My grandfather lived his life working his way out of debt. Now that he’s free, he still can’t seem to slow down.
I sat in my grandparent’s kitchen over baked potatoes and chicken soup while they fought over details of my grandfather’s childhood. These are the facts we settled on: He was born in ’47 in Brooklyn, New York in a three bedroom apartment he shared with twelve siblings. He moved to Hackensack, New Jersey by the age of ten (proven by my grandmother who has a picture of him and his brothers in ’57 on John Street in Hackensack, but my grandfather swears his prayer book proves her wrong) where he met my grandmother, who grew up in the house they’re living in now. They had a crazy, hard life. A life they left far behind 20 years ago. As he cuts me a slice of sour cream cake, he tells me, “Kelsey, I was in danger every single day of my life.”
My grandparents’ story begins when they met at a local fair when they were 15. There isn’t one without the other.
My grandfather is an entrepreneur and a master of sneaking chocolate with a love for Subaru cars. He is unapologetically confident. On Sunday mornings, he rocks denim overalls while taking a stroll on his treadmill, shoots hoops on his (grass) basketball court, and has no problem asking construction workers if he can use their porta-potty. Until four months ago, he owned a little red sports car that he took for long drives just for the hell of it.
My grandmother is a small but strong woman who can cook a pizza to perfection and will always remember to call the house every morning. For every occasion (Coming home for a weekend? Dance recital? Birthday?) she’ll make you the meal of your choice, no matter what the request. My grandfather may be the wizard of all of his crazy business ideas, but my grandmother is pulling all the strings. She is the man behind the curtain.
Even through high school, he worked full-time. First as a shoe-shiner, then moving on to an autobody shop. “Soon as I graduated in 1966, I was eighteen, I got drafted during the Vietnam war. I just so happened to work on this guy’s car, Sargent Major, and he was my boss’s neighbor. My boss didn’t want to lose me as a worker, so he pulled some strings and got me into the National Guard.”
My Pop worked for seven years as a welder and recruiter in the National Guard, working one weekend each month. “We just lived our life. We got married, had kids, I started my clean-up business at 23.”
I’ve heard many stories about his clean-up business. It was filled with dangerous side-steps and complicated rules. He’s had run-ins with the mob, the law, and even brushes with death.
“I bought and sold 55-gallon drums. I would load up the truck and it would hold about 40-50 drums. Making 50,75, a quarter. I was a peddler of sorts. I would get cleaned up, go to these factories, put on my salesman hat, get the job, then go back home, throw on work clothes, and then go do the job.”
He played multiple roles in all of his businesses, often taking these ventures on by himself. I can see that in him now as he takes on side projects on my own house, sometimes without my parent’s permission. He’s stubborn like that. One time, I came home to him on my roof trimming the branches of our trees. He was driving by and they seemed “a little too long for his liking”.
With all these trucks and removal jobs, he needed somewhere to put it all. “I was also in the junk business, I had a junk yard, guard dog, everything”. He shows me pictures of the structure he built by himself. Pretty impressive for a man who was just winging it. He faced everything alone (with my grandmother by his side of course), “One day a customer called and was asking about the facility. Oh today we had a skeleton crew on today, but it was just us. We were the skeleton crew AND full-time crew”. I can’t imagine how lonely and exhausting it must have been to be breaking your back day and night just to get by.
“We owned a lot of real-estate. Two-family houses, auto-body shop, 45 acres in the country. This came with bumps and bruises.”
“They affiliated us with the mob. All the time. It was extremely difficult. The entire industry was moved by the mob. I was in danger every single day of my life. You always feared for your life. You had to do things that were not your makeup. You did what you had to do to survive.”
“We’ll just leave it at that.”
The mob has always had ties to the garbage industry. They get into legal businesses while also laundering money. He recalls late-night exchanges on docks, or times where he was constantly looking over his shoulder. “I’ve never gotten directly involved with the mob, no”. But he’s dealt with them doing “check-ins” to make sure that he is going by their rules. They were looking to squash any competition so they could run the industry.
My grandma was right there with him, “We had the cleanup business for four years. It was starting to get so successful, but in ’74 he stepped in acid and we lost everything. We had to start all over.”
Working in clean-up, you were constantly around hazardous waste. One day on the job, my grandfather and one of his workers were navigating through a site when he slipped into a vat of acid. Without the help of his employee, he would have died on the spot. After a stay in the hospital, he was back and better than ever.
My grandfather is a glass-half full man. No matter the situation, he’s smiling, trying to crack a joke (even if it sucks). As he tells these horrible tales, he’s smiling. He has scars he won’t talk about. For the next year, they lived on insurance checks for a bit while he tried to re-build his life and business.
When dealing with hazardous waste, you had to fight off everyone. “The whole world it seemed was against you. The FBI, the locals, environmentalists. They were trying to crack down on all the wrong-doings of others. What I was doing was legal, but I was the middle man. I can’t say the same for the facilities that I dropped materials off at.”
