In 1995 I was thirty-eight years old with a wife and two kids, and suddenly, out of work. The ENVIRONS business I’d cobbled together with a spate of contracts fizzled out with the failure of the development company to land a hospital partner and build the healthcare facility that was to become the main focus of my efforts and income. Then the Chronicle hired an internal resource to take over the business I was managing for the company, and $60,000 in income flew away in a matter of weeks.
I made ovations to the Daily Herald as their marketing collateral project turned out well, but they weren’t quite ready to hire me. That would come along five years down the road, but I had no idea it would take that long to latch on with a growing newspaper like that.
Instead, I was left looking for a job, and pronto. The Internet and email job hunting were starting to fire up in earnest, but it would also be a few more years before job postings migrated from print to digital. So I pored through the Chicago Tribune and local papers to find jobs suitable to my marketing, promotions, and creative services background and started applying.
Building a resume is not the most fun thing in the world to do. But I got some response even though I’d been working for myself for a year. That was met with some suspicion, but I tried to present it as a sign of initiative, rather than a break in actual employment.
Late in the year, I landed interviews with two companies. The first interview was with Wilton Industries, a kitchenware company based in the southwest suburbs. They needed a creative director. The salary was excellent, nearly $80,000, more than I’d ever made in a single year. The only drawback was the daily commute of thirty-five miles from our home in Geneva. In most morning traffic conditions that would mean an hour’s drive in the car. I’d rented a new Dodge Neon during my year in self-employment, an act that drew derision from one of the partners in the real estate company. “You just started a company and you’re renting a new car?” he cynically inquired.
I had no choice, actually. The Ford Fairlane I’d been given by my wife’s family had died from a broken seal in the engine block. The thing leaked oil so fast that it had to be filled every other day. The Neon was a gas-efficient car that would require no maintenance or upkeep. I still think I made the right decision. The payment was just $206 per month. As long as I didn’t exceed 20,000 miles per year, that car was a wise decision.
The other job opportunity was with Paladin, an interim staffing firm based in Chicago. They were seeking a salesperson to oversee expansion into the Chicago suburbs. The plan was to connect their computer system to a remote office from which I could work. The salary base was $60,000 and the commissions were healthy and structured around a collaborative program in which everyone in the firm had a stake in helping the other. If the company hit the sales goals the commission rates were 36%, 18%, and 12% based on revenue numbers.
They told me that I’d need to commute to their office in the Hancock building on Michigan Avenue for two weeks for training. Then I’d be set up to work from the burbs in their new office. The arrangement appealed to my entrepreneurial spirit. It also sounded like I could make equally good money. I liked the idea of helping other creatives (like me) find work. I turned down the Wilton offer and signed up with Paladin.
During 1994 my running volume went up and down due to a new type of injury. My left knee developed a condition called chondromalacia. That means the cartilage under the kneecap wears down, especially along a ridge at the center of the patella. It causes a burning sensation, and at some point, running at all becomes painful and ultimately impossible. Thus I visited a running podiatrist friend named Dr. John Durkin, whose reputation for treating runners included the likes of the British world-record holder Sebastian Coe, American Olympic distance runner Jim Spivey and World Cross Country Champion Craig Virgin. I’d illustrated his book on running biomechanics and learned quite a bit about the value of orthotics, so he fit me for my first set. Within a week, the knee problem went away.
That’s because my left foot in particular was pronating a bit, pulling the angle of my knee inward. The resulting torque on the knee joint and a set of weak quadricep muscles was allowing the patella to be pulled ‘off-line.’ The orthotics stabilized the situation. Some physicians prefer a different approach, such as using physical therapy to build up weaker muscles. In some cases, that works. In my case, I was relieved to be able to run again and have worn some kind of orthotic device in my shoes ever since. About ten years ago, I had a set built by a pedorthist, but those orthotics were extremely bulky and stiff and I grew to hate them. Running fast in them felt like you were fighting the shoes on your feet.
Then I visited a local running shop that had a scanning machine to fit runners for Aetrex inserts, a flexible solution. They worked instantly, and I’ve never gone back to bulky orthotics.
But that first pair proved to be lifesaver. I still loved to run recreationally and jumped in the occasional race if I felt like it. I also wore those orthotics in my dress shoes, and that’s where this aspect of the story about orthotics begins to converge with my work world at the time.
Because Paladin’s promise to allow me to commute to the city of Chicago for just two weeks never came to fruition. The interim staffing company underestimated the difficulty of getting its database to operate remotely. This was 1995, after all. The Internet was still a clunky thing. Thus rather than working from an office in the suburbs, I was forced to commute to the City of Chicago daily in order to do my job.
