(This entry is part of Ned Potter’s Library Routes Project. The idea is to write an entry detailing how you got into the profession along with what made you decide to do so and/or the career path which has taken you to where you are today. I’ve been wanting to write this entry for a long time.)
Just under ten years ago, I was standing out in the summer sun surrounded by acres and acres of various types of plants in pots. Wide brim hat on my head, sunglasses keeping the glare at bay, everyday was warm when you wore jeans to work. Shorts are not your best option when you are working with pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals that carry labels that say “Caution”, “Warning”, or even a few “Dangerous”. As I was given rather fair skin and an inclination for contact dermatitis, jeans were part of my own work uniform. The site was 400 acres in size nicknamed The Orchard; it was a former orchard cleared, graded, covered in gravel, and had rows and rows of rib houses (much like the ones in the picture to the side). Hundreds of these houses were on the side, some as long as football fields. As my first job out of college, I was hired as an Assistant Manager of Irrigation and Chemical Application. This meant running the water pump, managing the watering of areas, creating spray schedules for chemical applications, and maintenance and repair of literally miles of PVC piping and hundreds of sprinkler heads. Our group was the smallest, but it was tasked with one of the most vital aspects to commercial horticulture.
In the previous four years, I went to the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey outside of Atlantic City. I had completed a Bachelor of Science in Biological Science (A B.S. in B.S., I would joke) with a late concentration on horticulture. I was doomed from the start, I think, since I certainly could name and explain all of the plant cellular operations and chemistry but my taxonomy was terrible. But I didn’t want to work at a desk at that time; I wanted to be outside, working with my hands, and with a job where I couldn’t take the work home with me. This nursery was the right fit for a me at the age of 22.
My college chemistry found some use to the chemical work, as you needed to find different dilutions for chemicals before applying them from giant sprayers. There was always weeds to kill, growing through the gravel and dirt, in the edges of the houses and along the inner roadways. And there were certainly other pathogens that needed attention: mold, mildew, fungus, and insects of all types and stripes. And the watering was nearly year round; when the houses were covered, it could get up to 60 degrees or hotter depending on the amount of light that the polyurethane covering allowed in. In January, the rose plants would arrive and we would grow them up to size to send to the big box stores like Home Depot and Lowes for their spring garden sections. Between our site and the other company site close by (a larger 800 acres, now 1,200), it was quite the operation.
To an extent, I liked the work there. I do like playing with the big toys such as front end loaders, tractors, fork trucks, and other vehicles. My real attraction was being able to do something for which I could see a result. When I watered, a plant grew; when it got sick, I applied treatments to make it better. The downsides are really all I have left in terms of memory for the place beyond those feelings; low salary, little benefits, unfair treatment of migratory workers, a somewhat poisonous corporate atmosphere with little room to advance, and repetitive seasonal work. I got a promotion to the propagation section (where cuttings were grown up), but within six months they decided they didn’t need me anymore.
Rather than fire me right then, they gave me “another chance” by assigning me a near Herculean task building more rib houses on the nearly acquired property. It was an impossible task given in the cold of winter, given not enough manpower, tools, or time to complete it. I resigned myself sticking it out; they were not going to make me quit.
Three months later, I got my walking papers. I think I smiled the whole drive home. The tribulation was over.
In another six months, I found work at a much smaller commercial nursery deep in the southern parts of New Jersey. Fairweather Gardens is a tiny operation which specializes in a variety of hard-to-find plants for the hardcore gardener. The Philadelphia Inquirer had done a story on them and, on a whim, I sent them my resume and cover letter. This would end up being a very brief stint (I lasted about 3 months) but an important one for me and my Library Route.
After returning from a short trip during which I got engaged to my now wife Kathy, I was just about to tell the owners the news when they told me that they were firing me and giving me two weeks pay in lieu of notice. I was devastated. As I was handing over the pruning sheers I had been given, one of the owners said something to me that got me on the start of my route. He said:
Andy, you seems to have abilities and interests in other things for which you are more passionate about. We’re wondering why you are not doing that instead of this.
For a long time, I thought it was an backhanded insult given out while I was getting ready to go home to Kathy and tell her that I had been fired again. But as the time stretched on after that day, I really started to think about it. Horticulture was something I could do, but it wasn’t where my passion was. I could see during that job that I wasn’t at the same level as the owners who lived, breathed, and knew horticulture.
I did find work again as a temp worker at DuPont (we lived in Delaware at the time), but it was a way to pay the bills while I figured out what I was doing with my life. I had always had an interest in law, I thought, so why not try out law school? I took the LSAT, applied to Widener Law, and was accepted into their night program. Working full time, every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday I would head up to campus for 3 to 4 hours of class time with other parts of my day crammed with class preparation and studying. Kathy and I were virtual strangers to each other as our time tables did not generally mesh well except on Sunday evenings or after 11pm every other night.
I loved law school as well, but between working full time and studying the rest of it, it did not suit my learning style at all. There was no room to breathe, to rest and relax, and to recuperate. In the end, the only class I did well on for both semesters was my legal research and writing class. Everything else was dismal and put me on academic probation.
It was during this time, seated at my computer in our little office we had in the apartment, that Kathy started talking about finding another career. She had always been interested in librarianship since she was a high school student. It was there, sitting in my computer chair, listening to her talk about it, that the thought first crossed my mind. Surely, I thought, it has to be easier than this law school bullshit. I was sick and tired of the stress, the work, and being away from family and friends. I did well in my research class, so maybe becoming a law librarian was a good alternative.
I took a semester leave of absence that fall while Kathy attended Saturday classes held at the Free Library of Philadelphia by the staff of Clarion University. When she kept coming back with tales about what she was learning and doing, I knew I found something I could do as well. That fall, I made a proposal to Kathy: move to Clarion, get our degrees as fast as we can, and then move back. We’d live on student loans and whatever work we could find as well as maybe some family charity. Within those four months, I applied and was accepted to the program, found a place to live (a tiny single newly renovated single family house), packed our stuff one dark January day, and moved out to Clarion.
This is my Library Route.