Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Day Minus-76 of Double-Barrel Unemployment

[Check out the intro, if you haven't already:]

September 16, 2008

I'm told one should start at the beginning, but then I'm told lots of things. The beginning is interesting only to those who were there, so here's the 6th-grade book report version: Once Upon A Time, The End. No, Billy -- F. Go stand out in the hall; I'm calling your parents.

Okay - real quick-like... The awesome little software company for whom I had lovingly processed orders and invoices and cash since mid-2005 had used up the patience of its board and investors by the end of 2007. You can't be a "start-up" and be nine years old, apparently. In December, my company merged with another unprofitable little firm and we took on our fourth CEO in three years. So, 2008 was a tumultuous year at Vortex of Doom Communications (not its real name).

January: New CEO acts as if he's managing an elite platoon of Navy SEALs. Our jeans-wearing, multinational company of engineers is not impressed. It's funny and sort of sad to watch.

February: I smell doom. I ask my boss if she smells it, too. Not only does she smell it, too, but she tells me more than someone in my position usually gets to know about the nature and timing of the doom. I update my résumé and stop spending on all non-essentials. Patron Silver and fine rum survive the budget cuts.

March: I don't remember. It was madness, or something. Oh - I REMEMBER! I wrap up about seven months of working harder than I ever had. We all did. Killed ourselves, really - just to try to meet a bunch of nearly impossible targets, so that we could collect little bits of bonus cheese. I cut my domestic spending further. The rum and tequila are safe, for now.

April: The rumors start to fly about a big round of impending layoffs. Rumors like that, in my experience, tend to be true. Boss Lady says don't worry - this time around. They're trimming and slimming to make the company more appealing to a buyer. Ugh. I know this road. I'm pretty sure I've stopped to barf on the side of this road. It's not a fun road. Blind curves and giant holes and bitey little creatures, the whole way. Patron and rum are on sale, so the budget is held steady.

May: Boss Lady and several of us minion-level types work even harder than before and become slightly bitter about it, as we know all we're doing is getting things in order for some acquiring company who will not keep as around. But we have nothing against our customers and it's mostly for their benefit, so we slog onward. At the end of the month, the layoffs - about one-third of our small company - are announced. Some are gone that day; some get "transition periods." Some of us wish we could have been included in this round. Home budget is further tightened. Rum and Patron survive. Who needs food?

June: Farewell lunches and happy hours galore. I try to keep my head down and feign a positive attitude, but it's difficult when you know your reward for helping to salvage as many millions of some rich people's dollars as possible will be a pink slip. At home, we stop using hot water, the TV and soap. Rum and Patron budget is increased by 25 percent.

July: Boss Lady and I are aware of negotiations with at least one potential buyer. Boss Lady is looking for other employment NOW, and I begin a search of my own. All the stragglers from the May layoff are now gone. We move into a much larger and more expensive space - one that was selected and committed to long before the decision to cut and sell out. Okay - THAT'S pretty funny, at least to the few of us who know what's coming. More personal budget cuts: razor blades, light bulbs and contact lens solution. Limes become "dinner."

August: "Sputter, sputter" goes the Vortex of Doom. Even Boss Lady is having trouble faking it. She's fallen out of the loop and knows what that means. She takes her vacation. I'm saving my leave - I figure it's pretty much my severance, based on what I've heard about the VoD's suitor. She returns at the end of the month with a verbal job offer. Meanwhile, my wife [Maris]'s job lurches into vortex mode. We stop using cold water, now, start car-pooling and learn how to cook squirrel with a magnifying glass. We discuss cutting the rum/Patron budget. As a compromise, rum is cut and Patron is increased slightly.

September: "Creak, groan" says the VoD. How lame is it that the brightest spot for me in this slow death actually belongs to someone else? Pretty lame, but so what? It gave me great pleasure to see Boss Lady hold these millionaires and their transaction hostage. She had a formal offer in hand when, two days before the sale was to be finalized, the big bosses finally brought her back into the loop to let her know they'd need her to stick around for a few months of "transition." I have no idea what they had to pay her for those 60 additional days, but it was enough to infuriate the board, so bully for her. But again, that's really her victory, not mine.

