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About five months ago I embarked on a new career path: sales. Up to that point I had no sales experience except for a few miserable months selling knives.

To get myself prepared, I watched my favorite movie about sales, Boiler Room (which, incidentally, is based on Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Wolf of Wall Street).

There’s a scene in Boiler Room when Seth, a young hotshot stockbroker played by Giovanni Ribisi, is sitting at home one Saturday morning eating breakfast when he gets a call from a guy named Ron, who’s trying to sell him a subscription to the Daily News.

Ron weakly gives his elevator pitch, mispronouncing Seth’s last name–though how does one mispronounce “Davis”?–and Seth says “not interested.” But before Seth lets Ron hang up, he gives him another shot at the call. “I get the same half-assed sales call from you guys every Saturday morning. If you want to close me you should sell me. Start again.”

Ron gives a stronger pitch (albeit clearly reading from a script), “feature-dumping” all the reasons why the Daily News is the best daily newspaper in the city, and even handling some objections from Seth.

At the end of the call Ron asks for the sale. Seth’s response: “Nah, I get the Times.”

As a new sales guy I’m hardly in the position to critique the technique of another sales guy, but on Thursday I was the recipient of a sales call from a rep at an online stock trading site where I’ve done a small amount of business in the past.

This wasn’t a typical cold call–i.e. a sales call in which no prior business relationship with that person exists–because I was already a customer of the site. But, it was most certainly a sales call in that the site makes its money when its customers make trades, and I was making none.

So the guy calls me on my cell phone in the middle of the workday, but I pick up–it was an area code I recognized. He introduces himself and asks “How are you?”–a surprisingly simple way to gauge the mood of the person on the other end of the phone, so you know how much time you’ll have to make your pitch.

He sounds a little “junior.” He explains that he’s noticed I haven’t been very active on the site lately. He’s right. I tend to pick stocks with little more sophistication than those people who fill out a March Madness bracket based on the mascots of the teams, and nothing has really inspired me to make a trade lately.

He goes on to ask me about my financial goals–am I saving for retirement, or do I just hope for a certain percentage return on my investment?–and shares some benchmarks based on other customers of the website. I’m reticent to share my financial goals with someone I don’t know so instead I ask, what does my account look like relative to those benchmarks he mentioned?

Now on a call like this, he’s probably making them at scale–he might make a couple hundred in a day. Most people won’t pick up, and the ones who do won’t talk to him for more than a few seconds. So it doesn’t make sense for him to learn everything about each customer he’s about to call, because it’s just not efficient to do so. I get it.

He takes a second to look up my account and shares some metrics. Fine. So, I ask him, what do you think I should do?

When a customer asks a salesperson this, the salesperson should be licking his chops. You better have a good answer. But this guy couldn’t give me anything specific. Again, because he probably didn’t think I’d pick up the phone, and because he was inexperienced, he certainly didn’t think I’d actually ask for his advice on how to invest my money.

I said, “If you have some ideas on any specific moves you think I should make, I’m all ears.” At this point, honestly, I just wanted to hear his reaction. He didn’t name a single stock, or type of fund, or anything he thought I should invest in. He agreed to follow up with an email (which he hasn’t yet) with some more information.

Obviously this guy wasn’t an experienced stockbroker–they had him calling down a list of people who weren’t using the site–but he’s got to go into the call with the mindset that if someone does answer, and they do ask him for a recommendation (more on “recos” in a moment), that he has something smart to say. This way instead of some jerk writing a blog post about this conversation with him, they’re investing money in a stock he suggested.

Early on in Boiler Room, when Seth is being trained on how to make cold calls by a senior broker, Greg (played by Nicky Katt), Seth asks what he should do if the person he calls wants to buy stock right there on the spot. Greg says, “You wanna go into every call expecting just that.” Greg instructs Seth to yell “reco” at the top of his lungs, at which point the first senior broker to get on the phone has the chance to close the sale. (See below. Semi-NSFW.)

I realize I’m hardly a “whale”–someone who invests massive sums–when it comes to stock trading. But if I was important enough to land on this guy’s call list, then I expect an idea, an insight, something from him that keeps me from uttering the five words every salesperson dreads: remove me from your list.

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By Danny Calise

As my boss, Antony, spoke toothlessly through his beard while lighting an already-lit cigarette, I looked around at the empty beer cans and various pieces of trash surrounding me in the 75 square foot office/bedroom of the pedicab shop where I had been working and thought to myself, “How did I get here?” Originally, I had envisioned pedicabbing to be a healthy gig where I got to spend time outdoors and meet all kinds of people. It would be hip, profitable, even glamorous. Well, some of that was true.

* * *

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a pedicabber in Austin, Texas during South by Southwest (SXSW)?

Well, I’ll tell you from first hand experience: you wouldn’t hack it. That’s not to say that it isn’t possible, but much like the persistence and determination it takes to run a marathon, SXSW pedicabbing is as much of a mental feat as it is a physical one.

What exactly is a pedicab? you might be thinking. Well, a pedicab can take two forms: either a full bicycle with a trailer attached to the back with seating for 2-3 people, or a tricycle, which rides like a bicycle and has a front wheel and two wheels underneath the passenger seats in back. Pedicabs thrive in urban areas where points of interest are just beyond reasonable walking distance and streets are flat enough for the pedicab drivers to not have to work too hard to get riders from point A to point B.

Pedicab drivers, or Pedicabbers, can rent the cabs for a nightly fee of around $35 on Fridays and Saturdays or monthly for rates of around $325 to have free rein to take the cab out any time that month. Why not just buy a pedicab outright so you can collect all money and not owe anyone? Well, the benefits of renting the cab from a pedicab company are that they handle all cab maintenance, they possess the proper insurance and business license to handle any potential claims, and, quite frankly, pedicabbing isn’t a sustainable form of income, so the average rider doesn’t want to be invested in it for more than a few months.

* * *

A high school teacher by day, I sought a part-time weekend job where I would be rewarded for working quickly and efficiently. Pedicabbing seemed to fit the bill. From the moment I interviewed for the pedicabbing job at **** **** in Austin in January, 2016, there was talk of a massive gathering of the pedicabbers in March. It was the Super Bowl of Austin pedicabbing. This epic 9-day affair was known, to some, as South by Southwest. To pedicabbers, though, it meant hard work. I was told when I took the job that my body would surely give out physically at some point during the music, film and tech festival. That I’d be pedicabbing day and night, with people in constant demand of a speedy ride. Veteran pedicabbers shared forgettable lore and half-stories about times they…really needed a break, or spent upwards of nine dollars on a meal during South-by because they were just THAT hungry. “Whatever,” I thought to myself, nodding with polite faux-awe on my face as they spoke.

