Baseball Cards, Candy, and the Value of A Dollar
My brief foray into elementary school entrepreneurship
Don’t ask me how much money my parents make: I don’t know, and never have. I think it is somewhere between enough and more than enough. My wife, when asked the same question, can reel off the sums her parents made, as well as their notable tax deductions and liabilities for each year. If you ask why she knows this, she’ll shrug and explain that she filed their taxes that year. I didn’t do my taxes by myself until after college, but thanks to baseball cards, youthful entrepreneurial spirit, and an unexpected test of maturity, I did become fat while learning the value of a dollar.
At first I wanted baseball cards just because my dad was buying them for Daniel and not me. When I asked for a pack for myself, my brother challenged me to name even one baseball player, and I did: Bo Jackson — but it did not earn me a pack of my own. Soon after moving to Leominster, my dad deemed me worthy of my own pack. Just around the corner from our home there was a baseball card shop, and I quickly became addicted to collecting. There were Topps cards, which came complete with a stick of pink gum on the top, the whole thing wrapped in wax paper, like some colorful cardboard pastry; Score, who featured action photos that came in a plastic packaging that the card corners always snagged on; and Bowman, which were just a little bit longer than the cards from any other company, so they had to be stored separately from the other cards. Upper Deck, new as of 1989, cost twice as much, at $1 for 15 glossy cards in a crimped, silver paper pack. Then there were all the accouterments: cardboard boxes, better than shoe boxes, for storing common cards or for set-building, thin plastic sleeves for minor stars, and hard plastic sleeves for the most coveted cards, and there was no card I wanted more than the Upper Deck Frank Thomas rookie card, valued at over $20. My brother, who had recently been given an allowance of about $5 a week, bought dozens of packs, and soon found one for himself, on his way to collecting every card in that set, but my parents determined I was too young for an allowance.
This was not to say that my parents never gave me money to spend; when neighborhood kids were going to buy candy, my parents always gave me at least $.50: enough for a Lik-a-Stik, 2 Jolly Ranchers (the old kind that could fuse your teeth together if you tried to chew them, which of course was part of the appeal), 2 Warheads, and 1 Atomic Fireball. If I’d had willpower, I could have saved a quarter each time, or all of it, but it was just too hard to be fiscally conservative while friends were turning their tongues hilarious colors with candy. Still, my parents did give me a $1 each day to buy milk and orange juice at school. I soon realized that my milk money could be leveraged for other purposes.
Milk was fifty cents. Juice was fifty cents. The juice was small, plus I had juice at breakfast, and my mom always packed me fruit. For $.75, you could buy milk and a fresh baked cookie, larger than your hand, which were $.50 apiece, without buying the milk. So I had milk and a cookie, plus a quarter left over each day. You could also buy three cookies for a buck: the max the lunch ladies were allowed to sell to students. I’d buy three, and then sell the other two for fifty cents a piece to students who’d already purchased the max, but that was a small market, and sometimes I wasn’t able to sell any of the cookies I’d bought, so rather than have them go to waste, I’d eat them.
Most days I walked away from school with one to three quarters I’d spend on my detour to the baseball card shop, and I was soon rewarded when I opened a pack with a Frank Thomas rookie card. Unfortunately, by that time, 1992, Topps had released a new series, featuring randomly inserted “gold cards”, which had a tiny foil imprint of real gold! And soon after that, in 1993, Flair began releasing ultra-premium cards, with glossy photos on heavy stock cardboard, within a small box, sealed in plastic for around $5 a pack. And once again, my brother’s buying power far exceeded my own; I was faced with a dilemma: I didn’t want to forego the cookie, but I needed to increase my profit, and so I had my real breakthrough — stopping in at the Honey Farms convenience store on the way to school.
