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 Writing

Paper Trained

Need a little advice, kids? Well have a seat.

I work at a high school, which means I often interact with high school students. It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Most of them know I do this writing thing and can tell that I’m pretty happy, so the aspiring wordsmiths among them often ply me for advice.

“How can I become a writer?” they ask with wide, dewy, earnest eyes.

“Work for a newspaper,” I reply.

Without fail, they then look at me as if to say, “Gee, thanks for the advice, Grandpa, but the world doesn’t work that way anymore.”

Punk kids.

Yeah, Mr. Allegra, you’re still cool!

Sheesh, I’m not stupid. I know where newspapers are going. A couple of years ago I even wrote a feature story titled “Black and White and Dead All Over.” The fate of the daily newspaper is obvious.

I wasn’t telling those kids to work for a daily, though. The weeklies are where the action is. Unlike their big city cousins, weeklies aren’t in financial trouble – and they’re great places to get your boots on the ground, learn the trade, slough off a few failures, and develop a local following. Also, weeklies happily accept journalism newbies. They have no choice, really; their salaries are much too low to attract anyone who has already proven himself.

So, Go Greenhorns!

My old paper, Suburban Trends, was published on Wednesdays and Sundays. Each reporter was assigned a town to cover. Then each reporter was made to understand that he or she was to submit six stories about that town every week. Three stories per issue. “At least three,” Mr. Editor would then tell you with a solemn nod. “Because, you know, four stories are better than three. Better for you, if you get me.”

Oh, I got him.

The job was not as ominous as I make it sound, really. The stories didn’t have to be long or involved, they just had to be in Mr. Editor’s grubby little hands before deadline. This, of course, taught me how to bang out punchy, polished copy on a variety of topics – which is excellent training for anyone who wants to write.

The greatest benefit of this system, however, was that it forced me to be independent and resourceful. You see, Suburban Trends editors didn’t oversee their reporters very much. They gave you a list that told you when the local committees and boards met. Then they showed you the door and told you to come back with three stories. At least three.

You soon learn that only four of these local meetings are worth going to:

1. The Town Council Work Session, where the council talks about what they’re going to talk about at next week’s Town Council Meeting.

2. The Town Council Meeting, where the council talks about about what they said they were going to talk about the week before – only, this time, instead of talking they yell.

3. The Board of Education Meeting, where a small yet vocal minority tries to get a beloved principal fired.

4. The Planning Board Meeting, where people argue about whether or not they should let some guy build yet another ugly strip mall. (Don’t worry ugly strip mall fans; they always get built eventually!)

All of the other township committees and boards exist only as an excuse for middle-aged men to get out of the house, eat butter cookies, and talk about fishing.

Okay, everyone, enough chit chat. Let’s get down to the first item on tonight’s agenda: Jerry’s golf swing.

A good reporter on a good news month might be able to get three stories from the Town Council Work Session, four from the Town Council Regular Meeting, two from the Board of Education, and two from the Planning Board. That adds up to 11 stories per month.

Only 13 to go!

So government news wasn’t going to get me anywhere near my quota. Once I wrapped my brain around this (I believe the epiphany came during my attempt to turn a new pooper scooper law into a three-part exposé), I got out from behind my desk and trolled the streets.

It’s so easy for a writer to forget how important it is to walk away from the desk. Granted, meeting a person face to face takes more time and work than a phone call or an email, but you can get so much more out of it. People tell you things over coffee or a beer that they would never ever tell you under any other circumstances.

I made a point to get to know everybody. And while it might sound cliché, everybody does have at least one good story to tell. Before long there wasn’t a conversation that took place over a back fence in that town that I hadn’t heard about. People I would’ve never noticed (or would’ve actively avoided) under normal circumstances became valuable sources. A lot of them became wonderful pals. And many of my experiences with these unique, eccentric, delightful, and slightly-dangerous-looking people inspire my fiction writing to this day.

A possible source. A scary one.

I had no problem finding story ideas after developing these relationships. Even during the summer, when the Board of Education didn’t meet and the Town Council members were too hot and sleepy to muster up the energy to yell, I never missed my twice-weekly quota.

In fact, I often submitted four stories per issue. And y’know what? Four really is better than three. Because when you have four stories you can tell Mr. Editor to get out of your face and go bother someone else.