This is a proposed draft for the foreword of the regurgitated Teentime book.
A Note to the Reader
This is a memoir, and therefore somewhat fictionalized, like most memoirs. The action takes place more than forty years ago, but as most of the players were pretty young them, most of them are still alive. They will give me no end of trouble if don’t disguise them. And they would be absolutely right, because my recollections are pretty nasty.*
So I’ve changed everyone’s name—with the obvious exception of a few public figures—and invented new backgrounds for some people. Some trifling characters are made into “composites.” The major alteration to the story is the time-scheme. Events that played out over four or five years are squeezed into the year or so of the book’s action (1973-1974). This compression gives the story a semblance of narrative drive and, I hope, a kind of plot.
Place names and businesses are real, for the most part. The unnamed “educational TV” stations in New York and Boston are WNET and WGBH. I don’t name them because they like to call themselves Public Television, which in the context of this story would be confusing. Forty to fifty years ago people said Educational Television. A few kiddy shows (Zoom, Sesame Street, The Electric Company) are given their real names. Otherwise most of the television programs in this book are renamed or completely made up.
The subplot about Sal Mineo and his lurid screenplay, Sacred Bubblegum, is almost entirely true. It was a real script, and I lugged a bound copy around for a while in the summer of ’73. His agent wanted a treatment (i.e., synopsis) of it, and somehow that task got passed on to me. I did write something, but I wasn’t in Nantucket when I did it.
The business about the Jackson Whites, on the other hand, is pure invention. Putting a segment about Jackson Whites on an “educational” kiddy show is exactly the kind of daff’y, unbalanced idea that Mr. Hornblower liked to come up with. But he didn’t really visit the Jackson Whites.
*I’ve been at the receiving end of this procedure. About ten years ago a bumptious, lame-brained acquaintance of my youth wrote a kinky sex memoir that got a lot of media play. He wanted to put me in it, and sent me few pages of draft. It was really bad. His expository style had become thoroughly corrupted by years of writing juvenile paperbacks full of indistinguishable 14-year-olds. As a result of this, his delineation of “me” was inept and malformed (“Whoa!” she said, “Cut me some slack!”). So I told him to kill the whole section. That peeved him greatly. He took revenge on me by rewriting the section with a repellent new character. She was presented as a composite of me and some other girls and women he had known, though she was pure fiction, and badly done fiction at that. Suffice it to say we haven’t spoken since. If this shallow scribbler had simply disguised the memoir’s characters and not begged for approval from the putative originals, this whole kerfuffle could have been avoided.
Somehow I kept reading or hearing about Heidegger, and when I hear the name Heidegger I always think of Heisenberg. And that started the ball rolling:
There is a high-school philosophy teacher who is given to cyclical mood swings. The condition is one of those affective disorders in the bipolar family. Except instead of having only two or three bad episodes in his life, he gets these wild, lurching manias and crashes every year or two. One of these days he’s going to kill himself. He just knows it. A parent and an uncle committed suicide. It runs in the family, as with the Hemingways.
But he’s got a couple kids and wants to provide for his family. He watches Breaking Bad and sees a parallel, but since he’s not a chemist he can’t make a fortune manufacturing blue meth. What can he do? He decides that the only get-rich-quick scheme he can come up is to create a quasi-religious cult, something that specifically preys on the rich and wayward, like Scientology. Except because he’s a philosopher he can spin his cult as a New School of Philosophy rather than a religion.
He remains in the background, very private. Almost no one’s ever met him. That’s part of the attraction. Nobody knows his real name, they just know he travels under the handle, Heidegger.
This is a shaggy-dog story, I’ll grant you, but the basic premise could be the skeletal plot set-up for a nice satire or farce. Something like Nightmare Alley, except the guy’s afraid of his next mood-swing instead of fearing that he’ll end up as a circus geek.
(Cannibalized by Popular Request. This appears in one of my older blogs, and is dated April 22nd, 2007. Still makes me laugh. Oboy oboy!)
How many chillun you got?
That’s the important thing. That’s what all primitive people really want to know about you.
They get to the point where they’ve figured out that you’re either male or female (even though they can’t see either a penis gourd or pendulous dugs), and they know your approximate age (somewhere between adolescence and total decrepitude). Now they’re happily puffing away on your Philip Morris Commanders (king-size, unfiltered, good for jungle bugs) and they’re ready to move into the small-talk stage of your acquaintanceship.
And here it is. “Hey you! You got chillun? How many chillun?”
Go ahead and tell them. Anything you like. One kid, six kids, sixteen kids. It’s not like the little savages are going to write down your children’s birthdays so they can send them something nice (just imagine!). No, they’re just being innocently nosy. It’s something they ask of all strangers, and no one’s ever smacked them down for this rudeness so they keep on asking.
Sometimes the questions get detailed—”You have a boy? How old? Is he warrior? You have girl—how much you sell her for?” It is always best to be prepared for this. Along with the Philip Morris Commanders in the left side pocket of your photo-vest, bring a fact sheet about your kids. Maybe even some fuzzy snapshots.
My own prepared script goes basically like this. “Oh yes I have four children. Two girls, two boys. Between five and fifteen. Evenly spaced. Their names are Mary, Joan, John, and Robert. They live with their other parent, as I am usually away on business. The boys play baseball [a game formerly very popular in America] and the girls do ballet [this is a kind of theater-dance some people do in my country]. Who is oldest? Oh, that would be John. Then Mary. Then…”
Even a savage has limited attention for this sort of thing, and by this point my new friend is probably waving and nodding and inviting me into his hut to look at the shrunken heads.
Is Sacre-Coeur really ugly? I always used to think so, coming into town on the Roissy Bus from CDG. Then I found out this is a common reaction. Adolf Hitler thought it hideous, a “mosque.” (Der Führer was of course an architect manqué.) Google the question and complaints are all over. Go ahead.
Here is a good whingey tourist page: http://theotherparis.net/hotspots/sacre.htm
The second or third time I went to Sacre-Coeur was in May 2002. I was with a couple of friends from Oxfordshire, Alma and Julia. Alma was baffled by the place. She knew it was a stop on the tourist itinerary, but didn’t understand its purpose.
I started to explain the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, and the popular belief that France had degraded itself since 1789 and needed to atone for its sins and reconsecrate itself, and Léon Bloy, and Therese Martin of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus… But I held my tongue, more or less.
I held my tongue and listened for the nugget of Alma’s confusion.
“I mean, why do they have this?” she asked. Why do they need this, in addition to Notre Dame?”
Alma was born in Manchester, but her parents were refugees from Poland (Catholic) and the Ukraine (Orthodox) and she had no significant religious upbringing. She also has lactase deficiency. I decided she probably couldn’t digest my Bellocian explanations of this or that.
So I just said, very smoothly, “Oh well you see, this one is a basilica.” And left it at that.
(Original version of a piece that has since been published elsewhere. As predicted, the subject died a year or two later.)
One of these days Harper Lee is going to kick off and have great big posthumous laugh at our expense. Bwah-hah-hah! Because right there in her Last Notes and Testament, we will find an answer to that puzzlement that has troubled the publishing biz for a half-century or more.
Namely, why didn’t Harper Lee write any more novels after To Kill a Mockingbird?
And the main reason she didn’t, she will aver in words that are coarse and pithy, is that To Kill a Mockingbird was a phoney-baloney contrived piece of fluff. It wasn’t her novel anymore, not after her agent and editors got through tarting it up, to make it modern and popular and sellable. They mutilated her baby, and young Nelle Harper Lee didn’t have the heart to go through that again.
Popular and sellable it certainly was. It was on the bestseller list for about two years, and thanks to the sponsorship of Gregory Peck it became a guaranteed hit movie even before a screenplay was written.
