It’s not like I planned life to turn out this way. Jobs were simply a factor of desperation to get by, stumbling from gig to gig.
Believe me, most people wouldn’t choose to drive a paint truck for a living. Or work in a steel mill. But where I grew up, a kid out of high school had few choices. I’d tried higher education, which I have already elaborated on in these pages. The pool halls of South Philly were more engaging than business school. Overcut in every class within a month. I wasn’t the best model for an accountant.
So, my early jobs weren’t of the highest caliber, but I’d learned a few things along the way.
I drove the paint truck for two years in New Jersey, working for a national company (you’d know the name). The manager actually owned the building, registered to a holding company. The parent company didn’t know that. So the manager wrote himself a check for rent every month.
Kaching! Money can be made on the side when an opportunity presents itself.
I applied to the mill because they paid better. Two-fifty an hour. And they were union. United Steelworkers. That’s where I learned I didn’t want to work in a steel mill the rest of my life. Even at twenty years old, one could see what happened to men who’d been there a while. Thirty-five, pot-bellied, permanently bent from crouching, banding bundles of rebar eight hours a day. Drunk at work and off. Chance of crushing, burning, whipped with hot steel bars. Impalings were a danger in my department.
Down in the basements and sub-basements of the mill, some three and four levels down. From controlled “Clean rooms” to vast areas buried with accumulated steel scale, water rushing through flumes to flush the filth away. Rats the size of rabbits. Emphysema. Cancer. Grease pits chest deep need to be periodically cleaned out.
Nowhere to go except …wow… crane operator. Maybe some day…
When Momma and I moved to California, I took a job repairing small appliances. I was fast. I’d finish all my work by noon, then spend the rest of the day in the bar next door. Or the one down the block. Over a number of years I worked for several employers, learning what goes on behind the scenes in downtown San Francisco. Momma X was quite ill at the time, so we didn’t have much coming in. One income at that job level was just enough for us to squeak by.
I hustled where I could. Mostly made the best of the situation. Sold weed so we didn’t have to pay for it. As long as there was a dependable check coming in, we learned to adjust our lifestyle to suit.
At one point, we needed side income and decided to start a catering business. The Visiting Chef. I was, and still am a pretty good cook. Had business cards printed up. Did a few jobs, met a guy who had just opened a restaurant in Mendocino. We moved to the wilds of the coast for a few years, coming back to the city for money-making trips every now and then.
“There’s cash in that city. Gonna go get me some…”
In time, somebody offered a better job in San Francisco, working in two restaurants for a noted entrepreneur. As chef (and sometimes bartender) in North Beach, my food earned over a dozen favorable reviews in four years. The only less-than-positive comment was that my chicken curry wasn’t up to Gaylord’s, back in the 70’s, the best Indian restaurant in town. At three times our price.
Around this time, Momma’s health situation finally stabilized, such as it is. There were hills and valleys, which still occupy a special place in our respective psyches. Bottom line was that she could now work, and that we’d have two incomes. We began doing better. Her job at the publishing house was reliable, and I could go out and do what I do best.
I moved from the kitchen to a bar at a bowling alley in a dubious neighborhood. Learned a lot there, too.
Became interested in Ancient Greek and Roman coins along the way. Began collecting affordable examples, learning as I made modest purchases. At coin shows, I hung around the ancients dealers. After a while, those U.S. Silver Dollars from the 1800’s all look the same.
From coins, I learned about ancient art. Coins are among the most affordable examples of ancient sculpture. They represent an identifiable, state-of-the-art advertisement that spread from a country or city-state out into the world. It said: “Look at us. This is the quality of our art. We are a sophisticated lot.” Much like our postage stamps in modern times.
Once you get into the coins, you’ll start meeting people who have ancient objects. Terracotta oil lamps. Bronze fibulas, once used for holding a toga together. Fibulas work like the basic safety pin. Inexpensive stuff, considering they’re 2000 years old. I could sell you a lamp today for $75. I used to buy them by the dozen. Of course, a well-preserved erotic themed lamp could cost thousands. (Read “Light My Fire” in “Brand X”, my new collection coming out through Excessica in April, edited by our own Lisabet Sarai. Cover by blogmate Willsin Rowe.)
With experience, I became more confident about my judgment, making fewer and fewer mistakes. Buying bigger and better antiquities and tribal art from all over the world.
Was asked to serve on the vetting committee at San Francisco’s Fall Antique Show, one of the city’s more prestigious society events. Asked to speak at the Commonwealth Club. The American Association of University Women. The Rotary Club. At local grade schools for show-and-tell. I taught adult education workshops.
I had made it. I felt like an expert.
Though I also felt like a fraud. I was rubbing elbows with and commanding respect from the real experts. I’ve often wondered if they were all faking it too.
Now, if this sounds like a smooth transition from poverty to something like success, it wasn’t. I finally realize how lucky I am that it worked out so well. Through much of my life, though I could flirt with the upper echelons of a particular field, I never reached the stratosphere. Not in the restaurant business. Not in the antiques business. Not in any of my other hustles. (There is one I’m still involved with…ahem…@ mid level… but won’t mention for propriety.)
I was privileged to be a part of both scenes. I got to know the big players and walk the same turf. I got to experience both careers on a fairly high level. That’s success—if not in the monetary sense—certainly on the self-fulfillment scale. Like a George Plimpton. Or a Baron von Munchausen who really did what they said he did. The Great Pretenders.
Why is it that we have to struggle so much to make a go of life? It took cancer, near death and a liver transplant for me to see the world in proper perspective. I look at things a bit differently now. There were times I lamented my number of shit jobs, my mediocre successes. Why I could never knock it out of the park.
Of course, that could have required doing just one thing my entire life.
I understand now that it has translated to being proficient in more things than the average bear. That I have lived a rich and varied life. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.
Would I recommend such a path for everyone?