2018 – The Other Career
(Ignore the stated publish date – this was published on September 5, 2018)
This is strange.
I woke up on Labor Day – two days ago – with an urge to write about some past labor………a nearly 14-year segment of my life that was supposed to be my career – my purpose in life – chemistry.
I’ve alluded to it here and there (briefly) both in this blog and on my site and there may be only a couple of family members who would give a fudge about it, so I guess I’m writing this mainly for me (but I DID include lots of pictures to make it tolerable to the rest of you).
I attended an all-boys Catholic high school (big mistake) in which high achievement was expected. I did OK in everything but chemistry.
It seemed like every other student by junior year knew what he wanted to become and, in some cases, which aspect of their professions that wanted to specialize in. I barely knew what I wanted for lunch.
I just could NOT get that interested in anything. By senior year, if you held a gun to my head, I might have expressed an interest in pharmacy, though I don’t know why – especially considering my ineptness at chemistry.
It was a big deal to get into this school and almost a must for a Catholic grammar school graduate. You had to take a test and you could only list three high schools. If you didn’t do well on the test, you were SOL (look it up in your Urban Dictionary).
I made all three schools, but instead of picking the co-ed one in the next town, I picked the “name” one that was three or four towns away. I had to take their school bus, which meant I could not participate in any after-school activities.
As enticement, the school recruiters told me that there were all sorts of girls hanging around the school, but they failed to mention that none of them were under 50.
I did get a decent education there, but nothing else. I graduated still not having a clue as to my future.
“You HAVE to go to a Catholic university!”, said the parental bill-payers. Seton Hall was 25 miles away and had been all-male, but recently went co-ed. Once again, I fell for the enticement, though this one was ever-so-slightly less dishonest.
There were 825 kids in my freshman class. Of the 825, SIX were female! And if that wasn’t bad enough, two of those six were NUNS!
Since I had no career goals, they put me in a liberal arts program, which included religion and philosophy – things I had absolutely NO interest in. To add to the misery, Army ROTC was required!
I’m sure there was some classroom work involved, but all I remember was that we had to march in a field every Wednesday afternoon………….in uniform! To add insult to injury, there were no locker rooms available for changing, so I had to wear the uniform all day long through every class.
Did I mention that this was the fall semester of 1965 when a highly-unpopular war was being fought in Vietnam? The uniform did not enhance our chances with the four available women on campus (If I remember correctly, that was no big loss).
This is the only picture of me in an Army uniform: me at 18 and Army Sgt. Dad at 24 (he served in the Pacific during WWII):
It got so bad, that I started to change clothes in my car in the school parking lot – something that we were expressly forbidden to do.
SO……….you can imagine how thrilled I was with Seton Hall when that semester finally ended. I was not a centimeter closer to finding a career and I was NOT looking forward to putting up with 7 more semesters of this and then graduating with a B.A. in Nothing and STILL not knowing what I wanted to do.
Plus, Seton Hall wasn’t cheap. My parents could barely afford it. I felt like I was wasting their money and my time. It would be a different story if I was progressing toward a desired goal, but I just hated the whole situation. And driving 50 miles each day for the pleasure of doing all this certainly didn’t help.
I decided to quit, find what I wanted to do with my life and then go back to school with that goal to strive for.
I thought they would be relieved that they didn’t have to continue to throw so much money away, but they were FURIOUS!!
They were so angry that they said that if I ever decided to go back to college, I would have to pay for everything (as if that would get me to change my mind).
I told them I didn’t do this lightly. I would be losing my college deferment and would be exposing myself to the draft, so it must be a really bad situation for me to do that.
So now all I had to do was find a career. Working at McDonald’s – which I was doing at the time – would not be it.
One of my friends was working in a chem lab (he didn’t know anything about chemistry) and used to tell me about some of the experiments he did there, like taking a flask of clear liquid that looked just like water and adding one drop of another clear liquid, which made the flask contents suddenly turn a bright pink. Sounded interesting.
One day, he told me he was going on a job interview at another lab that would pay him more and asked me if I wanted to come along. I thought that was a strange thing to ask, but I had nothing better to do that day, so I went.
The weirdest thing happened: he didn’t get the job, but somehow, I DID! I really have no idea how that happened.
It turned out to be a big company called Ciba (later Ciba-Geigy) in Fair Lawn, NJ. I got this on eBay years ago:
This division made dyes and pigments. The job wasn’t exactly glamorous. It consisted of dyeing skeins of different materials using both a competitor’s dye and ours and comparing the results. I had to work over a large boiling salt bath that had about 20 metal cups in it with various skeins and different concentrations of dye solutions. The skeins had to be almost constantly turned – difficult to do when there are 20 of them – or else they’d dye unevenly.
