“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.]
As I prepared for bed after my first day (and night) of work, I took a single melatonin pill…
… and then lay in my bed, wired almost to the point of shaking. As if I’d just awoken in the morning and drank a pot of coffee. Even though it was past 2AM.
So I took another melatonin…
… and lay in bed, fixated on my next shift… starting in less than 12 hours… how tough it was going to be… how lack of sleep was going to make it much worse… how dwelling on it would push sleep further away…
… and took another melatonin.
Would I lose my job? Die? My mind raced. Somehow, the combination of a dark bedroom, sleeplessness, and stress always mangles my thoughts into delirium.
Finally, well past 5AM, I slept a few brief hours
Then I awoke, did my meditations, and drove back to the textile warehouse for another 10+ hour round of punishment. To steal myself from the impending chaos, I walked a short path behind the building and stood amidst a group of four solid trees.
The second shift of work was much like the first, except my fog of exhaustion felt even thicker.
On the upside, I slept better that night.
And after a week of folding mats, I began to mentally get the hang of it…
… just in time to be moved to a new position
The load team comprised four main positions. At the beginning of every shift, fifteen trucks arrived, packed full of dirty laundry. Mats, shirts, pants, towels, mops – things like that. We couldn’t go home until we unloaded and reloaded everything.
Folding mats was just one part of this process. Another part, and my new position to learn, was “the Sling.”
As two guys unloaded the trucks, they’d dump everything into giant bags hanging inside wheeled carts. Each cart was over five feet high, and weighed 250 pounds full (measured by a scale right beneath the sling).
Or 350 pounds, if they overloaded
In the Sling position, my job was to grab those bags, roll them over to the sling, tag them, and push a button to send them rocketing up to the warehouse-wide overhead rail system. Momentum and a couple strategically-placed pneumatic devices would zip them to the laundry room.
Working the sling required considerably more memorization than folding mats.
After dragging the bags into position, I had to tag them according to truck and item, and send them up in a certain order. When the sling came back down, it carried an empty bag with it. I had to hook it to the empty cart, dismount it from the sling, and shove it back to the unloaders.
In addition, I had to dump sacks of several different kinds of dirty towels into large bags myself, and monitor for when to send them up the sling.
Some carts had busted wheels, and dragging the 250+ pounds felt like trying to pull a car… sideways
It helped to remember which carts sucked, and use them for only rarer kinds of towels.
Sometimes the large bags wouldn’t be secured in the bottom. I’d find out after sending the bag up the sling, only to watch in horror as the bottom burst open like a chrysalis, leaving a couple hundred pounds of dirty towels behind in a perfectly-round, four-foot pile on the scale.
Many times, the sling would malfunction, and merely raise the bag to the top without sending it across the belt system. So I’d snatch a long metal rod and jab the bag hard enough to push it until the first pneumatic device.
On one occasion, the bag snared the metal cart, so the sling pulled everything about ten feet up, before the cart slipped loose and crashed onto my right shoulder.
A headshot might have snapped my neck
I also had to monitor the bag’s progress until it was out of sight. Many times the bags got stuck on the other end of the warehouse. So I’d have to grab a thirty-foot metal poll, race across the floor, climb up some metal racks… balance myself at the top… and use the poll to jam the trolley’s hooks back into place just so. Like shooting pool, and aiming for a cueball on the ceiling of a basketball court. Then ramming the bag onward.
Solving every one of these malfunctions meant losing precious seconds, which could mean falling behind the unloaders in the trucks.
On top of all that, I also had to practically swim through sacks and sacks of wet, sloppy, nasty towels.
Picture an auto body shop using rags every day to soak up oil, gasoline, and sweat. Then they stuff all those rags into plastic sacks… and send our way for sorting and cleaning.
Some soaked with cleaning fluid… regular old grime… and sometimes cadmium
The cadmium towels were marked off and specially sealed for separate cleaning and handling. At least once, they showed up with the seals burst.
When the laundry guy got ahold of them, he made sure I was looking, and exaggeratedly pretended to lick them.
