Next morning I walked in and quit JR & Associates. Next day. One or two week notice I don’t remember, it’s been 35 years.

Mrs. JR is in tears.
My body heaves a huge sigh of relief.
JR asks: “What are your plans?”

“Get another job.”

The Portfolio.

The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale (AIFL), sits across from the Elbo Room made famous in the movie “Where the Boys Are.” Goal? Build a design portfolio. The AIFL rents space in the lower levels of the Holiday Inn one step from the beach on the corner of Las Olas and A1A.

Most of my classmates arrive fresh from high school; with this new freedom they opt for the beach, tans and getting high. I arrive with two years of study in graphic & interior design at University of Florida, laser focused on a degree and The Portfolio.

Leaving friends in Gainesville, living by myself leads to feelings of isolation and depression. Mom stops speaking to me some six months earlier when my parents separate. Yeah Mr. and Mrs. JR are not my first run-in with dysfunction, I am well-seasoned to crazy.

Three months later Rich arrives to spend the summer, we live together. After he leaves for Fall quarter I’m sick as a dog. Strep moves into mono, the infection moves into my kidneys. Three months’ heavy antibiotics my blood count plummets; no energy I lose 20 pounds. No one in my family calls or seems to care.

Buck up. Handle it. One November day I realize my body is shutting down. Lying on the bed, looking at hives on my arms, this is not a good sign. The Voice says:

“Michele you’re going to die. Decide different.”
The Voice shows up. It’ll show up again.

I decide. Within a couple days everything clears up. As if by magic. No more death-by-grief.

To meet my bills, after school I work part time for Jordan Marsh Department Store in their Drapery & Bedding department. Learn how to measure and install custom order drapes along with dealing with retail customers. The ladies I work with are seasoned sales associates in the store over 20 years. It’s old school retail, making sure the beds are made, dealing with customers and advising me

“If Mr. K (the manager) comes in happy, it means he had sex with the Mrs. K.” In unison they say…
“We pray for sex!” Roaring with laughter.

Hank’s next door in Lamp and Art Department, we’re all working on the top floor of the store, next to the furniture department. One day I watch a couple take a painting off the wall “we want to look for furniture.” Something feels fishy, I follow them with Hank trailing me. Waiting for him to say something they head towards the Down escalator…my gosh it’s his department; inside my head I’m screaming “say something!!!”
…well he doesn’t.

As the two thieves scram with the goods on the escalator I shout,

“STOP!! can I see the receipt for that?” Now I’m wrestling the painting out of their hands, they’re pulling me down the escalator. I win. The painting drops as they hurry down the moving stairs. Try walking up a down elevator with a huge floppy painting? Walking back to the Lamp Department Hank’s in a tizzy “I can’t believe you did that! What if they hurt you?” over and over until finally saying, “wouldn’t you back me up?”

The look of shock on Hank’s face tells me NO!

Our friendship abruptly ends two years later after dinner when drunk at our house; he moves in to kiss me while Dear Husband sleeps on the sofa a few feet away. I kick him out. Rich thinks it’s funny. Later Hank is fired from the Lamp Department for shorting the cash register. Go figure.

School in the mornings at the Art Institute and nights at Jordan Marsh, my design teacher recommends me for a part-time gig at RJP, a premier interior design firm that specializes in department stores like Lord & Taylor, Bonwit Teller and Macy’s.

RJP flies Gary in from Colorado to work on the renderings- hand colored mock-up drawings- for the stores. While he’s gone I’m in charge of making the background renderings, take-offs from floor plans – rendering the walls, ceilings and soffits in 3-D so when he’s in town the drawings are ready to go.

A time before computers, everything is delineated by hand. I’m in awe watching him take my backgrounds, and illustrate customers walking the aisles, the clothes, the finishes and the very stylized mannequins with the Lord & Taylor look. That job honed my skills drawing clothes on hangers. Hundreds of dresses and pants on hangers. Quick.

I’m working with a Master who uses ink and markers.

Truth: Isolated in the RJP’s office way outside of my comfort zone, I feel like fraud. After three months, this bigness it’s too much for me. I give notice. They offer me a job in the drafting department. “No thanks, I’m moving to Chicago, and I can’t let you train me. Then leave.” Truth counts.

