In 2008, I flew to Los Angeles and took a shuttle to some hotel, with drugs in my bag and anxiety about my finances stewing in my brain.
Writing this almost a decade later, I don’t remember the name of the hotel or which month it was. Heck, I’m fuzzy on the year. Just a bit ago, I spent way too much time trying to figure out that pointless trivia (well, not entirely pointless – specificity of time and place increases engagement when beginning a story).
Anyway… it was late as I stood in line to check in. I wanted to crawl into my room and hide, before the Guru MasterMind marketing event began the next morning.
Finally, I got to the head of the line and gave them all my info.
“Mr. Rifkin, your card isn’t working?”
Huh? I specifically paid that one off, so it wouldn’t decline. At that time, I was swamped by so much debt, it felt like I spent every moment trying to sweep it away with a push-broom, only to watch it slosh right back towards me.
I told them it must be a mistake. After a few more attempts, the lady at the desk called up my credit card company. I think it was Capital One. And waited. And waited.
The line grew behind me.
After some back-and-forth, she handed the receiver to me and helped the next person in line.
Amidst the background noise, I struggled to hear what the problem was. The person on the other end kept saying the hotel charge was over my limit. I affirmed I’d paid off enough of my balance. Then I figured out what was going on.
Capital One looked at my shitty payment history, and my nosediving credit, and decided to lower my card’s purchasing limit
Just like that. Overnight, without me knowing. So even though I’d paid off perhaps a thousand dollars, it didn’t matter because my lower limit evaporated that available credit.
I asked how much I had available. It was something like less than $100.
I asked the hotel to charge exactly that much, and then I scrounged together most of my cash to pay the rest.
For one night.
My flight back home wasn’t until three days later. If I didn’t fix this, I’d be homeless in L.A.
After tossing my bags into my room, I hustled across the street, to nearby hotels
Nobody took checks.
Then I got back on the phone with Capital One and explained that I was travelling with no cash, and needed my limit temporarily raised to where it was. I probably also mentioned that it wasn’t fair to lower my limit without warning, when I’d been paying off the balance.
They said they’d see what they could do, but the department that handled that sort of thing was closed. It opened at 7AM Eastern Standard Time.
I said I’d call back then. 4AM my time.
It was close to midnight. In just a few hours, I’d find out if I were homeless or not.
In the meantime, I took some Vicodin, popped on the TV, and began watching The Sopranos
By sheer luck, I watched a couple episodes with one of the more revered storylines.
The titular character, Tony Soprano, was in a coma. Most of the episode focused on his quasi dream/hallucination, where he was a completely different person.
Instead of a tough mob boss, he was a meek salesman on a convention trip. Through some mix-up, he lost his wallet but acquired someone else’s. Without any funds or ID, he used the stranger’s wallet to check into a hotel.
About the Vicodin I took…
A couple weeks earlier, a car hit me as I crossed the street. I felt fine when I got up… but had to drag myself to the emergency room that night because of my ankle pain. After some X-rays, they gave me 10 days of Vicodin and a prescription for a month’s worth.
The morning after the emergency room visit, I felt fine. So, I threw out the prescription. But kept taking the 10 days’ worth. For fun.
Almost a decade later, a co-worker would describe Vicodin as “God massaging your temples”
I can’t think of a better way to say it. So I enjoyed tossing back one or two pills… and regretting throwing out the prescription for more.
My evening in the hotel was surreal. I worried about being homeless… but felt blissed out from the opioids. I watched Tony Soprano sit in his own hotel room, stare at the phone, then gaze outside to see a strange beacon of light, as Moby’s When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die plays in the background. Before the credits roll.
The alarm clock woke me up a little before 4AM. I dialed up Capital One. Within a few minutes, a cheerful woman in India informed me that I could rest easy and enjoy my travels, because they raised my credit limit back up. I thanked her profusely.
They gave me the fix I needed. An opioid-like wave of bliss washed through me.
I attended the marketing seminar, barely learned or met anyone, and then flew home.
My financial situation spiraled even further out of control, until I filed for bankruptcy three years later. But, despite some efforts to try otherwise, I never took Vicodin again.
How the heck do I say all this in Spanish? I thought to myself… before giving up and deciding to leave my fate to Google Translate.
Eh, I figured a language translation faux pas wouldn’t be an issue in a written letter. Especially if it also contained a $20 bill as a gift.
My horrible experiences in the Cancel section and order-pulling enlightened me to how fortunate I was before – with hardworking, friendly co-workers. I felt compelled to show them how much I appreciated them, in a way they wouldn’t forget.
Even though it seemed so corny, a surprise gift felt right
And even though I knew it was a little weird, I decided to make it a gift of cash. I figured a few folks might be turned off by it. But I bet the positive impact would more than make up for that. Plus, it meshed perfectly with practicing financial abundance, and being comfortable with money – giving and receiving.
So I wrote a letter, thanking each person for the good times we shared loading trucks. While writing it, I remembered half my co-workers spoke a different language. Which is why I eventually copied and pasted the letter (only a couple sentences) into Google Translate, and selected Spanish.
Then I printed roughly ten copies out, and taped a $20 bill to each one. A big expense for me, sure. But the excitement of giving this gift, was more than enough return on investment.
