My 8th-grade English teacher, Mr. Quinn, told me I could write, which came as a surprise. At that age, I thought being a writer meant starving in a garret, although I wasn’t sure what that was, writing fiction and eventually becoming rich and famous. I knew far too much about being poor to appreciate the way that fantasy started.
My father had died when I was 11 after an illness of a year and a half that drained all of the family’s resources except for a life insurance policy that paid off the mortgage on our Philadelphia row house. (Imagine Rocky, but in a neighborhood of Eastern European Jewish immigrants instead of Italian Catholics.) My mother, who never learned to drive, brought me up on our Social Security checks and what she could make babysitting.
So I hated poverty and worked from age 13, with some illicit cash thrown in when I was 15 from cheating at poker and making book at the high school and corner store. By the time I started college in 1964, I had learned a trade — delicatessen man. I worked long hours on the weekends slicing corned beef, pastrami and lox, and filleting schmaltz herrings. (The cats followed me home.)
This being the 1960s, I had to make time for anti-war rallies, civil-rights marches, long discussions of existentialism, and even longer pot-inspired naps. School got in the way, so I dropped out and decided I’d just take more courses as needed, which in fact I did. I also happened to get a job in 1966 with a local daily newspaper — and liked it. I won rapid promotions in part because I loved being inside editing while most other young journalists wanted to be outside chasing the story.
In 1970 I was offered a job as a copy editor with the New York Daily News, which in those days was a hugely successful newspaper. Then a strange thing happened. In 1973, at the age of 27, I was named chief copy editor, with a staff of 30, and I also became an adjunct faculty member at New York University, even though I still had no degree. I remember breaking the news to my mother, who responded: “But, Mel, who’s going to tell you what to do?” She didn’t have high expectations.
Newspaper newsrooms were chaotic places then, with free-flowing alcohol and no training in management, so at 27 I was overwhelmed. After three years as chief copy editor, I took my writing and editing talents to Mobil Oil. In less than 10 years I had gone from smoking pot with Ira Einhorn and plotting anti-war strategy with Jane Fonda to writing speeches for and flying on private jets with the top executives of one of the world’s largest corporations. But I was still a child of the ’60s at heart.
In the mid 1990s, when Mobil kicked me out in one of the corporate purges then popular, I began a consulting career, writing speeches, project-managing corporate publications, ghost-writing books, making media appearances, spin-doctoring, and developing websites. After 10 years of that, I decided to start making my living in my own Loudoun County, Virginia, community, so I did something entirely different. I started an insurance agency.
My agency grew, and I bought a second agency. Now I’m in the process of leaving that industry to return to writing. I sold one of the agencies last year and will have the other one sold on New Year’s Day. I’m warming up with this blog, posting something original once a day, along with some re-blogs I find meaningful. I have a couple of book ideas I’ll explore in 2016, and I’m open to other ideas.
So my path has been convoluted since Mr. Quinn told me I could write 56 years ago, but at least I avoided starving in a garret, which I now can define. Writing for others kept me from poverty and taught me much. Now I’m using everything I’ve learned to write my own truths, in the hope that they will mean something to you, too.
I envy people who decide early in life what they want to do and aim straight for that goal. My envy grows if the career they have chosen is a helping profession that makes them proud. But most of us take a wandering path, doing what good we can along the way. That’s great, too, as long as we live in each moment and enjoy the journey.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine