Phil was a sign-maker with his own business, and his work was displayed over storefronts all over New York City. Sign-making is a tough, competitive industry, and Phil worked all the hours he could to make his business work. After he fired an employee, he was approached by an immigrant kid who wanted a job. Phil gave him a chance and was immediately glad that he had, because his new worker was efficient and attentive. Many years later, when Phil fell on bad times, he discovered that the universe has a way of paying back one’s good deeds in the most unexpected ways.
It was a cold evening in New York, and Phil had just finished counting the register and put the day’s takings in the safe. Not good. The day had been relatively busy, but the store just wasn’t making enough profit. He looked at the pile of bills on the desk and told himself that he’d deal with them tomorrow. Time to close up for the night. His employees had all gone home, save for one. 20-year-old Oscar was still there, working hard at polishing some metal templates.
It was the same every day. Phil knew that if he didn’t tell the kid to go home, he’d probably stay there all night working. He had been working at Phil’s sign-making business for three years, and only missed one day – and that was for a family funeral.
Early Morning Visitor
It was a cold October morning when Phil and Oscar first met. Phil had opened the store at 7 in the morning, and not five minutes later a young man had arrived at the door. Phil told him to wait for a minute while he got things set up.
The first thing he noticed about the lad was how interested he was in everything – the half-finished signs on the counter, the tools, the paints, the examples all over the walls. His eyes were darting around the place, and Phil could immediately see that the kid was no slouch.
Looking For Work
When Phil asked what he wanted, Oscar told him in broken English that he wanted a job. To be honest, Phil’s first impulse was to say no. This wasn’t a restaurant or a supermarket, but a specialist industry that requires skills that took years to perfect.
He was always careful about choosing employees because he only wanted people that were looking to learn, so hiring a random kid that walked in off the street was not his style. And he could hear from his speech that his English was far from fluent. How could he teach him if they couldn’t communicate?
Taking A Chance
But then Phil reflected. Only a week before, he had fired his employee because he was constantly late, would always leave early, and frankly wasn’t really interested in the craft at all. And that was a young man who Phil had thought was a very promising apprentice. So maybe, thought Phil, he shouldn’t go by first impressions, and should try something new. Who knows? It might work out well.
After all, he would never have been able to open his business in the first place if it wasn’t for the bank manager taking a chance on him and agreeing to give him a loan. So Phil decided to say yes.
Phil told Oscar that he’d give him a trial, and that he’d like him to start immediately. But a troubled expression crossed Oscar’s face – he wasn’t available that day. Phil raised his eyebrows in surprise, until Oscar explained the situation.
He was on his way to another job – washing dishes in a restaurant – and he didn’t want to leave them without a dishwasher for the day. He preferred to tell them face to face that he was leaving, and then start at Phil’s shop the following day. Phil liked his attitude, and told him that he’d see him the next morning.
Oscar’s face broke into a big grin and he wouldn’t stop saying ‘thank you’. He must have said it a dozen times before Phil half-pushed him out into the street, telling him to be there at 7 am.
Phil closed the door against the cold and turned to his workbench, shaking his head. In front of him was a sign that he was painting by hand, for some burrito place opening on the Lower East Side. “Black Bear Burrito” it read, with the first ‘B’ shaped like a bear. Phil had vaguely wondered what black bear tasted like as he got to work with his paintbrush.
Lots Of Energy
When Phil arrived at the shop the following day, Oscar was already waiting outside the door, shivering in the morning cold. Phil unlocked the door and let the kid inside the shop. He showed him where to put his coat and then went to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. Oscar was right there next to him, poking his nose in the cupboards looking for cups.
Phil was not a morning person and didn’t function properly before drinking coffee, but he did realize that Oscar apparently intended to make the coffee. Phil managed to grunt a vague ‘no, go away’ as he took the dusty coffee pot off a shelf, filled it up, and turned it on.
When he turned around he could see that Oscar had picked up a broom and was sweeping the floor. Somewhere inside his pre-coffee fog, Phil was impressed. The floor did need a good clean – Phil hadn’t had the time since he’d let his employee go, and it was covered in sawdust, metal shavings, and other sundry garbage.
He poured two cups of coffee and invited Oscar to sit down. As they drank their coffee, Phil explained to Oscar how his business worked.
How The Business Works
Oscar listened attentively as Phil told him how a customer would approach him with an idea for a sign, and Phil would help them make it a reality. He’d design a draft on the computer, altering as necessary according to the client’s wishes. When the final design was approved, he’d negotiate a price, and get to work.
That was all that Phil had planned to say, but Oscar kept asking questions. How does he get customers? How does he make the signs? Which kind is the most popular? Which are the easiest to make? Which kind is the hardest to produce?
Phil just told him to tidy up while he got to work. He was still in the middle of the Black Bear Burrito sign. Paintbrush in hand, he focused on the work and didn’t lift his eyes for a couple of hours. When he did, he got a fright – Oscar was standing there, staring at what he was doing. Phil was briefly annoyed that Oscar wasn’t cleaning, but then he looked around and saw that he’d finished. The place was spotless.
Oscar had washed the floor and swept the sidewalk outside, cleaned the store windows and tidied the kitchen. When Phil went to the kitchen later he saw that he’d even cleaned the coffee pot!
His last employee would have taken a week to do so much work, and wouldn’t have done it so well either. Now, Phil saw, Oscar wanted to help him paint the sign. Phil was reluctant to let this unknown young man touch his work – he had a deadline and couldn’t afford any errors – but he decided to allow him to fill in the background of the sign while Phil worked on the detail.
