In 1969 I found myself repairing electric shavers at a major retailer’s central warehouse in San Francisco. To get the job, I’d said I wore long hair and a beard because I was Amish. That I was on my “Rumspringa” –a time when young Amish males go out into the world before committing to a life of simplicity. It worked! They couldn’t risk not hiring me because of religion, even though the beard was counterintuitive to a shaver repairman.
Part of their sales promotion was to give customers a trade-in discount for their used shaver. Consequently we had barrels of old shavers around. We were supposed to cannibalize them for usable parts and throw the rest away.
But I had a better idea. When I’d finished repairing all my shavers on a particular day, I’d refurbish some of the better-looking trade-ins to sell at the flea market. My boss Carlos happened to be an accomplished crook (more on Carlos below). For a small percentage of the take, he’d get the shavers out of the warehouse for me. Perfect set-up. I didn’t pay a dime for anything. I got paid for making shavers up from used parts. Anything I sold would be pure profit. Ten dollars or two dollars per shaver, it didn’t fucking matter. As long as the sale was made. Nobody lost. We gained. Plus, I was doing a good deed. Disadvantaged folks could now afford an electric shaver. Power to the People!
So one Sunday, Momma X and I were working the flea market, tending our table of refurbished shavers. I was laying out a sales pitch to a potential customer when I looked up. Uh-oh! Here comes the head security guard from Macy’s warehouse—headed up the aisle toward us. I bolted, mid-conversation.
Momma’s yelling after me, “Where you going? What’s wrong?”
I hustled my ass off to where I could watch but not likely be seen. Waiting until the guard passed my booth before I headed back, feeling very cloak-and-dagger. Needless to say, the abandoned customer was gone. Close call.
That prick guard always had a hard-on for our department. He knew we were up to something but couldn’t figure out what. One time, Carlos, another coworker and I were hauled into the office. Seems the guard had been on the warehouse roof with binoculars when he saw the three of us in a car “splitting something up” after work, implying we were sharing a pile of money. We were probably passing a joint around.
We never did get caught on that caper, but not far down the line, I had to drive Carlos across the state line because the cops were getting too close on some other shit. Something about a shipment of watches.
As much of a crook as Carlos was, I couldn’t help but learn some angles. After all, he’d come up in the streets of Juarez, a tough Mexican border town and had to make his own way. He had several aliases, mostly designed to be ambiguous as to race or ethnic origin. I never knew his real name.
He once told me: “Keep your eyes open, man. Watch for every opportunity. Make your own opportunities. … Don’t get caught.”
Thinking back, I had already been doing pretty much what he’d suggested, albeit without as much legal ambiguity. When a kid, during a bad snowstorm, we’d get a “snow day” off from school. I saw that as an opportunity to get out and shovel walks for spending money, which was scarce around our house. Several posts ago, I mentioned as a teenager, “noodling” for hibernating snapping turtles in winter to sell to a fancy restaurant. I also worked in a drug store at night. Hah! Talk about the fox and henhouse.
After Carlos split California, another friend called from back east to say he’d rented an old stone farmhouse in rural Buck’s County Pa. Since my job was becoming tenuous, (what with my boss having disappeared) I was laid off in a cloud of suspicion.
That made me eligible for unemployment. Which, BTW I could switch to Pennsylvania. Groovy or what?
Not long after arriving in Pa, and nearly unemployable (being Amish country, I didn’t try to press the beard issue) I saw a ’48 Chevy three-quarter ton pickup for sale. Good shape. Rebuilt engine. Five-window cab. White. 17-inch wheels. I named it: “The Great White Whale” (also the title of a previous post on these pages). I put an ad in the local paper for ‘light hauling’, initiating what was soon to become “Willy-Nilly Construction, Instruction and Destruction Company.”
We also started doing flea markets, selling better items we’d found cleaning out attics and basements. I got the flea market idea because of my … Well… my experience. Kept us going until the first big snowfall when Momma and I decided we’d be better off in California.
Off we went. Those were the days.
And I remained observant. I expanded on what I’d learned in the flea markets (and from Carlos). I learned what was quality and what wasn’t worth diddly. Sure, I made some mistakes, but that’s how one learns. Through opportunity. To discern a good prospect from a losing proposition. That’s the genesis of not only my antiques business, but this writing hobby that has become so dear (if not as profitable in the financial sense). That eye for opportunity has honed skills of observation that are precious on many levels.
Now to get it on the page. Maybe do a memoir? These OGG posts are mounting up, and perhaps I can put ‘em together somehow. Best get it pubbed and hustle up lots of money while I can still spend.
I may never get another opportunity.