Joseph Sax is an American currently living Dubai, UAE, where he works for a political risk consultancy. While Joe’s professional interests revolve around the politics of the Middle East and international affairs, he has long been burdened with an overactive imagination and a juvenile love of make-believe.
The original concept for this story derives from a stint shovelling snow for neighbours in the late aughts.
The White Crag Cartel
In middle school, my parents gave me five dollars a week. I could buy the weekly Aquaman comic, a bag of Skittles, and two Airheads. In the winter, when park benches, cars, and houses became misshapen lumps in the great white snowscape of my hometown, I would trudge home, sit in the kitchen, read through the comic book, and eat the candy. “Give him an allowance,” thought my parents, “but not too much. Teach him the power of money, but also teach him its limits.”
At first, it was thrilling to have money. My parents were no longer the gatekeepers between me and all the comic books and sweets in the world, and the Aquaman-Skittles-Airheads bounty became a staple, but when I started bringing back five comics a day, with a big pile of candy, it was immediately obvious that something had changed. My mother later told me that it was this shift in my buying patterns that tipped her off about my second income. I suppose it didn’t help that I obfuscated the reality of the situation to the best of my thirteen-year-old ability. It must have worried the poor woman sick. “Prices went down,” I told her once, mouth full of Skittles, nose buried in Watchmen. Did she buy it? Was she worried for my safety? Did she assume that her son might be dealing drugs, or worse?
Obviously, I wasn’t dealing drugs. I was up to something more ambitious.
I was thirteen at the time that all this took place, and living in my hometown: White Crag, New Hampshire. The eponymous white crag is Mount Washington, whose internationally renowned poor weather gave our tiny town what little communal prestige we had, but also profoundly shaped the local economy. Whiteout blizzards were a seasonal occurrence. It was understood that the young and fit helped out the old when everyone got snowed in. So it was that, one December, I was conscripted by my loving but unsuspecting parents to shovel the sidewalk and driveway.
Shovels in White Crag occupied the same niche as the family Brown Bess in the pioneering days of yore. It symbolized man’s attempt to keep nature at bay. Something about the pioneer glory of the smoothbore musket was lost in the transition from guns to shovels, but the local shovel vendor’s slogan tried to capture the nostalgia: “when Jack Frost knocks, we knock back.”
Shoveling snow in one of White Crag’s howling blizzards is about as much fun as it sounds, but tricks of the imagination make it more pleasant. All that snow gear is probably the closest any adolescent in New England can get to wearing a suit of chivalric plate armor. The ten or so minutes you spend putting on long johns, pants, then snow pants, then the coat, then the gloves, makes you feel like the squires are getting you suited up for battle. Thick gloves become gauntlets, snow-pants are greaves. This stuff is the bread and butter of the male imagination until they discover alcohol and sports. The lucky ones never do.
It was a lot of snow, but the biting cold made it a fine powder. Every shovelful kicked up a swirl of glittering, razor-sharp flakes that the driving wind blew straight into my face. I was not working without compensation, mind you. My parents were paying me a couple of bucks for my troubles, which could yield an extra comic if I gave up the Airheads. Eventually, I spent so much time thinking about different permutations of comics and candy that I ran out of snow to shovel. As I hefted the shovel over my aching shoulder and began to head home, someone called my name.
“Eric! Eric, young man, come here.”
We lived next door to the Klabers, an elderly couple. Rudolf Klaber, whose personality was every bit as German as his name, was waving to me from his front porch.
I waded through the pristine snow to the porch, where he was waiting in a light fleece and comically oversized gloves. “Listen, Eric,” he said, “we’re just too old to shovel all that snow. How about I give you a dollar and you shovel it for us?”
That was it. That was when I realized that White Crag’s snow was not a curse, it was a bounty. That was when I began to build my empire.
“How about five?” I asked.
Looking back, this was an obviously cheeky move, but old Rudolf Klaber seemed amused. “Five it is. Go get to work.”