My plan was to leave the letters with Bob, and ask him to give them out. I wouldn’t be there, so I’d just have to imagine my former co-workers’ reactions.
But first, I had a new job to begin
On Saturday morning, I drove to a more isolated part of Aurora, Colorado. Mostly industrial buildings. Including the massive warehouse where trucks with 53’ trailers swarmed around.
It was about the size of a football field inside, and eerily quiet. Including me, there were only five workers, total.
A truck backed up to the main dock. The supervisor told me I’d be “throwing” that day. I quickly learned that meant I’d unload the truck from the inside. I also learned why it was called throwing.
First, an 18-wheeler backed its behemoth trailer into the bay. We’d unlatch the back to see the whole thing stuffed to the ceiling with a couple thousand cardboard boxes. Usually with shoes or clothing. My job – as the thrower – was to grab the boxes and drop them onto the conveyor belt. Always with their barcodes facing me, so someone standing at the other end of the belt could scan them.
Then, the belt paraded the boxes to the far end of the warehouse before veering to the right
Then the belt continued down the football field-long warehouse. The other four workers waited every 10 yards or so, looking for boxes with certain numbers. They grabbed and tossed them into piles…
… until the thrower unloaded the entire 53’ trailer.
… and my new job.
So I ambled up to the end of the trailer, and began grabbing box… after box… after box. Slamming them all onto the conveyor belt as fast as I could.
Just like with my last truck-loading gig, there weren’t any traditional breaks other than lunch. And I sure as heck wasn’t supposed to take a break before the trailer was empty.
Not even to catch my breath or grab some water
Instead, I moved constantly, throwing boxes onto the conveyor belt so they churned out with only a few feet between them at the most.
As I worked farther and farther into the trailer, I pressed a button on the conveyor belt to extend it. That way, all I had to do was reach up, grab a box, and toss it onto the belt.
The deeper I went, the darker it became, like slowly exploring a cave.
Soon, I reached the treasure – the trailer’s wall at the opposite end. Once I threw the final boxes, I held down a different button on the conveyor belt to retract it.
Then I stumbled back out, wiping away my sweat as I panted for air
Even then, my job wasn’t done. After a quick swig of water, I joined the other workers in organizing the boxes. Like spiders swarming freshly captured bugs, we skidded around and around 6-foot stacks of boxes with wrapping tape.
Early in the afternoon, we finished and scattered our separate ways.
“Huh, that wasn’t so bad,” I thought. “Sure, unloading the truck was exhausting, but I could do this. Heck, this is pretty darn easy!”
I had no idea for the hell I was in for, the next day…
“We might have a position opening soon. But it’s only part-time, and it’s the graveyard shift.”
A little after 4PM, I stood at the end of an aisle in King Soopers. I’d just driven most of the way home after a workshift, and stopped by the grocery store just a block from my condo.
It turned out, a career switch to bagging groceries wasn’t the panacea I was hoping for. The best opportunity I could find was restocking the aisles at night. It paid $10 per hour, but was only a 30-hour-per-week gig, max. Not enough to cover my food and rent.
I even checked out a sign-holding job for a cell phone store. Again, only part-time, for $7 per hour.
Every spare minute I had after work, was spent either looking for jobs within my neighborhood, or on Craigslist. Then I stuffed my face with food for dinner, and crawled into bed while sunlight still glowed through my window blinds. All too soon, my alarm blared at 4AM. And I trudged through the daily routine again.
Until… one day… I finally got a reply
It was another position unloading trucks.
Taking the job meant an additional pay-cut. But at least I knew I could do the work.
Even better, the man on the phone sounded kind. The vibe felt right. But I still had to apply in-person… and make sure it was right for me. There was no way in hell I was going to make the same mistake again, of diving into something out of desperation.
So that Saturday, I drove to the massive warehouse in Aurora. As I filled out some paperwork in the lobby, I overheard someone say, “Hey, can I get another stack of applications printed?”
A cold wave of doubt washed through me
A stack? How many people were applying? Would I make it?
While my potential boss interviewed me in her office, I jumped up and mimed how we used to hurl mats into trucks three at a time. She cracked a smile, and showed me the warehouse floor so I could get a taste of the work.
As complicated as my previous truck-loading job was, this one was brain-dead simple.
Giant 53’ trailers lumbered to the edge of the warehouse. The workers unloaded all the boxes inside, and arranged them into stacks. Then, local transporters showed up, collected the stacks, and delivered them to local retail chains.
No memorizing endless racks of clothes…
No ducking and dodging through cavernous aisles of fabric…
No intricate sorting…
… just brutally hard work
And that’s exactly what my cortisol-soaked, half-mad brain craved. Something it could grasp. Pain was perfectly acceptable, if it was knowable pain.
I accepted the job. Then I was down to $10.50 an hour. Almost the same amount I made almost three years before, when I first began sign-spinning.
As soon as I gave notice at the laundry company, they got me off order-pulling. Supervising me was actually slower for the trainer than simply doing the whole job herself, without any help.
They stuck me with a more menial task: “Cleaning.” That was the company’s term for going through all the clothing racks in the entire warehouse, and making sure everything was properly ordered based on tags.
The good part was… I could do it
Even better, I could work alone and wear headphones again. I was back to days full of audiobooks, podcasts, and teleseminar recordings.
