Saturday, January 2, 2010

Chapter 5 • 1980 • Fear & Freelancing

Shock is a good thing, especially after a profound loss, such as being fired with no notice. Shock/denial, in fact, is the first stare of the grieving process. One walks around in a fog thinking this can’t be happening. I don’t believe it. I’ll wake up, and it will all have been a bad dream. Shock/denial dulls the pain until a person is ready to deal with the loss. I was not ready.

Numb worked for me, especially since I was moderating a panel that night on—irony of ironies—“Where the Jobs Are.” After the presentation, people in the audience, who had somehow learned I’d been fired, told me they had never seen anyone so cool under the circumstances. I was not cool; I was drunk, since the whole department had adjourned to a neighborhood bar because we didn’t want to go home at 4:00 in the afternoon.

The shock phase lasted a while. I sort of stumbled around with no particular sense of purpose or direction. About the only thing I accomplished was cleaning my house. This was therapeutic, but not a long-term solution. It took teeth-gritting determination to pull out my resume and update it with one additional job. My previous job had lasted only 14 months, the shortest tenure on record, and I feared I would be labeled a job hopper. It was time to make the dreaded phone calls.

My Rolodex was pretty full, since I had met a lot of people since 1972. I began with the “A”s. Everyone seemed happy to hear from me, but it only took a few calls to figure out the reason. The mass firing of our department by a national corporation was NEWS, and I had the inside scoop. Inquiring minds wanted to know every sordid detail. There weren’t many sordid details, or if there were, I wasn’t privy to them.

My celebrity status, however, did get me a few interviews from people who probably wanted to hear the story right from the horse’s mouth. It was only two years since my last foray into the job market and not much had changed; there were still no jobs. We did get a pittance of severance pay, negotiated by our boss whose husband was an attorney, but that wasn’t going to last very long. In the meantime, I was trying not to panic.

My friend and mentor, who had given me the corporate survival guides, worked for Monsanto, one of the largest and most prestigious companies in St. Louis. She introduced me to the person in charge of Corporate Communications. He like me; he liked my work; but he couldn’t hire me because of something called “head count. But he did have a project for me. Thus began my temporary freelancing career. It was amazing how quickly my anxiety subsided as I slipped back into the groove of interviewing very important people. One project led to another, and I almost forgot I was unemployed. This was what I was meant to do, I thought, and it was nothing like my former freelancing days when the most I had been paid was $50 for an article. This was real money.


“This may be the age of television, but most St. Louisans wake up the sound of radio. Whether it is switched on automatically or manually by a barely conscious listener, radio begins the day. It sets the mood and provides information about the weather, the world, and what life is like out there. It entertains us from the moment we hit the deck until we pull into our parking spaces at work and reluctantly turn it off to get down to business. For many of us, the first voice we hear in the morning is that of our favorite radio personality, disc jockey, or newsman. And it is the same voice every day, for few of us switch our radio dials once we have found our station. Waking up to the same person every morning is one of life’s more intimate relationships, and that makes our choice of a station extremely significant.”

1980 • St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I could get used to this, I thought. Maybe I should give it a whirl. But when one of my daughters became ill and I was close to the end of my insurance overage, I came to my senses. Get real, a little voice whispered. You need benefits. You need a job. Freelancing became a sideline as I turned looking for a job back in to a full-time job. I’d forgotten how much I disliked the process or how hard it was. I had leads and possibilities and even probabilities but no tangible offers. Time was running out, and I was beginning to feel desperate.

My daughter ended up in the hospital, and I found myself running back and forth between job interviews, story interviews, my typewriter at home, and visiting her. On the last day of my severance pay and insurance coverage, I found myself standing in the most depressing room at Children’s Hospital, staring at the peeling paint on the ceiling and thinking, Oh boy. This is serious. I must confess I am not a religious person and don’t believe in asking God for favors but desperate times call for desperate measures. “I need a miracle,” I whispered. “Just one little miracle.” And I went home.

The next day, I had four job offers. Four!

The fourth one was at the end of a job interview with someone who had called that morning. I had to rearrange three other appointments to find time to meet with him, but I managed to schedule a meeting at 4:00 p.m. Richard was the director of Communications for the largest bank holding company in the state of Missouri. I think he had interviewed every other writer and editor in town. He was clutching a copy of my resume in his fist when I arrived.

“Are you as good as you look on paper?” he asked. “Better,” I said and almost looked around for the ventriloquist who had usurped the conversation. “Here's what I’m looking for,” Richard said, having memorized my last job description. “You’ve found her,” I replied. Where was that coming from? I had no idea. “What will it take to get you?” he asked. I was out of work in a buyer’s market, and he wanted to know what it would take to get me. A number appeared on the inside of my eyelids—a big number. “Twenty-seven five,” I said. There was the briefest silence before Richard said, “I’ll have to create a new job classification, but I don’t think that will be a problem. Let’s go meet our vice president.”

I met the VP, but I wasn’t conscious, so I didn’t register anything about him except perhaps for a tiny flutter in my chest. Later, I realized that the flutter was my Jury of the Deep saying, “Uh oh. Watch out,” but I wasn’t about to listen to a naysayer at that point in the process. We went back to Richard’s office, and he could barely wait to say, “You’re hired!” vigorously shaking my hand and grinning.

The rest was a blur. “Here’s your office ... Meet your next door neighbor ... Come in first thing Monday morning and get squared away with Personnel ... Welcome aboard ... Have a good weekend.”

Starvation had been averted, fear banished. I drove to the hospital in a fog. $27,500. Where on earth had I come up with that figure? I have given myself an $8,000 raise! And I would be doing what I knew how to do—launching a series of employee publications, from scratch. When something seems too good to be true, it usually is, but that never entered my mind.

This would be my third corporation. That in itself should have given me pause.


“A young tennis player watches as Ilie Nastase ‘flips the bird’ in a universally understood gesture of anger. Nastase’s desire to win has been diverted from his forehand to his middle finger. This is the highest level of tennis, the quintessence of competition. And, in a sense, it has become a prototype of behavior, in perfect harmony with the popular philosophy of ‘winning though intimidation,’ ‘looking out for No. 1’ and countless other bromides that glorify the king-of-the-hill position in sports and in life. Competition, long considered a healthy pursuit that raises group and individual standards, and winning are not the same.”

1980 • Tennis Press