In the spring of 1973, my parents, my toddler sister and I moved into a 3-bedroom house on Key West Way in Sacramento, California. I was five years old, and, overeager to immediately figure out what new turns life would place in front of me, proceeded to knock on every door in the proximate neighborhood with one extremely urgent question: “Do you have any kids?”. If this sounds like a moderately adorable tale, embellished by parents and worn with time – well, I’d agree, except that I remember making these rounds as clearly as if they’d occurred yesterday.
As far as finding fellow five-year-olds in the neighborhood that day, I struck out (I hadn’t gone as far as Scott Garo and Rebecca Gailey’s houses yet). Yet I totally hit the mother lode with the house directly across the street from ours. “Yes, we have three kids – Tammy (aged 10); Sami (Samantha, aged 11), and Jim (aged 12). Big kids!! These were the Reece children, the progeny of Wayne and Mary Reece, and for the next five years, they’d be formidable and consistent influences in my young life.
Even now my wife jokingly needles me about my outsized idealization of this relatively short period in my life, age 5-10, when we lived in Sacramento and when I traversed a path from Kindergarten into the 5th grade. Yet the years 1973-78 loom overly large in my psyche. I had a happy childhood there, with lots of friends. There was Little League, Cub Scouts and tons of off-leash, free-range 1970s-style roaming. It stood in marked contrast to my San Jose-based adolescence, which was by no means miserable, but which came with typical teenage travails and challenges. I’ve written some words about that time in my life here and here.
The Reece kids and their parents instantly entered our family’s lives in 1973 and carved out an extremely important place there until we moved away. It was to the Reece’s that I’d go during summer afternoons when my mom had work. Tammy and I would sit on the couch and watch “Match Game ‘75” and other game shows until the soap operas came on, which signaled to me, at least, that it was maybe time to go outside into Sacramento’s 95-degree heat. Tammy was our first regular in-home babysitter as well, including the time my parents went out to see the talk-of-the-nation new film The Exorcist. Given our five-year gap in age, she fell somewhere between a peer and a respected elder, and re-connecting with her on Facebook a few years ago helped to validate the existence of social media in the first place.
Tammy and her siblings were huge music fans, in an era of AM radio and a time when popular music was an extremely important component of youth culture. Tammy once told me the start-to-finish story captured in the lyrics of Tony Orlando & Dawn’s 1973 hit “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”, which I found totally enrapturing (a guy coming home from prison! 100 yellow ribbons!!). This led me to bug my mom to buy me what became the very first 45rpm single I ever owned. Jim seemed to have snippets of song lyrics darting across his brain at all times; he flung some verses of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” my way once, and that instantly became another song that was the epitome of childhood cool, merely by virtue of Jim having sung it.
One time he busted out, apropos of nothing, the Led Zeppelin lyric “Say hey mama like the way you MOVE / gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove!”, which my sister Julie and I thought was probably the funniest thing we’d ever heard. There’s another one he used to sing that I’m still puzzled about, the lyrics of which were just, “Li-za Minelli”. Mostly I remember the three Reece kids were deeply into the AM radio-friendly rock of the day like Boston, the Steve Miller Band and The Eagles. This music was totally ubiquitous in the 70s, with every local kid’s radio tuned in simultaneously to the top 40 stations KROY and KNDE. I’m pretty sure it was Tammy that got me into Steve Miller, with “Fly Like an Eagle” being an early big hit in my house as a result.
Jim Reece was definitely far less of a peer and much more of a respected elder, the sort of teen my parents probably wanted me to be, and whom I certainly held as a model youth to emulate. He and his father Wayne were of the era and temperament of men who actually built and repaired things, as opposed to lily-livered modern guys like myself who mostly write checks for others to do the heavy lifting for them. They had a garage with a perpetually open door, and inside were various dials and winches and tools and a beautiful old Packard that I took to be Wayne’s pride and joy (outside of his kids, of course). There seemed to be constant fiddling and repair work of all kinds going on in there, night and day.
One of the major, top-tier highlights of every year was the “Jim Reece room cleaning”. He’d invite me over for the blessed event to be on the front lines as he purged various trinkets large and small. I’d come home with armloads of his rejects. I got a fantastic old Victrola-style radio that served as my main music-listening companion for several years afterward; copies of Boy’s Life magazine, and lord knows what else. I just remember it being extremely exciting to get the good word each year that it was, once again, finally time for Jim Reece to clean his room.
One time Jim foisted his ne’er-do-well friend Henry on my parents when Tammy was unable to babysit. If Jim was the Wally Cleaver of the neighborhood, then Henry was definitely the Eddie Haskell. Even at my young age, I knew that Henry had not been born to babysit. He certainly faked it enough with my sister and me to keep us safe and sound, and in the libertine 1970s, that was more than enough for parents of the era. I remember only one thing about his short tenure as our babysitter, which was that he introduced Julie and I to the time-honored “watch me light my farts on fire” trick. He’d throw himself on his back, jack his legs up in the air, stick a lit match in front of his ass, and – whoosh! Fantastic entertainment for a 9-year-old! We’d never seen anything like it, but we still liked Tammy better.
Another defining moment for me, one which very much involved Jim Reece, was the time I was “hit by a car”. It may have been the lamest hit-by-a-car moment of all time. We were out in the front yard, me and Jim and several other neighborhood boys, engaging in the exceptionally popular 1970s pastime of “Smear the Queer”. For those unlucky enough to have not played this pre-enlightenment childhood classic, it involved throwing a football randomly upward in the air; having someone grab that football from the resulting scrum, then run away as everyone tried to tackle (i.e. “smear”) the possessor of said football – the titular “queer”. Once the tackle had been completed, the game started anew, with the “queer” again chucking the football vertically.
