While living in Milwaukee (#11 The Air Vent Conversation) we met a couple two doors down in our condo complex. They were about to kill one another trying to wallpaper a bathroom together. They were funny and fun. She had always worked, but gave that up to be home with their baby.
They were from the same town in Illinois as my mother and he worked summers as a teen at a park that had been left in the Will of my mother’s eccentric uncle. She had boasted about the uncle’s money. He never married and traveled the world without a suitcase. He’d buy one cheap shirt at a time as needed. But I never knew about the park. Our new neighbor told me that if alcohol was ever consumed in the park, the land reverted back to the family. I wondered why my mother hadn’t littered the place with whisky bottles. She probably didn’t know.
We all lived through a siege of robberies in the complex. Police finally discovered the culprits occupying an empty unit. They had a bird’s eye view and knew when the coast was clear. During that siege, at the neighbors, she and I saw feet kicking in the basement windows. They ran when we screamed.
We did some things as couples but when my relationship began to deteriorate and her husband traveled I’d stop by to visit her and the baby. We were becoming great friends.
When my relationship shattered I decided to return to New York Radio. The neighbor was transferred to his company’s Manhattan office at the same time. He went ahead to find a temporary rental for them. I wanted a house rather than another Manhattan apartment, so we agreed to share the rental while we looked for houses in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. She and I helped each other pack. My company arranged movers for me, his company for them. Everything went into storage.
He found a rental in Connecticut on the water. When I arrived at that house, she and I agreed that he must have seen it only at night because it was pretty dreary. But it was a fascinating place, belonging to a long-time book illustrator. Every room was filled with bowing shelves holding far too many books. She discovered that it was swarming with termites and had to have them do whatever you do with termites before the place fell down. I had a room in the front of the rambling house. It was still winter, so when we weren’t house hunting, we all sat by the fire playing Scrabble.
They were toilet training their daughter. The method they used was to reward her whenever she was successful, with M&M’s. Every time she got a treat we consumed the entire bag with a bottle of wine.
Their daughter also shared the flu with us. I had to find a doctor and was shocked by the weight I had gained. He talked to me about over-thirty metabolism, a line I had just crossed. But once I got busy with my job in Manhattan the extra pounds fell away.
They were new to New York so I was their only friend. On weekends we all separated to look for houses. I found a dream house in New Jersey, but learned about its previous floods. There was a special temporary mortgage rate in Connecticut for first time buyers. So, I bought my first house. They found a house about five minutes away. We were neighbors again. They helped me paint my house. I helped them paint theirs.
She was remarkably practical and organized with time on her hands and missed working. She did my errands with hers in the early days while I got settled in the job. She called me at my office to say she gave my refrigerator a scan and knew it wouldn’t do. She shopped for a new one and not only arranged for it’s delivery but was there when it arrived. She was there for phone and cable connections too. They were still sensitive to my pain about the end of my relationship and were great company. For a time they were my social life and I theirs. She was the most no nonsense determined person I had ever met and a caring friend. She also carried grudges
When we were still in Milwaukee she showed me a photo that was taken of him on leave during his tour in Viet Nam. I think it was before they were married. For some bizarre reason he sent her the picture of him partying with beautiful women in Tokyo. She quit her job and flew to meet him for his next leave. She was determined that would never happen again. She could never let it go.
In Connecticut, for their wedding anniversary I wanted to surprise them with balloons and champagne and leave it inside their front door. Balloon delivery was just starting in Manhattan. What was delivered to my office was one giant red weather balloon, not what I was expecting. I charged through Grand Central rush hour with something that belonged in the Macy’s parade and no one noticed. On the train I stood near the doors and every time they opened, the wind blasted the balloon. When I got to my car at the train station, I had to let it fly outside the sunroof. I drove to their house with a big red balloon following me.
They lived through the beginning, the middle and the end of my relationship with #5 So I Bought Him A Humidifier. When he disappeared, she was bitter and wanted to hunt him down. They were completely supportive when I was with the wrong man.
He and I often took the train from the same station in the mornings. It cut the boredom of the ride.
In 1983, I left my job in New York. They had already been transferred to Eastern Pennsylvania. I helped them paint that house too.
By the end of the same year I started a business in South Central PA.. When they took their first trip to Europe, I drove two hours every afternoon to pick up their daughter at school and stay with her in their house, then returned to my office in the morning while she was back in school. She was in a play about the Knights of the Round Table, so I made her one of those cone hats with yards of gauzy material. It was so heavy I’m surprised she could hold up her head. She was sometimes a stubborn only child but was always good with me. I remember how she cried when it was time to put her on a plane to join her parents on their trip.
They moved back to Connecticut and he bought a sailboat. His wife wasn’t thrilled about that, but was a good sport. When my nephew came out from Washington State to visit, their daughter stayed with us for a while. Then we all went north to sail Long Island Sound. Except for my young nephew and my aunt, they were my family.
