The Quick Riff
Gerard McLean, a wily author and essayist, sets the content bar high; not an easy feat in a world in which dogs blog and inanimate characters have volatile voices.
The Deep Dive
The first decision I had to make when writing this “My Story” page was whether I should write it in the first person and risk bragging about myself or in the third person as a dispassionate biographer. I decided to first try it in the first person. He may change my mind eventually.
If you want to know all the details about where I worked, what I did, etc, just check out my CV. If you would like to offer me a job, please be aware that I am incredibly expensive, almost thoroughly unemployable, require unlimited in and out privileges, I don’t document my time and come with two dogs who go everywhere with me. However, I am open to offers.
I was born in a neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota known as Frogtown as the second child of five to two hard-working, Catholic parents. They each grew up in Maine and were traveling to California on their honeymoon. The car broke down first in Madison, Wisconsin and then broke down for good in St. Paul. So, my dad got a job with Ingersall-Rand as a claims clerk and my mom stayed at home and made babies. As the second in a line, I did my share of baby-sitting at a very young age.
As I grew, I become more curious with the world around me, went to St. Agnes Catholic Schools for 13 years where I learned lots of life skills, discipline and a boatload of humility. This was back in the day when they still let nuns teach us poor, defenseless children. Not everyone was a winner in those days, but escaping middle school with any shred of self-esteem was considered an accomplishment worthy of a very large trophy.
In high school, we learned Latin every day, advanced algebra, sciences, English, literature and discipline… always, every day. There was no such thing as late or an excuse that would be accepted for anything. If something happened to you that you didn’t get your homework done or where you didn’t know the answer, it was God’s way of teaching you respect and humility.
I graduated near the top of my class, but not in the top 2, so I was neither the Valedictorian nor was I the Salutatorian. These were the days when there was only one of each. Only one best per year; only one second best. I went on to study English at the University of Minnesota, mostly because that was all I could afford. I applied to and been accepted by both Harvard and USC, but these places wanted more money than I had and not being a Valedictorian or Salutatorian, they wanted me to pay the whole thing sans scholarship. I had also been accepted into the NROTC program, but at the last minute, I decided that five years in the Marine Corps was probably not a good idea for either me or the Corps.
I wanted to be an English teacher or a writer. When I discovered how little they made, I decided that corporate training would be my career path of choice. So, with my English degree in hand, I headed off to a promising career in retail with Target Stores.
Which I did for 6 1/2 years. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the best work-prep experience I could ever have gotten. Even today, I refer to my Target days as “boot camp for the corporate world.” If you can afford it, get a job at a Target store and throw yourself into it, body and soul. You will learn, you will grow.
I discover the rewarding world of commissioned compensation
I was working as the Area Specialist in Sporting Goods at Target during April 1987. During those days, we had a repair and assembly technician from YLCE (Yorba Linda Cycle Enterprises, before it became Huffy Service First) come in twice a week. With every visit, the tech rolled in with his cart of tools and sat in a lawn chair, reading the newspaper until I had pulled 30 or so bicycles from the back storage for him to assemble. We chatted about this and that each time and eventually got to know each other pretty well (though I can not remember his name.)
The day before he came in, I had a particularly rough tour with the district manager. For those who have never worked retail, that is when the higher-ups swoop down on your store and are hyper-critical of everything you do day to day as if that were motivation. For a demanding company like Target, perfect was the only standard that mattered. The previous month, they had instituted a new SKU management system and assumed everyone was on board 100%. In truth, we were still being trained on the “dot” system. But the store manager and my hardlines manager were not about to admit to the district manager that we were not at 100%. Nobody ever did.
Suffice to say, the tour went badly. And then the YLCE tech showed up, rolling in with his tools, setting up his lawn chair and reading his newspaper while I pulled bikes.
“How much do you make assembling bikes?” I asked rather casually. He told me and it was several thousand more than I was making a year. “And,” he added, “I only work about six months of the year, and I get weekends and evenings off.” People don’t ride bikes in the winter in Minnesota.
I processed that for a few hours afterwards and figured; If I worked just 20–30% harder than this guy and scrounged around in the winter months for furniture, BBQ grills and other things to assemble and repair (YLCE was supposed to do those, but this guy just did bikes) I could make a pretty good living.
I decided I was going to quit my upwardly mobile, fast-tracked career path with Target Stores and build bikes. I called his manager who wanted me to start tomorrow. We negotiated two weeks. I went home to tell my wife and 19 month-old son that I was going to give up a secure job to build bikes on commission. And that I had to buy my own tools with money we didn’t have. As excited as I was was as terrified as she was. Fortunately I was too excited to notice or I would have chickened out.
As it turned out, I didn’t even need to work 30% harder than the YLCE tech who “recruited” me into the world of self-reliance. I just needed to not sit my butt down in the chair and read a newspaper. It turns out that when you help the over-worked, under-paid retail guys pull bikes from storage, they will go the extra mile to make sure to request you and save you the best bike building days. And trust only you to do repairs.
That year, I increased my Target salary by four times. And I got weekends and holidays off. But I still worked evenings during bicycle season. But every Saturday morning that summer, I pulled my son around in a red wagon bedecked with pillows and sandbox toys as we took long walks to the post office first to mail my paperwork, to the bank to deposit my check, to the school yard to play in the sandbox, to the walkway down by the Mississippi River to watch the riversharks swim by and the French bakery to relax before heading home.
It was the best summer of my life.