If I fell behind (which I did) then the unloading crew didn’t have any bags in carts to fill. So they’d sit and wait for me. For the first three days at this position, I had to be bailed out during my shift.
I feared my job was on the line
Then came Friday. The final shift before our three-day weekend. My 72-hour solace in a world of miserable chaos. I vowed that I’d get the hang of this new position, so I could enter my weekend feeling secure in a job well done.
I even affirmed to myself as I drove to the warehouse, “Earn your weekend… earn your weekend… EARN your weekend.”
From the very start, I attacked the bags without mercy. Even if I risked damaging the equipment as I slammed the cages around.
I almost made it… but Ted had to jump in to help, near the end of my shift. Still, for my first week at the position, it felt like a victory. And now I had the three-day weekend to look forward to, feeling like I earned it…
… little did I realize, the very next day something was going to cause me to break down and cry uncontrollably. The first of many breakdowns I’d have over the next few months…
One week after I was officially hired, I returned to the same warehouse at 2PM, ready to take on my new career.
Two in the afternoon was my new workday’s “morning.”
And unlike a typical 9-5, there wasn’t an official end to a day’s shift. The load team stopped only for one reason:
We loaded all the trucks.
Maybe we finished at midnight. Usually not.
More likely, it was 1AM… and sometimes 3AM
We got one break for “lunch” which was – as I recall – at 7PM. And sometimes, when we worked past 1AM, we sat in the breakroom for about fifteen minutes, to recover.
During the few months I worked there, two guys out of a crew of less than ten, got injured. One required surgery. It’s fortunate no one died – and our supervisor Ted almost did meet a gruesome fate.
I had no clue about any of this, as I stood in the waiting room, thinking I was ready to begin.
Salvador showed up just a couple minutes after me. But, after a short visit to Bob’s office, he barged his way back outside again, his face twisted in fear and anger.
“I’ll probably never see him again,” I thought
I never did.
(My best guess is, he failed the drug test but didn’t realize it, until Bob delivered the bad news, in person.)
Ted lead me back to the same mat-folding station where he tested me before. This time, it was the real deal.
In a blur, he showed me what to do.
Turns out, there was much more to learn. One of the toughest parts of the job was working through the brutal conditions while still assimilating new information. Describing everything this textile company did, would require a book (and people passionate about business operations would probably love every painstakingly-detailed page). But I’ll cover the basics.
Throughout my ten-hour shift, someone from the giant laundry room would push a cart of freshly-washed mats my way. The cart was about half the size of a four-door sedan (so, the same size as your average Subaru).
It was loaded to the brim with perhaps a couple thousand pounds of mats
My job was to push this cart onto a hydraulic lift, which would hoist it into the air, and partially spill the mats onto a station.
Then I’d grab, fold, and wipe them over an electronic scanner, before tossing them onto the appropriate section of a rack. Each mat weighed between five and twenty-five pounds.
Then, when the rack was full (it would typically end up weighing 400+ pounds, by my estimation), I’d drag it to another part of the warehouse, for loading onto trucks. As I recall, I did fifteen racks per shift.
The mats were usually still a bit wet and stuck together. The carts and racks were warped and I had to grapple them to get anywhere. And during a single shift I folded thousands of mats. From what I heard, sometimes the hydraulic lift shut down in the bitter cold of winter, necessitating the use of a forklift.
Then I understood why the company tested people before hiring them.
Nobody with an average build – or mentality – could do this
So I began. Soon, Ted walked away to let me learn the ropes by trial and error.
Carts kept getting wheeled in. Soon, I was two behind. As fast as my body was capable, I plowed forward, folding and folding and folding. Every time I dragged a full rack to the trucks, my shoulders and back were pushed to the limit.
Over time, I learned the finesse required with the job. Sometimes the mats were so tangled in the cart (especially the 10-footers) that if I couldn’t easily yank them out, tugging and tugging would only tighten the knot they were stuck in. Wasted effort. Instead, it was smarter to test different mats, and “unfold” the massive pile like a snaky version of pick-up-sticks.
Frequently, I pondered how much this was like unravelling a personal issue.
