Monday, October 20, 2008

How I Learned The Fine Art of Finance: Musty Dusty History, Part 1

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The funny thing is, the whole reason I decided upon a profession was so I could write.

I wanted to be a writer since around the age of a year and a half. Not that I could write yet. Or read. But I sure could talk, and loved stories, and especially loved stories about real life. My mother was a writer, so I learned what it meant. My parents would never push any of us to be something we didn't want to be; but it was clear way early that it would probably be either writing or science for me.

I'd heard all about starving artists well before I grasped the difference between hunger and starvation. And didn't want to be a starving artist, either. I especially didn't want to be a *hack,* to write what was needed for income, to keep a roof over my head and food on the table. Strangely enough, I have no issue at all with other writers doing that. None whatsoever. It's just that I didn't want to do it myself. Also why you've never seen an ad on this blog.

That has a great deal to do with a particularly stubborn form - and not entirely accurate definition - of independence. Not to mention, a great excuse for not dealing with writer's block.

Money, you see, was never particularly interesting to me, in and of itself. Beautiful things, which are often valuable things, intrigued me; but I didn't need to own them in order to be happy. Wealth and the material things it can buy were not of much real value, in my estimation. Only freedom was. Everywhere I looked I saw people who had money and could never be free: they were owned by their possessions, bound and chained for life.

I hadn't yet learned that one can be financially independent and still be free; and, that a financial cushion can mean the difference between independence and dependence, should a person become disabled at the age of 32.

Neither did I want to go to college. At. All. Oh Lord, I was bored to tears with school. When I graduated from high school it was a year early, at barely 17. It would have been a year and a half early, but for the lack of a quarter credit of gym. Good grief! Physical education. Which I didn't even take anyway, because of the arthritis.

The Powers That Be in my high school weren't quite sure what to do with me. Phys Ed was required for graduation. They finally decided that if Phys Ed was not to be accomplished in the gym or on the field, they must teach me about it as if it were an actual educational class.

So they told me to write papers about sports, as a sort of independent study. The choice of subject was mine. That part was fun. By the time my high school years were blessedly over with, I'd written class papers on chariot racing, cockfighting, logrolling, and, if memory serves, the Mesoamerican Ballgame.

We all have certain inborn talents of limited value. Me, I was gifted with the ability to raise one eyebrow at a time. I seem to recollect getting the one-raised-eyebrow Look over a few of those gym papers when I turned them in to the gym teacher.

Some of my fellow students, when I finally did go to college, were the first in their family to do so. In my own family, one doesn't not go to college. My poor beleaguered mother, not more than a year or so back, bemoaned a book I'd read as a teenager, one that extolled the virtues of succeeding without college. Mom said she could have shot the author. How to explain that I have absolutely no recollection of reading that book? Like too many situations we face in our lives, I'd made up my mind, then found the written resources to justify a desire or decision after the fact.

And just what sort of profession could one enter, as a not formally educated female back in the day, and make enough money to survive? Why - real estate! Haven't you seen all those self-help books and TV shows? Around the age of fifteen, the profession that fit all my requirements, freeing me to write, was settled upon.

One small hitch: In the State of Illinois, one couldn't get a real estate salesman's license until the age of 21. Since my future first husband had little interest in earning a living, and I'd left home when I was 17, I had to work at jobs that would sustain us both before I could go into real estate. And since independence meant so much to me - freedom, respect, self-determination - I'd already been working part time since I was old enough to lie about my age and get a job, at fifteen.

This post is supposed to explain my credentials in the field of finance. Admittedly, Mesoamerican Ballgame high school papers don't have much to do with that. But I assert, quite seriously, that certain other non-finance, real-life educational experiences do.

That first part-time job was scooping ice cream at a Bressler's in one of the world's first malls. It was dead, that mall, though it isn't any more. Nobody knew quite what to do with a mall back then. My pay was $1.25/hour, which was under the minimum wage. The legal justification? *Food service* work meant we were supposed to get tips. The only one I ever got was a quarter tip from a nice older lady, who saw I'd sprained my wrist working so hard scooping ice cream, and felt sorry for me. This was my first real-life lesson in the intersections of government regulation, business needs, and the bullshit that can glue them together, often by skimming nickels and dimes from those who have the least supply of them to begin with.

From age fifteen until I was disabled out, I worked my ass off, and did so as cheerfully as possible, even though I hated most of my pre-college jobs. I had more than my share of teenage angst and anger, both; but I worked them off, instead of slacking them off. Watching people work today, I just don't get it sometimes. Certainly, I do see people who work like I did. But I seem to see too many who don't, and how can they bear it? What's worse than being too busy at work is not being busy enough. It's boring. I hate to be bored, and rarely am, because I work at not being bored.

As a part-timer I clerked at a Walgreen's, and also tried to be a salesgirl at a clothing store. That type of sales job seemed sort of...hateful, disrespectful, in my book. If a person wants to buy something, let them. If they don't, leave them alone. Who needs a *salesperson* to try to sway customers to buy when they don't want to? Why impinge upon their self-determination, if I were so fiercely protective of my own? I was not comfortable in that line of work.

My first full-time job was at a bank. It was a small neighborhood brick building/white columned bank, the principal bank of a North Chicago suburb that later became quite well-heeled. The president and the CEO were real estate developers. One was named Bert, the other named Ernie. Since these were two favorite characters in that new show called Sesame Street, we employees found no end of amusement there. ('ay, Bert! *giggle snort!*)

This was my first experience with banking, with real estate, with accounting, and with ten-key operation. I ran the proof machine, *full-time* at 35 hours per week so they didn't have to give benefits. My pay was $400/month. I had some interesting times there. I could never quite understand how the two guys running the bank could also run so many of their development loans through that same bank, legally; wasn't it a conflict of interest? Nobody could quite explain it to me...

