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Doing Time

–THE TOOTHPASTE CHRONICLES: Volume #4

What life events will transpire from the time of the first twist of the toothpaste cap to the last squeeze? The mundane, often monotonous, the surprising, spontaneous, joyful, sad and sometimes hurtful things of life. Our stories are diverse but similar because of our common thread, the thread of human emotions. My story is your story. We’re in this together. Whether spoken or written, our stories are meant to be shared. It takes courage and vulnerability to do so. Like love, sharing involves risk. But also, like love, the risk is always worth it. I share my stories with you in mind.

Tom ran from the angry group of inmates who were chasing him. He made it to the fifteen-foot chain link fence and began to climb…. This recurring nightmare seemed to confirm what Tom had already been thinking; working in a prison was not proving to be a good career move for him.

Speaking of bad career choices..….if you’re familiar with retail management you know that in the early stages the pay is not great. As a senior assistant manager in a retail chain, I was a salaried employee. One day I calculated my hourly pay and figured that I was pulling down an amount roughly equivalent to what the stock boy (excuse me, stock person) was making. To be fair, it was the holiday season, so I was working even more than the usual number of excessive hours. Still, the exercise was a real eye-opener.

Of course, money isn’t everything, especially if you’re doing something you love. Love, however, is not the word I would use to describe my experience in retail management. So there I was just over one year into my career, at a store located in the Roosevelt Field Mall in Long Island, New York.

Historical note: Roosevelt Field Mall opened in 1956. It was named after Roosevelt Field, the same airfield where Charles Lindbergh took off for his solo transcontinental flight in 1927 (there will be a test)

Back to my story…… so one day I’m talking to my brother Danny…..

Side note: (like Historical notes, but lacking historical significance): Yes, I’m talking about that Danny – the infamous but always interesting ‘Gumshoe’ who has catalogued a number of real-life crime-fighting, bad guy clobbering escapades on this very Site; if you have yet to read him…..stop here, bookmark, check out Gumshoe, return.

So, like I was saying……there I was, on the phone with the future Gumshoe (he was not a cop yet) who tells me about his interesting-sounding job with the CYA (California Youth Authority). I like what I’m hearing. For one thing, I did not hear the word ‘retail’ mentioned even once. For another, Danny mentions a concept foreign to those of us in retail management – ‘overtime pay’. Wow! He’s making $834 a month plus overtime! (bear in mind, this was 1973) I had to get me some of that!

In addition to what I considered a shortfall in monetary compensation, I had recently come to a rather startling realization…. I hated customers! (a potential retail career killer) Okay, I know, ‘hate’ is a strong word, it’s not nice to hate, I get it. And, yes, anytime we say something that paints a broad stroke about an entire class of people we unfairly lump together and no doubt wrongly judge many of them…. but I hated customers, so there you have it.

It came to a head one day as I was speaking with my boss; he was rambling on about something job related that should have been important to me, but it wasn’t. It probably wasn’t ‘on the edge of my seat’ kinda stuff, but I was his senior assistant manager, so I should’ve heard more than I did, which was, “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…”). It hit me at that moment… the realization that I did not want to be in his chair… I had no interest in promoting to the position he occupied. As he blah, blah, blahed away, that’s all I thought about. At that point, it was just a matter of when to submit my resignation. I did not want to climb the career ladder only to find out it was leaning against the wrong wall. It was time to move on… 3,000 miles on.

So I loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly…. Hills, that is… swimmin’ pools, movie stars! (no, no, stop….cut!!) I didn’t own a truck and I didn’t move to Beverly Hills. (for the 3 or 4 of you who didn’t recognize it, I just flashed back to the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies, an old TV series).

Please excuse my mind, it drifts a wee bit from time to time. (see Toothpaste Chronicle #1, ‘Let the Squeeze Begin’ re: inhaling during the 60’s).

Once my sister Dee (who was working as the snack bar manager at a sister store… a store that was part of the same chain….not a store where all of our sisters worked.)… once Dee heard about my plan to relocate, she decided to resign from her position also, and join me in my treck West.