As the two of them worked, Phil couldn’t help but notice that Oscar had a delicate touch with the brush and was extremely focused.
With Oscar’s help, Phil got the sign finished by the afternoon. After the paint dried, Phil wrapped it up and made to take it to the car. There was Oscar again blocking his path, with the keys to his truck in his hand. So they made the delivery together.
Back at the store, Phil had to get started on a much more challenging commission – a neon sign for a gardening store called “Harlem Horticulture”. That was a far more complex and dangerous job.
Making neon signs involves glass-blowing, vacuum-heating, electronics, and a very steady hand. The tubes that made up the lettering are lined up to the hand-drawn template and filled with neon gas. Phil had learned this from his mentor over many years, and as he began to work on this new sign, Oscar was learning from him.
It felt good to pass on knowledge to someone who appreciated it. Oscar hung on every word that Phil said and kept him supplied with coffee as he worked.
Decision Paying Off
At the end of that first day, Phil had sent Oscar home and looked around his store. It was clean for the first time in months, and there was a beautiful neon sign on the table ready for delivery. It seemed, so far, that taking this new employee had been a good decision.
Over the next months, Phil came to rely on Oscar more and more. Not only would he clean the shop and bring Oscar his lunch, but he was a fast learner and in no time at all was able to help Phil with all aspects of the business.
He was particularly useful when it came to marketing – Oscar had a gift for drumming up business. Phil had discovered this one morning when he heard Oscar laughing, and discovered him on the computer looking at the store’s website. Phil had been a little offended, but he let Oscar work on it.
Whatever he did seemed to work, because Phil was suddenly getting a lot more phone calls from prospective clients. He took on a couple more employees too as business got better – a secretary and another apprentice. Oscar was promoted to assistant manager.
Not Working Out
They worked together happily for almost three years, but sadly, Phil eventually had to let Oscar go. When he broke the news to the now 20-year-old, his employee had almost cried. Was there nothing he could do to change Phil’s mind?
Phil had to be strong. It just wasn’t working out. Telling him that he didn’t have a job there anymore was one of the hardest things he ever had to do, but that was part of being a business owner.
Phil’s other two employees were also unhappy that he was closing the business, although not to the extent that Oscar was. Phil was heartbroken too, but the store was operating at a loss.
Phil wasn’t worried about Oscar though. As upset as he was, he was Phil’s star pupil, and he would easily fit in in any business in that industry. And by that point his English had become completely fluent. Phil told him that he’d be fine.
A New Beginning
But what about Phil? He was in his 40s, and was a master of his craft, but who needed an old sign-maker without a workshop? He decided to leave New York for pastures new. He had family in Florida, so he headed south.
It was tough to start again. He used his savings to open a new business, but after struggling along for a few years, he had to close that one too. Then he took a job working for someone else, but it was tough to go from business owner to employee. He spent twelve years in Florida trying to find his feet.
Missing The Big Apple
But Phil missed the deli sandwiches, the lights, the noise and the excitement of New York City. So one day, he decided that he just had to go back north. He didn’t know what he’d do, he just knew that it was too damn hot in Florida, and he wanted to see if his signs were still hanging over his customers’ storefronts.
As he got off the plane at Newark, he felt that he could breathe freely again. He had come home.
A Tour Of The City
The first thing he did was to take a walk around the city. He wanted to see if his work was still there. His first stop was the Lower East Side. He walked until he caught a good smell, and there was the sign, a little old and worn but still good – the Black Bear Burrito.
There were others too – the whole city was marked with his signature if you knew where to look. Phil walked along, eating a burrito, and trying to push out of his mind the thought that he needed to find a job. He would worry about that tomorrow. But then, he saw something.
A Beautiful Store
A sign-making store, right there on the corner. He could see that the owner had a good eye because the store’s sign was beautiful, and there were lots of examples displayed behind squeaky-clean windows.
Neon signs, painted signs, and flashing LED signs, Phil could see that this was a place run by a master craftsman. He finished his burrito and walked into the shop. With any luck, they’d have a job for him.
A Busy Business
Looking around the store, Phil realized how much he had missed the sign-making business. This establishment was much larger than his had been. At the back he could see a small warehouse of materials, and there were around 20 employees wearing uniforms.
Phil went up to the counter and was greeted politely by a receptionist. He told her that he was looking for work, but her response wasn’t promising. She said “sure” and took an application form out of the desk for Phil to fill in.
Phil sat down and looked at the form in front of him. As he filled in his name, age, and work experience, he couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed. He knew that this was useless pride, but once he had owned his own store, and it felt beneath him to be doing this as if he was some kid looking for his first job.
He finished the form and got up to hand it to the receptionist. He didn’t feel hopeful. But as she took the paper from him, Oscar felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around and was greeted with a bear-hug.
He began work that very day. Being a master himself, he didn’t have anything to learn – he just picked up right where he left off. In fact, he didn’t even have to worry about learning the name of his new boss.
Yes, you guessed it, his new boss was Oscar. He had set up his own business after Phil had gone away, and was now employing ten people in a workshop which shipped signs out nationwide. But he still made room for his old mentor at the bench.
“I see the potential in him,” said Oscar with a laugh. Phil said: “What he’s done in 12 years is just amazing. I think we’re just getting started and we’re going to soar.”
The two friends were left with only one disagreement, and that was which of them owed the other more – the apprentice who saved his mentor when he was broke, or the mentor who taught the apprentice everything he knew.