Alex Engel turns 16 on Monday and instead of cruising around town in the new Toyota Camry or Avalon he covets, he'll be bumming rides just like he always does.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. The Arlington teen began this summer with the hope of making enough money mowing neighborhood lawns to afford his own car by his monumental birthday or, at the very least, shortly thereafter.
But then the rain stopped and as the grass withered and died, so too did Engel's dream of a new car.
"I don't have nearly enough money to buy the type [of car] I want," said Engel, who was planning to add his summer's earnings to proceeds from the sale of stock he owns to buy a new car. He has downshifted his choice considerably after netting only about $500 for the season. "Even if I want an old, used car, I'll still need to work."
So now the Washington-Lee sophomore is "trying to get a job at Friendly's or some other fast-food joint," while holding out the hope that raking leaves and shoveling snow will prove more fruitful.
"I probably won't be able to get a car until I'm 17," he lamented.
Mowing lawns, like working at fast-food restaurants or the mall, is a time-honored teen occupation. Young people are drawn to it because they can work outdoors near home and, for the most part, set their own schedules.
But there is another lure: Unlike minimum-wage restaurant or retail jobs, lawn mowing can be extremely lucrative.
A standard suburban yard, which takes about an hour to mow, nets anywhere from $15 to $25. In an ideal summer, an energetic teen can make up to $10,000 cutting lawns--money that can go toward new cars or even college expenses. A few do so well that they turn their backyard businesses into bona-fide landscaping companies.
Hiring teens also is a good deal for homeowners. Professional lawn care firms generally charge $35 to $50 for mowing the same lawn an adolescent can do for half that price.
The catch for teens is that the earning season is limited, and if it doesn't rain for long stretches there may be no earning period at all.
That was the case in the Washington area this summer, and most teens who mowed lawns are heading back to school with empty pockets. Weeks of searing temperatures combined with scant rainfall left most yards simply struggling to stay alive, much less in need of a trimming. The few people who watered their grass generated what little lawn mowing business existed.
The recent rainstorms, which have brought many lawns back to life, aren't much help for teens because the weather coincides with their return to school.
Delonte Wright, 16, had hoped to make lots of money by mowing dozens of lawns in his Burke neighborhood this summer. Wright advertised his services by dropping business cards around his neighborhood with his name, number, a lawn mower and the outline of a plush, green lawn. But few yards bore much resemblance to his cards, and only a handful of people called him.
Wright, who will be a freshman at Lake Braddock High School this fall, uses what little money he made to buy "school supplies and things I crave, like McDonald's and soft drinks."
Wright also hoped to put some money in the bank to help pay for college--which could carry a steep price tag if he gets into his first choice, Yale. But the drought altered that money-saving plan. Still, Wright plans to give lawn mowing a try again next summer.
And if there's another drought?
"I'll just go beyond my area," Wright said. "I'll find more lawns to do."
Or more jobs to do. During the drought, many teens adjusted their services and made extra money watering lawns, trimming shrubs, pulling weeds and doing whatever other landscaping work neighbors requested. But few preferred pulling weeds to mowing lawns, and the work--usually for minimum wages--was far less lucrative, they said.
Seasoned mower Eric Lerch, 22, has been cutting grass for 10 years and says the summer of '99 was the worst he's seen. "This year was the hottest," said Lerch, who lives in Annandale.
Lerch is a part-time student at George Mason University, part-time lawn mower and full-time computer programmer. Despite his full-time job, Lerch says, he mows lawns because the money permits him to save more for school and go out with friends.
Lerch estimates that he's made $1,000 less than in other years.
"In the beginning of the summer, it wasn't that bad," Lerch said. "I'd mow each lawn about every 10 days. Now . . . some lawns I haven't mowed in the last month. I haven't mowed my own lawn in the last month and a half.
"There's pretty much not much to do," Lerch said.
CAPTION: Alex Engel, 15, planned to buy a new car with his summer earnings from mowing lawns. "I don't have nearly enough money to buy the type . . . I want," he says. "Even if I want an old, used car, I'll still need to work."