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.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Porn Star Cat, the Java Temple Conspiracy and the Great Duck Massacre

The parlor game goes like this: your porn star name is the name of your first pet and the first street you lived on. My porn star name is Puff Woodhaven. There were some animals before Puff, like the cat who scratched my sister when she was little and was banished, and the Java Temple birds that were done in by a hurricane, but I didn’t personally connect with them.

I knew of the cat who scratched my sister only because the clawing cat, whose name I was never told, was always cited as the reason I couldn’t have one. I knew about the birds because I was the one who found them dead. The Java Temple birds, a type of finch, were a gift from my grandmother.

My mother was one of nine children raised on a farm in North Carolina where animals were food, not pets. She went to the big city, Wilmington, to waitress, go to nursing school, and date soldiers stationed at a nearby Army base. She met one who was shipping out to Hawaii and that seemed the best bet to get off the farm. They married on Dec. 3, 1941. He shipped out to Hawaii, all right, but a little problem called Pearl Harbor meant she had to stay behind. She went back to the farm, where she raised my sister alone, and waited. It was four years before he came back and took them to New York. By that time she had changed her mind about him, but it was too late.

She wasn’t happy about living in her Italian mother-in-law’s house on Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens. My grandmother was a hairdresser who looked like one of the Gabor sisters and acted like one, too. Java Temple birds would have been her taste, not my mother’s. Nana had her own money and a social life. My mother was a housewife, far away from her family. To her, Nana was an exotic alien. To Nana, Mama was a rube. They both made fun of each other's accents behind their backs, and not in a nice way. I arrived into this unhappy household.

When I was four, we moved to a Cape Cod style house in Elmont, Long Island. The only way my father could afford it was to rent out the two upstairs rooms…to his mother. So even when we had our own home, Nana was still living with us, much to my mother’s disgust.

Hurricane Diane hit Long Island in August of that year as a heavy, blustery rain. Even though my mother must have known a hurricane was coming, she put the Java Temple birds in the garage where either the noise of the storm scared them to death or the change in the air chilled them. It was a convenient way to get rid them, to claim they had been forgotten in the garage, a place they should never have been anyway. Even at age 4, I knew it was suspicious. And since I was the one who found them dead in the cage, it was not a great first memory to have.

We spent our summer vacation every year in North Carolina on my mother’s family farm. I hated it. All my Southern cousins, aunts and uncles teased me because I was a Yankee. One summer I found a kitten that was my solace and comfort for the entire two weeks. I named it Puff and it licked my ear, an orgasmically pleasant sensation. I can’t imagine or remember how I convinced my parents to let me bring Puff back to New York, but the cat made the trip. Once home, it wasn’t allowed in the house. School started, and I came home one day to find Puff gone. My inquiries met with evasions. The cat was sick…mumble, mumble.

I never knew what happened to Puff. I just knew my mother had something to do with it. I believed my dolls were alive and had feelings, so I had even more of an emotional investment in a real live animal, and it was gone without explanation. No one even suggested looking for it.

Meanwhile, Nana, undeterred by the mysterious hurricane death of the Java Temple birds or the disappearance of Puff, continued to torment my mother. She was always talking about a monkey her boss at the beauty parlor had, how she wanted to give us the monkey. She had us all hopped up about that monkey, and my mother had to be the bad guy and say no monkey. She had a new baby that she didn’t even want, and that was enough.

One thing my mother and Nana agreed on was children: the fewer the better. Anything more than one was viewed as low class in my father’s family. My mother had three. My brother was redeemed by being a boy and a blonde, blued-eyed one at that.  I was the unnecessary extra girl.

At Easter we’d get three chicks, one for each of us.  Before it became politically incorrect, Woolworth’s would sell chicks that had been dipped in food coloring, so you’d have live pink chicks, green chicks, and blue chicks mixed in with the yellow ones. Chicks are too fragile to live with children or survive long after being bathed in food coloring. They always died and were removed before I knew about it. Or maybe they were just removed and I was told they died. Not one of them made it to chicken, which was just as well, considering what happened to the ducks.

