Who am I

raconteur

No excuses!

Born in Brooklyn, NY, I never liked school very much (did anyone?), but I did spend a lot of time at the library. My dream job was to have my own huge library with all the information in the world. People would call me up, ask me a question, and I’d find it for them. I actually thought up Google when I was 11.

There’s not much memorable about my childhood. As a hobby, I collected baseball cards, memorizing the card numbers, the photos on the front, and the stats on the back. I know it was those bloody baseball cards that ruined my vision. Obviously, I didn’t go out much.

As a teenager, I delivered the daily newspaper door-to-door, for 2 1/2 years. We had to collect the subscriber fees every week. A 14 year-old tracking down deadbeat customers seems absurd nowadays (newspapers are now delivered by adults in vans). I babysat, shoveled snow, painted houses, installed insulation in the crawl-spaces of my neighbors, whatever anyone was willing to pay me to do.

This pocket money was mostly spent on more baseball cards, which eventually turned out to be more than a hobby – dealing at conventions, placing ads, trading and selling through the mail all over the country. This endeavor was an invaluable experience in dealing with the middle-aged and emotionally fragile. Years later, those cards would finance cars, a lot of books, and my first few trips to Europe.

Being away at college was a burst of freedom like I’d never known before. I tried a bit of everything, intra- and extracurricular, all over the grid, on campus and off, soon making up for the girls and parties I’d missed in high school. I eventually chose English Literature/Rhetoric as a major, for no other reason than I’d earned more credits in those subjects than the others I was dabbling in. Contrary to all expectations, some of that study has proven useful at times.

An advert about international exchange programs caught my attention, and I applied for a semester in London. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in an English classroom, surrounded by English students, which was terrifying for…. about half a day. Everyone was friendly; I got a job in the school canteen, bought an old bike, and tooled around town on the left side of the road. I visited a lot of pub theater, got around a lot, and made some great friends. I frequented the dance clubs and experienced the onset of the “acid-house” and “rave” cultures. At one point I hitchhiked up to Liverpool, just because I could.

When that fantasy semester came to an end around New Year’s, I had a decision to make. I had a 2-month Eurail ticket, but it was January. Why not spend the winter immersed in a completely new culture, maybe learn a new language? Holland was a cheap place to live at the time, and so for the next 10 weeks I was the new kid in the quaint, medieval town of Deventer.

As per the drill, I got myself a bike, volunteered at the student club, carried a dictionary around, and lived the life of a proverbial Bohemian. When spring came, I validated my train pass, and embarked on a magical mystery tour — every day or two exploring a new town, its museums, its customs, its people. Travel journals linger at the bottom of my bookcase, full of memories, poems, anecdotes, and a few locks of girls’ hair.

The holiday was over. I flew home for college graduation, and went back to my old summer job, delivering liquid oxygen to dying patients. Thanks to my familiarity with NYC streets, bedside manner, and willingness to drive around with heavy, flammable liquids, I made a decent wage and spent quality time bantering with the elderly. They were always so happy to see me. Hey, I brought them their precious oxygen. Anyway, I couldn’t wait to get back to Europe, so I sold some more cards and booked a flight and another Eurail ticket. This time I visited universities and collected grad-school admission forms.

I enrolled at the University of Amsterdam, mainly because I already spoke decent Dutch, and the inexpensive tuition fees. They offered me a room in a student/refugee housing project, where I took a job behind the counter at the community tea house. The customers were residents of the dorms: foreign students, refugees from the darkest corners of the earth, and middle-aged Dutch fringe characters. There were tensions between the ethnic groups and I often had to intervene.  The immersion was exhilarating. A few of the Moroccans and a Somalian or two wanted to kill me. All in a day’s work.

It was not my intention to stay in Amsterdam for the next 10 years, but I was in no hurry to leave. I was an extremely assimilated, albeit illegal alien. I had some interesting jobs, the most fun of which were tending bar in a legendary red-light-district music bar and, later, an unforgettable tenure as board member at the squat sauna Fenomeen.

I got wind of a teaching job at the Amsterdam Academy of Bank and Finance. I was no teacher, but desperately needed a job. At the interview, the dean grilled me (in Dutch) on the stock market. Little did he know, my roommate at university was a Finance major, and we would stay up late drinking and philosophizing about finance. So I rambled everything I knew about P/E ratios, and he offered me the job on the spot. Thank god he didn’t ask me if I had a residence (let alone work) permit.

The first day, I got a thrill explaining and discussing things with a room full of students. Teaching became my passion; I developed an experimental, if not reckless reputation. But, as my results were high, they kept extending my contract, and I soon became the utility-man at the sister school, subbing for everything from Poetry to Tourism to History.

At some point, I’d reached a disturbing level of comfort and felt the urge to quit Holland while I was ahead and explore new territory. I up and moved my stuff to Prague, a place I’d been enchanted with for years.

In 2002, Lonny Gold invited me to teach a Suggestopedic English course with him in subtropical Hainan, China for a 2-month course, which was extended to 4 months. I loved that island and its coconuts, eating mangoes off the tree and learning about green tea. What I loved perhaps most was riding a bicycle in chaotic traffic conditions, developing a panoramic sense of having eyes in the back of my head. And being invited for karaoke and beer by strangers on the street. I’ve been back there three times since, and have developed quite a love-hate relationship with the Middle Kingdom.

Back in Prague, a friend was examining my book collection, which include shelves and shelves of self-help classics. He yelled, “Bastard, you learned that magic of yours from books?” A few days later, his boss hired me to teach a course to his colleagues at Fiat. Suddenly I was a corporate trainer.

Since then I’ve developed materials and trained firms in practically every sector. It is a privilege training real pros in their livelihoods, and seeing immediate results. Among these jobs is my pet project, teaching Clinical Empathy to medical students (and planning to take that to doctors).

In August 2018, a few short months after finishing my book (How to GET Great Service), I managed to (double) break my femur and life changed on a dime. Training Presentation Skills was out of the question as, thanks to being relegated to crutches for the next 4 months, I could not use my hands and feet at the same time. So, I went and did something that even I, in my wildest dreams, had never imagined: I took a job as an English teacher at the local high school. Never mind that I was supposed to lie on my back for 3 months; it was 3 weeks after my operation that I was strutting around a classroom, desperately hoping that none of those kids would bump into me and set me back all that physiotherapy.

Send me an email if the spirit moves you: howard AT rokofsky.com