For whatever reason, I found myself across the street in the Reece’s yard – perhaps grabbing an errant football – and darted between two cars to run back over to my own yard. A car – as it turned out, the aforementioned Scott Garo’s grandfather’s green, ancient 50s Detroit car – was creeping down Key West Way at about 3-5 miles per hour. I was tapped very gently by this car as I sailed across the street, and the massive force of impact made me fall to the pavement for about three seconds, before hopping right back up again, fully uninjured and unhurt in any way. I still remember Scott Garo’s older sister, name now forgotten, in the passenger seat, screaming like a banshee; Jim running immediately to my parents’ front door, and me, now sobbing – not because of my horrible accident, but because I didn’t want my parents to find out about what just transpired. I was tugging on Jim’ shirt: “No, Jim, no, don’t tell them, no….”. I remember Jim blurting out – and remember, this is with me standing right there, with five other boys at my side – “Mr. and Mrs. Hinman, Mr. and Mrs. Hinman, Jay’s been hit by a car!”. My mother actually fainted. I think I eventually got a popsicle. We dined out on that story in my family for years.
Samantha, known to all in those years as “Sami”, was the Reece teen who was always nothing but nice to me, but with whom I probably interacted with least. I get the hindsight sense that the annoying younger children across the street were probably – and quite understandably – not an adolescent priority of hers. My friend Charles Davis and I used to play a game we made up called “Starsky and Hutch”, where we’d run around the neighborhood like idiots, climbing and jumping off of fences, rolling on car hoods, shooting neighbors with our finger-guns and so forth. One time I remember doing this all by myself, as Sami and her posse of denim-jacketed, feathered-hair 15-year-olds roamed the corner of Key West and Rawhide Ways, looking not at all dissimilar to the cast of Dazed and Confused.
Let’s state for the record that they were less than amused by my antics, and by my attempt to stalk them to wherever they were headed. One rogue, a blonde male who’d code-named himself “Snake”, asked to see my eyeglasses (I was – and remain – ridiculously nearsighted). I dutifully handed them over, at which point he hocked a gigantic disgusting spitball onto a lens, and then carefully placed them back onto my face. If that’s the main thing I remember about Sami during those years – well, it’s just not fair, is it? It isn’t. She was absolutely a great childhood comrade. I just hope Snake is serving time in Folsom Prison right about now.
During the latter part of that era, a sense of dread and fear pervaded our neighborhood and the entire Sacramento region. You’ve quite possibly heard of the East Area Rapist – later known as the Golden State Killer – a sociopathic serial rapist and murderer who was finally, finally named, captured and imprisoned several years ago. The “East Area” – well, that was our area. Some of his higher-profile crimes happened less than a mile away, with nearly a dozen more taking place within a 10-mile radius. I remember my mother and the neighborhood in general being really worked up about it, yet at the same time, I was 9 years old, and didn’t quite understand what rape was, nor did I quite understand the stakes for teenagers like Sammy and Tammy; their mother Mary; my own mother, etc.
My dad has subsequently told me about the watch patrols that he and other neighborhood men would go on during the nights, and about the gun he kept by the bed. I read Michelle McNamera’s excellent I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, about the quest to find the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker/Golden State Killer, and later watched the HBO documentary series of the same name. It was only then that I truly became retrospectively terrified for the women of our neighborhood, and for the teenage Reece girls in particular. I am thankful that our tranquil and neighborly Key West Way was spared.
In late 1977, my dad announced that he’d found better employment in San Jose, and that we’d be moving. Since Sacramento, Key West Way and the Reeces were virtually all I knew in the sentient phase of my life, I was both saddened and yet excited about this new development. We’d grown extremely close to the Reece family, every one of us, and we never again had neighbors quite as good as them. Jim, too, may also have been sad to see us go; he tried to scare me by telling me that “all the girls in San Jose carry switchblades in their hair, and they’ll cut you”, along with various other horror stories that contrasted San Jose quite poorly with idyllic Sacramento.
While he may have been a bit, shall we say, hyperbolic, he was also right, in his way. We didn’t ultimately like it as much as the world of Key West Way, the world of the Reeces; Strange James next door; 4th of July block parties; the sunshine, the heat, and the American River levee nearly in our backyard. When I became old enough to drive, and once nostalgia truly started kicking in around age 25, I’d sometimes go back to Sacramento by myself. I returned in 1992 and decided to walk the old neighborhood. I parked the car in front of our house, and found Wayne and Jim Reece across the street, working on an old car in the driveway, just as they’d done fifteen years previously. It was some incredible deja vu come to life, and they delightedly came across the street to greet me, like we’d only slinked away to our new life just the week before, rather than back in 1978.
It was only a few years ago when I thankfully reconnected with not just Tammy, but with all 3 Reece kids on Facebook. I’m going to send this piece to them right now and see what they think. Hey, if you see it published here on my blog, then it looks like they were cool with it.
(Several names have been abbreviated, and in some cases changed, in order to protect the adolescence of some folks now in their early 50s. Other names, when I’ve so deemed it appropriate, have been kept as they truly were)
On December 24th, 2020 I dropped off a Christmas gift at my parents’ house in San Jose, CA, and on my way out of town and back home to San Francisco, I somehow found myself magnetically drawn toward parking my car on the premises of John Muir Junior High School, a mile away on Branham Lane. My alma mater. They call it a “Middle School” now, and it now takes a young teen through the 6th, 7th and 8th grades, yet way back in 1979-1982, it was junior high, and consisted of the 7th, 8th and 9th grades.
This was quite the life stage for me, age 11 to 14. I was introverted, young for my grade and small for my age – a terrific place to be in a school packed with feathered-hair, jean-jacketed, tough-talking heavy metal adolescents. The 2020 campus of John Muir is exactly the same as it looked in 1979 – I’m not kidding, save for a few coats of paint, it’s the EXACT SAME SCHOOL. A true testament to California educational funding. I snapped a few photos and felt the proverbial surge of memory overtake me at every vantage and view.