Folding the mats had a technique as well. Tossing them into the rack had a technique. Guiding the load across the warehouse did too. Every task had a three-dimensional path-of-least-resistance that could be learned only through practice. It’s how my co-workers made everything look easy… while I struggled and sputtered, exhausted.
Hours flew by…
… until our “lunch” break came at 7PM.
I took maximum advantage of the hour, first stumbling to the oasis of my car to do an Inner Smile meditation. Then I wolfed down the meal I brought in.
Just before the break ended, I chugged some more coffee, and limped back to my station…
… to gain a new appreciation for the myth of Sisyphus. Except, instead of rolling a boulder up a hill, I was folding endless carts of mats.
As the minutes crawled by, nighttime descended on the warehouse, which only grew louder and more chaotic. And I discovered I was only halfway through the shift’s mats.
“No way… that can’t be true…”
They brought in another worker to speed things up. Together, we paced in an odd circle, each of us grabbing, folding, and tossing a mat before doubling back to do it again.
My exhaustion seeped deeper and deeper, until I was floating in a stupor.
Finally, it ended. Except then we had to sweep things up, close down the doors, and grab our stuff as fast as we could before Ted locked the place down.
My hands trembled from the shock
Ted said I exceeded his expectations for the first day. A shallow wave of relief washed over me when I took the news in. Because mixed in my mental and physical exhaustion, was the pulsating fear that I would fail. And get fired.
So I felt a little safer, at least for the time being…
I didn’t realize it as I drove home, but a certain hormone was going haywire in my body, driving me towards partial insanity. And the suffering would linger for the next few months…
“I’m only going to show you this once,” said Ted.
Salvador and I stood at attention amid the warehouse’s chaos. Around us, workers unloaded trucks… dragged rows of clothes along rails… and giant bags zipped overhead. I barely took any of the action in, as I focused on the task ahead.
Ted grabbed a couple floor mats from a giant cart, folded them in a certain way, slid them around a tabletop just so, setting off a scanner. Like checking out a supermarket item. Then he tossed them into their respectful places on a rack.
“Alright, who wants to go next?” he challenged
For the next five minutes each, we were to fold mats just like he did.
Salvador instantly raised his hand and strode forward.
“No problem,” I thought. “I’ll probably get more points for accuracy, than for going first.”
I had a chance to watch his mistakes. He only made a couple.
Then I did some folding, scanning, and plopping into the cart. All good.
“What you just did, is the most physically challenging part of the job,” Ted said.
Huh. It didn’t seem too rough.
I wondered if looks were deceiving… especially considering how long the job’s shifts were…
Ted lead us both back to a meeting room, sat us down, and said he’d like to make both of us a job offer. We accepted.
In the parking lot, Salvador and I shook hands, congratulating each other, and parted ways. I was excited to work with the guy. But the day wasn’t over. I drove to a local clinic for a physical and drug test. Then, after drinking a celebratory coffee, and while driving home… I got a call from the recruiter who first asked me to cut my hair!
She congratulated me, and let me know her hopes that I’d eventually be promoted to a driver for the company, and make the big bucks. Later on, I checked my voicemail and discovered a call from a lawn-mowing company I applied to. Heh, I’d have to call them back and deliver the bad news.
The ground beneath my feet felt plenty more secure, and the gnawing fear in my gut had evaporated…
… because I was completely ignorant of what I’d just signed up for
But I’d discover in time…
A few days later, I went to a bar with a few co-workers, the owner and his girlfriend included, for a final hurrah before we went our separate ways.
Who knows if I’ll ever run into him again, but the last time I ever saw the owner was at 3AM, at Shotgun Willies, watching him make it rain for the strippers there.
I had a few more days to relax, before the physical assault on my body and mind began…
I sat in my car, watching snow whip around the nearly-empty library parking lot.
Did I screw up? Maybe the open interviews were cancelled?
I decided I could only wait and wonder… until I saw the library finally open 5 minutes before 12PM, and people showed up in droves. Suddenly, my worries turned to the competition. Better, at least, to get ahead of them.
I strode inside, and found the right place on the second floor
People swarmed about. I was directed to fill out a bunch of forms. They prodded about any traffic infractions, which I found odd.