After X amount of time, they were hung in a large oven to dry and then presented to the bosses. It sounded weird at first when they were comparing two jet-black skeins and said, “This one’s green and that one’s red”. WHAT?
The work was super hot and many of my results were uneven, which meant I had to do them over (which pissed off the bosses…………and me).
One of them took me aside one day and gave me the “Maybe you’re not cut out for this type of work” line. Much to my (and his) surprise, it worked and I became pretty good at it.
But I really hated it and wasn’t learning any chemistry, so after a year, I followed my friend’s example and started going out on interviews. I found a job in a real analytical lab. I’m not sure why they hired me, having no analytical experience, but I’m guessing it had something to do with the fact that I appeared to be a quick learner and was willing to work rotating shifts (ugh!).
The company was called UOP (Universal Oil Products) on Rt 17 in E. Rutherford, NJ and later became well-known as being a major polluter of Berry’s Creek, a tributary of the Hackensack River……………..but nobody knew that in the 60s.
One of their more interesting products that I had to analyze was something called buquinolate, which prevented diarrhea in chickens………..always good for a laugh at parties.
I did really well there and became quite proficient at wet analysis (not using sophisticated instruments to get results), but the rotating shifts were really getting to me. I told them I needed two weeks off to visit my ailing grandmother in Florida (which was true), but because I hadn’t been there for the full 12 months yet, they refused. In turn, I refused to work there anymore. How DARE they treat my Nana that way!
So now I had no job and no money for Florida (sorry, Nana). Now what?
Another friend to the rescue! He was some sort of professional (a draftsman, I think) and worked for something called a job shop in Newark, NJ.
The job shop got requests from all over the country from companies that needed professionals for short-term projects, but didn’t want to go through the process of hiring, giving benefits, firing and unemployment. Instead, for 6 or 12 months, the companies paid more to temporary subcontractors than their own employees got, but paid nothing else.
“Do they take lab technicians?”
They did. I went to Newark with my resume and was interviewed. I wondered how long I’d be sitting around waiting for a call.
Not long, as it turned out. They sent me to IBM in East Fishkill, NY for an interview, telling me that if accepted, I would be hired for a 6-month period. At that time, I would be reviewed and maybe stay for another 3 months and then repeat the process for a potential total of one year.
It was NOT a dinky facility:
“Call us right after your interview”, they said.
The following Friday, I found my way up to East Fishkill, had my interview and then found a gas station two blocks away that had a phone booth outside. I called about 5 minutes after my interview and told them I just got out.
“We know – they already called and said they want you. You start Monday.”
Where would I stay? (too far to commute)
I spent Saturday gathering whatever I could jam into my car and left Sunday afternoon for my first big adventure: finding a place to live before I started work the next day.
Fortunately, I had passed the Route 52 Motor Inn on my way to and from my interview. It was on the same road as IBM and only about 2 miles away. Perfect!
It was $35.70 a week (!) and I wound up staying there for 3 months:
Side note: In a slightly ironic twist, my parents had met at IBM World Headquarters on Madison Ave in Manhattan in the early 1940s and if they had been hippies, they would have thought it rather cosmic that fate would bring me to the same company in October, 1968.
Side note #2: I’m sure you’re all familiar with the IBM ThinkPad and maybe some other IBM “Think” things. “Think” and “IBM” go back pretty far. When my parents died, I found two wooden desk signs that simply said “THINK” in big letters. The smaller one was my mother’s and sat on her desk. The larger one – about 16”x6” – was my father’s, which, I imagine, sat on his:
Mom’s youngest sister asked me – the executor – if she could have her “THINK” sign. “OK”. I kept Dad’s.
You know that expression about where a man does his best thinking? Here’s where his sign has been for the last couple of decades:
This is a picture of my mother (second from right) at her desk in 1944. Her sign is sitting on it. It’s the only picture I have of it:
But what makes this picture doubly-interesting to me is on the left side. During WWII, lots of men who worked at IBM were off to war. What you see on the left side of the wall is part of the IBM Military Roll of Honor (Dad’s picture is circled). Mom headed the company’s Men in Service Committee. This is the only picture that I’m aware of that shows my mother and father at IBM (sort of).
Anyway, they were happy that I was now going to work at IBM, even if it was only as a sub-contractor.
The job was great. I picked up everything very quickly and got along really well with the rest of the lab personnel. I had to work second shift, but that was to my advantage because traffic on two-lane Route 52 was terrible for the multitudes of first-shifters, both coming and going. It was a breeze for me.
