Shedding Cement Shoes

As a young teenager, I found working to be uniquely exciting. Since I was always drawn to independence, working eventually led to a freedom of choice in the clothes I wanted to wear, the food I wanted to eat, and the things I wanted to buy.

So I went the “typical kid” route and cut lawns. My dad suggested buying a good mower with some of my savings, but I thought it possible to work that expense into my fees.

I approached people with the proposition that I would cut their lawn with their mower and their gas, and instead of charging the typical $10, I would cut the lawn for $8--taking a dollar off each for gas and wear-and-tear on the mower. I found most people agreeable to that, and when it came time to pay, most (not all) would still hand me $10 and say, “Oh, just keep it kid, you do a nice job.”

Instead of dragging a mower around the neighborhood, this idea allowed me to bike from job to job more quickly, creating a much larger customer base. And I never had to pay for repairs. By design, doing the job well earned that $2 bonus more for integrity than anything else.

Fairly soon I had 10 regular customers, and I spaced out the cuttings so I had two a day with weekends off. Once $100 a week was coming in regularly, I became known as a reliable entity. My customers often had other jobs, too, like washing windows, cleaning out garages, and trimming hedges. I seized these opportunities, and before I returned to school in the fall, I had about $3,000 in the bank.

In mid-August, I took $100 of my stash, biked up to the army/navy store, and bought 10 pairs of khaki pants, 10 T-shirts, 10 flannel shirts, a pair of work boots, and a dozen pairs of socks. With the money left over, I took all of the clothing to the dry-cleaners and had them washed and pressed.

Later that month, my dad asked my mom if she needed to buy my sisters and me some school clothes. I interrupted and said, “No--I’m all set.” They just smiled like I didn’t know what I was talking about until I took Mom into my room and opened the closet where the new clothes were neatly hung and all in dry-cleaner plastic to boot.

Looking back, I wish I had captured this army/navy fashion thing which is so big today, but it was 1974, and I didn’t know I had lightning in a bottle. I was just proud to have money in the bank to save my dad a couple bucks. I felt great, independent, strong, and capable.

I was simply becoming who I am now. I’ve never been without a job since that summer.

Bitter Enemy

Later that year during the Christmas break, a friend of my parents said he knew of a pizza place in town that was hiring kids to stock and load supplies. I went over, got the job, and started the next morning.

When I arrived, I met another kid who had been hired (he was 6 or 8 years older) and the full-time guy (about 65), who would be in charge of us. He was an unsmiling, bitter old fellow. He immediately began yelling at us, but the older kid wasn’t afraid of him. He yelled back, cursed at him, and often said, “No” when he was told what to do.

By the end of the first day, the other kid had quit. I wanted the money and thought I could stick it out just by complying with the old guy.

He started picking on me, but then slowly began to see I was hard-working and well-meaning, so he started explaining things to me more slowly and gently.

Over lunch he regaled me with tales of his childhood and family. He had lost his only son in a car accident many years before, and it tore him up so badly his wife divorced him and he lost his job. That’s how he came to be a simple handy man at the pizza joint, living in a one-room rental that belonged to the owner of the shop. The rent came directly out of his check.

When I was out running errands with him once, we stopped at his apartment. It was so pitifully sparse I felt a lump in my throat, as he stared at the floor, almost ashamed. Every bit of color had faded from his life, and he had nothing left in his heart to restore it; his world was simply black and white: I am hungry. I am full. I am awake. I am asleep. His demons simply sat on his shoulders, reminding him to hate everything.

New Friend

Without really knowing why, I began to drop in on him at the apartment, and once brought a box of lamps my mom was going to put in a garage sale. I walked around the place, plugging them in and adding light to dismal corners. He fought me on it, but couldn’t help but notice the immediate improvement.

The next time I went there, he’d bought a couple throw rugs and cleaned the sink and table.

When I turned 16 and was able to have a job with a real paycheck instead of handyman cash, I would drop by and visit him from time to time. He always stopped what he was doing and sat and talked with me.

Shortly after college, I dropped by the pizza place and learned he had had a stroke and was being cared for by a niece in Arizona. I sent a few letters, but they went unanswered.

I wish I could tell you this story ended like a Disney movie. In that version I would have received a note indicating that all the items in the apartment were left to me, including a gold coin worth millions. Or perhaps he had even dictated a note for his niece to send to me.

But none of that happened. After hearing that he had died, I went to the kitchen of the restaurant and dug up the ancient coffee mug he used to carry. I washed it as best I could and took it to college for a pencil cup--I just felt as if it kept me attached to him.

Make A Difference

Bill Cosby used to say, “I told you all that so I could tell you this.”

The story from my childhood illustrates I was already blessed in being an enterprising fellow. My parents reminded me constantly that such abilities were a gift. I began to understand that those who have these “gifts” also have a higher calling to help others and fix what’s broken, “fill in the pot holes,” and make the road smooth again.

A man who had grown bitter in life crossed my path, and something he saw in me lightened his load. In some small way, that inspiration changed his life from that point until his death.

But that experience was as much a gift for me as it was for him. I learned how a small investment in people’s hearts can be the most rewarding and important experience in my life.

Each day we have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, but how often do we miss recognizing that moment?

As professionals in the park and recreation industry, we lead, observe, meet, direct, instruct, and influence many people on a daily basis. Let’s be sure to use that opportunity to its fullest potential, and leave a few footprints in the sand for others to follow. It’s what we were meant to do.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at