After a few months at 974 Boulevard East in 1970, Dad found a new location for both his residence and the offices of Olcott International. It was in a triple decker, similar to the millions that form the housing stock of Boston and environs. But unlike the wooden ones in Massachusetts, this was constructed out of gold brick. According to Dad, there were three layers of outer walls. No wolf was ever gonna blow that house down!
It was on Weehawken’s eponymous Hamilton Avenue, the road atop the cliffs. Across the street from the house, the cracked sidewalk and the rusting iron wrought fence gave way to an expansive view of the Hudson River and the west side of Manhattan.
Dad rented the first floor for the office and staked out the top floor, the third, as the residence. The landlord lived in the apartment on the second, sandwiched, as it were, by Olcott rentals.
For years, Dad had rented bachelor style accommodations in New York and then in New Jersey when he moved to 974 Boulevard East. No more. The third floor was like the Taj Mahal in terms of spaciousness compared to the cramped quarters of times past. There were multiple bedrooms, a central hall as well as separate living and dining rooms. As this was the top floor, the ceiling everywhere was gabled into sharp points.
And yes, there was a kitchen! A real one!
Complete with an old ceramic sink, gas stove, and a standard sized refrigerator chock full of ‘Shop Rite‘ branded goods. I was no stranger to real kitchens – my Mom’s apartments in Florida came with one, loaded with such features like an automatic dishwasher. The novelty here was – this was Dad’s place! It was the first time I could remember him in a home with a real salle de cuisine. (Honestly I was too young to remember the ones at 1050 Fifth Avenue with my Mom or at Yorkshire Towers with Graciela.)
The second night in Dad’s new home, after dinner, we dutifully stacked our plates on top of yesterday’s dishes. I was but 12 years old and I had never seen a bachelor-sized stack of unwashed dishes before. Somehow, like magic, this never happened at my Mom’s house.
How do you make these dirty dishes disappear, I wondered to myself. One thing in life is clear – if you ever ask anyone else whose job is it to do ‘X’, the answer is always the same. “It’s yours, buck-o! Thank you for your question.”
“James, can you please wash the dishes?” Dad said as if he had heard my thoughts. He left the kitchen to go watch TV.
I stared at the dishes for a while and scratched my head. I had no idea what to do or how to start. Nervously, I wandered across the apartment to admit that I was dumbfounded.
“You don’t know how to wash dishes, do you?” he said as he accompanied me pleasantly back to the kitchen. “What are they teaching the young people these days?” he must have muttered to himself, shaking his head slightly. I walked sheepishly behind him to the abattoir.
So, Bernard Olcott rolled up his shirt-sleeves and tutored me! It wasn’t so bad!
I watched Dad fill the sink with warm water, squirting the ‘Shop Rite’ branded Palmolive knock-off dish detergent into the sink. It filled with a huge mountain of suds. Next, he put as many of the dishes into the sink as possible. After scrubbing one with a sponge, he rinsed it with the running water.
“See?” he said as he put it aside to dry. The conversion of filthy to clean was startling, transformative. Next, he did the same thing with a pot and, as he rinsed it off and put it away clean, I noticed that the sink suddenly had a lot more space in it. All the rest of the dishes easily fit into it.
(Isn’t today’s topic fascinating?)
“Hey, let me try!” I exclaimed. And then I washed my first dish. After showing me how to do a glass, he went back to his TV show and left me with a clearly defined task.
No longer a chore, but a mission in which I had been trained by someone who knew what the hell they were doing. One that could be done in a reasonable amount of time. An errand in which I was neither insulted nor denigrated. A simple series of repetitive actions, after which I was noticeably surrounded by stacks of sparkling dishes.
Risk of injury? Low.
Tools provided? Soap, sponge, running water; all appropriate to the task.
Occupational hazard? Risk of drowning, I suppose. Let’s call that very limited.
Like changing the battery on a pacemaker? Not really in the same league, yo!
The end result? Apparent after a short time. And encouraged lovingly by my parent.
Without knowing it, I had completed my first household chore. (For some reason, my Mom never assigned any to me. She was a clean freak and kept the house spotless to a ridiculous standard.)
There was a certain zen about doing a job well, any job. A lot of ink has been spilled on this topic, and not just in business school. For example, I can feel some zen right now as I physically type these letters and watch the words flood the screen in front of me. Job satisfaction matters and enriches life. If you have worked in enough work environments as I have, you can readily detect a healthy workplace from a grossly deficient one.
A great work environment is marked by being part of a productive team where the respective strength of the members complements and leverages. A bad work environment is almost always lorded over by a micromanaging boss who doesn’t know what he wants. There is little in the way of productive service that can be rendered to such individuals. It’s a thankless situation. If you are in one of these — get out! Take it from me, the voice of experience.
I did a lot of dishes that summer, eventually extending my skill set to various other labor-intensive tasks like broiling ground beef as if it were steak, vacuuming, car washing, and eventually, with my friend Johnny, herding cattle at his ranch in Texas or with Christopher, chain sawing trees, clearing land, and burning it all in a huge bonfire at his spread in Connecticut.
There were however some other tasks looming darkly in my future, like bulldozing a 15 feet high pile of sand (without a bulldozer), cleaning thousands of windows, and scraping barnacles off of hulls with only a spork! I’m exaggerating only a little. And will delve into those evil tales next week.