I’ve lost that sense of being guided through life. Parents. Teachers. Mentors and such. And I don’t think that’s such a good thing. It always helps to have someone with a little more experience than you offering good advice. Then again, I’ve surely had some and should feel lucky, because there are plenty of people who have none in their lives, from their awful parents onward.
Not to belabor the point, but when Dad passed on, that sense of losing a guide was over-powering. He was much more of a “watch what I do, never mind what I say” person. Most people are the opposite, which always rings false with me. Rarely got any stern lectures. Or any sage life lessons. He just quietly did what he did, and I can see now the object was to follow along and draw my own conclusions. This was a bit dangerous to do with teenagers, most of whom would benefit greatly from a life-threatening ass-kicking. But I made it through those wacky years. That’s about my only major criticism of my parents: they never instilled a strong sense of discipline. By the same token, I’ve seen parents go overboard in the other direction, and that’s much worse. An undisciplined kid at least has that sense of freedom he should have at that age – if you have your head on straight, sooner or later, you learn some kind of discipline.
So losing him had that sense of slowly understanding who he was and what he really meant to me. I can sit back now and easily remember some of the bad shit – something I wouldn’t allow myself to do in the wake of all that. But it’s better for me to quietly give myself the sense that he’s watching over me by doing as he did. That’s how people live on, in memory and habit. And that’s how guides work in our lives. We don’t want to be that person so much as to distill the best of what we saw in them and use that in our own lives. I can live with the few bad memories, and actually use the good ones.
School? I had a few guides along the way, most English teachers. I look back now and recognize most of them were hippies – that time period in the 70s when all those hippies realized “come the revolution” was going to be nothing but a quaint conversation phrase, and they stayed in grad school as long as possible to beat the draft, thus getting some type of Masters and dropping themselves into the education system en masse circa the early-mid 1970s. A lot of them also seemed to favor Bloomsburg University, when I was of college age, the place you went to when you didn’t want to go to Penn State and wanted to stay closer to home. Bloomsburg is still a cool little town along the Susquehanna River, although I get those “I no longer belong here” college-town vibes when I pass through.
I remember TS, whom we called Baby Huey, because he looked a little like the cartoon character. He was a big guy, tall and burly, and in that big-guy mode tended to be far more gentle and open-minded than smaller guys with something to prove. RJ, too, who looked like a sleazy used-car dealer but had a sharp mind. I think he was a little older than the other teachers, always brings to mind Jack Nicholson’s character in The Last Detail.
And the first person to notice my stuff, PM, who moved to New York in her early 20s to become a model, which I think she was for awhile, before heading home again and becoming a teacher. (I remember finding her picture in an old yearbook … her favorite recording artist was Jimi Hendrix.) She smoked a lot and had a loud horse laugh – a strange combination for a woman who was model attractive – so a lot of kids were intimidated by her. But we got along fine. I’d keep a journal and let her read it – there was some pretty bizarre stuff in there, too, as I was aping William Burroughs and Hunter Thompson every chance I had. But she put up with it, and was probably shocked and amazed that at least one of her students was into the Beats.
At Penn State, I ran into CC, a good guy from Jersey, another hippie who had gone straight through to get a Ph.D. without a pause. I got to know him at a horrible time in his life, when his young/beautiful first wife had recently died from brain cancer. A terrible thing for anyone, but for a guy in his 20s? I had no concept of what he must have gone through then, but I do now. After I got through the first two years at the branch campus where he taught (and then going on to two years at the main campus), we became much better friends and started hanging out at his place with other like-minded individuals, sometime wandering around the woods behind his house with bottles of wine while he blasted out some dramatic Shakespeare passage.
He was one of the few college professor who dropped his guard and let himself be human. For my money, he was a little too wrapped up in the intelligentsia aspect of his college life: heavily into jazz and classical music, knew all about wine, an expert on Shakespeare, etc. I think it was my role to give him an undiluted point of view from a Coal Region-native. Seeing as how he was from suburban New Jersey, he must have been shocked to encounter people who seemed like the country version of dockworkers from a Marlon Brando movie. He got to know a few of us locals and in doing so got a better grasp of where he was living, as he could have just as easily hung out with campus colleagues listening to harp music and shit. He taught me a lot about classic literature and poetry, and I gathered that the best student/teacher relationship is an exchange of information as opposed to the teacher assuming total responsibility.
I’ve seen pictures of him recently, and the chickens have come home to roost. He looks like any other middle-aged Jersey Italian guy, the kind of guy who could probably get you a good set of snow tires, half price, no questions asked, meet him behind the Burger King on Route 9 on Saturday at noon, sharp. A stark contrast form the hippie wimp look he had going when I first met him: the way he looks now suits him better.
In New York? About the only guide I had in any sense was VM, who worked at an ad agency I did time in during my 20s. VM has an incredible life story: a Polish Jew who somehow evaded the concentration camps as a child (most of his family didn’t), made his way to America, put himself through high school and college, was incredibly bright (he knows at least half a dozen languages), got into advertising in that golden age of the 50s and 60s, then hung around the business and was clearly looking to get out by the time I met him circa 1990.