Best of all, my former trainer’s treatment of me completely transformed (to be clear, I’m referring to my order-pulling trainer… not the vindictive beast from the Cancels section).
Before, she became more and more frustrated when I fumbled and bumbled through trying to learn order-pulling. And, even though I could tell she was a respectful person, I observed her behavior change. She began avoiding eye contact, and rarely used my name. She switched from friendly in my presence to seething, even when I did something right.
But when I was relegated to “cleaning” clothes – and displayed a modicum of competence – her behavior reverted itself
Almost overnight. She became friendly again, looked me in the eye, and used my name. I took the lesson to heart, of the powerful connection between competence and social status. And even attraction.
One day, while I sorted, I noticed the order-pulling trainer taking a new hire through the ropes. But the next day, the newbie was gone. I asked where she was.
“She didn’t come back.”
Noticing my surprise, the trainer added, “Happens all the time.”
Huh. In all the misery I’d experienced over the past few years, the idea of simply walking out on a job, without a word, never occurred to me.
All too soon, the week was over
Friday was my last day, and I started the new job Saturday. No rest for the weary.
When Friday’s shift ended, I said goodbye only to the manager – the one I had alerted three times in one day about the mistreatment I had been receiving. Everyone else on that side of the warehouse, I was happy to never interact with again.
Before leaving, an idea came to me. I decided to do something special for my former co-workers on the load team, who I already missed. I smiled when I thought how much it would shock them, in a great way…
“Give me the most expensive, sugar-saturated, caffeine-stuffed jug of delicious garbage you have.”
Okay, I didn’t actually say that when I got to the head of the line at Starbucks, but that was my intention when I ordered the venti quadruple mocha frappawhatever.
I regularly take stock of my life, to see where I can optimize it
And during the time in my life when it felt like I was slogging waist-deep through a dark river of shit … when I felt trapped in the invisible current… I pushed forward with every* idea I had, to escape.
Giving away money?
Working on my business?
Taking on client jobs and investing the income back into my business?
Constantly educating myself?
Imagining the life I wanted to create?
Meditating multiple times per day?
Working as hard as I could during my day-jobs and learning as best I could from every experience?
Expressing gratitude for my situation?
Around the time I switched from loading trucks to sorting clothes for my job, I realized I was leaving something out:
Giving myself a taste of luxury so I could soak up the feeling and vibration in the present moment.
So I began doing that… literally
Before my weekend walk in the hills, I stopped by Starbucks to get the largest, most expensive coffee/sugar/chocolate combination available. Then I sipped on it, while driving west.
It was almost spiritual. Like dipping my toe in the water of an exciting, decadent, abundant life… and putting all my focus on that little toe.
I found the perfect groove. First the drink… then walking in the hills. Followed by a couple days of working on my business… and then back to four days of absolute misery.
Could I keep running this financial race?
I didn’t know.
To make the idiotic transfer in the first place, I took a pay cut to $11 per hour. Something had to give, and I was hell-bent on seeing what would break first.
My training for the order-pulling position began. And, it shocked me to realize… I really did have to memorize the locations of clothes hanging on rack after rack, on two different floors of the warehouse. Soon, I was sprinting from row to row, ducking and dodging metal fixtures, dragging along dozens of hangers full of clothes.
My new trainer was a very nice, patient woman. And for the first couple weeks, I vowed to master the new job. Sure, it felt impossible.
But, damnit, I could do it, get my numbers back up… and have a prayer of transferring back
The order-pulling shift usually ended a bit after the load team showed up for work. While staggering around the second floor of the warehouse, sorting through endless racks of clothes, I glanced over to see trucks backing into the bays. As the team began unloading them, I hung my head. How could I have been so stupid as to leave?
I missed that job.
Sometimes during my workshifts, I found a tiny, cracked-open window and squinted my eyes to see the mountain peaks in the distance, and felt the hot breeze from outside. Whenever I came nearby to hang up clothes, I grabbed a few moments to hover my face in the wind, and do my best to pause time.
One of the worst moments was when I spent an entire morning getting yelled at for my screw-ups, and then finally nabbed a chance to check my voicemail during break-time. Earlier, I’d seen someone call me. I wondered if it was a reply to a job application I’d filled out the day before.
As I listened to the angry growling, I realized it was a pissed-off customer of mine, fuming about something
Damn. So I began my lunch break by calling my customer-service team, so they could respond. It turned out fine… but I was still stuck. Why the heck wasn’t I getting any responses to my job applications?
One afternoon, after driving home and shuffling back to my condo, I grabbed my head into my hands and shook with fear and outrage.
“I can quit any time I want! I can quit and get a job bagging groceries tomorrow!” I screamed to an empty room.
A few days later, I’d test that hypothesis, and find out it was wrong
*In hindsight, I was leaving plenty more out. Perhaps my biggest mistake was a lack of networking. If I had made the simple effort to schmooze with fellow business owners, entrepreneurs, and self-employed folks in the Denver area via free meetup groups… well… it almost makes me shudder to think of how different my life would have been. I’m grateful for the amazing journey I went on. But it’s very reasonable to assume that, if I had done the networking thing at least once a week after beginning my sign-spinning job… I would have landed enough gigs to never work a day job again. This reminds me of something I’ve observed about the changes in our economy. There’s little doubt in my mind that the gap is growing between men and women who earn a hefty income, versus the clear majority enduring shrinking wages. I bet this gap will yawn wider over the years, and the old model of submitting resumes to companies will continue to die. This is getting replaced more and more by connections and referrals between people. If you want to profit from this shift, then build your network. How? You’re on the internet right now. Figure it out.
