I learned how to sell shoes when I was 16. The summer I was 18 I worked in a lumberyard and learned about common pine, sheetrock, joint compound and board feet. I was fired for being late one too many times.
When I was 20, I got a job as a Warf rat in Provincetown, Mass. I was taught how to tie a half hitch and catch the rope from arriving fishing vessels. I learned what yellowtail and scallops were and saw a 1500-pound tuna get filleted with a chain saw. I learned how to push a hand truck loaded with 800 pounds of fish, ice, and wood up a ramp onto a refrigerator rig. The drivers would stand around and bet on who would dump a load off of the ramp.
I hurt my back pushing a cart filled with 2 tons of ice on the Warf, quit; and got a job making sandwiches at the New World Deli on Commercial Street. Actually, we didn’t “make” sandwiches; we “built” them. I sold a coke to Rodney Dangerfield one day after he said, “hey kid, you got any orange soda?” after I said yes he said, “OK, gimme a Coke.” I also sliced the tip of my right pinkie off while slicing tomatoes for sandwich building. There was blood all over the deli slicer.
I went back to school, Pratt Institute, where I learned how to use 16mm cameras and edit 16mm film. I bought an old Leica from another kid for $25 and learned how to develop and print 35mm pictures.
I quit school and got a job there, it was a company called RBH Audio and we had a contract with Pratt to administer their Audio-Visual equipment. I signed out slide projectors, tape decks, and movie projectors to students and took their ID card pictures during registration. My bosses were some kind of electrical engineers and used to repair stereos as a sideline for extra money. I learned how to replace transistors and resistors in stereos and clean dead roaches out of tape decks. We also built sensaround speakers to order. Our contract with Pratt ended one day and we were kicked out.
I got a job working at a Chinese shrimp and fish wholesaler on Wooster Street and learned that shrimp came frozen in 50 kg. boxes and in a lot of different sizes. We would periodically defrost boxes that had been in the walk in freezer too long and bleach out the ones that had turned black and refreeze them. I did not eat shrimp for fifteen years.
They fired me too, for being late too many times.
I went back to selling shoes, first at Olaf Daughters of Sweden on 6th Ave. and then at Yorke Dynamold shoes in Queens. At Yorke I learned how to repair shoes and make orthotics. I learned how to measure people’s feet and fit them properly. At some point, the owner opened up a new store on 55th Street in Manhattan. It got too expensive to run two stores and he closed the one in Queens. I got pretty good at shoe repair and orthotic making, after all, it is a craft, and having an artistic bent, I can be quite a craftsman. I worked there for 13 years, until I got fired for talking back to the boss. At least I was on time for work for 13 years.
While working at that store on 55th Street I made friends with the building super, and he got me a job as a night porter at a different building owned by the same people, but I had to wait for a bit. In the interim, I got a job as a “community organizer” and worked for ACORN for a couple of months. I learned how to knock on poor people’s doors and convince them to join ACORN, most of whom believed was a scam. I believe they were right. I quit when I realized I was conning money out of people who could ill afford it and got a job polishing jewelry for a woman in midtown. I got that job by showing her a tiny plastic model of a WWI tank I had built. The job required familiarity with rotary tools and I told her I had a Dremel and had used it in the building of the tank.
Then the building owners called and gave me a job as a night porter on the Upper West Side. I learned how to polish brass and separate recyclables.
I moved up, after 5 years of being a night porter, I became a doorman and learned how to be polite to people, take messages, lie for the super and sort the mail. There were no mailboxes in the lobby. The super and handyman didn’t like doing side jobs, so I started doing them, installing air conditioners and assembling furniture for people and the like. I started buying tools and took courses on being a handyman. Our handyman retired and I got his job. I learned how to hang lights and chandeliers, hook up appliances and repair exposed plumbing. I snaked out toilets and drains and replaced rotted pipes. I did light plastering and removed paint from metal doorframes with chemicals. Two of my bosses left for greener pastures and I ended up with the one who suspended me for not putting down some tiles properly. I guess he doesn’t think I’m much of a craftsman, as a matter of fact, he’s said as much.
But the friends I’ve done a little work for since then are pretty happy with my work. I’m plastering a bathroom wall and ceiling for someone tomorrow. After that, who knows what I’ll learn next? I’m pretty much open to anything.