That Old-Fashioned Work Ethic

Flint Journal BagI still remember the first time I earned money. I was 7 years old. My dad was working in the yard and had me come over to assist. I had always helped before, but this time I was going to be in charge of something. Namely, all of those grass clippings, and the clumps from the front yard where he was edging. He told me it was my job to rake and sweep it all up, pick it up, bag it, and take the bags out to the road. He showed me the right way to do it all, gave me some tools, and told me to ‘get after it’. And I did, with great gusto in fact. I recall it being a particularly hot day. I took my shirt off and was left with only my cool aqua 70’s pants, and a jean style floppy hat.

A few short hours later I had that yard clean and green. Next came the inspection. Dad looked everything over carefully. He asked some questions, I gave some answers. He seemed satisfied. Then he reached in to his pocket and produced two shiny quarters, and handed them to me. “Here’s your pay son.” Whoah..what? PAY? I am getting PAID for this? Yes sir. It was true. Compensation. Sweat equity. Equal pay for equal work. The righteous might of the mighty broom. Whatever. I had COLD HARD CASH in my hand! I hopped on my bike and tore off for Paul and Dotties store on the corner of Franklin and Ohio Avenues! Wacky Packages and some candy…wait….not enough money to get everything I wanted? What to do?!

I raced home with my goodies..and asked Dad if there wasn’t something else that maybe needed some sweeping up or moving around.  And so it began. This work thing really had a hold on me. But I soon learned that there was something to be said for creating something on your own when no work existed.

So I set up a kind of carnival in my backyard. Had some ‘acts’. Hired a security team, charged kids a nickel to get in. Not enough to pay the security team though, and believe me when your security team consists of 11 year olds, and you are eight, you better find a way to pay them–and with the quickness!  So we added some attractions, expanded our team. But when a parent complained after their kid raided his piggy bank to take in our evening performance of the  Osmond’s big hit One Bad Apple, Dad shut the whole thing down.

So then I started the Neighborhood News. Pretty much just me writing some stuff on paper…complete with pictures. Initially, only Ralph Lane, my next door neighbor, and my mom, subscribed. But when I broke the story about the neighborhood Peeping Tom…subscribership soared to TEN people!  But still economies of scale being what they are, the business became challenging. Then it occurred to me…if only I could line up a gig where someone else mass produced a paper, and I would just sell them. OF COURSE! A paperboy! That had to be the ticket. And when my buddy, Ernie Gilbert, offered up his route so he could move in to the lucrative ice cream sales business, I greedily accepted his paper route.  (Regrettably, ice cream sales plummeted that summer…or maybe Ernie ate all of his inventory…I can’t remember.  Either way, I got the better end of the deal.)

That began a multi-year odyssey that only a much longer story  (or a short book) could possibly do justice to. However, suffice to say that it held me over. At least until my buddy could get me in to Mcdonald’s, where I parlayed a lifetime of Big Mac eating, in to a job making them.  As a McNugget master, I learned two things 1) The food service industry would not be where I’d make a career, and 2) No one looks good in polyester bell bottoms…and I mean no one.

In truth, all of those experiences prepared me for the work I would come to do later in my life. Entreprenuerial skills, cooperation, taking orders, giving orders, dealing with clients and customers, and working when there are things you would really rather be doing (like going to the beach, hanging with my friends, or sleeping in), and what I was good at, and not so good at.  Coupled with organizing neighborhood sports  and teams, I learned far more that was applicable later from these activities than any other form of education I ever engaged in.

These seem to be skills and talents that kids today are having a harder time developing. I don’t have a paper boy or girl. Many of the low wage entry level workers seem to be adults, and the rising costs of hiring kids is undoubtedly removing lots of opportunities to get started. For me, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. However, I could have done without cleaning the toilets at TJ Maxx….but they said that would ‘build character’….that part was a lie.

 

From Brick Street to Wall Street

Flint Postcard 2

The Christmas bells were jingling, and a rotund Santa manned a big, black pot. My Grandma held my hand, as I skipped across the bricks of the street. I always loved those cool, old bricks that lined the main drag of Saginaw Street. Ma and Grandma had taken me back downtown for one of our regular shopping trips. It was 1968, I was four years old, and things were hopping during the Christmas season in the town of my birth, Flint, Michigan. We headed off to Smith-Bridgman’s department store to look for a gift for my Grandpa. I hid in the racks and pretended they were tents.

Then, I wandered away…as usual. I found a clerk and told her that my Mom and Grandma “got lost”. The clerk paged them, and they scurried over to the wrap counter to pick me up. I told them to stay close so they didn’t get lost again. Next, it was over to the Kresge’s five and dime for some popcorn, and maybe something from that wonderful, old lunch counter. I loved downtown Flint growing up. As a little kid, whenever I heard the Petula Clark hit song Downtown, I was 100% positive that it was about MY downtown!

Over the years, I would spend many hours there, in the heart of Flint. I would watch it be supplanted by the fancy new suburban mall out on Miller Road, geographically the precise middle of nowhere to an Eastside kid used to everything being a bike ride away. I would watch as the downtown stores closed, one by one, and then were smashed by wrecking balls, wiping out their physical existence. Parking lots replaced Kresge’s and Smith Bridgman’s. The Sill Building, where the 80-year-old Polish immigrant seamstress embroidered my varsity jacket (as she had done for my mom and dad when they were in high school), gave way to ‘urban renewal’. Finally, no one I knew shopped downtown for much of anything.