One year we got three ducklings for Easter. I named them Daisy, Daffy and Donald and seemed more enthralled with them than my sister or brother. The ducklings grew up into fat, white ducks and raced around our yard, honking. I could pick them up, but just barely. I’d run around the yard and they’d run with me. There were photographs taken of me hugging the ducks, a whole booklet of 3x3 black and white snapshots. After my mother died and I went through the family photos, I couldn’t find those. I’m not surprised.

One day I came home from school and the ducks were gone. In my memory, there is a photograph in my mind. I am standing in the kitchen. My father is sitting at the kitchen table and my mother is standing by the stove. They look puzzled. My mind has canceled the rest, the part where I feel something, where I react to what I am hearing.

My mother and her accomplice, an old European woman who lived down the block, killed my ducks, plucked them and gutted them. The woman took one carcass as her reward for helping. My mother cooked one for dinner that night and the third was in the freezer. My father is telling my mother she has to get rid of the duck in the refrigerator because it is upsetting me. My mother is annoyed that I am thwarting her plans. She doesn’t understand why my reaction matters.

My grief didn’t stop Dad from eating the already cooked duck, which he dismissed as too greasy. All the love I invested in Daisy, Daffy and Donald…and their eulogy was “too greasy.”

I don’t know how I got past that day, but if I didn’t know it before, I knew it then that I was being raised by a woman who was insensitive and couldn’t be trusted to protect me or anything I cared about.

I never met a therapist who wasn’t appalled by this story. One time I tried to defend my mother by explaining that as a child on a farm, she had raised piglets that were later slaughtered for food. Their bladders could be blown up like balloons. Their little tails made a tasty treat when cooked over an open flame. Those were the stories of her childhood she shared. Intellectually, though, I still could not understand how even a child raised on a farm could do this, being a devotee of Charlotte’s Web.

“But you weren’t raised on a farm,” one therapist pointed out. “Your mother wasn’t thinking about your feelings.”

No, she wasn’t. She never did. But even so, she knew it was a pivotal moment in my childhood and our relationship, even though it was never talked about until the end. I left home at 18 to go to college and never came back. We always lived at great distances from each other and only saw each other for a day or two at a time, now and then.

By the time she was 50, she was in declining health, both mentally and physically. She left my father and tried living with my sister, who was too religious for her. She tried living with one of her own sisters who promptly put her in a mental hospital in South Carolina where electric shock therapy only made her worse. Then she came to stay with me.

I was a gracious, if indifferent, host. I worked during the day and my son was in school. Our condo was tiny. There wasn’t much for her to do and she was alone all day. She couldn’t remember how to cook or clean anymore and the least little thing rattled her. After a week she called my father and said I didn’t need her so she was coming back to him. I drove her to the airport. It was the last time I saw her. Her health declined rapidly after that and she died the following year.

Out of nowhere, as we were walking down the ramp toward the boarding gate at the airport, she started talking about something that obviously bothered her. It was disjointed and rambling and it took me awhile to figure out she was talking about the ducks! Twenty-five years too late, and now we’re going to talk about the ducks? Finally? It was like she knew this was going to be the last time she saw me, and this was what she had to say, but she didn’t know what to say because she still didn’t get it.

She said it was humiliating to have to beg for old lettuce from the grocer. That was her explanation. That was it. The simplicity of her reasoning caught me by surprise. There was no time to go into it anyway. She was literally boarding the plane and she was too mentally disoriented now for me to get any satisfaction out of attacking her.

I didn’t get a chance to say: Long Island is famous for its duck farms. Surely someone sold duck food. Or we could have taken them to Valley Stream Park and let them loose at the pond. I think I could have been persuaded to let my ducks enjoy the company of other ducks there.

Why was decapitating, gutting, and cooking them the only option? We weren’t so poor that we needed the food. And did she really think I was going to be all right with that? Me? The child who never got over my turtle dying?