Finally, I sat in front of the head recruiter, a middle-aged blonde woman. She took one look at me and asked, “Can you cut your hair?”
“Yeah.” While working as a sign-spinner, I had let it grow to almost shoulder-length.
“… Can you cut it now?”
She explained that the warehouse was stuffed with machinery and moving parts. My potential employers might worry about my hair getting caught. Plus, she reasoned, they’d prefer a more clean-cut look anyway.
“You’re my guy!” she affirmed
I could sense the shift in the energy – I knew I was in. Suddenly the room full of competition took on a new light. The recruiter was looking for just a couple people who fit the bill, and that was a tougher gig than I thought, even with the mass of applicants.
Suddenly, a woman sitting nearby chimed in, giving me directions to a local barbershop.
First comes the shift, then the stars align. I was enjoying the ride…
… but I had to hustle. This was just the first step. The next would take place at the company’s warehouse. And I had to squeeze a haircut in between.
I thanked the recruiter, darted out of there, and drove to the barbershop. There, I explained I needed a crew-cut fast… and a potential job depended on it.
For the next few minutes, I watched the locks of hair I’d grown over the past couple years, fall to the floor. Then, looking slightly spiffier, I sped to the warehouse.
The lobby was packed with applicants, patiently waiting for their second interview to begin
My confidence remained full-blast. Only a couple men were in the room (I doubted any of the 100-pound women were applying for the truck-loading position, which turned out to be an accurate assumption).
The HR guy, Bob, called me into his office. I immediately felt relaxed as we conversed.
I made sure to emphasize how I broke down and cleared out offices in my previous job. Sure, it was only near the end, but it directly related to unloading trucks.
“Did you ever transport the gold?” Bob asked.
Hmmm, I thought to myself… and then remembered the day I helped take it to the post office, when the owner let me borrow his SUV for an interview.
“Yes, I did, one time,” I said.
“Okay, so they trusted you… ” he said, while scribbling on his papers.
The dude was sharp
I made it to the next round, and quickly learned the day in the warehouse wouldn’t be so much an interview as a crucible of physical and mental tests.
Two other guys and I were lead through the heart of the warehouse, into another office. There, we were given timed tests to figure out number sequences and match certain names together. Both tests had four-minute time limits, and finishing on-time was impossible, by design. I admired the ingenious way to judge our abilities.
Before leaving us, Bob said, “We’re going to hire two or three guys so you don’t have to kill each other.”
I plowed through both tests. Of course, taking a test is one thing. Performing under “live fire” is quite another… as I’d soon discover…
Then another man, Ted, sauntered into the office. Each one of his arms looked about the size of my legs.
He asked us a few questions. One candidate, a large Hispanic man named Salvador, answered first and I jumped in second. The other guy spoke last, and began his answer with “I won’t regurgitate… ” Heh, not a good word to use. I could sense him slipping out of the running.
We were herded back into the main lobby. Bob popped in through the doorway, and asked to speak with the third guy.
We never saw him again
But the day was just beginning. Next, Salvador and I were lead back into the warehouse – this time for the weirdest part of the “interview” I’d ever experience…
While scrambling through Craigslist for a full-time, easy-ass job to pay the bills… I thought I hit paydirt:
After conferring with some co-workers (who had extensive knowledge of the field), trimming marijuana plants is apparently a big enough deal that it necessitates crews of full-time workers to get the job done.
I’d never thought of it before, but it made sense. (Out of all Colorado denizens, I was and am the most ignorant of the entire industry. Call that a reflection of my dorky, sheltered life.)
Anyhoo, the company said they wanted 10-20 people – no experience required.
I liked those odds… and standards
So I wrote down the address for the open interview session and, while looking around the backroom where I worked, pondered a new life as a marijuana trimmer.
My cubicle had officially been buried in a maze of old equipment and supplies from stores I had closed. We had shriveled to two locations, from eleven. Within days, it would be zero.
On the day of the interview, the gold store owner was nice enough to lend me his car – making me the only guy applying for the $10-per-hour job in a Lincoln Navigator.
