Archive | March 2014

Days of Wine & Dine (Part 1)

pretty girl

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.

storch poster

Bobbysoxers’ delight! Larry at the Paramount.

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.

larry for sx-70

Larry Olivier for Polaroid

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.”

ariane and michael batterberry

Fun couple.

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.

nancy kwanIgnorance 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.

sabuThe 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.

snooth1Devland 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., 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!

kitchen-insiderDevs 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.

gollyYour 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.

Days of Wine & Dine (Part 2)

hammockThe 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!

tormeIt 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.

At first this was because we had lost our departmental director, and we couldn’t hire any new developers till the new director came in. Now, this took a good six months. (Seems there was some problem with the background check.) Then, when the new director finally arrived—let’s call him “Narwhal”—it turned out he didn’t want to hire any front-end people.  Narwhal just didn’t like the front-end, all that frou-frou designy stuff. Front-end people weren’t even real programmers. They did HTML and CSS and maybe jQuery, which is Javascript for Dummies. What Narwhal liked were back-end black-hole projects that involved lots of data services and searching and sifting… projects that took up thousands of programming hours and lots and lots of code review and refactoring. Projects that the readers of Wine & Dine might never be able to appreciate, but which would be good talking points for Narwhal the next time he went job-hunting.

narwhalNarwhal 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.

detective-doogie-howserMeet 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.)

brown-haired-girl“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.

quiffJeremy 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.)

Jeremy preen masterwork

travelandleisure3As 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.” 

gayinthevillageAnd 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.

Days of Wine & Dine (Part 3)

BofATower(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.

szechuangourmetWe 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.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 2.31.39 PMOur 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.

shakeshackYour 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.

That San Francisco treat! Ding-ding.

That San Francisco treat! Ding-ding.

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.

erlenmayerflaskbabyThey 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.

astound2The 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.

201402-hd-grand-solmarOne 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.

Wallace Refused to Tiptoe

Wallace Refused to Tiptoe

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.

PJ-BM884_turn_G_20130227142511The 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.

ratswimOne, 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.


I thought a nice picture of Felicia Day would cheer up this depressing section.

sxsw2012As 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.

gregoryscupSmackdown 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.

floretI 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.

Profound Musings About Chick-Fil-A

(Adapted from a Facebook comment. I have never eaten at one of these franchises, beyond testing out their minimal concession at the NYU snack shoppe.)

Chick-Fil-A must be the worst fast-food franchise name choice since Mahalia Jackson’s Dirty Rice. Unattractive, unmemorable, and a puzzle to pronounce. (Is it CHIK filla? Chick File-Uh? Chick File-Ay?)


But I have very poor judgment in fast-food matters. Back in August 1968, when still in rompers (too hot for the dog days, to be sure) I liked to flip through the classified ad pages of the WSJ and marvel at all the preposterous new chains being floated. In case you don’t remember, fast-food chains were the dot-coms of the late 60s.

The sorriest proposition I saw was something called Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips, advertised with a 6-column-inch display ad in the classifieds, showing a portrait of Arthur Treacher himself.

treacherThis was the outer limit of weirdness. Here were people proposing to flog English fish and chips to the legions of Arthur Treacher fans. How many Arthur Treacher fans were there? Twelve? A hundred?

Arthur Treacher was scarcely a household name. He was mainly recalled (dimly) as a) Jeeves or some other cinematic butler or valet from the late 1930s; b) a supporting character actor in a couple of Shirley Temple films; or, most commonly, as c) Merv Griffin’s sidekick and announcer from the mid-1960s, when Merv has his afternoon talk show from the Little Theatre in Times Square.

There were no Treacher chippies in existence yet. The first few would open in 1969. You could obtain an Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips franchise for about $10,000, which I thought was awfully steep, given the marginal appeal of the offering.

jrhotshoppesThe joke was on me, of course. Of all those fast-food start-ups in 1968, Arthur Treacher’s was far and away the most successful. It’s still around—unlike Roy Rogers, Gino’s, Junior Hot Shoppes, Burger Chef, and a hundred other chains extant in the 1960s.

I think the key point to AT’s survival is that no one else was putting forth a fried-fish chain under the name of a 1930s actor who made his mark playing Jeeves and subalterns. The idea was so far out there that it had no rivals.

And they didn’t sell hamburgers.

Which brings us back to the Chick-Fil-A people. They have a chicken-sandwich chain with an unwieldly, unspellable, essentially unpronounceable name, and nobody else wants to compete. Chick-Fil-A doesn’t have to sell its weird self to everyone; if only 15% of the population knows that Chick-Fil-A is out there, that’s quite enough.

This partly explains Chick-Fil-A’s odd sense of public relations. Most fast-food chains try to steer clear of controversy, but this one likes to stir things up. The company is openly “Christian Conservative,” and they’re not nicey-nicey and hypocritical about it. They don’t open on Sundays, because of course that’s the Lord’s Day. They lose maybe 20% of their possible revenue by being closed on a weekend, but they undoubtedly make much of it back through loyal customers who like that idea, and make a point of going to Chick-Fil-A more often the other six days of the week. (This is speculation on my part; I haven’t seen the numbers.)

And then there are the media flare-ups whenever someone in the company speaks less-than-approvingly of the Homosexual Agenda or Atheistical Humanism or whatever. Inevitably this triggers public denunciations and proposed boycotts of Chick-Fil-A. But most of the boycotters aren’t regular customers anyway. And with the free publicity, Chick-Fil-A starts getting customers it never had before. Most are curiosity-seekers, some are making a political statement, but some are bound to convert into regular customers. Even if that’s only 5%, it’s 5% they didn’t have before, and Chick-Fil-A brought them in without spending a dime on advertising or new signage. All they had to do was keep being mildly eccentric.