Work Along The Way
I have been thinking about what it must be like to choose a career as a young adult, or even a child, go to school or apprenticeships to learn the skills required, and then earn a living in your chosen field. Some people, many people in fact, do the same job all of their lives and historically this was the way. Earning the right to retire from a profession as a skilled and dedicated employee or business owner has been a rite of passage since long before my time.
So, what happened with me? By the time I graduated from high school I was sure of only one thing. I was an artist and I loved horses, but I had no idea what I wanted to do or what job I wanted to have. My first job was short order cook, followed by silver cleaner at a department store, stable hand and then racetrack groom. Going to college was something to do but I didn’t know what I wanted to learn. I was a late bloomer, a sheltered kid to be sure and who knows how long I would have stayed in the nest, but I didn’t have long to consider it because my parents decided that because I liked to draw, that I needed to go to college to become a “real” artist.
How curious that they found an art school within driving distance of where my sister lived so I could live with her… and her two kids… and be her babysitter. This was a continuation of a pattern, but being a parent pleaser I went along. So, my first college experience was to live with my sister, 13 years my senior, (a virtual stranger) and her two young kids. I slept on a cot in her dining room. The house was never quiet, as you can imagine, and there were many people coming through the doors at every hour of the day and night. Let’s just say it wasn’t a perfect situation for an artist or any other first time college student.
After some time I made friends at the college and had an opportunity to share an apartment (my first) with a fellow student and friend. It was a beautiful building in rural Pennsylvania… an old stone and brick mill next to a river. We lived on the fourth floor and it truly was a great experience to live in the woods by a river. That stuck with me. What didn’t stick was going to school for Fine Art. I realized that I was not going to be able to make a living with art so when it was time for summer vacation, I returned to Florida with no intention of going back.
It was good to be back home with my friends and parents but now I faced another question… what was I going to do? I had no idea but when a friend asked me to join her at a local Carnival that needed a couple of people to work for the week, I jumped at the chance! This turned into several seasons of travelling the East Coast with what was at the time the second largest travelling show in the country and the only one on rails. We set up in big cities for regional and state fairs and I made more money than I had ever seen. I learned many things there, some which changed everything that I thought I knew or understood. To this day, going to a carnival is something I don’t like to do but that’s another story.
The years that followed were a blur of jobs and change and throughout that time I never really felt a calling to do anything specific for the rest of my life. I waitressed, did factory piecework, pumped gas, joined the Army, groomed dogs and worked at the Garden Spot Badge Company, making and assembling ribbons and trophies for horse shows and events. I learned every aspect of the job and enjoyed it greatly. Then, I found a job working with plants. I became an ornamental horticulturist and I loved it, and did it for seven years, rising to middle management. I felt at home doing it. I couldn’t wait to go to work every day, and then I hurt my back.
I had never thought about traction before, but I spent a week in traction and two years on workers comp. This is where the chronic pain started… in 1987. My time with plants was done. Once I was able to begin working again, I worked with toys. Everyone has seen the machines in bars and stores where for some change you get to drop a metal claw into a bin of toys to see if you can win one by lifting it out with the claw. Someone fills those machines every week or so, and I was one of those people. In a company provided van that I filled with toys every day, I drove all over south Florida, filling up and arranging these machines. It was fun. The company was owned by a connected Italian family. I am not kidding here… and no, I won’t tell you their names.
Then, it was entrepreneurship that began with simply cleaning houses and doing odd jobs, and that turned into a full-fledged business named Scrub Team. We specialized in new construction cleaning (my then partner and me) and the business grew rapidly with my partner at the helm getting the contracts and me taking care of the employees and book keeping. It was good. We made money. Then the real estate market went belly up and the contractors couldn’t pay us. We looked for another way to pay the bills.
Next was a shoe factory of sorts. Each person, and there were about 20 of us, would be given cases of plain shoes and customize them in the styles that the owners sold with lace, Swarovski crystals, paint and doodads. I was paid by the pair and it was unusual and fun and challenging. I enjoyed the job itself since it was different every day and it appealed to my competitive nature. It was also artsy and strangely satisfying.
After this, I worked at an automotive customizing shop. It was far removed from anything I had ever done or thought I wanted to do. This was the early days of vehicle customization and we did mainly Toyota 4Runner and pickup trucks, adding roll bars, wheels, tires, lights, running boards, decals and more, taking a plain, off the lot new vehicle and transforming it into a one of a kind! I didn’t do much of anything in the way of the customizing… I was mainly in the office but the sounds and activity were intriguing. I learned a lot and was very grateful to be given this job because it was a time when jobs were hard to come by. Times were hard in Florida at this time, and then, I had the chance to leave.
