How the Shittiest Job in the World Helped Shape My Destiny



My high school career was a bust. My father had to bribe Mr. Runseth, my 11th grade geometry teacher, with an air conditioner to keep him from failing me. For half a year I didn’t get even one theorem right. I wanted to blame it all on the teacher, although whatever it was he was supposedly doing wrong didn’t seem to matter to the rest of the class, many of whom had evidently mastered the material and moved on. I wanted to blame the pot I’d been smoking for destroying my brain cells, but I wasn’t the only kid in that class getting high, and clearly, the other stoners weren’t having the same issues I was. I wanted to blame it most of all, on the fact that I was having too much sex. That, in retrospect, actually made some sense. No kid I knew was getting into the kinds of shenanigans I was. I’m not talking about some hand job, I’m talking about full-on, use your-imagination, butt-naked, anything-goes stuff.

The thing about starting your sex life when you’re too young and too impressionable, say in eight-grade, is that you can never stop doing it. You don’t wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m turning over a new leaf, I’m gonna forget about all this nonsense and really start bucklin’ down on my social studies.’ It’s no different than any hard drug. Once you’ve experienced what it can do to you, you become a slave to it, your every move, your every decision thereafter, revolves around you getting more of it, and like any drug, you need it today, not next week.

So sitting in geometry with Mr. Runseth prattling on about the circumference of a circle or how best to reduce an equation for a scalene triangle, isn’t going to grab your attention. Not when you’re thinking about the blowjob you had the night before, or the girl’s ass in your face just last week. That isn’t to say there’s not some inherent beauty in a parallel line segment or a Pythagorean theorem, it’s just that ideas which exist only in conceptual models, can scarcely compete with those made of warm and willing flesh.

There were a couple classes that I did like, Health for instance. I’m not sure why the school’s administrators relegated important questions like: What is your purpose on the planet, what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind, is there a God, is everything random, is morality subjective or objective? -—to a Health class, but they did. And to make this tiny window of light in my otherwise dismal senior year sound even worse, it was taught by an assistant gym teacher (I shit you not) by the name of Gus Virkus.

Gus, his title notwithstanding, was an amazing teacher. He cared about what he was teaching and as a consequence, he made us think about things that really mattered. He was so amazing in fact, that when he was lecturing, I wasn’t thinking about anything but the subject at hand. At the end of the course I received an A plus. For a student like me; with roughly, a C minus/D plus average, Gus’s course did a lot for my sad GPA and my wounded spirit.

There was another class I really liked. It was called simply, TV Production. It was taught by a guy named Jack Alwin. Jack was a ruggedly handsome guy in his fifties who was nothing like the other teachers; he was what we’d later call a “creative-type.” He didn’t seem to give a shit what anyone else thought about him, he did his own thing in his own special classroom, which was equipped with four color video cameras, a mixing board, a monitor, and every last thing you’d need to make your own television show.

When we started Jack’s class, the dozen or so of us who’d signed up for it were tasked with writing and directing our own short productions. I got to know Jack, not so much as a teacher, but as a regular guy, and I let him know (because it was true) that I thought he was very cool. I shared with him all the things I was doing at the time; composing and performing my original songs, writing comedy scripts, and doing live improv. He was the closest thing to a mentor I had during my High School career.

As the weeks passed, and too little progress was being made by the students on their individual TV projects, Jack switched gears. Much to the chagrin of nearly every kid in that class, he made each of them take a role in helping to create The Peter Himmelman Special. If my fellow students didn’t already think I was a dick, they sure as shit thought so now. One of them was especially talented, especially pretty, and especially pissed off. Her name was Janet Luby and within a week and a half of Jack Alwin’s widely unpopular decision, she became my girlfriend for the next eleven years. More on her later.

After Christmas vacation in early January of my senior year the school counselor brought me into her office and gave me some good news. “Did you know,” she asked, “that you’ve earned enough credits to graduate from this High School early?’ “Wait,” I said, “Are you sayin’ I don’t have to come back after Christmas break, that I’m officially done?” That was exactly what she was saying and that very day, I cleaned out my locker of dirty gym socks, untouched homework assignments, and textbooks that I hadn’t opened since the beginning of the year.

The first few days I celebrated by sleeping in past noon, eating grilled bologna sandwiches, and playing my guitar into the night. But after a few days with all my friends in school, it grew painful and lonely. Not to worry. On the morning of day four, of my sitting around with nary a plan, my dad came downstairs at 6:00 AM, shook me out of bed and said, “Pete, you either get a job by next week or you’re goin’ back to school.”

