The first post-college work I got paid for was temping in the cafeteria at the Bristol plant in Syracuse, NY, while working at night to reface the kitchen cabinets in my parents’ home, where I was living rent-free. Hard work, and yet these were not what I’d call “real jobs.” But I couldn’t afford to take a real job right out of school: I had grand designs on traveling across country and using the experience to write my first novel, or screenplay, or something like that (also not a real job). I labored day and night at these quasi-jobs from late May until early August, then packed up my car and headed west toward Rochester, NY, where my girlfriend was staying with her sister, and from there out to South Dakota and Wyoming, and, ultimately, California.
Two months later, I was back in Boston, where I found more work, canvassing for MassPIRG in an effort to get some clean water legislation passed. This employment only lasted six weeks or so. Looking for money by knocking on doors feels a little like begging (the ultimate hard work that is nevertheless not a “real job”), and furthermore, canvassing requires you to interact with people who despise your political views, while you stand on their property (which they hate) and get rained on. However, during those fateful six weeks, I struck up a friendship with a guy who was leaving his job at MassPIRG in order to work for the Boston Phoenix newspaper, an alternative weekly that had been started in the late 1960s. At the last minute, this new friend decided, instead, to take a job with his dad (Bill Moyers!), and told the Phoenix that I might be an OK replacement candidate, given my interest in writing. I interviewed, and soon thereafter was offered the position of editorial assistant. I’ll always regard this as my “first real job out of college”: I had my own desk, a phone, and, since this was the 1980s, my own ashtray into which I could stub out cigarettes. Neither of my other “first jobs” gave me an ashtray. I had finally arrived!
I missed my first morning of work at the Phoenix because I was due in court that Monday, having been arrested the previous Friday night with an “open container” – i.e. a can of beer I was sipping. My sentence was to do 40 hours of community service, which I fulfilled by volunteering at St. Francis House, a homeless day-shelter in Boston. To this day, my regular charitable contributions go to this shelter, and because of that, my bi-weekly paycheck is a constant reminder of my having been arrested at 22 years old, and of having missed my first morning of work at the Phoenix.
Last week, the Boston Phoenix announced it would cease operations after producing one final issue. Alas, yet another newspaper bites the dust, this time a publication that I actually cared about. The Phoenix wasn’t perfect – particularly because no one was paid very well – but it was exciting and “alternative,” and not only did it report on politics and crime, which, as we all know, are often one and the same, but devoted a great deal of space to the arts. Who didn’t consult the Phoenix regularly to find out which plays or films to see, or, more essentially, which bands would be passing through town? Even when I was in college, the Phoenix arrived free of charge on campus on Thursdays as “B.A.D.” – an acronym referring to its earlier incarnation as “Boston After Dark.”
The demise of the Phoenix is hardly a shock, of course. Everyone wants to get their content free these days, and advertisers have left newspapers and magazines in favor of getting in your face when you surf for flip-flops online. Maybe the only way for publications to survive is to exist in the ether rather than in physical offices (or, even better, at the local Starbucks, the way neighborhood “Patch” publications do it.)
It’s time I did something with the millions I’ll one day make in some industry yet-to-be-established. What kind of man refuses to plan for such an eventuality when there are so many worthy causes in the world, and so much evidence that the riches will one day pour in? I think of all the people who iron their clothes all over the world, and how some people do it better than others and could probably impart their ironing wisdom on the rest of us if someone could quantify, with good, hard data, what exceptional ironing looks like. (Perhaps a whole “center” for the exploration of this topic isn’t necessary, but we could certainly use a well-funded program.)
This reminds me of a thriller I was thinking of writing to obtain aforesaid millions. Let’s call this a “screenplay,” though I reserve the right to make it into one of those interactive performance art pieces nobody goes to if I can’t find a film producer to take on the project (as unlikely as that sounds). Our lead character in this dark, brooding film, in which you can barely make out anyone’s facial expressions because of some overindulgent camera filtering by the cinematographer, irons clothes in some huge ironing operation in a basement deep in the heart of some unnamed city in China. One day, he heads outside for a smoke and overhears two factory employees scheming to plant a “controlled blaze” in the factory, timed to go off late at night and set off alarms so quickly that the fire department is able to put it out before the factory is damaged and jobs are lost, except for the job of this one particular douchebag boss, who it will appear was at fault for the fire by having left cigarette ashes on paperwork meant to record the day’s bribes. Our lead character thus finds himself in a moral quandary: either tip off the police to this attempt to frame the boss, or keep quiet because, let’s face it, that particular boss is an actual douchebag, which can be verified with hard data based on the meticulously-kept bribe sheets.