My sister introduced me to a man who needed a book keeper and part time caretaker for himself and his wife for their summer in Highlands North Carolina. I worked out a deal with them so that my partner and I could drive them to Highlands and in exchange for a small apartment and a wage, I would cook their dinner and keep their business books, and Sue would clean the house. It was amazing to drive to the high mountains of North Carolina and suddenly be living in the clouds on a vista in a respected golf community. It was beautiful and peaceful and exhilarating to be cool in the summer months. There was so much to see and do and the job really wasn’t hard, even though “the wife” treated me like a lowly servant. Then I met her children. This was a learning experience. It seems that the man who I was working for was a world class con artist. And there was a large article on him and his exploits in TIME magazine from where he had been caught years before. This got me to thinking. I was his book keeper… so I looked more closely and discovered that he was indeed running another scam. My paychecks bounced for two weeks. My partner had found another job at a local Inn and I soon joined her there after only collecting my pay by threatening to turn him in to the FBI.
It was called Kalmia of Highlands, and had 17 cottages and three suites on seven beautiful acres. We loved it there and lived in an A frame house on the property. There was always work to do, and people came and went at all hours but it was a special place to be. We wintered there in 1993, and made it through the blizzard of that year, warmer and safer than many others on the mountain. We thought we were doing a great job, showing increased revenue every month since taking over the management until one day, friends of the owners showed up and handed us our walking papers. They were taking over and the place was being sold. We both lost our home and job in the same day.
We moved into a refurbished tool shed. Yes, really. Our belongings were crammed into a room below where we lived. There was nothing for us to do in Highlands then but Sue cleaned a few houses, so we made the choice to move to Asheville.
Asheville brought new ideas and soon we were introduced to disaster restoration by doing occasional fire cleanup and pack outs for a local Insurance Adjuster. Soon we were both offered lead positions of a new franchise in Asheville. Paul Davis Systems and Signature Disaster Services. I loved this job. I loved the people who worked for and with me and I learned everything I could about every aspect of the business and over years, became a Master Restorer… the best on the East Coast. I had found my place, or so I thought. All the old pains came surging back, along with new pain that I fought and tried to control. After years in the business, I was facing change because I simply couldn’t do the physical part of my job any more. I had spent a year traveling between Atlanta, where I was courted to move, to Asheville, where I lived on the weekends. But things were coming apart in the upper management of the company, and physically, I was falling apart too. I chose to come home to Asheville and quickly found work as an insurance agent.
I hated every moment of selling insurance and collecting premiums. I know there is a need for life and health insurance but at that time it felt so dirty to me. Each day I was feeling worse. Each day the pain was worse, and I filed for disability. Once I did, it was a matter of waiting. Good investments kept me going until my case was completed and my benefits kicked in. As I waited one day, I checked the mail and opened a letter I did not recognize. It was from a company in Washington State, the premier company and provider of equipment for Water Damage Restoration, and they invited me, because of my record, to come and teach others to do what I had become so good at. (It is important that I say at this point, that without the amazing crew who worked so hard for me and with me, that I would have been nothing. I owe them all.)
As I read and reread the letter, I realized that all the work along the way had led to this. I was 40ish, and the doors were swinging open in a way I never expected or dreamed. This was my chance now, to put it all to use. This was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life…
It did not happen though. I was too sick and in too much pain. Standing was a trial, and then I was diagnosed with cancer, so my chance to teach came and went, and so did my life’s works. I would never work again, and here it is, 15 years later and I remain permanently disabled, and looking out the window, wondering what it would have been like to grab that brass ring. I wonder.
Don’t feel sad or sorry. I went out and enjoyed almost everything I did. I jumped in, put my feet in the shoes of others and became someone different with each new job. I did so fearlessly and with my whole being. I learned about people, how to follow and how to lead. Each new thing was a challenge that I strove to conquer and in most cases, I did. Would I change it and find my life’s work earlier in my life like so many people do? No, because the sum of its parts made me, in part, who I am today, and I am happy with that. It is my story, such as it is, and all the people whose lives I was a part of for whatever reason is more valuable to me than a job or career that I can retire from. I went out and lived. I bore witness. I saw things that most people can’t even fathom and I don’t need to wonder why any more. I am just glad it was me.