My Best Boss

The quality of one’s job is directly dependent upon the quality of one’s boss. I know this is true; there is no other way to explain how the teenaged me managed to spend an entire summer slaving over a Burger King broiler without killing myself.

The Burger King manager, Annie, was kind and understanding. She knew the job was terrible. She knew I had grease burns running up and down my forearms. She knew I went home every afternoon smelling like a rancid French fry. And, most importantly, she had no desire to make my life any worse. She smiled, gave me praise, and tossed me free chicken tenders the way one might feed a trained seal. She made an intolerable job sort of tolerable and I was grateful.

My boss theory goes the other way, too. Shortly after graduating college, I worked as an assistant art director for a magazine that profiled bed and breakfasts. Even though it was a design job – and I never really cottoned to a career in design – I did like the work. I even found opportunities to strengthen my journalism chops, interviewing innkeepers and writing articles.

But my boss, the magazine’s publisher, let’s call her Mrs. Wilkes, was a horrible person. She fancied herself an expert in all things. One of her hobbies was to shoo me out of my desk chair and rearrange my layout. She made a big show of this, for she wanted the entire office to know what an idiot I was. Aside from the public embarrassment, what I found particularly irksome about her behavior was that when she was finally done futzing around with my work, the layout was exactly the way I had it before.

“See that?” Wilkes barked, playing to the cheap seats. “That’s the way to do it.”

Wilkes had a loose screw. She rooted through my desk at night. She threw very public tantrums. And, perhaps worst of all, she went everywhere with an ancient, toothless, hairless Chihuahua that would bite my shoes and pee under my desk.

I liked the work, but that boss broke my spirit.

Once in a while, however, you get a lightning in a bottle: In the late 1990s I found a perfect job with a perfect boss.

Jack Carle was the editor of Suburban Trends, the newspaper I used to write for. The best word to describe him would be “grizzled.” The guy looked a like 19th century gold prospector. He sported a thick shock of brown hair with a ragged beard to match. His rumpled wardrobe favored plaid flannel shirts and work jeans. His weathered face suggested that he had seen things that no mortal man should ever see – or ever hope to forget.

I had never gone through Jack’s desk drawers – I wouldn’t have dared – but if I had, I would’ve been disappointed if I hadn’t found a bottle of whiskey in there. He was that kind of guy. A Bottle Of Whiskey In A Desk Kind Of Guy.

Jack was large, much taller than I was – at least I think he was. He certainly carried himself as if he was large. He was also a man of few words. When he did speak, you listened carefully. He wouldn’t be talking if it wasn’t important.

Jack didn’t yell. Never. But if he was mad, you could feel his rage radiate off of him and be frightened by it – even if that rage wasn’t directed at you.

For the record, his rage was never directed at me. Jack and I understood each other. He wanted dynamic, snappy copy. I wanted to write it. He saw that I could write it, so he left me to my own devices – which was also what I wanted. I respected his authority and he respected my need for independence.

But the big reason why I would’ve followed Jack Carle seven-eighths of the way to hell and back was because he defended his staff. If Jack trusted you, he’d go to the mat for you — and have fun doing it.

I covered several suburban towns for the Trends. In one of those towns there was a councilman who was a bit of a pill. For the sake of this post, I’ll call him Dave Murphy. As a journalist, it is my job to be impartial — so I will tell you in the most impartial way that Murphy was a moron. He was a showoff who loved it when the public access cameras recorded council meetings. When they did, he would yell and carry on at length, ignoring the eye rolls and impatient sighs from the rest of the council.

Those stupid cameras turned simple council matters into big kerfuffles. When the council held an up or down vote to renew a bid for a sanitation contract, Murphy used the occasion to practice his oration. “I do not think I can vote to approve this!” he bellowed. “The other morning I woke up at 5 a.m. to chat with my garbage men. I was troubled to discover that none of them spoke English!”

Murphy’s comment filled my mind with questions:

“Why would anyone get up at the crack of dawn to chat with garbage men?”

“How does mastering English improve one’s ability to pick up garbage?”

And the most important one: “Why is this man’s xenophobia wasting my time?”

Murphy’s grandstanding often turned what should’ve been a 40-minute council meeting into a two-hour one. I didn’t get paid enough for this nonsense.

So, in my journalistic way, I made a decision. I would poke the bear. I would treat all of Murphy’s rants as if they were news. If Murphy wanted to talk about his garbage men’s fluency, fine. I’d write a story about it. If he wanted to say that another councilman who used to sell rotary dial telephones out of his garage in the 1970s shouldn’t vote on a cell tower contract because it’s a “conflict of interest,” fine. I’d write a story about it.

I made sure that every one of Murphy’s rants and conspiracy theories got ink.

Jack loved these stories; they fed into the mischievous side of his personality. He also loved the fact that I was cautious in my takedowns. I never editorialized, I just quoted Murphy’s thoughts and ideas. I let Murphy hurt Murphy.

Murphy didn’t like the stories as much as Jack did. He was a moron, yes, but he understood what I was doing. As soon as a Murphy story appeared in the paper, he’d call me up and yell.

“What’s wrong?” I’d ask, using my innocent voice. “Did I misquote you?”

“No,” he’d admit.

“Did I misrepresent your point of view?”

“No!” he’d admit again. “It’s your tone!”

“But if I’m quoting you correctly and representing your positions correctly, then isn’t the story reflecting your tone?”

It was at about this point that Murphy would slam down the receiver.

It wasn’t long before Murphy figured out that yelling at me was getting him nowhere. So he wrote nasty letters to the editor.

Jack would call me to his desk. “Mind if I print this letter in the next edition?” he asked.

“Sure go ahead,” I’d reply. Then Jack and I would chuckle.

When it became clear that the letters weren’t getting me fired, Murphy decided to give Jack a call.

“I demand that you fire Mr. Allegra!” he bellowed.

“Well, that’s not going to happen,” Jack said. “Anything else?”

“Well…then I think that you and I and Mr. Allegra should sit down and discuss Mr. Allegra’s conduct!”

“That’s a good idea,” Jack mused. “But, wait, I have a better idea. Why don’t you go f*** yourself?”

I laughed so hard I think I might’ve peed a little.

That kind of leadership, my friends, inspires devotion.

Jack died a few years ago, I’m sorry to say, but he is never too far from my thoughts. Once in a while I’ll raise my Chianti glass in his memory. When I do so, I imagine Jack pulling a bottle of whiskey out of his heavenly editor’s desk and joining me. He was that kind of guy. An I’m Drinking Whiskey In Heaven And Just You Try To Stop Me Kind Of Guy.

How can you not be loyal to a boss like that?

 

77 thoughts on “My Best Boss

  1. Oh, I know exactly what you mean. There are some people who were never meant to supervise other people and some people who are so great its like they were born to it. Finding them is tricky, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have two bosses like Jack in the past. We still keep in touch.

  2. Oh what a clever strategy for dealing with Murphy. And, I love how your boss, Jack supported you. Let Murphy take himself down. I worked with so many different bosses, particularly when I did PR/Community Relations for the military. Fortunately the director and base commanders rotated about every two years, so if you had a difficult boss, he/she was gone. I always played the role of the observer, and found a way to get along. I knew I was the continuity below the leaders and they depended on me for my knowledge. You do learn the most from those who test you.

      • Ha! I bet it was a highlight. You only pointed out his prejudice to him by objectively quoting his own words. Reminds me of a bully I knew — and I often wondered what it was to walk in his shoes and what had made him that way. Great story.

      • Murphy a nasty man with way too much time on his hands, who, at some point, decided he wanted to be respected and admired — even though he had done nothing to warrant that respect or admiration.

        In other words, he was the perfect punching bag. Mwa-ha-ha.

  3. Hi Mike. I love this post, and it’s so true about bosses. How lucky you had Jack watching your back as you practiced sly but truthful journalism, way before the spyware era. I’ve had the good, the bad, and now a bit of both as my own boss (writers have to report first to themselves, then to their clients). Your piece reminded of that fact, and of all the terrible bosses I have suffered. And how people really matter. Thanks.
    http://www.sheilaklewis.wordpress.com.

  4. Oh, how could you NOT love this guy? And now that you have another perfect boss—yourself—we expect even greater things out of you. 😀

    For the record: I, too, spent a semester working at Burger King. I’ll never forget the smell of my clothes, the grease on my shoes, or eating those fried cherry “pies.” And that old lady? I think I would have accidentally punted her little dog. On second thought, it wouldn’t be fair to punt the toothless old dog. Better to punt the wicked witch of the west and her pica ruler.

    • It’s funny that you mention punting the dog, because at the time, I fantasized about doing just that. The offices for the magazine were at the top of a long narrow stairway — and man, oh, man did I want to kick that dog all the way to the bottom.

      When I worked at BK, I wore gum-soled shoes so I wouldn’t slip on the often mopped and/or greasy floor. The problem was that everything stuck to them. At the end of my shift I had to scrape the smushed french fries off of my soles with a putty knife.

