Shaking the nickel bush is the act of making money with your own ingenuity, skills, and luck. The phrase comes from Ralph Moody’s excellent book of the same name. Here’s how we’ve shaken the nickel bush.
When I was 12 years old I pulled on my overalls, laced up my boots, and started a lawn-mowing business. I needed (wanted?) a new pair of skis and my parents informed me that I was old enough to help pay for my own gear. Unlike the common stereotype of skiers as upper-middle-class families with money to blow, the only reason we could afford to be on the mountain every weekend was: number one, my dad–the pastor of very small church–helped manage the local ski area on the side, and number two, that ski area is in Lakeview, Oregon, a town of 2,000 people known mainly for being in the middle of nowhere. The closest bigger town is Klamath Falls 97 miles to the west. Needless to say, Warner Canyon Ski Area is affordable compared to well-known resorts in towns that people have actually heard of, especially with an employee discount.
Not only was my parents’ request that I help pay for my own skis designed to teach me some responsibility, but a family of four living on a pastor’s salary (or lack thereof) made my pitching in on recreation non-essentials a necessity. My 4-H leader Phyllis Kerr–a gray-haired old lady with a big heart and a bigger smile–needed someone to mow her lawn and became my first client. She lived about a mile away and after driving me and the family lawnmower to her house a few times, my dad decided to help my independence go a step further.
Together we designed and built a cart to pull behind my bike. We pieced it together from some old bike frames, tires and plywood and finished it with a coat of black paint. It was just big enough to fit a lawnmower, gas can and Weed Eater. That first summer, I mowed Phyllis’ lawn and soon added two more clients from word-of-mouth referrals. At the end of the season, I had enough money to buy new skis and a better mower and Weed Eater.
I kept the business going through the end of high school, eventually settling on mowing between 10 and 15 lawns a week, which gave me plenty of income while leaving me plenty of free time. The lawn mowing also opened up other opportunities with my clients like weeding, pruning, fence repainting, and, in the winter, snow shoveling. To this day, it’s also the most lucrative hourly wage I’ve made (maybe I need to start doing it on the side again). It might sound corny, but it also enriched me by putting me in direct contact with a client base that was well over 60 years old.
There was Cherry Wood (an amazing name if there ever was one) who had the biggest lawn I’ve ever had to mow and a house full of cats. She was slightly crazy with a memory shorter than a grass clipping, which taught me the importance of getting paid right away. There was an old dame who smoked like a chimney–I’ve blocked her name from my memory–who only ever complained, criticized and tried to short me on payment. She taught me the importance of dropping clients who are more of a pain than they’re worth. Then there was Floyd and Mable Lightle.
Floyd and Mable were like another set of grandparents. Every week after I was done working they’d invite me in, give me something cool to drink and sit me down on the old white couch for story time. They were youngsters during Prohibition and the Great Depression and worked their whole lives outside farming, ranching and logging. You could see every trial and smile etched in the wrinkles of their shrunken-apple faces. I’ve never heard more hearty laughter than when Floyd shared the story of the time his mother made a batch of homebrew in Mason jars during Prohibition. She mixed something wrong and the whole batch exploded making the house reek like spilled beer for weeks.
They taught me that work is more than just the physical action, it’s a connection to other people. When you start approaching work from that perspective it makes it a lot more enjoyable. Every day on the job becomes an opportunity to further friendships and connect more to the fabric of humanity. And you get paid to do it.