The weeks building up to South-by, I “got my legs,” so to speak, building up the stamina and strength to be able to pedicab straight through the 9-day festival. I went out on Friday and Saturday evenings, starting at around 9 PM and staying out until 2 AM. My cab was bare bones: I didn’t have any music-playing capabilities, nor did I have a blanket to shield riders from the cold weather. What I did have was conversation–I walked the fine line between funny/charming and intrusive/annoying, and what I learned in these weeks was that riders are 99% nice and understanding, and mostly just curious about what it’s like to ride a pedicab.

As someone with a short fuse when it comes to verbal altercations, it was easy to let myself be angered by smart-alec responses to my pedicabbing pitch. I’d shout out, “Hey guys, would you like a ride?” And a man walking with a woman would grab his thigh as he was walking and say, “Not while I’ve got these,” referring to his legs. The woman would make an embarrassed face, I would ride away silently, later thinking of all the comebacks I should have used on him. “You won’t have those for long if you keep wasting them on walking, buddy!”  The truth was there was nothing I could say. If someone didn’t want a ride, there was no reason to waste energy on a comeback, especially if I couldn’t think of a clever one.

* * *

I got the feeling that the pedicab company I worked for was past its heyday. The owner, Antony, a 28 year old toothless man appeared to be one step above homeless. Or, really it seemed like he just slept at the shop. For my first night of training, his excuse for being late was that his ride to the shop took too long, which didn’t make sense to me because he was apparently a business owner. But regardless, I didn’t question his lack of car ownership. I explored the shop, which was located in a bad neighborhood on the East Side of Austin, behind a train station where homeless men could be seen urinating before one’s very eyes. Inside the shop’s gate, there was a garage that could have fit four cars, but instead held 8 upright pedicabs and had many tools sprawled across the floor and various workbenches. Towards the back of the garage was a room with two floor mats, an acoustic guitar, dozens of empty beer bottles and cans and trash everywhere. That was presumably where some pedicabbers or just homeless people stayed nightly. Outside the garage around the back was a space for storage of more cabs and a workstation where the owner did some welding for some extra cash on the side. Even farther back was a shack where the shop’s resident artist lived and sometimes created art.

Once the tour of the shop was over, the owner invited me into his “office,” a room beside the garage towards the front of the shop. Inside was more of the same: beer cans everywhere, some empty, some half full, cigarette butts as far as the eye can see, and a bunk bed with trash on the top bunk and a dirty bedspread on the bottom. All of this was in a space of 75 square feet.

The owner himself, Antony, was a manic dude. He was a businessman, first and foremost, but had a soft spot for people in need, hence all of the opportunities for people to sleep at the shop. Throughout every conversation I’ve ever had with him, he would chainsmoke cigarettes, continually lighting the already lit cigarettes seemingly because he enjoyed the lighting process. When he needed to hold a document and a pen, he would put the lit cigarette in his ear for additional storage. Mid-conversation in the office, he would gently lift one of many beer cans and ask me, “Is this the beer I just brought in here?” and of course, I didn’t know or care. It didn’t bother him, though, and he sipped away.

How this man came to own this shop and all of the pedicabs therein is still something of a mystery to me. Essentially, I think he was just in the right place at the right time and took over for someone else. What I observed was that he certainly didn’t appear to me making any money off of the company, but enjoyed being in charge and made just enough to keep the shop afloat and the cigarettes burning. He alluded to a time in the future when he would have the money to open up a local boxing gym in the neighborhood.

He was a chronic story repeater. The first night I met him, he told me all about the benefits of becoming a “monthly rider” (renting the pedicabs from him on a monthly basis): that he would present me with better riding opportunities, that my cab would always be available, and that the South-by rates would be half-price for monthly riders. Several times after this he would give me the same pitch, even after I had already agreed to become monthly. I grew to hate interacting with him. Not only was he verbose, and always talking about things I cared nothing for, but he possessed a trait that I despised in someone: lack of appreciation for someone else’s time. One time after a South-by shift, he talked my ear off for over an hour, with his eyes half open (I suspected that night that he might be on drugs of some kind, but upon reflection I concluded that he was just insane), about how it would be great for the shop if I could make a run with my car to a used video game store and pick up a few games as well as wires in order for the guys to be able to play a four player game of Mario Kart the next day. He had me write down all of the items that I was to buy, and finally, at 3 AM, he let me go home. I threw the paper with the items away immediately, and cursed the day I ever agreed to work for this man. But after all of our long “talks” (he talked, I nodded), I realized that he was just a lonely man who had so much to say and no one to listen to him. Perhaps this was the case with many veteran pedicabbers.

Every night of South-by when I would return the cab to the shop, I was forced to meet with him one on one to hand him my nightly lease ($35), and listen to whatever he had to say that night. He would be constantly lighting his cigarette, touching his beard and face, tugging on his beltless pants and grossing me out to no end. Then he’d approach a group of pedicabbers sat on a bench outside the garage and shout an obligatory joke that they’d all laugh at out of respect. Yes, the heyday of the shop, if ever there was one, was long gone.

Before South-by, he had described a ritual gathering at the shop that took place the night before South-by started. Pedicabbers and friends of the shop would gather around a fire and burn a dollar in sacrifice to the gods of weather, as well as eat pizza in order to carbo-load in preparation for the great journeys ahead. I ended up sleeping through this ritual and didn’t hear any mention of it around the shop afterwards. It seemed more for Owner’s benefit than ours.

After South-by finished, the owner described an epic annual party that the shop threw. He’d get a great local band to play, and everyone from the neighborhood (did I mention who lived around this neighborhood?) would come together and party down. Impromptu boxing matches would occur, people would climb to the top of the garage, and all types of debauchery would take place. I didn’t attend this event. They held it on the Tuesday after South-by and didn’t get the word out until 10 PM Tuesday night. I asked a fellow pedicabber about this party a few days later and he told me that it was quite tame compared to previous years’ parties. “No one boxed,” he remarked.

* * *

The owner talked a lot about pedicabbing, while admitting at times that he hadn’t done it himself consistently in months. I learned that his advice was not useful because he was officially out of the pedicabbing game. Whatever he knew or had known about pedicabbing was no longer relevant.