For a time, it was visually a sad and lonely place. But even then as a 14-year-old, I would cruise my Tomos ‘79 moped down to get a burger and fries at Maxbeef, or zip around the overgrown lots and the abandoned old Industrial Mutual Association building, where I had so many great memories of going to the Shrine Circus with my grandparents. It was like a mini-Mad Max scene. On a blazing burgundy moped, at 40 mph, in nothing more than 70’s short-shorts, an Adidas t-shirt, tall white socks pulled up to my knees, and Adidas sneaks, it was actually pretty exhilarating. The brick street all to myself! The danger! The Mystery!

By the 80’s the old girl was being revitalized with a major expansion of the University of Michigan’s downtown Flint campus, new fancy restaurants like Figlio’s, the Water Street Pavilion, and hopping night clubs, like Hot Rocks and The Copa. I had a blast downtown in the 80s! But, it got a little sad again, as those businesses succumbed to the never-ending boom and bust cycle of a purely American rust belt industrial economy.

In the 90’s, I moved away for a few years, to Kalamazoo, but I stayed in close touch with “the bricks”, always visiting for family and friend events. When I returned to live, again, things were in back in motion, and the area’s future looked as bring as it had in many years. It was only to be knocked down a few rungs again by the dot com bust, 9/11, followed by a mini-recession, and then a maxi-recession. GM went bankrupt. Things looked worse than bleak, but then, the dusk is darkest before the dawn. Once again, Flint began it’s turn, to work it’s way back.

The University of Michigan was expanding again. Another round of new restaurants and businesses were going in. Michigan State was moving downtown, and a new Farmers Market was in place. In the midst of this growth cycle another massive new challenge arose: A growing chorus of people shouting about bad water. The alarm morphed in to a cacophony of turmoil, that echoed, quite literally, around the world. Today, I am reading about my hometown’s latest woes in Time, seeing discussions about Flint during Presidential debates, on the BBC, and in media as diverse as ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and National Geographic. Actor Michael Keaton mentioned Flint while receiving his Screen Actors Guild Award for his Oscar nominated film Spotlight, and celebrities Cher, Matt Damon, and Snoop Dog, have joined in with support.

This isn’t the first time my city was pronounced dead. People couldn’t see how Flint could survive the lumber boom being played out at the turn of the twentieth century. Then Flint innovated and became the worlds leading provider of carriages and surrey’s – hence the ‘Vehicle City’ moniker. When it became clear that horseless carriages would soon supplant that industry, the city reinvented itself again. Nameplates like Buick, Chevrolet, AC Spark Plug, and General Motors were born and raised in Flint. In 1986, Money Magazine pronounced Flint the “worst place to live in the country”, and a satirical movie called Roger and Me, was soon taken as a documentary. Maybe that shouldn’t have been a shock. Amidst the loss of 30,000 jobs it, all seemed plausible. Still, the city went on.

Today, Flint is home to the multi-billion dollar Diplomat Pharmacy, a sprawling and growing University of Michigan campus, a world class engineering school in Kettering University. We have Michigan State University, a superb Farmers Market, and General Motors, home to the multi-billion dollar Mott Foundation, nationally recognized hospitals, and the best coney islands on the planet. This doesn’t include the thousands of entrepreneurs, small business owners, artists, entertainers, athletes, and professionals who either hail from Flint or work here currently.

None of these distinctive shining stars diminishes the very real, and urgently pervasive challenges Flint faces on countless other fronts. There are enough societal challenges to fill a doctorate level curriculum in sociology, and public administration alike. But to suggest it’s a city of helpless victims would ignore reality, it would be an affront and disservice to the tough, smart, and in innovative success stories that are here now, and will continue to be created here in the future, in both Flint and the communities that surround it.

Over the last half-century the old bricks and I have seen a lot of action. We’ve seen good times and bad times. The happiest days you can imagine, and some of the saddest. The bricks have borne silent witness to the best of times, and certainly some of the worst as well. They watched Billy Durant dart across them with an idea for a new company called General Motors. World-class athletes, business geniuses, and men and women who would literally rewrite the history of America trod across their length. They watched a seemingly endless cycle of boom and bust over the years.

Along the way I have been privileged to watch, as well. My life has taken me from those happy days of holding my Mom and Grandma’s hands on Saginaw Street, to nearly a quarter of a century working with another street, Wall Street. My career, like those bricks has been diverse. Along the way I’ve helped blue-collar GM and union workers, business owners, millionaires, and aspiring millionaires. I’ve worked with young families, and retirees, couch potatoes and world-class athletes, alike.

Today, I’ve clients all over the country, but my office is back on the bricks. I can look out over those aged and small blocks of clay, laid in their orderly pattern, and envision the entirety of the American Century. The home of the American automobile industry, still so crucial to our national identity and economy, the American Arsenal of Democracy that was so critical to winning two World Wars, the birthplace of the American middle class, and the purveyor of a seemingly unending supply of athletic and artistic talent over the years.

From my phone and computer I can converse with clients in the sunny climes of South Florida and Southern California. I can talk to stock market analysts ensconced in their high rises on Wall Street in Manhattan. I can talk to international money managers who just landed in Berlin or London. But looking out my office window, I can see those bricks, and I can remember those sunny days with Mom and Grandma. I can close my eyes and recall the dark days and the bright days alike. Like the Wall Street cycle of ups and downs, I have a tangible reminder that life itself is an unending ebb and flow.

Events change, people change, and the markets vacillate. However, the bricks remind me that some things do remain. Love, kindness, optimism, courage, resilience, and the strength and power of the human will. Wall Street and Saginaw Street are for me, inextricably linked. It’s always darkest before the dawn, but the dawn always comes. For me that is a life lesson that I hope everyone can remember. Because whether it’s investing or life, in good times and bad, it’s useful to remember that ‘this too shall pass’. More importantly, the message is that while we can’t control the wind we can always adjust our sails. Because in the end, it’s not what happens to us, but how we respond that makes all the difference. From my vantage point on the bricks it’s an easy philosophy to understand.