Friday, September 18, 2015

30 days of Night: four

The waiting was the hardest part.

A week out from when all the jobs that could be had would be posted, I was at a library to see a demonstration of a 3-D printer, and I took almost all of their books on resumes, cover letters and interviews. At least, I checked out everything written in the past ten years.

It was gluttonous, and it was pointless.It took days for me to get motivated to even crack open one of the books and then the books seemed to suggest that I needed to wait before I actually created a resume. I needed to know what I was applying for.

The list had yet to be posted.

At the office and on Facebook, I joked about the situation I found myself in, but I was terrified. I had no idea what would happen if I lost my main job. Sure, they told us that if we got cut, we could expect a severance of a week's pay for every year of service, up to 25 weeks. We also got our unused vacation.

It looked bad, but maybe manageable for some. A friend of mine who took the buyout package, had 26 years with the company. He got almost half a year of pay, plus his vacation.

With unemployment and some prudent budgeting, he's probably OK for at least a year, but he's also one of the exceptions, not the general rule.

I figured I was fucked. I had eight years in and about three weeks of vacation. I was good for 11 weeks, but then I had no idea what was going to happen with unemployment. I was pretty sure my part-time radio job was going to screw that up but good.

Public radio said they could help toss me a life preserver, if the worst happened. They could find extra hours for me to work, which might help me draw things out, buy me time, but it wasn't a solution.

I did the math, deducted all the little extras in my life. I could quit the gym. I have a family membership to the YMCA, which I use three or four times a week. That was about 60 bucks. I could cancel Netflix and my fancy XM radio subscription --about 20 bucks a month. I could cancel the internet at the house, which runs $35 a month.

The library has internet and you can find free wi-fi all over the place. 

My biggest cost-saver would be to pull my youngest from his after-school program, which costs $55 a week.

Beyond that, I figured I could gut the grocery budget, cut out meat, cheese, dairy and bread. I could feed my pets the cheapest food available.

Still, it wouldn't be enough. I knew this. I could buy a couple of extra weeks, but there just wasn't enough gas in the tank. If I didn't find a job fast enough, some time after Christmas, I'd start missing mortgage payments.

In a more perfect world, I'd have savings, but I don't. Pay increases at the newspaper have been modest and irregular. The few raises I've managed to beg out of the company in the past eight years have never managed to keep up with the raises in the cost of living, payroll taxes or the insurance.

The threat of destruction and ruin was terrifying.

What would happen if I lost my home? I imagined my kids moving in with their mothers, which was not entirely a great prospect for both of them. I saw myself holed up in a guest room or on somebody's couch, while I scrambled to find some kind of work, probably nowhere near here.

At my worst, I imagined living in a U-haul trailer out in the Dakotas, where there's an oil and gas boom. I have no idea what I'd do there. I can barely hold a hammer straight.

How reasonable were these fears? I can't say, but this was what went through my mind over and over and over. I had trouble sleeping. I was unfocused and rattled at work --and while I got some support from my unreal pals on Facebook, there were people I expected to be there for me who just weren't.

While I waited for the list to be posted, I did everything I could think of to muster what resources I had at my disposal. I contacted nearly all the people I'd worked with in my little corner of the paper and asked them for letters of reference.

It was the nicest thing in the world when all of them agreed without anything approaching hesitation and reading their words encouraged me.

I asked a few people whom I've worked with over the years, doing stories about their venues. One of them was glad to do it. She was willing to send the letter while on vacation.

Another vote of confidence. It felt good.

The other said, no. He wasn't comfortable. It didn't matter what I'd written, how much I'd written or whether I'd been of any use at all, he wouldn't endorse me. I was free to ask my interviewers to give him a call to talk about me, which was ominous-sounding at best, but he wanted nothing in writing.

Best of luck. Sorry, but fuck you. 

I'm not going to lie. That hurt.

But... it wasn't unexpected.

If anything, it was good he shot me down. It told me where we stood and would always stand, without any confusion. Honest criticism is hard to find in this town. It would have been easier to type up some lukewarm, bullshit response that meant nothing, but since he couldn't give me what I wanted, he gave me what I deserved: honesty. 

I was grateful to get it.

