It was the best idea ever. Bigger and Better. It had legs. Bigger and Better was a game. A mash-up between a scavenger hunt and trick-or- treating. You’d start with a small object and go door-to-door to see if anybody would trade something bigger or better for it. When you made a trade you’d go to another door and see if you could trade your new object for something bigger and better. Eventually, with enough hard work, you could end up with something much bigger and better than you started with.
For example, you could start with a spoon. You’d take that spoon to the neighbor’s house, and maybe they’d offer you a boot. You could then take the boot to the next neighbor and they’d say, “Hey! I could use a boot, I accidentally threw one of mine out the passenger window onto the shoulder of the freeway last week. I have an old microwave. Would you like to trade that boot for a microwave?”
At this point you’d nod yes, take the microwave and run as fast as possible to find your friends and show off your new microwave. You’d have a great story about how you got your microwave and from that moment on stare at every solitary boot on the side of a freeway and wonder if that was the boot. Then a few weeks later your mom would come into your room and say, “Hey, I can’t find my antique spoon. Have you seen it anywhere?” At this point you’d shake your head no and she’d say, “And do you know anything about that smelly old microwave in the garage?”
Bigger and Better was awesome.
I grew up in Port Moody, a suburb east of Vancouver, Canada. Friends at high school told tales of amazing Bigger and Better adventures. One group started with a penny and traded up to a couch in just one afternoon. Another group started with a clothespin and worked their way up to a fridge in an evening. Rumor had it that in the next suburb over, some kids started early in the morning with a toothpick and traded all the way up to a car before the day was over. A car. Of course nobody had proof that any of these things actually happened, but it didn’t matter. Suburban legend or not, it was possible. Anything was possible. And we were all about making anything possible.
We were sixteen. We’d just passed our road tests. The driver’s licenses were just itching to be used. There was only one thing on our mind: cars. We wanted to be Marty McFly. We wanted to park our freshly waxed black 1985 Toyota pickup on an angle in the garage and turn the front wheels to enhance its sportiness. We wanted to take Jennifer up to the lake for the big party on the weekend. Yeah, where we were going, we wouldn’t need roads. So much was possible. Our children could one day meet a middle-aged DeLorean-driving mad scientist who would invent the flux capacitor and accidentally get sent back in time to right all the wrong choices we’d made in our lives so we could then realize our dream of being science fiction writers.
It was possible.
But we were sixteen. And never read science fiction books. Or even remotely considered the idea of being writers.
We looked at each other and nodded. That night was the night. It was going to happen. We were going to do it. We were going to play Bigger and Better until we got cars. Tonight. All we needed was a toothpick. We couldn’t find a toothpick, so we “found” the next best thing: a Christmas tree from the local Christmas tree lot.
We picked up the Christmas tree and carried it over to the first house that still had its lights on. We knocked on the door. We heard footsteps. We looked at one another. We were so getting cars. A shadow approached the door and reached for the handle. Cars by the end of the night. The door opened. A man stepped into the door frame, looked at us with the Christmas tree in our hands, made a slight face, and said, “Yes?” We quickly explained how we were playing Bigger and Better, told him our plan to trade up to a car by the end of night, and waited in full expectation. All he had to do was trade us something. Anything. He looked at the Christmas tree, laughed slightly, and said, “Sorry, guys, I’d love to help you out, but I don’t have a use for a second Christmas tree.” He stretched his arm toward the front room, and pointed at the most over-elaborately decorated Christmas tree of all time. It shone bright white. It was like heaven, in Christmas tree form. We looked back our meager little tree, hung our heads low, and watched the car in our minds go poof. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and said, “Maybe try next door? Good luck!”
We walked off and looked at the tree. It was too late at night to play Bigger and Better. We’d try next door tomorrow. Yeah, tomorrow had next door written all over it. Tomorrow had “car” written all over it.
But we never played Bigger and Better tomorrow.
We quit because Bigger and Better wasn’t as easy as we expected it to be. That was ten years ago. Ten years had passed since that night we’d played Bigger and Better. So many things had happened since then. I’d finished school, traveled, met new people, worked all over the world, and experienced so many things. I even shook Al Roker’s hand. In all those years I never finished that game of Bigger and Better. But it was still the best idea ever.
I looked out into the distance and imagined the possibilities. A car from a toothpick. It was possible. But how would I trade a toothpick for a car nowadays? I made a confident face, and looked even further into the distance, as though it would help. It might have made for an amazing inspiration-seeking moment in a movie, except the distance wasn’t a setting sun smoldering over the remains of a freshly annihilated evil alien civilization or a windswept seashore with waves and unsurpassed vistas. The distance was a brick wall five feet from my head. A brick wall that held up one side of the small one- bedroom apartment in Montreal my girlfriend Dominique and I rented.
I’d moved to Montreal with Dom the previous summer after she got a job as a flight attendant with an airline that had since gone bankrupt. She’d found a job at a hospital as a dietician soon after that. We’d been together for three years. While I looked into the distance and reminisced about juvenile adventures of yore, Dom was at work. Dom had a job. I was “between jobs.” I’d been “between jobs” for almost a year now, bridging the gap from time to time by working at trade shows promoting products for friends.
But those trade shows were few and far between.
I was just some guy. What was I thinking? I’d just stared at a brick wall for the better part of an hour. I’d nearly wasted an entire afternoon. I remembered the job at hand. My résumé. My cover letter. My future. That whole get-a-job thing.