At the time, I usually wore four-to-six-inch platform shoes. One favorite pair had an open-toed leather sandal top, and soles made of horizontally alternating shades of brown wood - dark, light, dark. Stripes.

Worn with knee socks.

That's because when I wore those shoes barelegged, management had a prurient fit about the lack of pantyhose upon my tanned but naked legs. All my skirts were below the knee, so surely management's imagination was the real culprit there! Or perhaps it was my Lou Reed black toenail polish. Understand, things were very different back then. Nobody had, or wore, or even knew about the existence of black nail polish. Just me.

To remedy this scary state of affairs, management decided they must institute a Dress Code for all employees. All my fault. Even in our dungeon basement bookkeeping rooms where customers never tread, women were not allowed to wear pants. Not that those legs could be bare, though! Knee socks or panty hose, take your pick. I hated the very thought of wearing knee socks with skirts, good heavens; but panty hose were worse. Besides, knee socks seemed like a fine ludicruous comment on the Dress Code, so knee socks it was.

One fine morning I was outside kicking my $25 car to get it started to go to work. The starter had a loose wire, so I'd stand at the driver's side fender, kick it, run back into the driver's seat to see if it would start, repeat...My next-door neighbor came by to see why I was kicking the car in my striped sole six inch platform shoes with knee socks. I explained that I had to get my car going to get to work, but didn't really want to work there any more (kick! rurrrh rurrrh rurrrh), because they'd just offered the coveted $600/month job of posting mortgage payments to another bookkeeper who I'd cross-trained, (kick! rurrrh rurrrh rurrrh), but she couldn't even run proof much less do that stupid mortgage posting machine everyone was so afraid of, but hey, she was middle-aged and I was not yet eighteen, (KICK! rurrrh rurrrh rurrrh) so obviously that made her more *qualified* and they offered her the job instead of me. So if they didn't respect my stellar work performance I preferred to take it elsewhere...

and since I was kicking that car whilst living back at the parents' house in an already very well-heeled suburb, the next door neighbor was a Vice President at the World's Largest Market Research Firm. Meaning, he had clout. And he suggested I apply for a job over there.

When I gave the bank my two weeks' notice, they said the other lady had turned down that mortgage posting job and it was mine if I wanted it, I could go far in banking if I wished, they even had a lady vice president already! (in Human Resources), they'd even send me to Banking School, hey there was a future for me there, please don't go...Srythnxbai.

So I took my ten-key talents yonder, and became the one-person Cable TV reporting department at the World's Largest Market Research Firm, most famous for its TV ratings. Another interesting job. Even though I was just another glorified *figure clerk,* part of my duties was to read CATV and Videography and Broadcasting magazines. One day I tried to tell my boss, VP Media Research, that cable TV would be really big one day. Oh, he laughed and laughed at my naivete! No no no, that would require legalizing advertising on cable TV, and everyone knows the Big Three broadcasters would never allow that! heh heh heh!

After crunching numbers day in and day out, I got so good I was tied for Fastest Speed with a woman who'd added up huge columns of numbers every work day for eight years. Before desktop and PC days, this was a shockingly important skill. Sometimes, under great time pressure, delegations of people from other departments would come and solemnly beg my boss to let me or her add their numbers up in a huge accurate hurry. I used a computer too sometimes, very rarely, just to send out final report numbers. This required a security escort and a telephone in a cradle. Once we had a big bomb threat, a serious one, and the entire headquarters staff all piled out of the building into the enormous parking lot. Sweating and milling around on the asphalt were scores of identical-looking young men in suits, carrying huge spools of computer tapes to save the world's market research data from mad bombers.

I was beginning to see I liked numbers.

You've only known me as a disabled blogger; but I had lots of jobs in my life, even in the short time until my 21st birthday, finally old enough to get that real estate license. Perhaps another time I'll regale you with more job tales of yore. For now, suffice it to say I was working at a certain Post Office with a certain old friend when I took the Illinois Real Estate Salesman's License course.

By then I was married and had bills to pay. I didn't quit the PO until I made my first real estate sale. The news that the sale was closing came to me in a highly unusual way, on that job: over the phone, on the midnight shift, sitting on the supervisor's desk happily swinging my legs back and forth, chatting about my *emergency* on the Official No-Employee phone.

So I quit the post office. That was in 1979. Four months later the bottom fell out of the real estate market.

I got my first education in formal finance, you see, on the job as a Chicago real estate sales agent. At the time, we had to learn finance because it was the only way to sell a bank on giving someone a mortgage.

I'll leave that story for *Musty Dusty, Part 2.*
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7 comments:

Granny J said...

Finally, you're started. I can hardly wait for the next chapter. Oh, how I recall those 10-key machines -- very fast, they were.

Pretty Lady said...

Fascinating! All of it! I've been wondering if getting my real estate license would be a prudent move, sometime in the next couple of years. I met a guy who owns a real estate firm in Manhattan this weekend, and picked his brains. Now you're about to give me more info. Hooray!

Joyce Ellen Davis said...

Your creative juices are flowing again, big time! Keep it up!

Joyce Ellen Davis said...

btw, I have a dear friend who I met via blogging, who writes as Daily Warrior. She has ALS and only has one good finger on one hand to type with, yet she (besides blogging) is writing her story. She is getting voice recognition software soon. Hope it works well for both of you!

SeaPhoenix said...

Love it, K. Jolly good late night reading.

Jean said...

So you became a writer, after all :-)

This is wonderful!

Jean said...

Just checking in... hope you will be home soon!