As soon as I found the place downtown, I discovered landing this job wouldn’t be a lay-up.
A line of people spilled out the front doors
As I parked, I noticed the line snaking around the side of the building.
Ugh… well, I was already there. No point in just giving up.
So I got in line, amongst maybe one hundred people. More piled behind me.
While waiting, I talked a bit with a woman helping herd the crowd along. She said she’d been hired as a trimmer just a few months before, but had already been promoted.
Well, that’s a good sign, I thought.
Once I finally got around the side of the building (progress!) I looked into the distance and saw something inspiring.
It was one of the tallest buildings in Denver, The Spire.
It contained luxury residences I’d lusted after – especially one at the very top, that faced the city and the mountains
And I could see that very unit, peeking above the roofs of all the buildings surrounding me. It wasn’t the first time I’d noticed such a thing: While opening my business checking account a couple years before, I saw it while staring out the window. Like a massive monolith.
A good omen, I decided. Whatever the outcome.
After maybe an hour of inching forward in line, five more people were allowed inside. Including me. We scampered through the doors, inside to discover…
… another line, again snaking around the corner.
Oh come on! I thought.
The entire afternoon, potentially wasted
If I’d known it was this long, I would have abandoned the idea from the beginning.
But because I was already there…
(That’s called the Sunk Cost Fallacy)
Finally, the line terminated in a large back room where four employees manned counters. Almost like check-out lines at a supermarket.
Except, instead of processing merchandise, they were interviewing everyone rapid-fire. No chairs, no resumes, and not much privacy either.
The excitement and fast pace was contagious, and I let it slip into my demeanor when I got called to one of the “registers.” The interview was a blur. I made sure to focus on something I figured was a hot-button for them: Dependability. I forget most of the questions he asked me. (Maybe one was “Are you good with scissors?”)
But one question I’ll never forget
“Do you owe taxes from previous years?”
“Ah sorry – it’s against Colorado law for a dispensary to hire someone who isn’t paying their taxes.”
“Oh, I’m definitely paying them – on a payment plan. It’s just that I do owe back taxes.”
Whew, good thing I clarified that…
He then proceeded to nicely tell me that they were doing interviews just an as initial “get to know you round” and that they’d call me in a couple days for the next one. Or something to that effect.
Everything happened so fast, and I was so excited to finally reach the head of the line and finish…
… that I actually believed him
By the time I drove back to the gold-buying store, I surmised (correctly) I’d never hear from them.
While handing the owner back his car keys, I braced myself against the chaos in the store. He’d advertised a massive yard sale of all his office supplies, and the vultures were swarming. One guy even bought a computer, but swiped a more valuable one and walked off with it.
The afternoon’s sales shrunk the clutter, but only a little.
And in a few days, I’d spend my last ever shift as a sign-spinner, and trudge away unemployed…
A little after 10:00AM, I sat in my car, notebook in hand, watching people.
I was parked in the lot of a Denver marijuana dispensary, counting how many people braved the blizzard to shop inside.
As they piled in, I noted their gender, and whether they looked in their 20s, 40s, or older.
I kept watching… marking down stats… and hoping no one would catch me spying…
… for more than seven straight hours
When I felt too frozen in my car, I started the engine and blasted the heat for a few minutes. Did some deep breathing exercises and meditations. And wondered where my life would be in a few months.
The owner had sent me on a spying mission. He was interested in opening some dispensaries in Colorado, and wanted to see what kind of market demand there was.
Save for the cold, that day’s mission was a nice break from fussing about in an office of a crumbling business.
I counted more than a hundred customers swarm the dispensary on a snowy day where many would hesitate to drive to the grocery store.
Definitely a lucrative business to get into…
… unlike the one we were in.
Around this time, I closed three more stores in one swoop. Before that, I chauffeured my co-worker friend around so she could lay people off. I’d worked with these folks for months – even years. But one 60-second conversation later… and we’d never see each other again.
I would have been really depressed, had I not felt so scared.
