Friday, March 18, 2016

Dog Starts Fire, Kills Cats, and Then Angel Appears

This was an unforgettable highlight of my short career as a newspaper reporter. It was published in the April 5, 2000 issue of The Mechanicsville Local. Some irrelevant details have been omitted.

Dog Starts Fire, Kills Cats, and Then Angel Appears

After Cindy Pritts' three cats were killed in a house fire caused by her dog Dumpster, the smoky image of an angel appeared on the wall above the sofa where two of the cats died.

Her daughter, Carrie, a sophomore at Lee-Davis, spotted the angel first when a painting was removed from the wall and knew instantly it was the angel that had ferried the cats to heaven, she said.

The family examined the back of the picture and could find nothing that could have formed the image on the wall. Visitors and friends, including the family's pastor, all marveled at the likeness. The family has taken comfort from the sign after the devastation that happened March 22.

"It made us feel reassured," Mrs. Pritts said. She had left the house to pick her daughter up at choir practice. Both her husband and son were at work. To prevent Dumpster from getting into the trash while she was gone, she put the plastic trash can on top of the stove.

Firemen told her their best guess was the dog hit one of the burner knobs when he was jumping on the stove, trying to get at the trash. The burner melted the trash can and fire rapidly spread through the kitchen and adjacent family room.

Mrs. Pritts had left at 8:35 pm and Mr. Pritts came home from a meeting at 9:10. The doorknob was hot to his touch. When he opened the door, the smoke and a melted umbrella stand blocking the door prevented him from going inside. The kitchen and family room were destroyed and smoke damaged most of their belongings in other rooms.

Two of the cats never left the sofa under the picture where the angel image appeared. Fireman found them there, as if they were asleep. The third cat died after a fireman brought it out of the house. Mrs. Pritts said the fireman carrying the cat out was in tears.

Dumpster, the dog, managed to get to a doorway at the opposite end of the house and survive. Pritts thinks long-standing animosity between the dog and cats kept the cats from also moving to a less smoky part of the house.

It will take three months for their insurance company to rebuild the house. "I want to be mad at Dumpster, but he didn't know what he was doing," Mrs. Pritts said.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Plain Christmas Doll

When I was a child, we lived with my Nana because that’s how Italian people do. In order to live above your means before credit cards, extended families would pile in together and share expenses. Over time, various branches of my family got involved with possibly Mafia-related activities, like a taxi business or a storm door business, although none of them actually drove taxis or sold storm doors. It was very hush-hush what they did. But they no longer needed to live with the family. They had their own big houses with sofas and lamps permanently kept in their showroom plastic covers.

Visiting my cousins was like stepping into a fairy world of figurines, and elaborate children’s rooms with canopied beds. They had ribbons in their hair and buckles on their shoes and were dressed like little brides in their confirmation photos, even the boys. My father declined to work for the “taxi business” because occasionally someone ended up dead, so we stayed in the family house.

We shared a single bedroom with bunks and roll-out beds, while Nana had the upstairs rooms. Even though her hairdressing job didn’t seem even vaguely Mafia-related, she had the fancy furniture, the figurines and art deco lamps. Children weren’t allowed upstairs when she wasn’t home, but I would sneak up anyway because she had something even more amazing than a replica of the Pieta with a lamp coming out of Saint Mary’s back. She had little candy dishes perpetually filled with M&Ms. This was luxury beyond my imagination.

I was careful to take only one or two every time I went on a reconnaissance mission so she would not know I had been there, and this is how – while searching for the actual whole bag of M&Ms – I found the Revlon dolls.

Revlon dolls were tall with rigid plastic bodies and soft, beautifully made up faces, glass eyes fringed with thick lashes. They had grown woman figures, elaborate hair-dos, earrings, pearl necklaces, shoes and nylon stockings. They were super-sized Barbies before the Coming of Barbie. All the dolls I found had elaborate costumes – velvet dresses with feathered matching hats, brocade ball gowns with tiaras – except one. The plain hatless Revlon doll wore a simple, gauzy pink dress and white sandals.

On Christmas morning, when I opened my gift from Nana, it was the plain doll. The fancy dolls had gone to my rich cousins. Before Nana died –she lived to 96, despite chain smoking Kent cigarettes all her life  – I asked her, as one adult to another, why she had given me – the grandchild who lived with her – the plain doll.

“You weren’t used to nice things,” she said, without hesitation. “Your cousins were. I had to do better for them.” My appalled reaction didn’t faze her in the least. “When my own kids were little, sometimes I gave them nothing for Christmas so I could give my boss’ children nice gifts.” It made perfect sense to her.

