I tried to buy happiness for the very first time because I am a problem solver.
I was eight. It was 4th of July week and the county fair was in town. My parents, certain I would meet up with friends when I got there, dropped me off at the fair gates alone with twenty dollars in my pocket and a set time they would return to pick me up.
Number of friends found: none.
There were no cell phones, no internet. I could feed a pay phone and ask my parents to come back and get me. If they were home. The fairgrounds were hot and dusty, but I wasn't ready to leave. Not right away. Besides, I had this underlying buzz telling me I had done something wrong. A weird damned if you do, damned if you don't, anxiety. Here I was, by myself, at the Calistoga Fair with $20 in my pocket. I didn't think my parents would approve. Yet, my parents had put me in this position.
After one pass, I kept my distance from the midway. The barking carny's creeped me out. I decided to position myself where I could keep an eye on the main gate, but where I could sit out of the way, attracting as little attention as possible.
I waited at least an hour before I saw someone approximately my height walk through the turnstiles.
I knew her, but she wasn't a friend. In fact, she had called me names. Recently. I'd fallen off what we used to call "the monkey bars" right onto my face. "She" had called me "skinned nose" for at least a week. Not exactly a profanity, but I was eight. I didn't like it. I wasn't a big fan of "her" either.
I sat there, undecided, when our eyes met and she walked over to me.
How bad could it be? Carnival rides were still fun, I rationalized, even if you weren't thrilled with your riding partner.
"She" was not carrying a twenty in her pocket. According to her, she had no money at all. Nothing more than what it took to get in. We walked the fairgrounds together. The carny's were a little less creepy now that I wasn't alone, but I was having only marginally more fun that I had been earlier. As we walked, my mind thought it out.
Call home? Now that I had stayed there an hour by myself and would be choosing to leave just when another kid showed up, I felt hesitant about explaining myself to my parents.
It was then I had my brilliant idea. Twenty dollars was a lot of money in those days especially when you are only eight and what you are buying is carnival rides.
"We could ride the Zipper."
"I told you, I don't have any money."
"I could pay."
A ride on the Zipper and the Tilt-a-Whirl later, she wanted a soda. I couldn't see how I could refuse, but now that my twenty was broken into smaller bills, I felt the anxiety of knowing when it was gone, it would be gone. Like any new husband whose wife just spent a large portion of his paycheck, I was worried what she might ask for next. Or if she had friends show up and I ended up paying for everybody.
"I've got to go now. I have to meet my parents soon. They're picking me up."
She shrugged. "Ok. See you."
Truthfully I still had the better part of an hour before they would arrive. As I approached the gate, I glanced back to see if she was following me. She wasn't. No thank you and she didn't bother walking me out. The whole thing made me feel kind of dirty. Really. Whenever I would think of that day, I'd feel oddly guilty, like I had done something wrong.
I was eight and everything was measured by whether or not it would get me into trouble. Once it was over, I really couldn't see how any of it could get me into trouble. It was only years later when my father told a joke about a boy who was so ugly he had to tie a pork chop around his neck to get his dog to play with him, that I realized.
I had tried to buy a friend, at least for the afternoon. It was my first lesson on the hollow emptiness that accompanies trying to buy what can never really be purchased.