* Cashier 8/85 - 9/85
Six Flags AstroWorld (age 20 to 21)
Since the four of us, the Barry brothers and Hayden and I, had all been part of the Six Flags family before at Great Adventure, we knew we could count on getting a job at AstroWorld at the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour. We all wanted more but it got us a toehold to push off from.
I started after the bartending class was finished.
Outfitted in another tacky Merchandise uniform, they sent me to the Oriental section at the far end of the park with cheesy plastic palm leaves and bamboo and music twanging. Oriental Hats was where I worked by myself and had to wear the hats that were displayed and every few days I wore the giant red styrofoam cowboy hat and the oversized florescent green sunglasses so people would point at me and laugh.
The twangs and gongs played over the speakers tortured me incessantly for eight hours a day. Twanging, and like a Chinese water torture, tiny little twang, twang, twang, it was twanging through my head. I caught myself mindlessly whistling to it and knowing what song would be next. Eventually the mind-numbing twanging became music to me.
The search for a bartending job wasn't going anywhere because the oil slump in Houston was severely hurting the bar and restaurant business. In the beginning of October, a Japanese-American guy in one of my classes told me that he was working at Shearson Lehman Brothers/American Express (this was just after the merger) and they needed a couple more people to work with the brokers. What an opportunity this was, and so quickly. Things were happening quickly since hitting Houston.
I called that afternoon and set up an interview for the next morning. Of course I was crisp and shined and on my toes and was hired to start the following Monday. Regrettably, I could not give a courteous two week notice to AstroWorld of my resignation, but I'm pretty sure their business carried on just fine anyway.
* Telephone Solicitor 10/85 - 4/86
Shearson Lehman Bros./American Express (age 21)
The penthouse suite of Shearson Lehman was half of the top floor of One Allen Center, a thirty-five story building of cement and glass with a long escalator up from the revolving doors and connected by a covered walkway to Two Allen Center, where there is more offices and shopping. If you take the stairs down from the ground level, it leads to the tunnel system underneath downtown Houston with more shops and restaurants.
Up in the office, the broker's floor was spacious as you entered into an inverted "V" past the reception desk, with windows from floor to ceiling and glass-paneled offices along the walls for the Sales Manager and the big hitters. If you were a big hitter and got bumped up to an office, you were a big hero. If you slumped and couldn't get your average back up after a few months, you were a big loser and would be thrown back down into The Pit and someone else would ascend to the throne for their reign.
The Pit was where the other stockbrokers sat at large, wooden desks that radiated in lines from the doorway, over which the ticker tape quotes and news went by constantly in green LCD numbers and letters. Behind the stockbrokers, back at the walls, were their Sales Assistants, mostly women who were working on their broker's license so they too could become brokers and trade someone else's wealth and have a Sales Assistant. To the right and down the hall was The Cage, the operations department behind plexiglass where trades were executed in a stressful, cramped area with small fans blowing.
My job was the same as the other ten or so students, mostly Finance from the University of Houston. A few were in my classes. We were given a stack of large green and white printer paper with the names of affluent people so we could do the grunt work of cold-calling for the brokers. The names were of directors, presidents, executives and other wealthy individuals with their daytime office phone numbers.
When the secretary or receptionist picked up the phone, we said with urgency something like, "Hello, I'm placing a call for Mr. Shark of Shearson Lehman Brothers/American Express to Mr. Sharkbait of the Minnow Corporation. Is Mr. Sharkbait available at this time?" When Mr. Sharkbait picked up I would say, "Mr. Sharkbait, please hold for Mr. Shark of Shearson Lehman Brothers/American Express" and then transfer the call with lightning speed to Mr. Shark, who would throw his pitch and try to hook 'em before they hung up.
If Shark picked up another call before I got him one or was tied up, I sent it to another broker nearby. When that broker picked up, I gave the name and quickly explained that Mr. Shark's name was given and hung up so the call would transfer. The brokers usually gave no explanation to their prey why someone with a different name was talking to them and went right into the pitch or sometimes would say something like, "Mr. Sharkbait, hello. My name is Mr. Hammerhead and Mr. Shark was just pulled away to make another one of our clients a fortune, but how fortunate that we found each other today because Texas Air is going up and up and blah blah blah..."
The best broker on the floor was Faust, a man in his early thirties with flyaway blond hair and a bushy mustache and steady sniffle. Faust wasn't interested in piddly players who only did a few trades a year. Somehow or another he sniffed out the big players and bagged them with his brashness and "balls to the wall" attitude.
He was making several six-figures but decided his place was out in The Pit because offices were for pussies who couldn't stomach being down where it was dog-eat-dog. I think he did it so he could be surrounded by his adoring audience. There was no real difference in where you sat. The Pit was not some hole in the ground where gladiators were thrown into mortal combat, but I guess it gave them something to imagine was happening so they didn't realize what really was.
Once or twice a week, Faust came back from the bathroom sniffing and laughing his ass off and clapping his hands, giving high fives and wiping his mustache and getting everybody pumped up. Everybody braced for what would happen, for what they wanted to happen. Faust then reached for his wallet and announced to us students that the first person who connected him with a trade would get a crisp fifty spot as soon as it was executed and he waved it around and let it float to his desk.
We dug into our phones and he lit a Marlboro (they let him) and paced and waited for an incoming, checking stock prices on his Quotron. The other brokers picked up too and dialed and there was a general buzz as everyone got busy. One trading day as it approached the bell, Faust stepped up on his chair while spouting into the phone about the riches to be made in Texas Air but this match was sounding like it could end in a draw. I finally got someone who wasn't in a meeting but Faust was tied up working this one. "Yes, please hold for... Mr. Orca..."
The fish on the other end of Faust's line was probably saying he wanted to think about it, or "Do you have a prospectus on that?" and he was getting redder and his yellow hair lit up. He stepped up onto the desk with the phone to his ear, listened for another moment and then, "Come on now Jeffy, let's go! The train is leaving the station! Whoo whoo!" He listened for a few moments more and then, "All aboard! Last chance for Texas Air! Last chance to be a man on this one Jeffy!"
He listened and was shaking his head yes.
"That's okay, I know. I'm just trying to help you out here Jeff. The train's moving out and we're sitting here talking to each other. You want to chat, I'll get your home number and we'll shoot the shit but in the meantime we're both here to make some money, am I right buddy?"
It was genius. He brought his voice way down and was suddenly a reasonable friend who wanted to give a helping hand, just a buddy who knows the scoop. He was the good cop and the bad cop all by himself.
I was getting kind of chummy with one of the Sales Assistants, a thirty-six year old woman with blond hair who was married. She had been flirting with me and touching me back in the kitchen and we went to lunch a couple of times. There was definitely an attraction between us but I had no intention of following up on it.
Waiting alone one afternoon for the elevator, she brushed slowly behind me and smiled. The doors opened and I followed her, hitting the button for the first floor and when she turned, her intent was clear in that moment as the doors slid closed. Our mouths met with force and she drew me into the dream of us somehow in the office overnight and we're naked with the moonlight streaming through the tall penthouse office windows and we make it like baboons howling in delight, knowing that in the dawn's light after we escape, soon the brokers will be trading at the desks we grunted and sweated hours earlier.
Her hand went south and was now fondling me. Gravity was defied. I looked up and noticed the "3" light go off and we straightened up and tucked in. The "2" lit up as she gave me one last squeeze and licked my ear just before the doors opened. I strategically placed my Wall Street Journal as we parted.
Drexel Burnham Lambert was hiring, the high-flying brokerage firm where Michael Milken the Junk Bond King worked and made more money than the company and I sent my resume and got an interview for a Sales Assistant position. The Veeper there was distracted and it was clear he didn't think me right for the part. Fortunately I didn't get the job and my life wasn't pulled into that web of thieves.
In December of '85 was when the gloves came off in the titanic struggle between Texaco and Houston-based Pennzoil over their dispute about who had the right to buy Getty Oil. Getty and Pennzoil had a deal apparently but Getty broke it off and sold out to Texaco. Of course Pennzoil sued Texaco to regain their claim on Getty and tacked on millions and billions more in claims.
As the trial played out, a few of us from the office went down to the floor in our building where Texaco had their offices. Behind the imposing blond wood exterior with the star of Texaco and the blue uniformed guards with pistols, the big guns of business were preparing for the next volley. The rattles of sabres had turned to the booming of heavy calibers but the war was protracted over the next two years and a surrender agreement was finally reached with Texaco paying $3 billion dollars to Pennzoil. Three b-b-b-billion dollars. Holy cow!
There was to be an explosion the next month that would stun the nation, especially Houston, and we were silenced in shock as we watched it over and over again. It was the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986 and a lot of us probably remember where we were that morning around 11:45 EST when the networks broke into regularly scheduled programming to show us the plume in the sky with two outbursts.
What we began to consider as routine space travel by shuttles came to a fiery jolt seventy-three seconds after ignition launched a seven member crew that included Christa McAuliffe, the high school teacher from New Hampshire who wanted to share her experiences with the children of America. The crew had been touted as having a hero for everyone: black, white, Asian, female, Christian, Jew and Buddhist. If only they could get off the ground.
The launch was delayed several times because of mechanical problems and I got a call before each one from the father of a friend from high school. He was an executive with RCA Satcom and since I was in Houston and he was there to finalize the arrangements for the satellite that was to be deployed, he offered to bring me into Mission Control for the launch dressed in a suit and would say that I was an executive with a cable company. I was excited about this once-in-a-lifetime chance and was disappointed every time it was called off.
On the fateful morning the Challenger took off, I had an exam and couldn't get out of it. They were probably just going to delay it again anyway and I'd just catch it the next time.
When I walked out the door after an hour and a half, there were people in the hall saying that the space shuttle just blew up, it just happened and it's on TV. We ran to the Student Center, around the big screen there was a gathering crowd, and saw as the local news somberly announced the tragedy. Somebody mentioned that one of their professors was the captain's wife, June Scobee, a professor of education at the university.
President Reagan's State of the Union address was postponed that night and the next morning as we arrived on campus, every flag was lowered to half mast and the laughing and talking were gone. It felt like it would have been disrespectful, like joking around at a funeral. Everything nearly came to a standstill.
But life goes on and the article about the tenth anniversary of the disaster in Life's February 1996 issue shows the families and husbands and wives finding new meanings to their lives, a few of them getting involved with the thirty Challenger Centers around the country to promote space science for kids. The pain is not gone though, and neither are their memories.
The memory of Ron McNair, the thirty-six year old physicist aboard the Challenger who was an expert in lasers, held five regional black belt karate championships and played jazz saxophone was highlighted in a concert that fall of 1986 by Jean Michel Jarre in the city of Houston. Famous in Europe but not so in the U.S., Jean Michel Jarre played a grand, synthesized music and several years before had mounted a performance in Lyons, France where the buildings of the city were a canvas that was lit with many colors and beams of light and he was going to do it again with the city of Houston. This time he would have lasers.
The freeways and highways were jammed and my friends and I found a great spot, just in time, in a parking lot facing the huge platforms where the band and the myriad of electronic keyboards and equipment and speakers imposed. Behind them were the buildings on the western edge of downtown, including One Allen Center where I had worked at Shearson. By the time of this concert, I was working as a bartender in a Mexican restaurant and had held two other jobs before that, after leaving Shearson. More about that later.
We were walled in by humanity and vehicles within forty-five minutes as traffic came to a standstill on both sides of I-45, linking Houston north to Dallas. Suddenly, the buildings were colored with washes of light and beams of white and lasers projecting into the sky and circling around. The crowd cheered.
The music was synthesized and pompously mystical with a European 80's techno-beat that sounded foreign from the good 'ol country tunes that were on the local radio. The oppressive Houston heat cooled off and the crowd eased up and settled into the lull of the electronic waves of sound.