“If you keep making jokes, people will think you are a joke.”
My trainer rolled her eyes and continued…
“… Leave the joking to the 10-year-olds.”
“If I don’t laugh, I’m going to cry,” I muttered
In less than a week, the woman in charge of my training declared she was done helping. She broke this vow only to yell at my screw-ups. Which were almost non-stop.
For several days, I’d scrambled to escape, but felt trapped from every angle. First, I pushed to improve my speed, deluding myself into thinking I could get transferred back after just one week. As much as it embarrassed me, I cornered Ted and confessed my idea. He politely dashed my hopes. Then, I tried to find other jobs on Craigslist. I applied to moving companies, telemarketers, other truck-loading jobs…
Throughout it all, I saw only two lights at the end of the tunnel
One was knowing I’d be in a different position within days. I was only learning the ropes at the Cancels section, to have an easier time taking on my eventual position, order-pulling.
Bob, who helped me with this transfer, assured me that order-pulling was different.
In just a few days, I’d begin training there.
The other light at the end of the tunnel, was the three-day weekend.
When I made the switch, my body instantly received a reprieve from the brutal labor of truck-loading.
I took the opportunity to drive out to the mountains at least once per week – usually my first day off – for a small walk
Most of the time, I’d trek to Golden, Colorado. There, I strode up my favorite hill trail. Nothing much – just a few hundred yards. But a panoramic view of the front-range mountains waited for me at the top.
Gazing along the higher and higher peaks was almost like meditating on a view of oncoming waves. Except these were thousands of feet high.
Sometimes I stared for hours. And even enjoyed myself, forgetting the anguish I’d confront in just a couple days.
Back at work, my brain floated in a haze of cortisol-soaked confusion. Every shift was worse than the one before.
My trainer yelled at me more, and ignored my questions
My perspective slipped away. Was this right? Sure, I was screwing up, but how could she treat another human being like this, who was obviously trying to learn? Or was she really being so cruel as I imagined? After all, it wasn’t like she was cussing at me, or physically assaulting me. What truly constituted abuse?
I became even more confused when I considered how this related to my own development. In years past, I’d been so aggressive an uncompromising with other people. Was this a test to be more understanding? Or to stand up for myself? Both?
The only action-step I came up with, was to keep acting professional. If something really bad happened, I’d alert the company.
But very soon, I found out how distorted my perception was…
Just like with the load team, this part of the warehouse employed temps to keep up with the workload.
One day, during lunch, one of the temps approached me: “Can I ask you a question, when you have a moment?”
She was a kind-looking woman in her 50s.
“I have a moment right now!” I said.
She led me to a secluded spot outside, just behind the break room. Then, she looked up into my eyes and asked…
“Why do you think she has the right to treat you that way, just because she’s been working here longer?”
Tears welled up in my eyes. To ease the tension with a little humor, I admitted, “Heck, I’ve been working here longer.”
She shook her head.
In that moment, I got a shot of adrenaline, but more so…
… I got a shot of perspective.
It was one thing to feel trapped, pushed around, and disrespected. It was another to have someone else see me – as the temp would put it later – “get treated like a dog.”
I thanked her over and over again, and then confronted the supervisor about what had been going on
He did nothing. And nothing changed.
Later that day, I told him again.
Nothing. Except observing him freeze into a thousand-yard stare tinged with slight panic.
That afternoon, I told him a third time. He sent me to work in a different section and, while my trainer screamed and ranted, he finally confronted her.
Things quieted down… for a couple hours.
I could feel my trainer’s suppressed anger and disgust
And I also saw how tough the kind, old temp worker actually was, and how she stood up for herself. Instead of politely asking the trainer a question – like I would – she approached her and said, “Do you put nylon before or after cotton YES I KNOW I ASKED YOU BEFORE BUT I’M ASKIN’ AGAIN BECAUSE I’M FAT!!!”
Sometimes, success in life isn’t about the surface logic you employ but the energy you exude. Actually, that might be 100% of the time (but being logical can be a good catalyst).
While hanging some clothes with the temp, in a quieter part of the warehouse, I thanked her one more time for her help.
“I’ll be back tomorrow so I’ll see you then,” she said.
“Okay, great, see you tomorrow. Thank you,” I replied.
We clasped each other’s hands and said goodbye
I would never see her again.
The peaceful moment didn’t last, either. Minutes later, the trainer stormed into that part of the warehouse, after hearing I was hanging clothes unsupervised.
“You’ve been treating me like garbage all week!” I yelled at her.
She didn’t relent… but the week was over. The next time I set foot in that warehouse, I’d be learning a whole new position. I hoped it’d be better.
On Sunday, I got a text that caused a cold wave of dread to ripple through my gut.
It was from Ted, confirming to show up Monday at 5AM for my new position.
Huh. Why on earth would that freak me out? It was the exact thing I’d been clawing for…
… but with the torture of the load team officially behind me, I looked forward with clearer eyes
What would this new position be like? Could I handle it?