On the fourth night of South-by, I had rolled by the shop around 9 PM to take a little break, charge my phone, have some dinner and gather my strength for the night ahead. Knowing that I was one of the few pedicabbers on whom he could rely, he entrusted me with the task of training his roommate, who had just been fired from his job due to his refusal to take a drug test. This was an enormous request on the owner’s part because South-by is the most profitable time of year, and training a new person would ensure a pedicabber that he wouldn’t make a dime for at least an hour. And knowing how much the owner loved talking, I knew that he would flap his toothless gums for a while before he’d let us go. A stingy businessman, he asked how much I’d like to be compensated for the hour and a half that I’d train his roommate. I thought about it, and determined that, in that time, I would make at least 50 bucks. So I told him that’s what I wanted. He sure didn’t trust that amount. He said, “Really? Because typically this night of South-by is pretty slow. The music hasn’t started and tech is just ending.” Utterly frustrated by this guy, I said, “You asked what I thought so I told you.” “Okay, how about this: If you’re out there and it looks decently busy, like you’d be missing out on rides, I’ll pay you $50. Otherwise, I’ll give you $30.” Knowing that I would be the one to tell him whether or not it looked busy, I agreed. He never stepped foot out of the shop so there was no danger in him seeing for himself.

So I trained his roommate, a nice guy with a decent work ethic. And in the end, I took him to a line on Brazos St. where we both lined up and eventually both got rides. I had impressed upon his roommate that the night looked busy, and that later, when the owner asked him, which I knew he would, how it looked out there tonight, he should say it was busy. When I returned to the shop that night, I reported to the owner that it sure was busy out there and that I expected to be paid $50. He skeptically looked me up and down, to read whether or not I was lying to him. “Really? Let’s ask around and see how it was. What time were you training?” “10-11.” He approached the bench where six or seven pedicabbers sat drinking and smoking cigarettes. “Hey how was it out there around 10-11 tonight?” They thought for a moment. It was currently 3 AM. No one had a good idea of what it was like that far back. They looked puzzled. “Uh, it was okay out there, not too crazy.” One pessimistic rider who I usually avoided talking to responded, “It was dead out there for me.” And the owner turned to look at me, convinced that he had correctly smelled a rat. My face didn’t change. “I could have picked up three rides in that time. I don’t know what you want me to say.” Then one of the pedicabbers shouted out, “Isn’t that when ACL Live let out?” And the pirate-like pedicabbers’ table all agreed. The owner conceded, “Okay, okay, that’s a big venue. You would have gotten some rides from that.” I hated him so much. But the cheap bastard walked into the office, walked out and handed me $50.

* * *

A typical night of pedicabbing during South-by might look like this:

5:00 PM – Report to pedicab shop to pick up cab. Check to make sure you have all of your essentials: a Square credit card swiper, a blanket in case riders get cold, a bike tire pump, a spare tire, an external phone charger, at least one bottle of water, food consisting of bars and fruit, and business cards with your name on them.

5:15 PM – Depart the shop and head for East 6th street, home of the Fader Fort and Spotify House. This means that big crowds will be milling around these two music showcase locations. Many people park around I-35 and walk to the shows. Depending on how hot it is (or how lazy people are feeling), this means that a group of two to three people might be looking for a lift for the half-mile uphill distance. Ride around East 6th for 10-15 minutes and if nothing’s doing, head west to the Convention Center.

6:00 PM – The next hour or two will be spent riding up and down Trinity Street, raising my hand and looking for groups of two or three that look like they don’t know where they’re going. During the music part of the festival, they might look like young hip hop artists or messy-haired British rock n’ rollers. Every musician must come through the Convention Center to pick up their badges, so a ton of people are constantly walking in and out. Riding beside the main doors of the Convention Center on the bicycles-only path, I was grateful every time someone opened the door and I got a whiff of powerful indoor air conditioning.

Bizarre protests were witnessed here. One where a group of people ages 8 to 68 were protesting against Netflix. Their signs read “Give us our movies back,” and their shouted slogans included, “What do we want? Movies. When do we want them? Now.” I gathered that they were of the belief that Netflix was somehow taking their movies away from them. Their protest lasted an hour and the constant foot traffic resumed unaffected. I wondered what the debriefing meeting of this protest consisted of. “I think we made our point.” And they all cheers their Blockbuster brand microwave popcorns.

Another protest was a group of punk rock types with tough looking dogs in tow who were protesting against gentrification…in general. They didn’t appear to have any goals other than to shout as loud as they could. Evidently, they measured their success based on the old protesting rubric, “If you change just one person’s mind, you’ve been successful.” I didn’t witness anyone volunteering to join their ranks.

8:00 PM – People are officially out drinking now. This means that people need rides to and from the nightlife hotspots: Rainey Street and the Dirty 6th.

On a typical Friday or Saturday night in Austin, the Dirty 6th (a stretch of East 6th Street that runs from I-35 to Congress Ave.) is the place to be for partygoers. It is notorious for its wild and crazy atmosphere, and its pedestrian-only walkway similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. For pedicabbers, the Dirty 6th is a great spot to pick people up, except that police block off certain streets and only allow us to line up on certain others. On ordinary Friday and Saturday nights, pedicabbers are permitted to line up on either side of Neches and Brazos Streets, and on one side of San Jacinto Blvd. and Trinity Street, while also being able to ride up and down Red River St., a popular route connecting Rainey St. and the Dirth 6th. During the 9 days of South-by, however, pedicabbers were limited to only Brazos and Sabine Streets.

On my first day of South-by, I wasn’t aware of these limitations, and I optimistically rode north on Red River up to 6th and was greeted by a police officer. Having been a pedicabber for two months previously to South-by, I learned through word of mouth and from my own experiences that the cops were not on our side. They loathed us due to our lack of regard for their ever-changing and ever-specific laws. They weren’t even the ones who might write us a ticket for not having a proper pedicabbing license or the right type of blinking lights on the backs of our cabs, that was reserved for special transportation officers. Instead, their role was to forcefully yell at us, and their frustrations were amplified by the fact that pedicabbers, too, were ever-changing. So every time they yelled at a pedicabber, there was no assurance that that pedicabber would spread the word amongst his co-workers because there are over 10 pedicab companies in downtown Austin, and missing among popular topics of conversation between us was the new and exciting restrictions now enforced by the cops. The fact was, we were arch nemeses my nature. All we wanted was to bend the very laws that they lived to uphold. So when I strolled up Red River and saw a brigade of 5 cops sitting in a golf cart next to a road blockade, I wasn’t surprised to get an exasperated reaction from their leader. He shouted angrily, “I already told you guys, you can only go on Sabine and Brazos.” I shrugged my shoulders non-communicatively, for, who were the “you guys” he was referring to? All pedicabbers? If so, I had not gotten the memo. I cursed said officer under my breath and rode down to Sabine to see if my kind were welcome there. We were.

Now, pedicabbers, for the most part, follow an unwritten code of rules among ourselves. Obviously laws like “Don’t ride on the sidewalk.” or “Don’t ride the wrong way on a one-way street.” are broken at the pedicabber’s discretion. But when it comes to breaking rules against one another, these rules are strictly followed and can be punishable in any number of ways such as a group of pedicabbers blocking you in or simply just kicking your ass if you cross the wrong pedicabber.

