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Blue-collar income fuels filmmaker's dream

At age 39, Philadelphia longshoreman Joe Van Blunk deciding to follow his passion and make his first movie. But he kept his day job -- a key decision that sent him down dual career paths. Your Career by Eve Tahmincioglu.
Filmmaker Joe Van Blunt, right, talks to attendees at a Jewish film festival. Van Blunt, who is also a longshoreman, is one of a growing number of "slash" careerists combining two fields.
Filmmaker Joe Van Blunt, right, talks to attendees at a Jewish film festival. Van Blunt, who is also a longshoreman, is one of a growing number of "slash" careerists combining two fields.Joe Van Blunt

Joe Van Blunk’s father was a longshoreman. Many of his uncles were longshoremen. But his dad didn’t want him to end up on the Philadelphia docks doing one of the most difficult jobs around, loading and unloading ships.

Despite his dad’s wishes, at age 18, Van Blunk became a longshoreman.

But his career story doesn’t end there, even though you might think this backbreaking work would have been all-consuming, leaving him little time to follow his real passion. And yes, he did have a real passion, just like many workers out there who spend too much time daydreaming about the career they always wanted.

Van Blunk always wanted to be involved in the film industry. And today, at 52, he is a documentary filmmaker. Well, he’s actually a filmmaker/longshoreman.

After years of pining for a job in film and dabbling in the profession, writing screenplays that were never sold, he finally took the plunge in the late 1990s and made his first film, "Echoes From a Ghost Minyan." “We did it by the seat of our pants, borrowing film equipment, reading books on filmmaking. But we did it,” he says proudly.

The film is about an old Jewish section of South Philadelphia that had all but disappeared. Van Blunk’s interest in the topic came from having grown up a Catholic kid in the once-thriving immigrant Jewish community where he was often a “shabbos goy,” turning off lights for religious Jews who were unable to do so during the Sabbath.

“Ghost,” as he calls it, was the first in a series of award-winning films he and his partner have made under a company aptly named Longshore Films. And despite his growing success, Van Blunk won’t be leaving his longshoreman job behind any time soon.

He is one of a growing number of individuals who are keeping their day jobs but also following their dreams and embarking on long-pined-for careers. His story is the second in a series about working stiffs I have been profiling who were able to find their career bliss by creating unusual work situations. The last profile was on Allen Sheffield, a high-powered corporate accountant who also ran a youth ministry.

Both Van Blunk and Sheffield were able to create the right job fit for them by taking on two careers at once, something author Marci Alboher calls “the slash effect,” which she explores in her book “One Person/Multiple Careers.”

Alboher points to Department of Labor figures that show about 7.7 million people work multiple jobs, about 1 in 19 or roughly 5 percent of the population.

One of the main factors driving the trend, she says, is that people are working longer than ever today and not retiring at the same rate as they did in the past. “They want to be able to incorporate all types of different experiences in their careers,” she said. So instead of making a wholesale career change, she adds, “they are looking at careers in a more holistic way.”

People who decide to pursue a second career, she advises, should think about what they liked to do as children. They should also be prepared to start at the bottom if it’s something they’ve never done before or only dabbled in.

Also, don’t be afraid to approach your supervisor at your present job with a well-crafted plan of how you can make an additional career work. And remember, timing is everything. “If things are heating up at your present job then you might want to wait until a slow period,” she says.

There are several reasons a dual career might be the way to go — you need the income from one job to fund your passion; you love both jobs; or you just want to try something new without leaving the security of your present gig.

Van Blunk falls into the first category. Not being independently wealthy, he had to keep his job on the docks.

Early on, Van Blunk saw his blue-collar job as one that could provide him the income and flexibility he needed to follow his passion. “My instincts told me if I wanted to be writer or artist of any kind, this would be good because of the unconventional schedule. I call it the maritime clock. Ships are always coming in, but you don’t have to work every day if you set it up the right way. You can put in as much time as you want, and the range of pay can be between $25,000 to $100,000, a year depending how much you work.”

In his early 20s, he took screenwriting courses at a local university and continued to write on his free time away from the waterfront. When he was 26 he got married and then had two children, leaving him little time to pursue his film ambitions full force.

His dreams were pushed back even further in his mid-30s after he divorced his wife and ended up moving back in with his mother.

But Van Blunk says he was able to get back on his feet when he decided to finally make a film at age 39, along with his high school friend Gus Rosanio. “It was quite therapeutic for me. The film was something I could focus on,” he explains.

He never doubted he could pull it off, saying he was confident in his ability, even though he admits making films is one of the most difficult things you could ever do. “I’ve always heard people say from Spielberg on down that it’s a miracle that they get done. Now I know why,” he says.

While he’s happy with his double career, he has had to make financial and free time sacrifices. When he’s making a film he cuts back his weekly hours on the docks to about 30 and ends up losing a lot of money as a result. And he also sometimes works 18-hour shifts for several days in a row, taking a day to sleep so he can have a few days straight to concentrate on his filmmaking.

Van Blunk’s not complaining though. Having people enjoy his films has made all the sacrifices worth it. (You can see trailers of the films at his Web site.)

When he decided to show his first film at a friend’s coffee shop in Philadelphia, he rented a big-screen television and a VHS player to show the movie. He ended up getting a big crowd because a local paper did a story on him and his partner and mentioned the viewing.

“We wound up showing it six times that one day. There was a line around the corner,” he says. “I guess it was synchronicity.”