In the afternoon, I prepared as best I could for sleep. Instead of shifts starting at 2PM and ending well past midnight, they were going to begin at 5AM. It was almost literally swapping my bedtime with my waketime.
I was also taking a pay cut from $13 an hour to $11. I figured the sacrifice would be worth it. Now it was more of a hope.
I got a few hours of sleep, awoke at 4AM, and began my commute
Before the transfer, I drove to work amidst the hustle and bustle of a young afternoon.
Then, even though it was the same road, everything was dark and dead quiet. Barely any other cars.
The warehouse looked vacant as I arrived. But I found some people milling around in the breakroom, waiting for the shift to officially begin, so I joined them.
When 5AM arrived and they moseyed out of the breakroom, I followed. And suddenly wondered just what the heck I was supposed to do…
… so I milled around the main clothes sorting station, trying to make eye contact with workers. Who was the manager?
I noticed a couple whispering while darting glances my way
Finally, an older woman approached and ask if I were starting. She looked pissed just for having to speak to me.
I explained that I’d just transferred over, and was supposed to start training for order-pulling.
“Before you do that, you have to work at the Cancels station otherwise you won’t know what you’re doing.”
Okay fine. As the workers began, the noise picked up. They worked machines sewing, imprinting, and moving the clothes along production lines.
The older woman handed me off to my new trainer, an overweight woman in her early 20s. She directed me to drag in several racks of returned clothes, so we could sort them.
She spat the rules at me rapid-fire: “Denim! Black! Blue! Buttons before snaps…”
She went on and on while we piled clothes onto the rack. Temps buzzed around, extracting some items before disappearing. Another worker darted in to grab some. I kept up as best I could, listening to all the instructions while claustrophobia ensnared its chocking grip on me.
What the hell had I gotten myself into?
Every aspect of the job was intricate, packed with tiny details…
… and fast.
In previous weeks, when I began my truck-loading shifts, I walked by the station I was now working at. I pondered what seemed like a calm workflow. Even a lazy one. That turned out to be an illusion. The very real frantic pace was hidden by the workers’ experience.
And then I was trapped in it.
Immediately, my mind scrambled for a way out.
They had said I couldn’t go back.
Was that true?
As I sorted through more and more hangers, tangling them, dropping clothes on the floor, stepping on them, bunching them up, drawing weary looks from everyone around me, feeling their stares… my mind reeled.
Maybe I could beg to go back?
Or say I’d quit otherwise.
Would they care?
Or even want to help me?
Maybe if I got my numbers up fast enough, I had a chance…
So I re-doubled my focus on the task at hand. And worked straight through lunch while everyone else disappeared.
As the day went on…and on… and on, my trainer told me to run upstairs with bunches of 10-20 hangers’ worth of clothes. Then to drag several racks into the endless aisles of clothes in the back of the warehouse. Tripping over wires, mats, and hitting other stations. Brushing by and knocking over clothes in every direction.
It wouldn’t stop. Until, finally, my trainer disappeared.
I asked where she’d gone, until someone angrily told me the day was over.
So I shuffled outside, feeling the glare of the midafternoon sun hit me. Then I drove home, through town, seeing all the college kids walking about, enjoying their lives.
What the hell was I going to do?
After getting home, I did my standing meditations. Then I immediately plopped in front of my laptop… scoured Craigslist for other jobs… and applied where I thought I had a chance.
Then I stuffed my face with as much food as I could for dinner and prepared for bed. With a 3:45AM wake-up time, I needed to fall asleep as fast as I could.
Then began my new routine. The next morning, before dawn even showed a hint of cracking, my alarm blared me awake. I showered, meditated, and attempted to soak up and cherish every single moment I wasn’t at work.
I measured my long, dark commute… watching the clock… and noticed how I still had a half hour of peace, or fifteen minutes, or several blocks to go.
Then came the few minutes in the breakroom before the shift began.
But as much as I tried to grasp at emotional relief, it never came.
The break always ended. And my panicked thoughts kept reeling…
I screwed up. I screwed up. I screwed up.
And I was trapped.
“If you don’t start finishing on time, we’ll find someone who will.”
The entire load team sat in a meeting room facing Ted.
For weeks, we’d been dragging ass. Never mind that we were already understaffed and trailing further behind as the company grew.
We’d never once finished a shift in under 10 hours. The overtime was nice, but not worth leaving the warehouse at 2 in the morning.
“See you in a few hours,” became the dark joke at the end of our shift
At the time, I was part of the two-person team that loaded trucks with freshly-washed supplies. It was by far the most complicated position, and took the longest.
Right as we started the shift, we scanned through spreadsheets to see what every truck needed. Then we scrambled to fill bags with clean towels, sometimes hundreds of them total. Then I ran up to the second floor of the warehouse to haul a snake-like row of clothes along a track back downstairs. The row was usually 25 to 30 feet long, and screwing up the transport could mean a big pile of clothes, hangers, wheels, and a pissed off crew.
Once we positioned the row in front of the open truck, we reached and grabbed, reached and grabbed, reached and grabbed bunch after bunch of clothes on hangers, filling the entire truck. Then came the mats. I grasped them two or three at a time, and threw them into the truck. The technique had to be just right so they slid along the floor, right into the hands of my partner at the other end, so he could neatly stack them.