I’m sketchy about the timing but we planned a weekend ski trip to Lake Placid. I would provide ski lessons. Their daughter was bringing a friend. He booked the inn. When we arrived his wife and I were expecting a suite but we were all in the same odd cavern of a room. I was glad I had packed my bathrobe and slept in it. This was just too close.
On the slope he was falling all over the place in more ways than one. While I helped him out of a snow bank he told me how much it meant that I came on the trip and that he loved me. In my usual robot manner of responding to surprising proclamations, I said something about loving him as a “friend” too. I may have worn my parka over my bathrobe that night. She didn’t ski. I spent time with her in the lodge the next day hoping his comment would evaporate.
He had clients in my part of Pennsylvania, or said he did. Sometimes he brought their daughter for a visit. One time he showed up with a birthday present. I introduced him to my neighbor and he had apparently had enough to drink to declare that he was in love with me in front of her. Again, I was startled. My neighbor who had just met him was frank telling him he shouldn’t say such things.
His wife and I talked often. Sometimes when he was traveling I’d go stay with her and their daughter to keep them company and to have a good visit. I said nothing about my growing discomfort. Surely it would pass.
In the summer of 1987 I lived on Long Island for a while after my travels to Russia (#40 Russian Adventures). My friends had moved to central Connecticut so I didn’t see the family as much as I had, but we talked all the time. This was one of my more precarious life phases, with a temporary home, no income while throwing myself into helping Russian artists and uncertainty about returning to New York radio.
In those months they each increased complaints to me about one another. He found business reasons to be in my vicinity wanting to have lunch or dinner. She was calling to complain, increasingly upset about her life with him. They were so very unhappy and barely speaking.
I’ve always had an unfortunate or fortunate knack for hearing the troubles or secrets of friends, and safely tucking it all away. But constant venting was coming from both of them. I was the only person they would confide in and it was overwhelming troubling territory.
By then even I, the clueless one, could tell that he’d light up when he saw me. That’s a corny phrase but it’s exactly what I saw. I was still trying to convince myself that it was friendship I saw in his smile. He was stepping up his ovations and didn’t stop when I asked. When it was clear he hadn’t told her we were dining, something had to be done. I believed that she knew I was no threat. But his keeping a visit with me secret from her was too much.
Out of total frustration and caring, I went into letter writing mode. Yes I wrote separate letters, urging them each to talk with one another. I agonized over what to say and barged ahead suggesting that they see a counselor hoping they would preserve all the good in their marriage. While I attempted only to be helpful, the receipt of a typed letter makes it more impersonal and the words don’t go away.
I said that I cared about them both and knew they could rediscover one another. I suggested that they read both letters. This was hardly the most delicate move but it was something. In my stomach I knew that at least it would give them reason to talk with each other. I also knew the risk to me.
I heard from him, telling me that she would never speak to me again. Of all the disappointments in a life, nothing hurts so deeply and lasts so long as the loss of a good friend.
A couple of sad years later I was living again in Pennsylvania. I was on one of my trips to Ohio, house sitting for a friend who was leading art trips to Russia. Friends had introduced me to a woman in theatre there who urged me to convert my screenplay about the Russian Adventures into a stage play. I was breaking my brain taking 163 scenes and countless locations and distilling it all onto a stage.
I answered the phone where I was staying and was startled to hear his voice. He was in town on business and had impressively tracked me down one friend at a time to get the number. I had no idea if he had business in that Ohio town, or if he just came to try to see me. We agreed to meet for dinner. I didn’t want him to know where I was staying, but I did want to hear about the family.
I was guarded with a careful chill. He had been transferred to California and they lived in a beautiful area. My letters did at least have some worth by taking me out of the equation. He still drank a bit much and by that time, because of my crappy immune system, I didn’t drink at all. He then suggested coffee at a nearby diner, and that’s where the real conversation began. He told me that she never allowed my name to be spoken in their house again. I didn’t ask but guessed that he had told her some version of his feelings for me. Why not? I no longer mattered. I had had a lifetime of not mattering. He said that their daughter didn’t understand and missed me very much. He wanted us to stay in touch for her sake.
By “us” I sensed he meant he could stay in touch with me. Somehow my brain that usually needs 24 hours to say the right thing said, “Please give it some serious thought. If it really is for her sake, fine. I miss her. But if you’re using her as an excuse to be in contact, then no.”
I went to my car. He went to his. I never heard from him again.
Assuming that it would be only a year or less, I moved from a large apartment to a sufficient efficiency in the same high-rise. It made a welcome difference to my budget. I made the move quickly and didn’t care about the view, or that it sits behind the bank of elevators. In the beginning I thought that noise must have been drummers from a marching band. Having already established myself as “trouble” with the head of maintenance, I didn’t want to go yet another round with him to get literally the least attention possible. One screenplay was already headed for a sure sale. I wouldn’t be here long. Ha! I’ll write of that another time.
“Trouble” here is anyone asking for the basics. In this case, a phone line in the bedroom. There are two in the living room, but oddly none in the bedroom. In an age of cordless phones, I didn’t bother. No one here understands why the building owners put up with the raging maintenance guy. I go around him to the nice maintenance guys. Honestly he’s scary. We all figure he’s somebody’s nephew. Coward that I am, I still put a little something in an envelope for him for the holidays, the only time he’s slightly polite.