And it was modern. By laying on themes of racial strife and civil rights, and deleting most references to Thirties pop-culture, the publishers made the novel as up-to-date and relevant as the latest issue of Look magazine. The book contains some vague references to the New Deal, and a courtroom trial is said to be happening in 1935; officially we’re in the mid-30s for most of the action. But otherwise the setting might as well be the Deep South of the 1950s and even 60s.
It’s a very peculiar 1930s Alabama that the author conjures up. She doesn’t tell us about seeing Popeye or Shirley Temple or Clark Gable down at the picture show, or reading Beatrice Fairfax or Fontaine Fox in the Mobile Register. In fact, no news at all leaks in from the outside world via radio, cinema, magazines or newspapers. Not a word of Huey Long, the Dust Bowl, Dillinger, League of Nations, Abyssinia, Spain. We are told that our narrator, “Scout,” has been reading since infancy, but she doesn’t seem to read much, not even the Time magazine that her family supposedly gets. International events intrude exactly once, in a painful, smarmy passage in which Scout’s third-grade teacher lectures the class about—what do you suppose? Hitler and the Jews! (Perhaps the teacher does read Time.)
The published novel is very different from Lee’s original typescript. That was a set of loosely linked stories about long summers and oddball neighbors in small-town Alabama. Many of these episodes and character studies are retained in the final product, and they are small, perfect jewels—Boo Radley, the mad recluse; Dill, the narcissistic “pocket Merlin”; Mrs. Dubose, the raging, morphine-addicted Civil War widow; Scout’s snobbish, self-centered cousins who live down on Finch’s Landing.
This authentic nostalgia is the To Kill a Mockingbird that people fell in love with. However, while these tales still occupy two-thirds of the published book, none of them had sufficient drive or development to carry a major plot. And they were not quite serious, grown-up fiction. “I think for a child’s book it does all right,” Flannery O’Connor wrote a friend around the time the novel won the Pulitzer Prize. And indeed it always has been basically a kiddie story, except for one racy subplot that Lee’s editors grafted onto it. That is the interracial-rape case that dominates much of the second half of the book. Curiously, people who never read the novel, or who mainly remember the Gregory Peck movie, often imagine that this criminal case is the central story, even though it takes up little more than a quarter of the book. (Note: In my HarperPerennial paperback edition of 323 pages, the trial and related events begin at page 164 and end on 259.)
The rape plot is hokum, but the editors and agent who forced it upon Lee knew what they were doing: it ties together many of Lee’s plot strands and characters, and it bumps her wistful recollections up to the grown-up shelf, repositioning it as middlebrow fiction with contemporary (1960) social relevance.
Tastes change. Today the rape plot is laughable, mawkish, stuffed with symbolism. The accused negro, Tom Robinson, has a withered right arm that got mangled years ago when it got caught in a cotton gin. The rapee, Miss Mayella Ewell, comes from a family who are not merely poor white trash from the wrong edge of town, they seem to be illiterate as well. Her father is a murderous drunk, possibly incestuous, who survives by poaching. Her brother Burris is crawling with lice. They are so awful, the story tips over into kind of Tobacco Road black-comedy whenever a Ewell appears. (Thankfully Mayella does not have a harelip.)
Who was the real Tom Robinson? There is a notion prevalent among some schoolteachers and media writers that the Tom Robinson case was loosely based on similar cases in the Deep South during the 1930s. This stems from the vague impression that thousands, or at least hundreds, of innocent negroes were prosecuted and lynched during this era because of White Supremacism and the Ku Klux Klan, and all that nasty bother. According to this school of thinking, Tom Robinson is a composite victim of race prejudice.
In reality there were very few cases like this. The only notable one in the Deep South that involved interracial fornication with a member of the po-white-trash set was the so-called Scottsboro Boys case. In this saga, we have two young white women who get caught riding railroad boxcars while dressed in overalls. They tell the police they were raped by a gang of black youths also aboard the train. In a protracted series of trials, several of the black youths are convicted of rape and sentenced to long prison terms.
The case was highly publicized in the 1930s, and has never faded from media consciousness, providing fodder in recent years for books, documentaries, and even a Broadway musical. Today the Scottsboro Boys are often spoken of as innocents, martyrs to bigotry and the backward, violent South. The story is put about that the two young women were not only low-class, they were casual prostitutes, and probably deserved what they got, if they really were gang-raped; and anyway, their word shouldn’t be trusted. It’s all their fault.
Scottsboro is frequently cited as the basic template for the rape case in To Kill a Mockingbird. But the resemblance is superficial at best. None of the Scottsboro Boys were hardworking, crippled, husband-and-fathers. In TKAM, nobody suggests Miss Mayella Ewell is a prostitute, or that she deserves to be sexually abused.
The Emmett Till Era. If he wasn’t a Scottsboro Boy, who else could Tom Robinson be? How’s about Emmett Till? This is a theory that scholar-critic Patrick Chura came up with in his penetrating analysis of the novel (Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2000). Chura began by pointing out that the novel has a poor grasp on Thirties history. The WPA shows up two years before the agency was created. And the book’s social attitudes don’t reflect the 1930s at all, rather they seem to echo preoccupations of the 1950s.
Chura rejects the whole Scottsboro theory and says the real prototype for the TKAM rape case was the story of Emmett Till. Emmett Till was a husky, 14-going-on-15 black youth from Chicago who went down to visit his cousins in rural Mississippi in 1955. He made a sexual approach to the young white proprietess of a country store. A couple of nights afterwards Till was beaten to death by the woman’s husband and brother-in-law because he wouldn’t apologize for his behavior.
Chura finds some minor parallels between the two cases. Robinson and Till are both slightly disabled (a withered arm, a stutter), the poor whites are first championed by neighbors, then ostracized because of shame and notoriety. And the trial judges and the press clearly sympathize with the cause of the unfortunate negroes. But the argument doesn’t quite make it. The comparisons are just too strained. Having a stutter is not comparable to having a mangled, useless arm. And the basic narrative of Till case is just too different from the novel’s. The novel’s Tom Robinson is passive and meek. Emmett Till was a big-boy showoff from Chicago who went around bragging that he had a white girlfriend. Even his Mississippi cousins thought he was obnoxious and hoped for his comeuppance.
Nevertheless Chura correctly nails the 1950s Zeitgeist of the novel. So it is most peculiar that he overlooks the most notable inter-race rape case of the era, that of Willie McGee. As a news story this went on for ten years (1945-1955). It got headlines, was a leftist and Civil Rights rallying point, and it closely parallels the rape story in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Me and Willie McGee. McGee was a black man convicted of raping a (young, attractive, middle-class) white woman in Mississippi in 1945. His lawyers repeatedly appealed, and the appeals were shot down. The case reached a crescendo around 1950, when McGee was due for the electric chair. After a postponement, he was finally executed in May 1951.
The Willie McGee case was a pet cause of the Communist Party USA, through a front organization called the Civil Rights Congress. Now, the CPUSA had been taking a real public-relations beating since about 1945, thanks to Soviet atrocities, the enslavement of eastern Europe, the loss of China, the Alger Hiss case, etc., etc. So now the Party was trying to reposition itself as a kind of charitable, public-spirited organization: a progressive force in favor of Civil Rights and Justice for the Negro. And Willie McGee was an ideal poster child.
In early 1951, as the execution date grew nearer, the Communists came up with a clever retelling of the McGee tale. It was not a simple interracial rape case, they claimed. Willie did not rape that white woman, Mrs. Willette Hawkins; actually Mrs. Hawkins and McGee had been lovers for years! Then Willie wanted to break it off, so the white woman shouted rape to punish him.
Thus sprach the Daily Worker, the CPUSA newspaper. It was a pretty dubious tale to begin with. The McGee case had been going through appeals for five years, yet somehow no one had ever mentioned this long-term “romance” before. But McGee’s new defense team had a wonderfully daffy explanation for this omission: it seems Willie’s original lawyers kept the affair hidden because they thought it would hurt the case, this being Mississippi. (Those all-white juries, you know, with their prejudiced attitudes and all: they might give our Willie something even worse than the electric chair!)