Fifteen trucks total.
If you didn’t haul ass, you ended up stacking mats at two or three in the morning, delirious with exhaustion, knees, back, and shoulders aching… until you finally crawled out of the remaining space of the truck
As I did, more than a couple times.
In fact, too many times. Which lead to the meeting with Ted.
As the days went by, Ted zeroed in on me and the guy I was working with. He knew we were the real problem.
“I don’t know how much longer I can do this job,” I admitted to Ted. “I’m looking for other work. Are there any positions open in the daytime shift?”
I knew the work in the morning was physically easier. If I could get a transfer, maybe I could finally re-claim what I’d lost when the gold-buying store closed – an easy paycheck to cover my rent, food, and leave a little extra for funding my business.
He said he’d look into it.
Later, when I asked again, he said, “There are some things I need to see from you.”
I had to speed up… right as the daily exhaustion was driving me into the ground
I couldn’t see how. Day after day, Ted got more and more pissed at my partner and I, as we slaved away until 3AM. I’d lurch out of the final truck, giggling with exhaustion, and we’d return the last ignition key as Ted locked everything down without a word.
Then something happened.
My partner’s excruciating back pain forced him to work a different position. He was replaced by Jesus, the 40-something guy who could out-work all of us.
I scrambled to keep up with him. And my speed improved.
Ted approached me, and admitted they had an opening. “It’s the order-pulling position. I think it’d work for you because you have a good memory.”
Huh, I wondered what I had to memorize.
Eh, I was sure it’d be easy…
Later, I checked out the lay of the land on the other side of the warehouse, to see if I was still interested in transferring.
I stepped around the racks of clothes, noticing how calm all the workers looked as they sorted everything. As I scanned near-endless rows and columns of different fabrics, it seemed like an impossible amount to memorize. Maybe I wouldn’t have to? And, sure, I had to duck and dodge all kinds of pipes and wires in the parts of the warehouse built for someone half my size, but I could get used to that. Right?
As far as I was concerned, there was no time to think it over. I just knew the move was perfect for me! Of course I was going to say yes! Double-checking felt superfluous.
Still, transferring wouldn’t be instantaneous. Before I could get the wheels turning, the load team slogged through a schedule of five shifts in a row.
I unloaded the entire time, with a 19-year-old kid from Mexico who had just gotten engaged.
He blasted mariachi music from every truck’s stereo, spoke only about twenty words of English… and we had an absolute blast working together
One night, while I separated broom handles from their bases, Ted confronted me.
“Are you absolutely sure about this? Once we do this, there’s no way you can come back.”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
It still wasn’t a done deal. The load team was already stretched thin.
Eventually Ted confirmed, “You’re definitely switching on Monday. They’re even more behind than we are.”
It was hard to imagine that. The load team was scrambling to keep up with the company’s massive workload. Oh well…
On Friday, we unloaded the final truck. It was pure hell. But I knew how to do it, and could get in a groove on occasion. Especially working with a fun team.
“I’ll almost miss this job. Almost…” I admitted
I’d eat those words.
“These are the towels they wipe baby’s asses with!” Jesus said, with an impish smile on his face.
I perched atop the lift gate of a truck, grabbing little, wet towels by hand from a giant basket and tossing them into a bag a few feet below. They stunk of hospital disinfectant.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I replied
He laughed at his attempt to freak me out. Nice try.
Jesus had been working the load team longer than any of the other guys. He was from Mexico, married with the last of his kids going to college, and well past 40 years old. Yet he could still power through the trucks while the rest of us dragged our feet.
That day, he helped me out with my new position: Unloading.
By far, the dirtiest job in the entire warehouse
Unloading was done in teams of two. My partner backed the truck into the bay. Then I pushed open the rear door, grabbed pile after pile of dirty shirts, turned, and dumped them onto a conveyor belt. When enough were on their way, I ran to the other end of the belt, where the shirts fell into a bag. Once it was full, I pushed the bag to the guy working the sling.
Same with dirty pants.
The conveyor belt also acted as a scanning device, and every once in a while, it stopped scanning without warning. Depending on when – or if – we noticed, we’d have to drag all the clothes back to the start, and throw them in again.
Sometimes a single truck took almost ten bags – well over a literal ton of dirty clothes.
Most trucks, from what I could tell, transported clothes from construction crews, automotive shops… and the best by far was from the spice factory. Those shirts smelled like pizza.
The worst… by far… was from the dog food factory
My partner and I took turns throwing those shirts onto the conveyor belt, always holding our breath as best we could. Sometimes retching when we caught a whiff – and, one time, my partner threw up on the spot.
Every truck also contained dirty floor mats. Piles of them so huge, they’d reach the roof. Sometimes they were soaked from rain. My partner and I bearhugged as many as we could at a time, running from inside the truck to the edge, to throw them into the bags.
Before my first day unloading, Ted pointed to the metal roof of a truck, with pipes jutting out.
“You will hit your head when you’re unloading. You will draw blood. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’”
He was right. I’d have to hunch my back inside the truck for hours as I worked. And when I forgot for just a split-second (which happened many times) … BAM. My head would smack into some metal outcropping. Once, I fell to my knees in pain.