  5. What a great story, Mike, and so well written! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! Jack sounds like an amazing guy – I think I would have liked him 🙂 My current boss can be a little difficult to deal with… but since she’s me I really have no one to complain to 🙂

  6. Wow, what a great story, you are an amazing writer!! I am new to all this and am so impressed with the quality of talent out there, you are one of the best I have read so far! I have lots to learn 🙂 thank you for posting such wonderful work… 🙂

  7. Another wonderful story! I love treating morons with smiles . . . it drives them nuts! (It’s usually a rather short ride.) Aunt Elaine

  8. Life is full of blowhards like Murphy. How lucky you were to have a Jack go to bat for you. And how sneakily wonderful it must have felt to be able to dish out your revenge in printed word on a regular basis. Ah, the power of the pen.

  9. I’ve occasionally been bossed by an Annie, I’ve lucked out (as in “out of good luck”) on a couple of Mrs. Wilkes (have we been reading Stephen King?), but I’ve never had the honor of working for a Jack Carle.

    How’s your current boss, Mike?

  10. Worst boss story involves a Mrs. DirectorInCharge who reminded me of the Red Queen with her “off with their head!” approach to staff relations. I smiled and said “good morning” to her until she finally thawed out and would rerun my greeting plus my name. My co-workers were stunned and wondered why I risked getting bitten every morning. Umm, even grumpy people need a “hello?” Nice bosses: most have been, but yucky bosses make for better stories, don’t they?

  11. Um, Jack sounds beyond amazing! What a great tribute you’ve written here, Mike.

    Sorry to say that I haven’t had any bosses like him, that would go to bat for me or inspire me very much.

    But, I’ve had some incredible teachers over the years and I will never forget the ones who shaped me to be the person I am today. I always liked the teachers that nobody else liked—the challenging, eccentric, intelligent, crotchety ones. They were my kind of people. 🙂

  12. Mike, I’m glad you had at least one great boss 🙂 I had many and don’t think any of them would’ve put themselves out that way. And I say we tar and feather Mrs. Wilkes. Now having THAT kind of boss I can easily relate to!

  13. I worked at Baker’s Shoes in college. It was one of the worst jobs I ever had, but my boss, Paul Hamner, was the best. He was a quiet, uncomplicated man from West Virginia. You know his family, The Waltons. His brother was the writer of that show and it was about their family, but that wasn’t what made Paul great. He always smiled, nothing got him mad, he loved his grandson fiercely, and he was awesome to me. I used to leave another job three days a week and come straight to Baker’s. I never made it on time it was impossible to, but Paul always clocked me in before I got there and made me go get something to eat because he knew I had to work two jobs to make ends meet. I loved him for that and will never forget him.

    • Yep. It’s those small gestures of kindness that stay with you.

      When Jack needed to cut my story for length, he would always let me know in advance, to make sure I was OK with the edit. I was very grateful for this courtesy. (Sometimes, in order to wangle a little inside information, I promised interview subjects that I would include a specific tidbit in the completed story. Jack knew how I operated; he wanted to make sure his edits didn’t undermine my backroom deals.)

      When I later became an editor, I followed in Jack’s footsteps; I always made sure my writers were OK with the edited story before it went to press.

      BTW: Will I see you at the NJ SCBWI this June? You’re fun!

  14. It’s so funny, I just have to mention, Mike, that just today–completely out to fhe blue–my boyfriend mentioned an old boss and said he was the best boss he ever had lol He NEVER talks about these people and he mentioned him today!

  15. Isn’t it interesting how our boss can have such an important roll in our success or failure/pleasure or pain? Ironically one of my best bosses who nearly became my brother-in-law was the manager of an Arby;s fast food place.

    I think I would love a boss like Jack! I’d certainly never be bored!

  16. Ah yes, we’ve all had our share of really bad bosses and really good bosses, and it does totally make the difference to our jobs, of course other things matter too, but in terms of individual elements that make up an enjoyable job, the boss is the biggest element! (What on EARTH am I talking about?). This is what comes of only having a few minutes to catch up on some blog posts that I haven’t caught up with! What can I tell ya? Got any of that whiskey left?

  17. Wonderful well-written post that I think all of your readers relate to. Good boss/bad boss – ah, and you’ve also given many of us bloggers an idea for our own post on our own bad/good bosses. I’d write more here, but I’m busy with the first draft of my ‘bad boss’ future post. Ha ha. AND we’re all relating to the when-we-were-younger food job. College summers, I didn’t work for BK or MD, but at a small rather sleazy golf club, as the cook/waitress for the tiny hole-in-a-wall (that’s a pun) restaurant. I lost count of how many old geezers pinched me on my rear. Ahhhhhhhhh, another idea for a blog post. THANKS! 🙂 (And watch out for that new boss of yours, I’ve heard rumors….)

  18. Loved this post when I read it, but forgot to comment to let you know that! I so enjoyed my work in newsrooms, but it seems different these days. My last publisher died last August and it hurts to say that he’s no longer with us. But, his stories live on …

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