“I’m an Obecian, and I want to go back. Right now, I’m stuck in City Heights, or ‘Shitty Heights,’ as I call it. From here, it takes an hour and a half to get to O.B. by two buses.”
That’s “Buddy” talking, an MBA from Harvard who finds himself living in a Section 8 apartment in City Heights. Buddy dreams small these days: an Ocean Beach flat where he can live on the cheap is his notion of Nirvana; a little place where he can soak up the neo-hippie vibe, tend to his books, and dispense small-scale, street-level philanthropy. Buddy, 61, who works as a security guard for $9 an hour, is one of San Diego’s severely underemployed, a member of a forlorn group that garners little empathy from the masses; though, he’s not seeking it.
His journey — geographical, psychic, pecuniary; the last, he reiterates, of only cursory interest — began in what he calls “the projects,” the hardscrabble of 1950s public housing in Boston. Long before he stepped onto the Wesleyan College campus in Middleborough, Connecticut, he’d been steeped in blue-collar, left-leaning populism, Rust Belt–style, which flows through his accent.
“I’m the black sheep of my family. I was born and raised in the city of Boston; actually, we lived in ‘the projects’ for two years, meaning the actual brick, multistory buildings for poor people. My dad was a postal worker and my mom was a pizza waitress when I was a kid. When I was two, we moved out to the suburbs — Stoughton, it’s about 20 miles south of Boston.”
Buddy graduated cum laude from Wesleyan in 1972 with a degree in sociology and Spanish. “I spent a semester in Madrid. I didn’t want to work for a corporation. To me, business was evil.”
Buddy joined the Department of Labor.
“It was a great job for a sociology major. We had the [expansion of the] War on Poverty under Richard Nixon, and a Democratic Congress. My title was Manpower Development Specialist. I was a real liberal Democratic type. I wanted to change the world, so being at Labor was a great place to start. I started out at $12,000, which was a good, professional salary — but I got disgusted with the bureaucracy.”
The next stop was Harvard.
“I remember someone saying to me, ‘Harvard Business School? Why the fuck would you want to go to Harvard Business School?’ I said, ‘Because I learned all about mismanagement at the federal government, and I want to learn about management.’ To me, it’s a high calling. When I was there, the stated mission of the school was ‘to produce analytical and responsible general managers.’ We called it the ‘West Point of Capitalism.’ Mitt Romney was about three years before me — G.W. Bush, about two.
“I knew I wanted to go to Latin America, so I went for the multinational corporations, the ones where it would be easiest to transfer overseas. I ended up with Norton Company in Worcester, Massachusetts. My salary was $21,000, on the low side for someone coming out of business school in 1977. But I soon found out that I couldn’t go to goddamned Argentina or Mexico, where they had plants. Norton had been there a long time — 1911, in the case of Mexico; the managers were all indigenous — they weren’t going to bring in some American to do marketing or run the plant. Going overseas had totally been part of my dream.” Buddy got transferred, all right — to Salt Lake City.
I asked him if he’d subscribed to the notion of “upward mobility.”
“Absolutely. I bought into it totally. When I was a teenager in the mid-’60s — [during] the ‘Great Society’ — it was still a time when the economy was humming along. The belief was: ‘You get a good education, a good job with a company, you could be set for life.’ IBM, or whatever; a big Fortune 500 company was the way to go. But I found, after ten years in corporate life and two layoffs, that I wasn’t cut out for it.
“In October of 1985, I was laid off for the first time in my life. I’d spent eight years — five departments, two divisions — with one Fortune 500 company. There was an oil-field bust, so they let go of 25 of us at once. I had $15,000 or so in savings. They gave us three months of ‘outplacement’ at an unused office near the Mormon temple downtown. They were supposed to teach us how to write résumés and look for jobs. One day, three of us were walking out of the office — this was in the heart of the temple square — when a friend of mine, Michael (he was a scientist, a Russian Jewish émigré), yelled at the top of his lungs [Buddy imitates a thick Russian accent], ‘What the fuck are we doing here?’ That’s the title of the book I’d like to write.
“I saw a want ad for Mitchell Publishing-Cordura. They wanted someone with an industrial-marketing background like me. I thought, What the fuck, I’ll send it. I came to San Diego for a week of informational interviews and met a guy with a little hole-in-the-wall manufacturing place in Kearny Mesa. He wasn’t much use as a contact. From the East Coast, originally. All he could tell me about San Diego was, ‘Can you believe there’s a place called Wienerschnitzel out here where [people] buy fucking hot dogs?’ Thank God Mitchell didn’t have an office in L.A. I would’ve hated it. My friends said, ‘You’re too sensitive to your environment — you’ll thrive in San Diego.’”
Buddy started at Mitchell in April ’86 as the product manager for new markets (heavy trucks), living at first on Sequoia Street in Crown Point a couple of blocks from Mission Bay.
“Then I smartened up,” he says, “and moved to O.B. in 1989, when I bought my condo on West Point Loma Boulevard — the Quigley building. I loved that place; even my parents, who had no sense of art, could see why I loved it. It had five levels, a skylight right over my shower on the third floor. It was written up in architecture magazines. I thought I could sell it in a minute. But it was the peak of the market, and after Mitchell laid me off in January, 1990, I lost everything — $17,000 I’d invested and $4000 my parents put in. I held out as long as I could but had to sell it in 1993.