After a few songs, Jean Michel Jarre announced that the next song, "Ron's Piece", would be in memory of Ron McNair and the sax solo would be played by a close friend of Ron's. We cheered and there was the sound of tinkling wind chimes and then a slow, insistent heartbeat that would continue throughout.
The sax player was spotlighted on a platform halfway up the tallest building in the city and he began mournfully, sullenly, and the strings came in lightly. The saxophone wailed to the heavens, calling out to the spirit of Ron and the others lost to us in space. The strings were there, weaving in and out, the saxophone blowing out to the farthest reaches of the universe. There was a renewed hope in the swelling. The strings dropped out and the sax diminished as the last breath expired.
The crowd cheered as a picture of Ron McNair in his space suit was beamed on the building above the sax player up on the platform. The crowd cheered and whistled as the next song started and we all started to clap along to the electric piano and accompanying sound effects. Our tragic feelings were raised and we were happy together in music, a simple phrase everyone could bop to and daughters on Daddy's shoulders high in the sky bounced up and down to the beat, the girls waving and giggling. The sax was funny.
Listening to the tape again, I was struck by the realization that the CD's and records and tapes that we own are also recordings of our personal history. The style of music and when it was bought and in what form it's in say something about that period in your life. Those of you with eight tracks or 78's know what I mean. What was your first album? How old were you? Did you buy it or was it given to you? Mine was Santana "Abraxas" when I was six years old in 1970, given to me by my father.
The reason why I left Shearson was because working in a brokerage firm made me realize I didn't want to be a stockbroker anymore. The place to me was losing its luster as the dirt of the business became more apparent. I decided that I'd rather work in a 7-Eleven selling slurpies on the graveyard shift instead.
* Cashier & Stock Person 4/86 - 5/86
7 - Eleven (age 21)
The manager of the store, his name was Russ, really wanted me to become a member of the Southland Corporation family and promised that I would be promoted to Assistant Manager in four to six weeks (the incumbent was on her way out). "Wow, it does sound attractive"... if you want to be a paid slave to the constant hustle of replenishing and selling and replenishing and selling crap in a busy convenience store that never sleeps, and neither do you. The people want it and they sure as hell want it now.
I just wanted twenty or thirty hours a week but was going to have to let this Russ guy court me.
"It is a great opportunity here actually. I had no idea."
"Yes, and we have a very good profit-sharing plan. Everyone's a part of what's going on in the Southland Corporation. Now look at me, I never thought this could be possible but..."
"Yes Russ, yes."
They have quite a thorough indoctrination program that brings you up on the corporate lore and slogans and how everyone depends on the others and works together as a team, blah blah blah. For those who haven't heard this bit of trivia, the name 7 - Eleven comes from when the first store opened, their hours were from seven in the morning to eleven at night, seven to eleven. My shift was eleven to seven when the original owners would have been home, safe and snug in their beds sawing logs.
The door of the store had a measuring tape along it, going up from the bottom of the door to the top and was there in case the store got robbed. When the perpetrators dash out, you can see how tall they are and give an accurate description to the police, if the robbers didn't shoot you. I used it to check out the height of cute girls coming and going and hoped that was the only reason I would need it.
One night just around midnight, my three roommates came into the store with a video recorder just after a high school kid in a cartoonish military uniform walked in. He was lanky with glasses and wore a chestful of medals and a gold braided lanyard. His hat was a couple sizes too big and accentuated a pencil neck. They tracked him with the recorder as he walked back to the cooler, looking both ways and then as he walked up to the counter with two six packs.
I'd been laughing since he walked in, knowing he was going to try and pull off that he's actually in the service.
"Two forms of ID please. A military ID and drivers license would be the best."
He patted his pockets and gave the old, "I left my license in the car" routine and walked out fast with his tail between his legs.
"Yup, see you when you get back!"
The guys were going around the store and zooming in on things like the hotdogs and sausages on rollers and the Slurpee machine and the two video games in an alcove in the back. I rang up a few customers and then got busy on the Coca-Cola display that had to be done by six o'clock across from the register, wheeling out and stacking twelve packs of both regular and Diet to six feet high in a pyramid, half and half.
I was beat from not getting enough sleep in the last two weeks. Sleeping during the day was impossible with the bright sun always shining and the buzz of the waking world speeding by my apartment. It was killing me. And there was always my roommates.
They asked from back in the corner if they could split a hot dog.
"Yes, but only one and keep it down."
It got quieter as they ate and a plastic bag opened.
"You better pay for that."
"Okay, it's just a small bag of Doritos".
I wanted to go home and sleep but my first class was at nine.
Two pretty girls came in and the guys turned on the camera and went over and talked and said they had to get the two of them on film. Pretty soon they were interviewing the girls together, giggling, and the guys were cracking jokes and I had to tell them all not to get too loud. I didn't want to be a party pooper but Russ was known to stop by at weird hours to check if the nacho case was full and that there were no shriveled-up dogs rolling along in his store. I still had to adhere to the charade of desiring a managership.
The girls left after a while, the redhead at five-two and the bouncy brunette at five-five, and the guys decided it was time to go home since two o'clock was coming around. They paid for one hot dog, a small bag of Doritos and a soda and left with the camera on as the car backed away from the store and made a right onto Kirby.
I went back to throw on a few more dogs and make fresh coffee and when I got there, there wasn't a dog or sausage in sight. It dawned on me to look in the garbage and there were a few empty bags of chips and stuff. I was wondering why they were so quiet for so long and was too tired to notice. We were also going hungry.
During this time, the Moral Majority was mobilizing against 7-Eleven and other stores to force them to remove immoral, adult magazines like Penthouse and Playboy from their shelves. It began to look like a minority of people were going to have their way with self-righteous accusations of evil and damnation. All that did was make my nightly reading go up double-time in case the mags were yanked away.
Quitting the store came before long. I was a sleep-deprived zombie that could only sleep while in class and dropped the COBOL class before failing it. The job that was supposed to help pull me through was hurting me and without a job, I decided to go back to Jersey for the summer to work. A bartending job hadn't happened yet because things were so bad in Houston and I hoped to get one at home and come back with a little experience. No more working in an office anymore, at least for the rest of the time in college.
Before heading back to Jersey, I went on a cash-poor, whirlwind tour of Texas with the two Mike's, Barry (the Bear) and Hayden, in a whiny Renault four-door. We headed north for Dallas, drinking a six of Shiner beer picked up on the way and stayed on the outskirts at a cheap motel where hookers came out at night. Fort Worth was the next morning on a quick drive-through and then we were off to Waco, or past Waco. We didn't stop.
The rear right tire blew out just after the Waco exit and with some fancy driving by the Bear, the car limped to the next exit and into a big garage with a lot of land and broken down sheds and parts. They only had one tire to fit a Renault and we toasted our luck by nipping on Jim Beam while waiting.
Back on the road again, we got into Austin as the red sun was setting and we surveyed the capital building and the statues. After checking into a hotel, the nightlife and music of Austin rolled out in front of us and, like almost every visitor, we wondered how great it would be to live there. The good people of Austin prefer you to just keep it to wondering and move on.
We hit San Antonio the next afternoon and took the tour of the Alamo, and again like every visitor, I laughed at the Woolworth's right across the street from where Davy Crockett and the heroes of Texas made their last stand against Santa Anna's army. I'm right with them, I think the Texans might have had a better chance if they kept the store of supplies within the walls of the mission instead. They also would have had a lot more fun if they could have enjoyed the River Walk like we did.
The drive east back to Houston the next morning was gloomy, raining and gray, and the vacation was coming to an end. Four days go by in the blink of an eye sometimes, and four minutes can seem to never pass you by. I wonder why?
Change of residence
* Bartender & Short Order Cook 5/86 - 8/86
Brookwood Lounge (age 21)
Sometimes you find yourself in the right place at the right time and when I applied to the Brookwood, one of their bartenders had just quit the night before. I flashed the manager Frank my bartending certificate and told him I'd worked for a caterer in high school. It was true, I had worked for a caterer but it was only three or four Saturday afternoons and didn't qualify as a whole lot of experience.
The Brookwood Lounge, located in the Brookwood Shopping Plaza across the street from the Brookwood One and Brookwood Two suburban housing developments, is one of those places located exactly where the people want to buy their liquor, however they want it, served or on the hoof. Like the plaza outside, a unique identity in the bar in back was hard to come by among the Bud signs, even if you were bothering to look, and if you didn't count the four foot by eight picture on the wall of the dogs playing cards and smoking cigars.
Up front were the beer coolers and package goods for sale and you walked through and up a ramp to the lounge, where the lights were dim and smoky and glasses hung from racks above the long and wide oval-shaped bar. You can also get in through a back door by the pinball machine and dartboard and the TV with a ballgame on most times.
In the middle of the bar is a grill and deep fat fryer with a cold station and refrigerator below and when somebody wanted to eat, the bartenders became short order cooks. One of the bartenders was a women in her forties who preferred cooking instead of running drinks. That was all right with me, anytime Carol.
My first day as I stepped behind the bar, the thing I remember is the people sitting all around and facing in and looking at me. There was the feeling of stepping on a stage and there was the feeling of stage fright that comes with it. The thing to do, I got this from ballplayers, the thing to do is just to relax and take it one drink at a time. You can't be thinking about the next drink, it's this drink it's all riding on. You don't concentrate on this drink, there may not be a next drink.
A quarter to nine AM until five was my shift after training a few days on the five to midnight shift. That's when you really make the money, at night when people are boozing it up and free with their money, but you start off on days until you've been there a while. The first morning, I figured it would be a breeze until about eleven or eleven-thirty when the first few diehards probably rolled in. It would just be cutting fruit and filling juices and stuff until then, shooting the shit and listening to the stereo.
Well, I was surprised to see about a half dozen or so men, mostly retired, waiting at the door for opening at nine. I knocked and waited for the other bartender and they wanted to know who I was, knocking to get in before they were allowed.
"Hey fellas, we got a new one today", one of them said and they all laughed.
The door opened and I slipped in quickly. There was only fifteen minutes before the door opened and we had to get stocked and set up. At nine, Frank opened and they shuffled up and ordered shots of Fleischmann's whiskey with a Bud chaser. The smell of the liquor went right to my head and stomach, so soon after eating scrambled eggs or a bagel or something breakfasty. Some of the diehards of course took their first few vodkas with orange juice or tomato or Bloody Mary, probably thinking, "You know, I better have a little juice this morning, it's high in vitamins and I could use the fiber. Now a shot of vodka in that might be nice. Can't see no harm in that".
A couple guys came in every other day or two after working graveyard at the Post Office and morning light was night time for them. They'd have two or three beers after work and then take off for home and food and bed. Okay, that I can see. Then there are the regulars, the men and women at the bar every day that keep the joint in business. There were about nine or ten morning regulars and they'd usually field about six or seven on any given day, plopping down on a stool and holding it down past the lunch crowd until three or four or five o' clock when the after-work crowd started filling in.
They were a tough bunch with nothing to do but heckle and try out the rookie. One of them was named Ray, a man in his early fifties who is distinguishable in my memory only in that he drank Dewar's and soda with a lemon twist, but it absolutely had to be served in a tall Collins glass. The first time he ordered, he said nothing to me about the tall glass and I served it to him in a cocktail glass. Well, this became a big scene about his friggin' tall Collins glass and if I ever served him again without a tall glass, he was going to throw it across the bar and not pay for it. Frank came out of the office and told him to calm down and told me to set Ray up with the next one on the house.
The Colonel was a man in his seventies who was Airborne in World War Two and wore a black beret and khaki shirts with epaulets and drank his Christian Brothers brandy and club soda on the side in quiet dignity. The only other distinguishable one of the pack was named Pete and he was a Town Councilman who came in around eleven or twelve and just loved his Boodles gin and tonics. Then he became the mayor who just loves his Boodles and tonics.
