JR, my boss, is all about money. Old wealth. Old Fort Lauderdale. Old School. Down to the drapes in the office, a tartan wool plaid that he proudly says “are the color of money.” This month I’m celebrating 35 years in business and here’s how that happens…

In his youth, JR serves in the military as a scuba diver. Telling me “it’s not good pissing off the higher ups”, pay-back is sending him into the sea to be a guinea pig.

Stay here underwater, observe while we detonate these nuclear bombs. Fried his junk…leaving behind an angry arrogant man.

Once upon a time he ran a big interior design firm, there’s a plaque on the wall, above my drafting table from phantom employees celebrating “To JR, our boss, whose ideal is only excellence.”

His passion is patches; collects and trades Boy Scout patches. Business is so good he installs a single phone line in the house just for patch trading. As a retired BSA Troop Leader one morning these skills come in very handy.

On that morning neither Mr. or Mrs. JR show up for work. Eating breakfast their house violently shakes, JR runs towards the blast. His next-door neighbor, the Association President, woke up to a car bomb. JR saves the guy’s life from bleeding out. Neighbor man lost both legs. The evil-doers set the bomb wrong, much like the scene three years later in the movie Casino when the mob tries to kill Robert De Niro’s character.

Same way- same Mob. Retaliation, sending a message to the Sail Boat Bend homeowners trying to kick out the drug dealers and prostitutes. The Mob sends a message. Mr. and Mrs. JR are worried. It’s a topic of the office. Will they be next?

During the Miami Vice years, few SouthFLA architects use millwork materials, working traditionally was not taught. A lost art. It’s an era of chrome, glass block, laminate cabinets with oak trim, pink stucco along with the white-on-white. Think Don Johnson, Miami Vice.

“You’re going to Jeff’s office today.” JR tells me, Strange being loaned out and teaching one of the premier Fort Lauderdale architectural firm’s how to draft millwork drawings because their client asks for traditional design; sometimes it’s smoke and mirrors while you figure it out. One evening I pick up the phone JR ranting…

“I can’t find Mr. CokeHead’s drawings! Went through everything. You lost them! He’s coming to the house tomorrow. You drive in, find the drawings, then bring them to me in the morning. It’s your fault!”

Phone slams. Worried all night that I did something wrong the next morning, I get up at dawn, open the office door. There’s the effing drawings laying on the top of the cabinet. Fuming I drive over to his house, knock on the door he answers hair a mess,

“What are you doing here?”

“Here’s the damn drawings; they were right where I left them.”

JR doesn’t remember calling me and ranting. It finally dawns on me he’s an alcoholic.

I love his creativity. His ability to mix colors and fabrics. I love all the variety of tasks. After two years of living through his rants, the bombing, along with being in the middle of Mr. and Mrs. JR’s trial separation, we are all ready for the change that is coming…

“Michele we’re going to North Carolina- it’s been years since we got away, we’re leaving you in charge. We trust you; you’re the only one we’ve ever hired who can do it.”

The Suits

Day before they leave on vacation a dear client, Mr. Lawyer and his investors ‘The Suits’, show up with a restaurant floor plan. A Victorian theme like Fridays. “The architect we hired can’t make the seating work for the 200 seats to get a liquor license. 175 seats are all he’s got; it’s not working, we’re tired of waiting. We want your firm to do the interiors, see what you can do.”

Four big men crammed into our narrow conference room with me scribing notes, schlepping coffee. Looking at The Suits JR puts on his dog and pony show to impress, Mrs. JR stands there with the contract waiting to be signed. Check written everything’s a go.

JR: “Michele’s going to draft this up and meet with you while we’re on vacation. She’ll give you a call when the sketches are done to walk you through it.”  Here’s what he said to me after they left:

“I hate g-damn Victorian design and don’t want anything to do it. See what you can do. It’s yours to work on.”

I’m like a mother-fucker on FIRE.  This is what I’m made for!!…solve problems, figure out space.

Victorian era, it’s my architectural lineage- raised in those Victorian homes. Reminds me of Grandma Bateman’s house. I start researching over the weekend. After dinner I disappear upstairs to the guest room, four hours fly by at my drafting table. On Monday morning I call Mr. Lawyer,

“the preliminary floor plan is ready when do you want to come in?”

“Really?”

“I bumped the seat count up to 235 seats (ha! 60 seats more than Mr. Architect). You’ve got the liquor license. It works.” Mr. Lawyer and The Suits are ecstatic!

By the time, JR gets back from vacation a week later The Suits are sold on the plan and my design. $125,000 contract to JR for furniture and finishes. The Suits only want to work with me. Mrs. JR is thrilled. JR is pissed. Like oil and water The Suits want nothing to do with him.

That damn restaurant!

JR retaliates; refusing to help me or discuss anything related to “that damn restaurant”. The project architect disappears too- he’s pissed about not only the seat counts but also not getting to design the interiors.

Each day from 10-4 on Las Olas I’m on call, like Pavlov’s dog, when the front doorbell rings I run to the front showroom helping the lookie-loos shop the antiques while doing my design assistant duties with Mr. CokeHead’s condo along with his new million-dollar house project on the beach.

24 years old. Tests of fire. Feats of strength. Fake it until you make it.

I constantly worry about making mistakes…jaw aches at night from clenching my teeth. The first furniture order for booth seating is double counted- there’s a $25,000 mistake. Thankfully the manufacturer’s rep catches it; I rewrite the order. In the end, I trust my manufacturer’s reps more than my boss.

JR and the Mr. Architect pout.

Mr. Architect becomes a nemesis. I digress.

During “that damn restaurant project” The Suits fly me to Atlanta; visiting salvage yards sourcing big architectural elements to work into the restaurant design on the fly. Make it work.

Think Fixer Upper’s Joanna Gaines.

That’s me, circa 1981.
Mornings and on my way home after work, on my own time, I show up at the restaurant site to work with the crew. Joyfully walking around and seeing my vision manifest. It’s a blast! Seasoned carpenters with over 100 years’ combined experience start mentoring me- they love my design- it speaks their language- millwork- tin ceilings, casing, crown and ship-lap. I ask questions. No one pays attention to them. These dudes show me how to put the stuff together that works in the field. We solve problems. I am living in reciprocity- old school. Alliances form- they become my design crew for over a decade.

At the grand opening six months later finally Mr. Architect and JR show up to take their bows. The Suits toast me for a job well done. JR takes credit. At our next Monday morning meeting following the opening, leaning in as I put Mr. CokeHead’s plans on the conference table, JR angrily looks up

You’re setting up your own design firm, stop lying about it!”

WTF? NEVER question a truth teller; my integrity is not up for discussion. I freeze, starting my own firm? This isn’t even in my wheelhouse, my voice shaking and quaking…

“I’ve worked here three years, and this is what you do- accuse me!!! You’re wrong. Nothing like that has happened.”

Spitting nails…standing up to the bully. Mrs. JR sits at her desk crying. I go back to my drafting table. The tension is so thick in the office it chases him out by Noon… Mrs. JR tells me about my gifts “You’re the only one he’s ever hired that can match JR’s design skills; you’re also gifted in color- automatically match a color once you see it. He won’t say anything, but I’m telling you.”

Exhausted and heartbroken I arrive home telling Rich what happened along with my decision to quit.
Practical hubs ask, “how are we going to pay our mortgage?”

“I can’t work for him. I’ll find another job, we’ll figure it out….”
Step off the cliff into the job abyss… what’s next?