That broken promise meant getting to the train each morning by 6:30 a.m. in order to get to the Ogilvie Transportation Center by 7:30 a.m. Then there was still a distance of a couple miles to cover in order to get to the Hancock Center at the northern end of the Loop on Michigan Avenue. There was a bus that wound around the city on its way north across the Loop, but sometimes it was too exasperating to sit there with the other commuters waiting to get to work. And as long as I wasn’t getting much running done by leaving at 6:00 in the morning and getting home at 6:30 at night, I decided to walk on many days.
That walk was also a sign of protest on many days. I was angry that I’d been lied to about the remote office. Yet finally, after a couple months, I began going on sales calls out in the suburbs. But any work that I drummed up needed to be entered into the database downtown. That meant another day’s commute to the city. That’s why I was glad to have those orthotics in my shoes.
All told, the sales job presented an odd tension to manage. It was largely new business that I was developing. The sales curve on relationships like that tends to be long. But I pressed on, making phone calls and visits to the best prospects. Still, the pressure to bring in sales grew as time went by.
Meanwhile, another new salesperson was brought on board to work with downtown clients. She was handed to some business to manage. It didn’t take her long to land other business downtown. That made her the “new star” on the staff.
Competitive as I was, glorifying her for a much easier job pissed me off. As a means to motivate me, I was told to go to lunch with a longtime sales guy we’ll just call Roy (name changed), whose sage advice I was supposed to embrace. We sat down to lunch and he began grilling me about my tactics and approach. Yet when I expressed frustration with the promise I’d been given to work in a remote office, he barked, “Well, that’s not going to happen. So you’ll have to find ways to make this work if you want to succeed.”
That reminded me of the time I was riding the train into Philly for my job with Van Kampen when a friend that worked in the Wholesale Investment department turned to me and said, “What are you guys doing in marketing? We’re not getting anything we need! If this keeps up you’ll all be out of a job!”
His prediction came true, and my life was turned inside out. I’d moved all the way to Philadelphia in August of 1982 at the behest of the company when it consolidated the marketing department in that office. By April of 1983, the whole thing imploded thanks to the daft inattention of the VP of Marketing, whose theoretical approach to the job wound up costing most of us our positions. None of that was my fault, but it somehow still felt like it.
So my alarm bells went off when Roy uttered his words of warning. Then he took a phone call during lunch. It turned out his teenaged kid was caught up in some sort of bad behavior. Drugs and such. Then Roy told me they were largely estranged. After listening to him brag about his long record in business and great relationships with the companies he served, it made me question whether his dedication to work had somehow eclipsed his parenting obligations. That’s a common story in this world, and it made me think about my own son back home. Was I doing the right thing trying to make this job work? Was all the hustle and commuting even worth it?
The self-doubt crept in gradually, but I kept up my sales calls and actually made some great headway with a company out in the suburbs. Excited to have landed a big bed of business after the sales call, I called the potential job into the company. Connecting with the office Director, I told her, “This client wants to place seven full-time employees. That should build a solid relationship with them!”
Rather than compliment me on the breakthrough, she drolly announced. “You know that’s not really what we do. We want to place people in temporary jobs. That’s our bread and butter.”
I stammered for a second, and said, “But, there’s more than 4,000 people in our database. We can spare seven, can’t we?”
“Well,” she replied. “We’ll talk about it internally first.”
The next day, I came into the city hoping to enter those jobs, each of which would have generated about $10,000 in placement fees for the company, in the company database. Finally, I had something solid to build upon, and justify my base salary. But the potential commission on the sale at a rate of 36% was what I was really banking on. Instead, they told me the sale was a No Go. “Try to get them to use temporary employees,” I was instructed. “We can’t afford to sell off our good talent.”
I was incensed. I knew for a fact that there were thousands of people languishing in their database eager for work that gladly would have taken a full-time gig. I’d been one of them at some point. I’d originally interviewed with the company to do contract work through them. They were the ones that asked me to apply for the new business development job.
But they lied to me. They were never prepared to fulfill their promises.
In the Loop
That walk from the train to the Hancock got harder every time I did it. At the office, I sat right next to the woman they were glorifying for closing the business they basically handed her. About the only thing that felt like a reward on those city days was walking past the Victoria’s Secret store where giant images of women showing their tits and ass greeted me in passing. Along with that dip into sexual distraction, the company receptionist was a stunner herself. She became known for wearing revealing outfits to the office. She had the chest and figure for it, for sure. Yet women in the firm started to complain that she was dressing too risqué. The company director issued her a warning to dress more “appropriately,” but she adamantly refused. I respected her stalwart desire to dress as she pleased. It sure pleased me, and I used to chuckle a bit on hearing her say, “Welcome to Paladin. How can I help you?” So I was sad when they dismissed her, which I also found ironic, as one of the company’s directors was a gay woman. Is it misogynistic to say that I thought she’d enjoy the view? I get that there were professional standards and decorum to uphold. But she was a fitness model on the side, as I recall. To her, there was no big deal. It was more like, “This is how I look. Deal with it.” More power to her.
