But Before That . . .

by Joel Friedlander on July 10, 2010 · 9 comments

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On Saturdays, I often use this space to go off-topic, leave books and publishing behind for a day, and turn my attention in other directions. Enjoy.

Today you know me as a blogger and book designer. But before that I worked as the Branch Manager of Mortgage Point, a mortgage company in beautiful fifth-floor offices in downtown San Rafael, with Fourth Street spread out below our picture windows. Surrounded by active, achievement-oriented women, I filled out forms and tracked transmittals in Excel, ordered paper and paid the bills.

But before that I ran Marin Bookworks, a book production company, from a desk in my dining room while caring, in his early years, for my son. I employed editors in Los Angeles, indexers in Texas, and illustrators in New York on book projects for a variety of niche publishers. I loved the collegiality of publishing, but it was a craft more than a business.

Before that I published books under my own name and had a box at the big post office down on Bellam Boulevard. I had order forms and a storage unit where heavy cartons trucked straight from the printer towered in wobbly stacks.

Before that I drove our little Honda once a week into San Francisco, to a woodsy bungalow hidden in the trees, where I sat with a former socialite and local TV personality trying to put together her memoirs of love, marriage, betrayal, divorce, and rebirth, while her maid prepared lunch and served it on the good china.

Before that I ran Globe Press Books from a converted bedroom in our house in Yorktown Heights, New York. Andrea, my assistant, sat in the adjoining room while I wrote contracts, sold rights in Italy, Germany, and Russia, and landed a book on the front page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Over several years we published about a dozen books, each with a dedicated but minuscule readership, and succeeded in losing about $250,000, which, luckily I guess, wasn’t mine.

Before that I inherited the role of Publishing Consultant to the Taoist Master Mantak Chia from my publishing mentor, Felix Morrow, when he passed away at age 83 after suffering a heart attack outside his therapist’s office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Master Chia and I discussed his various book projects and I attended his workshops, where he would exhort the assembled seekers, in his fractured English, to “become friend with your anus,” while pacing the room like a lion, smiling and nodding. I installed his computer publishing system and trained his staff. One of the best perks of consulting for Master Chia was being a regular guest at his lunchtime table where, with his wife and his Thai relations, we would gather around a huge circular table with a built-in lazy susan loaded with indescribable Asian dishes from which arose the heady aromas of soy, cabbage and lemongrass.

Before that I helped set up one of the early corporate networks in New York City at Prudential-Bache Securities, an investment bank filling the top floors of a very tall building near the very tip of Manhattan. Our breakthrough in getting the secretarial staff to use the system was removing the daily menu from outside the cafeteria and posting it instead on the network’s “bulletin board.” The system was quickly and enthusiastically adopted.

But before that I operated Friedlander Design, a design studio on Fifth Avenue and 21st Street. I joined the Art Director’s club, hired models, photographers, stylists, typesetters, stat houses and, eventually, two young assistants, serving as the de facto Creative Department for a friend’s direct mail advertising agency. I sat in regular client meetings, creative meetings, planning meetings, strategy sessions, and brainstorming get-togethers, only to invest over forty thousand dollars in a typesetting system just months before the IBM PC was launched.

Before that I toiled in corporate communications for Smith Barney Harris Upham, on the 43rd floor of a building that towered over Sixth Avenue in New York City. The Senior Vice President who had been shunted into our backwater of the corporate stream prided himself on never having missed a day of work in over twenty-one years at the firm. He hung a clock over the coat closet so he could note our arrival time just by glancing up from his desk. I knew we were destined to part ways.

Before that I temped as a word processor, making my way from assignments at the Ford Foundation to various newly formed corporate word processing departments.

But before that I sold typesetting for a little redheaded Jewish girl from Alabama who had relocated to Greenwich Village. She installed a balance beam in her new office instead of a conference table and would sometimes accompany me on my hopeless sales calls in a bright red leather jumpsuit, hopping out of her rented Jag-with-a-driver full of energy and optimism.

Before that I sat in a quiet office on East 51st Street working at print schedules, cost estimates and orders for railroad cars full of custom-made paper for Aperture, a photography book publisher. I lugged plain black boxes jammed full of original prints by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and Lisette Model on the subway down to the printing district for press checks at all hours of the day and night.

Before that I sat in a small office near midtown and tried to make peace with Jim, the surly Jamaican layout artist, and get him to follow my instructions as I laid out resumes and menus for Lawford Press, a commercial printer on the 12th floor of a nondescript building near Grand Central Terminal.

Before that I slept for weeks under the dining room table of a 29th floor apartment overlooking the Lincoln Center plaza, where I could see the little figures of ticket scalpers selling seats for the evening’s performance of American Ballet Theater or the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

Before that I studied hand printing and brought antique iron hand presses back from England to set up an opulent hand printing operation in the garage of a modest house in the rural community of Oregon House, California, in hardscrabble Yuba County.

But before that I operated Godspeed Graphics out of a double-wide trailer in a leafy glen of scrub oak and manzanita, doing commercial graphics in a space we shared with a group of architects, a hair salon and a general store, as well as the only bathroom within a half-mile.

Before that I biked into downtown Santa Barbara to collect my unemployment checks while living with eight other people in a beautiful house up on the hill with a swimming pool in the back.

