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  • Gary Gruber

Working for a living


I’ve already written my obituary – it’s a somewhat whimsical glance of the passage of time I’ve seen. Much of it is surrounded by the plethora of different work I’ve done, some mundane, some exciting, some dangerous. It’s interesting how circumstances and the right acquaintances can put you in a position to do things you’ve never dreamed of. Many of the skills I have now, centered on the ability to work with your hands, were gleaned over many years of trial and error, a lot of error.


While one of the more unusual jobs I had was working with the FBI Counter Terrorism unit in San Diego just prior to retiring, that level of excitation was not typical of what has propelled me through life so far.


Otherwise mundane positions have led to memorable experiences, some that seemingly set me on the path I followed to wherever I am today.


Working as an auto parts delivery guy for Stull Brothers was my first paying gig. It was a gas. I loaded my pickup with everything from spark plugs to Cherry Bomb mufflers and headed out to parts unknown to me: Hobbie, Upper Askam, Nuangola, Wapwollopen. The best part of the job was there were only two requirements – deliver everything, be back before the store closed. After a week or two I could gauge the delivery locations and driving times required and calculate the amount of free time I’d have each day.


Invariably I would make a pitstop at a small cemetery west of Mountaintop, where I would take a brief nap each afternoon. If I knew I could spare 40 minutes or so I’d pick up my Mountaintop girlfriend and take her to the cemetery, where we would nap together. Unfortunately, it was only a summer job. In hindsight, it would have made a fine career.

Just before heading off for my first year of college, I scored another doozy – combination lifeguard / bellhop at the Holiday Inn in Wilkes-Barre.


This was a bit surreal.


More than once I’d be taking guests to their room, carrying their luggage, when we’d walk past the swimming pool and see someone struggling in the water. I’d apologize to the guests, drop the luggage, run to the pool as fast as my legs would carry me, stripping off my clothes in the process -- always had my bathing suit on underneath. I’d dive in, drag the person out of the pool and then return to the startled guests and escort them to the room. Usually this would result in either a big tip or a complaint to management.


Again, for the $1.70 per hour I was making, it would have been a great path forward for me had I chosen to stay.


My first real job in photography materialized during my second year of college. My mother yanked me out of Duquesne University because she ‘missed’ me. Wilkes-College was miserable after the freedom of a year away from home. Camera Exchange in the Narrows Shopping Center was a fun place to work, even though I had to take a pay cut to $1.15 per hour. I did get a commission on camera sales, so that added a bit to the coffer.


Bob and Monty were great to work with. Bob, the owner, was a very mellow guy, very patient with me. There was a darkroom in the back that I had access to whenever I was off the clock. I would process and print orders for several customers. The darkroom was a very peaceful place for me; it brought great comfort to spend hour upon hour there – something I would continue to do for the next 50 years.


Monty. What can I say about Monty? He was one of those guys you take to immediately. He was an adventurous soul, always filled with good humor regardless of the circumstances and tried ever so hard to pound some common sense into me.


He regaled me with tales of travelling up and down the eastern seaboard as a boudoir photographer. Back in the 60’s, it was common for small motels and hotels to host a photography session for locals who wanted portraits taken. The clientele were 90% women, some single, some not. Monty would set up in a motel room. Things were very simple back then. A couple of 3200K hot lights (they were very hot), a seamless paper roll as a backdrop.

Monty would talk most of the women into a ‘draped shot’, Draping was a dramatic way of enhancing most of a women’s prominent qualities. She would strip to the waist and he would carefully place a black silk drape over her. Monty’s skill in draping would reap him bountiful rewards afterwards, “if you catch my meaning, if you get my drift”.


Since none of the photos were developed and printed there, he was fortunate to not have to deal with an irate husband or two when the pictures arrived in the mail. The way businesses operated back then was to provide low cost photos and inflate the shipping costs. The profit was always the shipping and handling fee.


Camera Exchange was situated right next door to Midas Muffler. That worked great for me when Monty decided to prank me and pull all of the spark plug wires off my ’63 Dodge Polara. Fuming, I borrowed their shop manual and rewired the car in about 5 minutes.

The real circus came to town on Saturday afternoon. Invariably someone would come in, look around carefully, walk up to the desk and say:


“I need a muffler for ’68 Chevy.” Without losing a step, either Bob or Monty would continue the conversation.


“It’ll take about six weeks to get you one.” (Bob)


“Six weeks! Why the hell so long?” (customer)


“Well, first we need to send someone down to the auto parts store to order it. Then we’d have to hire a mechanic to install it. You see, we are a CAMERA store.” (Monty)


This farce played out over and over again as I worked there. Never a dull moment. When Bob went out of town and left Monty in charge, we’d sneak into the back storage area and light up a joint. This put customer interactions on a whole new level. We got so blitzed one day I walked home from work, forgetting that I had come in my mother’s car.


Fast forward a bit to 1980. I’ve just left my job as Director of Photography for Palm Springs Life Magazine and am looking for a bit of a change. My brother-in-law hooks me up with a video production company in Hollywood. He had already established his street creds in Los Angeles -- his management company oversaw many well-known acts, including John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful, Earth, Wind and Fire, and Prince. Joe discovered Prince in a bar in Minneapolis, and the rest, as they say, is history.


I managed to take some of the earliest photos of Prince during his first video recording.

While my primary position was as a video techie (a glorified grunt), I was working behind the scenes for the owner of the production company. We developed some of the earliest MTV videos, including most of what you see for Queen, among others. The director was a brilliant man with great ideas, but played fast and loose with other people’s money, creating havoc with production costs.


My other job was to keep track of the side deals he negotiated with sub-contractors and the musicians themselves. I’d report back to the owner, who would then “head ‘em off at the pass.”


After a long stint as both a pro photographer and a software architect, I went out with a bang a couple of years ago doing some undercover work for the FBI’s counter terrorism unit in San Diego. A buddy of mine wangled me into a training session where I had to be constantly pushing my chin up to keep my jaw from dropping onto the floor. San Diego has the 5th highest incidence of Al Qaeda operatives in the country, and they were trying to infiltrate a missile defense subcontractor and turn the husband of a woman I worked with.


May you live in interesting times is how the ancient Chinese curse goes. There was a suspected Al Qaeda operative at the company I worked for. He was quite overt about his interest in explosives and raping / being raped online, and in person. I conveyed my concerns to my local contact, who then set the wheels in motion to keep tabs on the guy. Whether or not he was eventually disappeared was above my pay grade – he did leave the company suddenly one day -- the threat at the missile lab was neutralized, and we all went back to eating the excellent sushi San Diego has to offer.


What I’ve done for money

Gas station attendant

Delivered Auto parts

Clerk in camera store

Lifeguard

Bell hop

Concession stand runner

Hot dog vendor

Laborer on assembly line

Elevator operator

Ice cream truck driver

Home construction

Waiter

Shipping clerk

Color lab printer

Photography teacher

Martial Arts instructor

School teacher (English)

Professional photographer

Software architect

Gunsmith

Motorcycle mechanic

Repaired offset printing presses

Video production assistant

NRA instructor

Industrial spy

Production Manager (software)

FBI counter terrorism consultant


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