Garbage Pickin’

I put out the recyclables last night and this morning I saw a man on my Manhattan street who collects cans. His cart was an engineering marvel. Blue bags hanging at odd angles from his shopping cart. Each bag looked like a half deflated Thanksgiving float.

It was early, but his cart was already overstuffed to its limit.

I didn’t look down on the guy, I identified with him. As a child I was him.

I was taught my life’s credo while garbage pickin’.

Growing up in the welfare apartments we furnished our two-bedroom apartment with the cast-offs from the other side of town. My mom worked as an assistant for an insurance company and as a waitress on weekends. Yes, that’s seven days.  My father? The only memory I have of him is drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes. That was before mom got us away from him. Since seven days wasn’t enough to feed and furnish five kids, she would occasionally go out on “Junk Night”, garbage pickin, now referred to as dumpster diving, to see what she could pick up.

When there was a need for a heavier object, a table, or a chair, she would take one of her boys. I was with her on one of those furniture runs loading a “perfectly good” chair into the back of our 66 Chevy Malibu when she looked over the trunk door and saw my expression. As a 12-year old, I was humiliated to be there. What if a friend had seen me?

What she told me that night charted my life’s course. “Never be ashamed of working,” she said.

I understood the meaning of my mother’s words that night. I knew the person it came from. She was Brooklyn Irish. Never be ashamed of working meant that no job was beneath me. All work was good. Whether it was picking up a pile of bricks, hauling trash, or taking that extra shift if I was lucky enough to become a cop or fireman. It was a working class credo.

That simple ethic freed me from the fear of failure, and I’ve failed plenty.

As an equity options trader there was a year when I bought when I should have sold a few times too many. I lost my job, took a lesser position and worked my way back. Didn’t bother me, I was working.

On the trading floor, I was told that a computer could do my job better and faster. I was shown the door two days before Christmas. Next stop was a training program in a new field. My boss was the age of the clerk from my previous job. No embarrassment, I was building a business.

On 9/11, I was downtown representing my new company, standing on the corner of Broadway and Rector Street when the south tower came down. I was back at my desk in Westchester by Thursday. By November I was asked to “resign”. As a financial advisor, my clients were trading floor employees. I was having a hard time bringing in business. Portfolio diversification seemed unimportant at the time. I didn’t sue or apply for aide. I took a position with another firm. Yeah that was me, the 41-year-old administrative assistant in a suburban office complex, but I was getting a paycheck. It was a bad time but there was no shame.

I built up enough good will and saved the money to open my own advisor practice. That year I worked longer hours and made less money than at any time in my career. Man was I working.

I hold on to that working class ethic, although I work with my head not my back. Never being ashamed has enabled me expand my world. I could reach out for the brass ring since I didn’t care if I fell off the carousel.

I reached for that ring once again when I started to embrace my creative side. With my wife’s urging, I started writing. My first book was welcomed with critical acclaim and very few sales. I started submitting it to any outlet I could find. Agents, publishers, radio stations. I sent out hundreds of copies of my manuscript.

Rejection? Yes of course, but this was work. I was building a new business. No shame. Besides, if the World Trade Center couldn’t put me down an agent certainly wasn’t a concern.

I kept at it. I was well into my second novel when I received a literary award for my first novel, The Vig. There it was, the ring held tightly in my hand.

My second career was off and running. My third novel followed along with two short stories. Last fall an essay I submitted was featured in the New York Times. I recently finished my fourth novel and now agents are asking me for the manuscript.

There was still work to be done. I pitched a radio show even though I don’t talk so good. The idea for the show came to me a year earlier. A year of research went into the pitch. I got it. The show became the template for this book.

I had a more failures than I can possibly recount here, but I’m still at it. I’m running a successful financial advisor practice. I’m a New York Times published writer and have four novels and two short stories under my belt and recently finished my second year with the radio show. I keep moving forward although I still feel like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

Maybe I do know something? How to come back from failure. How to not be ashamed to take a step back. I learned that a long time ago loading a chair into a Chevy.

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John Nuckel

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