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At the age of 23, I quit my full-time job as a mailman and enrolled at Harper Junior Community College, majoring in fine arts.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’ve always been interested in communication. I hadn’t even thought about going into journalism, however. Writing was the last thing I wanted to do; I hated English, there were too many rules that had no logic.
If I had any pick, I’d have been a musician.
My best friend Frank formed a band, The Haymaker Ride (we were studying the Haymaker Riot in school at the time), with some other friends in junior high. I recognized long before Dire Straits that this meant “money for nothing and your chicks for free.” At sock hops I was just another flounder in a hormone-laced ocean of adolescent angst, while Frank and the crew stood solidly on stage, an island of stability and subjects of adoration above the tidal pool, belting out Donovan’s “Universal Soldier.”
Unfortunately, I am genetically predisposed to not being musical.
Not that I didn’t try.
I’ve taken guitar lessons several times during my life and practiced hard, but all I’ve got to show for it is a passing rendition of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”
I do have one inbred musical talent: I can dance a mean polka after three beers. Seriously, it’s as if a collective memory of my northern European ancestry emerges in the form of happy feet that can hop-step, close-step to double-time all night long.
So like most 19-year-olds, I knew a couple things I didn’t want or couldn’t do in life but had no clue as to what I wanted to do. So I enrolled in the graphic arts program because of a vague notion that I enjoyed doodling.
My first semester I took a survey of drawing class. We did still lives, portraits, and landscapes in pencil, charcoal or ink. I enjoyed it and did fairly well at it; the instructor weighted grades heavily toward effort and away from talent. At the same time, I began to realize my future in drawing was as limited as in dancing. I might have a chance being a Polish dancer or a Pollock (Jackson) painter, but I’ve never been able to call dripping paint on the floor art.
I may be of Polish decent, but I have standards.
Besides the drawing course I took Poetry 101.
I enjoy poetry like I appreciate a lot of things: I like what I like. In the case of poetry that means verse with rhyme and light lyrics. If the sentiment is bawdy, so much the better. In other words, give me “There was a boy from Nantuckit ...”
Poetry and Drawing were both elective courses. It was the one required course, English Composition 101, that changed my life dramatically.
Actually, it was the teacher who changed my life. Mr. Motta was a short Jewish guy from New York who smoked cigars in the lounge (can you imagine?) and talked a mile a minute. One of our first assignments was to go some place on the campus, write a descriptive paragraph and return in 20 minutes. It was just the kind of chore I dreaded until he tossed in “and don’t worry about spelling or grammar, just write.”
The next class, Mr. Motta took me aside and praised me for my writing, saying I was creative and had interesting insights. The rest of the semester he kept encouraging me, and by the end he had me convinced to switch majors to Journalism.
And now you know the rest of the story.