I moved to San Francisco in 2000. It’s strange to think about that now. The year 2000 felt like such a big deal leading up to it. I lived at the turn of a century, the same as my ancestors who lived in 1900, 1800, 1700—only they lived in England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, Sweden. They spoke different languages, but likely led similar lives—they were farmers, ranchers, and farmers’ and ranchers’ wives. I was just a recent college grad working as a hostess at a sushi restaurant.
I moved in with my best friend, Hari, who lived off Divisidaro, in a damp old Victorian with a cast of characters that included a guy who had recently split his head open and had staples holding his skull skin together; a party chick; and a dude who we referred to as a “techno hippie” due to his love of both jam bands and electronica. I picture him in oversized raver pants and a hemp necklace. That was San Francisco at the turn of the century—somewhere between the Summer of Love and The Jetsons.
I literally got on a plane and shipped a couple of boxes, with no job lined up, no car, no furniture. For the first couple weeks I slept in blankets on the floor. Maybe I was punishing myself for something. I’m not really sure. The thing that made the biggest impression on me was that nothing ever got dry. Your hair stayed wet. Your clothes stayed wet. The floor and the air were wet. And cold as hell.
The good news was that there were lots of jobs. It was the tech boom. I went to a downtown temp agency and filled out an application. I had never had a real job before, so I didn’t know what I could do, but I was pretty sure I could do something. I had an English Lit degree, so at the very least, I could analyze the shit out of some prose.
My first temp job was canvassing with a guy who was running for city council. I met him at his nice townhouse, had coffee with his wife and kids, and then we went door to door with fliers. We went to Robin Williams’ house. Of course, we didn’t ring the bell or anything; we just left a flier in the mailbox at the gate.
The next week, the temp agency called me and said they had a receptionist job at an interior design firm. The office was on Potrero Hill in a Victorian that felt more like a posh residence than a business. The receptionist desk was at the top of the main staircase, in a nook that might have been a coat closet or a converted dressing room. It had a nice sunny skylight and a mirror behind the computer so that I never had to wonder if there was anything stuck in my teeth.
This was my first time answering multi-line phones, which is no joke—you have to answer and transfer many different types of calls, watch to see if the person picks up, monitor calendars, know who is in and out and when they will be back, take messages, send callers to voicemail. Then you had to meet the mailman and the UPS guy, sign for packages. And do all sorts of administrative tasks in the meantime—helping with data entry and typing letters, organizing, filing. Anything that was asked of you.
Anyone who thinks that it’s difficult to be a CEO or president of a company should try being a receptionist. Talk about pressure.
Add to that the sensitivity of working in a firm that served high-end clientele—movie stars, musicians, and powerful businessmen (and powerful businessmen’s wives). You had to make everyone feel important. I was expected to know who certain people were, and to treat them with special care.
Having no experience in the design world, everything was new to me. Thankfully, I had a great supervisor, Cynthia, who helped me along and encouraged me. I remember once she was having me categorize a bunch of items in a spreadsheet, and it had categories like “Lighting” “Floor coverings” “Window coverings” and I came across “Kilim” and I didn’t know which category to put it in, so I think I put it in the lighting section, and then Cynthia looked over my work and started cracking up laughing. She was like, um… a kilim is a rug.
I don’t know why I didn’t just look it up. We had the Internet! I had a computer! But maybe that was back when I still thought that I was supposed to know everything. (Business Lesson #1: People who act like they know everything usually don’t know shit.)
As it turned out, I was pretty good at the job. After a few months, I was promoted to Design Team Administrator—I was taken off phone duty and put to work assisting with project management for a team of three designers and an interior architect.
In another firm, with other designers, this might have been a Devil–Wears–Prada-style nightmare. I mean, we were working on multi-million dollar projects for big-name clients. Thirty-thousand dollars for an armoire? No problem. A $20,000 chair? You got it. (Case in point: I was assigned to a project in an enormous apartment that looked directly down onto author Danielle Steele’s courtyard.)
But, as luck would have it, the Wiseman Group was not that kind of place (at least not to me—I can only speak from my experience). The people were warm, kind, generous, and fun. Despite my youth and limited skills, I was entrusted with important projects; I was challenged to learn new software, to develop my own procedures and work processes, and to go as far as I wanted to go professionally. I never felt stifled—to the contrary—they seemed to think that I could do anything I put my mind to.
I got that encouragement from my coworkers and superiors, including the founder of the company, Paul Wiseman. I’m not exactly sure why Paul liked me so much (I’m sure I botched plenty of things that affected his projects), but he was one of my biggest supporters. That made a huge impression—that someone who had been so successful—an award-winning designer whose work appeared in Architectural Digest and House Beautiful—could see something special in me.
Ultimately, it was that support, and the confidence I gained from my work at the Wiseman Group, that encouraged me to leave San Francisco (and a well-paying job with growth potential) to pursue what I really wanted to do. I wanted to write. And, thanks to Paul, and to all of my friends and coworkers at the Wiseman Group, I finally believed that I could actually do it. I will always be grateful for that.
Maybe one of the reasons we all got along so well was that we went to a lot of parties. And you know I love parties.
After I left TWG, I think it was Amy who sent me these pictures. Look how chic and elegant everyone was!
Before I move on from this period, just a word about my post-college job at Sushi Tora, on Pearl Street in Boulder. While I learned that I really don’t care for hostessing or waiting tables, I was sure lucky to work with these fantastic people.
Next up: 6 Organizations That Changed My Life, Vol. 3: The Colorado Daily