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.
“I don’t understand… so how is that even a business?” he asked.
I was in Fort Collins, Colorado, standing in front of a whiteboard in a shared office-space, marker in hand.
Sitting in front of me was a friend of almost a decade, Jason. I had just mapped out my entire direct mail marketing plan.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Wait. Just to clarify… these figures here are net profit.”
“Oh! Oh, okay, I gotcha,” he chuckled.
Heh. Sometimes you have to make extra-sure you’re on the same page. 🙂
That day, I had driven over an hour north to meet with Jason, to see if we were comfortable doing what has probably ripped apart more deep friendships than anything else:
… a land of drug-like high hopes… the banishment of rationality… vanishing savings… and awkward radio silence.
Where thousands and thousands of dollars can evaporate. Possibly followed by quietly imploding friendships… or not-so-quiet lawsuits… and maybe even a shattering marriage or two.
We both walked into his office aware of this, and knew we were going to handle our money in a way you never hear about in “you can attract millions!” seminars…
… with machine-like rationality.
But would it work?
For the first half of the day, I mapped out my business’s entire customer-acquisition strategy, and my strategy for making a net profit (two different things… they don’t teach that in “make money online” scam-fests either).
I showed the campaigns I had tested with my own money, and the results. I extrapolated those results to how I could scale up, and listed the potential pitfalls and rewards. I detailed both best and worst-case scenarios.
But the business is always just one part of the equation.
In this case, there was another massive risk
So I mapped out my own strengths and weaknesses, including my state and federal tax debt. For most lenders, this would be a deal-breaker. For my friend, it simply meant an adjustment in his ultimate profit as I paid back the loan (I’m sure there’s a fancy accounting term for that – he’d know it).
He asked his employee to get us some Chinese take-out for lunch. Then Jason and I enjoyed a walk around a park together.
In the second half of the day, we negotiated the possible investment.
Here, I was more a fish out of water.
But together, we crafted an elegant plan
Jason would provide me with a cash infusion large enough to get proof-of-concept that my business really could begin scaling up. If we both agreed it worked well enough, he’d loan me the remainder. Then I’d pay him back, plus a whole boatload more.
If the initial infusion did not work to our standards, I’d simply pay him back at the minimum interest rate of 1%. And part as friends… we hoped.
Then we discussed his upside if it worked out. I forget the details but it went something like…
“Three to four hundred percent… ” I offered.
“Okay so 400%,” he replied
My friend, far more experienced in negotiations than me, knew to latch onto the higher number I gave. If I wanted to go down, I’d have to back-pedal and possibly give something up. Whereas if I had started at 300%, he might have had to give something up for me to go higher.
Machine-like rationality, remember?
In a negotiation, never give a range.*
After we ironed out the details, I went to the bathroom and thought things over. Then I sauntered back in, tapped the piece of paper where we wrote everything down, and said, “I’m good with this.”
We shook hands and parted ways.
But it wasn’t over
In the coming days, we continued the ironing process with a written contract, which we edited a couple times. Then we both signed, and Jason mailed me a check for $3000.
Earlier, I wrote how this would lead to one of the proudest moments of my life. But it wasn’t the deal itself. Making a plan and signing on the dotted line is the easy part.
I’ll reveal the hard part… and how I handled it… soon.
But next, I’m going to write about how the company worked for, slowly crumbled. And how it became my job to sweep up the pieces.
*[12/10/16 Addendum: Actually, giving a range can be an excellent idea, especially when you’re delivering an extreme anchor. For instance, give out a salary range with numbers on the high end, if you’re applying for a job. For instance, $50,000 to $70,000 instead of offering a single number like $40,000. Your interviewer will adjust to that anchor. Just make sure you’re okay with the low end of your range. There are also ways to deliver the range and contexts to keep in mind. Way too much for a blog post. I got this from a book I’m reading right now called Never Split The Difference by Chris Voss. I highly recommend this book, especially to learn why it’s better to go for a “No” in a negotiation than “Yes” and the magic two-word phrase you want to hear from your adversary, which signals you’re about to get everything you want.]
I’ve hesitated to write this next part simply because a monumental number of things happened as part of my new job, all of which contained their own weird coincidences, lessons, and amazing energetic notes as part of a much longer symphony.
It’d be too much to cover.
So I’ll just cherry-pick some of the more notable stories I collected during that year.
Actually, my first day on the job set the tone perfectly.
I’d been so excited to get promoted out of sign-spinning that I never actually considered what my new work-life would be. It’s not like I expected a marching band to lead me to a golden throne while the entire company lined up to applaud me and sprinkle flower petals in my path…
… but I still didn’t consider what the reality turned out to be
Instead of suiting up and marching outside for a day of regimented, physical activity, and satisfaction of a job well-done…
… I shuffled into a silent, dank back office without windows, where I felt out of place and somehow useless.