We never got to have that conversation. So instead, I spent my midlife crisis years drawing pictures of the ducks for a therapist, who was more interested in discovering repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Isn’t childhood duck abuse enough trauma?

They don’t sell chicks or ducks in Woolworth’s anymore. I don’t think there are any Woolworth’s left. Ducks needing to be rescued are not easy to come by and really difficult to get past landlords, so I didn’t become the crazy duck lady. The need to protect and rescue something would take a different turn.

Excerpt from chapter 2 of Confessions of a Crazy Cat Lady, my book on Amazon Kindle

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Pathetic Little Notoriety

Fame has its up and down sides. Most of us would like a dose of it, but it can have a bitter aftertaste, even when your fame is more like a minor notoriety.

For two-three years in the early 1990s, my essays appeared regularly on Style Weekly's Back Page, but my photo never appeared with them, so my fame level was just name recognition among the small group of people who read the back page of this weekly newspaper. One time, a man, after hearing my name, asked me to autography a copy of Style for him, which struck me as bizarre, not to mention a useless gift for him. (It was very bittersweet, since the only job I could find at the time of this notoriety was working part-time in a hotel gift shop for $5 an hour, while at the same time Style was running ads with the names of their Back Page regulars as the "voices of the city.")

To this day, 20 years later, when I say my name, I still occasionally meet someone who will remember a particular essay I wrote. That’s kind of gratifying. And it helped quickly fill my Twitter feed with followers when I was really just another tweeter in a vast sea of tweets.

At the same time in the early ‘90s, I was also a volunteer for channel 12’s Call 12. I was visible for seconds in the background of this noon news segment a couple of times a week, answering phones. I was never identified by name, never spoke on camera, was rarely if ever seen in close up. Yet people on the street recognized me from that. I actually had more fame from that than from writing, (although when I quit volunteering, the recognition instantly ceased.)  It was frightening at the time. I wondered what life must be like for the news anchors and reporters who were on TV all the time if I had strangers coming up to me, smiling as if they knew me.

Huge fame is a nightmare in many ways. You want the money or the credit for your work, the appreciation of your beauty or talent, but with it comes the crazies. If even the most pathetic little notoriety as I once experienced attracted crazies, imagine what it’s like for the legitimately famous. I think the people who truly appreciate your work and are real fans politely hang back. The ones who are chasing every familiar face have their own agenda and are not fans. They want the photo of them with the famous person to validate themselves. I have no idea why anyone ever wants an autograph. I guess it’s for the excuse to stand next to the famous person for a minute. Then there are the assassins and the stalkers and the delusional who think they are in a personal relationship with the famous person.

For 11 years I owned a monthly newspaper about local music that did not do puff pieces or advance stories. We just did reviews. We liked bands or disliked bands. I never printed more than 2,000 copies a month. I doubt I had more than 800 readers at any time, and the vast majority of them were the musicians being reviewed. Nobody influential read it. We did not make or break any careers. We could not help anyone get a record deal, or even a gig. We did not help anyone make any money, and we made no money ourselves producing the newspaper. The money we took in from advertisers went almost completely to the print shop that printed the paper. I paid reviewers $5 a review. I did not receive a salary from the paper.

What we did do was we liked some bands that other bands didn’t like, or even hated, and it infuriated them that we cast their enemies in a favorable light from time to time, even if the glow from that light meant absolutely nothing in the scheme of things. Musicians can be extraordinarily jealous and bitter people because so much of what makes one band shoot to the top over all the others is just sheer luck.

And the embittered would take out their wrath on me. Abusive personalities by nature, it was comfortable and easy for them to abuse me because I am a woman, and they would do so the way men abuse women…by calling me fat, ugly, a skank, whore, bitter, desperate, unlovable, the c-word (and I don’t mean Cat Lady, but that c-word, too), all the insults used to bully and debase women. I am convinced in my very bones if a man had owned and edited that newspaper, they would not have persisted in their abuse as long and as viciously…or even at all.

