This holiday season marks a year since my husband took the plunge.
“I saw this ad on Craig’s List for a holiday job with FedEx,” Bob reported nonchalantly. “I’m going to meet a guy named Eddy for an interview at the FedEx terminal near the airport.”
I didn’t object. A couple of weeks could put some cash in his pocket. He still
had his consulting business to fall back on, though it was hit or miss after
three years. He’d named it Bioclaris, a transformative choice in light of his love
for the life sciences.
In 2000 he returned to college at the University of Oregon to get a second
baccalaureate degree in Biology. He had built up a solid nest egg from 25 years
in the computer software business, setting up sales & marketing programs for
companies in the U.S. and Europe. He decided it was time to pursue his lifelong dream.
Six years later, after building a network of contacts with CEOs of bioscience
companies in the state, he accepted the position of Executive Director of the
Oregon Bioscience Association. It was a great platform for advancing fledgling
bioscience companies like his own.
By 2009, when I secured a new senior administrator position with a large
university in San Francisco, we felt sure that he was well positioned to transfer
his knowledge base to the Bay Area as a trailing spouse. What neither of us
had predicted was the extent to which the growing recession and his age would thwart Bob’s new career plans.
Hitting the Reboot Button
When he returned home that balmy December day, he plunked a pile of clothes on our bed—a pair of used baggy blue pants and matching shirt with the FedEx logo on the right pocket.
“I’m going to help FedEx drivers deliver packages downtown.”
I skewed up my eyes at him. “Downtown?”
“Yeah. The Financial District. Commercial deliveries.”
He can’t be serious, I thought. Downtown San Francisco is as congested as an over-stuffed beanbag. Streets chock-a-block with cars, taxis, bikers, tourists, business people, shoppers, and the homeless hunkered down in threadbare sleeping bags in recessed doorways. I shrugged my shoulders, consoling myself with the thought that it was a temporary job, bound to lift his spirit after months of spinning wheels on job applications.
“Companies are reserving their scarce jobs for younger people who have longer career horizons,” I had offered up with the initial wave of rejections.
“It’ll be a good chance to lose that 10 pounds,” he added. He wanted to return to 175 pounds, his fighting weight as a Masters swimmer in the day. I pictured his six-foot-two-inch frame slimmed down a bit.
“Good goal,” I said, though his weight seemed about right for a sixty-four-year old man his height.
He had pulled his bike out of storage to get to the Daly City BART station three miles away. He left home before dawn each morning to begin his 12-hour day. It was a good solution until the first Pacific winter storm blasted the City.
“Do you mind dropping me off at BART?” he asked that night. “I got drenched this morning.”
I jumped at the chance. Better than Bob navigating his bike through heavy
traffic on Highway 1 in the pre-dawn on stormy winter days.
The Loaner Truck
I got his panic call about six one evening. “My loaner truck is stalled in the
middle of Sacramento. The ignition key just broke in half! I can’t pull over and
traffic is backing up as far as I can see. Damn it!”
Sacramento Street is a major one-way exit route from downtown during rush hour that traverses Chinatown and goes over Nob Hill to points west.
After passing the truck-driving test for FedEx, his stories of navigating the 26-foot truck on Hwy 101 into the City made me shiver. He called it a “noisy
rattletrap” with a loose floor plate offering views to the ground below, passenger door open while driving due to a broken side mirror, and a back door that frequently stuck.
“I can’t reach Eddy. Guess his phone is down. People are leaving stalled buses to walk up the hill instead. They’re threading around my truck giving me dirty looks!”
“Can you get roadside assistance from FedEx?”
“No. It’s Eddy’s truck. Doesn’t belong to FedEx. It’s his responsibility. Hey, I’m getting a call. Got to hang up.”
He called me again a few minutes later. One of Eddy’s men had come to his
rescue after 30 minutes of torment.
The Invisible Delivery Man
We celebrated the day he weighed in at 175 lbs. Pure muscle. It was a silver
lining for a highly physical job that left him exhausted every night. He figured
he was walking between five to seven miles a day and lifting/hauling over a
thousand pounds of goods on average. He soon quit going to the fitness center
Quite a contrast with his former life as a high paid computer software executive who traveled first class and dined at fine restaurants around the world with international customers. I remembered the day he received notification of his million-mile award status from United.