So. September 16, 2008 - Day Minus-76: Most of the company is notified that their services will not be required as of today. Some "lucky" few will be retained by the new owners. The finance and accounting group, which includes me and my strange hybrid job, will be kept around for 30 to 90 days. Boss Lady will be gone in 60. I have 75. The CEO of the acquiring company rides in on his silver steed in the afternoon, via conference call. We had two offices; he'll be here tomorrow. Super. I can't wait to meet him. I have a hard time mustering any real indignation, as my boss and our very cool finance guy have somehow managed to get me a decent severance package and even a small "stick around" bonus. It's still a brutal and ultimately depressing day. A lot of us had really believed at one point that our little company would make it.

September 17, 2008 - Day Minus-75: Okay, there's a little indignation to be mustered. Silver Steed Guy swoops into our decimated office and begins insulting us right and left. [This is the easiest part to write, because I don't even have to make anything up. What follows is absolutely true.] First, he belittles the guy who leased this "huge, overpriced waste of office space," when we all know that he leased precisely what the big bosses had instructed him to lease. Classy, no?

Next, Silver Steed Guy spends about six minutes at the beginning of our "all (remaining) hands" meeting, telling us to our faces how grossly his company overpaid for this organization we had devoted anywhere from three to nine years building. Even the least business-savvy among us wondered why he would pay too much for something so allegedly worthless. His backtrack didn't help much. He went on to grudgingly acknowledge that together we would "make it worth it." Sir, if your assessment is that we'll eventually be worth it, than you didn't exactly overpay, did you?

Finally, he tried the old song and dance about how difficult it is to acquire companies (which is all he does), find redundancies and terminate people's jobs. It was even more ridiculous than we'd expected. He stood in front of this room full of intelligent, educated adults and explained to us that his nine-year old son had "cried himself to sleep last night, knowing that tomorrow Daddy was going to have to fire a bunch of nice people." Really, dude? Your fourth-grader? Really? Do us a favor and just go with the cold, hard facts approach. It's harsh, but it's better than making us listen to such bullshit.

Still, I had to play nice. This was the best severance package I had ever encountered, and I had heard about this "Great Recession," and the prospect of double-digit unemployment levels. So I put on my best poker face, went home and toasted with [Maris] to the slow, painful death of this man. We decided that the bit about the crying son was in a dead heat for Best CEO Line We Have Ever Heard. The other one came from the Vortex of Doom's CEO in the wake of the big May layoff, when he told 120 "survivors" that he couldn't make us happy. "If you want happy, get a dog," he said. There was talk of getting t-shirts made with this as our new slogan.

[Maris] and I looked over the budget and decided that, at least temporarily, electricity and soap would be added back in. There was also a modest increase in the Patron allocation.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Customer Disservice Fantasy Call #1

Me: Banal Lie Custom Truck Slurpees, thank you for gloaming, this is [inaudible], may I have your princess' cheese?

Caller: What did you say?

Me: [clearing throat] Sorry - Bummer-Life-customer-service-thank-you-for-holding-this-is-Flarbel-may-I-have-your-policy-number-please?

Caller: Uh, yeah. It's 18Q123666BL1$666-B.

Me: Oooohh...

Caller: Huh?

Me: Nothing. And this policy was on the life of John Rambo IV?

Caller: That's me. I'm still alive.

Me: [disinterestedly] Of course you are, sir. Can you confirm the last four digits of your social?

Caller: 4236.

Me: 4236?

Caller: Yes. What?

Me: The famous and elusive ex-B&O GP-30 with the old "sunburst" paint scheme just visible through the cheap 80s paint on the nose?


Me: Your date of birth, sir?

Caller: 2/2/02.

Me: Thank you. And your street address?

Caller: 99B Road Street, Townburgville, St. John, USVI 0082--

Me: [interrupting] And your favorite color, sir?

Caller: Is this all really necessary? I just need a change of address form.

Me: Security procedures are in place for your protection, sir. Now, what is your favorite color?

Caller: Blue.

Me: Blue?

Caller: Umm... Yes? Blue. Definitely blue. You might still have "azure," though.

Me: I'm sorry, sir. Neither of those is even close. Please be advised that our lines are recorded for security, privacy and blackmail purposes, as well as--

Caller: OKAY, OKAY -- MAUVE, you ass!! My favorite color is mauve. Are you happy?

Me: Quite. And you?

Caller: Yeah. Not bad, actually. Thanks.


Caller: So, about that change of address form...

Me: Yeah, our computers are down. Can you call back later?