The foremost example of an unwritten pedicabber’s rule is that of snaking, a loathesome practice that involves a pedicabber stepping in front of a line of pedicabbers and stealing away their rider without regard to the established line for that area. Snaking also includes taking a ride when you are at the back of a line. The accepted practice if you are not first in line (some lines can have up to 20 pedicabbers on them) and a potential customer approaches you is to cease negotiating with that customer immediately and point him.her to the front of the line so that he/she may hire the first pedicabber in line. One can also shout audibly, “First up!” so that the first pedicabber in line can move towards the potential customer to expedite the process. During South-by, however, the rule of law is weakened and the new stance on snaking becomes “monkey see, monkey do.”

11:00 PM to 2:00 AM – On Rainey St., the pedicab lines grew long because pedicabbers weren’t allowed to ride through the street and must wait at the edge of the line of bars for potential customers. It’s a kick in the gut to optimistically ride up the hill to Rainey St., only to find a line of pedicabbers 20 cabs long. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when a break is needed and joining a line is a smart play. When you’re ready for dinner, it makes sense to join a line, ask the pedicabber behind you to look after your cab and jet over to a food truck to get some fuel, all the while building up to a guaranteed ride when you reach the front of the line. But when you’re full of energy and ready to ride, all thoughts of obeying laws and the right thing to do go out the window. If a couple comes up to you asking how much it would be for a ride to the Dirty 6th, you tell them 20 bucks and hurriedly usher them into your cab, first in line or not. This form of snaking became a reality during South-by, and by the second day, it was common practice. If people wanted a ride, you gave it to them.

But not all pedicabbers subscribed to the “monkey see, monkey do” logic of snaking. On 6th and Sabine, the line wasn’t 20 pedicabbers long, but rather 8 or 9. Each time “First up!” was called and the first pedicabber in line got a ride, we’d all have to re-maneuver our cabs so that we’d be closer to the front. By the time midnight rolled around, thousands of people were milling about around the cab line and people were hiring cabs left and right. I was fifth in line when three partygoers approached me asking if I can take them to Rainey St. This was a no-brainer. I told them to hop in. The pedicabber in front of me had a more traditional mindset. When he saw the trio about to hop into my cab, the older pedicabber shouted out “First up!,” and moved his head chicken-like, wondering if anyone else was watching me snake this ride. He asked me nervously as the trio sat down in my cab, “Are you part of this line or…,” and I just ignored him, only interacting with the customers. He continued to freak out, and I simply smiled at the customers, asking if they were ready to depart. They were, and we were off. Yet another successful snake.

2:00 AM to 3:00 AM – Power hour. All bars close at 2 AM, which means that every patron leaves the bars and needs a way to get back to their hotels or their cars. Sure, there is competition from Uber and Lyft, but pedicabbers can navigate through traffic legally and illegally, using bike lanes and riding on the opposite side of the double yellow lines. So we got plenty of business. On Rainey, the once long lines are non-existent. As quickly as you can ride up to the end of Rainey St., you can nab a duo or trio and take them to the East Side to their cars or to the JW Marriot downtown, or similar hotels. If you had the stamina to make it to this hour, you are rewarded with consistent rides back to back. I must admit that I didn’t make it to Power Hour every night, but when I did, my adrenaline carried me through to 3 AM.

3:00 AM to 4:00 AM – All pedicabbers ride back to their respective shops down East 4th street. I passed 4th and Attayac, a corner which houses four pedicab shops and where upwards of 15 cabs would be parked outside just chilling as their drivers sat around drinking beers and enjoying a well-earned break. I pull into the shop and park my cab. I pay my nightly lease to the owner and drag myself to my car, knowing that I’m in for the same tiring experience the next day. When I get home, I total up the day’s wages and add them to a post-it on my tv stand. I take a brief shower, dry my hair the best I can, stretch my legs while I brush my teeth and fall face first into my bed. I will wake up eight hours later with my legs feeling like Jell-O.

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Petry Media Corporation, where I started my career back in 2005, officially shut its doors earlier this month. This is my version of a eulogy for the defunct company which, for better or worse, gave me my start in the media business.

“Do you play softball?”

I was asked this question while sitting in a decade-old, coffee-stained desk chair, waiting to be interviewed for a position at Petry Media Corporation. My potential new boss, Judy, was finishing up some paperwork and had me wait outside her cube for a few minutes. While I sat there, my would-be coworker, a guy named Ross, had ostensibly decided to conduct his own pre-interview.

Ross was my age and played for the company softball team. Petry didn’t have many employee perks, but softball, if you were good enough to make the team, was one of them.

Whether he was intending to or not, Ross put me at ease for my actual interview with Judy. By the time I finished a short while later, I was reasonably confident that I had the job. A couple of days later Judy called to formally make me an offer, which I accepted.* For a cool $26,700, I would be a research analyst at Petry Media. More importantly, I had my first real job in New York City.

*Earlier that week I had accepted the a research analyst position with one of Petry’s competitors. Before I could officially accept Judy’s offer, I had to renege on my acceptance at the other company. It was a pretty awkward call and my almost-new boss was pretty pissed—this was Friday and he had been expecting me to start the following Monday. You might be thinking that what I did was unethical, but the other company was offering an even lower starting salary, $22,000, so I didn’t really feel too bad about walking away.

What I didn’t fully understand when I accepted the offer, but would slowly piece together later, was how the Petry actually made its money.

Petry was a “rep firm” for local TV stations across the country. If you own the local NBC station (a.k.a. “affiliate”) in a relatively small market like Green Bay or St. Louis, you might not be able to afford to hire your own sales people to sell TV commercials on your station. Instead, you contracted a company like Petry, whose sales team would sell your station’s air time—and collect a percentage of the ad revenue they bring in.

My job was A) to keep the inventory (the TV shows) current in the system so the sales people could sell the ad space in them; and B) to give my best estimate of how many people would watch them (i.e. Nielsen ratings), so the sales people knew how much to charge for the ad space. For the second part, the estimates were based on how many people watched that show in the previous season, or for a new show, how other shows like it had performed in the past. (If we didn’t have high hopes for a show, we would simply use “time period” estimates based on the ratings for the canceled show that ran during that day and time in the prior TV season.)

The job was far from rocket science—a lot of the work was glorified data entry—but I enjoyed learning about the television industry. I’d heard the terms “rating” and “share” before, but didn’t really know what went into calculating them.

I made fast friends with Ross (the softball guy). We were the same age, both former journalism majors, and both huge Yankee fans. Ross had grown up in Manhattan; even as a Queens-born kid, I found that fascinating. I was commuting into work every day from Long Island and didn’t know a whole lot about The City. Ross was my unofficial tour guide, directing me on things like best subways to take to get somewhere, or the fact that Fifth Avenue was Manhattan’s vertical dividing line between streets, e.g. East 54th Street and West 54th Street.

