Eleven years ago I worked at my uncle’s gas station as a cashier. I didn’t start out in the family business in an entry level position. I was demoted from managing one of the three stores our family owned in the St. Louis area.
My uncle, Raymond, was the brainchild of the operation. He recruited me to run the convenience store located in my old stomping grounds of south St. Louis. The other options were in North and East St. Louis, respectively. I prefered the south city location, But it was no walk in the park dealing with some of the riffraff that came through the doors. Panhandlers, thieves, known trigger men, drug dealers, and prostitutes were among the clientele.
Raymond demanded we treat them with respect as we would any doctor, lawyer, teacher of police officer. The tightrope was difficult, but I managed. Until the day I quit. Then I came back. Then Raymond fired me. I returned once more. My punishment: a reduction in rank, pay and hours.
I was a single father to a 14-year-old son at the time. Toriano II and I shared a two-bedroom apartment Raymond owned. The flat on Fassan Avenue was a five-minute drive from Broadway Phillips 66 near South Broadway and Interstate 55. The walk was 15 minutes. There were times my transportation was anything but reliable. I walked often.
One particular day I talked to a young man that hawked counterfeit DVDs and CDs on the premises. The CD man was a cool guy. A hustler. He and I spoke candidly. After another strained encounter with an unruly customer, I’d had it. I looked at the CD man and asked, “Man, why am I here?”
He was unsure of the question.
“What do you mean by that, TP?” he said.
“Dawg, why am I here? I’ve got to get out of here, man. If I don’t get up out of this gas station, I’m going to kill someone or someone is going to kill me.”
I didn’t mean it in the literal sense, but my level of frustration had reached a point that was beyond boiling or breaking.
“What are you going to do? The CD man said between sales. He was a hustler, indeed.
“Man, I’ve got to find me a writing job. I can’t do this shit anymore.”
“What are you going to tell Unc?” the CD man said.
It’s not-so-funny he would asked that question. I was livid at Unc. The answer was anything but savory. I love my uncle dearly. Always have. Respect him immensely. But on that day in the summer of 2007 in south St. Louis, all of that went out of the door.
“Man, fuck Unc,” I said. “This fool demoted me, took my hours from 40 to 16 and he knows the struggle I’m going through with my son. Man, listen…”
I started my professional writing career in 2001. I was fired six months later for insubordination. I deserved the pink slip though. My brass, cocky 27-year-old know-it-all ass needed a reality check. My editor wanted me to cover a kayaking event. I covered a celebrity basketball game hosted by the local rap star instead.
From there I freelanced for multiple publications in the St. Louis area. I am forever indebted to those editors and publishers for those opportunities. For six years I repeatedly tried to find a full-time writing gig but to no avail. The goal never wavered. I aimed to write for a major daily newspaper. Could have been in St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, L.A. or New York, but that was always the end game.
I thought back on that journey as I sat inside the Kansas City Star’s glass building - the official name is Press Pavillion - filming a Facebook Live segment for one of the most storied and decorated daily newspapers in America. I thought about the struggle, the sacrifice, the mishaps, the desperation of working a job I didn’t not want. I thought about my uncle motivating me to get up out of my comfort zone and make something happen. I needed a swift kick in the rear. The demotion was a blessing disguised as punishment.
From the bricks of my uncle’s gas station in south St. Louis to the Examiner newspaper in Independence, Mo. to the Journal in Lee’s Summit to the pristine offices of the new glass Star building, this is a testament: God is dope.