I still have that sad plain Revlon doll. Occasionally I check eBay to see what I could get if I sold it, but I probably never will because it is my spirit of Christmas, it is the lesson I have never forgotten.

Don’t be like Nana.
And eat all the M&Ms every chance you get.

Good Enough

Douglas Edwards, one of the original employees of Google, wrote about the Google Philosophy in his memoir, “I’m Feeling Lucky.”

“Good enough is good enough was the standard for engineering. Those five words encapsulate a philosophy for solving problems, cutting through complexity, and embracing failure.

“If you have a [to-do] list that’s longer than you can deal with, you have to prioritize. If you give a project a quick improvement that gets you 80 percent of the way to solving the problem, you haven’t solved it, but it drops below the line, versus a project you haven’t worked on at all. Once a problem falls below the line, you should work on something else.

“At some point, all the problems that are really important are solved, and that is the definition of success.”

When I first read that, I was thrilled because that’s always been the secret of my efficiency, how I get so much done in so little time. But when I rhapsodize about my “good enough is good enough” philosophy at job interviews, I can see potential employers literally pull away, repulsed! It’s never what they want to hear. They want to hear the lie, that you are somehow so effective, you can juggle a hundred assignments and bring them all in under budget and on deadline with 100 percent perfection. Don’t they know that Google built a multi-billion dollar empire on “good enough is good enough”?

So they hire the one who tells them what they want to hear, and at every staff meeting from then on, what they hear is the project is progressing, it’s in the works, it’s very close to being done, it’s coming together, it’s moving forward. The fruit is low-hanging. And yet it never gets finished. At the next staff meeting, it’s the same status report. I’ve been in meetings where projects have been in limbo for years. Eventually, the project is just forgotten, replaced by more projects that never get finished.

Sadly, although I’m a “get it done” person, I’m married to a “it’s not worth doing unless it’s done right” person who can complicate and delay even the simplest job by adding what to me are many unnecessary steps. For example, I want the two broken rails on the deck fixed, and he bought enough lumber to replace all the rails. That was three years ago. Let’s stop a moment and reflect on that. Three. Years. Ago.

“Can’t you just find the time to replace the two rails that are broken and do the rest later?” I beg. All I want for Christmas, Valentine’s Day, my birthday, our anniversary every year is to have those two rails fixed. But…no.

“It won’t look right with two new ones and the rest of them old. I want to do it right, replace all of them all at once. Once I get the tools out, I might as well do them all.” But there’s never time in his schedule for a job of that magnitude. That would take all day, while replacing two rails would take an hour or two.

It’s impossible for him to do a halfway job, even though what I want – the broken rails replaced – would be good enough for me. Good enough is good enough. Don’t believe me? Google it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

My Life in Cars

I bought my second and probably last new car in 2002. The only other one before had been a Chevette that cost $5,200 new and I drove that until I made a left turn into the grocery store with my right turn signal on and a woman passing me on the left T-boned me and totaled the car. It was long paid for, but I mourned that car like a dead child, visiting it in the junkyard, staring at it through the fence, and calling out my apologies.

I was not quite as sad when I ran a red light in a dream state and was T-boned by a work van and totaled the next car, a used 1984 Toyota Corolla. It was also paid for, but I had recently sunk thousands of dollars, paid with credit cards, into something called engine gaskets (I have no idea about motors) to keep it alive and the 10-year-old car was near death still. I was without a husband at the time so I had my first and only experience as a clueless woman buying a car and did pretty good, finding a Mercury Tracer for $3,500, which I also bought with a credit card. I drove that for another eight years, even after blowing out the engine and having to put another one in for $3,000. We got two more years out of it before we let it go, without much regret. The red paint job was always fading, but it was the only Just Married car I ever rode in, adorned in streamers on a warm night in July 2001, everyone on the highway honking their best wishes.

Next came the new 2002 Mazda Protégé. I was a few months into a new job that paid an amazing $10,000 a year more than the job I had been fired from and since we had managed okay on my old salary, that extra $10,000 was like mad money. The car was financed for just four years at zero percent interest, so by 2006, I was driving a paid for car and by spring 2015, it was still running, still paid for, and had only 97,000 miles on it since I rode the bus to work and seldom went out of town.

In those twelve and half years, even though my salary went up another $20,000 and my husband’s almost doubled as well, we degenerated into just barely getting by. We bought a house. He bought a cargo van. A roof had to be fixed, a fence repaired, a rotting deck rebuilt. My husband became a walking kidney stone factory and there was mounting medical expenses. I was helping my son out. I accepted that my 2002 car was my last car. I had hopes to retire at least by age 67 when my husband’s van was paid off, and I wasn’t going to drive anymore. I was going to live like a hermit. With Internet, cable TV, and Amazon, who needs to ever leave the house?

