Adventures in Babysitting

A crash course in adulthood—at 50 cents an hour

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I was a young Citizen Kane: a real Type A, junior entrepreneur kind of kid. I sold Christmas cards door to door; watered lawns and took care of pets for vacationing neighbors; created and supervised birthday parties from the games to the cake; I cleaned houses and collected bottles that I returned to the local liquor store for five cents each: all this as I awaited my 12th birthday when I would be allowed to babysit. Then I'd be making the big bucks.

Babysitting was a cash cow for teenagers in the '60s and 12 was the golden age of responsibility. Too young for a car and other big-ticket items, I didn't know exactly what I was saving for, but what can I say? I loved money. I kept my coins in a smoky textured glass piggy bank to be converted to bills when it was full and deposited into my savings account. I loved counting the quarters and fifty-cent pieces, heavy like treasure in my hands. And I loved watching my bank balance grow in my brown leather deposit book, stamped and dated by the teller at our local Bank of America.

Finally, my 12th birthday rolled up and my babysitting career began. Soon I was working four nights a week. It was easy. The kids were usually in bed and asleep when I got there. I did my homework, watched a little TV and read. At 50 cents an hour, I took home about $3 on Friday and Saturday nights—only $23 today, but a fortune to me then.

The people I sat for seemed ancient, but most of them were in their 20s—and, boy, did they love to party. This was the Swinging Sixties, baby. The women in their false eyelashes and frosted lipstick, miniskirts and boots, looked like exotic mythical creatures. I'd watch as they gathered their bags and scarves with long pink nails and ringed fingers that caught the light and sent sparkles bouncing off the ceiling and walls.

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Most of my clients were single women and when they weren't single, they acted like they were. Like Sharon: beautiful, her dark hair piled on top of her head like Cleopatra. Sharon had two little boys. Her husband, Bill, was a bartender who worked until 2 A.M. every night. Sharon would leave the house alone and come back around midnight with a new friend in tow.

"How were the kids? This is my friend John."

Or Carl, or Kevin, or Dan, or Mark. These guys would say hi to me, their eyes averted, their faces red. But I took her word for it.

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What did I know? I was just a kid. But not for much longer.

Sharon had a bookcase full of sexy potboilers—"The Story of O" and "Valley of the Dolls." I'd skim through them then call my girlfriends with page numbers of the juicy parts. We'd read them together and giggle, our budding adolescent bodies tingling with hormones.

Kathy, a pale woman with freckles, was putting her husband Dennis through USC dental school. Kathy's eyes were always red. Allergies, she said. Finished with my book and bored to death one night, I snooped around in her bedside table and found a letter from a woman who'd fucked her husband Dennis and wrote about it in great detail—five pages on thin blue paper. Scared and thrilled, I read that letter like I was going through Kathy's lingerie drawer. I may as well have been.

Marie was a sweet, gentle woman with a sweet, gentle 5-year-old boy. Marie was clumsy. When I appeared at her little house on Saturday nights, a new bruise bloomed on her cheek or a new cluster of bruises formed a pattern on her upper arm. She'd walked into a door or fallen down the stairs. Marie's husband, a pilot for PSA, was gone a lot. Marie met her girlfriends at local bars and never brought male friends home, yet her husband would call me from San Francisco or Seattle or Portland and ask me where she was and who she was with.

I grew close to these moms. I watched their children grow up. They would talk to me about life, love and marriage. I was a shoulder to cry on, as inappropriate as it was, and I loved them. Especially Marie.

My mom knew Marie's husband beat her. And when I was 14, my mom sat me down and told me the truth. We took Marie under our wing and, when she found a guy as nice as she was, I watched her son so she could be with him. I practiced lying with my mom and when her husband called and pumped me for information, like a good Girl Scout, I was prepared. I lied my ass off without an ounce of guilt.

Sharon's husband must have found out about her "friends" because a few years later, I heard they'd divorced. Kathy hung in there with Dennis. When their kids were 7 and 9 they moved to Brentwood. Go Kathy. Spend that dentist's loot.

When I was 16, I applied for a job at Jean's West—a hip clothing store that sold bellbottoms in every fabric and color. The application asked for past job experience and I had none—only babysitting, and that was lame. I wrote it down thinking there was no way I'd get the job but the store manager, a woman, hired me.

Sometimes life experience is more important than being able to work a cash register.

Tags: memoirs