The Party even trotted out a colored woman named Rosalee to tour the country in their dog-and-pony show, telling the world that she was Willie McGee’s wife (she wasn’t) and denouncing Mrs. Hawkins as the white-trash slattern who “raped my husband.”
The Daily Worker kept burnishing its fictional tale of Willie’s romantic entanglement even after he went to the chair. By this point Mrs. Hawkins had heard about it and sued for libel. Finally, in 1955, the Commies admitted they had no evidence. They’d made the whole thing up. The Daily Worker printed retractions and paid a small award for damages.
By that point the Party didn’t care. Willie McGee was long dead, and the story had served its purpose. It had made Willie into a martyr to race prejudice (something we must fight, comrade). Long after most people forgot the details of the case, they’d remember vaguely that Willie McGee was possibly innocent, and executed in a legal lynching.
Because that’s how propaganda works. People don’t remember the logical integrity of arguments. What lingers is the emotional impression. It didn’t matter in the long run whether Willie McGee was guilty or innocent, so long as those “progressive” people who fought for him (e.g., future Congresswoman Bella Abzug) appeared to be on the side of truth and justice.
And there you have it. The tale of Willie McGee, as told in the Daily Worker, was the template for Tom Robinson.
A Parthian Shot. Now, this brings us to Harper Lee’s other big secret about To Kill a Mockingbird. Besides asking why she didn’t write another novel, people routinely asked her which particular racial case of the Deep South she based her rape case upon. She gave vague, dismissive answers, implying that it was a composite of several cases. She never identified any specific case, and no one ever thought to ask her about Willie McGee. After all, McGee was from the 1940s and 50s, not 30s; and anyway, McGee was probably guilty. Therefore, so was the fictional Tom.
And there are even worse complications. If you say Tom Robinson is guilty, then that wise paterfamilias Atticus Finch emerges as one very sleazy lawyer. He does not merely provide competent defense for Tom Robinson, he gratuitously defames the poor girl Mayella Ewell. With no real evidence at hand, he weaves a tale in which she lusted after a crippled black man, and seduced him into fornication. It’s a hair-raising, lurid tale, but it is completely unnecessary. As a fictional device it symbolically shifts the guilt from Tom Robinson to Mayella, but it adds nothing to Tom’s defense case. The jury and townspeople are not really concerned with the issue of consensual vs forcible sex, or whether this person lusted after that one. The two givens in the case are that penetration took place, and that it was interracial. For the men in the jury box, that last bit is the real offense.
Atticus knows they’re not going to acquit his client, so he makes up an unpleasant tale about Mayella, all the while feigning pity for the pathetic lass. But it’s all invention and false sentiment, just like the fantasies that the Daily Worker conjured up about Willette Hawkins and Willie McGee.
Notes and References:
Patrick Chura compares novel to the Emmett Till saga in the Southern Literary Journal.
Alex Heard, author of The Eyes of Willie McGee, blogs about the McGee case.
Washington Post review 2010.
Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields, 2006, is particularly good on the shaping of the TKAM phenomenon, both book and movie.
If you don’t know who Felicia Day is, you are probably over twenty years in age, and/or spend fewer than ten hours per day on the Inter-Webs.
So, for you underprivileged minds: Felicia Day is a minor actress in her early 30s who has appeared in a couple of TV shows and feature films, as well as some internet-based video dramas that supposedly were very popular with people who like that sort of thing. She is originally from Huntsville, Alabama (which doesn’t mean anything at all, as we all know), went to University of Texas in Austin (ditto) and now lives in or around Los Angeles. She has dark red hair, helped along with various artificial colorings. Six months ago she cut it from waist-length to pixie-bob, which deeply distressed some of her male fans (because what’s the point of being a girl if you’re going to have boy-length hair?). But her current claim to fame is that she does a lot of self-produced, professional-looking videos, and they’re all over YouTube.
When you get to see her, you’ll notice that her persona is highly artificial. I suspect Felicia does not fully realize this. She is a late-model chirper, too young to remember the pre-chirper era, and as no one has yet written a book about chirpers and chirper-culture, she has no reference text to consult. Even Wikipedia lacks an article on chirpers. Therefore she is left with the vague presumption that youngish women have always spoken in chirpy voices and ended every statement on a rising tone, as though it were an inquiry.
Felicia doesn’t remember the early chirpers from the 70s and early 80s, mainly lower-middle-class frails who went around saying things like “ehhww” and “grody to the max,” generally uttered in a register one or two levels higher than their natural speaking voices. The first persons to notice the chirper phenomenon (without giving it a name) were male homosexuals of the ribbon-clerk caste, e.g., retail associates at Bullock’s or Bonwit’s. They took note because half their coworkers were women of the chirper class, and these young gals were so unlike those distaff titans of the silver screen whom these boys always professed to adore. (Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Lizabeth Scott …they never chirped!)
Then Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit made a novelty record about this vocal style in 1982 (Valley Girl), and thereafter the weird locutions were widely acknowledged, although they became known as “Valley Speak,” despite the fact that they were not unique to the San Fernando Valley and they probably didn’t even originate there.
Girls grew up hearing a lot of chirper-speak in the 80s and 90s, so by 2000 you actually had young women in the aspiring professional class talking like this. I remember being astonished in 1998 when I met a new 22-year-old analyst at Salomon Smith Barney. Tiffany, let’s call her, had just emerged from Penn, and yet her speech was extreme chirperese. It was hard not to think it was all a put-on.
Perhaps Tiffany had Bad Companions during her adolescent years, I considered. Or it could just be that she was Jewish; Jews have a noticeable predilection toward the most extreme versions of accents—e.g., Chicago, Brooklyn, London. They affect accents as camouflage, but often overdo it. It’s like you’re wearing cammie fatigues but they’re printed in day-glo colors.
I could think up a dozen other reasons, but a few years later I wouldn’t have have bothered. Tiffany the Chirper may have been a rara avis in the investment banking set in 1998, but by 2005 her locutions were the going thing.
Pay attention when you see a youngish female professor, writer, or lawyer being interviewed on television. If she’s between 25 and 40, there is a high likelihood she is a chirper. The main exceptions to this rule are women who are trained news presenters, for chirping cannot coexist with gravitas. One of the most attractive women on television is Greta Wodele Brawner of C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, and Greta is a thoroughgoing non-chirper. She talks the way most American women did thirty years ago.
Actresses, by and large, are also exceptions, because theatrical people are required to be hyper-aware of their speech and self-presentation. An actress who chirped would be doing so intentionally, trying to stay “in character.” This is what makes Felicia Day such a curiosity. Most of the time she plays a character called Felicia Day, a stripped-down, reconstituted caricature of her own self, and this character is a chirper. It’s a character similar to dramatic roles she’s had on TV (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and internet comedies, but considering that she’s playing a character with her own name, this chirrupy chirper is just a little too much. It’s annoyingly unclear where the character ends and the real Felicia Day begins. It’s as though Larry David were to play the Larry David character in Curb Your Enthusiasm as a broad impersonation of his earlier avatar, George Costanza on the Seinfeld program.
Which brings me back to my earlier intuition. Felicia Day doesn’t really know she’s chirping. She has typecast herself, locked herself into a comic turn. It’s been suitable for internet videos aimed at millennials, but it’s about to become a liability. The chirper act is on the way out; fads of mannerism have a half-life of about twenty years. You don’t encounter “wild and crazy guys” anymore, or “peace-and-love” hippies; not without a heavy helping of irony or nostalgia, anyway. Females in their teens and early twenties do not chirp anymore, not the ones I meet, anyway. Very soon, anyone who talks and acts like Felicia Day will be presumed to be doing a teenage-girl riff from 1993.
