The importance of turning back

Drawing of my first typewriter, caption "Winter's Playground"

Drawing of my first typewriter, caption “Winter’s Playground”

In the first draft of my memoir, which I left behind in the States because it has a bad energy objects sometimes can, I began with a scene from 1993 that traces the start of my career to its source, a misunderstanding on a job application. I wrote at the top, “Look, he has experience!,” but the hiring manager mistook my handwriting for his assistant’s, assumed she’d already screened me, and called to ask if I could meet with him, then made another bad assumption I was gay, and asked when I could start.

It was a desirable place to work. He fanned through the applications to show me how many he had. I knew how to make espresso drinks, which was rare on the east coast in the early ’90s. I had a college education and was used to an easy life, felt like I could do anything, but feared what I wanted to do most which was write, because even though it came easy to me, it was hard — hard to read what I wrote because it required more than clever phrasing and metaphor, it was easier to put off for another day.

I started a Wednesday night open mic at the café though and acted as MC, performed my poems, belted them out. The owners assumed this would make me a good manager and one day Pete said “Bill, we want you for management,” and I said OK. Then they got acquired by another chain, a Starbucks knock-off trying to beat Starbucks to the tertiary markets of the midwest, southeast, east coast — and with the new ownership came a more corporate feel with dress codes and training manuals, but I went with it: they were laying bread crumbs and seemed to know the path. It led from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, a long drive across the state in a rental truck to an artist’s loft called The Sponge Factory.

But after visiting Europe for the first time and getting a feel for how big the world could be outside of Philadelphia we ended our lease and drove to Seattle — I’d left the Starbucks knock-off and joined the Starbucks enterprise, fallen head-first for the training videos with Howard Schultz, the pretty stamps and the stories about all the coffees, the pride that came with wearing the apron, the promise of being the best.

So we drove across the US with our two cats and jade plants and my manual typewriter that was pea-green and sounded like gunfire it was greased so well and I beat it like a percussive instrument until it got damaged by bag handlers in Spain and the characters drooped, and it was never right again.

And I worked at a Starbucks on Mercer Island at one of the first drive-thru stores and handled orders with a headset and accepted whatever trash they had in their car they thought I should throw out for them, and fished change out of their ashtrays and then didn’t tip too much.

Got tired of it and started working in the corporate office when a recruiter called and asked if anyone was interested in driving the shuttle van. I said I wasn’t, but what else do you have?

And a year later I was offered a better job in the office, something called a roll-out specialist which we joked was like specialising in rolling out of bed, or rolling out new things to the stores — but I turned it down because I feared it would distract me from what I really wanted to do, write, and so I moved to France because my mom and step-dad had a condo there and I spoke some French and couldn’t seem to get laid for the life of me in Seattle, so why not?

I wrote poorly that summer by the Mediterranean, alone, and couldn’t sleep in the bedroom because I had violent dreams there, and moved back to Seattle, back to Starbucks, and a studio apartment on Pill Hill, where I could walk to work.

I trace it back to my boss at the Starbucks knock-off, when things first appeared to be going right but probably weren’t. A simple device he used to recruit me into management, he said he needed a manager for the highest volume store in Oakland, Pittsburgh — the neighbourhood by Carnegie Mellon and the Pitt campus — but he was planning to place another guy there, and I guess it awoke a competitive side in me, my ego, because I said OK, but I could do the job too, if you wanted.

And he smiled and said, I was hoping you’d say that — and we had a deal. He saw something in me I didn’t see, but I was glad for it, it took all the fear out of it, knowing where I was going, feeling like I’d been picked.

And there is a rule in backcountry navigation I learned too late, that if you’ve gotten off-route and you’re not sure where you are the thing to do is stop and go back to where you knew the way. For however hard it is to retrace your steps, it’s better than going on and fooling yourself you know the way until you’re totally lost.

When I left my job in December, it was almost 20 years since I’d started with Starbucks and longer, with the indie coffee shops in Pittsburgh, the Starbucks knock-off in Philadelphia…and as I was discussing the details with my HR manager on when I’d leave and how, he nodded and said in a really human way that’s a long time to work somewhere, a really long time — and we just left it at that.

"Love What You Do"

Categories: writing

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16 replies

  1. It feels like a long road, but that’s OK. I’m following…


  2. We end up making fools of ourselves, when we start making assumptions about other people.


  3. Funny how life seems kind of planned when you look back on it, when at the time it was totally improv.


    • Yeah, would feel better if you could believe you planned it yourself, rather than elements of it being planned for you, but I don’t have enough patience to really plan, and I think I’m getting worse at it, the planning part.


  4. It’s awful easy to stay on that path, though.
    But, you know, I’m eating fresh tomatoes and slivered basil from our garden, with olive oil, salt and pepper. I weeded the afternoon away, dirt under the nails and rough fingertips. There are worse paths, for sure.


    • That’s a nice sentiment Ross, thank you. Was tempted to say something pithy myself but my tomatoes here are pithed. Looking forward to that first coffee. You’re damn right there are worse paths. Glad you made it through your first week back at work, must feel like an extra-special weekend now. We start our homeschooling regimen tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it.


  5. It is a long time. Such an interesting trajectory, too. Love how you got the first job, how life is funny like that and makes for the best stories. You’re a writer, Bill, always. Interesting that you left your memoir draft behind. I can understand and appreciate that.


    • Thank you Kristen for that. Yeah, I’ll have another go at the memoir draft but when I can inject some more love and joy in it. Had to write the first version of it to rid myself of the funk and truth be told, probably still have some of it between my toes. Thanks for offering up these good words here, truly.


  6. So unless I missed something, and of course I may very well have, this is the first time you’ve spoken about your memoir this way. I wasn’t aware you felt that way about it. Now I’m curious to know more. But on another note, your career path is one that sounds very familiar. I had a very talented mentor once who said something like “we all just kind of fell into this, didn’t we? None of us dreamt of doing this, did we?” He was the wisest, most gifted dude I’ve ever worked met, and it happened to him, too. So what does that say? I don’t know. But he was very interested in developing people. That’s really all he was ineterested in, come to think. He was also a zen teacher too. Which explains some things. Me, I just…well, I wanna rock! (rock!) duh d-d-duh duh-d-d-duh, I waaaaaant toooooooo rock (rock!)


    • You don’t miss anything, shrewd reader — I recall you telling me about this mentor friend of mine, and how you even might dig up some things he’d said and share with me sometime, please do if you think of it! And that notion we’d just fallen into things, I heard that before too. Like, the car just pulled up and we all got in and here we go and isn’t it great. It was a pretty quick decision to leave that draft behind but I learned a lot from it, built some confidence, and that’s what I needed — also to get some stuff off my chest, not worth carrying it around further. And Dee Snyder’s a better image, a better way to start my day. Thanks for that, homer.


  7. 32 years ago I moved to Europe for five years. The story is still being written. (Sounds like the start to a Hornby novel)

    I was wondering about the memoir. I did the ass thing about it moving forward off-line. Sounds like version 1 is buried and you are ready for the next one. Then again I find my ass is very vocal.

    Liked by 1 person

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