No welcome committee, or even much acknowledgement from my co-workers.
A single trombone player would have at least helped with the transition.
There, I worked… while battling feelings of wrongness that sapped my energy.
Because the company purchased gold and silver (and then sold it to refineries) the price of precious metals was its lifeblood. Back in 2011, gold was rocketing up and hot in the media. As a result, the business couldn’t open stores fast enough.
But when I jumped into my role as a marketer, gold was falling… and then began plummeting
Which would eventually mean we couldn’t close stores fast enough. In one year, the company would be dead.
In the meantime, I languished in an office job without much of a workload, trying to make the best of a situation where my talent, knowledge, and motivation weren’t harnessed or aligned like they could be. Yeah, it was better than sign-spinning full-time. But it was also like a mental cold draft, simultaneously sucking the life out of me and making me want to bundle up.
I saw how office politics can sprout from just three people, as long as one is willing to get the ball rolling. And how people will game the system, without a shred of guilt. One guy, upon leaving, gave this sage advice to his replacement:
Previous to me, the company’s marketing was handled solely by the owner’s aunt. She regarded me joining the team like finding a roach in her salad at a restaurant: Bewildered to discover it, sickened that it even exists, and just waiting for someone else to take it away forever.
Especially considering she had me pegged more as an assistant, as opposed to what I really was…
… Someone brought in to take over her half-assed projects and get them working.
My greatest success was the company’s website. At first, it was garbage. Then, with the help of a technically-savvy friend, we created a new website that doubled the company’s internet-sourced revenue, in the first month.
The owner’s aunt gave me the ultimate compliment when we transitioned to the new site:
She said nothing at all
There were a couple important lessons.
First, I realized why I hadn’t been promoted (or probably even considered) until I approached the owner directly. In my mind, it was logical to approach the person in charge of marketing, about helping out. In reality, she saw me as competition. I realized that if I wanted to help a business grow, I’d do well to get as close to the owner as possible if I wanted to make a deal.
Second, I observed arrogance and low self-esteem in action. In that particular situation, I was more competent than her. I accomplished something she did not and could not. Her reaction began with doubt and bullying… then progressed to outrage and petty emotional tantrums… and ended with denial.
As a result, the owner handed over all marketing responsibilities to me.
Not to say I was a saint during all this (as I’m sure my writing above hinted).
Very quickly, my ego spawned, demanding social status from my co-workers
As a sign-spinner, it was easy to play the humble, centered being. I was at the bottom of the totem pole. My responsibilities were clear-cut. My decision-making power was essentially non-existent. It was actually the perfect “training wheels” for me.
It’s easy to practice egoless-ness when you’re in the bathroom literally scrubbing away your co-worker’s excrement.
Doing the same with responsibility and power, on the other hand, was exponentially more difficult. Nuance came into play.
If someone ignored my suggestion, did they disrespect me, or did they objectively rule out my idea? How could I tell? Who could boss me around, and within what limits? Who could I manage? Everything became blurry…
… Which gave my ego the chance to leap into the fray. As much as I’d like to say I handled the challenge… for the next year I cared more about status than connecting with others.
Which only served to alienate me from everyone
When it was clear my workload wasn’t enough to be in the office full-time, I switched to sign-spinning three days per week, and only worked on marketing for the remaining two. I welcomed the change. Stretching a part-time office workload into a full-time week left me feeling icky and drained. It was also a nice balance of resting in a stale office and battling the harsh elements outside.
Throughout it all, I continued the two things that mattered most to me: Getting my business off the ground, and my daily meditation practice. Neat things continued to happen. A couple co-workers separately asked me for some advice related to meditation and working with energy.
Another event provided a lesson for years to come. First thing in the morning, I was chatting with the sign-spinner manager and he lamented: “I’m waiting for a call from one of my guys before I head outside. But these calls never come when I want them to, and then they always do when I’m outside and I can’t answer!”
“Then here’s what you’ve got to do,” I said. “Start going outside, and then he’ll call!”
He chuckled and admitted I was probably right.
“No, seriously,” I said, “Go for it!”
Later in the day, he came back and said, “Well Nate, guess what happened? Right as I was about to go outside, I paused for a moment, and he called.”
Every time I can remember, I heed my own advice – and never wait for any important email, phone call, or contact of any sort. Instead, I “juggle” projects. Like giving a dog a large enough variety of bones to keep him perpetually pleased and occupied.
