My Father Was a Pimp and Drug Dealer
JT McCormick, Book in a Box
January 29, 2018
My father was a drug dealer and a pimp — a real pimp who put women on the street corner. My mother was a young woman from an orphanage who had no family, money or support. There’s no gentle way to describe it: My childhood was a hardscrabble affair marked by dramatic incidents of racism, drug abuse and neglect.
Today I lead an Evergreen company, Book in a Box, which helps people tell their own stories.
My mom loved me, but we were terribly poor, and she faced a lot of prejudice in ’70s Dayton, Ohio, as the unmarried white mother of a half-black child. One of my earliest memories is of returning home from the bus stop with my mom and seeing all our belongings lying on the curb outside our apartment. The landlord was outside yelling, “No nigger-lovers can live here.” I remember sitting on that curb crying.
When I turned 9, a complicated welfare issue forced me to move in with my dad, and those years were complete chaos. On a regular basis, I watched him beat women and bring home heroin-addicted prostitutes. They would force me to babysit some of my little half-siblings (my father had 23 children) as they brought johns back to the apartment. Once my father abruptly moved to England for a year, and left me with a prostitute and three of my half-siblings who were 4, 2 and 1 years old. The prostitute said she was going to get cigarettes, but didn’t return for three weeks. I had to teach the 4-year-old to babysit while I stole food. We had no diapers so I had to potty train the little ones. I remember stealing three Oreos for my little sister’s third birthday. When the prostitute finally came home, I asked where she had been, and she punched me so hard I fell to the floor. I was 12 years old.
That was when I left and started living on the streets. I lived in a bus stop for a while, but eventually ended up in juvenile detention for three months before an uncle took me in. My mother tracked me down when I was 15 and moved me back in with her, this time in San Antonio, Texas. I was in 10th grade, but testing at a fifth-grade level. I struggled through a couple rounds of summer school before finally graduating. A janitor handed me my diploma, and that was the end of my formal schooling.
After graduation, I received my call to action: My mom gave me two weeks to find a job. I found work cleaning toilets and tables at a local restaurant. The job was miserable and I longed to quit. But I never wanted to be on the streets again, so instead of complaining, I decided to be the best busboy and toilet cleaner in all of San Antonio. My toilets would sparkle, and my salt and peppers shakers would always be full. In a way, I found something better than a mentor: personal gratification in being successful at my job.
Thank god this youthful bout of optimism actually paid off. After about six months, a couple dining at the restaurant noticed my hard work and invited me to come make candles in their mall shop. I was earning more money and with lots of cute girls watching me through that window, I endeavored to be the best candlemaker there ever was.
I crossed the threshold into corporate life when my mother helped me land a job in the mail room where she had been working at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company. Although my job was to sort mail, I treated it as an education, watching how the corporate people shook hands and communicated. It was so different than anything I had ever been exposed to — I memorized the cordial social cues.
But I didn’t see myself as having a future at this company. So when a friend told me about a job at a payday loan shop, even though it meant proofing deposit slips, one of the most tedious jobs there is, I took it. Right away I asked my manager what were the most reports ever proofed in a day — I doubled it the next, and continued to drive that number up.
Three months in, the owner took notice. He started teaching me about consumer finances and loans and, within a year, promoted me to a traveling vice president who checked on all the offices around the country. Eventually he sent me to Eugene, Oregon, where I was told to figure out how to open an office. I was 23.
I ran that office for three years and bought out two competitors. But I missed Texas, so I headed back down south. I ended up at Wachovia bank as a mortgage broker, just as the real estate crisis hit. It was the biggest ordeal of my career. I lost everything I had built up over the years. I was flat broke — no money to buy even new underwear or T-shirts.
By 2011, I found a job in sales as the lowest-paid employee at a software company. There I had a second chance and called upon my old work ethic. I knew nothing about software, but I did know how to sell and follow up on business relationships. I started calling the company's competitors to learn their pitches and taught myself how to sell software. Within seven months, I closed $1 million in sales — the year before they had $2.7 million in revenue, so this was not insignificant. I built relationships with large enterprise clients and climbed the executive ladder. In 2013, less than three years after I started, I became the company’s president. Under my steerage, we went from one office and 13 employees to over 100 employees and four offices, including one in Monterrey, Mexico.
I finally felt like I was reaping rewards in my professional life. But I still felt I had more to offer. I had come so far; I thought I could give back to the world by sharing the things I had learned along the way. I realized I wanted to write a book, and I reached out to Book in a Box, a company that helps people turn their ideas into books. It was a call that changed my life. With the company’s founder, Tucker Max, I wrote my memoir. I also ended up offering Book in a Box some advice about how to better manage and scale their company, and they invited me to join their board of advisers. One morning in 2016, they offered me the CEO position.
It was a job I gladly accepted, despite a dramatic pay cut. At the software company, I took only 11 days of vacation in five years. There’s a photo of me working on my laptop in the delivery room during the birth of my first child. It was very hard to leave the software company, but ultimately, I wasn’t passionate about software. On the other hand, at Book in a Box, I love hearing people’s stories; I love turning them into books. When I was a kid, I wasn’t even allowed to take books home with me because teachers were afraid we’d steal them.
I also love helping people find belief even in their darkest tales. And it helps me sort through my own conflicted thoughts on the people who populate my memories. My mom always told me to never judge anyone else — that everyone has a story.
Finally, I’m at peace with my father. I hadn’t spoken to him in 30 years, but I returned home to attend his funeral a couple years ago. It was a cathartic moment. After all, somehow I got to where I am today — perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, my roots.
JT McCormick is the president and CEO of Book in a Box.