After I'd gathered my letters of reference and recommendation, the list was posted. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

30 Days of Night in Charleston: three.

"So, how does this affect you?" the receptionist at the radio station where I also work asked me.

I sighed and explained the whole thing, as best I understood it and what was probably going to happen.

"That's awful," she said.

And I shrugged. I didn't want her to feel bad about it.

So, I said, "Well, I don't know how this is going to work out, but I've been through this before.

"Four years ago, I had a pretty lousy summer, too. I'd just bought a house and then my wife left me. Aside from the obvious thing, like getting kicked to the curb, I was horrified that I wouldn't be able to keep the house, that it would be too much for me to carry."

I remembered worrying about food, about keeping the lights on, about making sure everything was taken care of. Back then, I'd imagined living on the street by Christmas.

I told her, "But here I am, four years later. I kept the house and while I got my heart broke, I met someone amazing a few months later. My life changed completely and I couldn't imagine going back to what things were like before.

"I really hope that whichever way it goes with the job, that something better comes out of it."

She nodded and I went on, pointlessly. I was on a roll.

"Maybe it's cyclical with me, I don't know," I said. "Maybe there's a huge blow-up every four years for me, around this time. I just need to plan for it and be out of the way of whatever karmic meteor is coming my way next time.

"I could go to Antarctica."

She smiled, but had no idea what I was talking about; neither did I, really.

"I hope it turns out for you," she said.

I nodded and then went through the door to the take my place at the microphone to read cards and weather.

The morning host, who'd heard about half of that, said, "You seem like you're handling this pretty well."

I laughed and told her, "I'm a complete wreck."

Thursday, July 23, 2015

30 Days of Night in Charleston: two "The Grocery List"

Journalists hate math.

Most of us, if we were any good at numbers and figures would have gone into some other field. There's never been real money in newspapers --unless you were an owner.

Money at both papers had been stretched thin for as long as I've been there. The computer I use is pretty much the same one I've had since the I logged in the first time almost nine years ago. Only the monitor is different.

Christmas bonuses stopped before I arrived. Across the board raises ended not long after I arrived, but, for the most part, I've always looked at what was happening at the newspaper as part of the overall economy of the state. The housing bubble collapsed. The financial industry all but disintegrated. Oil went up then came back down. Natural gas wiped out coal. The whole country was in a deep recession, and West Virginia was getting her ass kicked.

The only people who seemed to be making any real money were the meth labs and the state kept trying to shut them down.

I heard a lot of blame pushed onto the owners --bad choices, bad investments. I have no idea and I know very little about the people who run the company now.

My experiences with them have been select, but memorable for me.

During my first year at the paper, the owner threw a Christmas party at her house --a horribly awkward affair. It was a muddy December. I wore boots and she had cream colored carpeting. The contents of her first floor were worth more than the purchase price of my Dodge Neon.

I remember standing awkwardly over a table, drinking Maker's Mark bourbon and struggling to make small talk with the owner's son-in-law. I just couldn't do it. I had no idea what to say. Neither did he. We just stood there, finished our drinks and then I ambled off to review a show at the Clay Center.

The owner's daughter, the current publisher, I mistook for a secretary once.

I don't know if they're any good at math either. What I do know is that we have 45 former Gazette employees and 35 former Daily Mail employees and they really only want about 65 Gazette-Mail employees.

Fifteen people have to go --ballpark.

Redundancies make up the bulk of the losses. Most of those will come from the copy desk, photography, sports and a maybe editorial staff --maybe.

At a rough guess, that's about 10 people.

The rest comes from general reporters, beat reporters, feature writers, wherever.

The company has a list of needs, of course. They need reporters covering the statehouse, city hall, education, health, business and crime. They need people who can do a little bit of everything. They need photographers and people who can lay out the pages.

Some people on staff now are probably protected. I have a hard time imagining the paper without about ten specific staff members. I figure they're safe. I also think people with unique positions, like the editor of the teen section, have little to worry about.

So, how do I fit in?

I don't know. I really don't.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

30 Days of Night in Charleston: one

I heard about the merger over the phone. It was Sunday evening.