Aside for some sporadic gigging, the last real job I had was over a year ago, working at a clothing store in Ridgedale called Chess King. As bad as school was, folding sweaters at Chess King was a thousand times worse. There was no way I was ever going back to minimum wage retail. I’d heard from my mom that my cousin Jeff’s sister, Nancy, had some kind of job in the music business. The music business. That sounded like something I’d like to be doing; working on some creative project, or maybe meeting with musicians and making inroads with them, maybe even making an album of my own. I wasn’t naive enough to assume that this kind of thing would happen right away, things took time, didn’t they? Of course I knew that, but eventually… why not?

In less than three days Nancy got me an interview at Pickwick International, headquarters of Musicland, the legendary national retail record chain. Naturally, with my keen interest and deep knowledge of music I was immediately awarded the vaunted position of ‘warehouse associate.‘ Finally,’ I thought, ‘a job I can love.’

Little did I know that very soon, (as in, my second day at work) folding sweaters at Chess King would seem like a dream job. My work description, along with the dozen other guys on my crew, was to pick requisition orders for the various Musicland chains around the country. Requisition orders, like: “warehouse associate,” was just a glossed up way of saying: total-peon-doing-brainless-labor-in a-cold and dimly-lit warehouse-from-dawn-until-dusk-five-days a week-for-very-little-pay-with-guys who for the most part didn’t-graduate-from-Junior High.

What we actually did was supply every poster, pencil, clipboard and cutout display that your average Musicland retail outlet needed. Except for the records themselves, which were shipped out by another team, the entire supply chain went through our guys. Starting at around 6:30 in the morning, when it was still dark outside, we’d walk the floor rolling a big cart, gather up everything listed on the order form, stack it on a palette and ship it to wherever the hell. It was mindless, soul-crushing work. For example, a store in Boca Raton might need five Quarterflash posters, 17 pencils, six clipboards, fourteen ELO displays, twelve boxes of Elton John 12” flats, and fifty coffee cups with the Musicland logo. Each warehouse associate filled about ten orders on a typical day.

Smoking weed at lunch break was fairly normal for the warehouse crew. Everyone on our floor team got high. Not that I minded, but it just struck me as kind of sad the way these guys, who were in their late 20s and older, seemed to be throwing their lives away. They were passionate about just one thing: anesthetizing themselves from the excruciating boredom that had become their lives. I on the other hand, had no intention of sticking around this place for long, although I figured that to be polite while I was there, I ought to smoke some weed when offered at very least.

One late morning when the weather was a little warmer the entire floor team, including our boss Russ, (otherwise known as “associate supervisor”), went out to a field just beyond the mammoth warehouse to eat our bag lunches and fire up some pipes. After a smoke, we ate our sandwiches and shot the shit about absolutely nothing for a half hour before we all headed back inside. I was high of course, but instead of loafing off in some pothead haze, I had an epiphany. After briefly surveying the way the requisition orders were typically processed, it struck me that with just a little more attention to detail and a touch of added effort it would be simple for each of us to pick far more than the usual ten requisition orders.

And so, just as a test, I — A.) Stopped chattering with my co-warehouse associates every five minutes, B.) Stopped playing the toy acoustic guitars that hung in rows next to the life size cut outs of KISS, and C.) Stopped taking cat naps with other warehouse associates on the bags of Styrofoam packing-peanuts behind the coat room. That afternoon I picked a total of twenty-seven orders; nearly three times what any of us had ever done.

When I told Russ, what I’d accomplished, he looked at me and said, “Follow me into my office.” ‘This is great,’ I thought. ‘I’ve been here just under four months and already I’m going to be jettisoned into some kind of senior role and making twice as much as all the other guys.’ When we got to Russ’s office he closed the door. I mean, (of course he closed his door,) what else was he gonna do, give me the raise right in front of them?

“Hey dick-brain,” said Russ when he sat down behind his desk, “here’s what I think of what you fucking did today…” And suddenly he reached into the top drawer of his desk, took my order report forms and tore them in half. Then he called the head of SCT (“supply chain transport”) and said, “Leon, how’s it goin’? Hey, jus’ so you know, the report you have on your desk, the one about there bein’ twenty-eight RO’s is a joke right? I mean, you get that, I hope. It was jus’ some shit I cooked up to get the guys motivated, but we won’t be putting anything like that on the truck tonight, or any night. Ok?”

Then Russ turned to me and said, “If you ever pull some fucking dickwad shit like that again, I’ll hurt you so bad you won’t be able to pull a slick prick out of a lard bucket.” The next day I slowed up, to be safe I picked just six orders, and Russ, when he found out,  seemed satisfied that I’d learned my lesson.