Side note: Dee was the best snack bar manager they ever had. As time would prove, Dee was the best ever at whatever she did. She was very smart, and no one put their heart into their work more than Dee. She would eventually become an RN, something Dee was born to do.

Dee and I packed all of our worldly possessions in my ’72 Chevy Monte Carlo and headed for the West Coast. Fortunately, neither of us were packrats. (do you remember when you could fit everything you owned into your car? Them were the days!)

You guessed it, another side note: One of my first memories of California is when bro Danny and his wife Sue took me to Hanks Restaurant in Newport Beach for fish and chips. Along the way, they remarked about being able to see the mountains. Oh no! Had they both been stricken with some sort of terrible, obviously contagious, eye disease? If so, what was I doing in their van? Were the mountains somehow lowered into the ground at night and raised to be seen only in the daytime? Having been stationed in Hawaii during the last 18 months of my enlistment (USAF) I was not familiar with SMOG. Living in Bakersfield as I now do, I’ve become accustomed to seeing what I inhale.

As I awaited State testing for the California Youth Authority (“CYA”) I found a job with the California National Guard. I guess I just wanted to work for an organization with the word ‘California’ in its title. Testing was finally announced for Group Supervisor (“GS”), the entry-level position with CYA. I found myself in an auditorium with 300 or so people who were also seeking CYA employment. I passed the test, was called for an interview, and was hired into one of only three positions that were available at Youth Training School (“YTS”) in Chino, where bro Danny worked.

Did my dislike (sounds nicer than ‘hatred’) of customers qualify me for working behind bars? Was it my stellar good looks? My 90 wpm typing speed? Nope, none of the above… it was my last name. Danny had earned an excellent reputation at YTS, and by virtue of being his brother, I got the job – plain and simple. I rode in on the coattails of my brother’s good reputation, but now it was on me to perform.

Oh, did I mention that my loving-but-severely-warped-sense-of-humor brother set me up? Yup… he convinced the wards (inmates) that I could whoop his butt. You see, bro Danny holds a 3rd degree black belt in karate… unlike the (fantasy) black belt that he convinced the wards that I held. My denial only served to convince them even more that not only was I extremely dangerous, but I was also very humble; clearly a deadly combination. (My only skills at the art of self defense were gained as a member of my high school chess club. I was known to checkmate an unsuspecting opponent in only 5 moves…. no brag, just fact.)

During a good number of my twelve years in CYA I was known to many, not as Mike, but as ‘Danny’s brother’. Eventually, as people transferred, quit, were fired or deceased, I regained my own identity. Danny’s impact on people who experienced regular contact with him could be compared to some very naturally occurring things in nature such as ebola, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornados, or perhaps meteors. They all have lasting impact, are shocking to the senses, and often require counseling as a part of the recovery process.

I did not remain at YTS long, started there January 16th (my dad’s birthday) and transferred to another CYA facility being re-activated in May. I remember Danny’s reaction when I told him I was selected to be a part of the activation team in Paso Robles (a small town on California’s Central Coast)…”There’s nothing but hills and trees there!” After only five months of living in Santa Ana and working in Chino, I was more than ready for some hills and trees!

Little did I know I would find much more than hills and trees.

Sharron was the prettiest girl in the place. I don’t say this for the sake of earning brownie points, knowing that she’ll read it. It’s an incontrovertible fact. The Laguna Village Inn, or ‘LVI’, as the locals called it, was a popular dance spot in San Luis Obispo, a 30 minute drive from where I settled in Paso Robles. I love to dance (see ‘Eternal Consequences’, Volume #2 of Chronicles). The rhythm, the music and, oh yeah, the opportunity for a shy, average guy like me to break the ice with a pretty girl; what could be better? Sharron was in the company of two other young ladies at the bar. As I scanned the crowd I was immediately attracted to her pretty face, long brunette hair and beautiful smile.

Let me back up a bit. I’ve never been a ‘girl magnet’. Like Clint Eastwood’s character, Harry Callahan, says in one of the Dirty Harry movies, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” I did. I’m a realist. I’m not a life-of-the-party, great-looking kinda guy, but, I might add, I did alright in the dating realm in my own, average guy kinda way. So, like many average kinda guys, I wasn’t afraid to shoot for the stars, so I asked the prettiest girl in the LVI to dance with me and she said yes!