That fantasy ended when a 31-year-old manboy in a Chevy Tahoe decided to rear-end my little car while I was stopped at a light. The light had turned green, but the first car in a line of four had not moved because people were still in the crosswalk. Cars one through four were patiently waiting. Car five, the Tahoe, coming up behind me, was looking at the greenlight, not the stopped traffic  and gave me a very solid hit. The Protégé was mortally wounded, even though from the front, you could not tell and it still drove. The back was just gone.

After 13 years, you would think I would have mourned that car more, but I had buried three beloved cats in those years and knew real heartache should be saved for the living, not the inanimate. Although I often attribute feelings to inanimate objects (i.e., are my Christmas ornaments bored and unhappy, sitting in a box in the closet most of the year? Will this blouse be sad if I donate it to Goodwill?), strangely, I felt nothing much this time except the sheer frustration of having to face a car payment again until I am flipping 70 years old! It was all about the bottom line this time, not whether the car was depressed about being towed to a salvage yard. I had four tires on it that weren’t even a year old and my husband and mechanic had conspired to force me to do “scheduled maintenance” on it with a new timing belt and water pump just months before. (My philosophy is if it’s not broke, don’t replace it.) All that cost $1,800, of which $1,400 was still on the credit card.

I have had used cars in the past, a 1967 Pontiac that drove like an aircraft carrier, a Ford Pinto with a gas tank that could turn it into a ball of fire at any moment, the rickety aforementioned Corolla, and the rickety but running Mercury Tracer. A new car was out of the question, and my husband was against anything older than 2010 or with more than 50,000 miles on it because…who knows why. Man brain. I pay the bills and he doesn’t and he has always had a very casual attitude about what we cannot afford. If you can get it, then you can afford it, is his philosophy. Let the woman figure out how to pay for it. This time I would not have the economic luxury of finding a little piece of crap car I could buy with a credit card advance check.

Back in 2002, at first sight, I had not really liked the Protégé because it was white, but I came to love that color. I’m visible at night! No one will hit me. (Apparently that doesn't apply to Chevy Tahoes and broad daylight.) It was my husband's first experience buying a new car and he did not know how to play the game (and still doesn't.) We were rushed by salesmen when we went looking and agreed to too many extras and add-ons, but in the end, I made a good deal. It was a simple car. The radio worked. The CD player worked most of the time. The air conditioner developed an annoying rattle that made the car sound like a bicycle with baseball cards in the spokes. A video of that noise became my second most viewed video on my YouTube account. But it was the little Mazda hatchback from the zoom-zoom commercials and looked quite spiffy. (Mazda only stuck with the design for two years, then changed to a more turtle shell-shaped design.)

I am not happy that we were rushed into buying a car again because my husband would not get out of the chair and leave the showroom no matter how many times I said I was not ready to buy and wanted to keep looking. The price went down $1,500 the minute I stood up, and that made my husband’s butt stay stuck to the seat even harder. I don’t like that they just glanced at my letter of credit from the credit union and financed it with an evil bank that advertises on TV all the time. I don’t like the slate gray color. I don’t like all the knobs and buttons and computer-y things. I don’t like the Bluetooth the salesman and my husband set up so the car takes over my phone whenever I am near it. I don’t like the gearshift or the mysterious way you can easily shift into what-the-heck-is-M and the car suddenly feels like it is driving on boulders. I don’t even like the way the dashboard actually displays “Hello. Zoom-Zoom” when I get in.

And I really don’t like the prospect of car payments. Or the fact that keys for newer cars, even this 2011 Mazda, cost $100 and you have to go to back alley locksmiths who work in secret like abortionists of yore, grinding out keys that the dealership would not approve of because they want you to buy their $450 key insurance and be your sole source. And don’t even try to find a keyless remote that will work on your car for under $300! Are you kidding me? The era of the spare key, the key you give to mechanics or valets, is over. I need insurance for my frigging keys now.

Maybe it will grow on me. I wonder about its past life, its previous lovers. The Carfax says it was a "corporate car" that started life in San Antonio, Texas, and then mysteriously shows up in Arlington, Virginia before coming to rest at a dealership down the highway in Richmond. How did all that happen? And where do we go now?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tube, the Short-Lived Cable Guide

In July 1981, I had lunch with Byron who published a local cable television guide because I had a proposition for him. I asked for $300 a week to provide editorial content for his listings grid. He would hire me full-time in February 1982 and fire me that May when his magazine went under, but until then, I submitted articles. He published them all, and paid me very slowly. I should have taken that as a danger sign, to just keep my day job and do this writing on the side, but I wanted to leave my administration job at the Associated Press. It was a dead end.