It’s been easy for her to hold onto the chirper persona because those vocal memes became so commonplace that many people ceased to notice them. You could be a chirper and still be respectable (though perhaps too lightweight to anchor the nightly news). Chirpers are no longer confused with Valley Girls, they don’t say “gag me with a spoon.” Their mannerisms are not regarded as hopelessly low-class and ugly. But as the fad fades away, people will forget there were respectable chirpers. The legacy of movies and TV shows will inform us all that chirping was mainly characteristic of ditzy, not-too-bright teenage girls in the closing decades of the 20th century.
It’s like the Model T. Say “Model T” to most people, and they think of a rattletrap flivver from about 1910. But T’s were produced until 1927 and the last few designs, particularly the two-seater coupes, were cute and stylish. Nice to be seen in and fun to tool around the campus in. People in the 1920s and 30s knew this, remembered this. But then the first-hand memories faded and we were fed endless media images of the early flivvers and old Henry Ford driving his first production model around Dearborn. The nice Model T’s were forgotten, and we only have the silly ones in our mental slideshow.
I was happy to go to work for Wine & Dine a few years ago, because I had a long history with its parent company, and it seemed to be a cheerful place. Pretty girls in pretty dresses with cute shoes and nice pedicures. Just what I wanted to be a few years back (before I got old and bitter).
Best of all, it was only twelve blocks from my back door. Theoretically I could travel door-to-door in ten minutes without breaking a sweat, so long as there was no traffic and the sidewalks were empty. Theoretically, I say; as my neighborhood is perennially clogged with taxis, tourists, and worker-bees, the march often took a long and painful twenty minutes.
Eventually I detested this walk—with its crowds and crosswalks and the amputee beggars who congregated on 6th Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets—and deeply regretted having chosen this job over the one that paid 25% more but was out of town. I hated the job too, as the months went by and I faced up to the fact that I was overworked, underpaid, chronically ill with stress-related health problems. There was also the dawning realization that my coworkers were very very stupid. But this took a while to hit me.
Ignorance Is Bliss. One day I was waiting for the light to change near Radio City Music Hall, and took note of the ancient, frail man beside me. He was 80 years old or beyond, and carrying a saxophone in a bag. The bag had a tag: LARRY STORCH, with Mr. Storch’s phone number. I struck up a conversation. I told him how much I loved his role as Corporal Agarn in F Troop and his cameo as a crazy guru in some Blake Edwards comedy. He was charmed—amazed, really—that anyone even remembered any of that stuff. Faz-baz, quoth I; when I was growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, everyone knew who Larry Storch was.
My saxophone is broken, Larry said. He was taking it to Sam Ash. So he peeled off a block or two later, while I said goodbye (after memorizing his telephone number from the tag).
Then I went around bragging—harrumph, harrumph—that I had just met Larry Storch. At least I bragged for a little while, until I discovered what Larry Storch himself already knew full well: almost no one remembers Larry Storch.
No one at my workplace, anyway. At first this was a real shocker. But I soon discovered that no one at Wine & Dine had ever heard of Ida Lupino or Laurence Harvey either. Briefly I considered enlightening them—Surely you remember this movie or that television program?—but I censored that idea as a bridge to nowhere. There’s a scene in Saturday Night Fever where Karen Lynn Gorney tries to impress John Travolta by saying Sir Laurence Olivier came into the office where she works. Hilarity ensues. Travolta doesn’t know who Laurence Olivier is. The girl makes a bad situation worse by explaining that Laurence Olivier is the old guy in the Polaroid commercial on TV. And so Travolta says something like, “Oh, great, maybe he can get you a free camera.”
The real capper came when I read in the newspaper that Michael Batterberry had died. I’d known Michael Batterberry and his wife Ariane back when I worked in restaurant marketing at American Express, but what I did not know was that Michael was the founder of Wine & Dine magazine. It’s a fantastic story, actually. Michael didn’t just conceive it, he began it as an insert in Playboy magazine called, “The International Review” of such-and-such.
This was back in the days when there were very few gourmet magazines or foodie TV shows. (Julia Child was such a curiosity she got on the cover of TIME magazine.) Michael nurtured this venture for a year or two, shortened the title, and finally sold it to this big publisher.
I related this history during our morning “scrum” at Wine & Dine, and got blank stares. Even our online-publishing vice president at Midtown Magazines had never heard of Michael Batterberry.
I faced up to reality. Nobody at Wine & Dine knew anything about the business they worked for. Or much of anything else. Or cared.
Ignorance and apathy were hardly unique to this magazine, of course. Anyway my mind had plenty of other oddities to idle upon.
There were a lot of Oriental girls about. About half of them had distinctly un-Oriental names. Instead of Suzy Wong, you had Suzanne Blanchard. Instead of Annie Cheung, you had Annemarie Jensen. It was most peculiar. And while some of these were married surnames, most were not. Neither were they adoptive; these women were too old to have been part of the Red Chinese Baby Fad and too young to be Korean War Orphans. Clearly they had picked names that were common, Western and easy to spell. (Incidentally, it wasn’t enough for a name to be classic and old-American. Those fine old Virginia names Urquhart and Taliaferro would never make the cut. Too weird and foreign-looking! Lee wouldn’t work either…for somewhat different reasons.)
I had a good guess why these ladies had taken on their simple “American” monikers. It was so their racial background would not scream from the top of the résumé whenever they applied for a job. They weren’t ashamed of their origin or family names; they just wanted the hiring manager’s first reaction to be, Oh look, Catherine Charlton went to Duke, instead of: Oh wow, another Cathy Ching.
There’s a lot of silliness and whimsy in this situation. Everyone noticed the incongruous names, but it seemed verboten to talk about them. Taboos are catnip for me. Humorously, obliquely, I’d say, “Annemarie Jensen! Gosh, my grandmother was a Jensen. I wonder if Annemarie and I are related?” And then I’d smile blandly while everyone else in the room visibly stiffened.
An Appalling Place. I started out in the editorial department of Wine & Dine but since I worked for the online edition, I regularly met with the “developers,” who inhabited a filthy, ill-lit warren two floors above me. It really was a sty, an extreme caricature of a crowded, ugly developers’ space. The techies sat cheek-by-jowl along white melamine countertops about 20″ deep, their noses up close to their monitor and laptop screens. Paper plates, sauce bottles, and other detritus of past lunches littered the window sills and tables. The worn, torn, shredded grey carpeting hadn’t been vacuumed in years. Dead flies and mouse turds occasionally tumbled out of the HVAC vents and ceiling panels.
The developers were mostly slobs, dressed in hoodies and sneakers that should have gone to Goodwill ten years ago. Six Caucasian and two Chinese developers huddled together (side-by-side, back-to-back) between the first pair of counters. Farther back, behind a partition, was Stinky-winky Land. You had East Indians, Pakistanis, and one very raffish, Jewish concert musician and composer who did contractual dev work so he could tour with symphonies when he wanted to, and not have to struggle for gigs at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
The South Asians were mostly there on contract, through an Indian company called Cognizant. Two or three years before I arrived, someone in management was sold on the idea of “offshoring” and “outsourcing” most of our development work, with the result that we had some Indians on site who were there merely to coordinate with the Indians in India, and other Indians on site who did nothing at all but useless make-work projects that were conjured up because our contract with Cognizant had another two years to run and we had to give them something to do.
Devland was an appalling place. I thanked my lucky stars that I worked down in Editorial, among normal, hygienic people in ample offices and wide cubicles; where the carpets were clean and plants got watered and mouse turds didn’t tumble from the ceiling. My daily nightmare was that someday, somehow, I might be exiled to the 11th floor, to work amongst this crowd. The likelihood of this seemed remote, up until the very day that I was exiled there.
