Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Remembering snow

I spent the night in a radio station for the first time in about fifteen years the other night. The roads were icy. The ride in to work was a bob sled straight to hell. I took it slowly, creeping in at just barely above five miles an hour. I had little interest in spending the night on the bottom of the river.

Sleeping at the station wasn't so bad. They had a couch and there was a little food left over from the company Christmas party. Compared to the drafty old building where I spent my first overnight at, this was heaven.

Fifteen years ago, I had a lousy job at a low-watt talk radio station in Beckley owned by a small mining company. The owner, Hugh Caperton, was seldom around, but you couldn't blame him. He bought the building because it had a good location, not because the building was any great shakes. The place was a slum haunted by rats, real railroad-hopping hobos and the occasional paint-huffing addict. The previous owner kept a sawed off shotgun in his office, which he'd supposedly used to fire at vagrants he saw fiddling with his car one afternoon.

The new guy didn't have a gun, but he didn't come in as much and never stayed after dark.

One night, before I was supposed to go in for my Saturday morning shift, I got word about an ugly storm coming in. By the time I left from Athens to get to Beckley in the morning, heavy snow was falling and had crusted the roads. I knew before I hit the interstate I wouldn't be driving home. I just didn't know how long I was staying.

Before noon, warnings were issued that motorists should just stay home. Accident reports were coming in. The weather was getting worse and just when I was settling into the idea that I was going to be sticking around until at least the following morning, the guy for the second half of Saturday came in. His name was Chris and I didn't much like him.

Chris was an asshole: judgmental, small-minded and a little holier-than-thou. He was hard to be around, made all of us uncomfortable with either his indifferent hygiene or the bizarre things that went through his head. Chris liked to regale us with droning stories about the aircraft he admired, the new ham radio set he installed in his vintage piece of shit station wagon and occasionally, very dangerous ideas about politics.

Chris was a fascist, which fit in pretty well with the talk station format. He was also extremely religious, which didn't fit in at all with the collection of drunks, porn addicts and outright super villains who patrolled the halls from nine to five every weekday. He'd have been fired for just being plain unpleasant if not for two factors: He worked the shifts nobody else wanted and his father was the station engineer.

Chris got to the station early that day, about an hour before he was scheduled and immediately, we both agreed neither of us could drive anywhere. Since I was still on the clock, he offered to run down the street to the local convenience store to get supplies. I handed him a few bucks, told him to pick up food and a pack of cigarettes. If we were going to be stuck, we should be stocked.

He came back with a loaf of white bread, a two-liter of Mountain Dew, a giant bag of peanut M&Ms and a package of lunch meat.

I was a vegetarian, which everyone knew, and I even mentioned to him before he left. He also refused to buy the cigarettes, though I'd specifically asked for them and he'd said nothing about not buying them. Instead, he'd blown the money on the kind of party crap you'd find at a sleepover for young Methodists then come back to tell me he didn't think I should smoke.

By the time I was officially off the shift, the store had closed and the wind was starting to pick up. There was nowhere to go. So, I did three days and two nights in a drafty building with a cabinet full of Halloween goodies, no smokes and Mr. Personality to keep me company.

It was a long, fucking weekend. Chris followed me around. Wherever I was, he had to be. If I made coffee, he stood in the doorway and watched. If I went down the hall to the studio to read the weather or (ha!) play a commercial, he took a seat and stared. Even after we switched to the overnight and had a little time to sleep, he followed me to my office. I slept in my chair, behind my cheap desk. He slept on the floor.

This went on for two more days.

You'd think two people trapped in the same place, half freezing to death, and just trying to do a job might bond in the face of adversity. They might share some stories, get to know each other, maybe become friends. Honestly, I don't remember what we talked about. I remember being sick on sugar and caffeine, feeling like hell from nicotine cravings and hoping none of the junkies living in the basement or sub-basement would get smart enough to find their way up to the ground floor. I remember also thinking that if they did, I'd give them Chris then make a run for it.

It was a weird weekend. Some of the black preachers who did their shows on Sunday morning couldn't make it in. They called in and told me to play records and also to announce plans for bus rides to the Million Man march in Washington. Eventually, I started to lose my voice and had to gargle warm water right before I went on the air just to croak out the weather reports.

Monday afternoon, the roads started to clear and the engineer showed up. He and his other sons dug my car out of a snow drift and sent me on my way. I went home, ate like a pig and slept hard.

The radio job eventually ran its course. A few months later, Caperton went into a licensing agreement with another radio station and they more or less fired us all. I was the last of the on-air guys. The engineer kept me on as long as he could because I had a family to support.

I saw only a couple of the people I worked with at the radio station ever again. I bumped into the receptionist at an adult bookstore a few years later. She tried to sell me a dildo, but really I just wanted to get a cheap bong. I was newly single. Getting high seemed like something I should consider doing, though I never got around to it.

Chris, however, was a different story.

Years later, an investigator for the human resources department of the FBI was in the wrong place, but looking for Shane, the owner of the radio station that had taken control of my station. The investigator explained he was following up on a background investigation. An applicant named Chris had cited Shane as a reference. I surprised the guy when I knew Chris's last name.

"So, what do you know about him?" He asked me. "Is he responsible? Dependable? Would you consider him to be trustworthy?"

I laughed and told him the story about being stuck with Chris at the radio station. I told the investigator I thought he was very responsible, very dependable and one of the most moral men I'd known at the time.

"But," I added. "He's a dick. He's a self-righteous prick and he's dull, like watching paint dry dull."

The investigator thought I was pretty funny, though he said whether Chris was a jerk or not wasn't really important in his investigation. All they wanted to know is whether he could be trusted to handle sensitive information.

I said he could handle that, then asked if my name would be used in his report, if it would get back to Chris. He laughed and assured me it would not.

"Too bad," I said.

1 comment:

eclectic guy said...

"I had little interest in spending the night on the bottom of the river."

Good stuff, man.

As for radio stations and snow storms, people don't realize that we have to be here. Not that they give a flying fig about it at all, but while our listeners complain that we go off the air, here we are creeping along at five miles a hour in 3 feet of snow all to fill in some crappy shift.

I've never had to sleep here. Sheesh.