Let’s start with this one, since it’s where my junior high journey itself started in ‘79-’80: Mr. Davis’ English and Social Studies classroom, where I spent my 1st and 2nd period every day that year. Remember how excited you were to matriculate to classes held in different rooms after elementary school? I sure was, yet had to suffer through a milquetoast Southern gentleman of a teacher who had no idea how to corral the young burnouts who ran roughshod over him every day. The class was blessed with the two most popular girls in 7th grade, best friends named Kristi H and Judy S. Tall girls with feathered hair who lorded over even the taller boys, and who were talked about incessantly by every young male of my acquaintance – until an even prettier young hairsprayed lass named Jennifer Denman joined our class about a month into the school year, and became every young man’s topic du jour. The class featured insufferable and unending male peacocking and showboating for these three girls’ attention, all in front of a teacher who hemmed and hawed and stammered at low volume to no avail. If any actual learning took place in this room, I don’t remember any of it.
The class had a newly-arrived Iranian immigrant named Majid whose first year in America unfortunately overlapped with the Iranian hostage crisis and a whole raft of jingoistic, anti-Iran idiocy across not only our school but throughout America. Majid was frequently grilled by my classmates about whether he stood with “the Shah” or with “the Ayatollah”. There was, of course, only one correct answer in those days of “Ayatollah Assaholla” t-shirts and “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran” (sung to the tune of “Barbara Ann”) parody songs on the radio. The poor shellshocked kid barely spoke a lick of English, and I remember feeling very sorry for the abuse he took, while of course doing nothing whatsoever to either help lessen it, nor to bravely befriend him.
That same year we were going through a presidential election later in 1980, and I remember many campus-wide jokes about Jimmy Carter, and how no one would vote for “peanuthead”. There was one notable dissent from a most awesome redheaded, long-haired, heavy-lidded jean-jacket hesher whom I shared a class with, a guy named David Fogg (!). His informed opinion was to not vote for Reagan, as “Reagan’s definitely gonna start World War III”. Neither David nor I would be able to vote for another 6 years.
Before the year started I had an opportunity to sign up for one elective: woodshop, or something called “Art and Everyday Living”. Woodshop – where I’d have to make things with saws and hammers and whatnot – sounded like a total drag, so I chose the other one, which ended up being what had once been called “Home Economics” in earlier days – i.e. cooking and sewing. Thus, the class was me, about 15 girls, and for some reason, David Fogg. The teacher was a matronly seventy-something named Dixie Bullard. I had a female friend in the class, Kristi H (a different Kristi H!), who shared the same dopey sense of humor that I did, and we found ourselves in frequent “trouble” for goofing off, giggling and whatnot. Ms. Bullard once threatened to have the two of us stand in front of the class and kiss, which didn’t derail me in the least. Her bluff having been called, she unfortunately never followed through. As a result of this class, I now know how to sew a potholder.
Our next picture shows the area just in front of the cafeteria, where I’d buy a “peanut butter chew” every day to complement my brown-bagged lunch. One lunch period in 8th grade, as the bell had rung and I was shuffling back to whatever my next class was, I happened to be present in this exact area, next to the flagpole you see pictured. I was collared from behind by a small but stout little burnout named Mike Havard. He pushed me and said “You call me a fag?”, then proceeded to push me again, and repeat “Call me a fag? Call me a fag?” over and over again. I barely knew who this guy was. Naturally, a circular crowd immediately formed. These sorts of inane fights with packs of onlookers – full of guys with enormous colored pocket combs in their back pockets; girls holding Trapper Keepers and wads of Hubba Bubba in their mouths – were typical lunchtime entertainment at John Muir. I myself had observed many a tussle.
This time it was me, and though most onlookers probably had no idea I existed, they certainly wanted to see some punches thrown. Good thing I was getting pretty steamed over this quote-unquote mistaken identity, and I knew it would definitely not be a good look to back out of this one, given the large and boisterous crowd. After the 8th or 9th push and “Call me a fag?”, I awkwardly lunged at the guy; we both threw each other into headlocks and fell onto the cement, and within seconds the fight was broken up by a vice principal. I was suspended! Me – suspended for fighting. Once they heard what happened, my parents, far from being angry, expressed pride in me for “standing up for myself”. Hey, call it what you want. About 7 or 8 years later, when I was visiting San Jose from college, I stopped at the Togo’s sandwich shop at the nearby Almaden Mall. My server behind the counter was none other than Mike Havard, who recognized me, smiled, and said, “I fighted you, hunh?”.
This next photo sparks a couple of good stories. First, let’s talk about the man whom this gym is now named after. He was the school P.E. teacher when I was at John Muir; a short, gruff, little mustachioed brute who had the demeanor of a drill sergeant and the personality that fit my conception of the type of redneck dad who gave birth to most of my idiot male classmates. I guess they’ve now named the gym after him for some reason. He was the teacher of children who, trying to get the attention of a recent Vietnamese immigrant in one of my classes, shouted at him, “Hey! Hey, boat people! Get over here, boat people.” That guy. The one they’ve now named the gym after.
A funny thing once happened inside this gymnasium. We had an earthquake drill, as one sometimes does in California. These usually consist of ducking under tables, but as were in the gym, ours was to get on our hands and knees against the wall. Now, we hadn’t had a felt earthquake in Northern California in years when we did this drill around 1981, and I don’t think we’d even had a drill in a year or two. Yet when the alarm went off, we did as the teacher told us, and dropped down and lined up against the wall. Suddenly, the ground started shaking, and we all turned and looked up at each other, totally stupefied. “Is that….?” “Do you feel….?” “Did, did they plan this…?”. It was a 4-point-something quake, definitely a solid temblor, happening at the exact moment as our drill. The school therefore got a mention on that night’s local news as a result, one of those kooky wrap-up-the-newscast bits, “the school that had a real earthquake during an earthquake drill”.
