You know how it is when you don’t expect something but it falls into your lap anyway, and you realize later that it was the exact thing you needed at the perfect time you needed it? Well, in the summer of 1994 I had one of those moments. I had just graduated from high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I had just gotten back from an extended trip to Alabama where I had experienced real freedom for the first time. I wanted to see more of the world, to enjoy the kinds of freedoms that Alabama had only given me a hint of, and to be involved in experiences that stretched my mind. And a travel agency was the perfect place for all of those dreams to converge, in that summer of ’94.
My high school sponsored a program that allowed select students to complete paid internships at local businesses. Because we were an inner city school there were many such programs made available to us. Somehow I was one of the students selected, and they told me I had been given the Rosenbluth Travel Agency as my work destination. My contact at the agency was to be a woman named Laura who they said would give me all my instructions and work details. But I called her number, and I sent her several emails, to no avail. I started to worry that I might not have a job, but then two weeks before I was supposed to start work I received a return call from a woman named Joan. She told me that Laura no longer worked for the agency and they were going to cancel my internship, but that she stepped up and said she would mentor me. I am eternally grateful for that.
Getting clothes was the first priority before heading to the job. I knew it was something of a corporate environment, and I had been wearing jeans and t-shirts to school. I had some church clothes I could commandeer for the occasion, but I didn’t have enough variety for a five-day a week job. So, my mom and I went shopping. Now, shopping, for us, wasn’t quite the experience of going to the GAP and buying up whatever they had on the racks. For starters, I was already 6’2″ by then, and there wasn’t much in regular stores that would fit me. We ran into some luck at the Salvation Army with several African and Hawaiian print shirts that some giant must have donated. We also got a good deal on a few pairs of dress pants through Big & Tall, and that was what got me through the seven weeks at the travel agency.
When I got to the job on my first day I was as nervous as a bull in a china shop. And when I get nervous, I sweat a lot. It didn’t help that it was a pretty hot summer anyway. Joan met me at the door. Now I have to describe her, as she was my opposite. Imagine a short, British woman with pale, almost ghostly, skin. She gave me a hug when we first met, which said all that needed to be said about her. Needless to say, I had to bend down pretty far. After introducing me to several other ladies who worked at the travel agency, she showed me to my desk. It was plain brown, and it had been placed in her rather small office across from her own. The cool thing about the office was that it had completely glass walls so everyone could see in, but I could also see out.
Joan was amazing from the start, giving me tasks that a regular office worker would have had. I was quickly put in charge of new brochures, of answering the phones, and of coordinating tour packages, of course all overseen by Joan, but I was given a great amount of leeway and authority when it came to everything I was involved in. The best part of the job came when I got to be creative, and making those brochures was exciting for me. Keep in mind this was the age before the internet was quite the juggernaut it is now, and I was learning how to search for photos I needed, cutting and pasting into WordPerfect and into some other programs we had at work. Some of my first ones were epic disasters, with strange formatting, but with Joan’s help I was able to fine tune them in time.
Then there were the conversations and plans for trips and cruises, which were the biggest types of trips we coordinated. Two of the biggest cruises I helped book while I was there were the ones for the local country radio station, aptly called the Country Cruise, and for Richard Simmons, expertly named the Cruise to Lose. Both of those accounts were so happy with the way I handled their cruises that I was invited on both trips. Joan was so elated over my efforts that she gave me monetary bonuses for each trip as well. But I told her it wasn’t me, that it was a team effort. And it was. The other members of the office were so helpful when I asked any questions, and the one day that Joan had to be out for sickness, my other office mates were there for me every step of the way.
Things I learned while working for a travel agency:
** Everything is an emergency
** Treat everyone as if they were your client
** Work together as a group
** Communication is key
As my time there wound to a close, I realized that not only was Joan a competent travel agent, but she was also an amazing organizer, a creative mind, and a real mentor for me. I knew I would miss her, and indeed on my final day there I nearly cried. It was bittersweet because as much as I was looking to move on with my life, to go to college and on to the real world, for that space of time I was a working member of a community, a valued member of the team. I had gotten a glimpse of what the real world was going to look like, and I was ready for it. As Joan embraced me once more on that last day I held on tightly for a few seconds. I still miss her to this day, but it’s okay. It was what I needed when I needed it, but like everything in that vein, it was meant to pass.