Counter Intelligence

A 1954 photo of Robinson’s Beverly Hills, showing the valet carport and the lower level garden.

Fall 1986
Beverly Hills, CA

I grew up driving past (and occasionally going into) Robinson’s Department Store in Beverly Hills. My parents had a charge plate there, and though we found ourselves more often at Bullock’s in Westwood or the Broadway in Century City for our department store shopping, it seemed like when we needed a slightly nicer gift for someone, we would as often as not wind up at the somewhat ritzier Robinsons.

Finding myself with a few months to spare between graduating from UC Davis and starting Thunderbird and only only partially occupied with taking some extension classes at UCLA, I got a job at Robinson’s Beverly Hills as seasonal help, working initially in the gifts department, and later in candy.

After a few weeks, the GM decided to set up a “flying squad” of seasonal associates who could be moved from one department to another to handle rushes. She asked me to be the supervisor and, after a month, I was overseeing my own team and was welcomed into management meetings.

I left to move to Arizona for Thunderbird right before New Year, but not before the GM, Patti, offered me a job and a slot in their management training program. It wasn’t in the cards, but it was an incredible send-off. It may have been the eighties, but jobs weren’t leaping off of trees, and having looked two such gift-horses in the mouth in three months I felt like I was pushing my luck a bit.

But off to Thunderbird I went, to pursue my career in China, rather than in retail.

In an interesting twist, the old William Pereira and Charles Luckman icon fell in 2014 to a wrecking ball swung by Wang Jianlin* of Dalian Wanda, as a part of a multiuse redevelopment project. I was sad to see the old gal fall, but I took it as proof of my theory that in order to do business in/with China now, you don’t even need to get on a plane: China is coming to you.

 

* I have no particular affection for Wang. Once you get past a sophisticated exterior he is the quintessential Chinese robber-baron. In another time, he would have been a warlord.

On the Waterfront

OOCL’s container yard, Port of Long Beach. The Seapac offices were in the building partly covered by the third crane from the left.

Summer 1986
Long Beach, CA

I came out of UC Davis determined to go into business with China, and having read and re-read James Clavell’s Tai-Pan and Noble House until the covers fell off I was convinced that shipping was the way in. After all, this was how Struan & Company made their fortunes, and by extension so did the modern trading houses. Shipping was IT.

Plus, every young man loves hardware.

A three-month internship at Seapac Services, the North American sales department for C.Y. Tung’s Orient Overseas Container Line, proved that the steamship business was not the right path into global business. The money was being siphoned out of the industry by brutal business cycles, giant capital requirements, and the commoditization of service. It was all scale and price, and by the time Seapac offered me a job at the end of my internship, I was ready for almost anything else.

That said, spending that time in the guts of the business was a front-row education in the mechanics of trade that served me brilliantly at Thunderbird and throughout my career.

That summer I lived at my parents’ house in Beverly Hills and commuted to Long Beach. My car was new, the freeway smooth, so I hardly noticed the drive.

And frankly, if you had to spend a summer overlooking a container port, there are few of the breed more picturesque than Long Beach.

My Chinese Summer at Cal

June – August 1985
Intensive Workshop in Elementary Chinese (Mandarin)
University of California 
Berkeley, California

I moved out of my dorm a week before school was over, dumped my stuff in my sister’s deserted Berkeley apartment, and commuted back and forth between Davis and Berkeley for finals even as I started my summer Mandarin immersion program.

After that overstretched first week – during which I managed to permanently frustrate a professor who had believed in me – I settled into what would be the brutal routine of study, that would result in near-proficiency in two-and-a-half months.

I have my share of regrets about my time in college – roads not taken, opportunities missed – but taking this course opened up more doors than anything before or since, and it continues to do so decades later.

Going Aggie

Bikes. Trees. Mustangs. I miss Davis all year except Summer.

September 1, 1984 – September 15, 1986
Davis, CA

I originally started thinking about transferring to UC Davis for reasons that were anything but academic, or even rational.

Yet the more I learned about the school – and the International Relations program – the more I realized that I would be even more at home than I was at UC San Diego.

So I transferred, and though I literally wept the day I moved out of the dorms at UCSD (the place had grown on me more than I realized,) in retrospect it was the best move I could have made, and more than any other institution, it set me on the path I walk today.

I’m an Aggie, and I’m proud of it.

Trift Shop Hero

Summer 1984
Los Angeles

While everyone else was watching the Olympics, I got a summer gig in the accounting offices of the L.A. Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, processing a massive backlog of thrift store donation forms.

It wasn’t a bad gig. Perched in the middle of Fairfax Boulevard, we were never far from food, and the people we worked with were nice. It was a weird summer for me, though. I was in transition between UC San Diego and UC Davis, my love life was a mess of my own making, and I had failed to even chase the summer job I’d REALLY wanted, which was to be a security guard at the Olympics.

I never forgot that lesson.

 

Two Harbors

Summer 1982
Catalina Island, CA

I served as a ranger for the Catalina Cove and Camp Agency at Two Harbors, Catalina Island, for the spring and Summer of 1982 (and, off and on, during summer 1983.)

I apply the term “ranger” with great liberty. My job was primarily involved checking to see if people had paid a landing fee, registering campers, and patrolling the beach for people who had not paid to land. But it was an unbelievable way to spend the summer between graduating high school and starting college.

We had spent most of our summers tied up at our mooring, D-8, in Isthmus Harbor, so the place was familiar to me. But living onshore gave a different perspective. It was pretty much an isolated resort, supplied by thrice-weekly trucks brought to the island by a landing craft and the occasional cargo on the Catalina Express, the high-speed ferry owned by the CCCA folks – the Bombard and Wrigley families.

I lived in one of four bedrooms in a trailer on the west side of the Isthmus, sharing with a roommate who was headed for the Air Force after the summer was over. We shared a bathroom with a couple of shoreboat pilots.

It was an incredible summer, and I learned more about myself than I care at the moment to admit. Maybe soon.

Dixie Canyon Elementary

Spring 1982
Sherman Oaks, CA

As a part of our senior program, I volunteered at Dixie Canyon Avenue Elementary School (Los Angeles Unified School District) during my senior year at Harvard. Most of the time I spent working with some of the kids who had challenges reading, either because they grew up in a non-English-speaking home, or because they faced other learning challenges.

I had gone to Warner Avenue, so I was no stranger to public schools, but after nearly six years at Harvard it was jolting to be reminded of the challenges students (and teachers) faced in public schools.