Friday, March 02, 2007


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #13: Magazine Man--Year One

(part II)

Well, it was a speedy few weeks between the time I got my first official job offer to become a dyed-in-the-wool magazine man and the time I actually started the job. I filled the time by finishing my magazine project, graduating, finding an apartment close to the office, driving back to New Hampshire to gather up whatever belongings I thought I would need to fill out the apartment. Nothing fills the idle hours like fucking big change.

Of course, one thing that remained constant was my abject poverty. I have never felt so elated and desperate as I did during those weeks when I had absolutely no money, yet knew that in a few weeks, I'd be making 25K a year, which was great money in my field at that time. I managed to convince my old landlady to keep my security deposit in lieu of my last month's rent in the garret on Dempster Street. But in order to come up with the security deposit at the one-bedroom place I found in the Edison Park section of Chicago, I had to do something I knew I shouldn't, and which I would have plenty of time to regret over the next decade: I took a cash advance on my Visa to pay the deposit, and I was 10 years paying that off. But what else could I do?

My moments of desperate elation were only beginning, alas. When I got back from New Hampshire and began my job the first full week of July, I was informed by my boss, Mr. Z, that because I had started work in the middle of a pay cycle, I would have to wait three weeks for my first paycheck, instead of the usual two. I had something like 10 dollars and whatever change I could fish out from under the seat cushions in the car to sustain me for that period. And nearly all of that paid for my gas to and from work.

I refer to that strange period, so bright and so bleak, as the Potato-n-Onion month, because that's what I lived on. My parents had no money to lend me, but they weren't going to send me west empty-handed, so instead they provisioned me. I had a basket of fresh produce from Dad's garden, which lasted about four days. The rest of the time, I subsisted on the contents of a 20-pound sack of potatoes and a 10-pound bag of onions, also provided by my parents. For breakfast I had hash browns and onions. For lunch I had a baked potato, topped with onions and seasoned with packets of Horsey Sauce stolen from Arby's. For dinner I had...potatoes and onions. Chop and repeat. And so it went for the next 21 days. I sure learned a lot about how to prepare potatoes and onions, I'll tell you that.

I also got my first glimpse at what my boss was really like. A few days before my first payday, I had to drop some paperwork off at the corporate human resources office. The HR team had had some kind of lunch seminar and there were a few leftover sandwiches, so the HR manager offered me one. After watching me bolt the thing down--I was ravenous for anything that didn't taste like onion or spud--I told the manager, with a certain amount of pride, how I had been living until I got paid.

"Oh no!" she cried. "Didn't Z tell you? We could have advanced you a week's pay. We do it all the time for incoming employees who start between cycles. I'm so sorry you had to do that. I'm really surprised Z didn't tell you."

"So am I," I said, remembering how Z had looked when I expressed dismay at having to wait three weeks to get any money. "That's life, MM. Nothing I can do about it," he said with a smirk. Clearly there had been something he could have done. Why would he deliberately withhold that information from me? What possible benefit could it have done him?

Well, as I would find out all too soon, there was often no rhyme or reason to why Z did things. He was, at best, a whimsical fellow, whose whims unfortunately led towards making those around him uncomfortable. I think Z believed that the more you kept your employees disquieted and off-balance, the more you could manipulate them. Of course, it could just be stupid of me to try and apply reason to the motivations of a man who turned out to be exceedingly unreasonable, often unpleasant, and to this date the standard by which all other asshole bosses have been judged in my professional life.

The staff of Asset Systems and Security--hereafter referred to ASS Magazine--was a small, lively, dysfunctional one. I was at the bottom of the masthead, a lowly assistant editor. Just above me was Tam, a brilliant but quiet woman who was just a few years older than I and who took me under her wing and showed me the ropes at ASS. Our art director, production manager, and layout artist was a one-man ball of fire named Brendan. When he wasn't pasting our pages together, Brendan played drums in a punk band, shot amateur porn with his gorgeous wife Jackie, and was the editor and publisher of his own popular city 'zine, a free monthly that started as a handout to friends, but ended up with a citywide circulation of 250,000 readers.

Our sales team shared offices with us, which is not common at most magazines. The sales manager was a jovial, lantern-jawed ex-jock named Steve. Steve was very popular on the staff because he was one of a very few who had an expense account and he wasn't afraid to use it to take us editors to lunch or even to a Cubs game. Steve's boss, the publisher of ASS, was a friendly but somewhat jumpy fellow named Jack. Before becoming the publisher of a magazine for the managers of security guards, Jack had been the Midwest sales manager for a huge liquor distribution outfit. Not sure how that was a valid pre-req for the job he now held, but I didn't mind. Jack still had lots of buddies in the old business, and he was a man who firmly believed that booze and business went together.