I hope I’ve thus far been able to evoke that John Muir Junior High was a “heavy metal” school. I’m not sure if I remember it this way because I’d felt so out of place as a burgeoning punk rock/new wave music obsessive who stood in defiant (if silent) opposition to all things AC/DC, Black Sabbath etc, or because it was truly a golden age of hesh. I sincerely believe it was the latter. I felt like I was in the wrong school, in the wrong era, with the wrong set of friends – when I had friends at all – and I longingly looked to San Francisco, a mere hour north of us but a million psychic miles away, a place where kids could find cool records from England and didn’t have to fake-laugh when heshers like Robert Mejia would tell the school’s few black kids, “AC/DC, rock and roll, disco sucks and so does soul”.
Our photo here shows the curb where the “stoners” would hang out. I believe that there was actually a wooden railing here in the early 80s, so perhaps one thing has changed in 40 years. Now, a “stoner” at John Muir Junior High was then an interchangeable term of endearment with “burnout”, so bestowed because the person in question smoked cigarettes at this very spot. I don’t believe I actually saw an illegal marijuana cigarette until high school, but the greasy metalheads who smoked here were deemed to be stoners nonetheless.
Their radio station of choice was KOME, pronounced “come”, legitimately infamous for their on-air tagline, “Don’t touch that dial, it’s got KOME on it”. The diamond-shaped KOME sticker, which could be picked up for free at any local Fotomat booth (!), was ubiquitous on every Pee-Chee and Trapper in the school. The station cranked out a steady diet of Scorpions, AC/DC, Led Zep and The Who, and had the most inane radio personalities imaginable, totally perfect for a sexually pent-up 13-year-old male demographic. Late nights belonged to a clown named “Dennis Erectus”, who would go off about his phony lust for Nancy Reagan in a stupid, unhinged voice that predated Bobcat Goldthwait, and then crank the album-oriented guitar hits until everyone had gone to bed. Erectus’ routines would then predictably be played out at recess by every would-be stoner looking to impress the chicks and the fellas.
One time the aforementioned Robert Mejia and his ne’er-do-well pal Steve chased down a nerdy guy named Sean McGillicuddy, after McGillicuddy incorrectly claimed to be an AC/DC fan. With fists held above his face as he was pinned down — I watched this myself — they said, “Name two people in AC/DC! Name two, motherfucker!!”. It was heartbreaking to watch as a trembling Sean answered “Bon Scott” (technically correct but everyone knew Scott drank himself to death a couple years earlier) and – uh oh – “Led Zeppelin”. Ouch. They “whaled on his ass” right then and there. I meant to take a photo of the spot where this incident occurred; it happened to take place about 20 feet to the right of the tennis court you see below.
The far side of this tennis court was where I ate my lunch every day in 8th grade with Sean D and Bill C. It was our respite from the rest of school’s “social whirl”, and gave us a place to just be dorks for 45 minutes a day. The previous year, my best friend had been Ted E, with whom I walked to school every day, yet late in the year we suffered one of those all-too-typical junior high ruptures, where he’d found several more athletic kids who’d taken a shine to him, and I was undoubtedly trying to bend his ear far too often about The Pretenders, B-52s and Adam and the Ants, or whatever other absurdities I was obsessing about that week.
Out of what was almost certainly a profound sense of insecurity, I spent an inordinate amount of time during my lunches with Sean and Bill spinning tall tales about myself that, in retrospect, really don’t make a ton of sense. I’d “grown up in Canada”, and had played hockey on teams for many years there – the only reason I wasn’t playing it now was because Eastridge Mall, home of the town’s only ice, was “too far away for my parents to drive me to practice”. I also “had an older sister in college”, for some reason. I’m sure we talked about a great deal more than my useless lies, but I remember being mentally trapped in the suffocating cycle of lying, then shame about lying, then fear of the lie being uncovered – a great coda to add to an already difficult year in a young man’s life.
Our final 2020 photo is of the grassy “quad”, I guess you’d call it. You can see the flagpole where I “fighted” Mike Havard in the distance. This is where we’d have John Muir “spirit rallies”, where the cheerleaders would dance in an effort to bestow a greater sense of “Falcon pride” throughout the school. It’s also where most kids hung out for lunch, and where the majority of fistfights took place.
In 9th grade, I was still hanging out with Sean D and I had thankfully stopped lying, yet Sean had gained a bit more confidence, and moved his lunchtime activity to the quad to hang with a group of much taller and more football-focused guys, led by the 6-foot pair of Brian B and Allan H. (All of their real names are seared upon my brain, somehow never to be forgotten even if I’d like them to be). I was allowed to tag along, and somehow spent the first half of 9th grade at the runt end of a more-popular “crew”, even though I almost never talked with them and was simply allowed to move in their midst. It was a survival mechanism in a dog-eat-dog school, as I still hadn’t found a single friend who shared my all-encompassing weirdo enthusiasm for underground music. We staked out a place every lunchtime on the benches at the top right of this photo – our turf, as it were – and all twelve of us went to the Marriott’s Great America amusement park on Halloween together, with me again tagging along and saying very little.
At some point halfway through 9th grade, I stopped hanging out with them, and I honestly can’t remember what I did or where I went or whom my friends were, if any. Wait, actually I just remembered right this second – it was Jon Grant, a too-smart-for-his-age 7th grader who totally cracked me up and who was in the school’s “ELP” class with me. ELP stood for Extended Learning Program, a more polite version of the “MGM” (mentally gifted minors) program I’d been in during elementary school. All of us had somehow scored highly on childhood IQ tests years ago, by answering questions such as “what is a helicopter?” both correctly and with wit and panache. Jon liked kooky reggae music like Eek-a-Mouse and Yellowman; his favorite band was Devo; and I’d actually found a true pal, just in time for high school to start and for the two of us to eventually drift apart due to lack of proximity.
