Set your way-back machine to early 1986. I was sixteen-years-old and I had mononucleosis. I was a skinny runt of a kid who lost way too much weight from his sickness.
My mom went up to the local video store, 16,000 Movies, and spent an hour telling the owner about her son. About how great he was and how he wanted to work there so badly (I did – all the hot girls worked there) and how I would be there myself but I was sufferring from a terrible illness. After an hour of beating him down, he finally agreed to hire me, sight unseen – most likely to get my mom to stop pestering him.
The owner of the video store was 24-year-old Steven Zlatkiss. I went to work as soon as I recovered from mono and learned what it was like to work for the demanding cult of personality that was Steve Zlatkiss. I stayed with Steve until late 1995, when the company was sold to Blockbuster Video.
It was the most amazing ten years of my life. I slowly earned respect and Steve took me under his wing. He taught me how to manage the store, then the stores (which grew to 17 locations all around Florida before we sold). He taught me how to demand nothing less than excellence from myself and from others. He was there when I married my first wife – paying for the honeymoon because we were too poor to go anywhere. He was there when my oldest son was born.
He taught me how to play craps in Atlantic City. He taught me how to negotiate and be confident in myself. He showed me how attitude was 90% of every business transaction. He, quite literally, taught me everything I know about the business world – which is why I still get in trouble for being too aggressive or speaking my mind too openly from time-to-time. Because that’s how Steve was – he held nothing back and if you screwed up, he let you know in no uncertain terms, and then he helped you fix your mistake and move on.
Steve was the enemy of political correctness. When Mark, the first black guy started working at the store, complained that someone said he was a “raisin in a bowl of milk” as the only black guy, Steve laughed loudly and said “That’s fucking incredible!” And walked away.
His point? Without saying a word, Steve taught us to find the humor in the bullshit. Taught us to be thick-skinned to a point, to deal with our own problems and not expect anyone to help us, and to recognize when someone was a friend and when they were not. 20 years later, Mark Vitela and I are still great friends. Along with the rest of the crew who worked together at 16,000 Movies.
Steve recognized that I had a gift for computers and started me on my career. After breaking the computers in the video store over and over again with my juvenile attempts to learn the system he finally gave up and sent me to New Jersey for training. I took my first professional programming course at the age of 18 – thanks to Steve. And look at me now, Chief Technology officer of a company that manages millions of dollars of government and private sector IT contracts. Thanks to Steve.
When Steve got married, in grand Jewish tradition, I was there applauding him. When his first son was born, I was there laughing and crying with him. When his son, at 8-days-old, had his brit milah (Jewish circumcision ceremony) I was there, cringing and trying not to be queasy.
When I moved back to Orlando and had the opportunity to buy an established karate school and run my first entrepreneurial business, Steve seeded me the money I needed to get started. It took me almost six months to pay him back, and the venture failed, but Steve never even blinked as he handed me the money. We had trust. We had friendship.
A year ago, Steve called me and told me he had incurable cancer and that his doctors had given him only three months to live. He was fighting it, he said, and it was going to be a cold day in hell (his words) before he rolled over and gave up. Steve wanted to know about my cancer treatments and how I dealt with them.
We talked at least once every two weeks from that point forward. Steve was strong – and he didn’t want to appear weak in front of me. Those moment were reserved for his family I am sure. We made many plans to grab a bite to eat or to visit, but his illness was slowly getting the best of him and each plan was cancelled because of his condition. And because of his life – Steve was a very busy man and he never stopped making plans, scheming or cutting deals with people. Getting time with Steve had always been, as long as I knew him, a difficult task.
Finally, though, Steve threw a party at his house for all the ex-employees of 16,000 Movies. Such was the power of Steve, so much love had he instilled in his “crew” that nearly 100 of us showed up for that party. Fifteen years after the the last movie was rented at 16,000 Movies, nearly 100 of his ex-employees, his friends, showed up to celebrate with with him.
Steve was amazed at how many people were there to show him love. He knew, but never really understood, how much of an impact he had on all of our lives. He shaped us, made us into who we are today. He was a father-figure, friend, and parter in crime and he left a deep mark on all of us.
As I left the party, Steve hugged me and told me he loved me. That was the last time I saw him.
Steve passed away on December 23, 2010 at the age of 48. He beat his doctor’s estimates by over a year. He went to Israel for non-FDA-approved treatments. He bullied the FDA into letting him legally try an untried and unapproved drug to fight his cancer. He never gave up and he beat that cancer back much, much longer than anyone ever thought he could.
And so, yesterday, on an appropriately bleak and bitter day, we buried Steve at the Temple Israel cemetery in Winter Garden. He was surrounded by so many loving friends and family that it was standing room only. It’s been less than a month since I buried my mother and it was extremely hard to deal with a second death of someone so close to me on the heels of my mom’s death.
My mom, member 225 at 16,000 Movies, and Steve always shared a bond that began when she bullied him into hiring a geeky 16-year-old kid. Steve never, not once in over 25 years, let a conversation end without asking about my mom.
I will miss Steve greatly – he made me into the man I am and for that I will be forever grateful. Rest in peace, my friend.