And then there was Mr. Z.

Z stood about my height, but he always seemed taller somehow. No doubt this was because I found him more than a little intimidating, although as I analyze it, it's hard to pin down exactly what about Z made me timid. It might have been his tendency to stomp around the office--he never walked or strolled, but came barreling into your cubicle when he needed you. Perhaps it was the fact that he had no sense of personal space and was constantly invading mine. If you were sitting at your desk and he came charging in to speak to you, he didn't do it from the doorway; he would come and stand over you, practically straddling your chair. The fact that he smoked a pipe only intensified this effect--he had the sourest breath, and unfortunately, when you were in conference with him, you couldn't help but breathe it in.

Z must have worked in the security industry himself at one time--or at least liked to visually imply that he did. For one thing, he always wore dark suits. For another, his hair was in a perpetual crew cut. Well, at least the hair on his head was. His mustache was a different story--perhaps even a different being--altogether.

After first meeting the man, I wrote to a friend that Z's huge handlebar mustache "may have been the hip facial accoutrement in, oh, about 1863. But here in 1991, it's just balls nasty. I think his face agrees, for it certainly seems to me that his mustache and his skin do not agree with each other. Aside from seeming to have a perpetual rash on his cheeks and mouth, I noticed that his mustache hair, instead of curling inward in the habit of most well-groomed facial hair, instead grows outward, away from his mouth. This gives him the overall effect of looking like some kind of sea mammal--a manatee, perhaps--in a cheap suit. Or maybe his mustache is just as grossed-out by his fetid pipe-breath as I am."

But there is no doubt that in all metrics of eccentricity, his personality far outweighed his appearance. As I learned almost within my first week on the job, Z could be a total fucking ogre. One Friday not long after I started, I had been invited by my graduate school to come back and give a lecture to a group of summer session students. I was, after all, a recent success story, having been hired right out of my program. The lecture was scheduled for late afternoon, after which I was invited to go out with the class and the instructor for a little happy-hour socializing. I had cleared the whole thing with Z, incidentally; had sent him more than one e-mail about it, and had even poked my head into his office about an hour before I left early that Friday to let him know I was going. He gave no indication whatsoever that he had any problem with this.

But as you can probably guess, I found out differently Monday morning. When I walked in, there was a note on my chair, a note in what I would come to recognize and dread as Z's crazy chicken scratch.


And so Brendan, Tam and I found ourselves in Z's office, sitting quietly while he roared at us like a dragon. Thanks to his pipe, he even had puffs of smoke coming out of his mouth while he roared.

"I think we're all getting a little too lax around here. And we're setting a bad example for the new pup in the litter!" he brayed, starting in on Tam and Brendan. Tam caught the blast first, being drubbed by Z for having the temerity to arrive 10 minutes after 9 AM on three separate occasions over the past month. I hadn't been at ASS long, but even I could see how grossly unfair Z was being. Because, see, Tam never left the office, so far as I could tell. She regularly put in 12-hour days--and remember, she was a salaried employee, not an hourly wage earner--so I would have thought the least Z could do was grant her a little flexibility coming in in the morning.

To make matters worse, during the dressing-down, Tam never once tried to correct Z or speak up for herself. She just sat there and took it, with the slightly glazed of someone who has been here before.

Brendan was the next target and, kick-ass kind of guy that he was, I expected this to be a heated exchange. But Brendan just sat there with a half-hearted little smirk on his face as Z accused him of using company time and equipment to print out his 'zine. What precisely that had to do with Z's original stated topic for the meeting--too much time out of the office--was never clear. Nor was the reason behind Brendan's silence. He too just soaked it up.

Then it was my turn. Naif that I was, I thought, Well surely he's not going to be pissed at me for going to do that lecture last Friday. But we all know I was wrong, don't we?

"You're brand-new to this magazine and, it seems to me, to any kind of real job MM, so let me give you some advice right now: Do NOT start developing bad habits like the one you exhibited last week," he said, blowing noxious clouds of pipe smoke at me.

"I don't under--" I started.

"Do NOT INTERRUPT me!" Z shrieked, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Brendan give me a look that said I should take this advice rather seriously. I chewed my lip to keep it shut.

"No, you want to toddle back to your old school and show off for your teachers, that's fine, MM. But from now on, you do it on your own time, hmmm?" He stared at me over the rims of his glasses--heck, over the rim of his mustache.

