Family and/or Autobiography

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?

 

On Blogging, On Writing

A Purposeful Post

The young me and the noisiest typewriter on earth. Lordy, did I love it.
The young me and the noisiest typewriter on earth. Lordy, did I love that thing.

A couple weeks back, my blog pal, Harula, posted a writing exercise. The theme was “Purpose” and the idea was to complete the following four sentences with whatever spontaneous thoughts sprung to mind.

* When I was a child, I believed I was here to…

* As a teenager, I believed I was here to…

* As an adult, I believe I am here to…

* The most important thing life has taught me about why I’m here is…

I decided to give it a go. The answer to the first two prompts are below. I’ll post the next two soon:

***

When I was a child, I believed I was here to…

…become a “dinosaur expert.” I was fascinated by Stegosaurus and was rooting for the  poor devil in his Fantasia fight with Tyrannosaurs Rex. I loved Stegosaurus so much that at times I wanted to be a Stegosaurus. Is that odd?

I also was fascinated by the sheer size of Brontosaurus. He was as long as three city buses laid end to end! Dang! Who wouldn’t want to be a dinosaur expert?

Many years later that I learned that Stegosaurus was extinct by the time T-Rex appeared on the scene, making Fantasia scientifically inaccurate — despite what that egghead Deems Taylor would have you believe. Then I learned that Brontosauruses never existed at all. So The Flintstones? Lies. All lies.

I am still fascinated by dinosaurs today but now possess the self-awareness to understand that I am way too impatient to be a paleontologist.

By the way, my favorite dinosaur has since changed. I am now a fan of Triceratops. Especially the adorable and slightly derpy looking stuffed triceratops who sits on my son’s bed. This fellow has gone by many names over the years. When Alex was three, he called him Oscar Lotion. I have no idea why. Later the name changed to Susie, then Harold Lloyd, and now, simply Triceratops. I call him Oscar Lotion Susie Harold Lloyd Triceratops and pretend he is a prehistoric accountant.

No, Mr. Allegra. I'm afraid stuffed animal purchases are not deductible.
“Sorry, Mr. Allegra. I’m afraid stuffed animal purchases are not tax deductible.”

As a teenager, I believed I was here to…

…be an actor. At an early age I noticed that I had a sort of fearlessness in front of crowds and could quickly remember lines. I didn’t do much acting growing up, but what I did was intoxicating. My big high school break was when I played the voice of Audrey Two in our school’s presentation of Little Shop of Horrors. I wanted to be the sadistic dentist, Orin, but I was the only one in the school who could pull off that deep, Ron Taylor voice. In other words, my high school had way too many white people.

I was this guy.
I was this guy. It was awesome.

In college I lied my way into acting classes (Ha! Acting!). I soon recognized that I liked acting students much, much more than graphic design students. This was kind of a problem because graphic design was my major. Horrified by the idea of actually using this graphic design degree, I contemplated going to acting school. I auditioned for and got accepted into the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) in New York before deciding that I have already accrued enough debt, thank you. Besides, I knew that deep down, acting was too uncertain and unstable a career for my personality.

This turned out to be a wise decision, for in tandem with my passion for acting, I had developed a passion for writing. A person can write and hold a steady day job. Four short years after I graduated from college, my day job switched from graphic design to writing. I got my start as a newspaper man and found the experience to be amazing. I wrote during the day for a salary and then wrote at night and on the weekends to draw a supplementary income. In other words, I became a very happy person.

***

And there you have it! Part two is coming soon.

When you were a kid what did you believe you were meant to do? Tell me in the comments below! C’mon, be a sport!

On Writing

The Adverbinator

This image courtesy of the fine fellow at merit badger.

During my tenure as a newspaper reporter I worked under three editors.

My third and last editor, Jerry, was an all-around great guy.

I was so devoted to my second editor, an old-timer named Jack, that I would’ve followed him almost to the gates of hell. (I would’ve driven him maybe seven eighths of the way there. That’s pretty much where my devotion to any boss ends, I think.) My point is Jack was the best boss I ever had.

My very first editor, on the other hand, was someone I wanted to shove into oncoming traffic.

Let’s say his name was Dan. He had many failings, but the worst, in my view, was his tone of voice. That voice, accompanied by a cocked eyebrow, made me feel as dumb as dirt. To be fair, I was dumb. I was a journalism greenhorn. But I already knew this without all of Dan’s nasty little reminders. What I needed from my editor was advice and guidance. That was not Dan’s strong suit.

My editor was a lot like this guy – only not as nice.

What really got my dander up, however, was the way Dan hacked away at my prose. One piece I wrote, about a nasty and tempestuous council meeting, was edited to make the proceedings look like an English garden party.

I stormed up to Dan’s desk. “What did you do to this?”

“I got rid of all your editorializing,” he said in that tone of his. “And you’re welcome.”

Ooh, I so wanted to knock those cocked eyebrows off his smug little face. “Editorializing? Where? Where was I editorializing?”

“The adverbs,” he replied. His tone suggested that I was more than welcome to add “stupid” to the end of his quote.

Then he waved me away. Dan had more important things to do now.

I sat at my desk and seethed. What a jerk. I wasn’t editorializing, I was reporting. I am a reporter, right? I was doing my job. That councilman said what he said and he said it “angrily.” I was there. I saw it. The guy was speaking through gritted teeth. His face was beet red. His hands were balled up into little fists. That’s “angrily!” What else could it be?

Then I had an epiphany.

Why, I wondered, didn’t I mention the gritted teeth and the red face and the balled fists in my story? That would’ve communicated angry much better than my “angrily.” And those little physical details really do paint a nice picture, don’t they? They sort of put you there in the room. You can almost see Mr. Councilman frothing at the mouth. My ambiguous, solitary “angrily” didn’t do that at all.

That “angrily” now felt like a pretty lazy way to get my point across.

A typical suburban New Jersey council meeting.

Then I arrived at another sudden realization, and it was a painful one: Dan was right. Adverbs are editorializing. When I wrote “angrily” I was asking the reader to trust my own interpretation of events without providing any evidence to back it up. I wrote that the guy was angry, but I never proved it.

Ugh. Dan, in his jerky, nasty way, mentored me.

My articles became a lot punchier after that. Dan edited less and I began to enjoy my job more. A few short weeks after beginning my self-imposed adverb purge, Dan accepted another job at another newspaper and I never saw him again.

I never did tell Dan how influential he was – but I don’t think I ever could. If I ever saw him again, I think my old urge to smack him upside the head would overcome me. And, just to upset Dan further, I would make sure to smack him happily.