Requiem for the Yard Boy

Back when I was growing up, cutting yards was the easiest – and surest – way to make a few bucks. During the warm months from April until October, lining up a few yards was like shooting fish in a barrel. There were always plenty of people, most of them elderly, who would rather stay in their air-conditioning and let someone else manicure the lawn.

At $5 to $10 a piece, depending on the size of the yard and what extra work it required, making $20 took about two or three hours. And back in the ’80s, $20 a week was pretty substantial spend money, considering Cokes and ice cream cones were about fifty cents, and candy bars were less than that. You could buy yourself a new bicycle in a few weeks, if you saved your money.

To contrast that with a minimum-wage job – at $4.25 an hour before taxes – it’d take six to eight hours of that kind of work to make the same money. Beyond that, some job at a fast food joint or grocery store required a uniform, a work schedule, a nagging boss, and a work permit. Cutting grass required a lawn mower, daylight, and a little free time— all us boys had those things.

But I don’t know what happened . . .

Now, yard work is all done by grown men who pile out of a four-door pickup, unload big machines from a trailer, and zoom around the yard in a spasm of engine noise. One guy – usually the fat one in the bunch – mounts the small tractor, while a couple of other sunburned twenty-somethings in mirrored wraparound sunglasses commence to edging and weed-eating, before the last one blows the clippings into the street. And then they’re off in the truck – I guess, to the next yard – while us, the neighbors, are left choking on their dust and gas fumes. It’s like all the unemployed NASCAR pit crews got together and bullied the teenage boys out of the yard work business.

And goddam at what they charge! I know people who pay their “yard service” $50 to $100 a week. But heck, these crews probably have to charge that much to gas up a Ford Super Duty, a lawn tractor, weed eaters, a blower and Lord knows what else . . . and pay three or four guys a decent wage! No wonder gas prices are so high in the summer.

And these lawn services are one more example of how Southern manners are thing of the past. Back when we did yard work for people, we’d knock on the door to make sure it was an OK time to cut the grass, before we started. We didn’t want to interrupt anyone’s nap or interfere with company coming over. And when we were done, we knocked on the door again to get our pay, face-to-face. These guys now just level some gas-powered shock-and-awe on anything green and leave an invoice on the doorstep.

Among the Southern traditions that have been lost in the last two or three decades, the disappearance of summer yard work for spend money is lamentable. A boy that’s too young to drive doesn’t need much mad money. Even now, movie tickets are ten bucks and albums on iTunes are just a little more. I wish these truckloads of raccoon-eyed good ‘ol boys would confine themselves to the green spaces of office parks and shopping malls, and let the Southern suburbanites and retirees go back to shelling out a ten-spot to a neighborhood kid who walked up the street with his dad’s lawnmower.

Speaking of them, where have all the Southern dads gone? They seem to be missing in this equation too. The fathers of these pasty millenials need to march them up and down the block, like our dads did, standing back at the curb while the boy asks at every front door for a bit of summer work. Dads, if your lazy, pudgy offspring is driving up your data plan, running up your power bill, and begging all your cash, this is just the thing to get him some sun, get him some exercise, and earn him some money. My dad would never have tolerated a listless series of air-conditioned days that consisted of couch-sitting, video-gaming, and texting.

Maybe I’m peculiar, but this issue makes me certain that the world is out of balance. When I see Southern boys with pallid skin in the summer and yard work being done by small militias of gas-guzzling goons . . . something is just not right.


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