bullshit by the local pool while listening to XL102 on the radio.

I’d just handed a packet of grape to a satisfied customer and pocketed the quarter when the teacher ran over to confront me. “What are you doing?!” she demanded. “Nothing,” I replied sheepishly, trying for all the world not to look guilty. This was back when I was the silent mouse type and words said to teachers often consisted of one-word sentences of this type. Nothing was a favorite, useful for so many occasions.

“I saw what you did there,” she accused, “give that money back right now!”

“No,” I replied meekly, surprising even myself.

This wasn’t what she wanted to hear. “NO?!?” she yelled. “You give back that money right this minute!”

But I wasn’t budging. My customer had run when he saw the teacher. So besides not being able to track them down, there was no way I was losing a sale. I often had kids I didn’t even know approach me. What did I care? They ate candy too. I looked her squarely in the face and shook my head no.

“Then give ME the money. And the candy you’re selling!” she yelled.

“Bitch, are you kidding me?” I thought to myself. Again, I shook my head no. This was hard-earned scratch. Plus, my dad would kill me if my entire stock for the week was depleted in one fell swoop just because some dumb teacher decided to play cop. What was the problem anyway? Couldn’t she see American enterprise at work? This was a win-win situation, they get sweets, I get monetary treats. What am I doing wrong? I stood firm, just staring, hands on my bag.

As with so many confrontations of this type, I ended up in the principal’s office. I was able to keep my candy and my stash but had to promise never to sell on grounds again or I would be suspended. To this day I’m not sure why I was singled out instead of the dozens of others hawking toothpicks. Or what rule I broke. Maybe the oldest rule there is. Getting caught.

To this day, especially after spending a decade of my life as a teacher, I wonder what would’ve been different had that teacher took a different approach? What if she’d looked at me as a young human, instead of an adolescent scofflaw? What if she’d sat me down, gotten the full story, maybe encouraged my entrepreneurial tendencies instead of quashing them? My life might have been very different. Instead of creating my own podcasting business at fifty, I might’ve done it at thirty. Or even twenty. Business ownership runs in my family. My Pop-Pop ran away from home at fourteen, eventually forming his own accounting firm. Both uncles own businesses, and my aunt Judy traveled the countryside selling ads for her local paper. My nephew showed great promise hawking cookies at the Big Love Bake Sale. Maybe if she’d encouraged this gene it would have helped build much-needed confidence in that quiet, unsure 13-year-old.

I guess we’ll never know. Like so many dreams this one fell by the wayside and was tucked away into a corner of my memory only to be revived suddenly and vividly during a rainy afternoon trip to Scotty’s local Sev. I was left with a huge stash of Now and Laters which took about two years to work through. I was left with the belief that speaking up for yourself never amounted to anything, you got in trouble anyway. I was left with the belief that trying out new enterprises would often end up in failure. Except maybe not a total failure. Because it provided me with a great origin story. That’s definitely something. Plus I learned one of life’s great tenets, one I practiced from then on and do so now quite frequently. It’s far better to apologize afterward than ask permission beforehand.

 

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