The Culture Wars. In the meantime I took in the cultural conflict between the two groups. Down in Online Editorial, the devs were regarded as stubborn, difficult, lazy, and usually out of the office. If you go to the corporate-gossip websites, e.g. Glassdoor.com, you’ll find complaints that the devs need to improve their “work ethic.” Nearly all the devs took Wednesday off. Officially they were “working at home,” but no one in Editorial was fooled. You could e-mail or telephone one of the devs about some emergency on Wednesday, but whatever your problem, it was never going to get fixed till Thursday. Ha ha ha!
Devs made fixes and updates to the Wine & Dine site as seldom as they could. The devs called the updates “sprints,” and initially made them every two weeks. If you wanted to change something on the Wine & Date site, it had to be finished and approved by the Tuesday of the “sprint,” so that it would be “live” on Friday. Editorial complained about this for years, and finally the devs changed to a policy of “continuous enhancement” and “Agile development,” whereby the Wine & Dine website could be updated any day of any week, provided Editorial screamed loudly enough.
When I got kicked upstairs to Devland, I quickly sank into the lazy, slobby mode of the developers, and saw the other side of the argument. The editors and designers were fickle; they always wanted something done right away, and whatever you did for them, it wasn’t enough. You took Wednesday off because by Tuesday evening you needed a goddamned break, for crying out loud. When we declared that no new deployments, no “sprints” could be added on Monday or Friday, it wasn’t to be arbitrary, but to reserve some quiet time for work and testing. We said there could be no discussion meetings between Development and Editorial on Monday, Wednesday, or after 3 on Friday. We laid down these rules out of practicality and principle. Editorial were ditzy and undisciplined.
Editorial didn’t like us, said we were lazy and unhelpful. When the Truth was that Editorial had this nutty notion that all we had to do was Push a Button to work our magic. They didn’t realize how much trouble it was to write new code, and test it, and throw it out, and write it again…
From our filthy perch in Devland we gazed down and judged harshly. The Editorial people were stupid stupid stupid. They knew how to type and go to lunch, and that was about it. They were capricious. Irresponsible.
Your Obedient Servant, the Project Manager. Irresponsible because they couldn’t or wouldn’t take ownership of their own actions. They had these things called “project managers” carry their desires to us. Now, these project managers were nothing like old-fashioned project managers from engineering or construction, with their timelines and Gantt charts. Our project managers were typical of most modern project managers. They were basically clerical, administrative employees who filled many of the same functions that used to be served by low-level supervisors and secretaries (remember secretaries?) Supposedly they communicated the desires of one end of the business (editorial or marketing) with another end (the developers), but their real purpose was to keep the two ends peacefully separated. Relations between the two departments were marked by petulance and mutual suspicion. Editorial felt scorned by Development, and scorned back in return.
Thus the project manager as referee. The devs habitually thought of the PMs as flunkies of Editorial, but actually the PMs answered to a different department entirely, a cluster of managers with vague responsibilities and even vaguer titles (e.g., Vice President, Digital Content Strategy). Whatever their personal attributes, project managers had the stupidest, least effective roles of all. They weren’t “managers,” they weren’t decision-makers, and they had no real skills. Their job was merely to make noise and send e-mails, and that is how they spent most of their work days.
The folks at Midtown Magazines kicked me upstairs to join Wine & Dine‘s web development team. Boy did I hate that. In Editorial we scorned the Dev group. And now I here I was, one of the scorned.
But once I got used to the filth I found Devland immensely relaxing, like an old hammock. You could come to work wearing a hoodie and your pajamas, and no one would complain. It’s Liberty Hall, folks! You can do what you like! You can sleep at your workstation, and no one will complain. Got a meeting that’s interfering with your nap schedule? Don’t worry, one of your colleagues will wake you up or even cover for you!
There was only one hard-and-fast rule in Devland, and even that wasn’t terribly hard or fast. You had to make it to Scrum. Scrum, or more properly SCRUM, was the morning ritual wherein you’d stand up with your coworkers in a circle, and tell about what you’re working on. Are there any impediments? Do you need help? Confess it all to your Scrummies, so they can vouch for you when you screw things up. If you didn’t make it to Scrum, you had to pay a dollar. The dollars went into a biscuit tin. Once or twice a year we’d open the biscuit tin (there’d be a couple hundred dollars there) and have a nice big Chinese dinner, or we’d take it to a basement dive in the Village called Fat Cat’s, and blow it all on beer and skittles.
All those carping, mean-spirited things we used to say about the devs when I was down in Editorial—how they were lazy, intransigent, didn’t give a Holy Fuck? Dammit if that wasn’t all true! Indeed! Oh ye of little faith, why did you doubt?
I had made it to the Promised Land. Praise de Lawd!
It Wasn’t All Velvet. I was the only front-end developer in the department; that is, the only person who actually coded webpages for Wine & Dine. (Fly + Buy, our sister publication, had a front-end person, but she got to stay in Editorial. Fly + Buy‘s online editors wouldn’t dream of exiling her to Dev Hell!) There were a couple of other “heads” allotted to front-end development, but they never got filled, so I was constantly doing the work of two or three people.
Narwhal traded in our two empty “front-end” heads for a couple of back-end programmers. I do not remember them clearly, but I believe they were mutants from the planet Zod, and that Narwhal had met them through the online-video-game community, or some such. These luminaries lasted six months or a year, par for the course; during which time they coded a little, ate a lot, and played loads of online games and video tutorials.
Back at the ranch, I was still doing all the front-end coding. Sometimes I had to work weekends. (No overtime.) Frequently I was the only one in the office, even on weekdays. If it snowed a little, or rained a lot, the other devs stayed home; most stayed home anyway on Wednesdays, and on Fridays during the summer. Our clients from Marketing and Editorial would pay the department personal visits, and find that I was the only one there (other than perhaps some East Indians way in the back, and nobody quite knew what they did). I’d try to solve emergencies if I could, made some phone calls if I couldn’t. If the problem didn’t get solved, I got the blame. It didn’t pay to be the only person in the office.
Meet the Kids. My three closest friends in the Dev group were all in their twenties. There was my boss (let’s call him “Russ”), a wraithlike Ruby on Rails programmer from Texas. All Russ ever wanted to do was code, code, code, and hang out with his baby daughter and geneticist wife. They lived up in Yorkville, which was not too bad for Mrs. Russ, who worked at Rockefeller Institute, but it was a helluva hike for Mr. Russ who had to come down to Bryant Park every day. He rode his bike when weather permitted; this was the quickest option. (Ride over to Engineers’ Gate at 90th and Fifth, enter the Park, go down to the Seventh Avenue exit, ride to 44th, go left one block, put the bike in the Hippodrome bike rack. Twenty-two minutes!)
Russ was immensely likable and laid-back, so the higher-ups were continually promoting him and tossing him new responsibilities he didn’t want. Eventually he’d had too much; overwork and a wonky GI tract were killing him; so his wife took a post-doctoral fellowship in San Francisco and they got the hell out of Dodge. (They’ve been very happy ever since.)
“Glynda,” a Ruby girl, was one or two years out of a small college in Boston, having grown up in Pittsburgh PA and Hopkinton MA. Glynda helped migrate Wine & Dine from its old ColdFusion home to its new Ruby on Rails scaffolding. She was also the expert on our new Rails-based job-tracking system, Redmine. Beyond that she didn’t have much to do, other than some junky work that got tossed her way. She resented it, gritted her teeth over the fact that Devland was always going to be a boys’ club, and moved on out, exactly two years after she arrived. Glynda lived in or near Park Slope, had a corgi dog and a young husband, and a blog. She spent much of her time at work writing her blog. It was called something like, “The Life and Times of a Female Software Engineer.” Had it not been for Glynda, I might never have known that there was anything odd or exceptional about a self-described “female software engineer.” I always assumed that most women avoided devland simply because it’s yucky.
And then there was “Jeremy Preen”… a most curious soul.