One of the other bartenders told me at the sink washing glasses that they were needling me because that was their thing, to try out the new guy and see if they can make him crack. There had been so many people behind that bar and they felt is was their duty to weed out the weak. Well, I wasn't one of them and started cracking them back and eventually was slipping them in before they got me. Respect has to be earned, no matter what kind or how much, and they were sorry to see me go when I headed back to Houston in August.
This job and the public speaking class in college helped me to open up to people and have confidence in social situations. Most of my jobs have been dealing with customers face to face and trying to understand people of all walks, but as a bartender there is a lot more freedom. At times, you are a stage performer or a counselor or just an ear to bend and when people are drinking, you can be sure you will hear and see things you never would in an office.
Change of residence
* Bartender & Waiter 9/86 - 12/86 El Chico Mexican Restaurant (age 22) On the road heading south in a gold Mercury Montego, this time by myself, I made a detour to Fort Benning in Georgia to see my brother John, who was a cook with a combat-ready engineering battalion that bivouacked one week a month out in the fields full of chiggers and mosquitos. One time he got an itchy case of poison ivy rash on his ass from squatting at night where he shouldn't have.
I entered the base after the guard cleared me on his list and waved the car through with a white glove. On the right were a couple of Army Rangers in fatigues and black berets carrying M-16's and I turned right after passing them. In the distance on the left were the towers of the parachute jump school that had tempered many daring troopers into the fraternity of "Death From Above". John was in front of his battalion's headquarters and met me in the parking lot.
We ate in the Burger King on base, every table surrounded by soldiers devouring Whoppers and fries and onion rings, some of them with two or three burgers and a pie. We found a small table and John talked about life as an army cook and bivouac and some of the characters in his unit and how he missed his girlfriend at home and he was still eating fast I noticed, ever since he went to basic training. He was also playing cards sometimes with his Southern buddies and Mr. Jack Daniels.
A drive around the town of Columbus, Georgia didn't look like much but I know some people love it as their home. My hometown isn't a sight for sore eyes either. After dinner, we met a couple of his pals in a good 'ol bar near the base with country music on the jukebox, stuff from Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and the Hanks and Johnny Cash and we did some whiskey drinking and singing along.
A bottle of Jack came back with us to the small four-person cottage on base where John lived and had just moved into. One of the guys was away for the weekend and I crashed in his bunk. They are a lot less proprietary about their beds in the military. You have no home when you're a soldier. Many have slept in your bed before, and will after you leave for other quarters.
I left the next morning at ten or so, hitting the trail on Route 80 and running over the border into no-man's land Alabama. By noon I joined up with I-85 heading for the capital city of Montgomery. The signs there for I-65 South led me to the next junction of my life, and before long I was approaching the next crossroads where I-10 was going through at Mobile. Along the Gulf of Mexico, I-10 runs east and west from Jacksonville, Florida through Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and all the way out to Los Angeles. From there to Houston would be a long, straight haul so the time was right to stop for a cool drink and a restroom and traveling food. The day had turned into a scorcher and I was laying off the air conditioner for the better gas mileage and to save the strain on the old engine.
As I pulled off the interstate and turned from the ramp, the signs pointing to food and phone showed the way to a dusty shack with a few elderly locals smoking and chatting and sipping a tea. They looked over and I gave them a howdy. It was so damned hot and I decided to slow down for a spell, have a seat out front and soak up the blues in the air. The mighty highways had transported me to another world and I partook of their time and space for a while, but too soon the highway beckoned me to continue onward.
Biloxi came and went and soon the highway was high up on pillars and surrounded by water. New Orleans was off to the left and I wished there was time and money to spend in that simmering cauldron of people and culture and perversion. After that, there would not be much to see, especially when the rains came and Baton Rouge and Lake Charles and the oil refineries of Beaumont finally yielded to Houston, shining in the distance as the sun broke through the receding rain.
The guys had stayed in Houston and when I got back we moved into another apartment off of Bissonet near the Westwood Mall that was much better than living near the Dome and the Medical Center. By now, Houston's economy was in a deep slump with oil prices at historical lows and there was plenty of talk about diversifying the economy against such a threat but it was already too late. Everybody had been nursing on the crude oil spigot. A drive along any freeway showed vacant stores and office buildings and restaurants closing.
A few days later, the rusted muffler and exhaust pipe on my car let go and I was furious that it should give on me right when I didn't have the money for a new system and needed a car to get to work. That led me to looking for a job near the apartment that I could walk to and the next day found a Mexican restaurant named El Chico in the Westwood Mall and filled out an application for a bartender. It just so happened that they needed one.
I was hired by the Dining Room Manager, a Mexican man of about thirty-five named Saul (Sah-ool) with a bush of black hair and mustache who spoke English with the sing-song of his native accent. He was always under control, never getting rattled during a rush and Saul taught me how to make margaritas and daiquiris and sangria and everything about the dishes on the menu and how they should be served. This was just before the TexMex wave swept the nation and, being from Jersey, I only knew from a taco.
They wanted to get a lively 5:00 Happy Hour going that would attract people to come in after work but the bar was small and too close to people eating at tables. It didn't have a regular crowd kind of feeling being in a mall but if one person at least sat at the bar, Saul said, it would be more suggestive to others to park there, so once a week or twice the Bear would belly up to the bar and I more or less charged him for every other drink. A few times Saul would set him up too. What he didn't know is that the Bear wasn't legal yet to drink.
When it was his 21st birthday, I gave him a free margarita on the house and said that would be the only one. When he was almost done, Saul came over to the bar and the Bear told him it was his 22nd birthday. Saul was so happy for him and ordered another margarita on the house and when I served it, one of the girls put a large sombrero on him and everyone gathered around to sing Happy Birthday as she took a picture. I still have the Polaroid One-Step of the Bear wearing the big, black sombrero with gold braiding and he's red in the cheeks with a big ol' shit-eating grin and the beaded strap is hanging down to his second margarita on the house that day.
You see, it's not always the big wins that give us the most satisfaction. It wasn't like he was king for a day or that he had profited or even gotten some sex on his birthday. He had pulled off a caper, a petty caper, but he didn't wake up that morning knowing he was going to do it. It's one of the small pleasures or satisfactions with life when you can pull something over, a little mischief that doesn't hurt anyone. He was ringing in his twenty-first damn it.
When everyone went their own way to serve dinners and run drinks and manage the place, we had a chuckle to ourselves as I put my head down to wash glasses and he pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket to cover his face reflecting in the mirror and made like he was blowing and wiping his nose. I grabbed a few cocktail napkins to dry my eyes and settled my breathing. There could be a call for a drink any moment or Saul might walk behind the bar.
"That has to be it for a while", and we bursted out laughing again.
About once a week after that, usually on a Friday, I would slide him one or two and ring him up for a fifty cent Coke. Saul probably suspected but he was cool about it and we were cool about it and it worked out fine. There were a few people who started to drop in after work, some of them after working in the mall like the Florsheim shoe salesman, a withered Marlboro man of fifty who favored Dewar's and water to fuel his existence of peddling shoes to fickle-footed women in a sterile mall that was drying up from the recession.
Of course, not everyone at a Happy Hour is happy. Some people are there to wash away their worries for a while at reduced prices. A man in his early thirties had been in a few times drinking the house scotch and water and keeping to himself. He wasn't in the mood for bright repartee I could tell and only bothered him to ask if he wanted another.
"I can't afford another", he blurted out with his head down and the gusher exploded. He had been a geologist wildcatting for an oil company and was laid off weeks ago and didn't know what to do with his life, and his wife was threatening to leave him. He'd been on expeditions in South America but that didn't help him much now and he started crying into the empty glass cupped in his palms. Pouring him another, I put down a few bev naps for wiping and blowing.
"I have no more money for this drink."
"Don't worry about it."
No advice, no cliches about bootstraps. I just let him vent his fears and frustrations and when he left his shoulders weren't so rounded or his head so bowed.
It was becoming clear that Houston would no longer be the place to start the future. When times were good, the colleges and universities were getting oodles of money from the state but the nipple was running dry and tuition jumped to three times higher. The jobs were slim to pick from even at minimum wage and there was not much promise for after graduation. Besides, I was tired of the sticky, sweaty humidity that drenched my clothes by nine in the morning and felt deprived of a change in the seasons.
The Bear and Hayden and I decided it was time to pull up stakes again and make our way back in New Jersey and I had to sell my silver Bach Stradavarius trumpet for $250 to have enough money to get home. Johnny B. stayed and graduated the next year from U of H. Many people move each year and think their life will be different and better. Pretty soon most of them realize they're doing the same things, working, maybe going to school, trying to get by. The only difference is that now they're lonely and homesick without the company of their family and friends.
Change of residence
* Waiter & Bartender 1/87 - 9/87
Van's Freehold Inn (age 22 to 23)
There was an ad for a waiter wanted at a fine dining restaurant and I recalled hearing people at different times praising Van's for the food and the charm of the large house it was in, which had been built in the latter half of the 1800's. During the 1920's Prohibition, it was a speakeasy and they served the rot-gut in coffee cups. By the time I was working there it had grown a reputation that attracted a large number of regulars from the local affluent community.
Getting requested by a customer was the mark of a good waiter or waitress and some of the long-timers had regulars in every week waiting for a table in their station. The restaurant required a new server to have at least one year of experience and so I fudged the length of time working at El Chico and tacked on a little to Brookwood and came up with like eleven months. Having been a bartender and then a waiter was in my favor and I'd started using the line that would become my trademark, my ace-in-the-hole, my whatever-it-takes-to-get-your-ass-through-school and with eyes bright and wide I'd hit them with "I'm a quick learner, I'll have it down in no time." That's just what they want to hear and then you give it to them.
You'd better however be able to back it up once you get the job. I had to concentrate and step smart if I was going to pull this off. Wearing the uniform of black vest and bowtie with white shirt and black trousers, I showed up for my first lunch shift and was put in the custody of Phyllis the head waitress, a twenty-six year veteran of this restaurant. Methodically was the way Phyllis did it.
"If you do it my way, you'll be okay. You want to go off like you know it all, you'll come running back to me crying 'Phyllis, what's happening? Where am I going wrong?' and I'll say, 'See, I told you'".
At least half the staff had been there for ten years, some of them thirteen and seventeen, and they all did it the same way so there was no use in trying to make anything up, just do it by the numbers. I picked it up quickly and got through the Monday to Thursday lunch shifts with just a few minor bobbles. The next day would be the big test to see if I could handle a three table section during the rush of a Friday night. All eyes were on me and the others offered their help if I was getting in the weeds.
Waiting with the other servers for the customers to come in, they were asking, "How do you feel? Did you write down the specials for tonight? Did you do all of your side work?" It was like preparing for a race or a crucial exam and I was going to sink and lose the job or swim to the next day to do it all over again. The efficiency and timing of the job is hard enough, but being able to do it with a smile and friendliness and to connect with your customers is the art in it, and is what saved me many times when my service was a little slow or I forgot something.
That first night I passed with flying colors. Everyone was crowing at closing time that they'd never seen anyone do so well on their first Friday night and the owner bought me a couple of smooth scotches, what he was having. Even with two tables getting seated at the same time and tableside Caesar salads and wine service, I pulled it off without a hitch and thanked Phyllis for her thorough training.
"Thank you for paying attention", she said and puffed her cigarette.
The busboys were just as responsible and were running hard to clear tables and keep everything stocked and neat. In my gratitude, I gave them twenty percent of my tips instead of the customary ten percent and another ten went to the bar instead of five. This recognition of them would also ensure that they watched out for me in the future, knowing that I would be generous in turn. The short-sighted waiters are those stingy with their bus and bar help.
Eventually a couple of people were requesting one of my tables, one of them a young Italian guy Marco with his blond girlfriend, very outgoing and confident, who wanted to take his time to eat and drink and talk and not be rushed along so we could seat someone else. There was going to be time for an espresso and sambuca and maybe something sweet and he would give a very good tip he assured me the first night.
"You'll do that for me, won't you Rod?"
"Sure, no problem."
