I started a journey back in September of 1999. After close to a decade of me wearing a suit and tie and trying to get by on my sales pitch in the New York City Garment Center, I stepped away from the fashion industry and exchanged my daily get up from a white collar to a blue one. I was tired of sales. I was tired of the dances I’d have to do and tired of the industry. I was tired of not having enough sales to cover my draw, not having enough money, not having the right place to live, the right car, the right girl, and the right anything. After years of halfhearted sales calls and paperwork, which I hated, I was given an opportunity to trade my briefcase for a tool-belt; and like most in any position, I had to start out at the bottom. I was about to become an apprentice.
I knew a little about tools because of my Old Man. I knew a little bit about electric motors and pumps because I used to work for The Old Man back when I was a teenager. I knew how to thread pipe; I knew the different pipe materials and I knew about the different pipe fittings, how to use them, and where they fit in place. I was never much with the torch; however, I knew the basics on how to solder copper piping.
I had minimal to a basic understanding of arc welding, heating, plumbing, and basic building work. I was about to walk away from the misconceptions I had of a divided world between the white and blue collar. I was about to walk away from what I considered to be the prestige of a clean day behind a clean desk with clean, manicured hands, and more accurately, I was about to walk away from the rough days of cold-calling sales calls, uppity designers with high-class attitudes, mean and nasty cutthroat production managers who would cut my neck open to save literally pennies by taking my product and knocking it off someplace in the orient; I was about to walk away from intense sales meetings where angry bosses asked me about my sales and why my numbers were so low and I was about to enter a world where work became a physical nature. There was nothing unsure about my work here. My skill had to become physical instead of driven by charisma. That was over for me. The suit and tie was done and that journey came to an end. The beginning in front of me was the life of a union shop, Local 94 building engineer.
In life, the beginning at any position comes with its lessons. Everyone has to do their time. As a helper, I was about to start mine. A helper cleans up, hands the tools to his engineer or mechanic, fetches coffee, packs up the end of the job and puts everything away. A helper is low man on the totem pole. That was me.
I was younger than anyone else in my shop; hence, this is why they called me “The kid.” There were other helpers on my shift as well; however, they were much older and the engineers referred to them as “Lifers” which meant they were content with remaining as a life-long helper, remaining on a helper’s salary, and comfortable living a life as low man on the totem pole without ever daring to be promoted to a level with responsibility.
These were good men. The helpers, I mean. The engineers were goo too, but they yelled a lot and there was more to their job than I understood at the time. The helpers I worked with were kindhearted but slightly lazy. They loved their wives, they loved their life and they loved their beer. They never understood the reasoning or the mindset behind the angry engineer; always yelling, always complaining, always angry because something breaks down.
They were content to be as they were — low men on the totem pole without responsibility to report to management, which was fine for them. Me, on the other hand, I was young and willing. I was younger and I had more energy. I wanted to be something. I wanted to be good and I wanted to be important so I thought I need to sell myself in order to be that way.
Also, I wanted a better financial success than a helper’s salary could afford, which meant whatever I needed to do, I did. I worked long hours of overtime. I took whatever they gave me and fortunately, with me being “The kid,” and with me having a bit more energy than some of the lifers at my job site, I was picked for most of the overtime duties.
Within my first year, I worked every Saturday with the exception of two. I worked overtime during the week and increased my 40 hour work week to 50, 60 and sometimes close to a 70 hour week. For the first time, I was able to see my earning potential. This is also when I became aware that white collar jobs — ones, by the way, with positions that I thought would earn more were actually earning less; I found myself aware of the misconception that physical labor was for the underpaid and uneducated. This is not the case at all.
In order for me to earn as a salesman, I had to produce as a salesman. In my new life as an engineer’s apprentice, the concept was the same. In order for me to earn as a helper, I had to produce. And that was all there is to it.
I cannot say this was easy. I cannot say I enjoyed the ribbing that came my way. I would clean up behind people, swing a mop across a floor after it was destroyed by the engineer I worked with. I was yelled at, called an idiot, told I was stupid, told I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, told I’d be better off standing inside an elevator, to smile at people and asked, “What floor please?”
I was told I don’t have what it takes. They told me I was too thin-skinned, that i’d have to toughen up, be smarter, think better, but even still, I’d still never make it as an engineer.
If I wanted to earn, I had to endure this. If I wanted to earn, I had to accept what was given, and if I wanted to earn, I had to be willing to do jobs that no one else would want to do.
Take painting, for example. I hated painting. This is what helpers do. They paint and they clean. They paint old machine rooms. They paint the machine bases, the floors; they paint the pipes in colored sequence, they paint panels, and old machines that haven’t worked in decades.
My biggest overtime job, which I landed by pitching my idea to a building manager, was painting the walls in a stairwell that rain from the 26th floor down to the third sub-basement; otherwise known as B2. To give you a picture, imagine a staircase in a hi-rise commercial office building. See the walls that run up from slab to a ceiling height of approximately 13′ and then think of the bottom of the scissor steps which needed to be painted as well. Think of the banisters and the detailed brush work that needed to be cut in, otherwise, the paint would get all over everything. Then think of the protection that needed to be plaid down so paint wouldn’t spill (and it did spill . . . plenty of times)
The basement floor was considered B floor. Then there was B1, and lowest of all was B2 which is where the engine room was and where the utility floor was located. This means I had to paint from top to bottom.
