Language and semantics are fascinating. Although different places have unique phrases or words, some things are universally understood. Like, “What do you do?” Or “What does she do?” Or, as it applies here, “So, what did your dad do, anyway?” For him, as I’ve made clear in this blog, that’s a loaded question…but for most Americans, the question and term are referring to vocation, work, career, or job. I’ve had a couple of messages asking what dad “did,” besides unspeakable things to his children or being a colossal failure as a father.
While in today’s day and age, “stay at home dads” are not at all uncommon, it was not common during my childhood. When our dad stayed at home (which was very often), parenting was nowhere on his “Honey-do” list.
Since “career” is the broadest applicable term here, I’d have to say he was a salesman/conman – even split. When he was very young (pre-me), I recall hearing that he sold vacuums. Back in the day, when door-to-door sales were a thing, guys like him could find work anywhere. All they needed was a slick tongue and, sadly, to be good with the ladies who were typically the ones home when the salesmen came-a-knocking. He nailed it (and likely nailed a few potential customers who were sans husband during his call…but that’s fodder for another blog entry, I’m sure).
At some point, he discovered advertising, and that was his main gig in multiple forms. I think it scratched his itch for many reasons. Right out of the chute, it totally suited his fashion sense or lack thereof. There used to be a known stereotypical dress code for salesmen, especially in advertising. I’m pretty sure our dad wrote the fashion guide for every one of those hair-raising looks. If you remember Herb Tarlek in the TV comedy WKRP in Cincinnati, you get my drift. If you’re unfamiliar with the show or just want a good laugh, go ahead and type “Herb Tarlek WKRP” into the search bar for Google images. Really. Do it now! If you swapped heads on old pics of our dad and Herb, we’d never know the difference. Gaudy three-piece suits in every form of plaid…and when the coat came off, you’d almost always find a short-sleeved shirt with a tie. This combo screams salesman, particularly when the vest remained. I’m getting a little queasy just thinking about it, so let’s move on!
Dad had a few legitimate jobs selling ads for newspapers. Still, they never lasted long because he’d get out of whack and quit, or we’d suddenly move. Those two phenomena were often connected. I recall him selling cosmetics for a spell; that had to be a major boon for his libido. I remember thinking it was weird, and I remember Mom seemed quietly thrilled when it fell through. Go figure.
There was also the time when he and Mom scored a print shop; I suspect she wasn’t exactly a willing partner. This was back before digital technology, so everything still had to be typeset, then glued with precision onto blank sheets before hitting the presses. It involved a lot of work and it was predominantly advertising, of course. But the amount of work wasn’t an issue for him…child labor laws be damned! We all worked there as the only staff, and it seemed like all the time. Of course, it “went under,” as did most every business venture with which he was affiliated, but it certainly wasn’t due to too much overhead; he had five hard-working employees who would never file grievances or ask for benefits! He also briefly published some kind of slick magazine when I was a teenager…had offices and everything. Stocked with a built-in young employee/mistress, of course. He also had very affordable cleaners (my BFF Mary and I cleaned for what seemed like a lot of money, which was fair, considering how many overflowing ashtrays we emptied…and we had no supervision. Sweet!). But like the printing business (or as he would say, “biz”), it was short-lived.
He did a stint as a self-promoted public speaker, but that, my friends, is a subject for an entire entry on its own! Stand by!
Although he “worked” no more than fifty percent of the time (and that’s generous), he ultimately never did so outside the home again after a certain point. He’d sit at our phone and read self-scripted pitches to sell ads for other parties or his own farce publication of the week. Seared into my memory is him starting off each call with, “Hey, (fill in the name of a total stranger), this is ‘ol Ron Seley,” in his slick “I’m your best old buddy” voice. To this day, I can recognize the tone when I receive sales calls, and it never ends well for the poor person on the other end because it takes me right back to dad’s sleezy operations. The poor souls are just trying to make a living and are suddenly subject to a crazy broad with Daddy issues!
In fairness, I have to give Dad a posthumous nod for launching me into adulthood with a “business” we operated together when I was quite young. He somehow convinced the Salvation Army to let us use their logo on a small-time homemade magazine (I can think of no weirder collaboration unless he’d teamed up with Mother Teresa on a yogurt franchise). He was able to sell ads and make money under the guise of soliciting support for the charitable organization. I still have no idea what they got out of it, since he was the cheesy ad man, and I was the writer, artist, and advertising money collector for the entire publication. That’s right…at the ripe ol’ age of 20ish, I’d had no training in art or writing, and was utterly unprepared to drive solo all over the state (pre-GPS, mind you), sometimes to very remote businesses with unknown contacts. The writing and art were fun (albeit incredibly amateur in retrospect). Still, that other thing was a little risky for a young woman of limited resources, life experience, or means of fighting off some weirdo a million miles from nowhere who might or might not realize he’d agreed to pay my dad for a small ad promoting a tiny business (Dad’s sales closing skills were questionable at best).
Why would I thank him for this? Because I took those multi-hour trips alone, although it terrified me, and yet, I survived. This actually became my MO later in life, and it has served me well. Now, as a parent, I don’t know whether he was boosting me with confidence or shamelessly using me, but the result was the same. I learned to hold my nose and jump in, even in strange territory. Because of that short stint, I was able to rent my first apartment because Dad promised to pay me (yay!), and then get thrown out of the said apartment because I couldn’t pay rent because Dad couldn’t pay me (boo!). But that taught me to trust only in myself (to a fault) and thrust me into a way of life where I knew I could support myself…thus, I went to the recruiter (yay!).
Funny how crappy circumstances can make us grow. I owe him a huge debt for a pile of circumstances, which I now realize taught me in ways a classroom never could. So, shockingly and very strangely, in front of God and everybody (OK, in front of anyone who reads this blog, but close enough), I thank Ron Seley for setting me up to become a person I like and respect. He significantly lent to my long-term success by setting a series of horrible examples. I am forever grateful for having survived him and becoming me (imagine fireworks and triumphant music in the background).
So, what did my dad “do?” Mostly, as little as possible. But he inadvertently did something that made the world a much better place; he raised four humans to be nothing like him—four good people. Dr. Benjamin Spock, eat your heart out!