The day before my girlfriend flew out of Charleston for Philadelphia --a trip I kind of envied her for because I don't travel much and even if she had to slog through four days of seminars and meetings, she still got to see one of America's most storied cities. She'd called because it had been a long day in a strange place amongst some people who didn't think so highly of where she was from.

West Virginia has a reputation for being backward, for being behind the rest of the country. This is not a new opinion.

Sometimes when I'm reaching for an angle in one of my entertainment interviews, particularly with comedians, I'll ask what they think of coming to West Virginia.

Most of them have never played here --at least, not the ones with names you'd easily recognize.

Now, they're always polite about the answer. They'll say they like coming to places like this, the boonies, because the best and brightest in the sticks buy all the tickets. The very nature of what they're doing requires, at the very least, an open mind, a certain amount of contemporary knowledge and maybe a willingness to hear something you don't necessarily agree with.

I remember Bill Marr told me, "People come and they look around the room and they can't believe there are that many people who are just like them!"

The place these comedians play in Charleston, The Clay Center, seats under 2000 people. They often struggle to sell the place out, unless it's Jeff Foxworthy.

My girlfriend called and we talked and she asked me, "So, what's this about your newspaper merging with The Daily Mail? Why didn't you tell me?"

I went, huh?

She repeated the question. I asked her where she heard that? I hadn't heard that. What?

Now, the possibility of a merger has hung over the workers at both papers for years --since the owners bought the Daily Mail, since the anti-trust lawsuit that everyone knew would eventually expire.

The terms of the lawsuit expired Monday at midnight, apparently, and the owner of both papers wanted to get on with what had been in the works for around a decade.

The skeleton staff working Sunday afternoon in both offices were gathered together, given the news and a plan was made to release the information in the next edition.

Things must have gone sideways. Ten years ago, you could maybe get away with that --maybe-- but these days, social media makes it oh so easy to leak information. From what I understand, the company started getting calls from outside the building, other news agencies were asking questions.

They'd already lost control of the story.

So, just before 5 p.m., an email was sent out explaining what was happening to the staff, but before 7 p.m. the story was posted on Facebook, where my girlfriend saw it and then called me.

After I hung up with her, I checked in with social media and my company email.

In the email, we were promised a meeting for information and to field questions.

Zack Harold did a great job of writing up exactly how that went down, but he probably had half a dozen sources in the room feeding him material. Reporters had their phones out. They were recording and they were texting non-stop.

The long and the short of what was said (and to no surprise to anyone) was the new, merged newspaper didn't need the reporters, photographers and editors of two newspapers. It just needed enough for one. This paper would be much larger than the previous two entities, but it still didn't require all the manpower.

Some of us were going to have to go and this was going to happen soon. Very soon.

Those of us who wanted a shot at staying needed to reapply for our jobs.

We were told this was fair, that it put us all on equal footing. The logic used to explain how it was fair and how it put us all on equal footing never really seemed to connect.

Each of us would be need to prepare a resume and a cover letter stating which job we were applying for and go into detail about why we should be chosen. We would also interview before a panel that included the managing editors of the former two papers and the publisher/owner. This was where we could make our case.

Nobody likes this. From the looks on the faces of the two editors seated at the front of the room, they didn't like it much either, but this was what they'd been committed to. This is what we've all been committed to.

Jobs will be posted in a little over a week from now. We will have about a week to turn in our resumes and cover letters, and then come the interviews.

We're all at least a little scared. I'm scared. There's nothing to be done, however, but work and prepare.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Interlude at a chain diner

The girlfriend's car had a flat; the second in just a couple of months. It was the rear passenger side wheel. She might have caught a corner wrong or it might just be the car, but a jagged two-inch tear stood out like a stab wound in the black rubber.

It all seemed kind of suspicious to me. The tire had less than 5,000 miles on it, but I hadn't been called out to change the tire, which I was capable of, something I've done far too many times, but to offer comfort and moral support.

Besides, the car was practically new and came with free roadside assistance --why not leave it to the professionals. 

But we had to wait around and she was hungry. I was not, but I offered to walk in from the Shoney's parking lot and buy a hamburger and a drink while she waited for a guy to come and change the tire.