I’m engaged. Putting together The Portfolio.  About to graduate.

Two months before the wedding/graduation a friend refers one of his clients from Sint. Maarteen, Virgin Islands. Mr. C hands me a $15,000 check to do the furniture and finishes for the condo he and his wife just bought on Hallandale Beach. Deadline 30 days.

I shop. Install the condo. Clients love it. Take pics put them in The Portfolio. Plan the wedding. Work at Jordan Marsh.
Wedding and graduation two weeks; two weeks later we move to Chicago for Dear Husband’s law school.

There the cachet of RJP lands me a sweet job in a store planning firm outside Chicago. Here Jack, the Sr Project Manager knows how to mentor; plus, he takes his design team out for lunch- wine and the Big Salads on Fridays. Love working there.

One May day I step outside the office at lunchtime to see are people sitting in the courtyard holding up mirror reflectors, like some weird people satellite array. Everyone following the sun on their faces, trying to get a tan with a foot of snow still on the ground. Seeing our Florida license plate people exclaim, “you’re from Florida, what are you crazy living here in this snow!”

We arrive at the New Year in Chicago two weeks after my graduation during the blizzard of 79, newly married. Staying in Wheaton, at my great aunt’s quaint cottage with snow fall up to my ass. Just before arriving my Aunt Gladys calls to say, “oh by the way there’s a missionary woman named Barb staying at the house too.”

All very weird. It’s cold. Always cold. Every night my dear husband sits at dinner telling me how he would merchandise the store. Two months in he’s miserable in law school. I’m not vested in being married to “a lawyer”, rather opt for being happy. Suggesting to him

“Why not make the call to Burdines?” Within a week Dear Husband flies back to Florida, gets hired into Burdines executive management program where they fast track him to a buyer. Within three months we happily land back in Florida.

Making it clear we are not moving again, I focus on my interiors career.

The McDuffie Riot. A year later standing on the balcony of a friend’s condo we are watching smoke rise from Miami skyline burning. Scary times. Burdines’s warehouse sits in Overtown; Dear Husband driving into the riot zone passing burned out buildings, arriving at the warehouse surrounded by National Guards patrolling the roof with machine guns. Trading law school for retail.

All this is behind me, three years out of school, as I walk out the door of JR & Associates to look for another job.

“NO ONE who has ever left me to go out on their own ever made it!!” JR’s last words.

Silently as the office door closes I say: “Watch me!”

The List:

The List saves me.
The List inspires me.

That weekend I get out the latest copy of Interior Design Magazine. Once a year IDM showcases the Top 100 Interior Design Giants. The List shows each firm’s important design projects, billing hours for each person on staff along with a brief synopsis of each firm’s specialty. I search for commercial interior design firms in South Florida with an easy commute; landing on SLC & Associates.

She’s ranked in the top 40, and right down the road, less than 15 minute drive from our townhouse. That’s where I want to work; the resume is in the mail that Monday.

Wednesday their SLC’s Senior Project Manager calls, “Can you come in 4 o’clock this Friday? Bring your portfolio.”

Excited game on. Yay! it’s all happening.

Friday afternoon, around 2pm, one week out from waking away from JR, my phone rings, cancelling the interview at SLC & Associates.

“Somethings come up, we’re canceling the interview. He’ll call you back on Monday.” Guessing he wants a long weekend. Dang it I’ll look for a design job in Miami too. Mail out the resumes on Monday.

Saturday morning, our home phone rings. It’s the building contractor from “that damn Restaurant” project.

“Michele we’ve been trying to find you all week! What happened?” He listens. “I’ve got two home models that need interior design, can we hire you?”

I negotiate the fee, draw up the contract, feeling Mrs. JR would be so proud. “We never start the job without a contract and deposit check.”
$25,000 in the bank for my fee, the furniture and finishes, pays the mortgage for the next three months. He and Mr. Lawyer sit on the local City Council. They’re connected in ways that matter later.

I’ll find a job after the models are finished.

Read Part 1    |     Read Part 2