I’m now relatively thankful that my three years at John Muir passed with any truly major incidents or much psychological scarring. I was not at the very bottom of the male totem pole, nor was I a true “nerd” who’d get routinely stuffed into a garbage can by large future sociopaths, though I did observe this happen to a handful of boys. I was, I think, a relatively innocuous, quietly nervous guy who was mostly ignored. In my head I was dreaming up great concert bills I wanted to put on; rejiggering the San Francisco Giants lineup so that they might actually win some games; thinking about Jennifer Denman or Tammy S or Anna M; and/or trying to figure out how to posture and preen just enough to be moderately accepted by the school’s great unwashed. I was neither depressed nor failing scholastically; I merely endured my three years there, followed by further endurance of three years of high school.
It’s difficult to look at the campus in 2020 and graft onto it a modern teen’s world of smartphones, vaping, hip-hop and TikTok, particularly as my photos were taken during a holiday break from a middle school year spent entirely online and penned-up at home. Here’s hoping the kids of John Muir Middle School, once they come back, are now blessed with a more tolerant, less towel-whipping-inclined student body – and yes, I’m talking about you, David de Aragon.
Unrepentant nostalgia can be a hell of a slippery slope. There’s always the temptation to lionize one’s formative years – the ones in which you were younger, more interesting, more open-minded and far better-looking. I try not to stumble down that path too often, but it’s sometimes pretty unavoidable to laser-focus my writing attention on telling stories from those years that spanned from my childhood to young adulthood. I’m sure someday I’ll write a real stemwinder about that time I turned fifty, or that time I missed a property tax payment.
Speaking of young adulthood, mine could be said to have started around 1989, the year I graduated from college and hightailed it back to the San Francisco Bay Area, the place where I’d grown up. I’d had this notion even back in high school in San Jose, California that the #1 thing I wanted to do upon leaving college was to move to San Francisco. It was probably the sum total of my life goals at that point. What I was going to do with the rest of my life was very much up for debate. My undergraduate English degree was tailor-made for just about any low-paying career option available, and I sampled them all: warehouse worker, parking lot attendant, telemarketer and, eventually, customer service rep.
After a lifetime of suburban living, transporting myself to the center of the beating cultural heart of San Francisco – home of dingy punk clubs, record stores, weird cinemas, freaks, bars etc. – was my be-all and end-all, and I committed myself accordingly. Of course, the city’s natural, topographical and architectural beauty was also a huge draw. My family had taken my sister and I there quite frequently while we were growing up nearby in Sacramento and San Jose, and it always gave me a bit of an energy jolt even to look out the window at the various savory & unsavory street scenes in The City as we made our way to Grandma Kay’s house in Sausalito.
I moved back in with my parents in San Jose for five months & worked to save money to afford the exorbitant $300/month rent to share a San Francisco flat, and to find gainful employment up there. I got to experience the 6.9 magnitude 1989 earthquake at their house, in fact – and yes, I was watching my San Francisco Giants in the World Series at that very moment. I spent several days a week in San Francisco despite living an hour south of it, either interviewing for jobs or, far more likely, seeing local bands like the Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, World of Pooh or The Mummies in small clubs, while trying to aggressively shoehorn my way into underground hipster/doofus urbanism.
After months of searching for work, I finally landed a role in December 1989 at the South San Francisco company at which I’d spend the next six years, Monster Cable. (You can read all about that here). My pal Uli set me up with some friends of his at 941 Stanyan Street (pictured here) in the Haight-Ashbury/Cole Valley neighborhood who needed a roommate, and in January 1990, I moved in. I was un-hyperbolically delighted to be there. I was like Marlo Thomas in the opening credits to That Girl: ready for all that the world had to offer. Life could now begin.
This was a decidedly different San Francisco than the one I live in now. This whole notion of “San Francisco before the Internet” is not my own; in fact, it’s the secondary title of a documentary film currently in production, one which I’m naturally quite excited to see. Culturally, politically, economically and across countless other dimensions, San Francisco before the tech booms was in many ways a better and in some key ways a worse place than it is today. Rather than enumerate those pros and cons, I thought I’d share my own highly subjective view on what this place was like during the years 1989 to 1993 or so, with the latter year being the one that internet-connected personal computers started showing up in the homes and workplaces of people I knew (with my mom being the earliest adopter of all – go, Mom!).
First of all, it was cheaper. Back in 1989, San Francisco was only the third or fourth most expensive place in the US to rent a flat or buy a house; when we’d complain about it, we’d say “at least it’s not New York / Boston / Washington DC”. Now their residents say the same thing about us, when they’re not thinking about moving to Portland / Nashville / Atlanta / Chicago. I paid $300 a month in 1989-91 for my own room at 941 Stanyan with three other roommates, and that was affordable enough for me, enough so that many of the freaks and great unwashed punk rock hoards with whom I went to school at UC-Santa Barbara found that they, too, could more or less afford to live in San Francisco.
That continuing surge of weirdo creativity was part & parcel of what had made the city such a longtime haven for hippies, gays, artists, filmmakers and punks – which was then reflected in the sorts of unique businesses and institutions that could be found merely by walking the streets. A few favorites of mine included:
Naked Eye News & Video – 533 Haight Street
A sub-underground VHS video rental store and alternative newsstand. Naked Eye carried music fanzines, far-left wing political agitprop and a wide variety of newspapers and mainstream magazines. As a video store, their focus – at least as reflected in what they’d feature and highlight in the windows – was on the offbeat and bizarre: think Survival Research Laboratories, Russ Meyer titillation movies and Dario Argento Italian horror. At least that’s how I remember it. I know it’s where I rented “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill” for the first, second and third times.
Freedom’s Forum Bookstore – 1800 Market Street
You know who willingly settled in San Francisco, because he and his wife loved the city in all its weird, wacky diversity? Milton Friedman, the prototypical Chicago School free-market economist, and the father of “disaster capitalism”, if you believe Naomi Klein. Me, I went through big post-college “libertarian phase” in my politics, which I very thankfully grew out of. Ground zero for the magazines, pamphlets and free minds/free markets radicalism I used to feed my ideals – such as they were – was Freedom’s Forum Bookstore, in a beautiful and run-down Victorian that now houses the LGBT Center & Museum.