My job turned out to be related to IBM computers. In another part of the building, they grew long tubes of silicon that were about 3 or 4 inches in diameter and these would be sliced into super-thin discs that would then each be cut into hundreds of tiny chips. Various micro-electronics would be added to each chip and these microchips eventually went into their computers.
My job involved analysis of various batches of a dangerous chemical: hydrofluoric acid. HF was used to etch each chip in advance of the added micro-electronics. If the acid wasn’t in some exact concentration, I would fail it and they’d have to re-work it.
The problem with HF is that it doesn’t burn your skin like most other acids do – it goes through your skin and attacks the calcium in your bones. It’s agonizing and it’s too late to wash it off with water. Of course, gloves were always required and I never had a problem with HF.
I found a company “Wanted” board of notes by employees looking for roommates and found a nice situation in a garden apartment in Wappingers Falls with two other IBM guys who went home on weekends. I usually did that too, but when I didn’t, I had the place to myself.
I spent my last evening in the motel watching Joe Namath and the Jets beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. When the game was over, I hopped into my packed car, drove up to Wappingers Falls and spent the next nine months there.
Because I did so well at the job, when it came time for my 6-month review, they just gave me the whole other 6 months instead of the usual 3+3 process.
Yet another side note: During my time living in Wappingers Falls, Woodstock happened. You can go to https://iaintjustmusic.bobleafe.com/?p=2864 to read all the details of that, but one of my prized possessions relating to Woodstock also relates to Wappingers Falls. It was an envelope that contained a reply to a question I asked in a letter to the show’s organizers a month before the event.
The envelope wound up in a 2009 reissue of one of the Woodstock albums. Here’s the envelope (and the usage), complete with my name and address and one ridiculously-obvious error that I attributed to some buzzed hippie in the show organizers’ mailroom:
All the guys at IBM were older and married and I seemed to be the young hippie freak of the lab, so they were very interested in my Woodstock adventures, so that was fun.
Near the end of my year at IBM, my boss called me into his office. He praised my work to the high heavens and then shot me back down to reality: “You’re a great pair of hands (doing wet analysis), but you have no idea why anything is happening chemically. You will never advance or be anything higher than a lab technician if you don’t go back to school to learn all the theory.”
There it was! The kick in the pants that pointed me toward a goal in college – a chemistry degree! It was also confirmation that I had made the right decision to quit Seton Hall when I had no idea or direction. It was also kind of funny, considering that the one subject that I didn’t do well in high school was chemistry.
But then “success” started trying to get in the way after my time at IBM was up.
Via the job shop, I started getting all these offers from companies all over the country (Western Electric in NC, General Electric in San Jose, CA, some company in Nashville, TN………even another one from IBM! – probably a different location in NY [I’m guessing Poughkeepsie]).
I kept some of the telegrams:
I know I also heard from Texas Instruments and some major university in CA, but can’t find their communications.
The most persistent of all was Xerox in Rochester, NY. I told them point-blank: “NO! I’m going to college in the fall” (and I really didn’t want to be in snowy Rochester in the winter).
They insisted. “Let us fly you up and we’re sure you’ll change your mind”.
So I let them fly me up on the late, great Mohawk Airlines on 12/9/69 and I wasn’t even close to changing my mind. But I did have a bit of fun and almost saw a great show. As I was walking around Rochester in my double-breasted bell-bottomed suit, someone walked up to me and asked if I was in Grand Funk Railroad. It turns out that GFR was opening for Janis Joplin at the War Memorial on December 10:
Having seen Janis 4 months earlier at Woodstock (and loving Grand Funk), I extended my stay at the hotel for one night so I could go to that show. Janis got sick and the show was cancelled. But then I found out that she was staying at my hotel, so I spent the evening trying to figure out where she was and how I could meet her – ignoring the fact that she was “sick” (whatever that meant).
Waste of time, but almost a cool evening.
Here are the Xerox telegrams with my flights info on the back of one of them, including the change, so I could stay an extra day to see a great concert that wound up being cancelled:
So anyway……….I told everyone, “Thanks, but no thanks” and prepared to go back to school.
Since my parents kept their grudge and still refused to pay my tuition, I had to start out at Bergen Community College in nearby Paramus, NJ. It was all I could afford. And since I didn’t want to risk giving up by going part-time (7 years? No thanks.), I had to find a job that paid enough and was off-shift.
I found one in my hometown. I became the entire midnight shift at Blue Cab in Teaneck:
It was based in a Chevron gas station that was closed at night. The owner kept a capuchin monkey named Cappy in the front room of the station. The cab operations were run out of a tiny room in back, where I could sometimes sleep on the floor when it was slow and I didn’t have schoolwork to do, so yes – I slept with a monkey in a locked gas station for a year or two.