“Watch your head!” my partner chastised me
Finally, every truck had dirty broom brushes. We tossed them all in a bucket, and then stripped the brushes from the underwire at the end of the day, so they could be washed.
So much dust got kicked up in the process, we wore surgical masks while we separated them.
Fifteen trucks per shift. Then a big trailer full of clothes from Fort Collins. One break for lunch.
I still remember one night after we finished. I stumbled into the bathroom, and began washing the dirt and grime off my arms. Then, as I worked over my neck and face, I stared into the mirror… and decided I was going through a spiritual baptism.
Every bad thing I’d ever done… everyone I’d stiffed in my bankruptcy… every mean thing I’d ever said… was now forgiven
I just needed a ritual disgusting enough… and to suffer physically enough… to justify it. To make things official.
That was what I decided. At least it got a laugh out of me, sometime past 1AM in a warehouse bathroom in Lakewood, Colorado.
As the weeks went by, I realized that even though unloading was the nastiest position on the load team, it was also the simplest. You just had to work like a dog, as fast as you could.
One of the guys and I set the unofficial record, as far as I know, for the most number of trucks unloaded before the lunch break. Thirteen. That earned us a double-thumbs-up from Ted.
I also noticed the company burned through temp worker after temp worker in the unloading position. During lunch, I got to talking with one, and found out he’d recently gotten out of prison. Five years for punching a cop while getting arrested.
Five years of his life… gone…
After getting out, he’d settled in Fort Collins and took welding classes.
“Then I went on a bender and ended up in Denver,” he told me.
Must have been one heck of a drinking binge to end up in a city over an hour south, and quit school to boot. The man even admitted his teacher had called to ask where he went.
The teacher didn’t get an answer and, come to think of it, I didn’t get much of one when I asked.
The man had an ex-wife and a kid, too.
“The state keeps taking money out of my paycheck for child support. Between that and how little I’m getting from the temp work, there’s no way I can support myself. The only thing I can do is quit and hope the paycheck where I work next doesn’t get child support taken out of it.”
He went on…
“I’ll find out tomorrow if this place takes it out. If they do, you’ll know because you won’t see me here again.”
That was the last I ever saw him.
As the weeks went on, I slogged through my workdays, sometimes until two in the morning. One night, I stayed until past 3:30AM to help load the last of the trucks. The moment we finished, everyone scattered like they’d just robbed a bank. I ran to my car, turned the key…
… to hear only a sickening little click, and nothing else.
I jumped back out to see the taillights of the last remaining cars disappear as the rest of the load team drove into the night. All was quiet.
So what was it going to be? Sleeping the rest of the night in the breakroom? I sure as heck wasn’t going to pay for a taxi (this was before Uber… and I wouldn’t have paid for that either). Then an idea occurred to me.
I ran back inside the warehouse
Only one person was inside – the first worker of the early morning shift. Because he spoke only a little English, I mimed how I needed a wrench. He gave me one, which I used to tighten my battery cables and…
… started my car.
I drove home, collapsed into sleep… and started the whole process over again… for weeks and weeks…
Right when I thought I had a prayer of getting used to the job, my fears of getting fired started coming true…
As soon as I saw the audio files manifest in my DropBox folder, I saved them to my MP3 player. Then I drove to work.
Just the day before, I’d reached out to my friend Jason for some help (same guy I got the business loan from). For years, he’d made a living by building websites and online marketing campaigns for clients.
No big corporation supporting him…
Which meant he had to get up every morning and hunt for his food
He had to sell every single one of his clients on paying him thousands of dollars. Sometimes he did this in-person, but usually it was over the phone.
If he failed, he and his family would starve. Or, even worse, he’d have to go get a real job.
In a little over 24 hours, a potential client would be calling me on the phone.
So I asked my friend for the best, quickest advice on selling over the phone that he could supply.
In return, he gave me the audio files of a talk by a man named Tom Hopkins. From what I gathered, Hopkins began as a belly-to-belly salesman, and succeeded enough to begin teaching others. And I’m sure he figured out that’s where the real money is.
So that work shift, while folding mats, I listened through my headphones and took mental notes of what he said
The selling process sounded simple enough, as Hopkins described it:
You listen to the potential client, make sure to know exactly what their frustrations, pain-points, and aspirations are, and then you repeat the important parts so they know they’re being heard. Then you present them with options for how you can deliver your product/service, and let them decide which one they want to go with.
There’s plenty more. And well worth looking into. (Hopkins fans, please excuse if I butchered the process – it’s been a couple years and anyone who’s truly interested can look him up and buy his books to get the real scoop. Anyway…)
The next day, while sitting in my condo, I saw my phone ring.
My potential client and I chatted a bit, then I described my background as it related to what he needed.
Then I listened.
The man was helping run a business rocketing towards $100,000,000-per-year. They needed email ad copy. They were bringing in boatloads of new customers from the internet, but weren’t marketing to them afterwards. Just a single sale to a new customer could mean another $10,000 to them.
I knew it’d be an easy gig for me, because it was so close to my best skillsets. So I presented two options. One for 15 emails and the other for 30. The latter had a higher price, but not quite double the first.
The man on the phone said he’d have to ask his business partner.