The two dudes I recall being there every time I went in just happened to be oddballs right out of central casting – always up for a rant about the shackling of capitalism or gun rights or marijuana rights if you so much as touched a publication or book that addressed one of these topics, let alone asked them a question about it. It got to the point where I’d have to quickly leave the store if I merely wanted to buy something and not engage. Oh – and I was always the only person in there whenever I visited. Great memories!
The 6th Street Rendezvous – 60 Sixth Street
There were a number of long-gone music venues that nurtured my odd tastes during these years before the internet – the Covered Wagon; the Chatterbox/Chameleon; the Nightbreak/Thirsty Swede; the Blue Lamp, I-Beam, VIS Club/Kennel Club, Paradise Lounge, Morty’s and so on. I’ll highlight “Chel’s 6th Street Rendezvous”, a short-lived makeshift club located at the gauntlet-running intersection of 6th and Jessie Alley, between Market and Mission.
A nattily-dressed booker whose name escapes me brought in a variety of lowbrow underground local and touring musical acts to this decrepit bar, owned by “Chel”, an older Filipino man looking to jazz up his revenues on what was easily one of the most unsafe blocks in the entire city. That half-block walk between Market Street – where I’d get off the bus – and the 6th Street Rendezvous doors was a pulse-rushing crucible to not merely be endured, but survived. Between dodging the derelicts trying to sell me either “late-night transfers” (a freshly-stolen MUNI bus ticket that allowed for unlimited nightly rides) or drugs (the hard stuff – not the pedestrian “buds, doses, doses, buds” for sale up on Haight Street), I found myself kicked, insulted and one time even chased off the block (“Get the fuck off my turf!”), simply for the crime of trying to hoof it over to the Rendezvous for a ‘lil goodtime rocknroll music.
Casa Loma Bar – 610 Fillmore Street
This entry really could have been any of the many bars that Liz B and I used to go to, sometimes six at one go on a Friday or Saturday night, repeated ad nauseum. While she and I weren’t dating, she was my best drinking buddy in 1989-90, and Casa Loma at Fillmore & Fell was one of her favorites. It was on the ground floor of what is still a cheap hotel, walled off from occupants and featuring an ambiance that was a little bit divey, a little bit classy, with a few nascent “microbrews” on tap (I’m talking Red Hook and Anchor Steam). I can’t even remember the layout, but I certainly remember imbibing there a dozen or two times. It’s been gone for decades now.
My favorite at the time was The Uptown, at 200 Capp Street – still there! Honorable mention goes to the now-defunct Lloyd’s at 1099 Mission downtown – “shot and a beer for $1.50” – as well as a multitude of other dive bars that are somehow still standing: the Silver Spur in the Sunset; Murio’s Trophy Room and The Gold Cane in the Haight; The 500 Club in the Mission and Mr. Bing’s and Li Po in North Beach/Chinatown. While the planet surges into AI-powered automated everything, the great San Francisco dive bars remain.
Artists’ Television Access – 992 Valencia Street
An absolutely timeless, frozen-in-amber 1980s San Francisco gem that is still there to this day. ATA was and remains an experimental film venue that showed Super 8 films, strange collages, no-budget feature films, radically queer and leftist performance-art movies and more. There’s no reason why it should still be there, and yet the fact that it is means it’s really the most visible and unchanged link to pre-internet San Francisco’s underground culture.
Record Vault – 2423 Polk Street
Online, this store is lionized as the home den for the Bay Area thrash metal scene that spawned Metallica, Exodus and many others. I don’t remember it that way at all. “Speed metal”, as we called it then, was an unfortunate constant in the 1980s, and if you were out shopping for punk records, metal records were bound to be nearby. So I personally recall Record Vault as a relatively messy and crammed store in a tidy and upwardly-mobile neighborhood – Russian Hill – that was the antithesis of everything this no-morals/no-values store stood for. By way of example, I bought an original copy of the Fuckin’ Flyin’ A-Heads’ “Swiss Cheese Back” here. I was there the day that the poster for Big Black’s San Francisco show was being put up in the window, and everyone in the store was abuzz about it.
Other top-drawer record stores around this time were Rough Trade (especially the location on 6th Street – it went downhill when it moved to Haight Street); Aquarius Records; Reckless Records; and starting around 1990 or ‘91, Epicenter Zone, run by the folks behind Maximum RocknRoll fanzine.
9th Avenue Books – 9th Avenue between Irving & Judah
The two great San Francisco bookstores back then were, and remain, Green Apple Books and City Lights. Yet because of where I lived, and due to my lack of a car, I’d instead wander into the pre-global warming Sunset District, which unlike now was almost always blanketed in fog, and go book shopping in the area bounded by 9th Avenue, Judah and Lincoln. I remember four distinct used bookstores in the area, all dead now. The best was 9th Avenue Books, an exceptionally well-stocked emporium that had all the William Faulkner paperbacks I could handle. All but one of the shops went kaput before the launch of Amazon.com, leading to a great deal of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing among residents and self-professed cultural arbiters (Borders and Barnes & Noble were the destroyers of the indie shop, if you’ll recall).
So what else was going on in 1989-93?
I think if you ask most longtime San Franciscans about what the city was like back then, the word “grimier” will come to the surface pretty quickly. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. Sure, neighborhoods like Hayes Valley, SOMA and most of the Mission have been utterly transformed by wealth and development over the last thirty years, but by and large, much of San Francisco remains just as grimy and depressing now as it was then. The Tenderloin, save for a few concessions to modernity, is identical in its druggy squalor and filthy streets as it was to a wide-eyed new arrival like me in 1989.