In addition to the $475 I made each week before taxes, the one positive thing that happened during my six month sentence at Pickwick was that I discovered Nat Hentoff’s liner notes on the back of a, The Freewheelin Bob Dylan album one afternoon. I just happened to be sitting on a crate of damaged ones that were returned to the warehouse.

There weren’t any liner on the albums I’d been listening to. Not Lou Rawls, or Chick Corea, or Earth Wind and Fire, certainly not Alice Cooper or Grand Funk Railroad. I’ll admit, I was late getting into Bob Dylan, I just didn’t get it, the production on his records didn’t sound that good and his voice was whiny and weird. But what intrigued me even more than the songs at first; was how this Jewish dude from Minnesota, not much older than I was at the time, with his hooked nose and his strange voice could elicit so many superlatives from someone who ostensibly knew good music.

“Not yet twenty-two at the time of this albums release, Dylan is growing at a swift, experience-hungry rate. Throughout everything he writes and sings, there is the surge of a young man looking into as many diverse scenes and people as he can find. (“Every once in a while I got to ramble around”) and of a man looking into himself. It is this continuing explosion of a total individual, a young man growing free rather than absurd, that makes Bob Dylan so powerful and so personal and so important a singer. As you can hear in these performances.”

Sitting on that crate of busted records and reading that very paragraph is what drove me headlong into the canon. I listened for three straight days; I heard every last word, every last note; from the eponymously titled, Bob Dylan, straight through to Saved, his weird-ass Christian recording, which had just come out. I think I listened to Blonde on Blonde sixteen times in a row one day. At the end of my obsessive little listening marathon I became just like so many others, a total, rabid, Bob Dylan fan. My departure from Pickwick came that week. It was time to get my own career going.




7 thoughts on “How the Shittiest Job in the World Helped Shape My Destiny

  1. Peter, I trust you are well and at peace.

    I’m struck by the segue between your discovery of just how strong the undertow of mediocrity is, with your discovery of why Dylan’s asymmetric approach to art has so much appeal. I’m convinced that we all, on some level, weary of the tedious gears of the banality of subsistence, where excellence is viewed with suspicion – invariably setting up in our hearts a longing for things distinctly outside of the machinery that resonate with far richer forms of significance . . . reminding us that we are not obligated to settle for less. Clearly, you did not settle . . .

  2. I can so relate to this. Somehow I wound up in an Honors algebra class in the 9th grade. I wasn’t smoking pot for another year, but I discovered Rhonda, and how much fun getting my hands in her pockets was, and I also discovered that I was brilliant enough to pass Algebra without doing any homework. This set the tone for the rest of my academic career with the discovery that a class could be passed without actually, you know, knowing the material. I may have PASSED Algebra, but by no stretch of the imagination could I actually DO Algebra. The chickens came home to roost the next year in Geometry, where I was surprised to find that knowing some Algebra would have been good. That’s how I flunked my first class ever. Oh, the pot probably didn’t help.
    The next year I was in Chemistry, and without any Algebra or Geometry skills, I was toast there too, and ended up in a remedial math class as a Senior, because the State required its students to have passed at least one HS math class.
    It was Speech Class and the Debate Club that saved my HS experience. Watergate had been going on, and Nixon resigned at the start of my senior year, and I was into it enough to think I might want to be a lawyer. I thought I did until about April, when I was called to the Deans office because I hadnt attended any classes, except for Speech and Government, in months. I had to sit outside his office and wait while he got ready to bust my balls, and it was while I saw staring at pictures of past Principals lined up on the wall that I had an epiphany. I was a horrible student. I didn’t want to be a lawyer, if being a lawyer meant another 8 years of school. I didnt want to be a lawyer if it meant even one more semester of this shit. So I decided then and there to be a chef. Because, well I like to eat.
    The last day of school when you clean out your locker and turn in your books? I had to go to the office and find out my locker number and the combination.
    Great story Peter. I’d have picked the liner notes for Bringing It All back Home for you, but hey, Freewheeling served you well. In the musical drought that was the 80’s I didn’t listen to much else except Bob Dylan for a few years.

    1. Sorry, it took me so long to comment on this. I hadn’t seen it until now. That part about not knowing your combination… I have nightmares about this very thing even now. I do didn’t want to be a f&*k up in school, but I guess I couldn’t help myself. The tide was too strong and it pulled me away. Thanks for your beautiful thoughts here.

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