I took this job thinking, “How hard could it be?” After all, it’s just painting. All a man needs to do is use the brush in close spots and use a roller in the open spots. Simple, I thought. It will take no time at all, I thought. Unfortunately, I thought wrong but I learned the most valuable lesson here in this staircase.
Of course, I started at the top and I began with the walls, which were filthy and painted a dark shade of gray. My paint color was Benjamin Moore’s brushed silver, which was a much lighter color, which meant I had to place on more than two coats to prevent bleed-thru.
I was ready start. I was all set to go. In fact, I had another helper who looked to partner with me to grab 8 hours of easy overtime.
However, the hours were not easy. We had to paint at least a certain amount with no runs in the paint, no mess on the floor, and no garbage left in the staircases. It sounded easy at first. It sounded as if this job would only take us a few weekends to complete. It sounded this way for sure but we quickly learned that it sounded much different when the two of us began the job.
The most intimidating part was the start of it. This is when we learned we bit off more than we could chew. This is also when we realized it was actually work and this is when the other helper decided to bail on the job, leaving me to paint by myself, alone in a stairwell, armed with nothing else but a paintbrush and roller, a set of earphones to hear music and 26 stories of staircase to be painted. It was here that I realized what it means when a man sells himself short. This is when I realized why the others laughed at me for accepting the job. They laughed, for sure, but I was not laughing. Not at all. I had no choice but to finish
All a man can do is keep going in this case. I painted all that I could in the time I was given. I listened to the engineers put me down and complain about my painting skills. I listened to the assistant chief engineer yell at me about the mistakes I made. I listened to the other helper laugh at me because at the end of my overtime shift, I had more paint on me than I did on the walls, and he was clean while working on something else.
It took a long time to clean up at the end of my shift. It took me a long time to paint the small spots with the brush, and above all, it took a long time to paint the stairs. I felt foolish. I spent most of the summer in 1999 painting in a hot a staircase on overtime hours. I earned a good share of money while doing it but I also remember a lesson my Old Man taught me back when I was a helper at the Old Man’s shop. “Work smart, not hard.”
On my way down the old scissor stair case in an old building, built in Midtown Manhattan and opened in 1928, I learned a lot about me. I learned that maybe I should think first and educating myself before volunteering for a job. Maybe I should understand more of what a job entails before signing on the line, saying, “I can do it.”
I learned that over-zealousness is not always a good thing; and yes, I made money on this job. Yes, I earned extra. But was it worth it?
I can say this much, I wouldn’t do it again. But now that I think of it, I wouldn’t have to. I’m not a helper anymore. I paid my dues and earned my way up to engineer’s status. Also, I understand now why the engineers used to laugh at helpers like me. I understand why they would tell me, “Don’t worry, you’ll get smart eventually.”
This was their way of telling me, “Don’t work hard kid. Work smart.”
We don’t have to take on the world. We don’t have to take on more or act like we can do it all. More importantly, we don’t have to sell ourselves. I remember one of the engineers told me, “You got the job already kid, there’s no need to try and prove yourself even more.”
I learned there was no reason to prove myself. All I needed to do was work and be efficient. I didn’t need to polish an apple for my teacher. I didn’t need to shine shoes or shine people to get them to like me. All I needed to do is perform. I just needed to do my job and the rest — well; the rest would fall right into place.
I learned this lesson the hard way. I also learned this lesson applies to more than just my position as an engineer’s assistant or as an engineer now. This lesson applies to life and relationships. I think before volunteering myself now. It pays to understand my ability as well as the value of my time. It pays to understand the management of time as well. It pays to know that if I choose to partner with somebody, it will serve as important to know if they will do their share no matter how hard the times may seem.
I don’t need to polish apples or please anybody anymore. I certainly don’t need to sell myself. All I need to do is be me. I just need to show up, do my share, and make sure I receive a fair exchange for my effort.
I’ve taken long overtime jobs after this job in the staircase and I learn something from each one. But none of the jobs I’ve taken were as time-consuming as painting the staircase and none of the lessons i learned were quite as important.
However, I installed close to 300 faucets in the bathroom at my job site on Lexington Avenue. The biggest lesson I learned here is reading instructions is a very helpful thing. The box the automatic faucets came in calls for an 11 minute install.
This would have been correct if we installed the first few floors correctly. But we didn’t so it wasn’t, and what had to happen was I had to read the instructions first, and then yes, on average, it took me about 10 minutes per faucet.
Would I take that side job if it came up again? Probably not but then again, I always say, “I learned my lesson,” until I volunteer for something else.
Such is life, I suppose.
It’s a learning process.
Best thing to remember—work smart. Not hard
I have to stop here. I mounted a television on my spare bedroom’s wall awhile back; however, I wasn’t as a smart as I thought and the flat screen fell from the wall last night. Man . . . what a loud crash that made at 2:00 in the morning.
I guess the smartest things to do sometimes is work hard once, this way you won’t have to work hard a second time.