The Way Out... The Road Back


making ends meet


What happened over the next twenty four months is best described as a smorgasbord of moneymaking activities. My mantra was "whatever it takes."

Musically speaking, I began taking any and every gig I could lay my hands on. The range was extreme, from the sublime—a concert tour with the great Danny Gatton, chronicled elsewhere on this site; to the absurd—playing a family's Christmas party with a pianist so bad she could only play "Jingle Bells" in one key, and had to stop the family, who had spontaneously begun in the "wrong" key; to the degrading—playing in a blues band run by an immature man whose difficult behavior made for a real test of my self esteem.

As far as day time work was concerned, at first I looked for literate-seeming jobs that assumed a dignified pretension (e.g. bookstores), but because the nation was in the throes of a recession, those jobs were locked-up and out of sight.

Looking hard and finding nothing, I ended-up scrabbling together a motley pastiche of things all over the map; lots of 'em. I was qualified for some (teaching drum lessons, freelance writer, proofreader), others, I wasn't (desktop publishing specialist). I worked retail (Christmas help at a major men's clothing store, counter help at a leather clothing mall outlet), worked at a blue collar trade (housepainter), did things too mindless to be considered a trade (groundskeeping assistant), and most radical of all, spent time doing something brutally manual (tree surgeon ground crew).

In the meantime, my attempted foray into a new, white collar career consisted of interviewing at temp agencies (where I thought a possibility existed I could land somewhere and get some real experience), to going on whatever interviews I could find. In reality, I was unable to get interviews on my own merits. I responded to classified ads by sending a crudely done, woefully short resume. Not surprisingly, I didn't receive a single call.

I did eventually have a few interviews, courtesy of good samaritans acquainted with my sister or my fianceé. These people were sincere in their desire to help—and indeed, truly were helpful by providing critical interview experience.

I was really rough around the edges. I would show up wearing the one outfit I had that passed for shirt and tie, and also sporting the only footwear I had that wasn't tennis shoes: a pair of Tony Lama cowboy boots left over from my days in the Western Swing group, Cowboy Jazz.

I felt so out of place; I needed to buy a new uniform, and also look and feel comfortable wearing it. I sunk some of my proceeds from the Christmas gig at the men's store toward the purchase of the first real suit I would own since my Bar Mitzvah twenty one years before. I just hadn't needed a suit; my work uniform was T-shirt and jeans. If I wanted to "dress up," it was a polo shirt or turtleneck.

It was the interviewing at temp agencies that proved to be the groundbreaker. I attended quite a few. Generally, these amounted to typing tests resulting in phone calls to make photocopies for minimum wage. But I kept my eye on the classifieds and one day saw an ad calling for Macintosh-skilled help to temp at a large corporation.

I called and scheduled an interview for three weeks hence, but never made that interview. The agency called back the very next day with a panicked message: "Show up at MCI Telecommunications wearing a tie at nine AM tomorrow, and we hope you can do what your resume says."

After 12 months of hand-to-mouth employment, I had at last made some real progress.

MCI's old logo, circa 
1993It turned out to be a short stint doing simple desktop publishing and presentation slides. But I clicked with the people and more work soon followed. For this level of work, they weren't concerned about my pedigree, as long as I was literate enough to do the things that needed doing. In its glory days (before being swallowed by the ultimate telcom failure of a company, Worldcom) MCI was like that—a company founded by a maverick, run by mavericks, and not afraid to hire mavericks. The place was a whirling dervish of fast-moving assignments, corporate reorganizations and high employee turnover, it was the perfect place to get a tiny 'in' to a new career.

After a few months of intermittent assignments, I was offered a forty hour/week position. Not as an employee with benefits, but rather as a full-time temp, through the agency. I held this position for nine months before landing an actual full-time job, with benefits. I negotiated a reasonable entry level salary, and suddenly was making more than I'd ever come close to as a musician.

Even though I'd been at the company for nearly a year, making the transition from temp to employee was not a "gimme." The job I got was not my temp job transformed into a full-time job. That prospect seemed logical to me and I had pushed for it, but things don't work that way. Temp positions are temp positions, real jobs—"headcount"—are real jobs. The two don't intersect, no matter how much sense it might make.

But in terms of looking for a full-time position. being a full-time temp poses distinct advantages. You're on the scene, hopefully making a reputation as a hard working "team player" (gag), getting to know the hiring managers, and ultimately going through the interview process like everyone else.

I was a happy guy and I was working my tail off. Making each month's mortgage payment still seemed a miracle, but I was also under a lot of stress and putting in all kinds of hours. For the first time since I was a party-happy college kid, music took a back seat to my other life.

The day gig was such an enormous sea-change, new hours, routine, ways of communicating, work skills, tons of new people... it was taking all my energy. And, a different kind of energy and endurance was required, much different than riding in a van all day, playing a gig and driving home. It was some time before I could work the entire day without feeling thoroughly drained, but I did eventually develop the requisite endurance.

There was no choice but for my musical life to go on auto-pilot. I didn't stop gigging, for financial as well as musical reasons. But it was rough—I'd show up at gigs at the last minute, exhausted, change out of my suit in my car and load in. I wasn't playing poorly, but I wasn't inspired either. My heart still wasn't in it.

My musician friends were shocked that not only had I taken a day gig, but such a radical transformation—wearing suits no less! Occasionally I would run into musician acquaintances who flat-out wouldn't recognize me. Sporting a corporate-short haircut and wearing a suit, I short-circuited all notions of who Brian Alpert was and what he looked like.

I continued in this mode for about four years, from 1993 to 1996. Things were going well at MCI. I worked my way up from the original information specialist/desktop publisher job to manager, managing a staff of six other information specialists. I was acquiring boatloads of new skills, and more than once found myself in the water swimming, as the cliché goes, with the sharks. I continued to play music, but without question, the day gig was my primary focus.

Next: Corporate Realities...

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