That gave me more time for the other tables and my stellar service to them would yield higher tips all around. On average, Marco gave a fifty dollar tip on a one hundred dollar check and he was always welcome in my station.
I had been able to save a few thousand to go back to school and left the first week of September to attend Rider College (now Rider University) in Lawrenceville, ten minutes from Princeton. The restaurant didn't need a part-timer working only weekends so I would have to find work elsewhere. Hallelujah, I was going back to college. Hopefully I wouldn't have to stop again until I graduated.
Change of residence
* Cashier & Stock Person 10/87 - 1/88
Spirits Unlimited Liquor Store (age 23)
The place to buy your hooch in my hometown, besides the Brookwood, was the Spirits Unlimited which naturally had more of a variety. The prices were lower too. I went in to see if they needed weekend help and came out hired to work eight hours on Saturdays and nine on Sundays, perfect. Occasionally a Friday night.
The crew was kind of loose around there, all of them Grateful Dead fans, the two girls in moccasins and unshaved legs and the guys looking regular except for hair a little long. Every night shift was a Deadhead festival as their tapes played shows from San Francisco and across the country and they had stories about what their friends were doing during some of the songs and what Jerry did and what their trips were like. They cranked it up when the manager left and mostly everyone that came in was digging the Dead playing loud enough to wake some of them.
I knew it was going to be an easy job on the first night when we spent most of the time shooting hoop with a Nerf basketball in the back room. We started to call ourselves the U-Crew, not because it meant anything really, it just sounded pretty cool. They showed me how to drink a beer or two in the cooler, only the good stuff, and get the bottles out in the cardboard boxes you're throwing away. Sometimes a smoldering sweet aroma would emit from the bathroom behind the closed door.
We became a pretty tight group the U-Crew but several events were to pull us apart. One guy went off to a technical school, one of the girls left for college, another two got fired when the manager found a joint roach in the bathroom, and I got a position as a Resident Advisor in a dorm at college. It paid a hundred dollars a month and entitled a single room all to myself. I would have what we called on campus a "sleazy single". Besides, being older and more experienced than eighteen year old freshmen, I could help them adjust to college life and registering for classes, stuff like that I thought.
* Dormitory Resident Advisor 1/88 - 5/88
Rider University (age 23)
I moved into my room two days before check-in and orientation, all was quiet and I unlocked the door of the "Resident Advisor" in black stencils, "A 203". The freshmen would be moving in on Friday to start the spring semester. With a dorm facilities checklist and clipboard, I inspected all of the rooms and wrote work orders for repairs that were needed, and for the bathroom as well as the laundry room. When they moved in, they would take more pride in the place and not trash it as much if everything was in order and working and looking good. My experience as a Chief Master-at-Arms helped in the responsibility of taking charge of a barracks-like dorm.
My partner Kris' room was one flight down on the first floor and I checked in with her after my inspection. She was of Czech descent and apple-bottomed with eyes green and struck me as being a very good wife and mother someday, possibly mine. We talked some nights oblivious to the hour until it was four, and some mornings she was the first person I would see as we coordinated schedules and she brushed back shoulder-length hazel hair and thrust out her chest.
I wanted to kiss Kris so much and we were getting closer, we could feel it, but she was engaged and I had met him and liked him and it wasn't right to kiss another man's fiancee and besides, we had to work together and were supposed to set a good example and there would be consequences for getting caught, but how was I going to stop this runaway train? How were we?
Across the hall from her was a delicate freshman named Jen from Weehawken, a little shy but funny with a squeaky giggle that was adorable. I started to drop by her room to talk and we would go at night for a walk and rested at a bench by the lake. She was admiring the stars shining one clear night, seeming to get lost in time... and then she looked to me and sank into my arms trembling and we kissed. We took to our feet together hand in hand and laughing to the edge of the woods beyond the soccer fields. The grass was dark and wet under her as she gazed up in my eyes and then to the stars above.
Back at the ranch, it was becoming clear that I had a misconception about the job of being a Resident Advisor, about what it really entailed. I'd been under the impression, and this is why I took the job, it seemed to be a job where you were like a camp counselor, the older student, the big kid that showed the ropes and watched out. That's why I wanted to do it, sure to have my own room too, but also to help the kids along and point out things to get involved in or where to find the weight room or how to do research in the library. Well, it wasn't quite like that. It turned out to be more like a position in law enforcement, having to write people up for having a beer or breaking up fights and I wasn't interested in being that.
One afternoon coming out of the bathroom, I turned right into one of the guys on my floor who I had suspected of smoking grass and he was carrying a big red eighteen-inch bong to the can so he could dump out the resin water and clean it out. He stopped dead and was caught with nowhere to go or to hide it, looking down at the bong and then to me with a look of terror. I should have busted him, any one of the others would have and it would be serious.
"What are you doing? Next time, at least put it in a bag, come on."
"Get out of here!
The last weekend before finals, Kris asked me to a party down campus and we walked to the dorm on the other end of the lake. From the bright hallway we entered into a dark party in full swing and somebody handed me two beers as we stepped around and over people and found room on a white couch in the back. The music of Tone Loc or "Bust a Move" or something was jumping loud and we drank and talked for a while with a couple next to us until they started making out.
Kris got up for the bathroom and returned with two more beers, handing them to me and then sitting on my lap and hugging me with a hand behind the head and my face in her cleavage, leading to kissing, leading to dancing, leading to a dark corner, leading to her room, careful not to talk loud so Jen across the hall didn't hear me, leading to...
At the end of the semester, I decided not to re-up. My senior year of college after all these years of hard work would not be spent as a warden watching over the moves of others and enforcing the law. Some people can do that and even like it. Instead, I would rather be one of the people who needs to be watched.
* Account Executive 4/88 - 10/88 College Savings Bank (age 23 to 24) By now though, it was looking like time again to get a suit and office job in the field of finance or business so I could put the experience on my resume, so that I would get more interviews during senior year, so that I could be hired in a job right out of college that would be the first stepping stone of my long-awaited professional career. While scanning the cluttered bulletin board in the Student Center one afternoon, a logo caught my attention of a sturdy Doric column lined in dark gray on white that introduced the College Savings Bank.
They have a unique, federally guaranteed investment for parents to save for their children's college education, and pay an interest rate equal to the average rise in the costs of the top 100 private colleges every year, no matter how high they go. All of the other investments that parents use to save for college pay the rate that the economy is yielding with its cyclical highs and lows, which have little to do with the skyrocketing inflation of college costs.
They were in a position to capitalize on a huge market with the exclusive right to use the official private college inflation rate and were looking for well-spoken, intelligent finance and marketing majors to speak to their potential customers around the country on the phone. That's where I came in. This wasn't just plain old telemarketing my friends.
The potential customers had seen one of our ads in the New York Times or Money or Forbes or several other publications and called our 1(800) number for more information. A packet was mailed out and thirty days later we called and had to get across to the good people a concept they were unfamiliar with and establish enough trust in them so they would send to us thousands of their hard-earned dollars to save up for the kids' college.
Some people were only starting when the kid was fourteen and that didn't leave much time to make a difference. We did get some parents started before the child was even born and put the money in trust for Baby Johnson for college at the age of eighteen. Not only did they have the whole nut to cover the diapers and baby food and formula and toys and everything, they had enough to start putting away for their unborn baby's higher education.
At the end of the first month on the phone, one man from Chicago sent in $17,000 in a lump sum deposit and the bank guaranteed to pay for his eight year old son's first year at the University of Chicago in ten years, no matter what it cost in 1998. My total sales for the month was $41,000 and I became the first Account Exec to earn commission in their first month. Everything was in the voice, what was there, what was not there and the image that emerged in their minds about the College Savings Bank was created by me and sent to them over the telephone lines.
We had to appeal to them as an expert and always be in control of the direction of the call which, if you've been in sales, you know should always be toward closing the sale. Which is not to say that you should ram through the pitch like a bull with its horns down. Listening to the concerns of people and addressing them and overcoming objections is necessary. If there is any lingering doubt, it will fester like a rotting splinter under the skin.
The Sales Manager was a pudgy, bespectacled man in his early thirties named Ken who was funny in a Woody Allen wise-cracking way. He was a real telemarketing pro that treated it like an art and a science. Statistics were important and he knew how to be effective with time, but Ken delighted in the nuance of language and how each feature and benefit could be emphasized and how you lead them to the next point like lining up your shots on a billiard table. At my interview, he handed over a script and then turned his high-backed chair around and asked me to read it like I would to a person on the line who just answered my call in the kitchen. His wing-tipped feet up on a credenza, he listened and here and there interrupted to point out places to be louder or softer, faster or slower, more dramatic here and more empathetic there.
His right-hand man, the Sales Supervisor, was a young guy right out of college named Ed, a genius with the fastest feet and hands you've ever seen who was always trying to figure out a better way to build a mousetrap, and who rarely refused to adorn it with lights and glitter. This was a company about a year old still creating new systems and ways to enhance the product and present it and Ed was right in the thick of it, with Ken and the VP of Marketing wearing palm tree suspenders and a year-round tan, Mr. HaChaCha.
There was the feeling that we were working on something big, a revolutionary way of saving money for college. Having a hard time myself working through school, I bought in with gusto and started to get involved in scripting and doing some of the writing with Ed, especially when it came to fitting numbers into the pitch so it could be understood and so the customer wouldn't be bombarded. And most importantly, so it sounded natural and conversational.
We were working pretty late brainstorming new pitches and approaches and ways to simplify the order processing system and the forms to be used and their design and layout. It was an exciting time when two smart, young guys could make a difference and were given the freedom to do it. Maybe this could be the job I get after graduation.
One night Ed and I were planning the flow of sales leads through a system that now was larger, more complex and with a new product that was just introduced. The stacks of folders laid out across the office floor waiting for a new home eventually found one in a file drawer with others stuck with the same colored dots and codes written in. It was four o' clock in the morning when we finished with my vision blurring and I headed for a nap on the President's leather couch while Ed worked for another hour or so, and then we left at dawn.
There was a woman hired with me with short, dark hair about forty-two named Pat and she lived somewhere in Trenton. Her address was a PO box and some of us suspected she was sleeping at the YMCA. She was doing all right in her calls and made a few sales, but every so often she would start talking as if to an imaginary person, just a few lines and she'd be back but it was becoming clear that something was wrong with her. Somebody suggested that maybe she was possessed. Nobody knew quite what to do, there were no real grounds to fire her and there was some worry about what she might do if she got angry.
At a sales meeting one afternoon Pat turned around and loudly shushed somebody behind her.
"Quiet, I'm trying to listen", but there wasn't anybody there. "Would you please shut up, not now!" and "Let's talk about it later, all right?"
We were pushing back from the table, ready to make a dash for cover as she started to push away someone in her imagination, her brother and she climbed up on the conference room table yelling at him to leave her alone and go home.
Ken asked Mr. HaChaCha what we should do, she thinks her brother is here, what should we do?
"Tell her... tell her uh...tell 'er her brother's not here."
"Uhh... Pat, your brother... he's not here. Your brother's not here, look."
She looked around the room.
"See, you're brother's not here. He must be at home".
She spun around and jumped off the table and looked underneath and crawled through as we backed away and then she ran out, past the receptionist and through the revolving glass door. One of the secretaries was dialing the police.
The next day some practical joker put a necklace of garlic in Ken's top drawer to ward off any evil spirits lurking about. He was too superstitious to remove it and risk incurring the wrath of the ghosts of wacked out telemarketers, so he put it in a Ziplock bag and kept it there for safety's sake. We never heard from her again.
Rumors had been circulating, and were soon confirmed in the news that Congress would pass a bill allowing for the deferral of taxes on the interest earned from EE savings bonds if the money was used for college tuition. Savings bonds had always been the old standby. You didn't need much money to buy a bond and they were backed by the full strength of the U.S. government. Even though they paid a lower rate, the real rate earned on them would now become a little higher because there was nothing lost to taxes in the present.