Klaber paid me five dollars to shovel the next snowstorm off his driveway, too. It was easy enough to leverage this against my parents the next time they offered two dollars to shovel. “Rudolf Klaber pays me five,” I said. After some protest, so did they.
The next step, of course, was to expand the operation. I landed two more shoveling gigs after Klaber put in a good word at his weekly bridge club. My folks were aware of the Klaber arrangement, but I never told them about the others. This was when they noticed that my expenditures were much higher than what they thought was my income.
Meanwhile, I was reaching capacity. Spending snow days shoveling for old people had great novelty at first, but was exhausting, boring, and solitary. It was with great pain at the thought of dividing my winnings that I brought on Bert Brown, a close friend. He required no maintenance other than half the earnings and some hot chocolate after a day’s work, and did not interfere in the management side of the operation at all (of which I was greedily protective). I didn’t own a computer back then, so I kept simple records on a Microsoft Excel file on the family desktop. It wasn’t sophisticated stuff, just a list of each house I had shoveled, how much they paid, and how many houses I could hit on a particular day.
Neither Bert nor my parents ever saw this file. I put it in a folder labeled “Age of Mythology Saved Games.”
While working with Bert made the jobs easier, the real payoff for having him around came after we snagged his family’s snowblower. Most houses in White Crag had small sheds in the backyard, some serving as literal armories; all my parents put in ours were gardening tools and a modest barbecue grill. Bert’s shed was home to the venerable snowblower his family used every winter. I’m convinced to this day that Bert only ever agreed to join my operation because he couldn’t use his own yard as a springboard for his.
The heist took place on a moonless Friday night, with significant snowfall predicted for the next day. At two o’clock in the morning, I slid out of bed and crept downstairs to the closet, where I hurriedly dressed myself. I had a moment of complete paralyzed panic in front of the bathroom mirror, stuck over the decision of whether I should try to camouflage myself against the black of the woods or the white of the snow.
In the end, it didn’t matter. I wanted to stick to backyards and the treeline to avoid detection, but the knee-high snow made for slow going, and my socks soon became drenched. Fed up, I took the sidewalk most of the way to Bert’s house.
Bert had already opened the shed by then, and had the snowblower sitting in his driveway.
“What now?” he said.
I have to admit, I hadn’t thought this part out. When the big weekend storm was first forecast, I did some highly questionable math and decided that having the snowblower would let us hit three additional houses. I factored the additional revenue into my weekly buying plan, resolved to set some aside in Eric’s Lego TIE-Fighter Fund, and worked out that I would be able to buy one in three weeks’ time.
But I hadn’t thought about what to do with the snowblower between that night and the storm the next day.
In the end, we pushed it all the way back to my house, which was unpleasant. The streets of White Crag at night were poorly-lit, cold, and utterly silent. Bert told me during the walk that he had asked his folks for permission to borrow the snowblower that weekend, which left me relieved, but slightly disappointed. We stashed it in the shed in my backyard, which my parents hadn’t touched since the first big snowfall.
Why such secrecy? Why go to such obsessive lengths to plan as much as possible, then reveal those plans to no one? Even as an older, more mature version of myself, I have no explanation. It just felt so satisfying at the time to bury the complexity of my little empire in secrecy. I can still recall that satisfaction.
The rest of the winter went pretty smoothly. Bert and I dictated prices, which we set at a flat 10 dollars per yard. Old man Klaber always paid 5 bucks, which I suppose was a sort of loyalty reward.
That summer, my parents enrolled me in economics classes at CTY. I should have just spent the summer playing Monopoly. I spent three months drawing graphs and falling behind on Aquaman, and learned nothing. Come the beginning of eighth grade, I was thrilled when the next blizzard season started early, burying White Crag in gossamer snowdrifts. Bert and I hit five houses. Liz Akgun, a neighbor around my age who was in my CTY class, did three with her older brother, James. I panicked when I first heard we had competition. Bert was (and is) made of calmer stuff, and managed to set up talks at the local Dairy Queen. The atmosphere was very cordial, and the Akgun group agreed to set their prices equal to ours.
