First, a quick chronology: I started in the heating industry in 1970 because my father worked for a heating manufacturers rep and he told me this was the best business to be in if I never wanted to be out of work.
I asked him why and he said, “Because it gets cold every winter.”
I married Marianne in 1972 and took a second part-time security job at the Nassau Coliseum (former full-time and current part-time home of the NHL’s New York Islanders) so we could afford to buy a house. My manufacturers rep job went from 9 to 5. My security-guard job went from 6:30 to whatever time the Islanders, the Nets or some 70s arena band finished for the evening.
We bought our house in June 1977 and welcomed our first daughter the following March. Three more daughters followed over the next three years. We cheated a bit on the last two. They’re twins.
I was 30 years old in 1980 and still working those two jobs. I looked at the other security guards and realized that most of them were old enough to be my father. In fact, one of them was my father. Most of them said they were working for a vacation house, or the boat, or the Cadillac or to just get away from the wife. They were all marching in place and most of them were miserable.
I decided to quit that second job and to go to college at night instead.
I mentioned this to the man who owned the manufacturers rep company where I worked and he asked me what I wanted to study. I asked him what would be best for the company and I really thought he would point me toward marketing or mechanical engineering, but he saw the world differently than I did at the time.
“I want you to study liberal arts,” he said. “If you do that, I will pay for it.”
“Thanks!” I said. “But why liberal arts?”
“Because I want you to be able to have an intelligent conversation on any subject with the people who run the companies we represent,” he said. “When they come to visit, I want you to be able to sit with them and hold your own. That’s what you get from liberal arts.”
“What should my major be?” I asked.
So that’s what I did during my thirties when I wasn’t working during the day. I went to Hofstra University at night. My boss selected each of my courses after looking into the credentials of the professors. He looked at every one of my tests and went over my grades. He read every paper I ever wrote after I received it back from my professor. He always read silently and never said what he thought about the paper. I remember how quiet his office was high above Fifth Ave., in Manhattan as he did this. When he was done, he would nod.
I graduated with honors and I continued to read widely. On a frigid December day as we were finishing up some business that had nothing to do with my schooling, he paused and said. “What is your goal in life, Dan?”
“Someday,” I said without hesitating, “I want to be as smart as you are.”
He smiled and said in a voice barely above a whisper, “You will never be as smart as I am. I am better educated than you.”
And then he turned his attention toward the papers on his desk and said, “Let’s get together again next week. Thursday morning would be best.” And he dismissed me.
I got up and carried his words to the subway like a sack of heavy chains.
He was born to wealth and had attended exclusive schools I could never dream of attending when I was young. He was a professional engineer. He owned a successful company. I would never be as smart as him. He told me that and he dismissed me before I could say another word. He was better educated than me. No matter what I did, I would never be as smart as he was. Never.
“What is your goal in life, Dan?”
I kept all this to myself. I worked hard every day, read voraciously and listened to everyone who had something to teach me. I tried my best to be a good husband and father. And I carried those heavy words. He had paid for my formal education. He had mentored me. And then he had put me in my place. I didn’t understand it at the time, so I carried those words, and I simmered.
You will never be as smart as me. Never.
But he doesn’t know everything there is to know about steam heating, I thought one day.
I looked around.
And then I realized that no one did.
Books a million
So I went to the main library just down the block on Fifth Ave., and I read books about steam heating from cover to cover, and then I read them again. And I went to used-book stores and bought old books written before my father was born and I read them as well. I found trade magazines from the early 1900s and I devoured their technical articles. And after a few years I began to get it. So I asked my boss if I could write some of this down so that our customers could read it and learn from me, and he said OK, and that’s how I became a writer.
I would never be as smart as he was. He had told me that, but I could know more about steam heating than he did. It was a small thing, but I could do that. I clawed at that subject like an addict, and I grew with it and it became a part of who I am.
And I discovered something important along the way. My knowledge came from books. I did not touch pipes or boilers or tools. I read and I wrote, and as I wrote about the steam, the people who did touch pipes and boilers and tools called me to say that because of my writing they now knew why and not just how. And by way of thanks, they invited me to go on jobs with them, to help them solve problems and to learn more. And that is how I finally got to touch the real things.
We learned from each other, and no one asked for payment in dollars. Our currency was shared knowledge, and our tuition was time spent together.
In 1989, I asked my old boss if I would ever be able to buy into the business because our children were growing like corn and we wanted the best for them, as he did for his own children.
He said no.
I asked him what he would do if he was me.
“I’d definitely quit,” he said.
And so I gave him six months’ notice and I left. I would now be a writer and a speaker, out there on my own, but never alone. The contractors kept calling me for free advice. They called at all hours of the day and night. I smiled at Marianne as I kept answering the phone, and helping others for free. They repaid me by sharing more and more of their hands-on knowledge and by telling me their stories.
In 1992, I self-published my first book, “The Lost Art of Steam Heating,” based on what I had learned from the old books and magazines, and from the contractors. I self-published because no publisher believed in me. Not one. I took a chance because by then, I believed in me.
That book put all four of our daughters though college and paid for their weddings. I wrote 25 more books after that and everything worked out just fine. My old boss is long gone, but his words live on in me, and now I realize that those cruel words were actually his greatest gift to me. He had educated me, and mentored me, and then he had challenged me by slapping me in the face.
And I learned over time that it’s not so much the slap, but what you do with it that counts. And that is the truth.
The building where I took that slap is two blocks away from The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York, founded in 1785, and its Mechanics Institute, where tradespeople have been benefiting from tuition-free trade education since 1858. I am the current president of the society and the chair of the Mechanics Institute. It’s just two blocks away, but it took me 30 years to walk those two blocks.
And I am still learning.