Amidst all of this, we were supposed to stay fired up about selling but there were newspaper articles coming in every other day and in the office a creeping panic set in like a beehive in a thunderstorm. We beefed up our response, making it clear that we were also backed by the US government through the FDIC, but people were now seriously considering bonds again, especially the small savers and they began running out in droves.
The day after the bill passed, the brass around the office were acting like everything was business as usual while the grumbling among the sales staff was swelling into a mutiny at the arrogance. I suggested to Ed that the President should sit with Sales and give us the straight poop because we couldn't keep going like this. He agreed and tightened his tie and marched into the President's office. They talked for a few minutes and Ed came out and told us to gather in the conference room for a meeting in five minutes.
We were assured and reassured that everything would be fine and not to worry and blah, blah, blah and thank you. A couple days later Ken presented Ed with a small wooden box and when he opened it, there were two gold balls with a small plaque underneath inscribed with "The Chutzpah Award".
The bottom fell out pretty quickly after the law was passed and about two weeks later we were laid off, just before Christmas. The shock started to sink in on the drive back to school. I was out of work by no fault of my own and had to look around again for a job that would fit around my college schedule. What was I going to do?
Layoff #1 - 10/88
No severance pay
Ineligible for Unemployment
* Banquet Server 1/89 - 5/89 Princeton Marriott Hotel (age 24)
I had to pick up a job fast, something I could jump into and start making money and having the restaurant and bartending experience once again helped me out of a jam. My brother John was a cook at the Marriott, his first job out of culinary school at Johnson & Wales, and he told me they were always hiring banquet servers. People generally don't last that long doing this kind of work, most are students and other people on the way to someplace else but I would only have to do it for five or six months.
I had a couple of interviews on campus before the holidays but the month of January was the kick-off to the flurry of interviews that hopefully would culminate in a job offer in the spring that couldn't be refused. Until then it was going to be serving food and drinks for corporate meetings and balls and receptions and proms for ten dollars an hour. Most of the hours, about 25 a week, were on the weekends and typically 7 hours on Friday night, 13 hours on Saturday and 5 hours on Sunday.
The Saturday shifts were long, grueling days that began at nine in the morning setting up a morning business conference or a bar mitzvah with tablecloths, plates, polishing the silver, two glasses, water pitchers and getting everything in order. Being prepared is the key when you're a server. If you think of everything ahead of time and make sure you have enough and know where to get it, you'll be okay. You won't be scurrying around looking for something while you're trying to do something else. Simple.
When the people arrived, we started the stream of drinks and water and fruit cups and salads and then the hot plates covered with silver tops from the warming bins rolled down the back aisle from the Banquet Kitchen. Most of the guys could carry eight plates on a large oval tray in four stacks of two and I could even do it on my fingertips the first few trips.
There wasn't much gas left in the tank one Saturday night as we began to serve a charity ball their prime rib and Cornish hens and I was dreading the impending rush that would test my endurance. The toll on me from classes and term papers and interviews and work and tutoring Statistics and partying and staying up late had run me down to the bone it felt like. It didn't help earlier that morning getting stationed with three girls from Rutgers (beautiful as they were) who didn't move too fast or efficiently and chatted the whole time and didn't mind if I carried most of the load for them. By the end of that shift, the muscles in my shoulders were strained and the strength in them deteriorating.
The first two sorties went without incident as I concentrated and kept a steady pace and delivered my payload on target. Going back to pick up again, I didn't ask for a tray of only four dinners because it would be obvious that something was wrong or that I was just wimping out. We had to get these dinners out fast.
It was the third tray of eight dinners, as we were a little more than halfway done, that began to really rip at my right shoulder. Picking up the pace crossing the ballroom, I was just able to land the tray on the stand with a loud clang and a few people at the table nearby glanced over.
There wasn't much lollygagging on the way back to rest my arm and shoulder. All of the servers were split into teams of three to a station of five or six tables and we were responsible for serving those people. When we dropped off the dinners, there was one way we were supposed to return to the back aisle to pick up another tray. The other stations were using the other doors and the operation was tightly choreographed by George the Banquet Manager.
I returned for another tray of eight, hoping that this might be the last one until later on when we cleared the tables and carried the stuff to the dishwashers. Swinging my arm around helped to loosen it up. The tray was stacked on the long table and I made sure to get down low and use my legs to do the lifting and tried to focus my power in the right arm and shoulder to bolster the failing physicality. Up it went and I lowered the tray to the shoulder and passed through the double-doors into the ballroom where the band was playing dinner-serving music.
The pain became unbearable as the tray tottered almost out of control, my eyes fixed on the distant tray stand that seemed to be moving further away. Quickly calculating the rate of my imminent muscle failure over the time it would take to get to the stand, it was clear I wasn't going to make it. Maybe I should try to make it as far as possible before ditching the weight, but that would take me between tables close to each other with chairs back to back and somebody could get hurt, including me. Like a pilot looking for the safest place to crash land a plane, I eyed the middle of the ballroom and decided that's where it would be, that was the farthest these dinners would make it.
There were four tables surrounding the area and as I entered it, made it look like something tripped me up and the tray of eight dinners in silver covers slid off the side of the tray and I side-stepped to keep myself clear of the avalanche of food and plates. The loud bang and clatter startled everyone, except for me, and I looked around for what had "tripped" me and picked up the mess and dumped it on the tray. Someone in my station ran over to help and the other one went back for another tray.
I apologized to the guests and put on my best look of being sorry. Really I was overcome with the feeling of relief from having to carry any more weight and after cleaning up the crash site, I made sure everyone had water and drinks and then went to the back and bummed a cigarette from one of the veterans who joined me.
That was about the most fun I had there, except for serving Governor Tom Kean coffee at a Republican Party pow-wow. In April, I accepted a job with First Fidelity Bank and would start in their Management Training Program in the first week of July. A week before school ended, I quit the banquet serving business and would get another part-time job closer to home not working weekends late. The big job was landed and I could finally breathe easy.
* Tutor of Statistics 2/89 - 5/89 Rider University (age 24) One of the courses that business students probably dread the most is Statistics. It seems to be a nightmare of formulas and how and when to apply them and why. The problems are in the form of a long word problem where you are given certain facts, of which others can be deduced from them and the ratio or the percentages or the probabilities can be solved. Fortunately, the vestiges of my engineering days filled with formulas and their applications came back to benefit me.
It was also made easier by the notebook I accumulated throughout the semester of every formula we used and would need to know for the exams. They were all in there for Statistics I and served me well and for Stats II, those formulas were added in as well and everything was at my fingertips. People in class started coming to me for help in the first semester and by the second I had a reputation for being a good teacher, even tutoring a few in my dorm room.
A senior level class after Stats II that's required for any business degree is Production and Operations, which takes all of the knowledge from the two semesters of Stats and creates problems in manufacturing processes and service operations and the like and we were supposed to find the best solution. While everyone else tried to remember the formulas, I just leafed through my handy compilation. A new notebook was started for the formulas in P&O.
By this point, it dawned on me to go to the Tutoring Center and get a job. Tell everyone to meet me there and I'll teach them while I get paid. It wasn't a lot, for sure, but I could use every little bit and it was great seeing the light turn on in their eyes as it dawned on them for the first time.
I broke everything down to the simplest terms, not assuming that they understood even if it was the most basic thing we learned on the first day of class, and then everything was a slow and steady progression from there. When they understood the whole process and were able to find the right solution, their eyes lit up. You could see it like the chain was yanked on and they usually said something like, "Is that what the professor was trying to say? Why didn't he just say that?"
"That's because he has a Ph.D. You're paying him a lot of money and he's showing it off to you by talking over your head."
I'm sure they're great when it gets to the really hard stuff but many have teaching skills that could use some work.
There were gifts of six packs and one girl asked me out on a date to celebrate that she passed and would be able to graduate. It's gratifying to know that I had such an impact. At the end of classes before graduating, there was an offer to buy my notebooks for fifty dollars. I considered it for a moment and then threw them to him.
"Here... you can have them, but share it with the others."
Graduated from college after seven years - 6/89 (age 24)
* Cashier & Stock Person 5/89 - 7/89 Glory's Market (age 24)
There was about two months until I started the professional career at First Fidelity Bank but still there were expenses and debts to be paid and there was no possibility of taking that time off from working. If I could get something part-time and leave after seven or eight weeks it would be perfect because the bank had sent a large packet of spiral-bound workbooks and exams to be completed by the first day and I would need time for that also.
Two miles away was Glory's Market, a small family-owned market with a large deli and butchering on the premises. You could see the two butchers (excuse me, meat cutters) sawing chops on a table saw right there and hacking pieces of meat with cleavers and packaging it in styrofoam and plastic. They had a reputation for nice, lean cuts and my mother wouldn't trust her meat in anyone else's hands.
A thriving part of the business was the liquor store side which sort of operated separately from the rest of the market. It also had its own entrance so the liquor crowd didn't have to mix with the liverwurst and milk crowd and many a dusty, ragged local came in for their usual beer by the case. After five o'clock and weekends was when it was jumping and most of the kegs went out the door on Saturday afternoons. There wasn't much else to it except selling cigarettes and lottery tickets and stacking cases and stocking ice. The owner liked my work and said they would miss me and if I ever needed a job, he would try to find a place for me there.
Change of residence
* Cash Management Representative 7/89 - 4/90 First Fidelity Bank (age 24 to 25)
With all of my work experience glimmering on the resume, I was able to score two or three interviews a week on campus and was already proficient in the game and knew how to present myself, omitting a few jobs like AstroWorld and the bar and restaurants and the liquor store because there were too many and it might appear that I'm a job hopper. Most of the others at school didn't have much to crow about, maybe only a part-time job or an internship and the only companies willing to talk to them were the insurance companies and other sales jobs willing to talk to anybody, even the liberal arts majors that found slim pickings during job hunting season.
The competition to get into First Fidelity Bank and the other big banks recruiting for their management training programs was stiff. After the first round of interviews that covered the Mid-Atlantic and New England, the first cut left about 250 to vie for the final selections in the next round of interviews. Only a class of 20 would be chosen for the three month long training program that immediately put you on the fast track to the management ranks and status.
The suspense was killing me after the second interview. I had already surveyed the map of New Jersey to find which towns to look for an apartment if I got the job at their headquarters in (ugh) downtown Newark. If they called and offered the job I decided to accept it right there on the spot. There were a couple of other options but none with such promise.
It came in finally, a woman from Human Resources on the phone offering a position with the bank starting in July and giving the option to think about it a few days. "I've already done all the thinking about it... and yes, I accept the position."
My roommate and the guys in the hall had gathered around and were jumping and pumping their fists. When I hung up, they were whoopin' and hollerin' because another one of us got a job offer we couldn't refuse. That's why we had majored in business was to get a more prestigious and high-paying job and someone broke out cans of beer because I was the third of us to make it. The time had finally come, all of the hard work had paid off.
I took out a $5,000 loan from the First National Bank of Toms River (my old bank) with the co-signatures of my parents, and with the money purchased the necessities. Suits were on the top of the list, having to look sharp and smart with new shoes, belts, socks, underwear, ties, trenchcoat and a few accessories. An older man at the defunct men's clothing store Rodger's, a true haberdasher of the past, helped me pick suits that were "suitable" for a young executive at a large bank. I stood in front of the three-paneled mirrors while Mr. Haberdasher hemmed cuffs with pins from his mouth to fit my short legs and a wardrobe was assembled for two thousand dollars to tackle the new world.
Another twelve hundred went for the rent and security deposit on a room rented in a duplex in Union, about a half hour away from Newark in the suburbs. Another five hundred went for incidentals and the last thirteen hundred went in the bank as a small reserve until the paychecks rolled in. I had managed to set myself up well.