On another day, my co-worker friend and I called every single county in Colorado, to find out their laws and regulations for selling marijuana. That gave me a doorway into the weird and wacky ins-and-outs of local governments:
“I’m calling about your county’s laws and regulations regarding marijuana.”
“You have to ask an attorney – we can’t give legal advice.”
“I’m not asking for advice – just what the actual laws are.”
“I can’t tell you that!”
Some of the most rural, middle-of-nowhere counties surprised me, though, and sent detailed PDFs on how to start a marijuana business in their jurisdiction.
I hoped the owner would start this new business soon, and that I could be a part of it. I also wondered if we could keep the current one going as well. My online marketing was working. And with the store closures, we evaporated hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenses…
… but it backfired
The landlord of the first location we closed, sued the company. And somehow, even before a judgement was made, this former landlord managed to vacuum every last penny out of the business’s bank account.
The owner admitted to me that he called his bank in a panic, demanding at least enough funds remain to make payroll. He succeeded. He also admitted he cried in the office alone that night. It was hard to imagine a guy like him in that state… but I knew all too well what he was suffering through.
The State of Colorado sent a letter to the company’s accountant, demanding to garnish my wages. I called them to negotiate (as in, explain to them how broke I was) but they wouldn’t give in.
During a lunch break, I drove back to the law firm I’d retained for my first bankruptcy, to discuss going through a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. It’s an interesting hybrid designed to unload taxes owed.
The lawyer had converted half his office into a used car lot.
It… sort of… made sense
When someone goes through a bankruptcy, they frequently need a new car and don’t have the credit for a loan.
The lawyer said I could go through the Chapter 13, and have my remaining debt organized into a payment plan. I’d have to take a second job to afford it. Driving back to work and thinking things over, I refused to go through with it. There had to be a better way out. A curious relief washed over me. I couldn’t tell if it were a sign, or my body giving me a respite from the constant grief and stress.
The state moved forward with my garnishment, but they reduced it to a mere $75 per week. Still, my remaining pay was so low, it was like I was making $9 per hour.
Around this time, I deployed my friend’s $3000 loan for my own business’s marketing test.
I watched the numbers day by day.
I hoped this would work, and give me some light at the end of the tunnel.
Then, I faced paying back the loan… barely enough income to afford rent and food… and possible unemployment.
A friend of the owner visited town, to strategize busting into the marijuana industry. Him, his assistant, the owner, and my co-worker friend spent a couple days discussing all the details. I wasn’t included.
I never would find out if they went through with it.
On the first day of March, 2014, the owner asked me to come talk in his office.
I sat down and he said, “There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just say it. We’re closing. Like, closing closing.”
Oh. After thinking a bit, I realized the time I’d just spent sign-spinning outside that day, might have been my last.
The news really hit me then
“Well,” I told him, “Nobody could ever say you didn’t do everything you could to make it work.” It was true – I’d watched the man eat and breathe the business – taking customer calls seven days per week, working all hours, and obsessing over every detail.
But it was over. Almost three years before, I’d found that job on Craigslist. So, right after walking out of the owner’s office, I sat at my desk and returned to the site, to see where I could land next…
… and that was how I ended up competing with over a hundred other people for a job trimming marijuana plants.
“I just lost $12,000!”
It was April 15th, 2013.
Most folks in the U.S. think of that day as nothing more than a scramble to get their taxes filed, if anything.
But anyone passionate about investing in gold and silver, might remember that as one of the biggest drops for gold prices, in history.
I owned zero gold at that point, but still remember the day because of the cold dread it swept through the office.
Imagine you buy a few thousand dollars’ worth of gold, and it drops almost 10% in price the very next day…
Now imagine you own an entire business that buys gold, and only profits when you re-sell it.
Except, every minute you hold onto the stuff, it’s losing value
Now imagine an entire year of that.
That’s why the owner walked into the office that day, and declared he lost twelve grand. Simply because of a big blip in the price chart. He had a smile on his face and chuckled as he admitted the loss. The man was a living, jovial example of treating money as a game.
At the time, we had nine stores in the Denver area and one in Fort Collins. Within a few months, I helped close one of them. Three other sign-spinners and I showed up, hauled the furniture into a Uhaul truck, packed up all the supplies, and stripped the entire store bare. Then we transported everything back to the main office.
