Of course I nearly hurled a sauté pan full of mahi mahi at him but, over the years, my memory lands on this moment, (which I now admit is funny) and that old beach bum of a bus boy was right. Over time, seeming flat events mold into those of meaning, and become caricature representations of your life, and then they become your personal mantras, and then of course they become great things to write about. So here’s an event that, after hanging out in my mental incubator for over twenty years, is now a story worth writing:
In 1994 I left one male-dominated career—Chef—for another: Commercial Kitchen Designer and Installer. Leaving the comfort zone of the kitchen was difficult. Since cooking, really is NOT a male thing, in kitchens I tried to ignore the male bru-ha-ha and do my job. Mostly anyway. But there are aspects of being a kitchen designer that well, are kinda male, in a construction, heavy oven installation sort of way.
After four years of aimless cold calling and selling toasters, meat slicers and table tops, I landed my first Really Big Project. Half a million dollars worth of kitchen and bakery equipment after I completed the kitchen design and I was proud (look at me!) and anxious (I sure hope I can pull this off!). I had to order all the equipment, attend construction meetings, coordinate delivery and installation of exhaust hoods and walk-in coolers, then later the rest of the equipment (hoping everything fit) all of which kept me very busy. While still cold calling on restaurants and trying to obtain more sales.
Some equipment is very large and won’t fit through standard doors so I had the planning expertise—or maybe my boss told me this—to coordinate the delivery of the enormous rotating rack oven before the building walls had been closed up. The oven had shipped to our warehouse in Venice, about 15 miles from the job site, and the oven manufacturer’s local rep offered to supervise the rigging of the oven into the truck, then into the future restaurant in Sarasota. My boss instructed me to go to the warehouse and supervise the loading of the oven. As in, make sure the guys load the oven properly. (Which was how, exactly?)
At the warehouse, a guy driving a forklift hoisted the oven into a box truck. It took up the whole truck so the door wouldn’t slide shut. The rep joked around while the moving minions strapped the oven to the inside of the truck with a single strap. “Sh-sh-shouldn’t they put another s-strap on that?” I asked the rep meekly—part of my supervision.
“Naw,” I’m sure it’s fine. Read, Oh you run along back to your office little girl, and let the guys handle this.
So I did.
Later that afternoon the rep called, as I had asked him to when the oven was safely in place--part of my supervision.
“Hey, Chris, how’d it go?”
“Oh, the oven’s all set. One little hitch though.”
My stomach sank. “What?”
“Well, we were at the red light at Colonia and when the truck took off at the green, the strap broke and the oven slid out of the truck, right onto U.S. 41!”
He was laughing!
“What?” Petrified. “What?” My words locked up in fear and frustration.
Chris went on, “I was following close behind so jumped outta my car. We pushed the oven back in the truck and re-strapped it. Traffic just went around us! Yeah, there’s some damage to the top housing. I guess C.J. wasn’t there this afternoon huh?”
“Well, we were right under his office window!” More laughing.
The doom music in my brain got louder: Colonia and U.S. 41 is right below my boss’s picture window overlooking the street. I imagined my boss sitting at his big mahogany desk in his suit, glancing out the window to see Chris and our warehouse driver scrambling to push the thirty-seven thousand dollar DAMAGED oven back into the truck. The realization in his head, the expense, our liability, go to the warehouse to supervise the loading of the oven, his instructions not heeded by his so-called rising star of a new salesperson.
I was not laughing. And if I had been face-to-face with Chris, most likely I would have punched him in the face. A big, fat, feminist punch.
The damage to the oven thankfully, was minimal. Chris removed the crushed top housing, told the client it had been freight damaged and put a new one on a week later.
And that was that.
After the oven episode I began to trust my gut and not succumb to shyness when I had something to say. I endured awkward moments when I knew I was being perceived as a bitch or a know-it all. I’d rather be perceived as a bitch or a know-it-all than to have another thirty-seven thousand dollar oven in the road, so the awkwardness was totally worth it.
I looked forward to the day that I could actually tell my boss this story. On a business trip during drinks at dinner? How would I do a lead in? “C.J. I have a funny story about my early days . . . ”
Five, ten, fifteen years went by, each year polishing my story until is glowed with a deep and meaningful patina. A few times I confided it to a work associate, who laughed (proving that it was, indeed funny) and swore secrecy. I think my story helped new associates see that I was once a weak newbie, in contrast to my now confident veteran work persona.
After twenty years of being a kick-ass kitchen designer and installer of all bulky and expensive stainless steel objects, my boss threw me a surprise lunch party at a local restaurant. He sat at the head of the table, I sat at the foot with my husband to my right and our ten associates filling in the long table. Boss C.J. waxed poetic about how twenty years ago he had broken his ankle and didn’t want to train a new associate, but I was so persistent, he hired me anyway. He reminisced about the steps in our old office, how going up and down them on a crutch to the restroom several times a day was hard enough. . . and I began to think about our old office, his big window above U.S. 41 and how he could have seen the oven that day and, if he had, maybe I wouldn’t be sitting here in the queen’s chair today. Then a voice told me, now is the time so I said I have a story about the old office and all eyes were on me.
I told the story slowly, made sure the associates could understand that I’d been a different person back then, insecure and fearful. And I hinted at some company morals for good measure, C.J.-isms we call them: only trust your own people, never let the client know there is a challenge until you have a solution, you cannot over-manage a project. C.J.’s eyes got bigger and bigger and the room was completely silent, everyone rapt by the mother of all confessions.
And when I concluded with the new housing that Chris had gotten for the oven, C.J.—because he always has to have the last word—said, “Well, see? She did the right thing, she solved it and the client never knew there was a challenge.”
Neither had the boss!
At his minimizing understatement all began to laugh and my husband got up to snap a picture, my face in full wide smile; C.J.’s face in shock behind his forced coolness.
Back when I was managing food service operations at World’s Fairs, I’d had a particularly intense boss. Actually he was an asshole, but even in my naïve and painfully shy twenties, I understood our unspoken agreement: he got what he wanted from me—loyal and intelligent creativity and workaholism, and I got what I needed from him—opportunities to travel and work. So, thankfully, through his brilliance and impatience of others not so brilliant, this old boss seldom verbally beat on me as he did others. I would cringe and feel sorry for the secretary or counter girl whom he belittled and only now can I understand why he acted like an impatient, condescending schmuck.
This man never had a thirty-seven thousand dollar oven in the road. Or if he had, he didn’t take that experience with him along the way to remind him that we don’t necessarily pop out of the womb smart. A thirty-seven thousand dollar oven in the road would have done him some good.
I am lucky to have had a thirty-seven dollar oven in the road. I think about my oven often. Especially when I’m at the light at Colonia and U.S. 41, where I can look up into that big picture window overlooking the street.
What event in your life has been stewing on a back burner, that has had an impact on you and your career?
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