You’ll notice that food – something so central to San Francisco’s popular conception of itself – has thus far not been discussed. That’s because the then-staple of my and that of many other struggling twentysomethings’ diets – the cylindrical protein and caloric delivery system known as the “Mission Burrito” – is still as robustly awesome now as it was in 1989. I ate them most frequently then at El Toro in the Mission and Zona Rosa in the Haight, and both taquerias are still around (though are by no means anywhere close to the finest examples of the form). There were then, as now, expensive and lovely high-end restaurants for people of means. The only big difference today at both casual and higher-end San Francisco eating establishments is that annoying line of underpaid delivery drivers waiting to pick up your app-procured food and drive it to your apartment.
The printed word was paramount in pre-internet San Francisco. It had to be. There were really only two ways to broadcast one’s predilections & preferences to a larger audience than oneself: create your own publication, or – far easier – post up a flyer about your band’s gig, your event, film, political stance and what have you. Flyers were the social media of their time, especially in large cities like ours. They were vitaly important to musicians, filmmakers, theater production companies, politicians, community organizers and event sponsors. San Francisco telephone poles were literally plastered with them. Record stores and theater lobbies had stacks of them. When I did a radio show on KFJC, I’d make flyers and strategically drop them in stores and at clubs to try and get like-minded folks to give me a listen. I couldn’t think of a better way, short of paying for an advertisement somewhere. Today, the only flyers I see around town are for lost dogs or Spanish tutors.
Free weekly newspapers were also a major force at this time. Even well into the 2000s, the big two for entertainment listings & local political coverage were the SF Weekly and SF Bay Guardian (libertarian me severely disliked the latter, and their predictable knee-jerk PC progressivism on every last issue). The gay community had something like five alt-weeklies going at once (Bay Times, Bay Reporter and more). As with flyers, these would all be stacked up in droves just about anywhere interesting that one found oneself. I immersed myself in the Weekly and Guardian each and every week, following every foible of Mayors Art Agnos and Frank Jordan or supervisor/police chief Dick Hongisto, then scouring the entertainment listings for wherever I might be blowing my paycheck next. (I even remember when SF Weekly was called “Music Calendar” in the mid-80s). When Craigslist arrived, it flattened the classified revenues of these papers quite dramatically, and they ceased to be much of a force as the internet took a chokehold on our attention spans.
It would be criminally negligent to not mention the long shadow that AIDS was casting over the city when I arrived in 1989. The city’s gay population was suffering through an untold number deaths of lovers, friends, shop owners and acquaintances. The guy who trained me at my first job at Monster Cable in 1989, David Poole, would be dead from AIDS by 1992. ACT UP – the protest group that helped shake off straight America’s complacency about the disease – were a real omnipresent force in San Francisco. Flyers, fanzines, benefit concerts and even local riots were part & parcel of the gay community’s reaction to the death and shrugged shoulders that surrounded them. I even recall that “fag bashing” was still something that gays in the Castro District had to be on guard for. I went to my first Gay Pride Parade – that’s what it was called then – in 1990. (Salt Peter from The Dwarves had told me it was a “don’t leave town event”). The tone was more hopeful than was probably merited at the time, but it was a great example of the city I had hoped I’d be moving to: unrepentantly & boisterously free, and uniquely & proudly at odds with the mainstream.
Of course, any living arrangement is what you bring to it. The well-heeled and physically toned people in San Francisco’s Marina District, to deploy a often-referenced stereotype, were most certainly not proudly at odds with the mainstream in 1990. Yet it was “they” – the creators of capital, the upwardly mobile, the fit and the well-toned – who effectively won the cultural sweepstakes for the dominant story of what San Francisco would evolve into thirty years later.
No, it’s not like the olde world of 1989 has completely vanished, and I’m certainly no advocate for wishing that it remained as it was. But something about the mass arrival of the internet around 1996-97 really slammed the door shut on that initial era when I attempted to marinate in San Francisco’s low-rent bohemianism. First it disappeared at a trickle, and then vanished with a whoosh in the early 2000s. Then again, that’s when I happened to be personally hitting my mid-thirties, married and with a new kid. I’ve subsequently come to believe that our perceptions are all a cycle-of-life thing, distorted by the ravages of age and heightened by the passage of time. There are new arrivals who are undoubtedly sowing their oats and feeling their way into San Francisco’s dark corners even now, and who’ll be writing pithy purple prose thirty years hence about how cool it all was, and how much they desperately miss it.
I possess a “feature” lurking either in my DNA or in my nurtured makeup that has both allowed me to be quite accomplishment- and achievement-oriented (great for getting stuff done while working for “the man”), and a total weirdo obsessive about even my most navel-gazing of personal hobbies. It’s the proverbial two sides of the same coin, and this manic, Type A foolishness has been a lifelong constant, annoying me and my loved ones since childhood.
Even today it’s quite difficult for me to just be a little bit into something. If I’m “getting into” a genre of music, I need to ensure I’m a self-anointed subject-matter expert on every major and minor player who created music in that genre – and that I own virtually all of their cornerstone recordings – within a matter of weeks. If I decide I’m into old 1960s motel signs, I have to collect hundreds of postcards and photo books of them that I buy and stack up around the house (note – this is not really an “if”). For me, there’s generally very little worth doing halfway, unless it’s boring and expensive home maintenance, or something else that offers neither material nor psychic reward.
So it was in late 1970s Sacramento and San Jose, California, where my professional sports obsession was birthed and very rapidly harvested. It started with my dad’s transistor radio and a 1976 San Francisco Giants baseball game on in the backyard of our Sacramento home. I’m not even 9 years old. He’s clearly excited about something. What happened, Dad? Jack Clark just hit a home run. Who’s Jack Clark?, etc. The fabled father-son bond and baseball knowledge transfer was thus kicked off, as was my lifelong baseball obsession.
