Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Doing what needs to be done

MS Biz Column~November 2005
By Natalie Criss, Managing Editor
Metro Business Chronicle

There comes a time in our lives when we are forced to take on a job that we would rather avoid. Perhaps it's boring or thankless. We might consider it beneath us and loudly declare, "You couldn't pay me enough to do that!" or "I didn't go to college for this!" However, sometimes an opportunity comes along that allows us to shine in new, previously unimaginable ways. In return, we get far more than a paycheck or pat on the back. This is about one of those times:

Patricia is my trendy, attractive, never-married younger sister. She is a former high school cheerleader and pageant competitor who prefers to be called Tricia, wears Prada sunglasses, works at a high-end clothing store and attends The Aveda Institute where she will earn a cosmetology license in April. As the perpetual "baby" and resident girlie-girl of the family, she is-- by default-- the pretty one...the spoiled one (I am the smart one.).

Hard labor is as foreign to Tricia as Payless Shoe Source. For all her shifting priorities and puzzling sense of entitlement, I truly adore her. Therefore, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed her school and workplace in New Orleans, Tricia stayed with us for about six weeks. It was like having another teenager in the house. After her recent move to Charlotte, NC, I quipped that I was really going to miss her...shoes.

In an attempt to recoup her financial losses as well as provide some closure to an unexpected and unsettling situation, Tricia is back in New Orleans assisting in the clean-up effort. My sister, who took her first retail job solely for the discount on clothing and who frequently calls home for money, is alone in a hurricane-ravaged area wearing steel-toe boots. While I am justifiably concerned for her safety, I am not sure which part of the latter sentence initially horrified her most. However, she has adapted nicely.

For last two weeks, she has been sleeping on an air mattress in a hunting camp where she wakes up before 5am and drives 40 miles into New Orleans to ride shotgun through the city alongside a quiet, unassuming African American truck driver named Joe. Wearing respirators and HAZMAT suits, they pick up trash, load crates and dispose of household chemicals. When Joe was absent one day, she was allowed to drive a very large dump truck (equipped with automatic transmission, of course) all day. She was elated and called home immediately to relay every detail.

However, this highlight was dethroned by her recent confrontation with an internationally recognized journalist and his film crew as they blocked a street in the Lower 9th Ward near the 17th Street Canal break. Though I suspect she may have embellished the story a bit, in a nutshell, she won and they moved their operation back onto the levee as their permit specified. This happened less than an hour after Tricia exchanged words with a police officer following an incident targeting Joe that she perceived as racist.

My family has taken a poll and decided that she will either get elected to office or be killed. We're banking on her popularity among the big, strong construction crews and her common sense to see to it that neither occurs.

I was also concerned she would be targeted by jerks and chauvinists who thought post-Katrina clean up was no place for a woman. On her first day of training, Tricia reacted quickly and with appropriately controlled outrage after a crew-member made an obscene pass at her. Without providing too much detail, suffice it to say that she has not been propositioned again. Additionally, her creative use of language and metaphor as well as the offender's fearful reaction prompted the FEMA trainer to promote her to on-site supervisor. Apparently, her "excellent" communication skills are well suited for crowd control. Nonetheless, she declined the supervisor position after the second day because, she complained, once everyone understood the routines and chaos subsided, "It was boring."

Unbelievably, Tricia has been asked by three different contractors to stay on to fill more senior positions. Because the wages are tempting and the adventure is intriguing (to say the least), she plans to extend her stay and go home to resume school after Thanksgiving.

No doubt, hard labor has been a life-changing experience that has provided my sister with a new sense of connection and perspective by forcing her to deal with situations that would have once left her feeling powerless and victimized. What she once regarded as a stepping-stone to financial stability has opened up her eyes to the wealth of resources, knowledge and value she brings to the table both as a team member and as an individual. My family is both surprised and shocked at her newfound determinism. I believe we underestimated her. I think she did, too.

I wonder what other opportunities disguised as thankless jobs and dead-end careers are just waiting to be had by courageous women willing to take the plunge and make things happen for themselves. When the work becomes the reward, wonders never cease.

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Update: Trish quit her job at Lillie Ruben and plans to stay in New Orleans until January. She is now a truck driver and continues picking up household waste in her steel-toe boots, HAZMAT suit and FEMA-issued respirator (...I hope someone takes a picture). Fortunately, she has left the hunting camp behind and is staying in a hotel in New Orleans.

The money she is saving will allow her to return to Charlotte and finish school without having to work full-time, which means she will be able to take advanced courses she previously missed due to her work schedule. After school, she intends to go back for her instructor's license, then get her foot in the fashion industry door in Las Vegas where she hopes to become a personal stylist.

Last, but not least, while she was staying with us, she completed an art project for The Salon Association's Beacon Award. The theme was beauty as personal expression (or something similarly vague). She chose shoes as her medium (can you imagine? For now, you'll have to. I don't have clearance to post the pictures.). Out of several hundred entrants, she won one of five spots to take an all-expense-paid trip to the TSA Awards in San Diego where she will spend face time with Paul Mitchell, Vidal Sasson, etc., discussing technique and the like. One of the celebrity judges remarked on her score sheet that he'd like to introduce her to his friend...Steve Madden. She is ecstatic. And we're proud.

Congratulations Patricia!

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