Caller: WHAT??

Me: My pleasure, sir. Thanks for brawling canker lite.

Caller: WHAT??


Monday, May 3, 2010

Deep Purple Country Boy

The "My First Concert" story. We've probably all heard them, and most of us have one of our own. Led Zeppelin. Ted Nugent. Three Dog Night. The Stones. KISS. It's usually a story that features some really cool band, from the Old Days, when rock music was real rock music and rock bands were real rock bands. Or, it could go way back. The Four Tops. The Temptations. Elvis. Back when rock music was a brand-new threat to the American way of life. Some first concerts don't quite have that glamor or romance. The Smothers Brothers. The Carpenters. Pat Boone.

I like to think that the first concert I ever witnessed was a straight-ahead rock n' roll show with Ian Hunter and Styx, in 1979. It was at the Capital Centre, and my mother took me (Hey – I was twelve). That was a very cool show, but that was not my first concert.

No, my first concert was a couple of years earlier. John Denver. Yes, John Denver, with the Starland Vocal Band opening, in a special performance "in the round." My father took me to this one, also at the Cap Centre. No, not quite as cool as seeing KISS or Zeppelin or Jefferson Airplane, but I can't help that now. It's just as well, though. A serious rock concert would have been wasted on me at that age. I actually rather liked John Denver's music, at the time. And today, it's hard for me to find fault with it. It's not at all what I prefer to listen to, given the choice, but I recognize its quality. It is simple and earnest, melodic and sing-able, and the guy had his heart and his priorities in the right place. When I was little I just thought it was neat, so there I was – at a sold-out, purple smoke-filled arena, waiting for John Denver.

This was exciting stuff, for a little kid. If nothing else, I certainly had never seen 16,000 people in one place before. I can't say I'd ever seen that bluish smoke before, either. Once I learned that "in the round" meant that the stage was in the center of the arena, surrounded by the audience, I immediately began obsessing over where the performers would come from and how they'd get to and from the stage. I supposed that maybe there was a tunnel beneath the arena floor, and a trap door right under the stage. My father patiently explained that the lights would be turned off and the performers would probably be led by flashlight-equipped stagehands up one of the aisles to the stage.

So, my father's assessment of how John Denver and his band would reach the stage satisfied me, although I was still a little concerned, since those aisles seemed awfully full of people milling about. Sure enough, out went the lights. I was shocked at how loud the crowd's response to darkness was. I strained my eyes, trying to discern which aisle would carry the musicians. I saw several possible flashlights, but none seemed to be getting any closer to the center of the room. This really bugged me. The stage just lit up, with the band already in position. I was even more surprised at how loud the music was. I'm sure they were nowhere near KISS level, but I found my ears rattling and distorting the sounds of the Starland Vocal Band. I couldn't hear words at all, just my own eardrums, making a high-pitched screeching wail in my head. Halfway through the misery of the first song, I gave up and covered my ears with my hands. Much better. It sounded like music now, and I think I even started to make out some individual words here and there. I only knew one song, their top-40 hit, "Afternoon Delight," and I recall waiting with pointed disinterest through the rest of their set until they played it. I had no idea at the time that this song was about having a "nooner" – I just liked the rocket sound that followed each refrain of "skyyyrockets in flight!" I was so easily amused sometimes. This made me very susceptible to songs with good "hooks."

