The year was 1991. I was 24, still shedding that college-esque mentality and trying to get my foothold into some sort of what I sort of thought was a career…of sorts. Fumbling my way into adulthood. I remember leaving my first job fresh out of college after being there just shy of two years. My first time realizing that a job was not my life…and that the job I had at the time – well, the company rather – was going downhill and fast. Little did I know I was a firsthand witness to the end of late 1980s gluttony, for real. And when you work in an office with just six people you know more than you probably ever cared to know about them, their lives, family dramas, and on and on. As a wide-eyed college graduate I soaked it all in intensely. Was THIS how it was going to be the rest of my working career? I was *just* getting used to the idea that going to work every day was not some make believe dress-up-in-skirt-and-heels-and-pantyhose type of gig. This was earning a living.
I pulled the plug on that job in a cushy office in downtown Seattle we had no business occupying given the, well, the lack of business we were bringing in once our large cash cow account started drying up. And I took up a new position with a freight forwarding company as a coordinator in their import department. Yep, I answered an ad in the newspaper via snail mail and all. I don’t even remember if I had an inside referral or not. Memories fade.
But what I won’t forget is the environment shock. Going from an overly-glamorous office on the 67th floor of what was then known as the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle with a 270-degree view to die for, to a cracker box of a one-story office down near Sea-Tac airport directly under a flight path. Or so it sounded, as the building rattled every time a plane took off and landed. (After awhile I got used to it – probably kind of like when you live near railroad tracks). And my bus pass became useless, for I had to now commute by car down the (old) viaduct everyday and over the (old) 1st Avenue South bridge over the Duwamish River, which was often a white-knuckled experience – a narrow, two-lane bridge which was not good for one’s blood pressure on dark, rainy mornings with a large semi coming at you in the opposite direction. Yep, it was a reverse commute through the gritty, industrial parts of Seattle. Which was what this job was all about….no nonsense freight forwarding. This company was travel agents for cargo – air freight, ocean freight, domestic and international both…you name it. My job was to process paperwork that endlessly spilled onto my desk in thick envelopes from a courier or through the never ending fax machine whirr, contact the recipient named on the documentation and pitch our additional services for US customs clearance, warehousing and delivery to wherever the freight was supposed to end up. Sometimes it was recurring business, like the one-hour photo processing equipment we regularly imported from Switzerland and Italy. Sometimes it was boutique soaps from Europe or a 40-foot ocean container full of beer from Tasmania. Or someone’s items for a trade show. Or lighting samples for what was then a fledgling store concept called Home Depot.
Or ad hoc things like a wooden statue from Thailand, which was apparently a trojan horse of sorts for drugs unbeknownst to innocent me. Oh yeah, it’s not fun being six weeks into a new job and having two plain clothes detectives come barging into your place of work, demanding to speak to “fivenineteen” – using my full name. How in hell did they figure out *I* was the one in that import desk position for this company? Guess that’s why they’re detectives. Anyway, after being questioned at length (thank goodness our branch manager was present to back me up), they realized I had nothing to do with whatever “it” was. Instead, I got to be a part of the stake out to bust the alleged smugglers.
When the recipient of the statue came to our office to pay for the air freight charges and customs clearance services (around $400 if I recall), he whipped out a stack of C-notes like I would whip out Ones. Actually his stack of C-Notes was probably much thicker than that. He whipped out a few, put them in an envelope and thanked me. Beyond that I have no idea what happened, other than I did get a quick drive by “thank you” from the detectives afterwards. I remember counting the money after the guy left and realizing he’d left me an extra $100 bill, probably as a tip – who knows. I felt dirty and gave it to our branch manager, who promptly put it into our party slush fund.
You know, I could never have gotten through this and so many other bizarre and hilarious scenarios if it wasn’t for J. I think I’ve mentioned Js in other posts, so I’ll go with JL here so we don’t mix them up.
JL literally took me under her wing. She was about ten years my senior and already well-seasoned in the freight forwarding industry, having taken up a part-time job with DHL while she was still in high school. And speaking of high schools, she was actually a student of my Grandmother’s while at Mount Ranier High School in Des Moines, WA. Talk about small worlds!! She remembered my Grandmother vividly – a tough, firm teacher for sure – passionate about her students and her craft! (My Grandmother – age 95, turning 96 this summer – taught Home Economics for a few years after my Dad and Uncle were out of the house as adults).