The salary for everyone in the training program was $24,000 a year in 1989 dollars with a raise every six months for the first two years, along with a Christmas bonus and health benefits and 401(k). Saving for retirement, imagine that. We would be paid for the three months of classes and training and then report to the departments we were assigned. For a guy named Carlos and I, it would be the Cash Management Department as Account Executives where we would consult with financial managers of companies and institutions to tailor the bank's cash management services to their specific operational needs.
The first day of the program was on July 6 (some dates are significant enough to remember, but they're only important to you) and the first three weeks we were with a psychologist who was there to teach and assess us. He was a very witty, precise man wearing bowties of distinct colors (purple and pink for instance) or designs like a garishly entertaining plaid and you would be shocked if he was not gay, but nobody surprisingly felt the need to make fun behind his back. He was that engaging and likeable to everyone.
His seminars on communication and business writing and diplomacy and public speaking were entertaining and everyone enthusiastically played his individual and group games that pointed out and measured our needs for achievement and needs for approval and abilities to lead and follow and aptitudes and other such psychological profiles that became part of our permanent records. There were graphs and wheels colored in and tests and scores for exercises in team dynamics. We learned quite a lot about ourselves and this was supposed to help us become better managers by knowing better our strengths and weaknesses. This segment of the program was the last of the fun and games and we were sorry to see our mentor leave.
Next came the accounting and finance classes for which we had been studying from the workbooks that were mailed after the acceptance was made. Mostly I remember the afternoons after we came back from lunch with a full stomach and sitting in a comfy armed chair in the cozy cool of the office after baking outside in a jacket and tie and the instructor's formulas and case studies drifted away as my head rose up into puffy white clouds of peacefulness under a dark and closing canopy.
The three week Economics class followed and this was much more intriguing to me because of its attempts to understand how to satisfy the wants and needs of a constantly changing society with limited resources. I had seriously considered majoring in Economics but took the more practical route to a job with the Finance degree. The instructor was a distinguished professor from Fordham who invited open discussion and questions as we addressed inflation, unemployment, prices, supply and demand (of course) and even homelessness and drugs and money laundering and crime.
The professor left us to a fashion consultant wearing a dramatic scarf flaunted about her neck that was obviously expensive and she was there to discuss suit styles and tie designs and colors and their complements. We had our colors done to determine which are the most flattering for our individual pigmentation. For those of you not familiar with this, certain colors when you wear them go better with your hair and skin than others and you should stick to those that highlight your natural hues.
For instance, if you have dark hair you would be classified as a winter because of the lack of brightness and colors like blues or purples tend to go well with you. If you're blond you would be a summer and the colors that complement you are yellows and reds that would make a winter person look very pale. An olive green that looks good on a fall person with red hair would make a winter person look sickly. It was a silly, catcalling atmosphere as different people were called up and the lady held swatches of cloth under their chins for us to see.
After the next class in computers where we learned the binary language and some COBOL, we took a day to tour the bank's computer processing center in the suburbs and looked out of place with the people working there in jeans and open-necked shirts as we passed through with brand new suits and laundry-starched white cotton shirts, looking so much like Management Trainees. A wake of grumbling and snickering was left behind us.
About half of the group were going out on Friday nights in New York for some carousing and a few of the girls from class started going along too. Despite the rigors of the class and the pressure to live up to the dignity of management, we all let loose when we were together and drinking. Just out of college with big jobs and money in our pockets, we were living like big shots in our suits at the clubs and bars drinking Heinekens and buying rounds for each other and dancing and meeting girls.
Eric from Boston lived in the city at 33rd and Lex and his apartment became our base and frequent party site. The beer was getting dangerously low one late night and he and Steve and I passed around a hat and went out for more. A few blocks down as we crossed the street, four hookers black and beautiful in shiny short-shorts blocked our path and propositioned us and took our trousered packages in their hands for enticement. Steve had a hard time pulling away and almost bit the hook.
Two cases and a bottle were coming back with us as we walked alongside a wild and scraggly man who appeared to be homeless and he asked if we wanted some smoke. Sure, it would be a hit back at the party and we said we wanted twenty. He didn't have it on him but a phone call would get it and his fee was five dollars for the connection, he was sort of like our agent.
His call was short and sweet, "Got one... twenty" and then we walked the two blocks to the pick-up point. It was scary and exciting making a buy in the big city and a few minutes later a beat up Duster turned the corner and pulled up to Daniel and handed him a bag for our twenty and then Daniel handed it to us for our twenty-five as the car clattered away.
Besides being dirty and ripe in sweat under the clothes that were the only shelter he owned, Daniel was kind of funny and Eric asked him if he would like to come up and party with us. "Probably not too smart" the rest of us were thinking by the looks on our faces. I was getting a kick out of him too but we were shocked Eric invited him up, but then he was usually the one that had to one-up a situation. You should have seen the look on the doorman as we entered the building.
Better yet, you should have seen the look on the faces of the party as we opened the door and entered with cases of beer and a homeless man. Everyone was drunk enough at that point to laugh and talk to him and somebody handed him a beer and a team of two or three went for the kitchen to make some food. Gobbling that down and throwing back a few beers, his laughing turned into a mumbling and then grumbling and we started to get nervous and there gathered a consensus to shuffle him out the door. Getting him over the threshold took some prodding and coaxing and we escorted him down the elevator and out to the front door.
About a week later I got a call from one of the guys that Daniel was on TV, he was on the news because his former girlfriend's body parts were found boiled down to a five gallon covered bucket in a locker at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The rebroadcast was at ten o'clock and there he was in the top story getting hauled in with hands cuffed behind him and a silly grin.
She was Swedish and a dancer that somehow became involved with Daniel and she let him move into her apartment. Their relationship soured and she kicked him out and he was living homeless in Tompkins Square Park until one day he went up and killed her by punching her repeatedly in the throat and then hacked her up in the bathtub with knives and boiled her in large kettles around the clock and reduced her to the five gallons found in the locker.
An article in the next day's Times detailed what happened, along with a sketched biography of this man. Daniel was from East Texas where his father worked as a constable, and had moved to New York six years before at the age of twenty-eight. He openly sold marijuana and amphetamines in the park and carried a live rooster and claimed he was Jesus, making long and disjointed speeches about crucifixion, reincarnation and the power of Satan. He also practiced animal sacrifice in his own religion, the Church of 966, and said that Satan (identified by the number 666) had metamorphosed and was now shown by the number 966, which police discovered scrawled on the walls of several squats in blood and chicken feathers.
We went in early the next morning with our copies and read it and gasped and were shocked that we had brushed so closely with someone who could do that. This was about two weeks before graduation from the program and the last thing we wanted was for this to get out. It was agreed that we wouldn't say another word about it and the newspaper articles should be thrown out or burned, we just couldn't risk it. I kept a ripped out copy in my Memories file and wonder who else kept theirs tucked away and has revisited Daniel and remembered the look in his eyes.
Well, after only nine months of working at First Fidelity there were rumors of a massive layoff impending because of the recession and too many bad loans that were made. I was doing well working with the bank's commercial loan officers and meeting with financial managers and didn't think the layoffs would affect me. Our department was very busy and we were assured by the Senior VP that everything was going to be fine, maybe we would lose a word processing person or two but that would be all.
A meeting of the five group leaders was called two weeks later on a Tuesday at 5:00 after everyone left the office and while they were behind the closed door of the SVP's office, I worked until 6:15 to finish a proposal for a hospital in Newark and they still weren't done when I hit the elevator. The next morning, wanting to get an early jump, I got to the office at 7:50 and wondered about the woman sitting in the vacant office with stacks of paper in front of her. A few others arrived by 8:10 and asked what was going on and I could only shrug.
At 8:20 my boss walked up to me with his forehead drooping and eyes sagging like he hadn't slept a wink and glumly asked if he could speak with me in his office and turned for me to follow. My desk was only about eight feet away but as I stepped in behind him it seemed to stretch into a mile and time retarded. I wanted to scream.
This can't be happening again. I've been working hard, I've been working smart, I worked so hard to get here. You can't do this to me!
I was in shock and didn't really feel the gravity of it until Carlos and I left the office and the building with boxes under our arms and decided to hit the liquor store. We bought four bottles of red wine and headed to his house and polished them off, descending into a gloom as it became clear that we had been rejected and they thought they were better off without us. Why me? Why me I wanted to know. Why me?
Layoff #2 - 4/90
Severance pay - 4 weeks
Unemployment benefits - 2 weeks
* Collateral Liquidation Specialist 5/90 - 6/90 FDIC - Federal Deposit Insurance Corp (age 25) Several times was I taking a drink when the phone rang about a job lead and the machine greeted them to do my talking. The FDIC called and said they wanted to set up an interview and I was hired two weeks later to close down insolvent banks. It was 1990 and there were many job postings by the FDIC and the RTC because of the record number of savings and loans and banks failing and they needed many worker ants and were paying well for it. $28,000 a year was the amount of bait I bit, and was now a Collateral Liquidation Specialist.
There was a two week training program on how to enter the loans of the insolvent bank onto the data bases of the government, who came in and seized all assets and liabilities of the bank. Where you would be assigned next was always kept a secret and you were told a week before getting shipped anywhere from Maine to Florida for two or three weeks, and it wasn't a vacation. It was two weeks of fourteen hour days.
My orders came down and I was assigned to the Seamen's Bank for Savings on Wall Street. It was a large bank and the accounts were confusing and it would take several weeks to finish the liquidation. My supervisor on that Monday morning showed me around and through the mortgages on the books and he was a guy that I remember liking and thinking that he didn't belong there either.
I didn't like it from the start. As soon as I stepped off the elevator, there was the faint odor of rotting flesh and the feel of doom and gloom everywhere, people almost out of a job hanging their heads and shuffling their feet. It couldn't be seen from the conference room where we worked and were supposed to stay put and not move except to go to the bathroom and lunch. We were supposed to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Behind me outside were the columns and pediment of the New York Stock Exchange bright with the spring sun and all day long I played a game of matching the loan payments printed on the big green and white ledger printer paper to the entries of loan transactions on a stack of white papers.
It soon became maddening and when it wasn't maddening it put me to sleep. My head bobbing and frequent trips to the bathroom and long lunches were getting noticed and warnings were issued. As a finance major in business school, I always wanted to make it to Wall Street, to fight for my piece of the pie. Now I was finally there and it was to close down banks.
I am not here on this earth to shut things down and turn off the lights and the music, so one rainy day I left for lunch to think about whether to stay or go. I couldn't take even another half day. There was no place to stop and think because the restaurants and shops were all jammed full on a rainy day. I'll walk to the train at the World Trade Center and think about it on the way under the umbrella.
Walking toward the escape route, my mind was made up more and more. On the escalators going down to the train back to Jersey, I decided to leave the FDIC even if it was
a high-paying job with a comprehensive health plan and a 401(k).
I'm going to do it... I think.
Down on the platform, I noticed the concrete and the paint and the smell and the sounds more because there was hardly anybody waiting. It was me and a few other people who looked unemployed. All the Wall Street warriors were up there in battle and mine was here.
The train approached and it was my last chance. I could turn around, go up the escalator and get back to my seat and match loan transactions and no one would know. The doors opened, I hesitated, and then stepped into the train and remember looking down at the crack between the platform and the train as I crossed over it, like stepping over the Continental Divide. I had dared to.
The ride was over quickly and I had to gain my feet again, shuffling off the train in Roselle Park and to the liquor store across the street for a fifth of scotch. Two hours later, drunk, I called my boss and told him I quit.
"I can't live that kind of life. I just can't do it."
* Canvasser 6/90 NJ PIRG - NJ Public Interest Research Group (age 25) Fed up with the world of business, my thoughts turned to working for a non-profit organization for a good cause, maybe something for the environment and I called groups like The Nature Conservancy and The Sierra Club and had them send information. Certainly there were volunteer opportunities with them and I would have loved to but there were those pesky details like the rent and utilities and insurance and food and debt. Most of the job opportunities were for biologists and chemists and forestry majors and such and hardly any for people with degrees in business. It's those kinds of people that have been most of the problem.
