On an unusually warm day last week a couple of the neighborhood kids set up an iced tea and lemonade stand down the block. Early March weather doesn’t necessitate much thirst quenching by the average suburbanite outside of Pittsburgh. The problem as I saw it was there’s no foot traffic on our unusually quiet block as there are no sidewalks and the grade is too steep for most casual strolling. I don’t think we were expecting a 5K to roll through anytime soon and vehicular traffic is non-existent considering we’re on a cul-de-sac. None of that seemed to dampen the children’s enthusiasm, in the least, for their refreshment concession.
As I pulled out of my driveway and made my way down the hill to their location, under a naked, knotted oak in front of their parent’s house, I watched them jump into service. Upon noticing me, the sister and brother team stopped poking the tree trunk with a stick and promptly took their places behind the card table in a manner of attentive expectation. Both of them folded their hands together on the table as if in contemplative prayer or in eager anticipation of a promising financial transaction. I have to admit it was a bit unsettling watching their little heads swivel in unison, as they followed me come, and go past their burgeoning beverage outlet.
I wish I could tell you that I stopped, drank my fill of their product and contributed to their college funds and their enthusiasm for free enterprise, capitalism but as it turned out, I was running late. I continued past them with little more than a head bob in their direction. The little girl, by far the sweetest child on the block, squinted fiercely and shot me an evil eye. Despite every intention of stopping on my way home they had, unfortunately, closed up shop before my return that evening.
It’s a tough but rewarding experience for kids with entrepreneurial steam in their pipes to encounter a few failures. Pushing lemonade in early March on a quiet dead-end block is a proposition sure to fail and hopefully it will be a cautionary lesson for these kids in the future. Hopefully they’ll remember their stand before they sink their life savings into a restaurant at a location with a permanently installed “leasing now” sign.
I know such an experience taught me a few things about life and business. At age twelve I began working at the all time, most awesome place on the planet for a, husky, Toughskins wearing kid with a sweet tooth, or two or three. Handley’s Hastee Freeze was a local landmark in the small town of Crown Point, Indiana. It was my Grandpa’s Ice Cream Stand and I worked the counter along with my cousins and brothers taking orders, serving up ice cream treats and counting back change to customers. It was great fun because we got paid and we were allowed to eat any of the boo-boos we made by mistake. Funny how we always seemed to have a few during each shift.
While the waistband sizes increased on my Toughskin pants, which I believe were made by NASA for the safe re-entry from space, so too did my bank account. In a few weeks I had saved enough to begin considering a few major purchases. I recall buying a gold and tiger eye necklace for a seventeen year old, fellow employee, named Kathy that my older brother really liked. Trying to keep the peace between us brothers my mom forbade me to give such an extravagant gift and kept the jewelry herself. During those days of frivolous consuming I recall frequenting all the important places like the pet store, the sporting goods store, the record store (yep records and eight tracks was where it was at in 1976) and a tropical plant store. I became a regular in the plant store and the owner taught me all about Dracaena, Ficus, Philodendron, Alocasia and all the other plants that I was buying and dragging home.
Soon, the room I shared with my uber-jock brother began to resemble a place you could only access with a machete by clearing a path for yourself. Potted plants and terrariums hung from the curtain rods and covered every flat surface and most of the floor. The room smelled earthy, like a walk in the woods and not at all like the room of a four sport athlete, with an aversion to showering. Mom, once again, intervened to keep the peace and ordered me to reduce my collection so my brother, who I’d determined was already her favorite, had some space for his bats, balls, gloves, uniforms and trophies.
In an effort to comply I came up with the idea of separating, repotting and selling some of my plants during an upcoming family member’s garage sale. Sales were brisk and after doubling my money and with little overhead I decided this could be a lucrative little business for myself. It became pretty clear that the kid with a sweet tooth, or two, or three also had a head for business and a green thumb or two.
With my early success, I determined that more production space was required to conquer the Tropical Plant Market at a nearby flea market . Independently and without anyone knowing I went to my bank and withdrew all my savings in a cashier’s check. I put it in an envelope with a completed order form and sent away for a lean-to style greenhouse from one of the horticulture catalogues I often received. About a month later, a truck rumbled up to the house and I recall a very animated conversation between my Mom and the driver.
“This is a mistake. No one ordered a greenhouse here”.
“Ma’am, the name on the bill of lading is Mont Handley”, replied the driver. “Is he here”?
“My twelve year old son, Mont Handley?” she questioned pointing her index finger in my direction. “Well he’s a minor, he didn’t have permission to order anything and I won’t pay for it so take it back”.
“Uh, it’s paid in full Ma’am”, and with that he jumped in the trailer and began unloading the crates, later stacking them in our garage.
Wow, wow, wow. I was so excited that my greenhouse had arrived I barely noticed the frighteningly angry glance my mother was casting in my direction. It wasn’t until I saw the truck driver notice, then shot me a pitiful look of sympathy that I became scared shitless. With four brothers I’d seen that look on my mother’s face a few times in my life and it never ended well for anyone, especially after any potential witness had departed. The delivery guy was quickly done unloading and with a signature from me, he wished us well, jumped in his cab and was gone.
I’m pretty sure if you experienced childhood in an era when “time out” meant a break in the action and a huddle around a coach, then you know how the greenhouse delivery day ended for me. In short order, the appeals to build my lean-to greenhouse alongside my parent’s house or garage were denied. To add insult to injury, it was suggested that I sell my possession at the very flea market I planned to start my tropical plant empire. My objections and, by that point, my father’s, were overruled, and the item was eventually sold, at a tag sale and at a significant loss.
Unlike those boo boos at the Hastee Freeze, my greenhouse mistake didn’t go down well at the time, but the lessons learned continue to serve me well to this day. I learned that you should always get stake holder buy-in and whoever coined “it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission” never met my mom.