It says something about me that the only guides I’ve had in life outside of parents are very smart, learned people who may not appear to be over-poweringly successful to the outside world, but possess a warmth and sanity that make themselves obvious when you meet them. VM had done pretty well for himself in advertising – an apartment in Forest Hills (for the uninitiated, a pricey part of Queens) and a country home on a lake an hour north or the city. But aside from that, he lived humbly. And he couldn’t stand the unruly collection of MBAs, backstabbers and cocksuckers who over-populated the advertising industry by that point in history. He’d never use those words, but that’s what he meant when he offered me sage counsel on who to watch myself around in the agency, which was run by a lunatic who should never have been placed in any sort of managerial position. But that’s the world of advertising.
VM got me into his social club, which was a strange collection of actors (some of them famous) and aging Jewish businessmen. The main draw of the club was a small gym on the second floor, but on the third floor, a large sauna and steam room that was a true blessing to use in the winter months. When VM and I would go in at lunch, both were often empty, and it was like having our own private club. Most of the businessmen in the club came to do three things: the steam/sauna, but more importantly to sit around in towels playing cards on the fourth flour and loudly cursing each other. It was quite a scene. How many times did I see naked old Jewish guys, with dongs like ponies, walking around with cigars and a handful of playing cards?
VM rarely gave any advice, save to be true to myself. He liked the idea that I was pursuing writing in some sense, and I never understood why didn’t do so himself because he was clearly a talented, smart man. Much like Dad, I could look at VM and see a guy who had carved out a place for himself in life, liked it, and felt no need to have anything more. Please understand how rare that is with any sort of business people in New York, who never seem to have enough money, no matter how rich they are.
And I think that’s my problem with having any guides in the business world in New York. I don’t look up to these people. Don’t look down on them either. I just don’t want their lives because they don’t look all that appealing to me. Most of these people work like fiends, upwards of 60 hours a week. If they’re near the top of a company, their entire lives are geared towards work. They don’t strike me as being particularly happy either. It’s not the nature of business, which seems to be to constantly make more money. If you’re not doing that, you’re stagnating and failing in some sense. I’m not laying out any Gordon Gekko-style rap here – it’s simply how these people see the world and their place in it.
Which has little to do with mine! And I don’t think mine is any better – we just take comfort in different things. It’s a mistake for non-business minded people to look down on wealthy business people and feel pity or remorse because they’re so into money. Granted, I don’t understand the fanatical attraction. But a lot of these people, when you work with them, you can see how extremely intelligent they are. Forget about degrees and titles – these are simply smart people who know how to gauge other people and situations. It seems to me that a lot of good business practices are based on the simple ability to read people and take appropriate action.
If it was just that alone, great, sign me up! But there’s a lot more going on. Greed, in particular. There’s no other way to explain obscenely wealthy people who never stop. (In the investment bank where I worked, some of the Managing Directors would often comment that they’d do this for X number of years and then get out. I wouldn’t say anything, but I knew damn well that wasn’t in their nature. They’re investment bankers, not philosophers, or fly-fisherman, or any other bullshit situation they had lined up for themselves after they “made enough.” There’s never enough when that’s your line of work. And nothing to be particularly ashamed of, which I gather most of them aren’t! But every now and then, one of those guys would go off on his "oh, for the salad days of my youth" rambles, and all I could think was, "Fuck you, buddy. You'd be miserable and lost if you were that poor again.")
Maybe it’s because I was raised working-class, and have lived my entire life around working-class people, that I don’t feel any burning need to be rich. Not if it implies living my life in full-on “work” mode. What’s funny is that Dad would always delight in hearing how well I was doing money wise when I was working more lucrative jobs, and him not quite understanding that this wasn’t making me any more happy or satisfied with life. Because I was raised in a way, thanks to him, that money was not a burning issue, nor any indication of how well I was or wasn’t doing. We had enough to get by and live comfortably, even in the context of working-class America. I’m comfortable with that – then and now.
I don’t dislike business people – on the contrary, I’ve met plenty that I like just fine. That investment bank I worked at, one of the guys running the joint, JS, was a great guy. In another life, I can picture him somewhere in the midwest, this giant bear of a man, wearing a black suit with a string tie and a preacher’s hat, standing on a tree stump and holding a crowd in awe of his speaking abilities, black Bible in one hand, the other raised to God. He had that way about him – probably the smartest person I ever met in business. A nice guy, too, unless you pissed him off, which to his credit was only when you screwed something up terribly.
It seems like it comes down to the fact that the people I look up to in life never lived by any set rules of success or failure, pretty much just lived their lives for better or worse, and were far more interested in mulling over what it all means than taking direct, decisive paths to put themselves in positions of financial security. And I guess that’s what I’m doing these days. I think our country is sickly obsessed with the concepts of greed and personal wealth. And that when you look past those obsessions, life becomes a lot more clear. That’s all my guides have ever taught me, for what it’s worth, which may be nothing.