Nothing ever came easy for me in life. Of that much, I am certain.
Most children are born in hospitals. I was born in the back seat of our neighbor’s Pontiac during a snowstorm early one December morning. My Father delivered me, wrapped my Mother and I in a blanket, and carried us the last several blocks to the hospital in Brooklyn. I suppose you could say that I was somewhat eager to begin my career as a writer.
More seriously, I knew from the early age of 8 that my life would be much different than those of other children when my mother died of Hodgkin’s Disease at the age of 30, following a three-year struggle. I watched my mother waste away in bed at home, until one day she was so weak that she had to be carried unconscious out of our house on a stretcher. It was the last time I saw her. I witnessed how devastating this loss was emotionally for my father, who lost his wife and mother of his two children, and for my grandmother, who had lost her daughter and only child. Little did I realize at the time what a long, dark shadow this loss would cast over me, and to what extent it would color my outlook on life.
Immediately, I knew my life would be different. I became a sensitive, reserved, painfully shy child who understood the fragility and ephemeral nature of life, how unfair and cruel life could be at times, and how everything you loved in life could be taken away from at any moment. Even at this early age, however, I found it much easier to express my thoughts in written words than I did verbally with friends or family. I often fantasized and daydreamed of having a complete family again. In quiet times, I wrote letters to God. The Post Office returned them.
I began an awakening of sorts in 1964. Beatlemania was sweeping America. It was a magical time and place to be a child in America. I could never quite understand the hysteria of the girls and young women who shrieked and pulled out their hair when The Beatles played on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sure, I loved The Beatles’ music. Who didn’t? But I also enjoyed having hair on my head.
Then it happened. In the summer of 1964, while we were on vacation in the Catskill Mountains, I heard the new Number One song on the rock-and-roll charts: House of the Rising Sun, by The Animals. It was stunning how good it was, both lyrically and musically. It told a story of poverty and hardship in the life of a young man growing up in a gambler’s den in New Orleans. It was a fusion of the blues from the Deep South and modern rock-and-roll. A year later, The Animals released another huge hit, We Gotta Get Out of This Place, whose lyrics spoke to me personally in a way no other music ever had:
“In this dirty old part of the city,
Where the sun refused to shine,
People tell me there ain’t no use in trying.”
True to the lyrics of the song, I watched my father’s hair “turning grey, he’s been working and slaving his life away.” This group of musicians from working class families in the docklands of Newcastle, U.K., had given me a strong sense of identity as a working class kid from Brooklyn. More than my friends, I suddenly knew who I was and where I wanted to go in life. Not only did I learn about myself through music, but I was smitten by the smooth rhythms and rhymes of the lyrics. Song lyrics were poetry set to music. Little did I know at the time, however, that I’d be publishing my first novel, The Animals, a fictional account of the rise and fall of the band, several decades later.
By my first year in college I knew that I wanted to be a writer in life. I had begun reading and writing poetry years before. Journalism provided my first path into writing. It was basically formula writing: Who, What, When, Where and Why. I took to it like a duck to water. I worked hard to hone my skills.
By my second summer in college, I found steady work with a local community newspaper in Brooklyn. I can still recall my first assignment: The publisher had heard reports that organized crime was behind a neighborhood beautification and tree-planting campaign in Carroll Gardens, the home of Crazy Joe Gallo, among other notorious members of the Mafia. I was sent to investigate the rumors. I found crews planting young trees in the tree pits on Carroll street under the aegis of two very well-dressed men in fedoras. The smaller one had a face which looked like pie crust; the taller one looked like a water buffalo in a business suit. I explained to them that I wanted to report a story on the neighborhood beautification campaign.
“He wants to write a story on us,” the smaller one smirked. “Sure. What do you want to know?”
“Is there any truth to the rumors that organized crime is footing the bill for the tree-planting campaign to improve their image?” I asked, in earnest.
The taller guy glowered at me.
“You know what?” he said to me. “You’d better get out of here – before we plant you!”
He looked as if he meant it, too. Unfortunately, my first by-line would have to wait.
I truly hit my stride in journalism a trade newspaper called Laundry News. This quickly became the subject of a joke among family and friends each time someone asked about work.
“What could you possibly write about?” people would ask. “How to put coins in the laundry machine?”
Actually, it was a whole lot more complicated than that. Most people could joke about it because these were laundry operations none of them had ever seen; these were the huge institutional laundries inside hospitals, hotels, nursing homes and prisons which functioned on an industrial scale to provide millions of pounds a year of clean sheets, towels, pillow cases, uniforms, tablecloths and napkins to keep institutions going.
And many of them still functioned like the dens of inequity Charles Dickens described in 19th Century Great Britain: Hot, steamy, exploitative and dangerous. Only this time, the labor was being provided, for the most part, by minorities and immigrants, many of them illegal.
It was during this time that I also came to realize that journalism and editing was playing another very important part in my life: It had not only become my livelihood, but it had also forced the shy, sensitive, painfully withdrawn child from Brooklyn to emerge from his shell, to engage with people, and develop the confidence to report the difficult news no one else in the industry reported.
And there was an abundance of it. I had developed a network of contacts in the U.S. and Canada who gained confidence in me and who were willing to peel back the curtain on some of the industry’s dirty little secrets, scandals and tragedies. I spent six months unearthing information and then finally reporting on conditions at a healthcare laundry in Quebec: Human body parts were sent in the soiled linen from the surgical suites down to the central laundry. Workers who sorted the soiled linen routinely found syringes, needles, scalpels and other sharp objects.