But it wasn’t a few months. It’s been several years. I hate to think of how long I’ve lived here because I’m supposed to be on an Oregon beach. However my warm and comfortable cave has suited my trimmed down life.
The ancient cordless phone, which was based near the kitchen, didn’t have caller id. To screen a call I’d have to hot foot it to the living room for the very noisy desk phone before it went to voice mail. Yes I have a mobile phone, but still prefer the quality of a landline. So there!
At last I got a replacement for the old cordless, which is much smaller, much lighter and holds a charge much longer.
Next, leaving the man in my life, #56 It Takes Two, meant having to buy everything a person needs for a life. Most of those items are wearing out at the same time. A microwave runs intermittently. Handles fell off the original cheap pots. The desk phone splitter is held together with duct tape, because finding the right connection again overwhelms me. The Danish wooden dish drainer just collapsed, though I tried to hammer it back together. And my favorite beautifully painted wooden tray slid off the end of my bed the other day, and each piece put together with wooden pegs flew apart. So did everything on the tray. I’ve reconstructed it for now. My beloved Kitchen Aid mixer that’s lost a gear or two. The coffee carafe that no longer holds its seal. Many more items are crumbling but you get the picture.
As long as I’m laughing at myself for that, back in the mid ‘80’s I decided that I must have a very tough tush, or derriere. My Peugeot was two or three years old, but I had never felt the benefits of the seat warmer. When I finally got around to mentioning it to the mechanic in Pennsylvania, he checked the wiring. It had never been connected.
On my desk is the ubiquitous in-box. I just measured it at less than 2” deep. The stack accumulating in it is nearly 6”, approaching geological layers. When something crosses this desk, and I don’t have a decision, into the purgatory bin it goes. You know, that Blue Cross explanation of benefits that looks vaguely puzzling. Or the article I wanted to read but not just now. The catalog with vitamins I’ve been meaning to order. Or next year’s thick insurance booklet when it’s not time to replace this year’s booklet in the file. I’m extremely organized with a file for everything, except those in-between items. In business generally you could toss that stuff. Either you’d hear from them again, or it didn’t matter. I know how annoyed I’ll be if this stack topples over. So I’ll be wading through it any day now.
The summer of 1985 was busy with a trip across country, a final, and I do mean final visit with my mother and on the way back east, a reconnection with my aunt. She was delighted to hear from me when I called from Kansas and I found my way to her a few days later outside of St. Louis. She was still in the house she and my uncle built with their own hands. He was long gone. They had divorced back in the early 60’s when people didn’t get divorced. She had been living with Harold for decades and was very private about that. I had then lived with two men, and we seemed to have a lot in common. She was the youngest of four. My father was the oldest.
My aunt who had no children had always remembered our birthdays, holidays and graduations. But we lost touch after that. I appreciate now how difficult that was for her since my mother hated my father’s family and made it so difficult. On this visit, she and Harold took me to see the magnificent Clydesdales and museums as if I were nine. It was delightful since I hadn’t lived near any family, ever.
We had breakfast together and were like girlfriends catching up. She was comfortable talking to me about her life, perhaps because I lived far away. I was surprised when she told me that she and Harold had flown all the way out west to our town for my father’s funeral in 1967. I had no memory of that. She said my mother ignored them and they weren’t even invited back to our house. That had the ring of familiarity. I then climbed into my car to return to Pennsylvania.
A few years later I went back to St. Louis and met my cousin’s daughters for the first time. I hadn’t seen my cousin since I was12. My aunt took us all to dinner. She sat next to me as my cousins and I chattered. When you have so very little family, little family means a lot. The server asked my aunt about her meal. She had barely touched it. I hadn’t noticed how silent she had become. When we went to her house, that’s when she complained to Harold about how terrible her meal was. My cousin, whom I barely knew, and I looked at one another with total recognition. Her mother and my father, holding in resentment, and then bam.
My aunt and I stayed in touch. She shared stories of her childhood with my dad, their stern father and frightened mother. It was a gift. She said that once my dad visited her as the older brother, to meet the man in her life, Harold. One night they were all out with friends and conversation was about a recent rape in St. Louis. My father was quiet, and then said that if that ever happened to his daughter, he would kill the guy. She knew that story was another gift to let me know what I didn’t; how much I meant to him. She understood his temper and how it had damaged our relationship.
About 1995 she called to say that she had gotten a letter from my uncle; former uncle I guess. She was emotional and didn’t know what to do. They had been divorced about 35 years and at last the letter was filled with remorse and apologies for his really really bad behavior decades earlier. She feared that he wanted something, probably money. Should she answer the letter? I thought what harm could answering him do? He might make amends and ease some of her pain. His letter had been delivered to her through Harold, making it more complicated. They had all known one another long ago.
