There’s a red-brick building with a cow-print gable at the edge of Tri-county’s industrial corner. It’s a work and western wear shop. As you might expect, this is a little niche in Cincinnati. We’ve got some horse pastures, definitely, but enough of Ohio is too suburban or city to know a riding boot from a muck boot. The difference between an “R” toe and a “J” toe?
This place was my second home for most of my college years. My best friend’s dad managed the shop, at the time, and invited me to interview on hearing I needed a job. By interview, I mean I had to take the mandatory test to make sure I was not A) into thievery or B) into drugs. So, I had the job. But I was so nervous when I came in. My coworker Rhonda used to love remembering me walk into the store for the first time. This shy girl peaking around kiosks of bolo ties and bedazzled purses, asking very quietly – much too quietly for a salesperson - if the manager was in. Rhonda thought, “she’ll never make it.”
I remember Tom turning on the steamer back in my first few weeks on the job. The click and shutter. The hum, as the temperature of the water rose. The ambient heat hovering from the metal spout. The long exhales of hot-breath steam as he pressed the pedal, let off. It seemed a magnificent talent. Something forgotten, mostly. He’d take up a Stetson or a Bailey and rinse it in the steam, turning it over in circular motions. His whole hand and hat would be engulfed in hot cloud; it would eat up his arm. There he’d be, in the middle of a fog, his own black hat sitting on his head, glasses hanging on a button on his flannel, looking straight out of the past.
The art intrigued me, but I hardly wanted to touch an expensive Stetson at all, let alone bend it. But he invited me behind the counter. Showed me how to coax the wool to shape. How less was more, how to avoid creases, folding.
One night, after a busy day, the owner turned up to see that the stock hadn’t been put out. Back then we’d pile everything behind the steamer until we could wrangle a minute to unpack things and set them on the shelves. Tall, leaning towers of yellow Carolina boxes. Lines of the same pair of Justin boots, in every size. This was also the area where the hats sat on hooks on the wall, and this mess about completely blocked off the hats from the customers’ view.
Bill said, “we’re not leaving until all this stock is out.” My coworker and I exchanged a look, annoyed because it was past 8, and we’d never had to stay past closing. Our modern sense of responsibility was nagging. Can he really make us stay? But Bill was stubborn. He had a no-nonsense air that didn’t invite quibbling.
He was also extremely generous.
He stood there with us, opening boxes and folding open tissue paper, reaching down to grab the paper stuffing from the leather shaft of boot after boot, which chafes a hand and makes it flake. He stayed with us until it was done. It didn’t take that long, with all of us. But it’s always stayed with me, seeing the highest person do the lowest job, when it was more our responsibility than his.
No one at Boot Country was under some misguided figure-it-out-on-your-own work philosophy. Under such guidance, everyone with any kind of work ethic to stand on thrived. This was a generous gift. It was the fulfilled promise of the way we feel when we watch an old film and see some young boy apprenticing as a blacksmith. We think, I bet I could do that, if somebody would really show me how.
I yearned for such a program, when I was learning to write. I didn’t want college classes so much as I wanted an apprenticeship. Someone to throw me into the pool and swim with me. Show me what it was really like, to write in the field. I was in journalism at the time. The most apprentice-style opportunity was the college newspaper.
After some self-talk, nervous jittering, and probably a call home, I walked into the newspaper office and asked for a piece. “Give me what you got,” kinda thing. I can’t remember what I started with, but I ended up doing a few pieces: a design school cat walk, a student government political campaign, some kind of inclusion forum or something. A classmate of mine got her own column. It was called something like Fresh Perspective (because she was a freshman). This seemed like the top tier of first-year writing (even though, admittedly, another classmate of mine was already out in the real world covering a state politician).
I ended up asking the newspaper for an opinion piece. This felt, and was, less restrictive than the nothing-but-the-facts pieces I’d been doing. This would allow me to be me on the page.
They set me up with a political piece. We used to get a lot of sidewalk preachers on campus, screaming angry messages at students as they walked to class. Calling ladies they’d never met “whores” through a megaphone, nodding to their skinny jeans or skirts, and waving their black Bibles above their heads as justification. It got to where they were following students around at times. It was uncomfortable, I’ll tell you that. Mostly because I loved the Bible they were beating people with and daydreamed of talking them out of their hatred with the persuasion of Stephen.
My opinion piece was to focus on whether or not these preachers overstepped the intended bounds of free speech. Should there be free speech “zones?” Should they continue to be allowed to hound students on their way to chemistry?
My editor sat by me at the table. My stomach was sinking as he explained my prompt. I had no ideas about free speech or about any discussion surrounding this. I wanted to ask him about the implications of zoning, about the dangers and the pitfalls of both sides of the issue so I could get a better handle on what I was tackling. Instead I ended up asking something stupid, like, “what do you think about this?”
Rather than immediately answer, he stared at me from his seat. I waited. He said, slowly, as if we were maybe breaking a core tenant of journalism, “do you want me to give you an opinion?”
I paused. I wanted to say no, because there’s nothing investigative or journalistic about slathering someone else’s opining on your own op-ed. But, more pressingly, part of me did want his opinion. I didn’t want to be spoon-fed; I wanted the “right” answer, and I thought he had it. What I needed was a gentle guiding. A prodding to, ya know, go be a journalist and research the issue. Maybe even show me how he’d do it. I ended up taking his opinion and running with it, and they ran the piece.
Those are two very different jobs: salesperson and journalist. Well…I’m sure we could find some similarities. . .
The point is, I never really wanted to sell. It wasn’t something that was natural to me, like my desire to write. But even this unnatural thing – making the shy, suburban girl a western and work salesperson, able to tell the electrician what he did and didn’t need and to sell snake skins to cowboys – was possible with careful training. What could this mean for any job and any person? For the one who feels unpracticed as a mother? For the boy learning to be an older brother? For the librarian, the grocery store worker, the candlestick maker? What would it mean for anyone to learn anything with a bit of kindness and a helping hand?
A lot, probably.