Jeremy Preen was in his late 20s, half-Jewish, half-Italian, with recent roots in both Boston and in Brooklyn. Other people might describe Jeremy as a highly narcissistic gay guy, but I wouldn’t. He was just a little over-the-top, like someone who was trying out the role of a narcissistic gay guy. Lots of people try out different acts in their twenties, and when they realize they look silly they can move on and try something else. It’s not like getting a tattoo. Anyway, Jeremy’s act involved spending a lot of care on his high, pointy quiff of hair, which cantilevered out and and curled over his forehead like an awning. He managed somehow always to have exactly three days’ beard-stubble on his face. He dressed year-round in long, pointy-toed shoes, tight black jeans, and (except during summer) a short “bum-freezer” pea-coat. He bore a passing resemblance to the young Laurence Harvey. True to form, he had no idea who Laurence Harvey was.
Jeremy was one of the most deceitful and devious people I ever met, although I would not recognize that for many months, deviousness being what it is. He was the sort of person who would sabotage your work to make you look bad, or remove you from some event’s e-mail invitation list, and cluck his tongue in sympathy when you wondered why you were left off. Whether he did these things out of spite or mischief or secret vindictiveness, I never knew. With his purring, sinuous, catlike demeanor, he generally kept himself above suspicion. Once he entered an online video contest, for which the prize was a $5000 travel certificate. A couple of days before the contest closed, he figured out how he could cheat and win by entering thousands of extra “votes.” He told Glynda and me about it, and encouraged us to help him in his dirty quest. Jeremy “won” the prize, and I congratulated him on his cleverness.
In sex, age, appearance and moral sense, Jeremy and I were as unlike as could be. Yet we had some things in common. We called ourselves web developers, but we weren’t programmers; and in a department where nearly everyone else was a programmer, that made us stand out. We’d ended up in the Dev department for similar reasons. We’d both been something like “floating temps”; until one day when the company org chart had a great big convulsion and we got blown over to Dev. Dev always had extra money and extra chairs.
In a roundabout way, Jeremy was the cause of my coming Midtown Magazines in the first place. He had sold himself as a superstar-guru but was actually quite inept. He had mastered of art of appearing knowledgeable, picking up all the latest tech buzzwords and expounding loftily about the latest fads. “I can design, develop, strategize and execute!,” says his online bio. “I founded two companies!” This self-promotion got him hired as a contractor to work on some specialized marketing sites for Wine & Dine. But the work was beyond his capacity, so he showered the marketing folks with oozy charm and lofty double-talk, and found some other “work” to do, work befitting his talents. That is, he went to meetings and talked grandly to managers outside vendors. After a while Midtown Magazines realized they still needed an in-house person to work on those marketing thingies. That’s where I came in.
Jeremy’s single example of web development, the thing that got him hired, was a kind of blog site where one can register and post recipes. Or at least you could, presumably; it appears to have been broken for a couple of years. Even when functioning it was outrageously bare-bones; so minimalist that I sometimes speculate that the marketing people must’ve read it as edgy, disruptive, brilliant; Dada in Blogland. (But no, they wouldn’t have been smart enough to make that mistake.)
As I noted before, Jeremy’s real métier was office-socializing. It gave him the opportunity to charm people who might be useful to him. (Diametrically different from me; I hate meetings, and the idea of manipulating people or buttering them up makes my skin crawl.) Likewise Jeremy was adept at getting “face time” with anyone who happened to be above him on the totem pole. Jeremy was so good at this, and so persuasive, that he eventually got Narwhal to create a brand-new managerial-level job, just for him. No longer a mere contractor or Marketing coder, Jeremy would now be the UI/UX (User Interface, User Experience) “Channel Manager.” His heavy responsibilities would include holding meetings with the people in Marketing and Editorial, and talking to the outside UI/UX consulting firm that had been engaged to redesign our online magazines.
This was a masterstroke on Jeremy’s part. Like me, he had perceived that Narwhal didn’t like developers who weren’t back-end programmers and online-video-game players. The solution was to define himself as something else, something important-sounding but vague (who really knows what “User Experience” means?), a role that would let Jeremy to spend his time doing what he did best (go to meetings and manipulate people), while getting other people to do the coding and heavy lifting. The fact that Jeremy had little experience with UI/UX (he was as lame a designer as he was a coder) cannot have been a fatal deficiency when talking to Narwhal, who knew even less, and was as easily impressed by shiny new buzzwords as any wide-eyed, pink-cheeked marketing bunny.
How Jeremy Sealed the Deal. What finally did the trick was when Jeremy told Narwhal that making him a manager would be a positive step for “diversity.” The hidden corollary to this was of course, If you don’t give me this job, then you are not in favor of “diversity.”
And so Narwhal was persuaded. He couldn’t stand up to this “diversity” cant. He was himself some kind of nonwhite: negro, red Indian, a touch of something else. Narwhal had been recruited, circus-style, from across the country precisely to fulfill somebody’s wish to have a Person of Color at the department-director level; particularly a P.o.C. like Narwhal, who had a B.S. from Stanford (to which he had no trouble gaining admission, being an in-state, affirmative-action applicant).
Narwhal liked to say he was a libertarian, and I don’t think he approved of special pleading for trendy minorities; but of course he wasn’t coming from a position of strength. Moreover, Narwhal had the clear impression that the people in Editorial and Marketing all loved and admired Jeremy. He had this impression because, well, Jeremy gave him that impression. It was a very salient point that they liked Jeremy, because they didn’t much like Narwhal. And so it was announced, shortly after the New Year, that my lazy, dishonest colleague Jeremy would now be Manager, UI/UX. Whatever that was. A couple of months later, Russ and his family moved to San Francisco, and Jeremy became my boss.
Cathy Charlton, my old boss from Editorial, shook her head in wonderment and dismay. “He’s so . . . young. You watch out.”
She was sensing trouble ahead, but I thought she just disliked Jeremy.”Oh, we’re good friends,” I said. “It’ll work out fine.”
She shook her head again. No, no, no. Disaster loomed.
(Note: This reads like an overlong draft. I was overwrought and confused when it wrote it in March of 2014. The detail gives a good roadmap of what I thought was in my rear-view mirror, and that is useful to me now, but it probably does not make for pleasant reading. Only now (late summer 2016) do I have an clear perspective on the whole affair.)
At the end of February 2012, Online Development finally vacated our rat’s nest on the 11th floor and moved up to 16, where we had clean Herman Miller cubicles, glass-fronted offices, and a fine semi-view of the new Bank of America tower across Sixth Avenue at 43rd Street.
A Chilly Little Department. For eighteen months this area had been empty, for eighteen months we had been assured that the move was imminent. Next month, in the new year, at the end of summer, six weeks from now. When it finally happened, all the tidiness, space and sunlight were off-putting to our self-image. We were no longer a ragtag band of ruffians shipwrecked on a far-off isle, but merely one of several departments in a humdrum office space. The self-congratulating camaraderie that had bound us together now melted away. We withdrew into our own little preoccupied isolations.
We had often gone out in groups for lunch: sometimes the whole mob of us, over to Shake Shack, or Szechuan Gourmet, or something Turkish or Japanese, or maybe Maoz, the strange vegan falafel place (Russ was a vegetarian). All this stopped when we moved to 16. We became a chilly little department.
Our new neighbors were not delighted with us. Many of them were old-fashioned corporate “lifers” who had been in place ten, fifteen, twenty years; the sort of people who bring meticulously prepared lunches from home, arranged in Tupperware containers and soft-fabric lunch-caddies that fill up all the shelf space in the tiny office fridge. The coffee pantry was a cramped little space to begin with, and now here we were doubling the local population. For some reason the pantry housed a fax machine, a laser printer, and a bin for the document shredder, in addition to vending machines for snacks and soft drinks and Fresh Direct “gourmet” lunches ($$$, as Tim Zagat would say); besides the little refrigerator, sink, coffee contraption, cabinets, and a single, tiny microwave oven. No more than three people could fit into the remaining space at the same time.