I had been at Petry for a couple of months when softball season started. I wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the team, but Marty, a veteran sales rep at Petry and the longtime manager of the softball team, let me try out. As the youngest guy on the team (besides Ross), I assumed I’d have no trouble playing my way into the lineup—but the fact that I even had to try out made me a little nervous.

I reached base on four infield singles and play solid defense in the outfield and made the team. (Eleven years later, I still play for the team. Over the years guys left Petry the company, but not Petry the softball team. Marty was the only remaining Petry employee to plan on the team before the company closed up shop earlier this month.)

The other nice perk of working at Petry was lunchtime. On most days we used the unoccupied conference room to watch TV while we ate lunch—and we could usually push the lunch hour to 90 minutes. If it was “upfront season,” the time of year when the TV networks were previewing their new fall lineups to whet the appetites of advertising buyers and sellers, we got to watch the pilots for new shows that the networks would send to Petry (to help our reps sell them). I remember seeing the pilot episode of How I Met Your Mother and knowing it would be a hit.

The research analyst position at Petry, for most people who held it, typically had a shelf life of about a year, two at the most. Most of Petry’s research analysts followed one of two career paths. They either found research jobs at other media companies, or they entered Petry’s sales training program. (By all accounts the training program was fairly rigorous and low-paying. If you “passed,” Petry required you to sign a multi-year contract pledging your loyalty to them. This was, I gathered, a standard deal for rep firms.) The research-to-sales guys I knew seemed happy enough, but I wasn’t interested in selling for a living after a negative experience selling Cutco knives during college left a bad taste in my mouth.

While I looked for work at other companies around my year mark at Petry, Ross and I had tons of down time once we got our work done. We spent a lot of that time talking about Moneyball and the new trend of advanced metrics in baseball. Sometimes, when things were really slow, and felt like we’d “run out of internet,” we’d tinker with some of our work processes.

Part of keeping the inventory current was loading “tapes,” or the most current data files from Nielsen that had the ratings from all the shows in the most recent “sweep” period. (In my nearly two years at Petry, I never actually saw a “tape.”) The process involved putting certain codes in an application that looked like it was stuck in 1980. The numbers and letters we entered into the program’s various blank spaces didn’t seem to correspond to any sort of user manual. So, we wrote our own. When we found a step that didn’t seem to make sense, we changed it and put it in our manual (i.e. a Word document). Before we knew it, we’d literally rewritten Petry’s antediluvian process for uploading ratings data to its network. (I’m sure it’ll eventually be placed into the Petry time capsule for our great-grandchildren to discover.)

Eventually, Ross left Petry for a job at CBS, where he was already freelancing on weekends, trying to break into sports production. I left a few months later for another media job. Having Petry on my résumé helped me land the gig—my new boss had also started her career there, too.

Petry gave me my start in the grown-up working world, and while I left the company for greener pastures ten years ago, I’m still thankful for the time I spent there. R.I.P. Petry.

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The Cool Sub

“JEN-ri? Is there a JEN-ri Rodriguez in this class?”

“Uh…it’s Henri,” Jenri said.

I was four minutes into my substitute teaching career, and I was already butchering a student’s name while trying to take attendance.

“Oh, um, sorry about that.” I may as well have been repeating Bueller.

I’d gotten the subbing gig through my mom, who was a middle school teacher on Long Island. It was late 2004 and I was a few months out of college at that point, with little in the way of job prospects. I’d snail-mailed my cover letter and resume to every publishing house in the tri-state area in the hopes of getting something entry level with my journalism degree, with visions of reading manuscripts for a living. But after receiving just one response—a polite but unequivocal “no”—I took a part-time job at The Sports Authority for $8 an hour to hold me over with first student loan payment looming.

The prospect of dealing with 13- and 14-year-olds all day was not appealing to me in the least, but subbing paid $110 a day and didn’t require any teaching experience—plus I’d be out of work by 2 pm every day. Meanwhile, I continued to look for full-time work and kept a couple of shifts a week at The Sports Authority.

Like every substitute teacher in the history of substitute teachers, I was determined to be “the cool sub” who wasn’t a stickler for the rules. After I made a few appearances, all the kids would be glad to see me when their teacher was out. “Nice, we got Mr. Calise subbing today,” they said in my insanely unrealistic fantasyland scenario.

Delusions aside, I knew better than to attempt any actual teaching. I fully understood that my job was to do nothing more than take attendance, hand out whatever busy work the teacher had left for her students, and make sure the kids didn’t fight with each other or destroy the classroom. I was a glorified babysitter.

After my first day my name was in “the system,” meaning that the night before a school day I would receive an auto-dialed call on my cell phone, which would tell me my assignment for the following morning.

There was no ostensible rhyme or reason behind my subbing assignments—as far as I could tell, they simply were pulling my name out of a digital hat. In my short career working at the school, I subbed in just about every subject.

One day they had me covering for a music teacher. His “classwork” for the kids was having them watch the part of the movie Grease they were up to from the last time he’d been out. I had very strict instructions to “fast forward through the sex parts.” By the third or fourth class of the day my censoring was faster than Greased Lightnin’.

The music teacher’s final class of the day was off the middle school campus at an elementary school, where all I had to do was put on a Charlie Brown video for a class of first graders. Unlike the junior high kids, who gave me a hard time about everything I said or did, the first graders were afraid of me. But once I turned off the lights and put on the video, they were entranced and seemed to forget I was there. When a song started in the Charlie Brown movie, they started singing along in unison in their little voices. It was the only time in five months subbing that I actually considered becoming a full-time teacher.

My most coveted subbing assignment was phys ed. (I cannot overstate the satisfaction of being allowed to come to work in a polo shirt and track pants.) The kids were even wilder than they were in their other subjects, but each phys ed class was taught by three teachers, so I pretty much just played with the kids and helped corral any stragglers back to the pack. Usually the “lesson” I co-taught was a game that could be played by fifty or sixty students at a time. One day we did volleyball with a twist—each side had about thirty kids volleying an oversized beachball that required at least five people pushing at the same time to get it over the net.

I didn’t typically interact with the teachers I’d subbed for once they came back to work. I would usually leave a short hand-written note for each period’s class in the teacher’s mailbox, letting them know whether the kids completed their classwork (or at least pretended to work on it) and whether they behaved.

On one occasion, I wrote a scathing note about a science lab class that had given me a particularly tough time. When I came for work the next day, I got called back to that classroom during the period that the class had behaved so poorly the day before. The teacher for whom I had subbed told me, in front of the whole class, that her students were not allowed to do a lab that day because of how badly they’d behaved for me. The kids collectively glared at me for having ratted them out. I did a terrible job of hiding my smirk as I thanked the teacher and left the room.