We did all this without telling the landlord what we were up to. After several failed negotiations with the landlord, my boss decided to simply move out and stop paying the rent. I imagine the landlord figured out what happened when he visited the place to see an empty storefront.
That decision would come back to haunt us all, in a devastating way…
During this final year, I became friends with a woman who worked her way up the ranks, all the way to managing the entire business.
As fate would have it, we carpooled together on days I worked in the main office. Getting to know her was the perfect complement to delving into the world behind our “time and space” existence. She spent her money without keeping track… but always had enough. She didn’t care about getting raises or promotions… but ended up in a position of corporate power. She was absolutely, unapologetically herself with little to zero catering to other people… and was incredibly magnetic to others. She worked hard, had a sense of deservingness, and a vapid detachment from everything… the perfect combination to attract what she wanted.
Watching her and the owner work together in such synergy was awe-inspiring… and I hated it. They read each other’s minds like a long-married but still-happy couple.
I was the third wheel. Many times when we were talking in the owner’s office together, I’d make an interjection and noticed the owner and her exchanging a glance. For them, it was a subtle signal. For me, it was a sledge-hammer smashing home the message:
“Nate, you’re on the outside.”
As the business collapsed, they talked, lamented, and laughed together… while I languished like the proverbial square peg, slipping out of the round hole it’s grown used to… and is desperately clinging to.
I yearned to be more involved… to be a decision-maker, and part of the business strategy. But I was so obviously out of my element. She was so clearly in her perfect place…
… and I grew to despise her.
It didn’t help that I began to see her dark side. She quietly, but gleefully, enjoyed her influence over the owner. Especially when it came to firing people. She loved her pet dogs more than her husband. And her habit of laughing at others was so ingrained, at times she literally had to cover her mouth and giggle through her fingers.
Even though my heart center was slowly… even shyly… making its appearance, I struggled not to lash out at her. And failed several times. It was so irritating.
My life’s chaos blinded me to the bigger picture, and the knowingness that I was being drawn to my own pasture
In the meantime, I transitioned from marketer, to mover.
The first store closure was just the beginning. Like setting off a controlled demolition, the owner ordered more and more emptied out. And put me in charge of shutting them down.
Early in the morning, I’d walk to a Uhaul facility, rent one of their bigger models, and carefully drive it to the store. Then one or two other guys and I would load everything up. Like playing an exhausting game of 3D Tetris. Especially when the main office became so packed with furniture and supplies, that the formerly-spacious breakroom became a maze of paths in between stacked chairs, desks, and signs.
If you’ve ever moved, you know how draining and stressful it can be. So us sign-spinners-turned-movers dealt with it however we could. At one point, while helping carry a sofa, one of our guys stepped on a pack of butter and it smudged all over his sole.
“Dude, your shoe is covered in butter!”
For whatever reason, we started joking about it:
“Now your entire shoe… is made of butter.”
Then we started saying everything in a gravelly voice: “Shoes made of butter. Pants made of butter. Then I go home every night… to a house made of butter.”
“Hey Nate, you know why that table’s so heavy?”
“… Because it’s made of butter.”
Little jokes like that helped what was, for me, an emotionally rattling event.
Sign-spinning comforted me because it was so consistent. For years, I showed up on time… did my thing… and got paid. My job was like a financial hammock I could lay in, freeing my mind to work on everything else in life.
Then, all of a sudden, instead of walking into a store to take a break – like I’d done perhaps a thousand times…
I was entering the room to dismantle everything… leave it bare… and shut the door behind me forever
That was the worst part. The strange combination of nostalgia, grief, and feeling the ground unsettled underneath my feet.
Hope dwindled along with our number of stores. Then, one afternoon, I got a letter from the State of Colorado. They were back, to get the debt I couldn’t discharge in my bankruptcy. And if I didn’t pay, they were going to garnish my wages.
I also spent the $3000 loan from my friend on the biggest advertising test yet. This would prove whether or not I really had a business. Next time, I’ll tell you the results.