Okay, there’s the set up. I’ll work on the rest of the screenplay over the course of my remaining years of life, and will leave the manuscript in my will “to the highest bidder.”
Growing up in Syracuse, New York, in the 1970s, you learned to love basketball, then hate it, then love it again, depending on whether the Orangemen won or lost. Syracuse Football had happened in some previous epoch (before my time), such that I couldn’t fathom that it was ever feared, despite what they said about Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. The Orange football coach, Frank Maloney, was like a bad sitcom character, marching back and forth along the sidelines in blue high-water pants that revealed is white sweat socks, and concocting nutty running schemes dubbed “The Belly Series.” His teams never won much. In this era, we excelled in basketball, and my parents started taking me to games when I was just a kid. “There were only 4 channels of TV” (as you’ve heard over and over), so if you wanted to catch a game, you either had to be there in person in Manley Field House, or listen to the radio play-by-play of Joel Marinas, which I did for the 1975 NCAA Tournament, when Jimmy “Bug” Williams sprinted up the court and fed Rudy Hackett for a lay up (no dunk) to tie Kansas State in the quarterfinal game, paving the way for SU to win in overtime. The Big East had yet to be born, but this deep tournament run generated lots of excitement around the idea of taxpayer dollars underwriting the construction of a domed venue in Central New York. The Carrier Dome became a huge draw for both fans and high school prospects, especially ones from New York City, who wanted to play games in front of 30,000 people. I credit the dome, in part, for the meteoric rise of the Big East Conference.
Now, after thirty-three years, the Big East is a thing of the past. Yes, a sort of “Rump Big East” remains, also known as (I think) “The Catholic Seven” or something, but this will not resemble the Big East of the Patrick Ewing or Derrick Coleman eras. Many people have pointed out that in 1985, the Big East produced 3 of the final 4 teams in the NCAA tournament (Villanova, Georgetown, and St. John’s), but what many don’t know is that a 4th Big East team – Boston College – lost in the Sweet Sixteen when a BC player bounced the ball off his own foot in the waning seconds, turning the ball – and lead – over to Memphis State, which would go on to become the lone non-Big East final four team. Would BC have made the final four had not an extra-large sneaker intruded in the game? Being a BC student at the time, I firmly believed they would have.
When BC bolted for the ACC years ago, I cared just a little bit, and hoped, in a strangely deep way, that they would come to regret it. Now that Syracuse has signed on with the ACC, I have no choice but start watching a different conference than the one I grew up riveted to. Perhaps I’ll one day feel some sort of connection to the ACC the way I have felt connected to Big East, but only, I imagine, if I live well into my eighties.
There’s a commonly-held notion that Radio Playwrights have it made. We whip off these hour-long dramatic commentaries on society in mere minutes because we don’t have to bother with blocking moves or imagine the costumes our characters are clad in. No one frets about whether the producer can find babes to cast, either male or female, as long as the actors sound like they could be babes. And for this, we are paid handsomely.
All true. But what people don’t see is the nasty politics of radio playwriting, the disingenuous promises that producer “friends” keep doling out, the industry structure that encourages back-stabbing. Even worse are the acid-tongued exchanges that drug-fueled radio playwright parties always end in, as writers use their craft for evils ends, sniping at each other and secretly making audio recordings of the tongue-lashing altercations instead of using their considerable writing skills to promote peace and harmony in the world.
Tell you a story: back in 2011, I gathered with some of the finest radio playwrights in the world at a resort in Davos, Switzerland. The fifteen of us (sorry, can’t name names) had come together to explore the astounding growth in our industry in the past decade, and to voice concerns that we had gotten too big and unwieldy, lacking the spryness of Radio Theater’s past and lurching awkwardly into the future without a game plan for “smart growth.” The week started just fine, as we worked hard during the daytime hours, wrestling with big industry problems, and then retired to our chambers in the late afternoon for a glass of sherry and quiet contemplation. By mid-week, though, it became difficult to keep all the egos in check. At dinner, everyone would trying to outdo everyone else with pithy little literary sketches, and soon enough some feelings got hurt. Ultimately, somebody (perhaps an emotionally-wounded colleague) alerted the press that we were there. Cue the circus. By the end of the week, I counted several black eyes among my colleagues, as well as one broken nose and two (or maybe three) chipped teeth, most of which was caught on film by paparazzi. It was ugly. It made me worry for our future.
So, while film and television writers might not enjoy the same splashy fame as us radio writers, they can at least claim to have a more refined sense of how to comport themselves among their peers. With any luck, we radio playwrights will dignify our positions of leadership with some better behavior, in both our public and private lives.