Here’s my third and final pro-journalism peek down memory lane. This post is from February 22, 2015.
The quality of one’s job is directly dependent upon the quality of one’s boss. I know this is true, for 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 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 same 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 graphic design job—and I never 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 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,” for he 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 could ever hope to forget.
I had never gone through Jack’s desk—I wouldn’t have dared—but if I had, I would’ve been disappointed if I hadn’t found a bottle of whiskey. 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 didn’t talk unless he had something important to say.
Jack didn’t yell. Never. But if he was mad, you could feel the 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 Jack’s authority and Jack 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 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 would be 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?