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 Second Resolution Solution!

A lovely parting gift
A lovely parting gift.

When I gave my two-weeks notice, I was not prepared for how busy those next two weeks would be.

I figured my last days at Lawrenceville would consist of wrapping up a few loose ends. I also figured that the occasional work friend or acquaintance would stroll into my office to chat and say his or her goodbyes. And this is largely what did happen – only more so.

It turned out there were a lot of loose ends that needed tying. It also turned out that a lot of people needed to say their goodbyes. And some of those goodbyes took a lot of time. (One work pal just stood in my office silently, not knowing what to say, but not wanting to leave until he could think of something appropriate. That appropriate something never arrived. For all I know, he might still be in there.)

This was all well and good — and quite lovely, really — but as the days ticked away and those loose ends remained loose, my patience for such visits began to ebb. This was especially true during the last half of my last week. By that time all of my work friends and acquaintances had said what they had to say. Now the stream of well-wishers consisted exclusively of obligated almost-strangers and jocular irritants. When one such irritant visited and attempted to generate some last minute bonhomie, I nodded and smiled and uttered banalities (I figured I might be able drive him out of my office by being boring). My brain, however, wanted to try a different strategy. A yelling strategy:

“What is this? I don’t even like you! I haven’t spoken to you since 2012. Why are you here? Why are you keeping me from my loose ends? And, oh, God, hold on! Are you sitting down? Why are you sitting down?!”

The loose ends in question were the particulars of the spring issue of the alumni magazine I edited. I was leaving in the middle of my production schedule and that is kind of an organizational nightmare.

To the uninitiated, the task of putting out a magazine appears to be one big, ginormous job. In reality it’s more like four jillion little jobs — and I couldn’t  in good conscience take my leave until every one of those little jobs was accounted for in some fashion. I wanted to make sure that whoever the school hired would be able to quickly and easily pick up where I left off.

But there was a non-magazine-related loose end I had to deal with, too. And this loose end was far more important than a magazine. It was New Year’s Resolution Number Two: I had to find a vaguely amusing way to get rid of my golf balls.

Too many.
Sometimes I scare myself.

My desire to collect golf balls began in spring 2014. On my lunch hour I would wander around a nearby golf course and fill my pockets with any lost or abandoned balls I found. I would then go back to my office and put my quarry in an empty file drawer.

By the time 2014 came to a close, this drawer held 376 golf balls. That is a lot of golf balls. In fact, I would argue that it is too many golf balls. So as I rang in 2015, I vowed to find a way to get rid of them in a vaguely amusing way. Since my days at the job were numbered (and I had no desire to lug home 50 pounds worth of balls for a game I do not play) I had to come up with something fast. In the end, I decided to leave the balls behind. But that would be a loose end. I don’t like loose ends, so I also left behind a note:

Hi Editor!

I did my best to tie up loose ends on the spring issue to make the transition as easy as possible, but I may have overlooked something. If you have any questions about the job or my organizational system, please do not hesitate to contact me. I’ll be happy to answer your questions.

By now you have probably noticed that this drawer is filled with 376 golf balls. You are probably asking yourself, “Why?”

And I have an answer for you: Because this is what crazy looks like.

Such a gift is not without precedent, by the way. When I started this job 11 years ago, I discovered that my predecessor left behind a closet full of mayonnaise jars filled with urine. So, really, you should consider yourself lucky. Golf balls are nothing compared to that.

In short, quit complaining and get to work.

Your pal, Mike

I was amused. And so another resolution gets ticked off my list.

On Writing

You’re Grounded!

I don’t write about my day job on this blog too often, because my day job doesn’t have much to do with writing for children.

On rare occasions, however, I get lucky.

GroundingI draw my salary from The Lawrenceville School, editing and writing for The Lawrentian, the School’s alumni magazine. Not too long ago, I learned that Julian Thompson, the author of 20 YA books, was an alumnus, and, well, I just had to interview the guy.

I read Thompson’s young adult novel, The Grounding of Group 6, when I was an actual young adult. I remembered loving it, but, after 30 years, I couldn’t remember much else. All I could recall was a couple of basic plot points. I also recalled that the book had some dirty parts – which might have been why the 12-year-old me thought the book was so dang wonderful.

I gave Thompson a call and he could not have been more gracious. He happily agreed to sit for an interview. In preparation, I reread Grounding and found it to be every bit as good as I had remembered. And yes, the dirty parts are still a little dirty – but not nearly as dirty as my memory had led me to believe, which is kind of a relief, really.

Whew! I thought. Thompson is not the Henry Miller of middle school lit!

For those of you who might be interested, I am posting a PDF of the story below. I don’t think the finished article is a great piece of magazine writing by any stretch, but I do think it is as good a way as any to remember a fine writer and a generous human being.

Julian Thompson: Grounded by Experience