But his new stories were riveting. Vignettes about him looking at stacks and
stacks of boxes each morning needing to be loaded onto his truck, wondering
how they could all fit. About him schlepping boxes on dollies up crowded
elevators to the workspaces designed for high tech Millennials in the office
towers. San Francisco was enjoying its second dot com boom.
A glance around the Financial District mid-day reveals the new business
crowd. At least 50 per cent are Millennials—a mix of hipster programmers and
casually dressed high techies who create shoot-‘em-up war games and other
entertainment video games as well as social networking applications and more. They work for companies like Pocket Gems and Tiny Company—high-energy start-ups exploding with growth.
Bob was the invisible man with access to whole floors unhampered by cubicles or walls, filled with seven-foot wide work tables crowded with computers and coffee mugs, creatively painted walls with tons of photographs, Ping Pong and pool tables, and large drink coolers with exotic soda drinks and often, microbrews. In some places, hip young professionals wouldn’t stop their
conversations or pull out their earbuds for a few seconds to help him find a
suitable place to drop off his heavy load.
But these slights didn’t bother him. What offended him was an encounter with two attorneys, former business networking acquaintances, who glanced away when they saw him.
“They refused to recognize me,” he said that night. “I couldn’t believe it!”
In other places, receptionists offered him sparkling limewater, wheat germ
cookies, or chunks of Ghirardelli chocolate before he departed for the next
delivery. They had to act fast after Bob unloaded a heap of boxes in their office
and obtained their signature on the scanner. Maybe they also sensed that he
needed a little extra nourishment to keep his baggy FedEx pants from falling off his hips as his weight continued to drop.
“The big banks and financial companies are totally different,” he said. “Take
Wells Fargo or Bank of America—a vast sea of cubicles with only occasional
heads popping up. When I ask who can sign for a delivery, no one knows. They often don’t even know the name of their neighbor in the next cubicle.”
Looking Out for His Colleagues
Bob talked a lot about Pablo, a second-generation immigrant who was studying to become an EMT and working part-time as a loader at the Terminal. His Portuguese father had returned to the Azores after his divorce from Pablo’s mother.
“Pablo’s smart, strong; a hard worker who presents himself well. He has to
wake up at three in the morning to begin work at 4:30—a four-hour shift that pays a low flat daily rate with no benefits.”
He asked Bob about how he could get “field work”—work outside the vast
cavern of the FedEx Terminal where he was an entry-level loader. Bob
promised to put in a good word for him to his supervisor.
One day Bob encountered Pablo at the terminal, all dressed up in FedEx
clothes for his new delivery job. Fellow loaders were jokingly calling him
“traitor”. It was tongue-in-cheek, an expression of their own aspirations. Bob
began to realize his value as a mentor.
Leaning on Bob for Training
In bed late one night, Bob was busily keying on his laptop.
“What are you doing?” I asked, annoyed at the invasion of computer light and keyboard tapping.
“I’m making some PowerPoint slides. Eddy asked me to put together a five-minute driver safety program for tomorrow morning.”
“How many drivers will be there?”
“Maybe twenty. Twenty-five. Eddy wants them to get more training. Especially after that terrible accident last week.”
I‘d read about it. Bob said the FedEx driver was moving slowly in one lane next to an 18-wheeler. Heavy traffic south of downtown was heading towards
Market. A motorcyclist tried to squeeze between them. He lost his balance and was run over by the FedEx driver, who didn’t see him below. The driver was really messed up about it and ended up quitting.
Eddy was determined his drivers learn how to protect themselves from this
kind of tragedy.
A pattern was emerging. The franchise owner was starting to tap into Bob’s
business know-how. Another approached Bob about forming a specialty
lighting company. Workers were benefitting from his mentoring. These benefits came as a welcome surprise.
Something Else Brewing
But something else was brewing. Just before the holiday season, Bob became interested in the insurance business. “I’m not sure I want to continue this into the New Year,” he said. “It’s causing me some problems with my foot.” He’d had foot surgery for a badly pronated right foot a couple of years before.
So late at night he began to study for an insurance licensing exam—property and casualty. He passed it with a score of 95 per cent and promptly applied for the certificate. Days later, he was back at the computer studying for an additional licensing exam in life and accident/health. Once again, he passed it with good scores and applied for the next certificate.
“Why not?” he asked me. “I want to be able to sell it all.”
“Yes, why not?” I agreed, looking at this tall thin man flashing his optimistic
smile at me.
“I’m rebooting,” he said. “It feels pretty good.”