June 17, 1999
Sealing the Breach
My father sold masking tape in about 30 different sizes and textures, as part of his business, selling industrial supplies. Putty colored, silver-grey, clear; half-inch, 1, 2, 3 inch; available by the case and the bundle. Though he went every day to his office, our basement was filled with staple guns of every size, plastic filament and all kinds of fastening equipment, the business that helped pay the mortgage. I understood not a bit of it: not just the business, but the inspiration behind it. When my parents suggested I help them with the paper work, implying that one day this could all be mine, I practically sneered at the drudgery.
The packing business was a natural for Dad, but what could it mean to me? His own father owned a woman's lingerie shop on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side, but Sam's real gift was in tying a mean knot. When I asked him for words of wisdom, Grandpa told me, "Save string. You never know when you'll need it."
When my father sold his business and retired, he asked what I might want to save from it. I had to think hard. I was an intellectual and wanted to talk ideas. Why couldn't he leave me a first edition Henry James? What could I possibly want as a momento of those long hard years selling, packing, bundling the materials that belted down Long Island industry?
I'll take a six pack of tape, I said finally.
This year I started a small business and I could eat my words. My father's merchandise was a gold-mine, even if it took me decades to realize it. Dad had corrugated boxes, electric staple guns and tape. The putty colored tape was great for shipping, while the electric tape was good for wiring and the clear-plastic was good for mending. My heart soars to think what labor-saving devices were sold off before I knew what they were for.
I could reach heights of sentimentality over the lost time, but here's the thing -- it's not too late at all. For here we are, in endless meaningful conversation about postage rates and packing labels, which are today's coin of the realm for those doing business, like me, in the new internet world. He knows everything, let me tell you, especially for one who knows nothing at all. How to develop a market niche, how to ship a package; how to collect from a client, how to track inventory; what to charge for handling fees. How to ride out the low ebb in sales and keep going when you'd rather quit, and when to give up a product line; the difference between making money and wishful thinking.
"Packing and shipping is boring, back-breaking work. Hire someone to do it for you," he says. When it comes to drudgery, he really knows me.
But did I really know him? Throughout my childhood, for as long as I could remember, my father seemed to groan under the weight of his labor. The sound of his footsteps climbing our apartment stairs signaled the arrival of a man who carried the world home with him. At dinner, he and Mom would discuss the clients of the day. His exhaustion was total.
What could I think but that he hated the enterprise? One day I found a series of his youthful drawings. Dad was an artist with a pencil! I exulted. See, he was made for something better than the toil of business!
So I come to the myths and self-delusions of childhood. Like many other second-generation Americans, I thought I was made for better things, because certainly my parents deserved better than the cards they were dealt.
I went off to college seeking an escape from the labor of the real-world, yearning for a life with status and class -- I would fulfill my father's drawings through my own art. The world of ideas beckoned me because it was unpredictable, creative, filled with what I hoped would be a life of growth and joy.
One mistake I made was in confusing the process from the purpose. Regardless of what course we chose, there will always be some drudgery. Even classical music soloists must practice, no one lives in inspiration all the time.
But one day, a few years ago, I heard myself coming home from the work I love, the work of words and ideas. I groaned into the house and through my briefcase onto the table with exhaustion. I carried the weight of the world into my home. What would my daughter think of me and the world I had chosen for myself?
So when it came to my dad, I could not know the whole story just from the results.
As for business, I was wrong about that too. Business, I have discovered, is fun. Finding a market for a product is creative. And making money through a good product is nice work, not a capitalist tool.
"What would you do if you could start over again?" I asked Dad.
"Oh, the same," he said. "I was good at it."
Waste no sympathy on the days gone by.
But save string. You never know when you'll need it.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life" (On The Way Press.)
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.