Sunday, May 8, 2011

End of an Era

Last week of working at Second Use. I feel like I'm graduating high school. It's a weird thing. I've been there the same amount of time - a little over 4 years. It's the longest I've done anything except go to school and be alive. I went in to my friend's first grade class this week to speak to them about being an architect and encourage them to go to college. I told them that you go to grad school after college if you really like going to school. They wanted to know if I work hard and if I'm a billionaire.

I started at Second Use because the ReStore wouldn't hire me. True story. I had worked for the Red Cross for a while, but it felt very bureaucratic. I worked for Youthcare for a while being an on-call counselor for a couple of their homeless teen residential facilities, but honestly I just don't have that kind of patience for helping people with their problems. Then I worked for the Pike Brewery, which was fun. I got a lot of free beer, and they gave us lunch at the bar every day. They fired me, totally out of the blue on a Friday after I'd just gotten back from going home for Christmas. Apparently the head brewer had decided I wasn't picking things up the way he wanted and neglected to give any feedback to that effect. (I don't drink their beer anymore... but no loss, it's really nothing special.) So then I was unemployed for about 3 months, which I hated. I found I just couldn't be productive when I didn't have any structure in my day. I played computer games and watched all of Deadwood, the HBO series (which is excellent). Then I had a very uninspired interview at the ReStore, didn't get hired, interviewed at Second Use, and the rest is history, as they say. Well, I suppose all of it is history, really.

It's worked out well. I've learned how to use tools, how to take things apart, and how to figure out what things are that I've never seen before. I've become one with the forklift, moved 30' beams, know how to get something 15' wide through a 12' opening and, most recently, how to pick up a quarter with a forklift (no joke), although I haven't actually tried it yet. Have to do that with my last week here.

I've seen so many building materials over the last 4 years that I've actually figured out what many of them do. Now when I look at a roof, or a wall, or the burner on a stove, I see all the connections, fasteners and substructure that lie beneath the surface. And what's more, I know what it feels like to take a hammer and pry bar and tear into them. I know by looking at something how it will move, where it's center of balance lies, and how to engage with it.

It's a really powerful thing in the world to have agency. To feel physically empowered to affect the world around you. To be comfortable in your skin. And it's important. I think of those moments of civic virtue when you see someone leave behind their backpack on the bus or you see a man yelling at a woman and being aggressive. Do you jump up and yell "Hey, you forgot your bag!" or step in to let the man know there are witnesses who will stop him from taking it too far? Well, it depends on whether you live inside yourself or out in the world. And this, for me, comes from having practice, from being used to affecting things outside yourself.

I've learned how to negotiate with people. How to manage people's expectations, treat them with respect, and not compromise on what you need to get out of the interaction. I've been responsible for spending thousands of dollars of the company's money. In a very real way, the success, growth and profitability of the business hinged on decisions I was making every day. It was never huge amounts - probably $500 is the most I ever paid out at one time - but it sort of surprises me to consider how I just kind of fell into a position of such responsibility. Surely there must be some valuable life lesson in having to explain over and over why we wouldn't pay someone for their worthless old door that's been cut down on one side and shaved at the top and is a non-standard size and drilled for a deadbolt even though it's an interior door. My creativity, at least, must have improved by having to say the same thing over and over in new and convincing ways.

I learned a lot about people. Second Use is a great place and all the people who work there are really interesting and creative and have a wealth of talents. We're all pretty close, so you really get to see how other people live their lives. It very much isn't the kind of workplace where you put on a persona when you come in, and, for better or worse, people's humanity shines through. When I think about it now, it's probably not a typical retail environment where you can say "Fuck the customers" in a staff meeting and get a laugh and encouragement. I appreciate how committed and supportive the owners are of letting people learn and grow and be themselves. It's nice to have a work environment that acknowledges you're human. We all have strengths and weaknesses and good and bad days. In my position, I was expected to do everything from climb in the recycling dumpster and compress the cardboard down, to cut, claw and saw apart buildings, to negotiate purchases and price $10,000 appliances. I appreciate being expected to problem solve, think on my feet, and perform physical and mental tasks constantly, just as a part of my day.

One of the things that made Second Use so great for me was that there was always something else to learn. I felt like the door was very much open to become as involved as you want to be with the running of the business. I ended up becoming a manager, running meetings, interviewing job applicants, and going over the financials basically just out of curiosity. I think one of the reasons I stayed as long as I did at the job was that there was always something new to learn, often in areas I wouldn't have considered previously - how to run a small business successfully, how to create systems that will work on days when the people working just want to check out and go on autopilot, how to keep the energy of a group up and make people feel good about what they're doing, how to just stay fresh and alive when you're working full time and doing the same thing day after day, year after year.

I've seen a lot of my co-workers on their own paths while I've been on mine. I've seen how things from people's childhoods affect how they function as adults. I've seen people making hard decisions and avoiding hard decisions. Everyone's working through things that they need to figure out, and this takes time. Life is a messy, riotous, excessively dramatic affair with a lot of noble impulses and a lot of backsliding. In many ways, I think I've come to understand how people limit themselves. I've seen what a huge role confidence plays in getting what you want. At this point, I believe that we're basically capable of anything. I think that if a person makes up their mind and knows what they want out of life, and devotes themselves to that goal completely, that they will get it. The universe responds to this kind of direction, chiefly because other people respond to it. I think everyone is looking for a sense of purpose and direction and we all respond so strongly to others who have it. Even if it's their own purpose that doesn't include us, in some way we want them to succeed. We feel caught up in their story, and, I think, we want to be convinced that there is a subliminal order to life. We want to see them get what they want because it means we might do the same. Everyone needs a little help with motivation, with getting through the hard parts and holding on to their vision. And we need each other to do this.

I've been very grateful for everything I've learned from working at Second Use and from all the wonderful people there. They're a jaded, cantankerous, godless, pessimistic bunch, and I love them for it. If there's one thing I could wish for us all, it's that we feel good about what we're doing, right now. There's no time in this life to feel bad. Each moment is vitally important and every situation we find ourselves in holds limitless possibilities. It's not always easy to see this, and that's why it's important to surround yourself with good people who can help you when you lose your way.

I want to thank everyone who's helped me figure out who I am and what I want from life. As with everything, this is a process. I don't know where this goes, but I have a clear sense of what the next step should be. I hope I've helped you all in some way or another as well. Life's too much to take on alone, so let's stay in touch, wherever we end up.