At the end of the year, I met with the Tube staff in Chesterfield County, a 21-mile commute from my condo in Highland Springs, and Byron said I could start full time there in mid-February. I drove home feeling an elation like never before. I put in my notice.

The phone rang all day with women applying for my job. My boss, probably the best one I ever had, Bob Gallimore, hired Carol, a cheerful young blonde, to replace me, the daughter of a journalist, and the wife of a city planner. She had a master’s degree in geography. I spent the first week of February training her. By the second week, she had mastered the job, so Gallimore let me quit a day early after a cake and champagne party. It was very awkward. Gallimore gave me a desk nameplate, which I never used. I never had a job where I could have my name on the front of a desk, and my name wouldn’t always be Mariane Watkins.

I wanted things done right at Tube, like I had learned working at the newspaper, but by the second week, the art department – which was two people, Tom and Ellen – told me to butt out. They were also working on MaxPak, discount coupon books, another project owned by Byron, and it got priority since it brought in more money. My days off were Friday and Saturday since Sunday was production day.

I went to Kings Dominion with the paste-up staff for a press tour of a new roller coaster, rode it five times and ate free steaks, but the fun day out didn’t bond me with Tom and Ellen and the battles over designing Tube continued. We took a brief time out from fighting when Tom's mother died on a production Sunday and he got the news.

In April, I drove to Virginia Beach for a cablevision meeting on local origination broadcasting and to hear John Coleman speak, the former "Good Morning America" weatherman who started the Weather Channel. Back at the office, the staff actually gave me flowers for my birthday and Byron presented me with a $1,000 Selectric typewriter, since I had been using my own little electric typewriter.

I went to a luncheon and press preview of a magic show at Busch Gardens in April. I was courted by the park officials with drinks, cheese and crackers and met Mark Wilson, a magician I had watched and loved on TV as a child. Although the magician who actually did the show was not Mark Wilson, Mark Wilson had trained him, and Wilson himself came out for a couple of tricks at the end and tossed me his magic rope when he was done. I was so thrilled!

But Tube was losing money and Byron wanted me to cut back on the amount of print I set in type, since back then you had to use an outside typesetter who charged by the inch. 

I was going to evening meetings of the Henrico County cable TV committee, being a reporter with the other reporters. But then Byron cut back the number of pages in Tube and dropped the syndicated material, the crossword puzzle, soap opera news, horoscope, and sports schedule, all the things people actually liked about the magazine. A story I did about illegal satellite dishes got a satellite dish salesman mad, and that got Byron mad at me. Byron laid off the part-time paste-up assistant and the ad salesman quit, leaving just Byron to sell ads.

I was fired on May 18, my husband's birthday. It was a great job, except for the people, and lasted three months. On my last paste-up Sunday, the TV listings never came. I waited five hours at the post office before I gave up. Monday, I was still covering stories, watching Congressman Tom Bliley pull the switch to put C-Span on the air, and meeting with Continental Cable officials about story ideas. The upcoming issue would have been my best work yet; a whole page of letters to the editor had come in, I had stories about a puppet show coming to town and a local access exercise show. But when I came to work Thursday, Ellen in paste-up said Byron was cutting the magazine back eight pages so all my stuff was out. Don't bother to send it to the typesetter.

I drove out to the airport to pick up the TV listings, which had been flown in special delivery. Things were tense when I got back to the office. Finally Byron called me in and said his wife, the company accountant who had been out on maternity leave, finally got the account books updated and they had lost a lot of money. If Continental Cable didn’t buy Tube from him the next day, I should be prepared to pack up my desk.

I came to work the next day but did nothing, just waited. Byron came back at 5 p.m. after everyone else had left and went into his office without speaking to me and called his lawyer. I started clearing out my desk. Byron finally came out and said Continental did not want to buy the magazine and he was losing too much money on it. He stood over me while I finished packing to make sure I didn’t take anything that wasn’t mine. The Times-Dispatch and News Leader were thrilled to get the rights to our TV listings grid since it was better than the one they were using. They bought it immediately. I tried to pitch them on the idea of taking me, too, to do the same kind of cable television coverage I had been doing for Tube, but they said they had their own staff people for that.