I felt kind of wary of the place. The time before, not that long ago, we'd had dinner there. There had been a mix up, a minor issue of onion rings instead of fries, and I'd kind of been treated like an asshole for not accepting that I'd ordered something I hadn't.

The waitress sort of stomped off when I said, "Hey, I didn't order this."

A few minutes later, another waitress came and collected the onion rings in a bowl, but it was a good, long while before another waitress came back with the missing fries.

We didn't see the lady who took our order again until she swung by with the check and then scurried off.

It was a weird level of hostility for something that shouldn't have been that big of a deal to any of us, but I paid the bill without a fuss, hadn't said anything to the manager at the register, and I'd left a normal tip.

Still, the meal hadn't made me want to go back anytime soon.

I spotted the previous visit's waitress as I crossed the floor from the door to the counter. She looked up at me and, for a second, I thought she recognized me, remembered me somehow, but the place was only half-full at dinner time and just as likely, she was wondering if the hostess would seat me in her section. Each new customer was a few more bucks for the night.

A pair of old women stood at the register; the both of them were easily past the recommended retirement age. The younger of the two had gone gray. The elder dyed her hair black --or I presumed so since she seemed so much older than the other.

It seemed sad to me that two grandmothers would be stuck working the night shift at a Shoney's, but I explained what I needed from the younger of the two. She cheerfully took my order, while the other woman looked on.

The rest was just standing around, waiting for meat to cook and potatoes to fry.

I got a text: the roadside assistance guy was there.

I joked and texted back that she could share her fries with the man, if she wanted. Fries came with the meal. It was an extra.

A scrawny man in his 20s slipped out from the kitchen. He hovered next to the door, grimly, nervously, eyes darting furtively. The man looked looked pasty, but not quite feverish, like he was sweating something unpleasant out.

The old women tried very hard not to act like they weren't watching him.

A couple of moments later, a short woman with flinty eyes came out. She slipped a cigarette in her mouth as she walked past him and he followed her out the door.

The younger of the two old women said, "Now, what was that about?"

A little sharper than she maybe intended, she replied, "What do you think it was about?"

The younger woman sighed and warned,"It's a mistake." 

"Of course, it is," the other woman told her. "I did it, too. Over and over."

The younger woman shook her head.

"Yeah, me, too."

They were quiet until a minute or so later when my order came up: a cheeseburger and fries boxed up in Styrofoam and dropped in a flimsy bag, ready to take to my girlfriend waiting in the parking lot.

"If she wants dessert, you come right back in," the junior of the two told me. "We got some really nice desserts."

I didn't think to even look at the menu.

Monday, March 30, 2015


I never accomplished much in Bluefield. I managed to con my way into working a few extra shifts here and there, but it was always minor stuff. My best shift was the Sunday morning ghetto shift. I worked Sunday mornings from 6 to noon, played a couple of canned national programs and only really hosted an hour or so before the afternoon guy came in.

I was never considered for anything more substantial.

Part of it lies with me --a large part of it. When it works, I have a pretty fair voice, but not a really over-the-top personality to go with it.

Most of the guys who do well in radio aren't necessarily funny. They're sometimes sort of funny and some of them are kind of charming, but they're over-the-top loud. Their voices boom and so do their personalities on the air. They're larger than life, larger than they actually are.

I've always been pretty much the same size --and that's no crime, but it doesn't necessarily open doors for you.

Things never really got better for me and I made them worse. A few months after my first wife and I split (I left. She was horrible), I developed a crush on a co-worker. I wanted it to be more than a crush, but I really just wasn't her type. I was kind of nerdy, silly and sort of plain. I was hard worker and very creative. She liked guys who were handy with tools, followed NASCAR and were, mostly, just simple, uncomplicated country boys.

I was doomed to fail from the beginning and she was either too kind or too afraid to tell me to move along. Maybe she thought I was fragile, but I was unhappy with going nowhere with her and going nowhere at the radio station. So, when the opportunity arose, I jumped ship for public broadcasting.

A couple months after I left, the guy they hired to replace me was basically canned. I got a call from the station manager offering me to write commercials for him on the side. That lasted for seven or eight months before I got fed up with being paid late and with the scripts I wrote being horribly mangled.

I told the boss to go fuck himself.

