How have you been for the last 24 years — and where's my forty bucks?

In tough times, looking to redeem a long-standing debt

January 09, 2012|By Randy S. Robbins

During the summer of 1988, I was the guy who spray-painted house numbers on the curb. I'd spent June working the graveyard shift at UPS. After two summers of toiling for minimum wage — when minimum wage paid less than vagrancy — UPS offered a whopping $8 an hour. But it was back-breaking work, roughly the civilian equivalent of basic training. I single-handedly unloaded the cargo of 18-wheelers, much of it heavy and none of it quickly enough for the pacing floor manager, who barked like a drill sergeant. Because of fatigue, management only permitted four-hour shifts, and I must have sweated off five pounds a night. I was only in it until the fall semester began, so when UPS demanded a C-note to join its union — $100 being Fort Knox then — I hit the classifieds and found Carl and his house-number empire.

For the same $8 an hour, I now worked from the leisure of my car, supplying those who'd acquiesced to Carl's cold-calling with a bold, black house number on a white field. Operating at my own pace, I enjoyed a radio and the liberty to drive off for a soda whenever I pleased. Carl provided the stencils, spray paint and even gloves. I thought I had it made.

But never underestimate the damage that a half-dozen spray cans and a set of stencils oozing fresh paint can do to a car. OK — mine was a secondhand 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with a faulty trunk door and an odometer into six figures. But there's no number low enough in the Kelley Blue Book for a vehicle with a sticky, zebra-like interior, courtesy of Krylon.

That summer also was the hellish record-setter during which the mercury surpassed 90 degrees for an ungodly 40 straight days. For me, having earned a Master of Perspiration at UPS, the first 20 were easy. But inhaling paint fumes daily as the merciless sun pulses down on flesh and brain, nausea becomes a constant companion, and a man may even see a biblical figure or two as he crouches over a curb.

Also, some of those curbs were utterly unpaintable. Decades of erosion or shoddy craftsmanship left many curbs barely half the height of my stencils and entirely incapable of bearing a readable number. The top portion of the new number faced skyward as it bent sloppily around the curb. Angry customers deluged Carl with complaints. But what could I do? Even da Vinci required a decent canvas.

By mid-August, some customers grew delinquent in their fees, and Carl fell behind in my salary. My gooey, noxious workload dwindling as his empire crumbled, Carl returned my messages less frequently and, in the last few weeks of summer, would not answer his doorbell. He still owed me $40, which, by then, exceeded the value of my car.

Twenty-four years after leaving the house-number profession, my hours again have been slashed almost to nothing, and $40 is big money once more. I'm considering adding this long-ago trade to my resume so that I can entice a wider range of employers, such as Sherwin-Williams or even the Museum of Modern Art. But in our battered economy, a new job, and a new paycheck, may be weeks away — a hardship about which my landlord and creditors care not.

So, Carl, speaking as an aficionado of walls, food, and heat: I've let you slide long enough. True, I don't know your whereabouts or if you remember me, but I'm sure that reading this has jogged your memory. Winter's first blast has arrived, and I'll need at least 1,500 calories a day, regardless of whether I have to go to double layers and extra blankets. So it's time you forked over my money. I could have spray-painted "YOU OWE ME $40!" on your front door the last time I came by to get paid and you refused to open it, even though I saw you hiding inside. Repainting the door to cover my reminder would've cost more than that, believe me. But if you pay up now, all is forgiven, OK?

By the way, are you still in the house-number business? 'Cause I really need the work.

Randy S. Robbins, a writer and editor, lives in Baltimore. His email is

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