‘In a shouty, benevolent rant, my first boss taught me how to be a chancer’

Time of my life: Erin Fornoff on how her boss helped her overcome her insecurity

The Time of My Life is a weekly column about a moment that changed someone’s life – for the better or the worse

In a shouty, benevolent rant, my first boss taught me how to be a chancer.

As a teenager and young university student, I was unformed and deeply insecure, with neither spine nor exoskeleton. I was the kind of person who’d write in her diary, “How will they like me if I don’t know who they want me to be?” Being liked was my currency and primary concern, and I wasn’t used to ever pushing, or taking the risk to try and bend a rule.

I was working as an intern at a community organising and film nonprofit called Empowerment Project in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In the late 1980s the director, Barbara Trent, made an Oscar-winning documentary and the statue sat in our shared office, gold chipped down to pewter from being passed through hundreds of hands. I was a bit awed and fully terrified of her.

We were working on a local community organising effort with a low-income housing neighbourhood situated next to a massive active quarry which blasted each day at noon. Though the houses were outside the radius, cracks grew in ceilings and foundations. We sat in living rooms and watched pictures fall off the walls. The goal was to stop the expansion of the quarry, or secure recompense for the growing damage residents were unable to afford.

Overwrought apology

My job was to call various burrens of bureaucracy – the tax archive, the city council, the permit office – to get information about county zoning, property tax details, blast radius maps. Each of my phone calls went like this:

“Hi, I am looking for form X from date Y. Could I have this?”

“No.”

“Okthanksnoproblemsorrytobotheryouhaveagooddaygoodbye.”

Over and over I’d call, ask without preamble, and each time get a hard no, which I’d follow with an overwrought apology.

In our shared office, I could feel Barbara starting to steam. Finally, after I absorbed yet another “No” she yells, “Goddamnit, Erin, you’re not taking them with you! You have to take them with you! People don’t say no because they can’t, they say no because it’s easier than saying yes. They have no REASON to say yes! Call that woman back and get on the other line and listen.”

Cracks

I call the woman back and Barbara introduces herself and launches into a story about the quarry, and the cracks in the walls, and the kids at the rural bus stops as the gravel trucks fly by, she knows how it is, and why exactly we need this particular zoning record, and oh are you also from this side of the county too, and do you know John?

Suddenly the woman at the other end of the phone is invested, and going out of her way to help us, providing the numbers and the documents and suggesting others of relevance. I was amazed.

It was one of the only moments I’ve ever had where I thought, in the moment, “This is something that will help me the rest of my life.” And it has – this kind of approach, where you “take them with you”, and build a more genuine connection and give people a reason, has served me since, and it stemmed from this shouted moment in a Chapel Hill farmhouse. It was a gift for her to be impatient with my insecurity.

Erin Fornoff’s collection of poetry, Hymn to the Reckless, is out now on Dedalus Press.

Do you want to share your Time of My Life story? Email magazine@irishtimes.com with “Time of My Life” in the subject line

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