Thus was born the White Crag Cartel. For one winter, we owned the town, charged what we wanted, and got rich.
You could be forgiven for thinking, from the way I’m telling this story that I hibernated away springs and summers and autumns, and lived only for the planning and scheming and shoveling of White Crag’s near-polar winters. I think of it more the way a dedicated one-season athlete thinks about their sport’s season. That time of year is special. For those few months, everything else steps aside and the athlete becomes a different person. For the rest of the year, one feels bottled up and sluggish, itching to return to top form.
But my secrecy and obsessive monopolization of the planning process was simply not sustainable. I put a piece of myself into the planning and organization of the Cartel, and met at least twice with Klaber to discuss the public relations image he would present at his bridge club. Everyone else was losing interest in shoveling snow and taking instructions.
At the end of that winter, in line to buy tickets at the movie theater with Bert and Liz, I showed them an annotated map of the neighborhood I had made in Microsoft Paint. They exchanged a hesitant glance that at the time I interpreted as a sign of their burgeoning romance (they would go on to be each other’s prom dates in high school), but which I now realize was each one waiting for the other to tell me that they had moved on from the Cartel. Bert was kind enough to tell me that night that he wouldn’t be shoveling the next winter. “Sorry, man,” he said. “I’m pretty into this music thing, and I’ve got this band now, so…”
I hate it when people end sentences with “so.”
In autumn of freshman year, I did some yard work for old man Klaber. White Crag’s trees, in the fall, were stunningly beautiful kaleidoscopes of color for all of about ten minutes. Afterwards, all that beauty and spectacle became a carpet of rotting plant matter that needed to be disposed of.
That September afternoon, I sat on Klaber’s back porch drinking hot apple cider, gazing out at the neat bags of leaves. Raking was no substitute for shoveling. Snow was a renewable resource; a leaf could only fall once.
Klaber brought out a tuna sandwich and set it on a small table next to my chair. He put it down and clapped a hand on my shoulder.
“So what’s the next step for the family business, sport? Corporatizing? Opening an East Asian division? When can I start trading stocks on the market?”
I took a sip of the cider. “I don’t know if I’ll be doing that again this winter, Mr. Klaber.”
Klaber sat down. He sat down in that elderly way, exhaling and gingerly dropping himself into the chair. I could almost hear whining hydraulics and grinding gears as his ancient joints bent.
“So what’s the problem, hmm?”
I told Klaber about Bert’s doubts, but that I still planned to keep the cartel running.
“Sounds like you need to think about why you do all that shoveling, Eric. You’re too smart to do be doing it because you like hauling snow. Is it really just all about the money?”
For whatever reason, at the time, I said yes.
The next year, when the big storms started, nobody showed up to the meeting I called at the DQ. I don’t remember their excuses.
The Cartel ended where it all started: Rudolf Klaber’s front yard. Liz Akgun was traveling with the debate team and Bert Brown had a rehearsal with his prog-rock garage band. The snow was so wet and dense that day that it felt like I was hauling shovelfuls of molasses. After the job was done, Klaber handed me the five-dollar bill like he always did. But this time I somehow didn’t want to take it.
It wasn’t my aching back and arms, or that I didn’t feel the need to work for another Lego TIE-Fighter. I just felt no connection between the work I had done and the money I was being given for it. It was too automatic, too simple.
“Keep it,” I finally said to him.
“What, you’re shoveling for charity now?” he said with a grin. “Take it. You earned it.”
He was right, for the most basic meaning of the word “earn.” I had moved some snow and he was willing to compensate me for it.
But I hadn’t put a piece of myself into earning it. There had been no artistry into the planning of execution of that job, instead of another job. It hadn’t been fun. It hadn’t been brilliant.
It was a guy paying some kid to shovel his yard. That’s all.