I quickly discovered that Sharron had a great personality to match her great looks. She gave me her phone number that night. I began to wonder why she had when, after my 11th call (yes, ELEVEN), she had yet to agree to go out with me. Little did she know that I had a strict 12 call limit! Us average guys do have our pride! Like the saying goes, “the twelfth time’s a charm!” (or something like that) Finally, Sharron agreed to a date. Flash forward just several months to November 14, 1975, and we were engaged. We were married the following Valentine’s Day at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

(Toothpaste Chronicle Volume #3, ‘Man in the Mirror’ shares much more details of my marriage relationship that intertwines with this story)

Much of what happened over the ten years that followed would only be of interest to those who have worked in a correctional environment, so I will spare the rest of you much of the details. I do so for two reasons; one, I have a lousy memory, and two – I’ve never been one to sit around reminiscing my time behind bars and swapping ‘war’ stories.

One of the ways we corrections professionals survive the cumulative impact of stress is not to ‘live’ what we do; not allow time off to be dominated by our job. When I do share some of what I’ve experienced, it’s with a purpose in mind.

That said, I share the story that follows out of respect and in honor of the memory of those who did not survive my profession.

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Mike Pitocco
Mike Pitocco
​Following a stint in the USAF Mike worked in retail management on Long Island, New York prior to relocating and beginning a new career with the California Department of Corrections, from which he retired after 33 years of service. Retiring as a Program Coordinator with the Division of Addiction and Recovery Services. He continued his involvement with the drug treatment initiative for several years as a consultant with the University of California, San Diego, Center for Criminality & Addiction Research. While working at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, CA, Mike activated Celebrate Recovery (CR), a faith-based ministry, at the prison. Mike and his wife Sharron also activated CR at a number of other correctional facilities in the state. Mike volunteered and eventually was hired as a full-time Chaplain at the Lerdo Detention Facility (Kern County jail) in Bakersfield, CA; eventually becoming Supervising Chaplain, and earning his certificate of ordination from Prison Ministry of America. Mike was also the Ministry Director of CR at Canyon Hills Church in Bakersfield along with co-founding the Kern County Prison Ministry Alliance, the goal of which was is to reduce recidivism one life at a time. Mike considers himself truly blessed to be Sharron’s husband, the proud father of Christina, Daniel, and Sean and grandfather (aka, ‘Papa’) of Lawson, Harper, and Savvy. For Sharron - God’s instrument in knocking off some very rough edges - for family, for life and love, and whatever he may be privileged to share through writing, Mike gives glory to God alone…. Soli Deo Gloria. He is a contributing author to the inspiring book Crappy to Happy: Sacred Stories of Transformational Joy

16 COMMENTS

  1. Great story, Mike. It is so true that being trapped in a job that you don’t enjoy is a terrible sentence. I guess I’d add that the only thing that may be worse is loving your job but not loving your boss. We spend more time at work with colleagues and coworkers than we do with family and friends. Cheers to the journey!

    • So true Melissa! I once applied for a really great position that many wanted; it was a newly created position and represented a great training opportunity. Most other, more experienced staff did not apply because they didn’t like the boss. I was selected. As it turned out, the boss transferred a few months later. Not too long afterwards I promoted into the bosses position largely due to the experience I gained. Ya never know! Happy ending there, but we can’t always count on bosses leaving – just hope and pray they change at some point. Thanks for reading. I appreciate your comments. Merry Christmas fellow traveler!

  2. A long winding road no doubt Mike. Your time in and out of the CYA reminds me of my own journey. I started off as a military journalist in the Army reserves and had the time of my life. Went to college for graphic design, a poor decision which derailed my writing career for nearly 20 years. Got married in my early 20s, moved to Florida, got divorced, still in Florida 17 years later, remarried with child. Worked for the rag that produces National Enquirer for five years, got tired of the production grind and changed industries, now a defense contractor.