After almost five months of subbing, I finally found a full-time office job in the city. One of my last assignments before I left was a shop class. I didn’t know the first thing about shop — I hadn’t even taken shop when I was in school — but luckily the teacher had left a video.

I arranged for the audio-video set to be wheeled in, a tall tower with a heavy tube TV and a VCR, just like the ones we used when I was in middle school.

I popped in the VHS, which turned out to be a recording of an NBC Saturday morning TV special about technology from the early ‘90s—remember, this was 2005—hosted by none other than rapper-actor LL Cool J. (About the video: The creators apparently thought the future would be a lot like The Jetsons, minus flying cars and meals in pill form. Strangely, the creators of the special hadn’t seen the iPhone coming.)

Maybe I’d become more comfortable being in front of a room full of kids, or maybe I was a little giddy because I knew I was leaving soon for my new job. Whatever the reason for my newfound jocularity, I decided to make a little off-the-cuff comment to the class about how outdated the video was.

I said: “Looks like this is LL Cool J somewhere between ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ and In the House.” I smiled goofily at my own humorous observation, as if to say, “Am I right???”

I was met by twenty blank stares from the kids. Immediately, I realized my mistake: LL Cool J’s career-defining hit song, “Mama Said Knock You Out,” came out before they were born, and his moderately successful sitcom In the House was canceled in 1999. Most people my own age would not have gotten that reference, no less a room full of 13-year-olds.

After the class’ complete non-reaction to my “funny” comment, a rare break from the “serious substitute teacher” character I’d played for five months, I slunk back into the darkness for the rest of the period.

Not long after my LL Cool J gaffe, I found myself on the Long Island Rail Road, commuting five days a week, two hours each way, in and out of the city. Staring out the window of the train, my insanely unrealistic fantasyland thinking kicked in again and I wondered briefly if any of the kids had even noticed I was gone.

“Yo what ever happened to Mr. Calise?” Jenri would say. “Who?” Jenri’s friend would ask. “You know,” Jenri would reply, “the cool sub.”

This story was also published on Medium.com.

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This post was written in anticipation of MKT, an entrepreneur event hosted by my employer, Horizon Media. The event took place on December 15.

I’d been working at Horizon Media for a few months when I heard the story of how the company’s CEO and founder, Bill Koenigsberg, started his ad agency back in 1989.

Koenigsberg was his early twenties, fresh out of college with a marketing degree in hand, when he went to work for a boutique media buying agency in Manhattan. (When an advertiser wants to buy space on a billboard, in a TV show, or on a website, it typically uses a buying agency to negotiate the price and purchase the ad for them.)

It was meant to be a temporary gig until he found something better. But he had a knack for the ad business, and ended up working at his first agency for six years.

He was doing so well, in fact, that the president of the agency promised Koenigsberg a car as a reward for his hard work. But when it came time to actually give Bill the car, the president reneged. Bill was not happy. When a headhunter called him with a job offer shortly after, he took it.

Koenigsberg eventually parlayed that job (from the headhunter) into an opportunity to buy the company that would later become Horizon Media, which he still owns today.

A small business in a big business’ body
Horizon Media is the largest privately held media agency in the world and boasts a client roster that includes GEICO, Capital One, and Burger King. With nearly a thousand employees across its New York and Los Angeles offices, it’s no mom-and-pop shop.

So it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Horizon’s office culture leaned towards the corporate end of the scale—by which I mean a stuffy, serious workplace straight out of Office Space—considering its size and the brands it reps. But it doesn’t.

Instead, Koenigsberg and Horizon have gone in the other direction when it comes to office culture.

Philanthropy is a major part of Horizon’s identity, forging partnerships with City Harvest, 96 Elephants, NY Cares, and Toys for Tots. Employees are empowered to host charity happy hours on The Terrace, our outdoor space which includes beer taps, with the proceeds going towards important causes.

In late October Horizon invited 75 first graders from a local elementary school to trick-or-treat in our offices. Afterwards the company treated the kids to lunch and surprised them with costumes the agency and its employees had purchased for them.

Horizon employees are also afforded myriad perks—many of which are unheard of at most companies—not to mention everyday use of its gorgeous office space. But at Horizon the extras go beyond happy hours or company sports teams or World Cup viewing parties.

At Horizon’s SoHo office it’s not uncommon to find Stephen Hall, Horizon’s chief marketing officer, in The Dunes—Horizon’s cavernous all-purpose space—interviewing guests like baker and Cronut inventor Dominique Ansel, or Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe co-founder Matt Besser. This past September renowned film director Robert Rodriguez stopped by for a talk as part of Horizon’s Hispanic Heritage Month event series.

MKT
In December Horizon will host MKT (pronounced “market”), inviting entrepreneurs to set up pop-up shops in The Dunes and sell their products and services. Businesses run by Horizon employees and their families and friends get first priority, after which vendors from the local small business community like Brooklyn Renegade, Union Square Holiday Market, The Market NYC, Scoutmob and Etsy populate the remaining spots at MKT.

You might be asking what a local marketplace of entrepreneurs selling their wares has to do with planning and buying media, i.e. Horizon’s area of expertise.

Business is Personal is intangible,” says Hall, referring to Horizon’s company tagline. “You have to experience it to believe it.”

Hall points out that every media agency is constantly trying to differentiate itself from the competition to land its next big client. But an event like MKT, he says, “turns words into action.”

The idea for MKT came from Leena Danan, Horizon’s VP of business development. “We started MKT as a celebration of entrepreneurship on [Horizon’s] 25th anniversary.” December 2014 marks Horizon’s third MKT event in two years. “This year,” Danan says, “we had multiple referrals both internally and externally, so we are thrilled that employees and past participants are excited to see MKT succeed.”

Horizon Side Hustle
Several Horizon employees have used MKT to showcase their talents outside of their day job.

Meeting and events specialist Brandon Smith, who raps under the name SMTH (pronounced “Smith”), has performed his songs at several Horizon events, including MKT.

“The second I get out of work it’s just straight to the studio, or straight to a shoot,” says Smith. “Every free minute that I have, I just put it into my music.” The music videos for SMTH’s songs, “Ticket to the Moon” and “Last Straw,” have been featured on MTV.

Alex Pagano has really taken Business is Personal to heart, running events for Horizon during the day—including MKT—and running her own business, Look Sharp Events, by night. Pagano recently organized her company’s largest event yet for beer brand Stella Artois, the “Butcher, Baker, Belgian Beer Maker” series kick off in New York City.

