The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Dear Miss Tinkles

Dear Miss Tinkles

Just a Kid

Dear Miss Tinkles:

I am eight.  My dad wants me to rake the yard. It is a really big yard. My little sister wants to help but she just plays in the leaves and makes a mess. I want to ask my friends to help me. My dad said okay. I have six friends. My dad says he will pay one dollar for every bag of leaves. My dad says that he will count up all the bags and then he will give every person who helps the same amount of dollars, which will be a LOT of dollars because the leaves on the ground are so many! He says this is equal shares. My sister says she is helping but I do not think she is helping and I do not think my sister should get any dollars for helping because she just plays. She does NOT help. She DOES tell lies to our baby sitter that she is helping with the leaves. She is NOT! I have told this to my dad but he will not listen. My dad says my sister will get some of the dollars. What do you think I should do? Sincerely, Just a Kid.

Dear Kid:

Thank you so much for writing. What a smart little boy you are!

Here’s the thing: Your father is trying to exploit you for slave wages. What do you think it would cost him to hire out that job to some yard-cleaning crew? The answer is many times more than you and all six of your friends will make off of this job combined!

Unless you take matters into your own hands.

Fortunately, there is something you can do to avoid any further exploitation. It’s called concerted action. Sound it out: con…cer…ted…action. That’s a fancy way of saying that you and your pals need to form a union and then demand better terms from the Old Man.

You need to get his attention. I suggest staging a sit in. Here’s how it works. The next time you know your dad will be leaving the house for work or an appointment, invite your friends over and ask them to sit in a semi-circle on the driveway. When your dad asks you to move, do NOT move. Stay sitting on the driveway and chant things like: Hell no, we won’t go!   (You can say Heck if you want to but it will not be as effective.)

Your dad will be in a hurry to leave and will probably get angry. Do NOT worry about this; anger is normal in labor disputes. Eventually he will realize that he will have to move you himself. He will then pick one of you up and set you down on the lawn. Fortunately—and this is very important—he can only pick up one of you at a time. As soon as he puts down exploited worker No. 1 and starts to pick up exploited worker No. 2, exploited worker No. 1 should get up off the lawn and sit back down on the driveway. See how that works? Keep this up until your dad agrees to pay at least fifteen dollars per bag.

Also, from what you have told me, do not expect your sister to be of much support. She is likely to be out there in the leaves as you and your friends are risking it all on the driveway. This will upset you and your friends. But please, do NOT throw things at her. Because even though you are in the middle of a bruising labor dispute, you do not want to sacrifice the moral high ground or compromise your own humanity. Calling your little sister names and making her feel guilty is more than sufficient to get your point across. If you absolutely must throw things, aim for the house or the car. Also, do not throw anything that is flammable unless you have the hose turned on and ready.

Sometimes a sit-in strategy works best in combination with a slow down strategy. Like the name implies, this is a strategy that requires you to do everything very, very slowly. Everything. Brushing your teeth. Eating your dinner. Getting dressed. Doing chores. Speaking. Walking. Blinking. Like you’re made of molasses or loaded up on barbiturates. Stay in the bathroom for at least thirty minutes a visit. When he asks you how your day at school was, respond very … very…very… slowly. No faster than one word every thirty seconds or so. You may want to practice until you get a feel for “slow talking.” Eventually your dad will get angry and demand that you talk at a normal speed. That’s when you look him in the eyes and thrust your finger in the air and proclaim:

I’ll…hurry…up…when…you…PAY…up…Bus…ter!


It is possible, Kid, that these strategies will fall short. The labor battlefield is not level. Your dad has all of the power and resources and all you and your fellow exploited workers have is grit and determination. That is why it may be very important for you to contact the Department of Labor and Social Services, both of which will have a statutory mandate to investigate child labor complaints. Make sure you make note of the investigation date so that you can look your most haggard and unclean for the on-site visit. Try to pant a lot. Involuntary twitching and crying is also good. If there are large rocks nearby that you can carry from one end of the yard to another and back again, that will really make an impression!

You may even have to pull out the really big guns. Ask your friends to round up a pair of pantyhose and then bury them in between some couch cushions on the side of the couch where your mom usually sits. When your mom finds the pantyhose, she will certainly ask you about them. That’s when you utter the words that have rallied oppressed and exploited workers around the world and throughout history:

Dad has been shtupping the babysitter!

I know that’s a mouthful, Kid, so sound it out: shhh…toopping…the babysitter.

Now, your dad is going to be very angry and issue a lot of denials. Do NOT worry about this. Angry denials are normal in tough labor campaigns. When you and your dad are alone, let him know that you will correct your mom’s misunderstanding as soon as he consents to twenty bucks a bag and a five-year contract. (Yes, your price has gone up. That’s called fluid negotiation.) Once he agrees, then you must inform your mother that you thought shtupping meant tipping. Also, you should ask if she has seen the pantyhose you bought for your next drag show recital. That should be enough to change the subject and get your dad out of the dog house.

In the end, Kid, if your dad is not in jail or divorced, he will respect you for sticking up for yourself and your fellow workers in the rough-and-tumble marketplace. Write back and let me know how it goes.

Happy raking! Yours, Tink.


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