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Wednesday, May 28, 2003

For once I actually opened the morning paper and read some of it on the very same day I bought it. Mostly lately I've been forgetting about it, saving the Datebook section for the comics, and then recycling the rest. Some of the time the various sections aren't even separated by the time I throw them in the recycle bin.

Today, though, an article caught my eye, and I read it all the way through. It seems one of the places from my past, a place that haunts me and in some ways has determined how I've lived for more than twenty years, is being demolished.

The Tanforan Park Shopping Center stands on ground that was at one time a racetrack, and at another time a Japanese-American detention camp. For me, it was the scene of the greatest triumph and my worst defeat of my storied career in retail. It's also the farthest from home I've strayed since I left college.

The store I worked for when I was in my late twenties and early thirties had a branch at Tanforan. The manager there was a disappointment to the owner, who ran the small family-owned chain from the Santa Rosa store. The disappointment was twofold. First, the store should have been doing more business, with a prime location in a busy new mall. And second, he was stealing the place blind.

So I was sent down there to turn things around, and by more luck than skill I did. The Tanforan store was the shining light of the operation, and I was the golden boy. We were making money so fast I was offered a partnership. We were making so much money so easily that I got in over my head.

My downfall wasn't that employees I'd hired were found snorting cocaine in the back room. It wasn't that my assistant manager had a quick temper and an obvious disdain for customers, which was a fairly lethal combination. It wasn't even that every day after closing I'd drink a couple of beers while counting the money, because my partners did the same thing in their respective stores. In fact, I learned that habit from them.

What happened was simple. I couldn't stop buying merchandise. I couldn't tell a salesperson no. I couldn't keep myself from filling the stockroom with stuff that ended up being sold below cost at clearance time. I had no clue how to control inventory. I was asked to leave the company. My partners bought me out and sent me back home to Santa Rosa in disgrace, a week before Christmas 1985.

I already had a strong sense of family, and it had been difficult to live so far from them. The way they rallied around me when I came home strengthened the bonds that were already solid and unbreakable. Nobody in the family judged me, least of all my nephews, who were four and nine years old at the time. They kept me going, all of them, at the moment I most needed them.

It took me most of the next year to get back on my feet, and I ended up with the job I have now. I often think about the chance I had at Tanforan, to lead a different kind of life. I know I blew the best shot I'll ever have at doing something more with my life than living day to day.

It's not that I'm unhappy with how things are, just that I can't help looking back on my own brief moments in the sun, wishing I could give my younger self a few hints and a tiny little smack upside the head. I know it doesn't do me any good to think that way, and in fact I haven't thought about those days for a long time. The article brought back a lot of memories, some happy and some sad, and a few regrets that I can't help feeling from time to time.

On the other hand, if I'd stayed in retail I never would have been able to work at home, and I'd have much less free time. The staggered schedule required to work in a mall that's open from ten to ten was already wearing me down long before I left retail work. I enjoyed the work more than the hours or the responsibility. Now I have as much responsibility as I can handle and I make my own hours, so I can't complain. Well, I can...

28 May 03

Where I live now: looking west from my yard on a May morning.

I almost didn't take the Tanforan job in the first place, just because it was so far from home and family. For the first few months I commuted from Santa Rosa to San Bruno, but that put a strain on both my finances and my mental state. After I moved down there, I made a few good friends, including one person I'm still in touch with.

That's the best and most lasting thing I've brought away from the experience, other than the realization that I'm in charge of my own life, but that I have a soft place to fall if I fail. In that sense I suppose the good outweighs the bad.

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I'm glad that Paul Newman was the Stage Manager in the recent Showtime production of "Our Town." Otherwise, I might not have bothered watching, and I wouldn't have been reminded of how this play, with its simple plot, universal characters and nearly bare stage, can remind us how much of the world we miss, simply by living our lives without opening our eyes. "Our Town" is such a part of the American cultural landscape that we take it for granted the same way its characters do.

Recent recommendations can always be found on the links page.

One year ago: Waited Too Long
"She wanted to know how much to take off, and I told her I'd tell her when to stop."

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