Horatio Alger Redux

By: David Martin

I came from humble beginnings — a hardscrabble, small town in Midwestern America. We called it home. Others called it Humble Beginnings, Colorado. Whatever the name, I knew one thing: the place was hardscrabble, that much was true. It was a hard town to work your way up and out of, one of those places where generations seem to always work for the family business. It was a great town. But I wanted out.

At age 16, I quit high school. A voice inside my head told me to go to work at the local 7-11. I did. The voice inside my head also told me that I was thirsty, and that I should look around my home for beverages which I could drink. I did that, too. And five years and many Gatorades later, I was still manning the graveyard shift sipping a Grape Fierce with $35 in the bank. A success by most standards. But I knew there was more in life for me.

One late winter night in 1977, I punched in my customer’s order — two Slim Jims, a pack of Marlboros, and two tallboys of Bud. The cash register read $7.77. I took that as a sign and the next day I quit the 7-11. I emptied my bank account, bought a bus ticket, and headed for Chicago. Something told me my fortune was waiting for me on the shores of Lake Michigan. I rode that lonely bus all night, preaching to the night riders beside me about proper electrolyte replacement.

Chicago presented a wealth of opportunities. It was just a question of choosing the right one. Would it be the eager software company, the faceless pharmaceutical giant, or the lamp repair store?

The choice was obvious. I went to work for the retail store. Something told me that lamp repair was going to be big and I wanted to ride along the crazy wave. Well, three years later, I was working the day shift and had $100 in the bank. I was clearly on my way.

Then, suddenly, a light bulb shattered somewhere and it was 1980 with the recession looming. I lost my lamp repair job, as penny pinchers switched back to track lighting with dimmer switches. For some, that would have been a disaster. For me, it spelled opportunity.

I picked three letters at random from my Scrabble game and came up with N, Y and C. Another sign! It couldn’t have been clearer: My destiny awaited me at Yazoo, North Carolina.

Clearing my bank account of its $250, I took a Greyhound to Raleigh and then hitchhiked to Yazoo. When I waved the aging trucker with the now Berry-Blue tongue goodbye, I saw the rusting sign calling out “Welcome to Yazoo”. I had arrived.

As luck would have it, the local gas station needed a reliable, non-dehydrated pump jockey. I applied and was immediately accepted. My past life experience had paid off. Unfortunately, Yazoo was a competitive town and the gas station was the toughest of the tough. But I persevered and ten years later I was head night shift attendant with $500 in the bank.

I was happy in Yazoo. Life was good. I had a dim room above the garage and gold-plated job security. I was living an American’s dream. But it felt too easy. Surely there was more. So when the customer with the out-of-state plates asked me to “Fill ‘er up, and go heavy on the lead” and the total came to $11.11, I knew it was time to move on and grab that brass ring.

I pulled my three lucky Scrabble letters from my plaid pocket and tossed them on the snack counter. Up came C, N, and Y. I was either an S short of a Woodstock reunion or I was headed to Canton, New York.

I took my savings, purchased a second hand Ford Pinto and started driving north. Three days, two accidents, and one ruptured gas tank later, I arrived in Canton.

With a population of only 5,000, it was clear that there were enormous opportunities in Canton. I couldn’t wait to ride this nascent engine of growth all the way to the top.

The sign in the Dew Drop Inn window said “Clerk Needed, Is it You?” C, N and Y. It was literally and metaphorically a sign. I pulled it from the window and marched confidently to the front desk. And that’s how I became the night clerk at the Dew Drop Inn.

The years flew by and I found myself as nighttime manager of the inn. Plus I had the undreamed of amount of $2,000 in the bank.

I should have been content. But I wasn’t. I knew there had to be more. So when a lit cigarette fell from my mouth onto some bed sheets and the Dew Drop Inn went up in flames and I was fired and threatened with a lawsuit, I took that as a sign to move on.

I tossed the Scrabble letters once more and up came N, Y and C. Maybe it was time to try the Big Apple, the home of America’s dreams: North York, Connecticut.

So I cashed in my chips, bought a ten-year old Yugo and headed southeast. Go southeast, middle-aged man. Follow that dream.

And ten miles outside of Schenectady, I ran headlong into my dream — a 1999 Mercedes driven by a successful upstate neurosurgeon on the wrong side of the road. My car was totaled, I was hospitalized for ten months and it was unclear if I’d ever sip another Fruit Punch Gatorade again. But I felt like I had made it.

And I had. Even with the contingency fee arrangement, the final settlement netted me $7 million. Just enough to buy a mansion in North York, a new Beemer, and a swimming pool full of Cherry Ice.


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