Later, when darkness again descended on the Capital Centre at the end of intermission, I was a little less concerned with the decibel level. I had overheard the guys in front of us, talking about the revolving center stage John Denver would be using. Now THAT would be cool! Spinning the man round and round, so that he wouldn't face only one section of the audience. When Denver finally took the stage, I was surprised to find that I could see him well enough to know that he looked just like he had on TV. I was also a little surprised at how clearly I could hear every word, and each note, and at how funny his little anecdotes were. Suddenly, I was the biggest 11-year-old John Denver fan on Earth, hanging on his every sound. I was hungry, though, and found myself distracted by the smell of popcorn and hot pretzels, wafting in from the concourse.
After a rousing rendition of "Grandma's Feather Bed" and his description of his Aunt Lu, which I thought had to be just about the most side-splittingly hilarious thing I'd ever heard, Johnny-D introduced his special guest musician. "Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome the best Goddamn guitarist on Earth. You might be familiar with his kick-ass, balls-to-the-wall axe-work with Deep Purple and Blackmore's Night – let's hear it for Ritchie Blackmore!!" What's this? I hadn't a clue who Richie Blackmore was, but he must have been SOMEbody, because the place went bananas. I asked my father who he was, but this time there was just a shrug, in place of the patient explanation. The concert suddenly took on a much darker, heavier feel. The previously brightly-lit stage was now bathed primarily in purple and green light, and Denver's shiny wood-tone 12-string was exchanged for a black one, with a lit cigarette held in the strings near the top of the neck. As I recall, he also doffed his crisp white collared shirt, revealing a sleeveless black t-shirt with "Hell's Angels," a skull and crossbones and a Confederate flag on the back. I also noticed that his trademark round-lensed glasses had been replaced with black sunglasses. From the darkness, a couple of six-packs of red-white-and-blue cans were placed on the edge of the stage, prodding the audience to an even more fervent ovation. I giggled a little, for no particular reason, and felt another hunger pang rumble through my gut. I was a little dizzy.

The rest of that show was the wildest, loudest thing I'd ever witnessed, or would ever witness, at least until I eventually got to see KISS, two decades later. The two men grabbed two beers each, held them high and poured most of the contents into their mouths and, in a spectacular gold splash, crushed two of the cans together in a huge "high-five." I remember how thirsty that made me. I was just dying for a Coke. I didn't recognize any other songs, although I thought I could just make out my favorite, "The Eagle and the Hawk," through the thunderous distortion, rendered only as a screaming solo on Blackmore's electric guitar. "That one's a bitch to sing," Denver explained afterward, before pounding another beer. "I hate singin' that high shit." More fevered howls of approval from the crowd. I was stunned, but wildly amused. This was clearly NOT the John Denver I'd just seen on The Muppet Show, but I loved every minute of it.

He was cursing, smoking, swilling Budweiser, belching, spitting on the stage, saying nasty stuff I wouldn't understand until years later and loudly butchering his own songs, assisted vigorously in all of the above by this dark, swaggering rock star. The crowd near the stage was going crazy. I saw keys, underwear and odd little cigarettes thrown at the men's feet – they only picked up the little cigarettes. There were fistfights and no small amount of debris being thrown around. There were women lifting their shirts, and occasionally one of them would leap onto the stage and fling herself at Blackmore or Denver, only to immediately be hauled off, under one of the huge arms of the half-dozen massive men in yellow t-shirts with "EVENT SECURITY" stenciled front and back. I found these giants utterly hilarious. All that cheering was making my mouth feel strangely dry. I was really dizzy, too.

Everyone stood through most of the set, so I stood on my seat, bracing myself by keeping a hand on my father's shoulder. During a momentary bit of brighter lighting I looked across the arena from my high perch and noticed that the blue cloud was much thicker than it had been earlier. They had just finished a nearly unrecognizable rendition of "Rocky Mountain High," which sounded more like a sort of heavy metal reggae than its original pop-country. The only way I had of knowing what song had just been played was Denver's slurred, profanity-laced diatribe that followed. "That Goddamn song was a big mother- -- goddamn hit for me. You wanna know why? Hey, stage-roadie-guy – gimme another goddamn beer. This one's warm. You wanna know why that sonofabitch was so huge? It's because of you guys, the 'merican people, the f-f-f-fans – you wanna tell the govement to shove it – if you wanna smoke some shit, you're gonna smoke some shit, and they can jus—" He fell over, face-down, on his beer-soaked guitar. The crowd just about came unglued. They just stood in place – well, some of the people nearest the stage jumped up and down in place, and cheered and screamed and whistled and held up cigarette lighters while stagehands tended to their fallen hero. By now my head felt as though it was floating high above the crowd and I was totally starving.

After at least fifteen minutes of this ovation, ten of which came after the stage had been cleared, the green and purple spotlights returned and Denver – again in a clean white shirt – reclaimed his wobbly spot at center stage. He was joined there by Blackmore and the entire Starland Vocal Band, and they all proceeded to play a thrashing, violently fast version of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," complete with short but unthinkably hard guitar and drum solos. I was almost as dizzy as I was hungry, but it was the most amazingly cool thing I'd ever heard and I hated to see it end.

NOTE: The preceding is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations and events portrayed in this account are either products of the author's imagination, or are used fictitiously. Don't sue me!