Yet at the same time that I was all these horrible things, still, in their minds only I had the great power to make something in their life better, to right some wrong for them, to elevate them to where they thought they should be, and I didn’t do it. And for that I must be punished. It doesn’t matter how many times or how convincingly I explain that nothing I did or didn’t do would have made a difference in their lives.

I ceased publishing that newspaper in 2004 when I no longer had the time or interest to devote to it, and a couple of those characters continue to stalk me online, a full decade later, with all the same complaints and bitterness. It is now 20 years since the very brief period when the paper was actually a little popular, and this is still going on. This week I received a message through Facebook that one of them intended to shit on my grave. I reminded my husband that I have no desire to be buried in this town, for other reasons than this -- but now also for this -- because even if I live another 30 years, this person will have this mission to accomplish because that’s the only goal  he has left that he might be able to fulfill, fame having eluded him. That is the terrible nature of fame, even in my most pathetic case.

Monday, May 20, 2013

My Shoulder Chip


I was working in production at The News Leader when I was in my twenties, even though I really wanted to be a reporter. That wasn't happening. I had no mentors or connections, and without that, I needed to go to some small town and get experience on a little community newspaper. I just had a hard time accepting that truth when other people in production were being promoted upstairs to the newsroom. One girl was society-connected and went to a classy private women's college. She got the wedding desk job I applied for. The other was an unwashed hippie type who slept around and sold drugs to editors, so she was given a copy desk job, which actually turns out to be a dead end of the worst kind. The third had not even finished a degree in anything, but she was taken upstairs as a reporter. She was black. There were no black reporters. I guess they needed one.

So when I was given an opportunity to write for the employee newsletter, I thought that was my chance to gain some experience and acquire a mentor. The editor of the newsletter was a former News Leader editor who had been forced upstairs to the executive offices just to get him out of the newsroom when he reached retirement age and wouldn't step down to make room for new blood. I have no idea what he did other than the employee newsletter, which he never wrote any articles for. He just supervised it. It came out infrequently.

Over time, I realized, although he let me write the occasional feature story, mostly he wanted me to sit in his office while he told stories or pretended to work. He kept his door open so executives passing by would see me sitting in his office. One time he offered to drive me to my car, which was parked several blocks away from the newspaper office, and then circled the block around the newspaper several times before actually taking me there. It began to feel very creepy, like he wanted someone to see me driving away with him. I felt like an ornament, not a contributing member of his staff. And in the year or more I contributed to his paper, he never did a thing to advance my career in any way. Finally, I told him I could no longer freelance for him. I didn't have the time.

Not long after, I applied for a job as writer/editor for the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board newsletter. That job would have changed my life. It was more money, more responsibility, and would have finally put me on the path to working in my chosen field. Without it, I spent another 15 years lanquishing in secretarial and assistant type jobs. I felt the interview had gone very well. When I didn't hear anything, I called and not only was I told I didn't get it, I was told why -- which is very unusual. Usually they just say another candidate was a better fit. One of my references said I had a "chip on my shoulder."

I was shocked, disappointed, chastised, and knew immediately which reference it was. For years, I slumped under the burden of that, and only today, three decades later, have I realized that although he meant that as a damning insult to ensure I didn't benefit from leaving him, it was actually a virture. It meant even at my young age, I felt confident in my ability. I felt I could do more and deserved to do more. I was too good to flirt with an aging old man and massage his ego. I felt I could stand on my own without a society college pedigree or trafficking in sex and drugs. I didn't need Affirmative Action to get a leg up.

But obviously I needed something, and that was the confidence to not let that man's comment rock my confidence like it did. I vowed I would go to his funeral and give him the evil eye in his casket, but it took him another 20 years to die, and by then I didn't care. Nobody did. Despite his illustrious career as an editor-terror through the 1950s and early part of the '60s, he barely got a mention in his own paper when he died.

I lived with that chip for just as long, realizing too late that it was actually the best thing about me.