Your Friendly Facilities Manager. One day in the pantry I met a large blowsy woman called Tracy. Tracy was the VP in charge of facilities, and quite possibly the very person responsible for the novel multipurposing of the pantry area. I chatted her up with friendly banter about how I was with Online Dev, and how we had been looking forward to this move for a year and a half. Yessiree Bob—every month they’d kept telling us, Next month we’re moving to Sixteen! And finally we’re here, at long last love. We made it!
“Ooh noo!” said Tracy. “Unnh-unh. There was no plan. Nothing definite. They may have told you you were moving, but nothing was finalized, nothing was signed. I know. I’m Facilities Manager.”
“Is that right? Well anyway,” I said, “it’s good to be up here finally. That 11th floor was really awful. They never cleaned it. And those ridiculous melamine carrels or workstations, or whatever they were supposed to be! It sure doesn’t say much for the company’s regard for us, giving us the worst work-space in the whole building, ha ha ha!”
“Well that is not what happened!” quoth Tracy, again. “Those desks were your department’s choice! You people demanded them. They were custom-built. We said, They’re not gonna work. And they said, It’s what we want! We had regular cubicles there and we had to rip ’em out! So then finally the new workstations arrive and get set up, and the desks got set up, and the people down there go, These are too small! Take them back! And we said nooo, we warned you! This is what you ordered, now you have to live with it! Anyway we can’t take them back, the lumber’s already been cut and paid for.”
I had to assume that Tracy knew what she was talking about. For she was Facilities Manager. And a bitch on wheels.
Things fall apart. One week after we moved to the 16th floor, my young boss Russ Harper pulled up stakes and moved to San Francisco with his wife Nina and their baby Helen. Nina had a post-doctoral fellowship in genetics, and Russ got a comfy programming job at Bibulous Labs.
They took turns with Helen, who was now two. Sometimes Russ took her to work. Bibulous had a very nice creche, and only two other toddlers on hand, so she was more than welcome. Sometimes Nina took Helen to the genetics lab, where they experimented on her. That’s a joke, son. Lots of young ‘uns at the genetics lab, you bet, and loads of toys. Scientists always have the best toys, don’t they? Never mind the price, ma, it’s Science! The baby sometimes got left with a babysitter, but not too often, because half the time Russ or Nina or both of them worked from home.
Very cozy for Russ and family, for sure. But hell for the rest of us. We hadn’t fully realized it before, but Russ was our glue at Midtown Magazines. Once he was gone, things fell apart, and I mean almost immediately.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door. The first people to complain were the magazine editors. Their initial peeve was that Devland wasn’t giving them adequate support and hand-holding. Translated, this meant was that Russ was no longer around as their friendly, low-key, go-to contact. During those long months when Online Development didn’t have a director, Russ had functioned as de facto head, despite the fact that he was a mere programmer who had been there for only a year. To make the situation seem less incongruous, the higher-ups bumped Russ up to a “manager” level, bypassing a couple of devs who’d been there five years or more. After Narwhal finally moved in as director, and the editors pretty much ignored him for the first year. By the time they finally got to know Narwhal, we were headed into a slow-motion train-wreck.
One of Narwhal’s recruits from the video-game-boy world insisted we change our database for Wine & Dine, so we did so, right around the same time that we were migrating our servers and revising the basic design of the online magazine. This completely broke the “versioning” in Wine & Dine‘s CMS (content management system). So if editors rewrote an article, saved it, and then decided to revert to the earlier version, they suddenly found they couldn’t. The earlier versions still lived somewhere out in space, but there was no way to bring them back and reedit them them. Which defeats the whole purpose of having a CMS.
The “community” portal, where Wine & Dine fans posted recipes and pictures and bloggy little commentary, also broke. Personal data and images just disappeared—whoosh!—and we never got them back. A little later, something similar happened with the online edition of Fly + Buy. That travel site also lost its cute, popular photo contest. People would post their outdoor travel snapshots (some were quite professional, actually), our editors would pick their ten favorites, and then the fans would vote on these finalists. The monthly winner got some cheap prize–an underwater camera, e.g.–and competed for the annual grand prize of a trip to some oddball place like Korea, or British Honduras.
Our Fly + Buy photo contest really drove traffic to the site. The trouble was, it was housed at an outside vendor. This made it slow and wonky, and tricky for editors and developers to update. Narwhal and his merry site-breakers conceived great, grandiose plans to bring it all in-house. They’d rebuild the whole community site and photo contest from scratch, using the new, trendy technologies they’d heard about at the South By Southwest conference in March. This sounded like a sensible idea. But a few months later, Narwhal’s team announced that they had neither the time nor the resource for the project, because they were busy with other work. An outside vendor would have to brought in—much as we brought in an outside vendor to redesign the Wine & Dine in mobile-friendly fashion (an endeavor in which they did not really succeed, although we paid them $900,000 anyway).
That sounded like way too much money for too little result. Editors and content managers were incensed. You’re the developers, you’re the ones who came up with this plan. Now you can’t do it? And so died the photo contest. At first Fly + Buy announced it would be returning in 2014, but it hasn’t. In fact, Fly + Buy doesn’t even have a “community” portal anymore.
The Turn of the Screw. As soon as Russ was out of the picture, Narwhal and Jeremy began to pester me with petty abuse, provocations, insults, hazing, and strange “gaslighting” routines. One day they would tell me not to talk to people in Editorial, and a few days later they’d say I needed to communicate better with the people in Editorial. Jeremy had a recurrent routine wherein he’d darkly imply that Somebody in Editorial was saying Bad Things about me. No names, but he would always add something like, “Those people you think are your friends, they’re not really your friends.” He was trying to get a rise out out of me. For whatever diabolical, mischievous reason, Jeremy wanted to build a case that I was a Behavior Problem. Explosive. Difficult. But first he had to bait me sufficiently.This was my best guess.
Anyway I tried not to rise to the bait. Jeremy called my impassivity being “passive-aggressive.” I vaguely rationalized, in the abused-person sort of way, that this ill-treatment might actually be a Good Thing because… because it would motivate me to get the hell out of Dodge! A whipped cur is a wiser cur. And I suspected I wasn’t the only one having a bad time.
One, two, three developers quit; rats off the foundering vessel. Jeremy and Narwhal scoured the four corners of the Third World for second-rate replacements. As neither Jeremy nor Narwhal had managerial experience (or much corporate background of any kind) they didn’t know how to hire people. Instead of looking for capable team members with the right personalities, they targeted narrow, granular, specific “skills.” We ended up with newcomers who couldn’t communicate very well, although each one was ostensibly the master of some bright and shiny new techno-fad. “Bugalu knows Backbone.js!” Jeremy trilled about one of them. Maybe Bugalu did. Alas, we had no particular need for Backbone.js at that moment, and anyway, as things turned out Bugalu didn’t know much else. These new hires were treated much like the old East Indians from Cognizant: each was put on some specific narrow-gauge project, and then left to work and rework and re-rework it for months on end; while meantime a dwindling number of regular employees tried to hold the hold the magazine sites together.
No joy in Devland. In August 2012 I ran into one of the editors offsite and mentioned that I was constantly stressed out. Morale was very low in Devland, I said. The editor nodded sympathetically. “Narwhal giving you a hard time? We all hate him, we’re trying to get rid of him.”
This was an eye-opener. It had never occurred to me that the editors hated Narwhal. I thought they just preferred to ignore him. But like a magnet dragged through iron filings, this little nugget of information pulled together all the vague suspicions and baffling mysteries that had been nipping at me. I’d noticed that Narwhal had been sniping at me and giving me dirty looks ever since Russ left. Somebody was poisoning the well, telling stories about me, and it wasn’t our friends in Editorial. No, it was my new boss, Jeremy. For some time he had been telling doggie tales. He persuaded Narwhal that when Wine & Dine editors complained about lack of support, this was not targeted at Narwhal, but rather at someone else in the Dev group. Specifically young Margot.