Des’ Sweet Treats was founded by Desiree Walker and her daughter, Shayna, who works in human resources at Horizon. Desiree found baking therapeutic while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. “I began playing around with a simple bread pudding recipe to create a variety of flavors,” she says. “My family and friends were my taste testers since my taste buds were off. … The rave reviews received were encouraging and many people began to suggest that I make baking more than a pastime.” Des’ Sweet Treats has attended every MKT event since it started.

External MKT-ers
Brooklyn-based TGT (pronounced “tight,” as in keeping it tight), founded by entrepreneur Jack Sutter, is one of the most exciting new entrants in this year’s MKT.

“I came up with the idea for TGT because I hated using a bi-fold [wallet]; it wasn’t the product for me,” says Sutter, who was at one point using a broccoli rubber band to carry his money. “I knew there was something better.

“I really had a need for this wallet and I kind of had a vision for what it could be,” says Sutter.

After producing some prototypes using scrap leather from a furniture store, Sutter took to Kickstarter—an online platform for crowdsourcing creative ventures—to fund production of his wallets on a larger scale. His funding goal was $20,000. He has raised $317,424 from more than 7,500 backers.

Sarah and Carlos Perla run Made with Nachos, a t-shirt company out of Brooklyn. The Perlas are design school grads who design all their own shirts, and hand-print them in their home studio. They shared the story behind their unique company name:

The name Made with Nachos came about one night when Sarah was cooking dinner. She asked Carlos if he could taste that “special ingredient.” Knowing she meant “love,” he responded with a wink and a smile “What…nachos?” and from that day forward they described things that made with love as Made with Nachos.

The Karako cousins, Michael, Sean and Daniel, are the founders of the reversible tie company Flip My Tie. The Karakos are the sons of the founders of Karako Suits, established 32 years ago in New York City, so men’s fashion is in their blood. They are participating in MKT for the first time.

Sean Karako says he was inspired to start a fashion line while watching ABC’s Shark Tank, the hit reality TV show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to big name (and big bank account) investors. “I saw all these entrepreneurs bringing great ideas and I thought to myself, our fathers have built such great relationships overseas that we should take advantage of it.”

Meanwhile another tie company is making its second MKT appearance. Davor Anic is a former TV producer in Europe with a master’s in fashion design and technology, who moved to the U.S. and started his own tie brand. Anic says he chose to specialize in ties because Croatia, where he’s from, is the “homeland of neckties.” (It’s true. I looked it up.)

It’s a great thing that a company like Horizon Media encourages entrepreneurship—not unlike the kind that Horizon itself was built on. But at the end of the day they still have a media agency to run.

“If everyone [quit Horizon and] did their own start-up we’d have a problem,” Hall jokes, “but we want to create an air of opportunity.

“MKT is like an open mic night,” he says. “If you’ve got some jokes or you can carry a tune, here’s a stage.”

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Sitting is the new smoking.

For the last six months or so I’ve seen that phrase pop up in dozens of articles admonishing readers about the dangers of sitting all day at work. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and Google it!

I’m not here to sell you on the veracity of scientific studies that equate desk chairs and couches with cigarettes. I’m here to tell you that I personally have bought into the hype around such studies, and I’ve done something about it.

Like most white collar workers in America, I have spent at least 95% of my work hours in my career sitting at a desk, looking at a computer monitor, only getting up for coffee and bathroom breaks. On most days I eat lunch at my desk.

Outside of work my weekdays tend to be fairly active. I play competitive sports; I sometimes bike to work; I exercise at the company gym; and I run. But one of the bullet points from the many sitting-is-the-new-smoking articles that really got my attention was that despite an office worker’s active lifestyle, sitting actually negates most of the exercise we are getting when not sitting.

One of the solutions to sitting all day at work is, of course, standing. But most of us have desks built at sitting height. Bending over from a standing position to type on a keyboard meant for sitting won’t work long-term. And getting up frequently to stand or walk around is not practical for those of us who need to be at their desks most of the time to answer emails and calls, and to interact with our cubicle-mates.

Seeking possible alternatives to sitting all day, I started reading up on basic standing desks. Like their name suggests, these workstations are meant for working while standing–basically they’re just a higher desk. The problem with standing desks is that standing for our entire workday is no good, either. (I even came across a New York magazine article in which the writer attempted to stand for a whole month.)

After some more research (while sitting, of course) I found the perfect hybrid solution: the sit-stand desk (a.k.a. an adjustable standing desk), which is designed to adjust for both sitting and standing positions (duh), allowing the worker to go back and forth throughout the day.

Earlier in the summer I decided to go ahead and request a sit-stand desk from work. If they said no, I was back where I started and would consider building my own IKEA-based solution.

But they said yes!

I received a Varidesk Pro Plus ($350), which required little set up except to make sure the wires from my laptop, secondary monitor, mouse and keyboard didn’t get caught in the mechanism when I moved it up and down. (There was some trial and error on this part in order to make sure the sit-stand desk, when in sitting position, was flush with my actual desk.)

The Varidesk Pro Plus.

The Varidesk Pro Plus.

As for the standing while working, it has been totally fine. Wearing dress shoes most days, my feet did start to hurt by the end of the day for the first few days. I’d read that a lot of people who use sit-stand desks buy floor mats—just like chefs use—to cushion their feet. I bought the NewLife Comfort Mat for $40, and it has made a huge difference.

Generally I try to stand about 60% of the time, and sit for the other 40%. If I’m working on a spreadsheet or a project that requires intense concentration, I can find myself standing for over an hour without noticing. And when I eventually do notice and sit down, it’s a nice sense of relief for my back, legs and feet. At first I tried to look at the clock to make sure I was sitting and standing enough, but now I mostly just listen to my body. When I feel like sitting, usually towards the end of the day, I sit. And while I still rarely get out during lunch, I make a point to stand after I’ve finished eating.

One unintended consequence of getting a sit-stand desk that I hadn’t considered is all the attention I’m getting from co-workers, many of whom I’ve never spoken to. Generally their reactions fall into one of two camps. About half the people see me standing and say, “Oh wow, that’s so cool!” and then ask a bunch of questions about where I got it, whether I like it, how it works, etc. The other half look at me like I’m from another planet. “So…you’re gonna stand all day? Why?” Even after I talk about the health benefits, and explain that the desk goes up and down and that I can sit whenever I want, they don’t quite get why I would want to go to all this trouble to stand any more than I have to.

I can’t say that I’ve lost any weight in the last month since getting my sit-stand desk, or that I feel physically better than I felt before my new desk. My posture might be a little better but it’s tough to say. I mostly feel the same. A sit-stand desk is hardly a panacea if you have any serious health issues (and as far as I know, it will not help you quit smoking). I like to think about my decision to use a sit-stand desk the same way I think about my decision to take vitamins every day: I know I won’t see any immediate, quantifiable results from doing it, I believe that in the long-term it will benefit me.

