Today is my birthday. I’m not completely happy with that, but I’ll have to make myself enjoy it because it will be my last one that has a “4” in pole position. My Aunt told me on Facebook that 49 is the new 29. If that’s true, then I feel like bloody hell, for a 29-year old.
I was thinking about a past birthday today, the one 13 years ago. I was at a very different place in my life, both geographically and emotionally.
I was up in Albany, New York, newly separated and living by myself in a small apartment. I had a new job as a video rental store manager. I’d gotten my own store in June and immediately cleaned house and turned it around, making sales plan in July and August. But I was in rough shape.
When I originally moved to NY from Ohio, it was to take a record store manager position in the market where our home office was located, with hopes of snagging a job at HQ. A year later I’d done that. Then I met Future-Ex, we bought a house and got married. (Cold chill runs down spine.) Two years later, the music industry began moving into the dumper and after 13 years of service through 3 markets, my company cut me loose, along with about 20 others, as part of an office downsizing.
Future-Ex had 20 years in with the State of New York, so she wasn’t going anywhere, otherwise I could have used my record business connections to get a job in Miami, Cincinnati, Chicago or Sacramento. But in Albany, there wasn’t much else besides my original company.
I eventually worked through a number of retail jobs. First I cleaned up a music department at a big box media outlet, then set one up from scratch at another location and managed it. Then THEY downsized their staff and I got let go again, almost a year to the day from when I got let go before. At least this time I had the wherewithal to tell the DM to “get bent” before I walked out.
Months later, tired of management and just wanting to be “one of the crew,” I got a job at a craft store that was being built. It was funny because I knew the music business inside and out, but didn’t know jack about crafts. Still, they snapped me up in a heartbeat and put me in charge of the “promo” or seasonal department. That’s the only department in the store where you’re constantly setting stuff up, moving it through, selling it off and bringing in the next thing. They needed a retail “ringer” and they got one.
That was a pretty stress-free job. The people were great to work with and I made some very good, albeit much younger, friends. Unfortunately, I was only making about $15K a year. It was enough to keep paying my part of the mortgage and bills, but little else.
That’s when the wife decided that without my previous income, or job perks of concert tickets and trips and stuff, I just wasn’t as much fun to be around any more, and didn’t see where that was going to change any time soon. So I was out the door. And some other guy had his stuff in the house before the month was over.
By this time, I’d spent about a year and a half at the craft store. One of the managers there left the company to go to work at a small video rental chain. Several of us ended up going with her. I immediately went into their “training program” to be a store manager. I left in March and had my own store by June.
Like I alluded to earlier, I took shithole store and completely turned it around. I got a good crew in there, we had a good time and we got things running right.
But still, I wasn’t happy. The hours, due to the nature of the business, were terrible. The store closed at 10 on weeknights, 11 on weekends, so that meant after closing, I didn’t get home until around midnight or later. And it wasn’t like I was making any money there. My day off was usually a weekday, so all my friends were at work. I always felt like I was playing hookey. I was living my life apart from everyone I knew.
I knew I’d spend my birthday alone that year. Then I’d spend Thanksgiving alone, and then Christmas alone. It just wasn’t worth it. I was in the middle of nowhere and just fucking miserable.
Then there was one more thing.
On September 29th, one of my employees killed herself. She was found down by the river, hanging from a tree. She was a 20-year old single mother, a beautiful little thing, the kind of girl everyone liked. Everyone at the store suspected her psycho ex-boyfriend, but his whereabouts were accounted for by dozens of people. No one ever knew what happened.
One of the things I used to tell myself about managing stores was that I could be a positive influence on my young people. I’d try to give them guidance and understanding; the benefits of some of my hard-earned wisdom. Y’know… tell them not to settle and not to take any shit from their boyfriends. But it didn’t do her much good.
She’d only been working there for a month and I tried to help her with some of her life issues, but she never really opened up to me. Most of what I knew about her came from another employee. And then she was gone.
I went to the viewing with my DM. She seemed so small in that big box. It was almost too much to bear.
So on my birthday that year, October 1st, I took myself out to dinner, alone, and brought along a note pad. While I ate, I made 2 lists: Reasons to leave Albany for Baltimore (where my brother and sister lived and I had a standing offer from my brother to bunk with him and his wife, until I could get on my feet), and Reasons to Stay.
Suffice to say, one list was really fucking long. And of all of the (5) reasons I had to stay, only 2 were remotely meaningful: Playing hockey, and a couple of my craft store friends. Neither were good enough reasons to stay in Albany. The other reasons were things like, “Moving sucks,” and “These beans are pretty good.”
Still, I kept going back and forth on what to do. Inertia can be a powerful force. On my next day off, while I was out getting groceries, I pondered stopping by the video store where my friend Melissa worked. I probably changed my mind 3 or 4 times before going in.
I knew Melissa from the craft store and she was one of the employees that jumped ship for the video store. Melissa was a wee little thing, about 4’11” with giant blue eyes and a cascade of blond ringlets. She reminded me of a fairy princess. I used to call her “Little One.” One day we were messing around with some others in the store, and she said to everyone, “I’m his Little Bit,” and “Lil Bit” was what I called her from then on.
This is Lil Bit. Sadly, she’d just gotten an unfortunate haircut (that she hated) right before I left, which had shorn her long curls. This shot was from my goodbye party.
So I went in to see her and seeing the look on my face she was all “OK, spill it!” I didn’t want to talk right there because the DM was in the store and I didn’t want to set off a premature panic. So when she said her husband was going to be in class until 9:00, I invited her to my place for dinner. (Which was completely honorable… her husband was a good guy and they were great together. He was barely taller than she was… they looked like a couple of hobbits.)
She was barely in the door when she spied my picture board full of family photographs. She asked me, “How come you’re still here?”
Little shit was wise beyond her years.
She said, “I see all these pictures of you smiling with your family and I never see you look like that any more."
“That, Little One, is the gist of my problem,” I said.
Over dinner, I laid it out for her just how miserable I’d been feeling. I’d moved there for a purpose once, but that purpose is gone. There was no reason that I should be there alone when I had family elsewhere.
“Go!” she said. “Just get out of here.”
It was like a giant weight off my shoulders that someone else understood. It would be OK. Albany would keep turning without me there. I got a hold of the DM the next day and told her I had to go. She understood. They all did. I called my brother and asked if his offer still stood. It did. I called the movers, started packing, and worked my final 2 weeks. I was proud to be able to turn over the store in far better shape than it was when I’d inherited it.
I had one last long night out with my craft store friends and said many sad goodbyes. The next night I played my last hockey game and spent another long night at the bar saying goodbye to that bunch. They were all great people and I still miss them.
Mr and Mrs Lil Bit, Lester and Carrie say goodbye to their buddy Bluz.
So, the wheels started turning on 10/1/97, 13 years ago today. On 10/31/97, I put Albany in my rear view mirror
I actually took that shot as I was leaving town that day.
I set sail that morning for Baltimore and brighter days in my future.