    Several job titles later, a few untimely pink slips, and several companies later, I have developed a love-hate relationship with the industry hand that feeds. Last year I started writing again to escape my career misery, merely as a creative outlet to express my frustration. At the same rate writing has helped me to regain my focus and perspective, and so I am still grateful to have a position with decent pay and benefits. Unfortunately I live or die by the government funding. I can’t throw a rock far enough away from my anxiety, always worried about the next lousy layoff.

    Anyway, we all sleep in our own tuna can. We toss and turn in our own oil until we stink. In the meantime we just gotta get up each day, take a deep breath, and milk the day for all its worth… and hopefully that milk hasn’t gone spoiled…

    • You have been on quite a ride yourself Aaron. So often what we do to pay the bills isn’t where our heart truly is. Glad to hear you’re back to writing; so important that we live life along the way to retirement – develop outside interests…..otherwise retirement can turn into just another tuna can! I appreciate you taking time to read my story and your comments. Merry Christmas.

  3. Life does have many twists in the same vane as your toothpaste cap. You have to rise above what you can’t live without. We are all on a journey from someplace to soneplacecwith many stops in between. Where and when we wind up is something only G-d knows.

  4. Congratulations on the story, really interesting.
    Resources have always been related to the relativity of time and space. Today, work is a resource characterized by scarcity. The work you like is a luxury for the few. A good compromise could be to have a job acceptable in some respects and under others not: at least a small percentage of what you do should give satisfaction. Even the most beautiful work has its pros and cons, like all things. The university and the school have different rules from the world of work. Difficult, like any transition, is the transition from studies and family to the world of work. In some cases, this step is really traumatic. Dreams and drawers full of hope do not correspond to the reality of things that makes us clash against walls and swallow toads: often, job offers are distant from our imagination.
    Being able to do the work you love is undoubtedly the result of a strong commitment, determination and sacrifices to arrive. But perhaps it also needs some luck and God’s help.

    • Thank you for your (always) insightful comments Aldo. Yes, there is always the less desireable elements even to work that we love doing. And our perceptions often don’t match the reality…..so true. If we feel we are where we belong, the negative aspects won’t be strong enough to drive us away. Just because I know I’m called to do something doesn’t mean there will not be challenges, problems and pitfalls…..they make us stronger if we let them.

  5. Mike, you are a very good writer and story-teller. You are humerous, raw, fact-sharing, anecdotal, and discerning all in one. Your Toothpaste Chronicles vis a vis the story of your life bring up so many themes that we all struggle with and I really enjoyed reading your words. Very nice to meet you and might I say you have had a very intriguing journey!

    • Maureen, I consider it quite a compliment whenever anyone takes the time to read my stuff. Thank you very much for your kind remarks. The journey has been somewhat of a roller coaster ride (with a little merry-go-round thrown in just for fun). Wishing you the best Christmas ever!

  6. Mike: As you point out, there are few things more tragic than being in a job that you hate. Dreading going to work and being miserable all the time is no way to spend one’s life. Unfortunately many never find their comfort nitch and spend much of their lives in quiet desperation.

    • Well, well dear brother Mikey. I was very pleased when you (and sister Dee) took the opportunity to come to California. Yes, being Danny’s brother helped get you hired with the CYA (California Youth Authority); but you definitely made it on your own bro.

      I remember when we both worked along side of one another in the same control room but managing two different units – I was a counselor for the Special Treatment Team (inmate wards who were too weak to be put in the main inmate population); while you managed inmates from various Los Angeles (misguided youth groups), the Bloods, the Crips, etc.

      I recall you sitting in the day room at the metal table (affixed to the cement floor) as a very large group of inmates surrounded you in complete silence as you showed them a “mystical” card trick and kept them in awe of your prestidigitational abilities.

      I just knew you had potential beyond your future car-selling-folklift-operator-cannery adventures.

      Note: Your customer service vastly improved. Our God is awesome!

    • So true Ken. Many are trapped by circumstances, finances, family……not easy to make the break. I’m very blessed to have had the opportunity to try a few things – it’s what eventually gave me a true appreciation for what I had! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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