A Memoir by Dorian Burden
The first money I ever earned was for delivering liquor when I was about eleven years old. Mom had phoned down for a delivery of her favorite Scotch from the store which was just an elevator ride and a few steps away from our New York City apartment building. Sam, the store owner, said he didn’t have anyone to deliver it that night. But my mother said that I could come down and pick it up. I was often the one dispatched to get our milk, bread, the newspaper and her cigarettes. When I was very little, she’d send me with the empty flattened package of Camel’s to show the counter person. She didn’t want me bringing back the kind with filters—otherwise she’d have to tear them off the cigarettes. I often took my time on these errands—stretching them out as long as possible, chatting to the neighbors or the doorman or talking with friends from school. Mom never let me just go out to play. She said kids hanging out outside were just hooligans with nothing better to do.
This was the first time I was picking up her Scotch. I didn’t like it when she drank. She talked funny and her eyes got all smudgy, but I was glad to be getting out of the apartment. I had dashed out without a jacket, but it was a warm fall evening. I wore the clothing I’d gone to school in that day, a long sleeve shirt with multi-colored polka dots and some jeans. It was dusk and the neon light of the Domino Sugar logo on the factory across the river was already lit. The apartment complex we lived in was between the East River and the FDR Drive, the highway that ran along the east side of Manhattan. We were cloistered away from the regular streets of the city and the traffic. There were four buildings, each of them towering more than 30 stories high over a large plaza with several shops. The liquor store was one of them.
When I got to the shop, Sam was just hanging up the phone. My mom had told him I could help with any other deliveries that night. I collected the bottle of Scotch, brought it to my mother upstairs, then dashed right back down to Sam who gave me another brown paper bag with a bottle in it to deliver to someone else.
A petite woman with short curly hair opened the door. She seemed a little older than my mother.
“Oh!” she said, raising her eyebrows when she saw me, then fumbled in her purse for money. She counted out the dollars to me carefully, as if I knew how much she was supposed to pay. Sam hadn’t said. Then she dug further for some change to give me and put two dimes in my hand.
“That’s for you,” she said.
I smiled and said thank you as she shut the door. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would give me a tip. I folded the bills and put them into the pocket on the front of my shirt and put the two dimes in my jeans pocket and pranced off to get to the elevator downstairs. At the next apartment I waited for what seemed a long time while a couple worked together trying to count out the money. They kept making mistakes and having to start all over because they couldn’t stop giggling. I thought maybe they started drinking before I even got there with the delivery.
For a couple of hours that evening I darted back and forth between the different buildings and the liquor store going up and down in the elevators, telling the doormen, importantly, that I was making a delivery for Sam, and they would wave me in. I was given quarters and dimes, and one person even gave me a dollar.
When I rang the bell for last of the evening’s deliveries, a man with gray scruffy hair and dark-rimmed glasses opened the door.
“What’s this?” he asked. He was either confused or mad. Maybe both.
“Your delivery,” I answered holding the bag containing two bottles out in front of me, pretending not to notice how annoyed he sounded.
“It’s almost 9 pm,” he said nodding his head. “Shouldn’t you be in bed by now?”
“Well, this is the last delivery I’m doing,” I said with a giant smile, but my face was already reddening.
He took the bag from me and closed the door without giving me a tip. I didn’t understand why he was so mad at me. He was the one who ordered the liquor.
I went home with the change jingling in my pocket. When I got in I heard mom on the phone. She already had the funny accent that made her sound like an actress from an old black and white movie. I snuck into my room glad she was talking to someone else. She could get pretty weepy and slobbery when she drank. Before getting into bed, I put the tips into the large pink piggy bank that sat on my windowsill.
I helped Sam out a few weeks later when he asked, and I continued to help occasionally whenever he was in a pinch. Anything to get out of the apartment.
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Dorian Burden was raised in New York City, her earliest years spent in the scrappy, immigrant neighborhood of the Lower East Side. She attended Hunter College where she studied English and began a career in magazine publishing, working at such publications as Working Woman and Psychology Today. She later became a New York City School Teacher. She is currently a middle school English and history teacher in the Hudson Valley. She has had essays published in The Huffington Post and Human Parts. She maintains a curated series of her essays at medium.com/@dorianburden.