A year or so later Harold became very ill, and his family was moving him into a nursing home. Her situation with his family was precarious. She then told me that he had never divorced. His wife was Catholic and would not allow it. I asked if she had ever talked with him about it. And I couldn’t make this up. She said, “I’d bring it up about every ten years. And he’d say, ‘I’m working on it!’ ” She wasn’t even certain that he had brought the subject of divorce up.
My dear aunt waited decade after decade for Harold to divorce and marry her. By then she was about 80. He was older and she was not fully recognized by his family. She was sad about his illness; distraught about the way she was being treated. By then she had sold the old house and was alone and lonely in her condo.
So enter my uncle. That’s the way I knew of him so that’s the way I refer to him here since I do not name those who are still alive. He befriended my aunt, long distance. When Harold died, my uncle stepped up his contact. She was deeply depressed and was sleeping by afternoon.
I had left the man in my life, #56 It Takes Two. I was working long hours and coping with my own failed love life, again. My aunt reported more and more of my uncle’s calls and letters. She was terrified that he wanted something, but he talked her into visiting him in Texas. By the time she returned from that trip he had asked her to marry him. She was thinking about it. He had married two or three times again, and divorced at least twice and I think widowed once.
She talked with lawyers about a pre-nup. It did seem a good idea to be protected, even emotionally. She dragged and dragged her feet. He talked her into letting him move back to St. Louis. She made him stay in the basement of her house. I believe she was trying for a fresh start, even reclaiming her emotional virginity.
I went out again to St. Louis to interview them about how love had returned at 83. I felt hopeful, caught up in the notion of romance late in life. I even envisioned a play or screenplay maybe with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
My uncle talked and talked about his terrible behavior and I was impressed by his candidness. He went to church every day and was talking with his priest. They had bought a new house so they could start over again together. Or he got her to buy a new house. He had no money. They adopted a cat. And I went with them where he had found a dog he just had to have. I saw them reliving their past. Back in the 50’s they had a beautiful Collie and a cat when they were building their house. They were also bickering again.
One day when they drove me around St. Louis they pointed out where they got their marriage license, twice. They divorced, then, my uncle’s mother talked my aunt into marrying him again. I doubt if my father ever knew that.
It looked like there would be a third wedding. I couldn’t get there in time for that, but agreed to help host a reception a week later. My cousin and her daughters and grandchild would be there. I wrote my brother inviting him to join me. I never heard from him.
By now it was over 50 years after their first wedding. Their original Best Man and Matron of Honor were at the reception. Since my aunt was not Catholic, at that time she could not have non-Catholics in the wedding party. The women were nearly strangers, but became friends. I don’t even know if any of my family attended that first wedding. I met my uncle’s niece and her husband. They seemed nice.
My cousin however did not like my uncle. She knew much more than I about his behavior so many years ago. She distrusted him openly. I tried to be supportive of my aunt who was now paying for two houses. And he wanted a new car. I had no idea of her finances. She had worked all her life, and in fact worked part time until she was eighty. She was not a woman of means, just good credit.
By about 2004, when I spoke with her on the phone she was slurring her words. I went out again to visit. By then they were in the third house. They kept moving farther out of St. Louis and away from her friends. And he was horrible, screaming at and punishing that beautiful dog.
We were all in the kitchen one night and he was itemizing again about how bad he had been. My aunt grew silent. By now I knew the signs of her withdrawal. He said he never had a successful marriage. Suddenly she stood, nearly knocking over the chair. She stormed back to her bedroom. He had hurt her. They were married about 15 years the first time and she was shattered that he didn’t count that.
I tried to explain to him what happened. Then I went down the hall and knocked on her bedroom door. No response, so I opened the door. I found her in her bathroom hugging her cat in her arms. She was sobbing deeply from her shoulders, only no tears would come. I took her in to sit on the bed. I put my arm around her and she continued to sob. She kept saying what a foolish old woman she was. She had not followed the pre-nup. He was blowing through her money. She confessed that he was a Walmart greeter when she visited him in Texas, and was fired for inappropriate behavior. He lived in squalor.
He opened the door and she screamed, “I want a divorce.” He retreated.
I told her that whatever she needed to do I would support her. After about an hour he tapped on the door again. He said he just wanted to know where he was sleeping that night, and she said, “here.” With that he knew he was all right.
The next morning he was out and she and I sat and talked while she smoked one cigarette after another. She talked about killing herself and with 60 years of smoking she already was. I had worked on a crisis line in college and knew enough to keep her talking to see if she meant it. I asked how she had considered doing it. She said she’d drive a car into something, but she didn’t drive anymore. She considered slitting her wrists, but it would make a mess, something she would never do. I offered my high-rise apartment in Pennsylvania if she wanted to jump, trying to keep things light. She did laugh. We had always laughed together.
She was in agonizing pain from a back surgery. A pin was pressing on a nerve. She feared he was messing with her medications. He had started handing her drinks in the afternoons, combined with pain pills and antidepressants. She gave me phone numbers of all her doctors and begged me to call them. At her medical appointments he did all the talking and it wasn’t the truth.
So much for the romantic story I wanted to believe.
