How I became a designer

This new blog exists as a place for me to purge my Florida demons and the story of how I became a kitchen designer in the first place is one of my biggest. Let me start out by saying that I take great pride in my ability to avoid drama and craziness but sometimes, my vigilance isn’t enough.

In the year 2000, I was a handyman and a general contractor. I worked for a real estate agent and pretty much fixed up houses to be flipped. I hung and mudded drywall, set tile, installed cabinets and swapped out toilets. I loved working with my hands but it wasn’t enough.

The year 2000 marked the same hear that St. Pete was going to host its first-ever gay pride parade and festival. I had a background in promotions and advertising and I decided to volunteer. I ended up being the guy in charge of the handbook as well as the posters that we ended up plastering all over town.

We had a volunteer graphic designer and together, we developed an image package for St. Pete Pride. Though neither of us knew it at the time, we were forging new ground and setting a precedent for a festival that would grow to become the largest pride festival in the southeast. I wanted it to be a community thing, not an exclusively gay thing.  It worked. We built a sense of belonging and community without excluding anyone. Besides, it was good to use something other than my hands to put in a productive day.

During one of our early meetings, I met a guy named Carl. Carl had a kitchen showroom and we clicked as soon as we met. I remember telling my friend Kevin at the time that Carl didn’t know it, but someday Carl and I’d work together.

I never knew there was such a thing as a kitchen designer but in getting to know Carl, he invited me over to his studio. As soon as I sat at his computer and started to play around with space planning software I knew I’d come home. I love the aesthetic side of design sure enough, but I need the math and technical side of it too. Kitchen and bath design delivered both in spades.

Carl saw my potential and proceeded to teach me how to be a designer. He taught me the ins and outs of the business and it was Carl who gave me the confidence to go to work for the best kitchen showroom in town. I worked there for around two years. During which Carl’s business had taken off too.

It was the beginning of the housing bubble that vexes the US even now, but back then it was a free for all. While the housing bubble was at its peak, I left the shop where I’d been working and entered an agreement with Carl. By then he was a trusted friend and confidante, practically a brother.

We were once featured in the Tampa Bay Business Journal during happier times.

We were once featured in the Tampa Bay Business Journal during happier times.

Within three months, something shifted. He started to view me with suspicion and accused me of all manner of malfeasance.

Work became an exercise in crazy on his part and self-control on mine. Our once-robust friendship disintegrated completely. I made a decent living and had a non-compete contract I couldn’t afford to contest so I kept at it.

After a year or so, Carl and I were mutually suspicious strangers.

In 2008 the bottom fell out of the Florida housing market and I watched my income disappear. I knew I’d been working in a bubble but money was easy then and I could name my own price and get it. During the autumn of 2008 however, everything came to a standstill.

Carl was panicked about the future of his business and I was panicked about keeping myself fed. I started a blog then, something he took great offense to. I think he was worried that I’d air his dirty laundry the way I am now.

By 2009 we’d become a toxic brew of animosity and paranoia and I was desperate to get out of his business so I left and struck out on my own. I forged a new career for myself based on my blog and my Twitter following. It took a while but it stuck eventually and I morphed myself back into the Advertising/ PR/ Marketing guy I was born to be. I never gave Carl another thought other than to mourn the loss of a good friendship. Carl had become my personal boogeyman and delighted in calling me at odd hours to describe how terribly I’d wronged him. What had started as a friendship turned into a white hot hatred.

Eventually, he stopped calling and we got on with our lives.

On Good Friday, 2011 I got a phone call from our mutual friend Gabe. “Paul, are you watching the news?” he asked. I never watch local news so I asked him what the hell he was talking about. He told me to turn on my TV and tune to Bay News 9.

Bay News 9 is our local, 24-hour news channel. When I tuned in I saw Carl’s face.

He’d jumped to his death from the tallest bridge in this area, the Sunshine Skyway, that afternoon. It felt as if my pulse had stopped as I watched the report. “I knew and once loved that guy!” I screamed at my TV. It wasn’t possible, couldn’t be true. Carl was gone before I had the chance to forgive him and before he could forgive me.