JL taught me so much about the freight forwarding industry – and about work ethic in general. Coming from a small company who was starting to see business decline, my perspective of a fast-paced office was extremely shifted to the slow end of the spectrum. It was a shock to suddenly be surrounded and swamped by constant phone ringing (we had no receptionist so we all had to take turns answering the phone and routing calls/paging people) and that ever-persistent fax machine spewing. Neat freaks needed not apply – our desks were always stacked high with paperwork, files, post its, and thank goodness for those vertical file folder holders.
I probably smoked a few packs of cigarettes secondhand along the way too. JL and I were two of the few non-smokers at that company. People were constantly either outside or in our warehouse taking smoke breaks. This was the subject of constant internal office bickering too…smokers vs non-smokers; I remember JL taking a quick sanity break to walk outside to blow off steam one afternoon, and our manager questioning her what she was doing away from her desk. “I’m taking a SMOKE BREAK,” she snapped sarcastically. Right on.
So between the phone ringing off the hook (remember this was the pre-email era), typewriters, the fax machine and our stacks of US Customs-required carbon paper in triplicate, I learned a lot from JL. Most importantly, how to multi-task. I would listen to how she smoothed over tough situations over the phone with anyone from customers to air cargo agents, warehouse workers and truck drivers. And I remember telling her one afternoon, “Wow, JL….YOU GIVE GOOD PHONE!” And we laughed.
Ironically, JL and I each resigned from that company within mere weeks of one another. Three years was enough for me. I’d accepted a new job offer from a company that was an offshoot of my very first job right out of college. With a 30% salary bump to boot.
How many of you have told your co-workers, oh sure, would love to keep in touch, after either one of you moves onward? Nowadays thanks to LinkedIn and Facebook it’s relatively easy to do so, but it still takes work.
JL and I left that company in 1994. And, after about a decade gap (with one baby boy born in between – JL’s son, now age 4), we got together at her house yesterday. She and I have chatted on the phone on and off over the years – wonderful phone conversations that go on for two hours without either of us realizing it. But yesterday finally was The Day.
Now, before I forget, JL was also my partner in crime for not one but TWO Caribbean cruises. 1997 and 2000 respectively. Talk about keeping in touch…she and I have actually traveled together, gloriously!
I really hope it hasn’t been since 2002 since I’ve seen JL but that actually might be true. That was the year she and her now-husband bought their home in West Seattle (and I bought my townhouse later that same year too). I remember their housewarming party…a wonderful barbecue with tons of people and laughter, and the oohs and ahhs admiring their view. Fast forward to 2012 and I hit the road with a smile on my face off to visit JL and meet her son for the first time!
We’d planned on going for a long walk around the neighborhood but it was really windy and blustery out. I smiled as I drove back out to West Seattle. I’ve blogged about this neighborhood before…the family roots are deep for my grandfather, Dad, Uncle (and Aunt, my Uncle’s high school sweetheart to this day) all graduated from West Seattle High School.
And the picture in today’s post is the view from JL and her husband’s house. We’re looking directly at Blake Island. You can just see a few white caps on the Sound (if you squint; I took this with my camera phone). When it’s clear out the Olympic Mountains frame the horizon. And, the Vashon Island Ferry goes back and forth. It’s just glorious.
I smiled as I got nearer to JL’s house. It was all coming back to me now. A decade since my last visit? The years melted away. As I walked up the steps to their front door I saw a giggly, smiling little boy grinning at me in the window. Wow. JL’s become a wife and mother (at 50-something!) in the two decades plus since I first met her.
She’s truly one of those great friends where we can just pick up where we left off. A few hours visit just whizzed by. She had to get back into the office for some additional work, but we sure enjoyed some great hot tea, conversation and laughs in the meantime. She showed me a framed picture she still has of us on our first cruise back in 1997. A smiling picture of us enjoying ourselves in St. Maarten. I almost burst into tears. WOW that was a great trip. And so long ago.