Well, I never said I was smart. However, I was raised by parents who told me to always speak up when I saw people being treated unfairly. Especially if I was the person being so treated.

"Then why--" I began

"Are you INTERRUPTING ME AGAIN?" he howled.

"Why did you--"

"DO YOU HEAR ME AT ALL YOU UNGRATEFUL SHIT HACK?" he bellowed, standing up behind his desk now.

"shut up!" hissed Brendan.

"Why did you tell me it was okay to go if it so clearly wasn't?" I finally blurted, then braced myself to be beaten to death with Z's pipe.

But Z just stared at me in mock amazement, then looked around and Brendan and Tam. Finally, he fixed me with a glare. "You're dismissed from my office. Go on, get out while I talk to the rest of the staff. Without you."

I'm sure I had a look of amazement then. What was this guy's damage? To that question, I guess I should end the suspense now by saying I never found out in my entire tenure at the magazine, let alone that morning. So, shaking my head slightly, I got up and left. I don't know what was said, but Z kept Brendan and Tam in his office for a few minutes longer before letting them out. Brendan came straight over to my cubicle.

"Hey, the big dog wants you now. But do yourself a favor and shut the fuck up, okay?" he said, not unkindly. "Then afterwards meet me in Jack's office. We'll raid his liquor cabinet."

Z pretty much had the same message for me--except for the part about the liquor cabinet--when I walked back into his office. And I never did get a straight answer as to why he first approved my absence from the office the previous week, but then backpedaled. All in all, it was an eye-opening experience and it strengthened my resolve not to be one of those guys who got so comfortable with his job that he never left it. Luckily, Z made it impossible for me to have the slightest sense of comfort on that job.

Ironically, I realize now that I ended up defying Z after all. Because not too long after this blow-up (the first of many, covering a wide and flabbergasting array of topics), we as a staff embarked on the reason I was hired: the magazine was about to undergo its first major redesign in years. While this meant we were guaranteed many late nights in the office with Z, it also meant that we got a larger travel budget from corporate. The suits had decided that we needed to start running some great stories (great for a trade magazine, that is), and the only way to do that was to send staffers into the field to report on temporary and permanent security situations first-hand. And also to direct photo shoots, which was cheaper than hiring someone new for the task.

Everything else about the job was just so many potatoes and onions. But getting to travel on assignment, getting to get out of the office, away from Z? Now that was some serious Horsey Sauce, let me tell you.

And one of the first places the magazine sent me?

Give you one guess...



Sweet assignment, MM! But then, you'd have to tell everyone you met that you were writing for A.S.S.

My old boss at my last job was notorious for being a money-scrounging jerk. When I first started, the HR department called to tell me about my relocation package. Everyone in my pay grade was entitled to a full move package, 30 days in a motel for house hunting, per diem, etc. Some employees senior to me had paid for their own moves because MY BOSS NEVER TOLD THEM about this benefit.

I guess HR found out he was withholding information and started calling new hire employees from my department directly. But you'd think that would have made a good selling point to tell people about in the interview.
So hard to resist urge to say 'I don't know about you, but I'd do anything for ASS.' There, I said it, I'm a weak man.

At the very least you did learn a lot from Z. That is, everything you intended not to be as a manager.

As another point of curiosity though, did you ever actually see any of the amateur film your coworker and his missus produced or did you simply hear about it? I imagine seeing it in particular would be rather awkward, but then perhaps that couple was just more worth viewing.
Oh boy, MM... I'm still in my first position out of college, and I make it a point to remind myself not to get too comfortable, too... but every time I think that I'm in the worst situation, with the worst boss and the worst company.... I'm just going to think of Mr. Z. Thanks for sharing your horror story.
OOooooo, the year of Silence of the Lambs! I'll bet you totally worked the 'security' angle with that!
Wow...Mr. Z sounds like the epitome of pain in the ass bosses.

Kinda makes my little work rants seem childish in comparison...but of course I'll still continue to write them!
Wow. Here I was in London feeling horrible for having no money left for groceries for two weeks ("no money" meaning 80 pounds) and now I realize I can live on potatoes and onions!!

In all seriousness - thanks for the great story and reminder that we can all make it through a tough situation. (and that my situation isn't that tough after all...)

the humbled Londoner :)
Every time I hear a story like yours, I realize how amazingly lucky I've been when it comes to bosses. Generally, I've had sweethearts. I can only think of one or two isolated incidences of assholism, and those from years back.
LOL, what a great post! I'm hooked.
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