Whenever I go by the Oakland Tribune building I get an acid flashback to 1980. At the time I had spent the previous couple of years homeless and living on the streets of San Francisco, or working as a bike messenger and renting out flophouse hotelrooms in the Tenderloin. But, after getting one too many knives pressed up against my neck, I decide to see if I could clean up my act and see if I could make a life for myself. Seemed worth a try.
So I took several showers, bought a set of clean clothes, and applied for a job a the Oakland Tribune. I had always been interested in a career in journalism. Mostly from reading “Jimmy Olsen – Cub Reporter” comicbooks as a kid. It seemed like an exciting field, chasing after crime scenes and making witty repartee with Lois Lane and Perry White, the editor (“Don’t call me Chief!”). Plus, Jimmy Olsen was “Superman’s best pal.” Which seemed like a great fringe benefit of the reporter’s life. (Like most of my life’s ambitions, they were directly culled from the comicbooks of my youth.)
My plan was to start at the bottom, like Jimmy Olsen, and work my way up to the top. My plan worked beautifully. Well, half of it. I got a minimum wage job in the phone sales department selling subscriptions. And I stayed there for 5 months until I finally quit in disgust.
They had one good sales pitch: “Buy one month and get the second month ABSOLUTELY free!” For some reason, it was the added “absolutely that made the sales pitch work. But even then, you’d have to dial 200 numbers and get 200 rejections before you got even one nibble. In fact, the job was mind-numbingly boring.
My problem as a salesman was: The boss always stressed: “The first two ‘no’s” count as ‘maybes.'” But I always stupidly assumed that no meant no. And never pushed the issue. So I was a complete loser.
The whole set-up reminded me of high school. We all sat at these desks under fluorescent lights, writing down boring information on our note-pads, while the teacher/supervisor glared at us from the desk up front. I realized: This is what they had been preparing me for all those years in school.
The top phonesales person on our floor was this huge, middle-aged woman, about 6-foot-2 with a huge beehive hairdo that seemed to add another 6 inches, and glasses right out of the “Far Side.” But she had the cutest, sexiest, giggling, purring voice you ever heard. Guys would order 3 or 4 different subscriptions and try to ask her out on dates. She was smooth. She could make a phone sales pitch for a newspaper subscription sound better than phone sex.
The only real excitement was when an earthquake hit one day. The phoneroom was on the 9th floor of the Oakland Tribune building, and you could actually feel that old building swaying back and forth. Back and forth. A very queasy feeling. For a second I thought the building might actually snap in half and we’d all plummet to our deaths, and subscriptions to the Oakland Tribune would come to a grinding halt. But no such luck.
My only career “advancement” was when somebody saw some of the cartoons I used to feverishly doodle on my note-pad while I was making calls. And hired me to draw a caricature of Billy Martin, the baseball manager, for an in-house promotion about the Oakland A’s. But if that rag had had any balls they would have immediately hired me to write a 5-days-a-week column on any subjects I desired. Within two weeks I guarantee you, they would have had a thousand outraged letters-to-the-editor demanding I be fired, as well as half of their advertisers dropping out of the paper in protest. (Them newspaper guys are always saying: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” But you’d be surprised how FEW of these gutless editors have the balls to actually test that premise!)
Anyways, after about 5 months I couldn’t stand that job anymore, and the idea of having knives pressed up against my neck really didn’t seem all that bad. So I quit my job and reverted back to my Skid Row lifestyle.