I cannot imagine what was going through his mind that afternoon and I cannot imagine what his family went through in the aftermath. Despite our mutual distrust, I’d have intervened gladly. I’d have listened and helped him get the kind of medical care he needed. But Carl wasn’t one to lean on anybody, let alone me.

I’d pretty much shoved him out of my brain at that point anyhow. He was a poisonous influence I took great pains to avoid thinking about. His suicide threw him right back into the middle of my thoughts and my life.

I was used to people dying at that point. My friends who’ve died are people I remember fondly and I’m grateful that our lived collided. With Carl however, what I was left with was something new all together. I had to deal with the passing of someone I’d grown to loathe.

I hope he’s at peace wherever he is, but he brought about in me a part of myself I’d rather assume didn’t exist. To this day I have no fondness for the person of Carl. His attention-grabbing suicide sealed that. However, I can never forget the role he played in having me become who I am today.

But that was Carl. I owe him a debt of gratitude but at the same time, I resent him for being such a shit.


15 thoughts on “How I became a designer

  1. Wow, Paul. This is quite a blog site you’ve started here. I don’t think I could write things like this because I would be unwilling to reveal so many portions of myself. I have my own share of “amazing stories,” but the most of them will stay neatly hidden, thank you. That said, I find your journey through life to be very inspiring. I suppose all of us have things like that which have happened to us over the years. Not the suicide so much, as just the way things seem to click in exactly the right way or exactly the wrong way from time to time. I cannot say that my own life has gone the way I’d laid it out when I was still in high school in the early 1960s, but I am not unhappy with the way things have turned out.

    One thing we do seem to share is our outlook on life in general. So much of it is very much the luck of the draw. My wife and I talk about that all the time. We have made a nice life for ourselves, but at various times in life, things could have just as easily gone the other way. A promotion that made all the difference could have gone to another and so forth. I don’t like to look back, but I do sometimes find myself thinking about other directions in which I might have gone. I didn’t take up woodworking in earnest until I was about the age you are now. I design all my projects and sometimes find myself thinking about what I might have done, had I gone into kitchen design. Or not done, I suppose, because the one thing I have learned over the years is that nothing is guaranteed.

  2. Ouch, Paul. Here’s to grappling with bags of mixed emotions. *clink* We can’t & shouldn’t beat ourselves up for other people’s insecurity.

    I wouldn’t cross the street to help the similar version of asshole I had in my career trajectory. He deserves all the consequences he is due, and then some.

    • I always thought that I’d be able to fix not only our broken friendship but Carl himself. Having him dead eliminated all of those possibilities and what’s left is a curious thing to deal with. I’m a better man for having known him and I just wish we’d have ended things on better terms.

      • There’s got to be a balance, though. Each party has to nurture the relationship. If one side is too lazy or self absorbed, it poisons it.

    • Thank you and Lord how I wish Carl could have found a way to reach out for help. He wasn’t my favorite person the world but I never would have turned him down had he just asked.

  3. Jesus. I almost can’t even muster anything to say about that. It’s the last thing I expected to read. I was sure this was going to end with some kind of truce. Man, when you say demons, you’re not kidding! But thanks for laying it all out. Your brutal honesty is inspirational.

  4. Oh it gets better Mel. Before he jumped off that bridge he stopped at the post office to mail me a letter in which he accused me of perpetrating every wrong he’d had to overcome during his miserable life. By the time it’d arrived Carl was long dead. I was as enraged as I was in mourning and it was an odd thing to say the least. How does one mourn the loss of someone who’s left nothing good to say about him?

    • Lord have mercy! I’m trying to think of something else, but I’ve got nothing! Just that it seems so incredibly sad that he should find himself in such a place. It’s amazing to me, too, that he should come to feel that way about you. Of course, I barely know you and know him not at all, but I’ve seen enough of you, Paul, to believe you have a fundamental sense of decency about you that I very much respect.

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