I learned later Byron never really made any money on Tube and barely any on MaxPak because the initial start-up money for the first year was an investment from his father-in-law. When he ran through that, the game was over. He never knew when to put the brakes on. He should have kept the syndicated material and never hired me full time. He wasted money printing a disposable weekly TV listings guide on high quality glossy paper, and not just the cover, all the inside pages, too. It was so frustrating that people who did not know how to manage money or run a paper would get these opportunities. Someone else would take the MaxPak idea, call it ValPack, and it would live forever.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

How to Get Raped and Murdered

A boy I once liked in high school told me how he lost his virginity. It was a cold winter night and he was in a line waiting on a girl he claimed was providing the service in the back seat of a car. He described how long and cold the wait was, how many were in line, and how “messy” it was when he finally got his turn.

At the time I thought this girl must have been a local slut or prostitute, but there was no money involved. Thinking about it now, I wonder if she was just so drunk she didn’t know what was happening.

When I was 12 or 13, somehow I found myself talking to a strange man on the phone. I don’t remember anymore how it started, or how many times he called. Maybe it was just once. I don’t remember anymore what we talked about, but whatever it was, it was so intriguing to me, I agreed to meet him. I had no clue from his voice about his age or his race, but he must have been extremely charming and persuasive on the phone. He must have been very flattering. I must have desperately wanted a Prince Charming to just magically appear, and here he was!

I rode my bike two miles to the fountain at the center of the East Carolina College (now University) campus where we agreed to meet at the appointed time, and I spotted him as soon as I got there. I just knew. Everyone else milling around the fountain was obviously a college student at a predominantly white school. They were going to class, or talking to friends, or reading. But this one man was obviously older than a college student. He was a very dark-skinned black, and oddly overdressed, in a fancy suit with a vest and a fedora hat. He wasn’t just passing through, or talking to anyone, or reading. He was scanning the crowd, looking at everyone. He was looking for me. 

He didn’t see me. Maybe he wasn’t expecting a 13-year-old girl on a bicycle. Or maybe he just hadn’t seen me yet, but I immediately took off back for home. What in the world was I thinking? What did I think I was going to find? What were his plans if I had foolishly walked up to him and said, “it’s me.” Then what? How did this even happen? But it did. I had willingly gone to meet a stranger without knowing why. I can only suppose I was hoping to find some kind of magical connection with another person because things had gone so well on the phone. The calls didn't resume after that. 

Then there was this time at the local teen dance club when I, age 14, and two other girls accepted a ride to the local hang-out, a Hardee’s, from three popular upperclassmen boys. This was back when you ate in the car, so kids just congregated in the parking lot. We piled into the backseat, thinking being seen with these guys would elevate our own popularity. But instead of Hardee’s, the car headed out to the edge of town. 

I am not a party girl. I don’t drink because I have never wanted to be out of control. I am a control freak girl, so I figured out pretty quickly we were not going to Hardee’s. At the last stoplight at the edge of town — before miles of nothing ahead but dark country road and corn fields, I whispered to the other girls, “Get out,” opened the door and ran into the night. (This was years before child locks. Now it's easy to trap someone in your car with the push of a button.) Thankfully, the two other girls followed my lead. We made it to the safety of a small country store and gas station across from the stoplight. The boys circled around, of course, and urged us to get back in the car. Seriously, they’d take us to Hardee’s this time. Really. Just get back in.

I wasn’t having it. I was stone cold sober, so I knew something was wrong. There was no boy in that car I really particularly liked. I wasn’t taking the risk. The other girls declined as well, and the boys drove off in disgust. After a quick debate, we decided Dottie’s mother would be the most understanding, called her on a pay phone (remember those?), and she came and got us.

But how close did I come to being raped or worse? What if I had been drunk? What if I had liked one of those boys and had been more trusting, more willing? 

In time, I was. It wasn’t long before I finally was raped, age 15, but I thought I was on a date; I thought I had a potential boyfriend; I thought this is just how it happens. And after you lose one struggle, how do you say no the next time? So at that too young age, I stayed committed to someone who turned out to be a very very bad boyfriend and passed up on so many opportunities to meet and date nicer boys and have a normal teenage life. I was damaged goods, trying to salvage a bad situation.

And to this day, in the corner of my head, I always hear a warning now, “men are bad,” which is not a great thing to have in your head because sometimes you have to work with them as co-workers and bosses, or friends, or maybe even marry one. But sometimes that warning keeps you safe. It gets you out of the car. 


The recent debate about the University of Virginia story in Rolling Stone and the murders of coeds in Charlottesville, brought all these suppressed memories back at how close I came to similar disasters. I believe all women have these stories hidden in their lives. It is not the unusual; it is the usual.