I went into the guestroom and made the calls. I also got addresses so I could keep in touch for her sake. One doctor said he suspected that there was drinking. She was an intensely private person and I hated doing this. But that doctor assured me that he would keep a closer eye on things. I let my aunt know that I made the calls and she acted as though she didn’t know what I meant.
That afternoon my uncle took me to a Cardinals game. It was the moment when I began to appreciate baseball and the Cardinals. But that is a joyful story to tell another time. When we returned she was fidgety and unhappy and went to bed even earlier than usual. He handed her pills with a drink and stayed up and watched TV.
The next morning my aunt started yelling at me, making little sense. She had told him that I called her doctors as if it was my idea. She was terrified of what he would do. She screamed and told me I had to leave that minute. She was frightened and frightening. Just a couple of days earlier she was at the airport so happy to see me. I was on my own and there was nothing I could do.
My flight was later that evening, but I packed fast. Having no idea of the cost, I left some cash on the table for my baseball ticket. I sat with my suitcase on the front steps to figure out what to do. That’s how fast she pushed me out the door, as if my uncle was watching. Instead of calling a cab for the airport, I called my uncle’s niece and she and her husband came to pick me up. They lived nearby and took me to their house where we talked about it. They assured me that they would keep an eye on things. They also told me that they got my aunt to go to their financial advisor. Uh oh! That sounded like a needle across a phonograph record. They took me to the airport. How naïve I was, confiding in them. They never responded to my calls or emails.
Back in Pennsylvania, feeling helpless I wrote her doctor expressing my concern though I had no legal rights. I also let my cousin know what had happened. She hated my uncle and now he was keeping her away from my aunt. I was devastated but was beginning to grasp just how terrified she was. I researched services in St. Louis about some sort of intervention or protection. But I was now no part of her life.
Though she was frail, she had another back surgery at 85. My cousin said that when she and her daughter tried to bring my aunt’s cat to the hospital, he barred them. When they did get in to see her, he had removed all flowers and cards from the room. My aunt was in a lonely painful stupor and never recovered. She died in the hospital. All I could do was send flowers and my love.
My cousin believes that he never forgave my aunt for getting the house in their divorce 50 years earlier. He got her to buy him two houses, sold them and moved into a retirement community near his niece and of course inherited whatever there was. My cousin said he bought a $50,000 organ, which he doesn’t play, to impress a young woman. For some reason my cousin still visits him regularly. She saw everything and believes that he caused my aunt’s death. From this distance I believe that he certainly expedited it.
This was not the story I wanted to write.
I went back to St. Louis a couple of years later. My cousins and I went to a ballgame. But the main reason for the trip was to visit my aunt’s grave. By the time we got there it was nearly dusk, and deer were leaping around us. With the help of flashlights we found her grave. I said a few words and we all went for Mexican food. She never got to enjoy the great-grand-niece and nephew who were with us and would have made her so happy.
I remember her big soft brown eyes, unlike the blue of her siblings. She was the one who took care of their impoverished mother. She worked hard as a proofreader all her life. She had no children and loved her nieces and nephews.
My aunt and I were a lot alike. For a while she was family. Her name was Janet.
We got the news that my father was transferred from North Carolina and being sent out west to Washington State. Ever since I’ve lived again in the east, I’ve learned to say I’m from Washington State. Otherwise just Washington, means D.C..
Late summer of 1956 I was eight, nearly nine. My brother was eleven. We were about to leave our fifth house and third city. Movers would come and pack and load us onto a truck, again. Dad wasn’t starting us in school in the fall. Instead he was taking a long leave so we could have plenty of time driving south, then west and up the west coast. I looked forward to the move. However my mother broke devastating news to me, alone.
Our dog Bonnie was not going with us. Bonne was 13 years old. Were we leaving her behind? She had made all the moves with us. This beautiful happy black cocker spaniel had always been part of our young lives. Even though she had developed cataract and was blind, whenever we moved we kept furniture in place. Once she learned her way around, that was that. We just didn’t move the furniture again. But now Alice was telling me that Dad had decided that Bonnie wasn’t going to make the trip. She told me that he said, “no more dogs.” She portrayed him as the villain.
But that wasn’t all she had to pronounce. I was to go with her to take Bonnie to the vet to be put down, put to sleep. I took it in as I took in everything she would tell me, and that she would tell me to do. I said nothing. I was told not to cry and I didn’t. She let me know that since she had to go through this, I did too.
I remember putting Bonnie in the car, the old Jeep station wagon that also did not make the trip. I remember taking that dear dog and loyal friend, into a room with a metal table. Someone picked her up. Then I remember that she was limp and would not come home.
Our trip west was an adventure taking weeks, including many motels with swimming pools and then Disneyland. Perhaps my father meant it to make up for losing our dog. We arrived in Port Angeles, Washington on a beautiful mid October day. Then we started school.
As I wrote in #42 Back Again, North Carolina, my father had just learned that a man who was in love with my mother had had him transferred back again to North Carolina. He took us, or himself, as far away as possible. So I’ll never know what emotions were running our lives.
