The Art of Sweeping With a Broom
At eighteen I hired on as a laborer at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna N.Y. where it seemed all the foul smelling sulphurous stink of the Industrial Revolution had settled. Had John Steinbeck seen Bethlehem Steel before he saw Monterey’s canneries he might have written “Lackawanna Row.”
I was assigned to an 8” rolling mill. If it wasn’t the belly of the beast it was the esophageal tube that emptied into it. The steel mill featured “surround sound” before it became popular in movie theaters. Sirens, the roar of the molten fire in the mill, claxon horns that signaled the approach of huge overhead cranes carrying tons of steel bars to be fed into the blast furnace.
“You’ll get used to it,” the foreman said. Then he handed me the largest push broom I had ever seen and told me to start sweeping the floor. The floor was two football fields long and half again as wide. I began sweeping the only way I knew – fast, long shuffleboard strokes, feet moving, straining my latissimus dorsi.
A few minutes later a man who had been watching me stopped my sweeping. “Sonny,” he said, taking the broom from me, “that ain’t the way we sweep around here.” “Watch.” He began sweeping. Slow strokes. Not stretching his arms too much. Hardly moving his feet. “You gotta be here for eight hours. Don’t wear yourself out. Besides, you sweep that way, we all gonna have to sweep that way.”
Having to fill eight hours was a gentle nudge reminding me that I was enmeshed in the slavery of a time clock. “We all gonna have to sweep that way,” carried a subtle warning telling me they really didn’t want to sweep that way. It was my first lesson in “go along to get along.”
The first job I had after college was an office job. It didn’t take long to measure the company pulse. We were all in one big boat. Don’t rock it. I never saw so many people keeping so busy trying to get out of work.
I was fortunate to escape the corporate herd mentality when a nice man handed me a stack of medical books and said: “Get out there and sell them.” “There” was 99 counties in Michigan and Indiana. When I asked him how to sell the books, he said: “Show them to doctors and keep your mouth shut.”
It wasn’t quite as easy as that, but it was surprisingly good advice for a beginner. Oh, I forgot to mention that it was a straight commission job. If you sold books, the company sent you money. If you didn’t … well, “some days chicken, some days feathers” is an idiomatic expression etched into every commission salesman’s brain.
I quickly understood that someone had given me a new broom and let me figure out how and when to use it. My success (or failure) depended on the guy who I saw in the mirror every morning. There was no “we don’t do it that way,” or “you gotta be here for eight hours.” Sometimes the job lasted more than eight hours; sometimes less. Being able to decide when and how to sweep gave me the freedom to attend all my kids’ activities without asking anyone for time off.
At the same time I adopted a simple but realistic philosophy. Every morning I woke up unemployed until I sold that first book. Impending penury is a great motivator. Also, there is something remarkably freeing about willing to take risks and not being afraid to fail. I held in my own hands the power to make tomorrow better. My boss would ask what my sales quota for the next year should be. It didn’t matter, I’d reply. If the company gave me good books, I would sell them.
All good things must come to an end. The family-owned publishing company in Philadelphia sold out to a large conglomerate. Soon twenty-somethings with marketing degrees from Wharton, who didn’t know their butts from a Bissell, began telling me how to sweep. They tried to bring structure to a system that defied structure. They wanted to know when you were sweeping, where you were sweeping and how you were holding the broom. Lunacy begat lunacy. They took a hundred year old company/customer relationship based on honesty and respect and turned it into Glengarry Glen Ross. Before I got swept under the rug I whisked away to a company that still believed that the person who sweeps the floor should choose the broom and how to use it.
Now years removed from the corporate race of rodents, I continue to sweep. My broom is a laptop computer that pushes around ideas and thoughts until they are presentable words and paragraphs. The floor I sweep is much larger than the one at the steel mill. Sometimes it encompasses the whole world. The guy in the mirror is slightly more wizened but he still sweeps with the same energy and enthusiasm. I guess you can take the broom away from the boy but you can’t take the boy away from the broom.
Contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org