Before that I worked for a Cockney photo lithographer in a storefront shop in Monterey, California, stripping large negatives onto orange sheets of film and making complex exposures inside a darkroom at the rear end of a 20-foot long reprographics camera.

Before that I drove a cab for Kimball Cab Company in Yonkers, New York, saving my quarters in tightly wrapped orange paper cylinders, seed money for my move west.

Before that I worked at Lincoln Plastics in Danbury, Connecticut, standing next to huge injection molding machines as they clanked and hissed and spat out dozens of coffee can lids that, like a robot, I picked up and packed into an endless stream of cardboard boxes.

Before that I worked at a factory down the road that made those cardboard boxes, and had a ring with a knife blade attached to it that we used to cut the string when we tied up the stacks of boxes. Sometimes I was assigned to the corrugator, a machine that looked like a building that had fallen on its side, out of which poured an endless stream of flat cardboard blanks, hot from the heated corn starch holding the paper layers together, and which would burn the skin on your hands shiny after a couple of hours.

But before that I assembled air ducts for Connor Engineering. I learned to work the press brakes that stamped metal sheets into various shapes with massive dies, and which could only be activated, once the metal was placed in the maw of the machine, by simultaneously pressing two buttons about three feet apart to make sure you had both hands accounted for. I spot welded huge stacks of parts and spent lunch hour on the lawn eating tabbouleh from the local Arab deli while trying to make sense of the philosophy of Chuang Tzu.

Before that I worked the night shift at Helicoil, watching small machines make little tiny coils and drop them into a box. The boredom was relieved by watching for Mr. Schultz, the towering shift foreman, to pass by on his rounds making sure we were doing nothing to distract us from watching little machines for 8 hours.

Before that I tried to convince shoppers to buy original oil paintings at a store in an urban renewal mall in downtown Danbury. I sold from the primitive typewritten artists’ biographies taped to the backs of the frames, until I walked into the back office one day and found the owner, a fugitive from Manhattan corporate life, typing up the biographies to stick on those frames. He shrugged his shoulders and told me he bought the paintings by the linear foot, everything else was fantasy.

Before that my parents arranged a job with a factoring company near Wall Street, where I sat among legions of other clerks at a desk in a long row of desks, making small marks on papers by comparing them to other papers. We were then herded off to a bank vault where, sitting at folding tables and unable to leave until the end of the day, I ticked off stock certificates on blue bar computer printouts while I watched the clock tick off the minutes of the day. Midway through the third day I told the supervisor I had been called back to university and escaped into the freedom of the street above.

Before that I worked the summer as a mail carrier, where I trained by trotting behind a veteran postman as he raced through his rounds. When we finished around noon, he firmly instructed me not to arrive back at the post office before three-thirty, since he would be off at his other job.

Before that I sold children’s shoes at a discount store on the barren stretch of strip malls, gas stations and motels advertising wedding specials that runs between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, chasing the little tykes around when their mothers’ couldn’t control them.

Before that I spent several years after school and in the summers stocking shelves and wrapping gifts at Sandler’s Gifts and Housewares in downtown Mt. Vernon, New York, and made the trek across the street to pick up Harry Sandler’s lunch from the luncheonette. Harry, the cheapest man I know, wore the same sweater with the same holes in it every day, squinted behind his wire frame glasses, and drummed into me his versions of wisdom-to-live-by like, “it all comes out in the average wash.”

Before that I worked at Camp Waubeeka, Boy Scouts of America, putting the campers through the same rites-of-passage I had been put through, and encountered, for the first time, the awful responsibility of tending other people’s money, other people’s goods, and other people’s trust. It was, in the end, a searing introduction to the world of work. I was 15 at the time, and before that I was a child.

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hisgett/

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    { 8 comments… read them below or add one }

    Diana Young July 15, 2010 at 11:30 am

    What a saga, Joel, alternately humorous, poignant, and inspiring. All those experiences must have contributed to the confidence, wisdom, and humanity you reveal in your blog.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 15, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Diana, I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I’m deeply humbled by your comments. Thank you.

    Reply

    Vincent Nguyen July 11, 2010 at 8:44 am

    Hi Joel,

    Quite the eventful and full life you shared with us. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your story and it definitely shows your strong character from having so many experiences. I admire your willingness to try new experiences because sadly there a those who are too shy or scared to step out of the “comfort box” and experience everything that life has to offer.
    It would be interesting to find out the statistics of successful individuals based on how early they started working? This study of course would be quite challenging with so many variables. But would be interesting nonetheless.

    Have a fantastic weekend Joel. We are getting amazing sunshine up here in Vancouver, so I am sure you are getting the same?
    :-D

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 11, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Don’t get me started on the weather! (“Nice winter we’re having this summer, isn’t it?”)

    Vincent, I thought about this recently and realized that what has motivated me for most of my life is the desire to “make a difference” and often by providing help of some kind to others. I really appreciate your reading all the way to the end. Have a great day.

    Reply

    Mayowa July 10, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Joel.

    This reminded me so much of something Thoreau said. “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

    I’d say you’ve lived, sir :)

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 10, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    Mayowa, that’s a great quote, thanks.

    Reply

    Teri July 10, 2010 at 6:28 am

    This makes me want to sit next to you at dinner parties. What an interesting life.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 10, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Teri, that’s so nice of you, thanks!

    Reply

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