And I’ll never understand why my mother took her eight-year old daughter, and not her son, to see that precious dog die, or if Dad ever knew. I don’t believe that he did.
Around 1995, a friend called to tell me that there was someone in the paper I probably knew. But I did not recognize the name or the photo. The article was about a former General Manager of the last radio station where I worked in New York. She had been named President of a regional Public Media corporation. I did not contact her as a former colleague might, because it was a misquote. She had not been GM.
A year or so later we got a winter blast that threatened to flood the region. Friends living by the rising river called to ask if they could come over to stay with us. The night before I had driven by the river and the ice was moving at the same speed as my car. I’m justified in calling it, awesome.
We turned on our TV to find basketball and only basketball. It was March Madness. Our friends did brave one bridge to get to us. Fortunately only their basement flooded. But I was stunned that no station in the area even had a crawl under any basketball game warning residents of the potential danger. A historic walking bridge fell into the river, and that appeared on CNN before there was any local coverage. The media writer for the newspaper reported that the story received delayed coverage because it was a weekend with reduced staff.
I had been firmly trained in broadcasting that a radio or TV station’s prime purpose is to inform a community. We citizens own the licenses. Because of the flood, I wrote to that new President of the media company and asked how it was possible that her station had no television news of any kind. In my letter I introduced myself mentioning my background but did not speak of the article. I received a call from her thanking me for the note and suggesting that we meet.
There was nothing familiar about her, though she definitely knew my work. She said she worked in corporate headquarters. I did not mention that the paper had reported her as General Manager. I still assumed she was misquoted. She said that her company no longer had TV news because of the cost of competing with commercial stations.
She wanted me to run a new commercial venture they had just bought, an unwired statewide radio network. I had experience with such networks but I was writing plays at last. I interviewed several people at the company to ascertain what they needed. I wrote a document recommending a plan. Though I needed an income, it wasn’t right for me.
She approached me again about another position and was always complimentary about my business reputation in New York. I was a stranger in this area. No one knew me. At that time I had separated from the man I didn’t name in #55 It Takes Two. Being unknown was something I had done to myself, and I was completely unprepared for the continued consequences. So it was nice that someone knew of me.
She wanted me to lead all sales for all divisions of their diverse organization. Again I went in to meet with some of the staff. One key person told me that his wife worried that if I joined the company there wasn’t enough money for him. That comment was a scary screech. My purpose would have been to increase sales, therefore increasing income for all. I was asked how much I would want to make. With his attitude, I knew this wasn’t a good fit so I named a high but achievable number. If they agreed, fine. I continued with my writing.
She contacted me again. By then I had gone back to my home with the man I did not name; one of my more gigantically stupid moves. She came for drinks one evening and had another position she wanted me to consider. So I met the young Publisher of their magazine and the notion of leading sales for them was intriguing. There were only three of these regional Public magazines left in the country. Though he was much younger, we got along very well. It wasn’t an urgent move and I wanted my summer. So at the end of 1997 I joined the company as Sales Director of the magazine to help it grow. I had the assurance from the President that she would be there at least five years.
When I arrived I was shown to my office that was being used to store junk. I had to get help to clear it out. It was an old building that had been repurposed many times over the years so I didn’t expect luxury. But this was a strange start.
The person I was replacing was still there. I was replacing her all right, but she was not retiring as I had thought. They were astonishingly rude to both of us about my arrival. She would now be part of my staff. Want to know how awkward that was? I said nothing.
I was also entering a culture for which I was not prepared. All of my broadcast experience was in the commercial world. Create a good product and find clients to advertise. Though the politics might be corporately complicated at times, it was straightforward.
This was another solar system. Public Broadcast came out of academia: hence the moniker of educational television. But this particular corporation was a combination of both absolute commercial ventures and publicly funded divisions. They lived partially on grants both state and federal. The corporation competed in a commercial market but held on to the 40-year perception in the region, that viewers and listeners alone funded them. They still do.
The person I was replacing wanted to help acquaint me with accounts. I seemed brusk to her but I needed get to work with the staff. There was never anything comfortable about my replacing someone who was still there. I gave her the respect she deserved but I had a job to do. The President and the Publisher left it for me to handle. This was becoming a theme.
I was also coping silently with the immune dysfunction not wanting anyone to know. After ten years I learned how to manage the illness, but I was exhausted and could say nothing.
For a pretty large company, only two people came to welcome me. One I already knew from an earlier job possibility. The other was the face and heart of the company, there the first day they went on the air. Otherwise there was no orientation. I didn’t know where to find paper clips.
I met regional magazine publishers around the country and that’s where I got my education. Our revenue went up consistently.
The President told me she was bringing in someone as a consultant. I had worked with him in three different jobs in New York. Though he had no experience in television or publishing, he was to do a study about combining all sales divisions under one roof; something I knew was a disaster.
She told me that when my former colleague arrived I was not to let anyone know I knew him. Huh? This was someone I had not only worked with in three different jobs, we had over the years both dated briefly and then a few years later had an affair. I was instructed to pretend not to know him. And in nearly the same sentence she asked me to take him to dinner while he was in town.
