I'm going to go in a different direction today, and get a bit personal. I know many of you probably read the title of this post and immediately thought I'm referring to the foundation of Vintage Refined - giving furniture a second chance. After all, that's our core business here. However, this post goes deeper, to exactly what second chances on a personal level mean. Today, we're talking about life. You often hear phrases like "You've only got one chance at life, so don't screw it up" or "There is no dress rehearsal for life". While these phrases all have truth behind them, what they aren't mentioning is the fact that even if you end up on the wrong road, it's never too late to take back control of your life and steer it into a meaningful direction.
After 1 1/2 years of running Vintage Refined on my own, I decided it was time to bring on additional help. My business was growing and evolving and I needed someone who had more expertise in furniture refinishing than my limited knowledge. On July 5, 2016, Mitchell Martinez walked into my shop for an interview. Standing 6' 4" and weighing a muscular 235 pounds, he made quite an entrance. Combine that physique with a tattoo covered body, shaved head and goatee, and you could call his appearance somewhat intimidating. However, he said all the right things and seemed to know his stuff, so I offered him a part-time position. Little did I know at that time just how influential he would be to both my business and my personal life.
Things started off slowly, but we eventually got into a groove. Since it was only the two of us, we spent a good portion of our days together. It didn't take long before we began to learn each other's quirks and habits. (He quickly learned keeping the studio organized was not my strong suit!) As we continued to work together, we got to know each other on a more personal level. We shared stories. We talked about our relationships with our families and friends. We opened up about painful experiences we were going through. We talked about our past. Gradually, over the course of the following two years, I learned a lot about Mitchell's history, and it wasn't all good.
Mitchell and I had very different upbringings. While I was raised in a traditional middle-class family with a strong support system, loving parents, and an abundance of opportunities, he was raised in a broken home and learned at a young age he had to fend for himself. Without constant guidance and support, he eventually took to the streets of Chicago, joined a gang and started dealing drugs. As he worked his way up the ranks of the gang, he started building a reputation for himself. With this reputation came more pressure and demand, leading him to deal more serious drugs and committing other crimes, including theft and burglary. At the time, he was living the high life. Money was rolling in, women were plentiful, and everyone wanted to be his buddy. That is, until things came crashing down. Eventually life caught up with him and he was convicted with a felony for dealing drugs. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, however because of good behavior, was released after 12 years. Still, 12 years is a long time. He left behind two children who would grow up without a father figure in their lives. And while you may want to cling to the past, life moves forward – with or without you.
Once sentenced to prison, Mitchell quickly learned there was a whole new set of rules to play by. There was a hierarchy among inmates, there were politics involved in negotiating with the prison guards, and there were strong allegiances among inmates through which you must carefully navigate. However, despite these challenges, there were also opportunities. That is, if you sought them out. Like most situations in life, there are two ways to look at any challenge, and as cliché as it may sound, your attitude is everything. Mitchell used this time to try and better himself. He read everything he could get his hands on, including the bible several times. In addition to reading, he learned new skills and trades. He committed to himself that he would leave prison a better person. He had the foresight to know that once he was released, he would need to be marketable in order to get his life on track. One of the trades he focused on was furniture refinishing. He took a woodworking class, learned carpentry and how to use a spray gun.
In addition to bettering himself, he made a vow to try to mend past relationships that were strained before and during his time away. While you can’t undo the past, you can try to make up for lost time and own up to the mistakes you made. At the same time, he also had to make the hard decision to cut some people out of his life. Bettering yourself sometimes means separating yourself from those who bring you down.
In 2006, Mitchell was released from prison and started the slow process of getting reacquainted with the outside world. He focused on rebuilding strained relationships with friends and family. By now his children were young adults and he was a grandfather to a three-year-old. With the skills that he learned in prison, he found a job at a cabinet company. He continued to develop and fine tune his skills. He worked hard. He formed new relationships. It wasn’t long until he found that his life had a renewed sense of purpose.
Mitchell has now been out of prison for 13 years. His life is much simpler now, focusing on his health and happiness. He has replaced his flashy gold chains for a fit bit, tracking his daily steps. His Friday evenings which used to be centered around drugs and violence are now spent experimenting with new pork recipes and hosting family. He sneaks away to Florida and Puerto Rico a couple times a year to relax and visit family. He has turned his life around.
Had I known his past the day he walked in for his interview, would I have hired him? To be honest, I don’t know. It would have seemed like a risky bet. However, knowing what I know now, does it change the way I think about him? Yes. In the best way possible.
Over these past couple years, Mitchell has become my right-hand man. I have relied on him for help in areas beyond the scope of his responsibilities. I have entrusted him with parts of my business that I have a hard time letting go of to anyone else. He has become an integral part of the company, and it’s hard to think where it would be today without his unwavering support.
As I learned Mitchell’s background, I knew I wanted to share his story. I think there are some valuable lessons to be gained by hearing the ups and downs of his life.
First, I think we are all guilty in some way of forming prejudices against people and are quick to judge based on stereotypes. Whether it’s the color of one’s skin, their ethnicity, how many tattoos cover their body, or the type of clothes they wear – we use these outward appearances to immediately form opinions of other people. Whether we mean to or not, we associate various physical traits to particular character traits. It’s not until you get under the surface that you’re able to really start to get to know someone. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone has a past. However, if we never take the time to sit down and listen to people’s stories, we will never get past our prejudices.
Second, you and you alone control the outcome of your life. Nobody goes through life without making mistakes. However, it’s how you handle those mistakes and the lessons you learn from those slip-ups that make you the person you are today. I think one of the biggest challenges people have today is owning up to their actions. It’s much easier to place blame on others, but in doing so, you harbor anger and resentment. It’s not until you accept responsibility for your actions that you can then begin to move forward in a productive and meaningful way.
And finally, never underestimate the value of hard work, commitment and a positive attitude. We are all capable of so much more than we realize, it’s just finding the confidence and drive to achieve success. With the right support network and a strong work ethic, anyone can turn their life around and make the most of their second chance.
In closing, to all my customers, I sincerely hope that you really love the piece of furniture you purchased from Vintage Refined and appreciate the care and craftsmanship (especially Mitchell’s) that went into giving it a second life. And when you look at your piece, I hope you think of Mitchell and are a little bit pleased for helping to give a deserving person a second chance for a life of his own.