The other day at dinner, I mentioned work I had done for Target and my seven-year-old daughter said, “Dad, I didn’t know you worked at Target. You worked at so many places.” She figured I wore red and khaki and hustled at the store in Brick, New Jersey. “Lil,” I said, “I’ve done a lot of interesting things.” Then I rattled them off. “Marina, spa, boxing promoter, television producer.”
Yes – spa and boxing promoter. They were short-lived and I try to erase them from memory. I answered phones at the spa. Snobby, old women complained that my raspy voice pierced their delicate ears. I managed talent as a boxing promoter. The fighters habitually got thrown out of our meeting location – the local strip club. Looking back, each “career” stepping stone provided learnings. My months at the marina has proven invaluable. At the time though, well, let’s just say I had my doubts.
Old loon or old genius? The burning debate raged internally for me early in our friendship. If he was a crackpot, I was wasting my time. If he was who he said he was, why in the hell would he do anything for me? I pressed on. I had no reason to mistrust him. He showed up to breakfast. The Cottage owners knew him. He already taught me some life lessons. Worst case scenario, I’d be cleaning up my resume. Best case scenario, I’d be working for 60 Minutes. Throw the dice.
Over the course of those two days, I struggled crafting a story out of my experience. I doubted every line. My excitement waned because I figured even if Norman handed my resume to someone from 60 Minutes, they’d see my background and laugh. Brittany was my emotional and literal sugar mama. “Think about your internship for the production company in Orlando,” she said. “And you worked at the school studio. Use that. Here’s a sandwich I made you. Oh and five bucks. In case you need it.”
Eventually, I had enough bullshit spread across the page that my resume looked nearly complete. Hell, I even threw my spa work on there. Then I went back to The Cottage to meet Norman.
“You’re early, said Norman.”
“So are you,” I said.
“I’m always early.”
“He sure is,” said the owner from behind the counter. “Sometimes he beats us here. We should give him a key so he can make the coffee himself.”
“Might taste better,” said Norman.
“That’s a damn good cup of coffee, Norman, and you know it.”
He drank some. “Yes, it is. Made with love I suppose. Sit, sit.” I plopped down at the table across from him and set my notebook and resume to the side.
I try not to interrupt story but I can’t help myself. You see, rewriting this has brought back great memories. You may be thinking, that’s horse-shit, nobody talks to a restaurant owner like that. Or he’s full of crap. How could he remember a conversation from so long ago. I encourage the cynicism. But I remember the conversations most – the potshots, the dry whit, the loving snark. This dialog seared itself into my brain.
Back to breakfast.
“I fixed up my resume,” I said. “I had to think really hard about it.”
“Great. I’ll take a look at it. But why was it tough?”
“Because I realized I have no relevant experience.”
“Ah, said Norman, that’s where story comes in. Think about what you have done. Break it down into parts. Show what you’ve learned and how that’s helped build who you are.”
“You make it sound easy. I’ve looked for jobs. Companies are always looking for three to five years experience. They’ll just skip my resume.”
Norman laughed. “Then they’re missing out. And it’s their loss. Don’t beat yourself up. Have you ever submitted any writing?”
The owner walked over. “So, boys, what’ll it be this morning?”
“I’ll have my regular,” said Norman.
“And I’ll have an omelet again.”
“You got it.”
“The key to this place,” said Norman, “is that they have two griddles. One for the eggs and one for everything else. Eggs have to be cooked at a specific temperature. All these other places cook their eggs on the same heat as they cook their pancakes. Ruins them.”
“Now about submitting,” he said, “expect rejection.”
“You think everyone is going to like your work? Think about your professor. What did he think when he first read it?”
“He thought everyone’s work sucked.”
“He was training you for rejection. You have to have thick skin in this business. If you don’t, you won’t last. You have to be willing to plug away.”
The owner served our eggs and potatoes.
“Eggs cooked properly,” said Norman. “So I talked to my friend the other day. He wants your resume.”
“Are you serious?”
“Why would I lie?”
“How does he know if I’ll be any good? He doesn’t even know me.”
“He knows me. Knows me enough to know that I don’t recommend just anyone.”
Guilt. How could I have such an internal battle? Norman was no crackpot. “I’m sorry,” I said.
He laughed at me. “Remember the thick skin. I’ve got it. Why it’s so saggy now. I wouldn’t have gotten far in my career if I let every doubter get in the way.”
Finally a chance to prod. “What was your career? Why do you know the creator of 60 Minutes?”
“Well, I started off as an eager kid, just like you. And really, at that time, I just had what I though were good ideas. I hustled. I went on to work in PR. Wrote for a few politicians, a President, a few CEOs, and a few other heads of state. Interesting folks.”
Norman stopped and looked out the window – the Norman pause. He looked and pointed at his Mercedes. That’s why I drive that. It’s why I live on the water. I have all these things that show people I had a successful career. But your career is only successful if you feel it is. No one else. And I’m not done yet. I’ll stop when I’ve got nothing left.”
“President?” My doubt hit back.
“Eisenhower.” He said. Norman responded to my question like it was no big deal.
We finished our meals and and drank more coffee. I stopped prying. We chatted about Point Pleasant and about breakfast joints and about the local fishing business. “You’re going to be late for work,” said Norman. “Before you leave, I have more homework for you. My friend would like writing samples. Think about what you’ll use. Clean them up. Then send them to me. We can talk about those and your resume. We’ll meet again next week. Same place. Same time. Treat this like it’s your first writing assignment. Sound good?
“You got it. I’ll see you next week. Thanks, Norman.”
“Thank you,” I said. Once again, I left him sitting there, the sun shining off of his smiling face and white hair.
He was as genuine as anyone I’d ever met, much more real than folks I befriended while promoting welter-weight matches. I drove to the marina thinking about Norman’s new challenge. What samples would I use? What kind of scripts made sense? And how the hell was I going to move all my writing from notebooks to digital files in a week? I’d figure it out. This could be my only shot.