As this campaign gathered steam, my co-worker Glynda, the only other female developer, gave her two weeks’ notice. She had had quite enough of Jeremy, Narwhal and company. When Jeremy first took over, he told us that we should pick a developer’s conference to go to, and the department would pay for it. However, when Jeremy and Narwhal and their video-game-boy friends went to South By Southwest in Austin, that expense ate up more than the entire conference budget for the year. So no conferences for the girls.
Glynda was fed up with other, more substantial things as well, mainly involving exclusion from departmental planning meetings, and lack of regard for her talents. She hadn’t whined about any of this; that was not her style. And as a practical matter it is very difficult to bring up sensitive, fuzzy problems like this until you get to that final HR exit interview (when Glynda did mention them). If she or I were to complain of exclusion from something, we’d get some lame defense on the order of, “Well, Bugalu wasn’t invited either. We don’t invite Bugalu to strategy meetings. So there.” Blah blah. Oh I see. Now I’m being put on the same level with Bugalu, whom you brought in—when? a week ago Tuesday?
I inherited all of Glynda’s work, and was pretty much back to where I’d been the previous year, doing the work of two people. Time for me to move on, too. I kept checking the internal job postings but couldn’t find anything.
Smackdown at Gregory’s. Jeremy went off to Europe for the very first time in his life in July 2012, using the $5000 travel voucher he’d won by cheating on the video contest. When he got back, Narwhal told him to put the screws on me ever harder, to make me quit or explode and be fired. One morning in mid-July they came by my cubicle and demanded I accompany them to a nearby coffeeshop.
While we walked around the corner to Gregory’s Coffee, I recalled a Wall Street Journal article from years ago, explaining how pharmaceutical firms had a set routine for firing their sales reps. They took them out to a “public place,” a restaurant or diner, because the poor sots would be less likely to cry and scream and generally cause a scene. Was this what they had in mind for me at Gregory’s?
It probably was. Hindsight tells me that my intuitions were usually correct. Jeremy laid into me aggressively with his prepared script, while Narwhal stayed silent. I had not kept my skills up with those of the other front-end developers, he began.
I giggled. For most of the past 18 months I had been the only front-end developer. “What other front-end developers, Jeremy?” I asked.
“Bugalu!” said Jeremy. “Bugalu knows Backbone.js! You don’t know Backbone.js!”
“Bugalu?” I guffawed. “Bugalu from Timbuktu? He know Backbone, why not you? That Bugalu? Stop me if I’m wrong, but Bugalu just started. He’s just a temp or something, isn’t he.”
“No! Bugalu is Full-Time Employee!” said Jeremy, banging his fist on the phonograph-record-sized table at Gregory’s Coffee. “There you go again, being very passive-aggressive!”
Presumably the plan was to provoke and prod me, make me incensed, get me to up-and-quit. Or just yell at them, throw hot coffee, beat them within an inch of their lives, or give them some other pretext to fire me. I again refused to rise to the bait. I was theatrically humble. Eyes downcast, I told them sadly I realized they didn’t like me for some reason, and that was okay, because maybe they should move me back to where I came from, down in Editorial…
“But you can’t do that! You’re a Developer!” said. Jeremy briefly went off-script. He was truly astonished. I had a flash of insight into his worldview, which put web developers at the top of the status hierarchy.
“I’ve done lots of other things,” I said. “You don’t like me, that’s okay, we can work this out amicably. Give me a few months and I’ll find another job in the company.”
Bad to worse, worse to worser. There was a seething verbal fight between Narwhal and Jeremy later in the week. They’d been out at a meeting, and when they got back after 6 pm they thought they were alone. I was in a room nearby. Embarrassed, I tried not to listen (why? I ought to have listened better) but I caught enough.
Narwhal was cross with Jeremy for having screwed up the Gregory’s meeting. Apparently I was supposed to have been fired then and there, but Jeremy got derailed by my suggestion that we find an amicable separation. Narwhal didn’t like the idea of me hanging around another few months. Narwhal told Jeremy he was being ungrateful for not working harder to fire me right away. After all, Narwhal said, he had done Jeremy the immense favor of booting him up to this managerial job and paying his admission to South By Southwest.
The company paid it, actually, said Jeremy, a bit snippy. We can’t get rid of Margot now because she’s doing all of Glynda’s work. So what do we do? HR departments have ways of getting rid of employees. You make out they’re a behavior problem or you say their skills are not up to par, and you put them on 90 days’ probation, and if they’re still there you fire them It’s standard HR procedure! I read it on the internet.
“Heh-heh,” thought I, “you just try some funny business like that and I’ll be banging on HR’s door.” I started drawing up a list of the various harassments I’d been subjected to since March.
A few weeks later Jeremy and Narwhal called me into the 16th floor conference room and presented me with a lengthy dossier of my supposed failings. Couched in evasive, vague phrases, Jeremy wrote, in sum: Nobody likes her. Everybody hates her. She can’t do anything. She is a problem child. We’ve tried to put up with her but she is hopeless.
The cover of the document said PIP: Performance Improvement Program. This is was the company’s version of what is known in the human-resources game as “progressive discipline.” Over two pages, Jeremy enumerated my vague failings and demanded that would complete a series of online video tutorials and quizzes during the next three weeks. This looked infantile and ridiculous, so with shaking hand I signed acknowledgment. If I had known then what I know now, I would not have done this. (Furthermore, a “progressive discipline” program was completely inappropriate in my case, since I had just had received a favorable review six months before, and in fact all my previous reviews with the company had been good.)
But I didn’t know what I was getting into. Many of the exercises were nearly impossible, and the websites were buggy and could not register correct results. One of the tutorial modules had 440 coding problems, many of which might take an hour or more to answer. The other modules each needed, realistically speaking, a couple of days to complete. All told, these exercises would take somewhere between 120 and 150 hours to complete: not really feasible within a timeframe of 21 days, even if I sometimes worked on them during office hours, along with nights and weekends. Nevertheless I got them done in three weeks or a little over. Smugly I e-mailed Jeremy my links. I half-expected congratulations for having passed with flying colors.
But this was not the end. Jeremy redoubled his persecution. He assigned me a new three-week task, that of creating the a new prototype for the Fly + Buy photo contest. As you may recall, this project had been shot down because it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars of development time, and take three to six months to complete and test. Nevertheless, here I was, assigned to do it all in three weeks. I came up with a couple of partial prototypes, quite remarkable given the limited time. I could not believe that Jeremy would keep up his little game after this. But he did, of course he did.
I tried to complain to HR. There really wasn’t anyone HR to complain to. I’d known a couple of chubby blond girls there, but now they were gone and my own department’s needs were being addressed by a couple of chuckleheaded black women. They both had weird, forgettable names, so I thought of them as Mammy and Prissy. Mammy was the senior-most, and quite hefty; her main job was shuffling the forms for the Manpower temp payroll. Prissy was young and shiny-faced, and had her hair done up in the shape of a broccoli floret. She was very friendly and sweet-tempered. However she was of absolutely no help. I told her about the abuse and provocation I’d been putting up with from Jeremy and Narwhal, but she didn’t care. “You signed the P-I-P,” she said. “That means you agree with it. We can’t do anything.”
I had a plan in reserve, one I never used. If things got really impossible, I would pull a sick day. Then another sick day. Then I’d go on sick leave, and extended sick leave, while I shopped for a new job. Why I never pulled this stunt is still unclear to me. Part of it was 1) It’s too complicated, and 2) I’m in the Right. Neither one is much of a logical argument. Had I finished law school, I would advise any legal client to avoid such self-indulgent crap. Such arguments are based on short-term pridefulness, and pridefulness butters no parsnips.
Really, I should have done the sick-leave thing.