Rent was due soon, and I couldn’t sponge off Dom for another month. I’d sponged for a few months. It had to stop. It was my turn to provide. I looked at the résumé on my computer screen.
Motivational words from my high school business education teacher rang out in my mind. She’d say, “You need to sell yourself to a potential employer. You need to showcase your skills.” She’d then pull out an overhead projector slide and show us how to implement the five secrets of the perfect résumé. And boy did those five secrets work! We all had jobs at fast food joints in less than a week. When you’re sixteen, a bagful of “free” burgers pretty much guaranteed you were on easy street. Living at home makes everything so much simpler.
Dom was about to cut me off if I didn’t get my act together. I had to figure something out. Fast. I asked myself a simple question: “Did I really want to implement the five secrets of the perfect résumé or did I want to do something else?”
Something else sounds pretty good right now!
I didn’t want to sell myself to anyone. I just wanted to do things. I wanted to explore. I wanted to play. I wanted to be.
But things were different now. I wasn’t some punk kid who “borrowed” Christmas trees and lived with his parents. I was an unemployed twenty-five-year-old guy lucky enough to have a girlfriend who helped cover my portion of the rent while I was “between jobs.”
I was sick of sponging off others. I was sick of being “between jobs.” I was tired of quotation mark–accompanied euphemisms for being unemployed. There was really only one thing I wanted to do. I wanted to provide. I wanted to put food on the table. I wanted to break the cycle we were in. We worked hard for our money, then shoveled it directly into the landlord’s pocket. Well, Dom worked hard for our money, but I definitely helped shovel it into the landlord’s pocket. Sure, paying rent’s not all bad. There’s something to be said for being able to covertly pack up all your stuff in the middle of the night, then fly away to another country on a moment’s notice. Don’t get me wrong, landlords are often pleasant, trustworthy folk. I just didn’t want anything to do with them. A place where you pay rent is just somewhere you haven’t moved out of yet. But with enough time, care, and effort, a place of your own can become a home.
I wanted to come home at the end of the day, hang my top hat on the hat stand by the doorway, look up at the roof above my head, and smile with satisfaction that I owned that roof. A roof of our own. We could do anything under that roof. If we wanted to knock down a wall, then that’s exactly what we could do. Nobody could say otherwise.
If I started small, thought big, and had fun, it could all happen.
It was possible.
For it to be possible, I had to start. I had to do more than the first time I’d tried to play Bigger and Better. The time I’d never even made a single trade. Bigger and Better had just stared back at me for the last decade. Laughing at me. Cackling even. I thought about it again. It would take a few weeks to get a job, but I could walk outside and make Bigger and Better happen now. I made up my mind then and there. Now was the time. Not only would I play Bigger and Better, I would play it well. I would become the greatest Bigger and Better player the world had ever seen, bar none. Or I had just come up with the most elaborate way to procrastinate getting a job. Ever. Either way, I had to give it a shot. I squinted and lowered my head slightly. The résumé and cover letter could wait. I had a score to settle with Bigger and Better.
If I was going to make it happen, I needed an object to start with. Something less Christmas tree–ish than a Christmas tree. And something not blatantly stolen.
I looked down at the desk. It was a mess. Things strewn everywhere. A pen. A roll of tape. Way too many cables. A stapler. Computer speakers. My résumé and cover letter. An unmailed letter. A postcard. A banana peel. A framed picture of an eagle in flight. Various cereal bowls in various stages of not being washed. I looked back at the draft copy of my résumé and cover letter. Two sheets of paper. Two sheets of paper held together by a red paperclip.
One red paperclip.
I unclipped the red paperclip from the papers and held it up to my eye.
It was perfect.
This was it.
All I had to do was go outside and trade with somebody. Surely somebody would have something bigger and better than one red paperclip. I was going to do it. Bigger and Better was going to get served.
I put the red paperclip on the desk and took a picture of it. I walked to the door and pulled the handle. The door swung open. I lifted my right foot into the air. As my right foot came forward to the threshold of the doorframe, the phone rang. My foot hung in the air, just short of the outside hallway. The phone rang again. I spun around slowly, almost in slow motion. I slowly slunk away from the door and lifted the phone from the receiver.
“Hello?” I said.
It was Dom.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“Not much,” I said.
“Did you finish your résumé?” she asked.
“Not yet. I’m just taking a break.”
“Right. A break. How long have you been working on that thing?”
I felt guilty. Dom was so good to me. She could’ve kicked me out into the street. Heck, I would’ve kicked me out into the street. I owed her. We chatted awhile and made plans for dinner.
I walked back to the computer and shoved the red paperclip in my wallet. What was I thinking anyhow? Bigger and Better? Settling scores? With a kid’s game? I shook my head and turned on my computer. Maybe I’d play Bigger and Better another day. After I had a job, enough money to cover the rent, and a day off. Then I could play Bigger and Better.
The computer monitor came to life and I got back to my résumé. Over the next three days I hammered out a respectable enough one and halfheartedly emailed it in response to a few job postings on some websites. I also took a picture of the red paperclip and emailed it to myself, as a reminder of something fun I could do once I had a job, and a day off.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from One Red Paperclip by Kyle MacDonald. Copyright © 2007 by Kyle MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of Crown Archetype, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.