THEY weren’t exactly mean streets, but I did learn something crucial about life and living at the intersection of Talmadge Road and Central Avenue, in my hometown, Toledo, Ohio. That’s where I earned my first wage as a summer hire. I was 14 years old. This was back in the early ’70s, when self-serve gasoline was still the stuff of science fiction, as it remains today in New Jersey. I worked under the table at what was then referred to as a “service station.” Customers knew that 10 bucks of regular entitled them to a clean windshield and a check under the hood. As the resident pipsqueak, I’d often find myself assigned — and then fumbling — the most rudimentary tasks. It didn’t matter; I just liked being there.
Image: New York Times
Our family home was a couple of blocks from work, but it felt like a world away. Whereas life around the house was predictable, work was nonstop pandemonium: 104.7 FM blasting from the oily bays, customers milling impatiently while their cars were being resuscitated; my boss, gassy and lubricated himself, charming regulars while simultaneously berating his mechanics. This seemed as good an entree into the adult world as any. And the entrepreneurial world as well. It was obvious how much my boss loved his business. It didn’t seem like work, or what I understood work to be. My father — as dedicated to excellence in the workplace as any person I’d known, then or since — was nonetheless burdened by his job. He’d come home from the office exhausted and emotionally spent. I decided that summer that that life wasn’t for me. I wanted a carnival. I also wanted to make some money, as the station didn’t pay much. In June, I’d bought my first lousy marijuana from buddies who swore up and down that it was “killer bud.” I paid up and endured the headaches like a champ. That was my introduction to a truth that rests at the bedrock of American capitalism: hype something quite ordinary with enough fervor, and eventually its excellence will be beyond dispute. I kept that in mind when I first tried dealing pot myself to boost my cash flow. But I found I wasn’t one of those up-from-the-streets-to-the-boardroom hustlers. I smoked whatever profits I’d hoped to earn, invariably falling asleep halfway through side one of “Meddle.” When I wasn’t working or sleeping off a buzz, I’d walk down to the record store. Now this is the world for me, I’d think. There were always friendly people behind the counter, playing and talking about new music. I started conjuring dreams of pop stardom myself, but I possessed no charisma, and even less talent. Now, after having spent 30 years as an entertainment industry functionary — as a D.J., promoter and record label exec — I can assure you that those deficiencies are really small hurdles. There’s a place for practically everybody, though few of us will ever be as cool as a record store clerk. We can’t all be pop stars or hustlers, either, but we should put a premium on enjoying our time at work. That is not always the same thing as enjoying your job, but it’s a nice consolation prize.