Her dismissal stank, but not as bad as the increasing stench from the orthotics I wore in my dress shoes. One day I was sitting in our line of desks when the waft of foot sweat drifted up from my feet. I saw the Glory Girl saleswoman next to me blanch at the smell. I instantly realized it came from my running orthotics. They weren’t washable, so the cumulative odor was strong. I moved away from the table and went to the washroom to extract those stinko inserts and returned to the desk. But in a way, I was happy to stink up the place. “Fuck them,” I thought to myself. “This whole place is starting to stink.”
It became obvious I was not going to last in the job much longer. One afternoon I stepped out to have lunch and walked to the little park by Oak Street Beach. It was a glorious early spring day. I could hear warblers flitting around the trees above me. But I was sad and bent over crying in the park. That’s the day I knew that either I’d have to leave that job or they’d fire me. Which was the better option?
High and mighty thoughts
Perhaps I was never meant to work in a corporate environment at all. I probably should have become a teacher, but when I was young and dumb, that felt like giving up on my dreams of being an artist or writer. I know. How horribly cliché it all sounds.
But I recall sitting in a team meeting on the 36th floor of the Hancock building, and I was facing the window that overlooked tall towers across the way. Into that scene floated a wild peregrine falcon. I saw it drift cleanly on an updraft, hovering before the window in its amazing evolutionary glory. I couldn’t help myself in that moment. I pointed out the window and said “Look, it’s a peregrine falcon.”
Everyone in the meeting looked at me, then looked out the window where I was pointing. A few muttered “Huh,” and then they all glanced at me with a frustrated look at having interrupted the meeting. Perhaps I was the country boy in the city. But at that point, all I could think about was how stupid and dull they all looked for not having a sense of wonder.
The same thing had happened the day I looked out the window and saw a rainspout rising up from Lake Michigan. It was an astounding sight, but no one seemed to care too much at that amazing natural phenomenon. I kept thinking, “How can people be so dull?”
Then the rains came
Toward the end of my tenure, in late spring of 1996, I finished the workday when a massive rainstorm crashed into downtown Chicago. Sheets of rain came pouring down. When I stepped outside the Hancock to hail a cab, it was obvious they were already taken. I stood there a moment in my black suit wondering what to do. Then I said, “Fuck it, I’ll run to the train.”
So I took off full bore down Michigan Avenue as the rain pounded me. I carried the computer case with me, which slowed me down with its bulkiness. But I didn’t care what happened in that moment. I ran laughing and cross Huron and Ontario and Superior and the lot of the “lake” streets on my way to Upper Wacker. I took that long curving street around to the train station and arrived in time for the 5:20 or whatever it was I was trying to make.
My black suit was 100% wool, and I smelled like a wet sheep after running through the rain to reach the train. The pleats and line down the front of the suit were all erased. My head was soaking wet and I stood in the space between the cars with water dripping down my back and legs. “I think that’s it,” I told myself that day.
Sure enough, the company and I parted ways a few days later. I was relieved because the lies were now over. The lie the company told me about opening a new office in the suburbs. Done. The lie that it was not possible to provide me a big payday by placing permanent rather than temporary employees. Also over. The lie I’d been telling myself that I could somehow make it work out? Over and over. I’d taken that job with the best intentions and the height of optimism. Yet day after day, that attitude was kicked to the curb by the selfishness of management and their own failed plans. I was frustrated that essentially, I’d let that happen to me again. By the age of 38, I’d been in a series of jobs that were undermined by either false promises, dishonest conduct, or egotistical actions. I’d tried so hard to overcome my own lack of self-esteem, and made it happen in many ways. But the lessons of life were still hard to learn.
A week after that job ended, I was driving my car to a job interview when the vision in my eyes started to close down like a dark blanket from top to bottom. I pulled the car over and squeezed my eyes shut, wondering what was happening. Was I going blind? Actually, I was having an ocular migraine. I called my doctor about it and he sent me to have a brain scan in an open MRI machine.
“Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be anything to worry about. Migraines like this can come from a number of things. Are you feeling any stress lately?”
I chuckled, and kind of forgave myself in the moment. With so many situations in life, that’s all one can really do. Then I set about the business of finding a new job. It was about to happen quickly.