I wouldn’t recommend a sit-stand desk for everyone, especially if you’re paying for it out of your own pocket—it could be a costly gamble if you end up hating it. But for me, I’m a month in and very happy with my decision to go for it. And for those of you out there who think I’m crazy, well, I might be. But don’t be surprised if the sit-stand desk comes to a cubicle near you!

What do you think? Am I crazy, or does the sit-stand desk sound kinda cool to you?

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Pulling Cables

“Hey Bobby, what’s the weirdest job you ever had?”

No one’s ever actually asked me that, but if they did, I’d pause, pretending to think about my answer as if I wasn’t waiting for someone to ask me that. Then I’d say, “Um, I guess I’d have to say…pulling cables.”

The asker, not trusting their ears, would say, “Did you say waiting tables? What’s so weird about that?”

“No,” I’d say. “I said pulling cables.”

“Wait…what?”

During my senior year of high school I scored a plum job answering phones at a billing center for a prominent medical lab–prominent meaning there’s a good chance this lab has tested your pee and/or blood for something at some point in your life. My friend Nikki’s mom worked there and set us up with the gig through a temp agency. The job paid $10 an hour, plus time-and-a-half overtime, and was just 15 minutes from my parents’ house.

The following August I went away to college and when I came back for winter break that December, the billing center had moved offices–it was now about 30 minutes from my parents’ house. They were still willing to bring me back, but I was worn out from my first semester of college–which included a lot of driving as part of my job as the world’s worst traveling knife salesman–and decided I wasn’t willing to commute a half hour each way for three weeks, even for a job I really liked. (Five  years later, I commuted two hours each way for a year to my first job in the city that paid less than I’d been making at the billing center. Even now, living and working in Manhattan, my commute is 40 minutes each way on a good day.)

The temp agency still had my paperwork on file and my contact there set up my friend Sean and me with a three-week gig for the same rate of $10 an hour.

We were placed at an obscure technology company and told to show up the following Monday for some work “pulling cables.” We, of course, didn’t know what that meant (I’m not sure our contact did, either, but to her credit she kept a straight face when she told us). But for $10 an hour–far more than I’d been making selling knives–we were willing to just about anything for three weeks. Or so we thought.

Imagine an office building in one of those industrial office parks, a la The Office’s Dunder-Mifflin. In that office building, imagine a large room off a drab hallway. The room is filled with a constant humming sound emitted from a few dozen computer servers each about six feet tall–the same kind of server someone decries as being “down” when they can’t get on Facebook at work.

In this room, the floor isn’t really a floor. It’s tiled with 2’ by 2’, removable square panels mounted on a series of metal stanchions. Under the floor is a snake pit of thousands of computer cables that connect the servers to…well, I was never sure what they were connected to.

Our temporary boss was a man who introduced himself to us as Robert–but whose office door had a nameplate on it that said “Moshe”–explained that our assignment for the next three weeks was to pull up any loose cables that were no longer connected to anything at either end and put them in a pile off to the side. We were basically there to remove the dead snakes from the snake pit and leave the live ones alone.

The process of pulling a cable always began at the end of a cable which had already been disconnected from a server at one end of it. I would hold that loose end, then wait for Sean to get in position. Sean would remove one or more of the floor tiles a few feet away in the direction we assumed the cable was running–as I wiggled my part of the cable in my hand–in the hopes of locating any semblance of movement created by my wiggling. If Sean saw movement, he would grab that cable and hang on tight, waiting for me to run ahead to the next spot where I anticipated the cable continued, then lift up those tiles to find the same cable and grab it.

This leapfrogging would go on for sometimes five minutes, other times 20, until we could locate the end of the cable and pull it completely out of the floor. We would then put it on a small pile of cables that we had successfully removed. Our dialogue when tracking and pulling a cable would carry on as follows:

“Do you see it?”

“No.”

“What about now?”

“NO.”

“Okay you should definitely see it now.”

“I STILL DON’T SEE IT.”

“Do you wanna just start over with a new cable?”

“Yeah.”

(The conversation might also have included a string of profanity around the word “STANCHION!” if one of us had banged our shin on a stanchion.)

We made it about four hours into the first day before Sean said, “Bobby, I can’t do this anymore.”

“What do you mean?” I said. The work was mundane as it gets, but I wanted to rack up as many hours as I could. I needed the money.

“I can’t do this for eight hours a day for the next three weeks.”

“Okay, fine,” I said. I, too, was growing mind-numbingly bored, but wasn’t as willing as Sean to admit it just yet.

We finished out the first day but on the next morning, after talking it over some more, we approached Moshe/Robert to explain that at best we could do this work for four hours a day. Any more than that, we said, we’d lose our minds.

Moshe-bert agreed to our reduced hours a little too quickly–making me wonder if we were not the first ones to hold the prestigious cable puller position–and we went to work.

Even four hours a day was brutal, as Sean and I reached a state of delirium that no amount of coffee could remedy. Still, we pulled cables as efficiently as we could, and added them to the pile. When we found a particularly long cable, we cut it in half to make the pile seem bigger. There wasn’t a quota as far as we knew, but “doubling up” made us feel like we’d accomplished slightly more than we actually had.

At the end of our three weeks, our pile was disappointingly small. But by then we didn’t care–the small dent we’d put in the snake pit was negligible (the before and after pictures would have looked identical) and I’m sure Robert-Moshe was left wondering what the hell he’d paid us for.

 —

Pulling cables wasn’t the last time Sean and I worked together. Four years later we were new college graduates looking for the dream jobs we’d been promised our entire academic careers. Instead, with our first student loan payments looming, we settled for part-time sales associate positions at The Sports Authority. The application included a drug screening. My former employer, the medical lab, tested our urine.

The job was pretty miserable, as most retail jobs are. I made $8 an hour but Sean, who had previous forklift experience (not a joke), made $8.50/hour.  We spent our weeknight shifts barely interacting with the bare minimum of customers perusing the teams sports section of the store, offering help on items like hockey sticks and mouthguards, which we knew nothing about.

The rare non-miserable “highlights” of working at TSA were: 1) someone in the receiving department had a “hook-up” at a convenient store and brought in free day-old Krispy Kreme knock-offs; 2) the break room had a VCR and three donated VHS tapes, Home Alone, The Mighty Ducks, and Billy Madison, which we watched literally every time we took a break; and 3) wait no, just two non-miserable highlights.

As Sean and I pondered where we’d gone wrong, how we could have a Bachelor’s degree in hand yet no job prospects worthy of one, our only saving grace–our mantra, really–became, Hey, at least we’re not pulling cables.

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