I had not figured anything out about her. Whenever we talked I learned to say back what I thought she just might have said to me. She spoke incomplete thoughts. For a Board meeting she gave me precisely 17 seconds to speak and told me what to say. I had not revealed to anyone that she never was the General Manager of the company where I had worked, but now I was to lie about knowing someone I used to sleep with, and I said nothing.
She was determined to bring me into the company because of my experience, yet continually hid it. When he came to town, we were in the middle of budgets, the busiest possible time. The man in my life, who was betraying me, had nearly died and was in the hospital. The only seemingly sane thing in my life was hard work.
As instructed, I did take the former colleague to dinner. There wasn’t much time and I don’t remember what we talked about. There was no explanation of the staged meetings we were in or why he agreed to be there. And it was too late to get to the hospital that night.
Not long after that I got a call over a weekend to have brunch with the Publisher, without spouses. He announced that he was leaving the company and assumed that I would take his position. He had not yet told the President. He and I worked well together. In fact he had been named VP of the radio division even though he knew nothing about radio. I sent him to New York where he spent a day with a friend of mine at CBS who gave him a primer. I had earned my VP stripes years ago, but I let this pass. I wasn’t one much for titles and had never expected to be in publishing.
Now I was meeting regularly with all heads of divisions. I kept trying to convince myself that it was my imagination that the publishing division wasn’t respected. We were also the design center for the entire company. But the staff was used to being neglected. I was determined to change that.
I was struggling on yet another front. The man who had taken the job with the commercial radio network had also been named a VP and had dominion over the magazine. He lived in Virginia and was only in the office two or three days a week. He was doing everything possible to undervalue our growth. I was hired to improve publishing so none of this made sense. I learned later that his father wanted to buy the magazine.
The President was livid when she found out that the Publisher had told me first that he was leaving. I mean screaming at me in front of my staff for his telling me first. Really not prepared for that behavior. She and the CFO, for whom I had no respect, gave me two hours to decide to take the job of Publisher. The CFO had a sketchy background. And he made a practice of quizzing me about radio before he attended a meeting so he sounded as if he knew what he was talking about. Why was he making this announcement?
My appointment was broken to the staff with little explanation of my background. They had just lived through a huge design change with their young charismatic publisher and knew little about me. I was in for another rough ride.
The departing Publisher had just hired a new young editor who had not yet started but moved from New York to take the job. I thought she knew, but he announced in my presence that he was leaving and I was taking over. So that was uncomfortable. Assuming that she would be named Editor she almost moved back to New York. But she did start work, though I could not put her in charge of a budget yet. That caused friction. Even her father was openly angry with me. This was getting grimier and grimier.
I moved into the Publisher’s Spartan office which evidenced he had never planned to stay long. The dust was so thick I lifted it off the spokes of the chair in one piece like a layer of felt. He had a laptop at a bare table. There was one flimsy photo tacked to the wall. I found bits and pieces of furniture in a storage shed to create an office.
I was Sales Director, Publisher and though I was doing the job, they had not given me the title or paid me as Editor in Chief. I still spent time in my office upstairs to work with the sales staff. I saw in the budget that I was paid 20% less than my predecessor, yet doing extra jobs. That mattered little to me because a greater amount of my income was based on performance. I said nothing.
I needed someone to replace me as Sales Director. If sales weren’t maintained there would be less of a magazine. Finally one of the sales staff took on the job and I could get back to learning how to be a publisher. Half the editorial and design staff was unsure of me.
I gave our sales assistant additional responsibilities with circulation. She thrived and grew. I knew if we could increase magazine sales on newsstands, we could introduce more people to the company.
The entire staff was working so hard and doing so well I planned a day out of the office for fun. A friend who owned a grass air field had us all there for a day of games, softball and everyone got to go up in his Piper Cub, one or two at a time. The President thought I had taken them all on a big plane together risking the lives of an entire staff. It’s the way her brain worked.
In a Public Broadcasting company, telethons/begathons come up often. I annoyed that side of the company by not going in front of a camera to pitch for “donations.” It made absolutely no sense. Ours was a commercial piece of the company. Also I photograph horribly and have a lousy voice.
This was a large company and many people had been there for decades. They were so dedicated some might have worked for no pay. There was also a large contingency of long time volunteers. It was a confusing blend of commercial and non-profit.
The magazine staff volunteered to answer phones for a begathon. Happy parents called with donations for the programs they watch with their children. Then the phones went dead. Editors read books. In the boredom I swear someone threw a spitball. The phones went crazy again because there was a program on about personal finance. See, the purpose of getting donors is to get new members who hopefully will continue to give money. However the programs for the begathons is vastly different than regular programming. I heard one of the sales people uncharacteristically trying to talk someone out of a donation. We all had uncomfortable calls. It was a Suze Orman pitch made for QVC. Callers were desperate to spend their last $250 for CDs and books to get out of debt. We were all sickened by the experience. I spoke with the President who promised to pull Suze Orman programming in future fund drives. I had become the unwelcome corporate conscience.
