The Million Dollars I Won and Ate: A True Story
I’ve never wanted to do anything but make art. Writing, drawing, sculpting, making up songs – it’s all art to me, and it’s the only thing in my entire life that I’ve ever really wanted to do. Naturally, when I went off to college my parents begged me to get something other than an art degree.
“Fine,” they said, “Fine if you want to make art, but get a double major, something to fall back on in case your art career doesn’t work out.” Of course, my twenty-three year old higher reasoning prevailed, and I left college with a wonderful BFA with an emphasis in sculpture.
But, it turns out that Mom and Dad were right; there weren’t a lot of job out in the world for sculptors. So by the time I was twenty-five they urged, “Go back to college. Get a teaching degree. You can make art in your spare time, but at least you can have a job that pays some decent money.”
Money or not, I didn’t want to make anything but art. Certainly I did not want some job where I might find myself comfortable and end up rationalizing that art could be a hobby. No. No comfort. No good job. At twenty-five I wa clear: in the word arena I wanted to be miserable. And miserable I was.
For the next ten years my work days began at 4:00 a.m.; that’s the hour I started to deliver newspapers. I was punctual and a real newspaper-gal-go-getter. I climbed right up the career ladder of newspaper delivery. First I delivered the local paper, and then went on to deliver the more lucrative New York Times until finally I got a job delivering the luxurious five-day a weekWall Street Journal.
By 8:00 a.m. I was at my second job at the Dairy Mart. There I sold cigarettes, potato chips, an occasional gallon of milk and oodles of lottery tickets. My Dairy Mart shift ended at 4:0p.m., which left me just enough time to grab a quick nap before my third job of the day. I taught adult education sculpture classes four nights a week. Fortunately, I only taught during the week, which left my weekend evenings free to deliver pizzas!
For ten minutes here or an hour there I made art. Unfortunately, building sculpture was expensive, so I took to drawing cartoons. Before long I was peddling my first cartoon strip all over Kentucky, without much success. I pitched ten newspaper editors before I sold my first strip. Nevertheless, for years my tenacity did not wane and each morning I would be up delivering papers, fantasizing about the day I would open hundreds of newspapers and see my work. That dream kept me warm, outside at 4:00 a.m. in the middle of torrential rains or snow storms.
For many years I never slept more than four hours a night,. By the time I turned 30, I was beginning to see that perhaps my parents had a point after all; the romance of being a struggling artist was wearing thin. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, still poor, with no hope that anything would ever improve.
In the middle of this misery, rushing from one job to the next, I stopped off at a grocery store to buy something to eat. I only had fifty cents. So I bought a bag of peanut M&M’s – more nutrition with the peanuts, I thought, and these will stave off my hunger until I can get home and make a sandwich.
On the drive I was hungry and the candy was good, until I came to a gray one. How strange. I wondered what was wrong with that M&M? Was it moldy? Maybe I shouldn’t eat it? But my tummy rumbled and after a minute of gambling on possible food poisoning, I took a chance and popped that candy in my mouth just as I turned into the parking lot to go teach.
The weekend came and we had a beautiful Saturday afternoon. I was off from Dairy Mart and I didn’t have to start delivering pizza until 5:00p.m. In a rare move I decided to clean out my jalopy of a car and give it a wash. I pulled an entire twenty gallon bag of trash out of my clunker; old newspapers, fast food containers, candy wrappers, used teaching supplies, plastic newspaper bags, an old hairbrush, wet socks.
That evening I went to deliver pizzas with a delighted sense of well-being since my car was clean for the first time in nearly a year. All was well. Perhaps, I was on the right track after all?
* * * * * * * * * *
Spring in Kentucky is dependably unpredictable, and bitter cold days soon returned. I remember it was a Tuesday night, and I was snuggled in bed, just getting ready to drop off, when the television perked my ears. An announcer said that one of the mystery M&M’s had been found and that a million dollars was going to be handed out that night on The Tonight Show!
I watched intently as Johnny Carson asked a delighted couple, “How did you know it was the winner?” Giddy, they replied, “Well, when we saw the gray color we suspected it might be a winner. But, just to be sure we opened up the bag all the way and on the inside it said that we had won!"
“WHAT?!” I sat up in bed and screamed. Barefoot and pajama-clad I rushed outside to my car praying that perhaps I had missed that one bag when I cleaned out my car, that maybe I still had it.
No. No bag. No M&M’s. No million dollars.
Honestly, I don’t recall crying about it, although I certainly regretted not getting my million. The next workday came three hours later, and at 4:00 a.m. I was off to deliver newspapers.
Slowly I began to be heartened by the mishap. It finally occurred to me that there is always a chance that other surprisingly good things might come my way, but I needed to believe in the chance of good things – that way I could recognize them when they happened.
Truthfully, that little lesson has bought me more opportunities in life than a million
dollars ever could.