Workers were being killed in laundries. More investigative work needed to be done. I reported on decrepit conditions and negligence in one laundry in which a high-speed extractor disintegrated an decapitated one employee five minutes before his shift ended. In another horrible case, we reported on a maintenance worker who was accidentally trapped inside a 400-pound-capacity dryer while performing routine maintenance. The worker died in temperatures of up to 260 degrees when the machine activated. Investigations were launched by district attorneys. The revelations led to the passage of OSHA’s Lock-Out Tag-Out Rule, requiring routine inspections of equipment and requirements that all machinery be locked and tagged off before maintenance could be performed.
It got worse: In 1996, I received word that five laundry workers had contracted HIV infections as a result of needle-stick injuries suffered in the laundry. The data was confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The publication of our story was instrumental in the passage of OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Health Standard, designed to protect front-line employees from unnecessary exposure to bloodborne pathogens, such as HIV and hepatitis.
I spent more than 12 years practicing this type of activist, investigative journalism, exposing accidents and hazards in the workplace, as well as kickbacks and corruption by corporations. I’d like to think that our work led to safer working conditions for men and women in the industry. I felt I had hit my stride as a journalist and editor.
My reward was to have my newspaper sold out from underneath me by its corporate owner. The paper was moved to Chicago. I was swept out into the street. Talk about bitter endings. How often does a person’s sense of identity and self-importance become bound up in their work? What I felt was that my life’s work and my personal crusade to expose workplace hazards were suddenly rendered meaningless. Once again, everything I loved was taken away from me.
I was still some years away from writing my first novel. But I had begun to do some serious soul-searching: Had I sold myself short as a writer? Why had I placed my creative writing on the distant horizon?
In the early 2000s, news coverage was migrating online. Newspapers were building web sites for news; corporations were flooding into the online space. I went to work for the digital web sites of KPMG, one of the Big Four accounting firms, and quickly became expert in the area of pharmaceuticals. The compensation and benefits were great. Within a few years, I was earning over $100,000 a year and enjoying five weeks of vacation.
But something was missing. We published breaking news in each morning’s news alerts and developed our own feature stories based upon trends in the industry. The subject matter was often fascinating, such as how pharmaceutical companies corrupted physicians to prescribe their drugs, how they tweaked their approved drugs with extended-release formulations to gain additional years of patent protection and billions more in profits, and how they spent millions of dollars attempting to deny AIDS patients in third-world countries access to low-cost generic versions of their patented drugs, which were phenomenally expensive. They literally preferred profits to the lives of women and children in Africa, South America and Asia.
It was during this time that I made a compact with myself to begin work on my first novel, The Animals, which had long occupied a place on the distant horizon. I spent Monday nights in the empty, darkened office space on the 40th floor of our building at 52nd Street and Park Avenue plotting out chapters, roughing out scenes, and developing characters.
The end came suddenly. Our department editors received an electronic message early one Friday morning to meet with our department manager in a conference room upstairs.
“By now, you’ve heard the news,” said our department head, scanning his mobile phone for important messages.
“No,” I said. “What news is that?”
“We’re closing down your department,” he said. “This is a corporate decision which came from above. It’s really all about the reallocation of firm resources.”
He instructed me to go the human resources office to learn about what remaining benefits I had, then extended his hand to thank me for my services.
“I’d shake your hand, David, but I’m not wearing a glove,” I said to him, then watched as the smile ran away from his face.
It was like a totally absurd scene out of the film Office Space. They sent human resources personnel to stand over us and collect our ID cards, our building passes, and lap top computers and keys to our desks. They ordered us to empty our desks of all files, documents and materials, then place them in a bin for shredding. We were all out on the street within an hour. I had struck rock bottom again.
That distant horizon was suddenly here, in front of me. I remember standing on the subway grating on Lexington Avenue – the same subway grating where, decades earlier, Marilyn Monroe had been photographed with her dress opening up like a parachute on the warm current of air from the onrushing subway train downstairs – and feeling totally disrespected again, robbed and cheated of my livelihood, my work and expertise trashed again. This was becoming a theme in my life.
It was time to put my soul to the test. I needed to begin writing creatively. It would be a struggle financially without my livelihood. It would require great sacrifice. It was fraught with risk. There was absolutely no guarantee of success. But I did some soul-searching: If I didn’t begin pursuing my dream of creative work now, then when would I? If I didn’t have faith and confidence in my abilities, then who would have faith and confidence in my work?
I joined a literary group in Manhattan and began writing poetry again. Inspiration often came to me at odd times. I would scribble notes on the back of The New York Times during subway rides. I’d be lying in bed and suddenly think of something I wanted to write. I’d become so engrossed in a story in a magazine in a doctor’s office that I’d tear out the pages and then go home and write about it.
I worked hard and long to bang out a first draft of The Animals. When I completed it, I knew it was too long. I had some friends and beta readers review it: They agreed. I went back and spent another six months re-reading it, marking it up, and rewriting it, cutting it mercilessly. I was convinced that I had a book worthy of publication. Make that two books, because I had been steadily building a body of new poetry works.
I had a more difficult time convincing publishers of this. I wrote hundreds of query letters – 236, to be exact – and submitted the novel to publishers, large and small, over a period of five months. Most never took even took the time to answer. Many liked the concept of the story, but decided not to take a risk on an unproven, novice author. Then, in a span of a week, I received two offers of a contract, one much better than the other. I must admit that I cried. I cried out of relief. I cried out of joy. I cried because I knew, at long last, that my work had been validated.
Soon after, my first collection of poetry – The Light of Ancient Stars – was accepted immediately by a European publisher. This was no less important to me than acceptance of my novel. Poetry had always been the musical lyrics of my soul. Now a different publisher had believed in the powers of my poetic works.
I was finally well on my way to becoming a published author. I had successfully reinvented myself and risen from the depths of emotional despair and potential financial ruin. I knew that I had achieved something no one could ever take away from me: Success as a creative author.