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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

The Story Behind the Stories (Part Nine)

One of my favorite jobs after graduating college was working as a shipping clerk in a dental supply house. Little did I know that my expertise in wrapping false teeth and securing them in cardboard would serve me so well later in life in preparing ill-fitting shoes to be returned to Amazon.

My mother insisted I take the civil service test and get a job working for the government. Even at 22 I had the common sense to know this was not a path for me. To shut her up, I took the test and intentionally failed it. You can only do that if you know the right answers. My score was so low I was certain they were going to revoke my citizenship.

Benco Dental in Wilkes-Barre was a pleasant place to work -- friendly, easy-going people, an atmosphere of calm repose, and a drop dead gorgeous young lady who already had a boyfriend and had no need for another. You certainly can’t kill a guy for trying. I secured this position at the unemployment office, back in the day when job offerings were handwritten on 3 X 5 index cards in pencil.

Obviously, a shipping clerk was a good fit for a guy with degrees in photojournalism and philosophy. My knowledge of Soren Kierkegaard proved essential to properly securing packing tape around the small boxes. The best part of the job was that we never mailed these packages, they were delivered in person. I accompanied an older and very gentle man each day on his rounds to the local dentists to drop off the teeth. Again, I was suitably prepared for this part of the job because one of my previous summer positions was working for an auto parts store (Stull Bros.) delivering merchandise to local repair shops.

The phone rang one day. It was an excited call from a woman at the Employment Center. They actually had an opening for a photographer! To my knowledge, this was the first time in recorded history that a state government office accurately matched an individual to their work skills.

The position was up in the Poconos with a small firm that prepared tourist guides for the area. I interviewed for the job and was hired on the spot! I packed my belongings and moved into a hotel in Cresco, a launching pad while I located more permanent arrangements. As luck would have it, as I strolled into the bar that first afternoon, several of my friends from Wilkes-College had gathered for a drink. Over a shot of Wild Turkey (101 proof, straight up, no back), they eagerly informed me of a small house (actually a chicken coop that had been converted into living quarters) for rent next door to their abode.

A home in the woods on a trout stream next door to three single women. What could possibly go wrong?

It was mine the next day for $65 per month. Working at Pocono Press was quirky to say the least. I found the assignments so viscerally disturbing that some evenings I had trouble eating. Shooting lifeless hotel/motel room interiors formed the majority of my work. While I found this type of photography meaningless – it actually helped lay the foundation for images I would create 10 years later, interior design photos that would be featured in Architectural Digest. Who knew?

The height of insanity peaked on an assignment where I successfully returned with a rather nice photo. My boss remarked “The fire is not lit; you must light the fire so people will know it functions.” Reshoots are a photographer’s nightmare. I returned, threw some newspaper in the fireplace and snapped the shutter. What I wasn’t prepared for was the plethora of small pieces of burnt paper that gracefully swirled up into the air, landing on the bed and the floor. Irritated, I left the mess for the staff to clean up.

The next day, Jay (owner of Pocono Press) got a scorching phone call from the motel manager. As we all know by now, shit rolls downhill, and I was most assuredly at the bottom of the hill. Not only did I get an earful, but he rejected my beautiful image of the room with the fireplace burning away – because I forgot to turn on the TV! How was anyone going to know that the television actually worked if it wasn’t on for the photo?

Fuming, I knew I had to face the motel manager and his staff for the third time, after the debacle of a couple of days ago. I got dressed down righteously, which only made me more irritable. With the TV blaring some insipid afternoon game show, and the fire broiling in an unairconditioned room in the middle of summer, I dutifully recorded the scene again. I’m almost positive that Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day” was based on my real-life experiences that week.

Needing to regroup and defuse the volcano about to erupt inside my brain, I grabbed my dirty clothes and headed to the laundromat in Mountainhome. Since I always carried a camera, I was prepared for the folding duet that unfolded while I watched my underwear drying. It was a perfectly symmetrical symphony played out by two women who had more than likely unconsciously developed a skill set that would take me years to master – properly folding laundry. That one-fifteenth of a second more than erased the week of agony that proceeded it.

I quit my job the next day.

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