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?

 

A Resolution Solution!

My office.
Will I be able to work in an office without glass walls? It’ll be tough, but I’ll try!

A couple of weeks ago I posted my first ever list of New Year’s resolutions. I am pleased to report that one of those resolutions is resolved!

I will do something bold yet well-planned.

What is the bold thing? I quit my job. Beginning in February, I will earn income solely through freelance and independent writing projects.

How long did I plan this? About three years.

The reason? Because my wife’s and my Mid-Life Crisis Clocks serendipitously synced up.

Up to this point, Ellen had been working out of the house earning an excellent supplementary income as an SAT tutor. As for me, I wrote for and edited The Lawrenceville School’s alumni magazine, earning a good salary and getting medical benefits. For quite a long time this worked out just fine.

But my wife was, slowly but surely, going stir crazy. Once Alex began attending school, Ellen, a former high school English teacher, longed to return to the classroom.

She also hated, hated, HATED doing housework. This is because Ellen is normal.

I like doing housework because I am not normal. (OCD, for all its negative connotations, does create excellent house husbands.) But my day job and it’s long, long commute didn’t give me many opportunities during the workweek to help out much.

Also, my job, for all its frequent awesomeness (I got to interview, Peter Gould, a writer and director for Breaking Bad! Woo!) was beginning to wear me down. I had been there 11 years. I thought my work was getting stale. No one else noticed, but I did.

Furthermore, the job was keeping me from the children’s book writing thing. It was also keeping me from expanding my freelance clientele. And, more crushingly, it was keeping me from spending much time with my boy.

So Ellen and I talked. We made a plan. And we implemented it.

Ellen spent the last couple of years getting certified in middle school math. She is now employed full time at our town’s middle school.

Meanwhile, for the past couple of years, I have been cultivating contacts and clients. I will now work out of my home office.

This change is exciting, to say the least.

It will also now allow me to accomplish two more of my New Year’s resolutions:

I shall write early and often

and

I shall become a Laundry Master.

Here’s to new adventures in 2015!

 

Query Response #2: Telephone!

A work of art. Also, annoying.
A work of art. Also, annoying.

In a recent post I asked, “What do you want me to post about?

You responded — and your wish is my command. It might take me a while, but I will get to each and every one of your requests (even Sarah W’s).

***

Today I’ll reply to Eagle-Eyed-Editor, who wanted to know a bit more about the phone in my office:

My office.
See it?

That, my friend, is a gen-u-wine 1920 candlestick that I bought from Ring My Bell!, a telephone restoration company in Southern California. Don’t bother looking them up; they’re out of business. Apparently, no one wants 90-year-old technology anymore.

My candlestick works beautifully and I adore its retro charm.

But retro charm doesn’t amount to a bucket of warm spit when a computerized voice on the other end of a call asks you to “press” a number. Nothin’ to press here, I’m afraid.

Also it is impossible to cradle the oddly-shaped two-pound handset on your shoulder, so good luck taking a message.

In order to be heard, you have to speak into the 11-pound base. So if you want to move anywhere you have to carry it with you.  Fortunately, the phone cord is really, really short so you can’t go anywhere anyway.

To put it another way, my 1920 candlestick can be a big pain in the rumpus room.

So I have another phone in my office that I use for interviews and other business calls. This phone does not have retro charm, however, so when it is not in use, I hide it away in my desk drawer.

So there you have it! Be sure to check in again. Query Response #3 is coming soon!