I had the public broadcasting job, anyway.

It was TV, though, and kind of dull. When a position opened up in Charleston, it seemed like the answer to all kinds of prayers.

I don't know that it was.

Saturday, March 28, 2015


A very long side note:

I got out of the habit of blogging not long after I moved into this house. For a while things were really tough and then they were really good. Blogging about how truly awful I felt seemed too self-indulgent. So, I dialed it down.

After I met Vanessa, things just got so  much better that I didn't think anybody would believe me or they'd think that I'd been holding out.

After a while, I just got out of the habit of blogging. I just didn't write much.

I missed it all the time, but I didn't feel like I needed it. I could walk away.

So last night I come home full up with anger and frustration. I sat down at the computer really just to do something besides open a second beer and glower at the cat, but the words came and when I was done, I felt a lot better.

I've always thought of the writing as just communication. This is me trying to connect and explain the things that sometimes don't come out so easily from my idiot mouth.

It's something else, too, something I never considered --it's therapy. I bottle stuff up. I obsess. I brood. I dwell. I am frequently frustrated by my job, my community; the people I love and the people I wish would get genital warts so large that they have to buy pants the next size larger.

I don't talk it out as much as I should and I don't know why. It seems to me like I do, like I'm constantly shouting "Ow!" at every physical, financial or emotional injury, but maybe I'm not. Maybe it gets buried in there somewhere or maybe I yell "ow!" but I don't actually put a band-aid on the wound. Maybe that's part of the problem.

Anyway, the blogging seems to help.

More about radio...

I got my second job in radio about a year after my first gig ended. For right at a year, I took a job working inbound customer service for a satellite television company based out of Canada. I like to refer to it as the worst satellite television company in the world and it was pretty bad. The equipment had been rushed to market and didn't work properly. The bulk of our customers seemed to be from the Spanish-speaking parts of central America and the call center was located in Bluefield, WV --which is not known for its vibrant Spanish-speaking community.

The job lasted exactly a year and then all of us were laid off just after the company announced it planned to cease broadcasting channels. They announced this in a message that scrolled across the bottom of their customers' television screens.

What a bunch of assholes.

In the interim, I answered an ad for a local radio station I didn't much like. They needed someone to write commercials and work with the sales force and the on-air talent. I interviewed, showed a panel of managers a couple of scripts I'd written while I was sitting around the trailer park and they were impressed --not impressed enough to hire me, but impressed.

I spent the next month selling vacuum cleaners --badly.

And just after I decided I wasn't meant to be a vacuum cleaner salesman, I got a call back from the radio station. The woman they'd hired, an old friend of the current station manager, was basically stinking up the joint. She was a little unbalanced, wasn't taking her medication, I was told, and worse, she was unreliable.

The commercials they needed her to write weren't getting done and the incoming station manager wanted her gone.

I was hired to assist her and do some production work, but then they fired her the day before I came into work.

I remember it well. It was Halloween. The sale staff were in costumes. One woman, Catherine, was dressed as Little Bo Peep. The company also provided pizza for lunch, something I was told, "not to get used to."

I almost didn't make it. When I came on staff, they showed me the system the last two people who'd held the job had used to manage the workload. I tried to do the same thing and fell flat on my face. It was one disaster after another.

For Thanksgiving weekend, a car dealer wanted us to run a different commercial every hour for four days straight on three different radio stations. I was called in Thanksgiving day to correct my mistake and then come Monday morning, the boss wanted my head.

"Can you even do this?" She shouted at me.

I told her I didn't know, but I asked her to let me give it one more shot.

How we'd done things before, how the copy writer had assigned things for people to do, I tossed it out the window, came up with my own, very simple, very primitive and very effective method.

We stopped making big mistakes. We stopped making little mistakes, mostly. The work got done. It was good work and for a while, they treated me like I was some kind of a miracle.

But nobody gets into radio to write commercials. I started asking about getting an air-shift. I was willing to do it for free, if they'd just let me.

No takers, until my old boss at the satellite company called me and offered to hire me back for three dollars an hour more than I was making at the radio station.

The radio station agreed to a two dollar an hour raise and gave me a weekend air-shift.

Everything seemed great... but really, it wasn't.