(If you sell over the phone as part of your job and run into anything like this, take careful note of my reply…)
“Can you get him on the phone right now?” I asked.
He put me on hold to try, but the partner wasn’t available. So we agreed he’d call back once he had an answer.
Cool. I did what I could, and was proud of how smooth the entire process was. Like a good clutch hitter, I stayed centered when the stakes were high.
But after calming down, something occurred to me.
I had presented the two options. One for 15 emails and the other for 30.
But what prices did I name?
“Huh,” I thought to myself, “I think it was $1500 and $2500. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what they were. That makes sense.”
I had literally forgotten the prices I named for my services!
My phone rang. The potential client was back.
I picked up and the man said, “Okay I talked to my partner and we’d like to go with the 30-email option. For $3000.”
“Okay, great, I’ll send you an invoice for the down payment and we’ll get started.”
It paid to be a good listener. I guess I had quoted three grand. Whew!
For the next few weeks, my life became a whirlwind of 10-12-hour work shifts, followed by freelance work.
While I worked on the contract job in the mornings, I continued to learn more about my truck-loading work in the afternoon and night. Every night I drove home, trying my best to ignore the dread of the next shift. Folding mats and the sling were only half the positions for the load team. And I was about to work the most disgusting one, by far…
Saturday morning. I slept in, soaking up the little taste of luxury… and then got out of bed for my meditations.
Something felt off.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it… until I got online, checked my bank balance…
… and saw something that made my stomach turn into an aching stone
A charge in my business account – probably some minor monthly payment – had overdrawn my balance.
So my bank sucker-punched me with overdraft fees.
… four of them. In one day.
At $32.50 each…
… dragging my account almost two hundred dollars in the negative.
“Okay…” I whispered to myself, “Okay just call them up.”
I dialed my bank and explained to the person on the line that, yes, I understood the first overdraft fee. After all, it was my fault that the account got overdrawn.
But four in a single day? Ridiculous.
“Yes, sir, we understand and it’s our policy… ” yada yada yada, they said they’d see what they could do.
After a brief period on hold, the bank told me they’d remove one of the overdraft charges.
As a courtesy.
The other three would remain. My account will still be well over a hundred dollars in the negative.
My breathing grew quicker. I asked to speak to a manager.
Someone else came on the line. I began talking calmly enough…
… but when I began describing how I was living week-to-week… and how they took the money I needed for food and rent… my reasoning dissolving into rambling.
“Oh, it sounds like you’re experiencing some hard times… ” the man said with a bit of sympathy…
… but he affirmed there was nothing he could do.
“Okay th-th-thank you,” I said as I hung up and burst into tears.
I buried my head into my hands and wept.
So much struggling for every penny, and now this? How the hell could I climb out of this hole?
For the next minute, I cried.
Then something snapped inside
My breathing deepened. And I decided what to do.
For the past few weeks, I’d been planning to send a letter to the man who’d been helping with my direct mail campaigns – Doberman Dan. I wanted to propose a deal with him:
I knew he was doing contract work for clients, writing advertisements and building marketing campaigns. To free up his time, he could sub-contract to me. I’d happily take a percentage of whatever he was charging his clients, and do good work. It was win-win.
Of course, to get the idea in his hands, and for him to take it seriously, I knew some random email wasn’t going to do. Instead, I’d print out and send him a real letter. But with a twist.
Many moons earlier, Doberman Dan expounded on the genius of something called the “Dollar Bill Letter.” It’s a letter with a real dollar bill taped to the top of it. When someone opens the letter and sees the billfold, it’s virtually impossible not to be enthralled. After all, who the heck sends real money in the mail and tapes it to the top of their message?
I planned to take it a step further
I knew Doberman Dan was passionate about precious metals. And, before the gold-buying store closed, I made sure to purchase a few silver dimes.
Although I’d written the letter, I hadn’t gotten around to mailing it…
… until that day.
Sitting at my desk, I wiped away my tears, and a newfound surge of energy pulsed through me.
I stood up and drove to the nearest Fedex Office, feeling propelled forward in a state of calm bliss. A smile spread across my face.
At Fedex, I printed the letter, taped the silver dime to the top, and mailed it.
I put the wheels in motion
Then I visited my bank to deposit some cash… before they hit me with more overdraft fees! For the heck of it, I spoke to the manager there, to see if anything would be different. Nope, it was the same story – except I didn’t cry.
Six days of back-breaking work followed…
… until… one morning… my phone rang. I almost didn’t answer… but it turned out to be Doberman Dan!
He loved the letter – it had gotten his attention just as I planned.
He didn’t have any immediate work for me. Still, Dan said he’d keep me in mind, and promised to refer me to some companies that needed the kind of marketing I could provide. Sweet!
It turned out, I wouldn’t have to wait that long. Just a few days later, he referred a potential client to me. The two of us settled on a day and time to do an introductory phone call.
I realized I had to sell this guy on my services
He was a complete stranger. And in the space of one phone call, I had to convince him to give me some money. Possibly a large amount.
How the heck was I going to do that?
Fortunately, I had an idea…[Funny note: As I was editing this chapter in a coffee shop, I turned my head and saw the woman next to me writing out a bunch of hand-written letters, and preparing them for mailing. We got into a fun discussion on how important a real letter can be for showing gratitude. Or opening doors.]