These 3 outside pictures were taken in 2009. This is the old, abandoned Chevron station:
This shows the interior of that big, round, front room. It’s pretty easy to figure out where Cappy’s cage stood:
Photo #3 shows the distance between me and Cappy. The front room is on the right and way in the back on the left with its door open is the little windowless room that was Blue Cab (and my) HQ after midnight:
I worked there from September 1970 to July 1973. In 1971, Teaneck and next-door neighbor Hackensack decided that drivers needed to be licensed in their towns.
Teaneck gave us badges. Hackensack gave us a 3×5 file card with a driver-supplied photo (mine was taken in a Hackensack Woolworth’s photo booth) stapled to it with typed and stamped information on it. Teaneck wins (though the picture on the Hackensack one is good for a laugh).
I did my last run at 7am and was in class by 8. That last run provided me with sustenance for the entire day. I had to pick up a man who first made a stop at a bakery two blocks away, where he bought pastries for all the people in his office. He would always offer me one and I always accepted. That was breakfast and lunch. After I dropped him off at work, it was off to BCC.
I tried to sleep in the late afternoon and early evening. By necessity, I discovered room-darkening shades.
There was one oddly cool incident while I was driving the cab in the middle of the night that turned out to greatly enhance my concert access, but you’ll have to go to http://bobleafe.com/ to read about it. When you get there, enter 16-006 in the site’s search box. The actual story starts a couple of paragraphs in. It’s pretty amazing.
At BCC, I carried a full course load and took various Chemistrys (I, II, Organic I & II), Instrumental Analysis, Quantitative Analysis, Physics I & II, Advanced Algebra, Calculus, Technical Writing and one easy one: Statistics………….and Phys Ed.
There were ALWAYS weekly chem and physics lab reports due and they took up my weekends. If you go to https://iaintjustmusic.bobleafe.com/?p=2764, you can read about how those were handled (and how I wound up shooting my first concert).
Surprisingly, I did really well (I liked this school) and still managed to go to a lot of concerts with two friends I made at BCC (one of whom I tutored). I was awfully busy, but everything just fit in the right spaces and I got it done.
To belabor the point, it went so well, that I wound up with the school’s award in Chemistry for having the highest grade point average at graduation.
These are from the 1972 yearbook. I superimposed the picture from the awards ceremony onto the listing page for the awards winners. I’m shaking hands with the head of the Physical Science and Math Department, who would become my boss 14 months later:
The next stop was Ramapo College in Mahwah, NJ. It was a state college, so I could still afford it. I was still working for the cab company, but out of the gas station and into an office across the street, so no more Cappy.
Remember the guy I said I tutored? He worked at Blue Cab for a while and produced this surprisingly mature masterpiece about my relationship with Crappy the monkey. You’ll have to look at what I’m feeding him (if you can’t read it, it’s LSD and meth):
I wasn’t as fond of Ramapo as I was of BCC. It was a longer drive on a busy highway, so I was more tired and cranky. After my first year there, I got a surprise offer from Bergen Community to come work there and run the physical science labs for the night classes. It was a faculty (non-teaching) position! And I was still a year from getting my degree! This was practically unheard of.
Of course, I jumped at it. It meant that I wouldn’t have to work a lot with my former (daytime) instructors who still saw me as a student. Instead, I would be working with adjunct faculty who had no idea about their new working environment and depended on me to guide them. I would truly be running the show on the second shift.
I was to start on 8/1/73, but 3 days earlier, I shot my first concert, so my early rock photography career (at the time, an avocation) ran parallel with my chemistry career until I dropped the latter at the end of 1979, when the avocation dropped the first “a”.
Back at Ramapo for my final year, I didn’t do as well as I did at BCC, but I did OK and got my degree in 1974. For that one year, I was faculty at one college and a student at another, which I already wrote about here: https://iaintjustmusic.bobleafe.com/?p=275
And if you go to the bottom of this post – https://iaintjustmusic.bobleafe.com/?p=377 – you can read about my last day in chemistry.
Wanna see my graduation formal wear? Bear in mind that this is a picture that was taken 34 years later after finding this item jammed in a bag with other old clothes. The reason I wore them at graduation was that the music note was visible below the bottom of the graduation gown:
So there you have it: my other career that – by design – doesn’t get mentioned much. I’m proud of the effort I put into it and what I accomplished, but I’m still absolutely amazed at the subsequent unexpected and unbelievable turn my life took during and after it.
What a ride!