New laws in the 70’s put the blame on everyone involved in the process. My grandpa referred to this as the “cradle to grave rule”. As long as you touched it, you were to blame. With a small business, legal trouble like this put the company in danger of losing everything. “I loved the business but when you get in hot water, you lose customers, plus I couldn’t afford to keep a lawyer full-time. I went broke doing it.”
Their financial struggles only began there, as it became harder to own and sell property in the 80’s and 90’s.
“I was always in debt. We had a million dollars out in loans. Between the property and equipment, I owed a lot of money.”
He took risks and lost many things, but he also was hardworking and talented. His relentlessness carried him through a lot. When he finally sold his removal and cleanup business, his competitor jumped at the chance. “He told me I was the thorn in his side for thirteen years. And then he hired me for a full year. I worked off commission and I had so many clients that he couldn’t afford to pay me my part, so he let me go.”
My grandma explained to me that after this, they branched off into something new. “We bought a flower shop. What did we know about being florists? Nothing. He thought it was interesting and liked the property, plus now we had a business we could run.” She shows me pictures of how they transformed the ugly, dark space from the 40’s into a cozy shop where they had a cat that she loved (and she’s not even a cat person). “We took this place from a hole in the ground and we made it something beautiful.”
They did this a lot in the coming years. Buying into new adventures and investing in the property they sat on. “I always bought for property. To really turn it into something great.” Sometimes it paid off, other times they just felt overworked. “Everything I did was hard work. Never easy, but I did it my whole life.”
My grandma continued on about the flower shop, “We did it for a year. We had a greenhouse next door, but it was brutal. That Valentine’s Day, it was a blizzard. Your grandfather and I spent all day and night delivering bouquets in heaps of snow. We still had people yelling at us for being late.”
After that, it wasn’t worth it anymore. It was time to start something new. During this time, he bought properties all around Tri State Area. Houses down in South Jersey, apartments in New York to rent out to rising Broadway stars. “I thought I was building what could have been my future, and I would have been much more successful today but during the course of all this, I was working then not working, so we couldn’t afford what we had anymore.”
It was a constant uphill battle that worked them to the point of exhaustion. He bought a convenience store, a food truck, and even a Go-Go bar over the span of 20 years. Through all this, they struggled to get by. “You did it by winging it. I truly learned by trial and error. No one was there to help you.”
“After we sold the flower shop, I got back into the garbage business.”
“That’s when the Attorney General showed up at our door.”
There was trouble that followed him wherever he went in that business. His boss was doing illegal things, such as improper removal of waste. It was becoming tiring to constantly be running from the law, but he found it hard to let go because he was constantly thinking about paying the bills. “But after that happened again, I never looked back.”
“I worked on average 20 hours a day for all my businesses. It was a rough life. Everything I did was brutal and not worth it. You couldn’t stop me. I was obsessed. I got myself so much in debt and I had to keep going to do all of these things.” He woke up before dawn to drive trucks and open his stores. “I fell asleep in the Lincoln Tunnel once, right there at the wheel.” In his world sleep deprivation was an everyday occurrence that he fought constantly.
In the 90’s, prices of property shot up, preventing him from being able to easily buy houses and rent them out. Many of his investments once again became too expensive to keep up with. Now, he still owns one property around the corner from their house. “That was where we had the food truck, it’s still my favorite spot.” Now it’s occupied by a trucking company who uses it to store equipment. It’s the last piece he can’t let go of.
Their debt didn’t last forever. They got out of it one by one, with smart investments and a little luck. After much success but many failures, he began to want a more stable lifestyle to help support his family and to fit his aging body.
In 1999, he began working for a fencing company, a place he would stay until he retired seven years ago. Even now, in retirement, he goes out and does estimates for them every day. You could chalk it up to boredom, but to me it’s that obsession that he’s had inside him for the last 55 years.
My grandpa is a wonderful man who is full of life. He’s also a stubborn man who pushes things until he’s hanging by a thread. Is it a bad thing? I think there’s two sides to it. It’s gotten him where he is today and it’s rubbed off on those around him. Across all generations of my family, we’ve become hard-working individuals determined to succeed in our own ways.
On the other hand, he seems conflicted when telling me the story. He worked his life away to feed his initial obsession that sent him down a path of physical danger and financial turmoil. The mental strain he felt during these times must weigh on him even now. Before this, I never knew the full extent of what their lifestyle meant.
But what pushes him to still work himself into the ground? He’s in his 70’s and debt-free. Some part of him can’t seem to escape the mindset of working to pay the bills. It’s been his routine for 50+ plus years and he can’t relax. Like many successful figures, he’s always wanting to keep getting better, beating himself up to the point of stressful breakdowns and health problems. He’s thrown out his back twice in the past year trying to do simple tasks. This is the way he’s always lived his life, trying to beat himself at his own game.
After two rounds of soup and three slices of cake, it was time to head back to work. He had three more appointments that day that he needed to tend to. He continues to feed the fire that’s deep down inside and I don’t know if it’ll ever go away.