There, if I was willing to spend my full $1, I could have two 4 oz bags (regular, $.59 apiece) of candy, ranging from individually wrapped Goetze’s caramels, with melt-in-your-mouth partially-hydrogenated-white-paste-filling, to sour gummy worms. I could sell these at a tremendous markup: with no candy available for sale, and no other students walking the same route to the school, I controlled the underground candy market, pushing individual candies for anywhere from a dime to a quarter: and I still could have my milk and cookies, while making more than a dollar each day. But like a tiny Tony Montana, I wasn’t content with my candy empire, and couldn’t resist the allure of my own product. Soon I was buying two bags, selling one, and then eating the remaining one with my milk and cookie, or since demand was fickle, sometimes I’d end up eating one bag at lunch, then another on the way home. This took its toll: by 5th grade I was not only the tallest kid in my class, but the largest, and I had taken to wearing full Starter and BUM Equipment sweat suits. They matched, and the fabric didn’t lead to the chaffing of my inner thighs that seemed to happen with jeans.
I didn’t want for things: my parents bought me books and Lego sets, almost keeping up with the pace at which I read and built, and I had more baseball cards than ever; but, my bush league operation was really put into perspective in December of 1992, when the Super Nintendo came out, costing “under $100!” ($99.99). My friend, who lived on the next street over, got one for Christmas, and he’d let me come over and play, maybe as payback for beating him at chess, since it seemed I was being used to unlock achievements and practice Mortal Kombat fatality moves. As an additional humiliation, I always played as the woman, Sonya, because she had the easiest special move [back-back-B]. My parents were against video games, and I despaired of ever getting one of my own. But in spring of 1993, when my dad was graduating from law school, my Bubbies and Zadies came into town. Zadie Bill took me to Caldor and told me to choose a toy. I wandered around before stopping in the shadow of a pleasing ziggurat of Super Nintendos in boxes. Zadie Bill found me there gawping. “You want one?” he said. I watched as he pulled a bulging wallet from his back pocket, and selected a new, crisp $100 bill from a sheaf of the same. He held the bill up. I looked at the ziggurat, then back at my Zadie Bill, giddy with excitement, before making my decision: “I do, but I don’t think Dad would approve,” I said. “I don’t think he would either,” said my Zadie. He smiled, and the $100 bill rejoined the others in his wallet. I couldn’t help but feel I’d passed some crucial test, though I wasn’t entirely sure what it was.
My dad believes this story of my Zadie is apocryphal, though he admits that it sounds like something Zadie would have done, that it probably was a test, and there’s no telling whether he would have bought the Super Nintendo had I not hesitated and just accepted the offer at face value, but he suspects that the offer would have been retracted, and judgment passed. Still, it’s hard for me to open my wallet and state at the motley assortment of bills, if any are present, without thinking of Zadie Bill’s sheaf of $100 bills, and the one that was nearly spent on me, and reflect on my pride at abstaining. It was the opposite of how I felt when the older, slimmer, more muscular (any muscle would have been more) boys in 7th and 8th grade referred to me as “the Jolly Green Giant” as I lumbered around the K-8 cafeteria in my Starter sweatsuit, and the initial glow lasted longer than the transient satisfaction I gained from ripping open a package of baseball cards bought, opened, and pawed through in secret (I must admit that I still buy baseball cards, and usually more than I would have as a kid, though the ultra-premium collecting card market has grown so exponentially, that I still covet cards that come from packs that are far beyond spare change, and some packs can run several hundred dollars).
It was the first time I can remember denying myself an easy pleasure, and soon after I stopped buying candy on my way to school — or at least not as much. There were costs for getting exactly what I thought I wanted — an important lesson to learn, and something we all periodically need to be reminded of. I resolved to eat less of my bottom line, and save my dimes and quarters toward something more meaningful. Maybe I’d buy a box of premium cards, or save up my quarters so I’d be able to buy my own game system. Shortly thereafter, we moved, I started taking the bus to school, and without candy, my profits dried up. It was a long time before I was again able to buy all the baseball cards I craved, but at least I was soon able to stop wearing green sweat-suits.
Ori Fienberg’s writing has appeared many places including Essay Daily, McSweeney’s Online Tendency, Mid-American Review, and Subtropics. This piece was written with the support of the Lava Step Collective at www.lavastep.com. You can find more of Ori’s writing at www.orifienberg.com.
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