I was researching the possibility of a kid’s version of our magazine. What a great way to reach children in a literate way. A sales person and I visited a FOX station in the region to learn about their club for kids. On our way out the Manager craftily bought a full-page ad for a program of theirs. This was common. All regional stations bought space in the magazine. I wasn’t aware of any invisible rule and when the ad came out was forced to defend myself. The copy that they ran was for children’s programming that PBS had lost to FOX. Uh oh. The President left me on a limb to defend a reasonable business transaction. But the emotional reaction around the company was a stink in my direction. One day I came in and was greeted by a screaming, gesticulating employee I did not know. She was threatening me, and I hoped that someone would come to my aid. She had been with the company for decades and called me a traitor and many other things. I was genuinely afraid but knew to let her let off steam. I feared there might be something wrong in her life to allow her to go off like that. The CFO, the one I did not trust, decided to make a thing of it and called for a union inquiry. I would not be voted most popular.
The magazine had been chosen as a test by our printing firm in Virginia to go digital. I knew little about printing. Now it was digital. When I first went back to work I hardly knew how to use the phones. Our Production Manager and I were asked to speak at a conference about the transition. I spoke about seven syllables about giving us more time for sales each month and then turned it over to her. I wasn’t foolish enough to speak to a group of publishers about digital printing.
When I returned to the hotel, there was a call from the President informing me that she was leaving the company. Actually she had never moved from New York. She had a small apartment here and was only around about three days a week. The two people who had brought me in, gone.
And mentions in the paper about the President having managed a station I worked for in New York still appeared. I knew she wondered if I would ever speak of it. I did not. But how would she know that?
She did an odd thing before she left as if everything else she did wasn’t odd. She took me to dinner. She was not a warm and fuzzy gal so this was unusual. She wore only gray IBM suits and never carried a purse, both meant to make her appear more serious. In one of our weekly meetings I started to tell her that I had left the man in my life. She stopped me by making a football time-out sign saying she couldn’t handle any personal information. Got it!
Over dinner she told me what a great job I was doing and she wished she had ten of me. She went on and on about my successes. And then she said if I ever repeated that she would deny it. With that, dinner was over.
The next morning her job review for me was on my desk saying that I was a “fish out of water.” That was accurate, but the least offensive remark. She knew at the restaurant that I would see this the next day and she’d be gone. On top of the unflattering review was a large bonus. Whiplash. I was never able to confront her. I’ve never heard from her again. And I knew she hadn’t actually written the review.
As always I had a huge capacity for long hours and hard work. I only knew how to do the best job possible. I had no capacity for knowing how to handle deception.
I had a fight on my hands with the CFO who was playing with our budget. If I spent one day out of the office I’d return to find that he had charged an expense to us.
A search was launched to replace the President. The search committee contacted me because staff members had nominated me for the position. It was lovely but I knew the miserable spot this could put me in.
I confided in the godfather of regional publishing in California. He told me if I wanted it, to go for it 100% or not at all. I should have gone to work for him.
I called the friend, the former colleague who had been brought in to write the report. He confessed that he only came to town that time to see me. Someone else was going to write the report that they wanted. I asked about the departing President’s resume conflict. It had never occurred to me to ask him before. Both he, who was in fact the General Manager in New York, and his predecessor who had hired me, had agreed that if she put that on her resume they would not lie for her, if contacted. They were never contacted.
When I went to Philadelphia to be interviewed by the search firm, which only recruits women, they kept me waiting for two hours. When I was about to leave to catch a train they called me into a conference room and paid little attention while I spoke naively about better serving our region.
I knew this could be trouble with whoever was hired. The staff meant well by wanting me in the job. I knew I could do it. But this was a no win situation.
One bright spot was my new circulation manager who was doing exceptionally well. She was happy, learning, traveling to conferences. Suddenly she changed. No matter what I suggested, she said it couldn’t be done. With the help of circulation managers around the country, now I knew what could be done. She went from excited about possibilities to completely irritable and negative.
She resigned, and it would be several months before I found out why.
There are moments in a life, and I’m not talking about a fork in the road. Life goes that way, or another. But bigger (no need for a bigger word) times, when you know that something has started and if it isn’t finished, the rest is worth about as much as these cheap jeans.
I started the essays. No, I started the list, the eight-page list, and that list became essays. I move forward with other projects, chiefly screenplays, but also know as sure as it takes oxygen to stay alive, that I must finish and go deeper. There are deeper layers. There are more stories. Stories I considered burying. Stories I considered telling only in part or stories I keep ignoring on the list. Unfortunately now I know that if I don’t finish, open another vein all over this keyboard, the rest of my days are pointless and incomplete. Turns out unfortunately, incomplete is not acceptable.
There will be more veils down, more stories to relive. More laughs at myself, more pain to re-feel. Or pain to feel at last. Then and only then, will the rest of what is left of my days be clear or worthwhile.
So I take a deep breath with more to follow.