Opening the classifieds one day, there was an ad for college students and grads wanted to advocate better standards for the environment against industrial pollution and it was with NJ PIRG. The US PIRG had just won its first victory with the passing of the Clean Air Act. The job was for canvassers to go out door-to-door and collect donations for the cause. Sure the pay wouldn't be much, probably not even enough to live on but by this time I wasn't too concerned about that.
As long as I could feel right about doing it instead of treading the mill of some damned corporation so they could make a profit and destroy our planet. One of PIRG's pet causes was also banking reform because of the rise in fees and the creation of other new ones that ate away a depositor's savings. I agreed that this is wrong too and was gung-ho to hit the streets. I was going to make a difference.
After a couple days of training on the issues and the ways of appealing to people to get them to cough up money (with the basic tactics of salesmanship), we climbed into the cars of our group leaders, about five or six of us with photocopied maps in our hands, and headed for the neighborhood we were assigned to hit that night. Mostly everyone was a recent graduate from college and young and idealistic and the car stopped to drop a pair at their designated corner and then carried on to the next drop-off point to let off another pair. One canvasser went down one side of the street and the other one worked the other in their sweep of the sector.
I went door-to-door and gave my spiel in the hot and muggy evenings about the state of our environment and that PIRG had been responsible for the passing of the recently signed Clean Air Act and how, with their donation, we could sponsor reform in the environment and in banking. Many people had to believe in this as deeply as me I thought and the tens and twenties and fifties would be peeled off into my waiting, open hands but too many people answered with a "No thank you" and a door in the face.
What's the problem? This is Westfield, this is a wealthy town with well-to-do people that could spare a twenty for the environment, couldn't they? Why aren't these people responding to the problem we have of swimming in our own shit and why aren't they helping to pull us out of it? What's wrong with these people?
This was happening way too many times and I was getting discouraged but pressed on. The next person to give a shit will be at the next door, just wait and see, it'll happen. Well... you guessed it, it didn't happen. Maybe you're a little wiser to the situation than I was.
The resentment and anger was in my voice and delivery and a few women ducked behind their doors and slammed it shut between us. I found a tree on a corner to cool down under and my partner came by and asked if I was okay. We really weren't supposed to be loitering under someone's tree on their property and we had a lot of ground to cover.
"I'm done for tonight, I've had enough."
It dawned on me that the reason nobody cared was because we were in heavily industrialized north Jersey and these people were wealthy because they were the executives of the oil and chemical and manufacturing companies and they weren't going to bite the hand that feeds them. They wanted a better environment like they wanted a hole in the head.
I didn't say any of this to him and he headed down the street to the next house. Tears threatened to burst as the reality of the situation hit me and realized I had to move on. But to what? There wasn't anything I wanted to do in the business world anymore but that's where the money is. Imagine having the freedom to pursue whatever you want to do, whatever gives you satisfaction and pride, and you don't have to worry about making much money doing it because you are living modestly and don't need much. I wonder if that can be done?
* Started co-writing "1(800)", a play set in a telemarketing office - 6/90 (age 25).
* Telemarketer 6/90 Dynamark Security Systems (age 25)
One night while over Ed's house for a small party, everyone had either left or passed out by four in the morning and he asked to speak with me out on the front steps where we wouldn't wake anyone up. He told me of an idea for a play that he and Ken from College Savings Bank had been tossing around back then and it was set in a telemarketing office in a job that nobody really wanted to do but had to, but that was about as much as they had and he asked would I like to write a comedy with him. We had worked together well in the past and it was bound to be funny.
I was shocked, never having considered being a writer before. Sure, I had done a fair share of reading since the age of eight, wrote well in English classes, had Honors English in high school and took some Shakespeare in college but... Wow! I didn't know if I could do it or should do it or if I should drop out of the job race to write a play... "Okay." The next month I moved in with he and his wife.
We decided to take a few jobs in telemarketing to do research and get the feel for the environment and write down what we heard and said. We were going to mine the dregs of telemarketing where nobody stayed long and hardly anybody wanted to be there to dial the phone and harass people into buying a product. Ed had just accepted a job as a telemarketing manager of a home security systems company after bailing out voluntarily from his professional advertising job and I would be the supervisor and together we could build the place up. There was apparently a lot of room for improvement.
It was our job to call people, straight out of a neighborhood directory, and get them to meet with one of Dynamark's sales reps and there was a commission for every appointment that sat with both the husband and the wife there. The reps wouldn't make a pitch if one of them wasn't there. They didn't do "one leggers" because the husband would always have to check with the wife and vice versa and after talking it over in private, many times they got talked out of it. If they were both there for the sit, the couple could be sold at the same time and any objections overcome together and more often they would sign.
When we arrived that first day and walked down the hall to the phone room, there was the smell of stale cigarette smoke outside the doorway and inside was the source of the stink. On just about every brown table around the room against the pale yellow walls was an ashtray with butts and schmutz all over the table and hotel bells and papers loose and scattered about. The tan linoleum floor was chipped and even dirtier. He was right, this was a fixer-upper.
We wanted to have Before and After video of the room, so we closed the door and Ed stood outside in the hall with the video camera and I pushed the door open from below the frame and onto the squalor of the room as it was and he panned the room. Then we got busy. The first step was throwing out any garbage and then sweeping and wiping down the tables and removing them from the room. After that we washed the walls.
That's right, we washed the walls with large sponges and buckets of soapy water and grime ran down to the floor. Clear-wiping and then quickly drying the walls, we moved to the floor and got down on hands and knees to scrape up long-dried whatever and elbow greased out some gummy stuff. A sweep, a mop and another pass with the mop left the room as clean as it ever would be.
The owner and his partner came by and were having a big laugh about us and asked if we were putting them up for Better Office and Gardens. Shelley was a fat, smiley man whose grin I soon discovered was his way of disarming you but he could have his funny, sarcastic moments. One shift he appeared in the doorway wearing sandals with slacks and Ed pointed and said, "Nice sandals" and he said, "Yeah, me and Christ". Bart was his partner with a droopy mustache and a wise-assed look like he might have done some time.
A small budget was given to us for improvements and we bought blue indoor-outdoor carpet and shazamm, it was like another office. Now it was time for the After shot and Ed started rolling video just outside the room and I pulled slowly on a string tacked to the bottom corner of the door and it closed to show the new Dynamark sign on it. The transformation was made.
The telemarketers were coming in the next day and would be shocked, they'd love it we thought. They'll be ecstatic.
Well, not everyone loved it. The ringleader before we got there was a large and negative woman who claimed she was the next in line for Manager and should have gotten the job. She had been there the longest. Without much of a leg to stand on and certainly not pleased as punch about the improvements, she was the first casualty and left in a huff about unfairness. Actually, we were kind of banking on her leaving so we'd get rid of the baddest apple.
The others stayed, two women from Trenton and a pretty blond college girl. It was pretty simple really. All we had to do was get the appointment, just impress on them that they could at any time be the next victim of a breaking and entering unless they got a home security system and then persuade them to meet with one of our guys.
"One of our representatives will be in your neighborhood this week, would Wednesday or Thursday be a better day?"
Always make them choose between one thing and another. Don't give them the chance to say no.
Shelley and Bart had their eyes open for any burglaries in the area and every couple of days one of them would come rushing into the room, "There's been a break-in at Greenwood and Johnson. Work those leads all in that neighborhood, hurry up!"
Great, we were swooping in like vultures to pick off the rotting flesh. We would dial and tell them that there has been a break-in right there in their neighborhood and that security is an important issue in these times and... "Which house was broken into?", they would ask.
"I'm not at liberty to give out that information but one of our reps will be in your neighborhood with home security brochures and..."
Our suspicions were without any grounds in evidence, but what if Shelley and Bart or some hired guns went around breaking into houses to create a scare in the neighborhood and then had us a-calling to provide these frightened people with safety and security? It sure would be a way for them to instantly create a demand for their product and they always did seem to have the scoop on where the good burglaries were. It was circumstantial evidence but weighing heavily against it was the fact that they could certainly be accused more of buffoonery than burglary.
After two weeks or so it was becoming clear that the relationship had already ran its natural course. We had seen enough of their act and it was time to split, and there wasn't quite the money in it they had said but in a sales job, you're either selling or you're buying. We had sold them too and now it was time to cast our lines out for another phone job.
* Telemarketer 6/90 N.J. Marketing (age 25) We responded to an ad looking for telemarketers to sell ads in magazines and they were in a building with stairs on the outside to get up to their office on the second floor. Down below on the first was a music store and as we waited for the interview, the faint sound of an electric guitar was wailing. The office was dimly lit, mostly from the sun through dusty open windows and many rooms with doors led to others and gave the effect of a buzzing hive of bees. With so many people talking, it should have been louder but they all were hunched over, mostly men with a rough edge who cupped their hands over the phone and looked at us from the sly.
The boss came out and offered his pork chop paw to shake, a big man with a block of a head from beefy shoulders and a gut that tested the mettle of his belt. He was a fast talker Scott was, handing us a few magazines for Fire and Police professionals and we flipped through them while he said that we would be calling up businesses and selling them ad space by the eighth of a page, but quarters and halves were even better. A portion of the money for the ads he said went to those unfortunate men and women who were injured in the line of duty, like our brother firefighters lying in burn units.
It was a good thing to do, to help the firemen and police but there was something creepy-crawly about it and Scott told us not to use our real names on the phone. Also, we were never to claim affiliation with the firefighters or the police. "Okay, let's keep it fresh", he said and picked up a lead and dialed the phone and put it over the speaker.
When the phone picked up, Scott introduced himself as "Jim" and rattled off a pitch that was more like a bullying session and even implied that the police and firemen know who buys ads and he might not get a quick response from them in an emergency if he wasn't on that list. The store owner was coerced into a half page ad in the next issue and we would send one of the boys in the morning to pick up a check. Slamming the phone into the cradle, Scott-Jim let out a "Fuck you!" at the phone. "See, that's how you do it!"
We were then shown to our phones and handed a list and told to get started. Next to me was a dumpy man with long, stringy hair who said hi and laughed silly and wicked. It was around ten o' clock and we could take lunch at twelve-thirty. No application, no resume, no last names. Just "Hi, I'm Rod" and "I'm Ed" and we were hired.
By lunchtime, the creepy-crawlies were overwhelming and I had no sales yet either. I was soft-soaping too much and this was more of a beat-them-over-the-head-and-roll-'em kind of a sale. We didn't want to get caught in there when the net fell and besides, we got enough of the picture and decided not to return after lunch. Since we were now on our own time, we popped into an adult book store to browse the fetishes and perversions and sex toys and catch some peep shows. Next door out in the sun was a deli where we bought sandwiches and a newspaper to shop the ads for another telemarketing job, hopefully one we could get that day or the next.
* Telemarketer 6/90 - 9/90 G&P Marker Factory (age 25 to 26)
The first interview was with a company in a drab and treeless business park and coming off of the interstate, the "park" was about as unattractive as it could be with warehouses and trucks going in and out whose weight and gigantic wheels had pulverized the asphalt and made it a bumpy ride for the next mile. George's directions led us to a small sign on the street and up to the glass door tinted green with "G&P Marker Factory" in white.
This place was small. Walking through the front door, there was a bulletin board and you either had to go left or right and the secretary was to the right asking if she could help us. A plump Italian woman named Michelle, pretty and bosomy, she told George the owner behind us in his office that we were there to see him. She didn't have to talk loud, it was only about eight or nine feet between them. I'm sure she heard everything he ever said, even if he shut the door and she was surely listening in as George closed it and asked us to have a seat.
He was round-faced and slightly buck-toothed with a seventies bushy sweep of hair and sideburns that probably had been longer. He asked where we were working and handed us a product catalogue and we said Dynamark and that we had doubts about their ethics and that's why we left. Of course we didn't mention where we were that morning. We're writing a play we told him (we didn't say what about) and want a job that gives us the freedom and we could be just the guys he needed to drum up some business. The selling had begun.