As for my business, the embers were glowing bright enough that I figured getting a cash infusion, in the form of a loan, might ignite things. I contacted a friend up in Fort Collins to discuss a possible multi-thousand-dollar deal.
This would lead to an accomplishment that is among the proudest of my life, and I’ll write about that next.
I-25. Northbound. Traffic was getting denser as I approach downtown Denver. The four-lane highway turned into stop-and-go as people merged on and off.
Suddenly, I saw a car plow into another just in front. Metal and glass sprayed everywhere. As I rubber-necked to view the damage, I felt fortunate it wasn’t me…
Then I turned back to look ahead, and saw the wall of stopped cars in front of me. Too close.
I slammed my foot on the brake and my car began to skid on the asphalt
It was too late.
A few days earlier, I emailed back and forth with the owner of the company I worked for, settling on a day and time for me to visit the head office and sit down with him.
To say that, since then, I’d been excited for the meeting… would indeed be an accurate statement.
Finally, the day arrived. I stood outside holding my sign for a few hours, and then came in a couple hours before I was scheduled to meet the owner, to begin my drive over. I wanted to make sure I was on time.
Then I headed out. Outwardly, I felt calm. But there must have been some serious churning going on, at a deeper level. Because on the highway, I ended up slamming into a stopped car ahead of me.
The front of my engine let out a dull crunch as my hood crumpled upwards
Much in the same way one fixates on the sight of a wound after cutting oneself, I stared with horror at the gnarled mess of my engine. It had just been totaled.
“SHIT!” I yelled.
I felt a little outside of myself, registering and yet not believing what had just happened. Both me and the other car pulled to the side of the highway. Another casualty of the heavy traffic.
I switched off my engine as I saw coolant spill everywhere, like the car’s blood.
There went my meeting with the owner.
I practiced, in as tiny a way as I could muster, assuring myself that this was perfect. Heck, I think I even muttered, “This must be perfect for me” when I pulled over.
Then I realized… what the heck was I supposed to do with my car?
Tow it? Where?
I dialed the mechanic’s number – the one who soaked my catalytic converter. Based on my dealings with him over the past few weeks, chances were he would not pick up the phone. And then I wouldn’t know what the heck to do.
If there was a time I wanted him to pick up… this was it.
The phone rang… and rang…
“Hey, what’s up, buddy?” he answered.
“Oh man, I’m glad you picked up!”
“Why, what’s going on?”
“Oh you know what happened!” (I don’t know why I said that.)
“No. What? Tell me, man.”
“I totaled it. I just got in an accident.”
“I’ve got to get my car towed off the highway – can I take it to your place to get it fixed?”
“Yeah, but I have to see how bad the damage is.”
“Okay, cool. I’ll get it over there.”
Would he have picked up, had I not affirmed… even a little bit… that this was perfect for me?
I talked to the other driver, who was cool about the whole thing. Although he admitted, looking at his own car, “Yeah that’s totaled, the frame is bent.”
Soon his friend arrived, inspected his car, shook his head, and waved it off. “It’s fine!”
“Really?” the driver asked him.
“Oh yeah, this is no problem at all!”
I interjected: “I like him!”
Soon the police arrived, took down our information, and I gave my insurance info to the other driver. I marveled about how nice he was about the crash, when he affirmed, “Hey, the important thing is we’re both fine.”
That was true – it wasn’t like I was doing 80 MPH down the freeway. Still, one wonders what would have happened, had I not slammed on the brakes.
I later learned that my airbag didn’t deploy only because of a glitch in the system. Because I hit the brakes, the nose of my car hunched down. As a result, I didn’t so much smack into the car ahead, as wedge underneath it – so the airbag signal wasn’t triggered. Either that, or it was just broken.
The tow-truck came, and I gave him the address for my mechanic. He was there waiting for us, as we arrived. Before the tow driver had a chance to lower my car onto the street, the mechanic hopped onto the bay to inspect the damage.
Overall, the news was good. I’d probably just need a new hood, radiator, lights, and a couple other odds and ends.
If it were a regular shop, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it
But this guy could get it done in his own garage for several hundred dollars and a trip to the junkyard for parts.
Considering my car was a requirement for my job, I was grateful.
He even gave me a lift to another of my company’s stores, so I could hitch a ride home with Ken, my friend and co-worker. Plus, it gave them a chance to say hi.
I marveled at how things could resolve themselves so smoothly. By the time my shift would have ended anyway, I was home. I just had to take the bus for a couple days.
So, it was just a matter of rescheduling the meeting with the owner, right?
As it turns out, it wouldn’t be that easy. And I began to wonder if the Universe was conspiring to keep me stuck…