BL&T No. 035: Discovering Passion Through Pop-Pop's Story

Borrowed, Learned, & Thought (or BL&T) is a weekly newsletter sent on Mondays. In every edition, I share a borrowed idea (quote, excerpt), a lesson learned from the previous week, and a thought starter heading into the new week. Learn more and subscribe here.

Borrowed

"My little cousin made enough money reselling Supreme this summer to buy his first car. Meanwhile, he refuses to wear the brand itself. I don't want anything to do with that. This is not why we founded The Hundreds ... My idea of streetwear is that it was born of the streets and is meant for the people. I want to reach as many of them as possible and connect them in the process. ... Streetwear didn't excite me because of the hype. It drew me in because it inspired hope."

From "This Is Not a T-Shirt: A Brand, a Culture, a Community--a Life in Streetwear" by Bobby Hundreds [Book]

Learned

One man's trash is another man's treasure. When I hear this phrase, I think of my Pop-Pop, known among his friends as Flea Market Joe. He spent most of the latter half of his life driving around collecting items left out on the curb. He was an expert at finding value in what most would have overlooked.

My earliest memories of Pop-Pop are him at the helm of his big blue van. He later upgraded to a gold Pontiac minivan, which looked more like a wooden doorstop on wheels. We nicknamed it "The Flying Wedge." No matter the vehicle or whether or not he was even driving, Pop-Pop was always on the lookout for good finds. Literally always. Weddings, Thanksgiving, Easter, birthdays, family dinners; it did not matter. He would take home whatever he found, clean it up, make fixes, and sell it at the local flea market.

Pop-Pop's garage was part museum, part workshop, nestled away at the bottom of my mother's childhood home in Northeast Philadelphia. There was no room for a car; instead, shelves lined the walls, displaying glass jars, fogged-up with scratches from years of use, placed alongside remnants of forgotten treasures. Along the left wall, Pop-Pop had cleared just enough space for his clunky metal desk. He could sit there for hours tinkering with his latest find. It was his happy place.

I am grateful to have spent a good deal of my childhood with Pop-Pop. At a young age, I not only learned how to repair broken chandeliers, among other things, but how to bargain and sell. I was amazed that Pop-Pop could take what was essentially trash off the street, and with some sweat, sell it for money. It's no surprise that my wife Dana and I have since done our share of refurbishing used items, occasionally selling them, too. It was not until after he retired his Flea Market Joe designation that I realized Pop-Pop was never in the business for the money alone.

After he and my mom-mom moved closer to my family, Pop-Pop searched for a pursuit to fill the flea market void. Years past retirement, many would take the time to relax. Not Pop-Pop.

He eventually joined the crew at Wendy's, where he would become a local celebrity, working almost daily until passing away in 2015.

Initially, Pop-Pop joined Wendy's to tidy the dining room. His manager soon recognized that for someone his age, this was not sustainable. That is when Pop-Pop became a "greeter." A role that, from what I hear, does not exist in any other Wendy's.

As customers received their orders and entered the dining room, Pop-Pop would be waiting by the concession bar, ready with napkins, utensils, and pre-squirted ketchup cups. It was simple, but he made people feel welcome. Do you know those restaurant comment cards that collect dust? Pop-Pop received dozens, eventually garnering the attention of corporate.

I would have never expected so many strangers at an 86 year old man's funeral, young families, teenagers, even former classmates (they had no idea Pop-Pop was my grandfather). It was a testament to the impact Pop-Pop had. It was never about him; it was always about his customers.

It's no wonder that Pop-Pop had repeat customers at the flea market AND Wendy's. To him, discovering the perfect item or serving the perfect amount of ketchup was the same. His mission was to learn what each customer valued and deliver on that value.

Below is a picture of Pop-Pop placed in his spot at Wendy's. It sat there for years after his passing. Yes, he does resemble Dave Thomas. I bet some people still think that is who he was.

Pop-Pop enjoyed what he did, but the driving force for the hustle was always a passion for creating joy in people's lives. Exploring Pop-Pop's story has inspired me to reflect on my own.

In July, I will celebrate my eighth anniversary at Barrel or, as we call it, barrel-versary. When people ask me why I stick around, I think of Pop-Pop's impact. I have pursued various passions in life (acting in school plays, performing concerts, creating art). The magic always came in sharing it with others.

Performing in the school play was driven by the delight on the audience's faces at curtain call. Writing music was an outlet, but hearing that my song helped someone through a difficult time kept me going.

I started this piece thinking it would be a short story about my pop-pop, but as it turns out, I learned more from him than I ever knew. It is humbling to look at my life today and recognize the same passion I felt in my 8th-grade performance as Hugo in Bye Bye Birdie. I go to work every day to do the job well, as much as I do to serve my audience; clients, employees, and peers alike.

Thanks for the reminder, Pop-Pop. We miss you every day.

Lesson? There is an intrinsic motivation in everything we do. The beauty in discovering it is that when all else fails, it can be the one thing that keeps us showing up.

Thought Starter

Why do I do what I do? What keeps me showing up?