It didn't take much. George had been a keyboard player back when the good times were rolling and dancing in the seventies and his band was getting steady gigs for a few years. When it came time to take it on the road, he had just gotten married and had to put down his roots and the band played on with another man at the keys. He longed for that time out the window and he met the glaze with his eyes. That was seventeen years ago.
"... and for the last thirteen I've been here... bought it from my father-in-law with a partner Pete, George and Pete Marker Factory and here I am. Just bought him out two years ago. Said he had enough and wanted out. Anyway guys..." and he switched on automatic pilot and launched into what the company sells and referred to the catalogue by page without looking as he lead us through the whole line of products for packing and shipping.
First were the paint markers used for writing on boxes in shipping departments: "Replaceable, bullet-tipped, ink-packed, pump valve, quick dry, screw-capped, steel shell, shake well, permanent, 1/4 inch super markers. Best in the business. I want you to stress quality with these. They never dry out... yeah, Joey came up with this. 'To keep your guys on the dock from stealing these bad boys, take off the caps and keep them. That way they can't put 'em in their pockets when they go home.' Kind of ingenious, huh?" Yeah, kind of.
The next best seller was sealing tape for taping shut the boxes: "2 by 110, 60 gauge, 30 mil filament, reinforced, non-asphaltic, sheer to adhesion, quick tack, duct, non-skid, gummed, printed grip tape". They also sold bubblewrap but there wasn't much margin in it, "It's like shipping air."
"So you want the job guys, it's yours?"
"Come on, I'll give you the two cent tour of the place" and we followed him right to a woman in the next office, gaunt and thirty-fivish with mischief in her eyes as she smiled and welcomed us to G & P. She was a salesperson, one of his best and George led us out past his office and past the front door to the other side in the sales room.
Hanging up a phone was a mustachioed man, rotund and out-going named Joe who reached out his hand but didn't get up and before you knew it we were trading a few laughs. Joe was married to Michelle and he said she was his spicy meatball. Two other guys came in from the warehouse and George introduced us to Tim in a ball cap and shorts, the shipping and receiving man, and the other salesman named Fishman who just returned to the company after three years. He talked slowly but had been around and was kind of like our Judd Hirsch on "Taxi".
George opened the door to the warehouse which wasn't very big at all, maybe you could park four cars in there and we took notes as he went through the stock. There were shelving units for the smaller and lighter merchandise like the markers of several types and colors and various tapes and packing labels and such. Around the outside was heavy orange shelves for storing boxes and bubblewrap that took up a lot of room.
A few steps in was the outline of a home plate taped in red and Joe said it was from when Gustavo was there. They used to play wiffle ball and the games kicked ass Tim said, those were the days. Gustavo left three weeks before and was selling at the competitors' company who hired him away and now we were there to replace him, hired again on the spot. When we were leaving the office that day, George wouldn't have known our last names if he hadn't remembered to call after us at the door, "Oh by the way guys, what's your last names? So I can get you down on the payroll".
It's like that in a lot of telemarketing jobs, they don't need to know your whole story, where you've been and what you did and why you left. Can you talk on the phone and sell, that's it. Can you sell? You probably won't be there long anyway so why get all mushy? Someone was in your seat last night and someone else will be there the night after you're gone.
Gustavo was a legend there, he could sell anything. Even in the recession he had shipping managers believing that the upturn in business was right around the corner and they'd better be prepared when the boss wanted the stuff rolling off the line and into the trucks. Joe said he was a mediocre salesman himself until Gustavo came in and he learned it was all in the attitude and you bullied them and sold them the upside and the positive. If that didn't work Joe said, "You beg 'em. Sometimes it works, if you don't mind getting down on your knees. Whatever it takes to get the sale."
He had a steady stream of leads that bought from him every month but that was starting to trickle because the economy was going on too long in the recession and production was getting cut back. Some companies were laying off their shipping people so they weren't in the mood for buying and there's only so many tricks you can pull out of your sleeve. Joe we noticed was resorting more and more to begging.
"Come on, you gotta give me some of them bad boys. You can even use the markers as sexual aids", as he grasped for new and improved ways to use the products.
Ed and I were given the leads that had long ago said "No, no, no, no, no" and were buying their tape and markers from someone else. Most of them were Gustavo's customers that had defected with him. He was beating us on price ten percent to get them to follow and we couldn't take it anymore, with that and call after call of woes of the economy and how there was a buying freeze.
"Oh you're slow right now? So how's business?" and I hung up. "George, we need a better price on tape. Give us ten percent, at least. Gustavo and the economy are killing us."
"I don't want you to stress price on these guys. I told you, I want you to stress quality. We got the best tape in the business."
"I know, but when the pistol doesn't work you pull out the knife."
Ed said some guys were getting it cheaper at Staples.
"You're gettin' them at Staples?", yelled Joe, "You're gettin' rocked!"
So was George and Maureen getting rocked and it was with each other if you know what I mean, wink wink, nod nod. Joe clued us in one afternoon that when they said they were going to lunch, they were going back to her place about two blocks away and that's where they were now. Michelle came in and said she started to suspect something because of the glances and flirting and then she heard them a few times and what they were going to do and she was caught in the middle, being one of his wife's best friends.
When they were shopping or talking on the phone, she wanted to tell her what was going on but she couldn't. Her job was on the line and her husband's if this blew up and there was a divorce.
"Maybe it'll blow over and they'll keep the marriage together and the kids won't be harmed if I just keep it quiet."
I think George knew we knew what was going on.
A few doors down in our building were baseball and softball batting cages and we went to swat a few after work one day. All of us had some experience with batting. Joe was a ballplayer in high school (it was hard to believe) and I played Little League and Ed played hockey as a kid. We made contact with a few of the balls in the Medium speed cage for two rounds of ten and then tried to stand up to the pitches in the Fast cage as they whizzed in and we tried to swing that fast. Six of them got by me before making contact and I got a piece of the last one too.
Joe was doing a lot of bragging about how good of a hitter he was in school and he was a long ball hitter because he couldn't run that fast and he could hit more than any of us anytime and we decided to have a batting competition to settle the score. It was a ten game derby graphed out on a large easel pad and we chipped in to have a trophy made with a gold batter on top to pronounce the winner as "The Batting King of G&P".
We were taking this thing seriously and it was one of the most intensely competitive matches I've ever had but we were having fun, something like brotherly rivalry. This wasn't the Olympics or anything and it was always a cacklefest with Joe around.
The scoring was set for each pitch and where you hit the ball. Of course if you whiffed a ball you got a zero. You got one point if you hit a grounder, five points for hitting the wall up to the line about ten feet high and ten points for a smash over the line that was like hitting a home run. Add that up for all twenty pitches and that was a game and the Batting King Competition would be ten games, two games each week for five weeks. This would give us time to practice in between.
The next day was the first two games and the lineup was as follows:
Joey "No Nuts" Fish "All Juice No Seed"
Ed "Big Balls" Roddy "Slick Sack"
Tim "Oily Orbs"
We found a helmet that fit and a bat and warmed up and Joe was telling about the Mets game he went to the week before.
"I was throwing peanuts at your boy Strawberry."
"Joe", Ed said, "You were throwing peanuts at a multi-millionaire."
"I know, that's why I done it", and he walked into the cage with his red helmet squeezing in his face and it didn't look like he'd be able to get his arms across that body.
He stepped up to the plate and took the Wes Covington stance. That was his hero and Joe always used the stance back in school when he batted cleanup. These days it was dinner plates he was clearing.
The pitches in the Medium cage came in pretty fast and Joe was getting his bat out on them. He wasn't slugging them yet but I thought he was full of it with all of his bragging about being a ballplayer and now I didn't. Ed went next and did all right and I tagged a few but Joe came out the winner of the first two games and took the early lead and pranced around the office in victory.
"I'm the King, I'm the King, I'm the King of G&P!"
Ed and I quickly made the first edition of the G&P Gazette to announce, "No If's And's or But's - It's 'No Nuts'!" We didn't mind using silly puns in our interviews like "Next time I might try choking up a little... and if that doesn't help I might try moving my hands up on the bat". "I know I got a 30 in me somewhere... and I think I can get ten more points too."
I don't know how we got on the topic one day out in the warehouse, maybe we were talking about Bengal or tigers and Joe tells us that his next door neighbor is this knockout model who looks a lot like Tawny Kitaen and hanging above the white sofa in her living room is this huge picture, he said, about four by eight feet framed in gold.
"It's her right there and she's buck naked straddling a Bengal tiger... right Mick, you saw it" he yelled to Michelle in the next room, "Wasn't she Mick, straddling a Bengal tiger al fresco? I offered her five hundred for it and Mick said I could visit the picture but I couldn't own her. Hey that's not so bad, I can live with that. She's a good woman, I love my little meatball. Watch this."
He rocked up from his chair and we followed him to Michelle.
"Come on hon, tittie smash?"
"Aww, come on. These guys are all right."
She stood up by the filing cabinets and threw out her bosoms.
"Tittie smash!" Joe yelled and charged, plowing his face right between them.
"You guys want to try?", he asked with hair in his face.
"Oh no", she said and sat down, folding her arms and laughing.
"She's a great sport, isn't she?"
Well, she could have let us try.
George got us in a huddle one morning because he wanted to add corrugated cardboard boxes to the product line and he thought Ed and I were the guys to get it off the ground. Because it would be a separate division of the company, we named ourselves as the vice presidents, Ed quickly claiming the executive vice presidency and my nameplate showed as "Box Cartonsen, Senior V.P., Corrugated Box Division". George even had a salesman from the factory come in to give us the poop on cardboard and boxes and what's a Jones Packer.
"We're the only eight dollar, short-wearin' half-a-day Vice Presidents in the country... we're a new breed", Ed said.
A slogan was needed and we took most of an afternoon tossing around ideas. Ed finally went with "Box Box Box" and I liked "We live, breathe and eat Box". Michelle didn't find mine that funny.
The fifth, sixth and seventh games of the Batting Competition I hit a slump from thinking too much and overemphasizing one variable of the swing and I was losing my confidence in meeting the ball and driving it. Every pitch is a chance to score or another chance to choke.
The eighth game I pulled out of it and was meeting the ball just a little back in that flash of an instant and pulled it through and rolled the wrists and drove them straight out in line drives. Ed had taken the lead in the standings after the second or third game, hitting consistently and it looked like he was going to take the title but Joe stepped up strong in the last two games with the competitive spirit of yesteryear and came up with the most points to win. I was in third with "Oily Orbs" fourth and "All Juice No Seed" in last.
The Gazette on that historic day proclaimed "Big Balls Falls - No Nuts Is Batting King of G&P!" Joe held the trophy on his head and we followed him in a train around the office to "I'm the King! I'm the King!" before he crowned the moment with a big Tittie Smash to hooting and hollering. Yes, she was a good sport and they loved each other.
We revived the wiffleball games in the warehouse as a break from making phone calls but after a while the calls became the breaks and laid-back George had a few words with us about getting on the phone. Discipline and morale were breaking up with the recession and Gustavo gone and the affair especially because our respect for George was eroding fast and I think he knew it but he seemed unable to loosen himself from Maureen's grasps to save his own ship. He was stuck in his own web and it looked like the time to leave on that note before they got too sour.
We would stop back sometime we promised, and we did two months later and it seemed incredible to us that they were still doing the same thing, selling tape and markers and shipping supplies over the phone day after day after day. Did that ever happen to you? You go back to an old job, not even long after you left and you're thinking, How could these people still be doing this? I'd be crazy by now if that's all I did. But someone has to do it, don't they? Someone has to keep throwing out the garbage.
Onward to Resume_3.html
Backward to Resume_1.html
Back to Andrew Bellware's homepage.