Friday, March 19, 2010

From Barrister to Busboy

As a boy growing up in the wilds of southeastern Utah, my parents often counseled me, “You have to be versatile to make a living in San Juan County.” Little did I realize, or even try to comprehend, the implications of their comments. They, however, knew quite well how important this advice was, so at the tender age of nine I was assigned my first job; attendant at a small filling station just south of Blanding. During that phase of my development, I was taught to pump gas; change tires; sell soda pop, candy and chips; check oil; clean bathrooms; and sweep floors. More importantly, I learned to communicate with the general public.

Steve's creations.

One of my earliest lessons in effective communication, and the high cost of ignorance, came when a traveler stopped by and brusquely instructed me to, “Put in a couple bucks worth of regular.” Not knowing exactly what a “couple” meant, I decided it must mean about five, so I confidently proceeded on that assumption. I was both surprised and embarrassed when the man handed me two dollars and drove away.

As I sat in the big chair behind the counter, drinking Pepsi, eating peanuts and wondering how to make up my three dollar deficit, I remembered an older friend who several months before had lectured me on the art of the small time con. One technique he had mentioned was placing interesting things near your cash register to distract a customer’s attention while you counted his change. My friend insisted that if the patron was paying attention to the distractions, rather than the money he received, you could easily short him a buck or two.

Although I had not given this instruction in petty thievery much thought, I now began to believe it might be the solution to my current monetary crisis. As a result, I took a fifty cent piece from the till, got a tube of silicon sealant from the storage closet and cemented the coin into a depression in the worn concrete floor, just in front of the register.

The next customer who came in took his change and, noticing the half dollar near his foot, reached down to retrieve it. Realizing the coin was secure, he pulled out his pocked knife, pried it up and walked out; giving me a knowing smile and leaving me with an even larger problem. When the man explained the trickery to my parents, I learned yet another valuable lesson; that a lie may seemingly resolve the present problem, but it has no future.

Having become newly converted to the virtues of honesty and integrity, my next position was shopkeeper and silversmith at the recently established Blue Mountain Trading Post. While this was a step up from pumping gas and washing windshields in all types of weather, my janitorial training was still in great demand.

When there were no customers in the shop to talk with about the rugs, baskets and Navajo jewelry, I sat at the workbench doing repairs and hammering out bracelets, buckles and bolos. That was the 1970’s, when everybody in the Southwest, both Native and non-Native, was making Indian jewelry, so the competition was fierce. I can still remember the sympathetic looks I received while proudly displaying my handiwork. “Oh, that’s nice,” the customers often said, asking to see something else.

Realizing my technical and artistic skills were limited and that my only real opportunities beyond sweeping up lay in a good education, Momma Rose encouraged me to attend college. Based upon my lack of scholastic achievement up to that point, she likely had doubts this was a truly viable alternative. In spite of that reality, I am confident she realized there may not be a better way to leverage me out of her house.

So off to school I went, and eight years later emerged with a license to practice law, which was in truth as dangerous as it sounds. Another five years passed and I found myself in Bluff, establishing Twin Rocks Trading Post. After a time I came to understand that economics in the southeastern corner of Utah is a lot like developing a watershed; in order to make a stream you must carefully channel all the small trickles. As the pioneers of this small community knew, however, conscientious though you may be, your flow is still likely to be disrupted by unforeseen events.

So, as my parents suggested all those years ago, I have learned to adapt. It is not unusual for me to be in court arguing a motion in the afternoon and back at Twin Rocks Cafe bussing tables that evening. If, as the English poet William Cowper once declared, variety is the spice of life, in San Juan County, diversity is the prerequisite of survival.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

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