Two summers later, I’m in the car on a long drive with my grandparents to visit my uncle and his family in British Columbia. Spread out across the backseat where I’m sitting are my well-organized and voluminous baseball cards, the statistics from which I’ve completely memorized to the point where my parents would sometimes trot me out in front of guests for a parlor trick and ask me to reveal, for instance, the number of runs batted in George Foster or Bake McBride or Roger Metzger accumulated last year. I’d dutifully respond with each player’s 1977 batting average / HR / RBI totals to the exact number; gasps would ensure, and I’d trot back to my room extremely pleased with myself.
Right there on the same backseat is my “All-Pro Baseball Stars 1977” book, bought for me by my parents as part of my monthly scholastic book order, and my grandfather has just politely asked me to please take a thirty-minute break between reading him each team’s summary. I’d just spent most of the day’s six-hour drive regaling him and my grandmother with the book’s full prognosis for the 1978 Montreal Expos, the ‘78 San Diego Padres and so forth. I’m hoping that if I’m really good, they’ll take me on the way up to see the brand-new Seattle Mariners’ – whose name I pronounceMareeners – stadium (they pointed out The Kingdome from the freeway, which was enough for me). I look at my watch, and it appears I’ll be allowed to read the 1978 Pittsburgh Pirates preview at exactly 3:32pm.
Here’s how any given ten-year-old American sports nutball educated himself with the intricacies of baseball at the time. First, there were baseball cards. I bought them by the bushel at my local 7-11 and Quik Stop. Josh Wilker wrote a phenomenally nostalgic and often sad memory-hole book about 1970s baseball card collecting called Cardboard Gods – I highly recommend it. There was near-daily San Francisco Giants baseball on the radio on KSFO with Lon Simmons and Joe Angel (later Lindsay Nelson and Hank Greenwald), and I listened to every game I could.
While I wasn’t an Oakland A’s fan – my dad ensured that I inherited his love of the Giants and the National League, as well as his lifelong hatred of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers – it didn’t matter much that particular year of 1978, because A’s games all spring were broadcast by UC-Berkeley college radio station KALX, whose laughable 10-watt signal didn’t even reach the next-door city of Oakland, let alone our new home in San Jose. The A’s moved to radio station KNEW later in the season, and I couldn’t get their signal in San Jose either.
I really loved everything about baseball, but I especially loved how wonderfully the action on the radio and TV broke down onto paper, and allowed for much more engaged statistical contemplation. I dug deep into box scores and lists of batting averages. I’d mesmerize myself by comparing stolen bases across teams and lineups. I’d sometimes even score games I was listening to at home on homemade scorecards, tallying up my 6-3s, 5-3s, Ks and HRs at the end of each three-hour session. (This is now referred to as a “lost art”).
Mostly, though, my obsession was focused in and around all things San Francisco Giants. They’d been a bit of of a laughingstock in 1976 and 1977, as my fandom was solidifying. Veteran Willie McCovey and aforementioned power-hitting outfielder (and world-class postgame interview doofus) Jack Clark were my gods. My paternal grandfather – not the maternal one made to suffer on the trip to Canada – took me to my very first Giants game(s) in August 1977, a doubleheader against the “Big Red Machine” world champion Cincinnati Reds.
I remember the blessed event like it was yesterday – coming up the stairs of Candlestick Park and gasping as I caught sight of the field and scoreboard, as well as the monstrous grand slam that future hall of famer Joe Morgan hit to bury us in the second game. (Morgan would later become a Giant, and I would be fortunate to attend at age 14 the legendary 1982 season-ending game in which his home run eliminated the hated Dodgers from the playoff race, the day after they’d eliminated us).
The 1978 Giants, though, were actually good! In fact they spent most of that summer in first place, only to swoon to third at season’s end, and to return to their normal level of awfulness the following year. Yet what an amazing year that was across the board. I got to see Tom Seaver (again of the Reds) throw a 3-hitter against us with nearly 55,000 other fans in the freezing San Francisco fog/cold in a game that, though none of us knew it at the time, had been an early part of Pete Rose’s record 44-game hitting streak. I saw McCovey pinch hit a game-winning home run; I saw my hero Jack Clark up close and personal; I watched the exceptional Giants starting pitchers John “The Count” Montefusco, Vida Blue and Bon Knepper blow through opposing lineups; and I coerced my grandfather to buy me concession stand snacks every two innings, from polish sausages to malt cups to “big cookies”.
I also got really into APBA baseball, which was sort of the pre-fantasy baseball board game for obsessive dorks like myself. One could hide out in one’s room and recreate, with dice, a spinner and stat cards, an entire mock season of baseball with a team made up of actual players – and oh, I did. I did also play actual little league baseball with real living human beings every year until I was about 14, yet the futility of most late 70s Bay Area sports teams was generally mirrored by my own as a baseball player, perhaps as sort of a unknowing and unspoken tribute to my floundering heroes.
Baseball obsession eventually begat an NBA basketball obsession, which begat an NFL football obsession. My local Golden State Warriors and San Francisco 49ers were as abysmal in 1979 as the Giants and A’s were. The Giants went 71-91 that year; the A’s were an incredible 54-108; the 1979-80 Warriors went 24-58, and the 49ers notched a 2-14 record. These were truly the leanest years among many suffered by Bay Area sports diehards.
I even fell hard for NASL soccer for a while – and we had an actual professional team, the San Jose Earthquakes, right in our provincial little backyard. I’m sure I was probably insufferable on the schoolyard as a fount of would-be sports knowledge and statistical memorization, yet I mostly remember having friends that were just as strangely obsessed and willing to blather on about sports as I was.
The Bay Area sports radio leader, then as now, was San Francisco’s KNBR, 680 on your AM radio dial. They hadn’t moved to a sports-only format just yet, as they did in the 1980s, yet they had started poaching the local pro sports teams’ broadcasts from other stations, starting with the Giants that magical year of 1978. They also had a great nightly sports call-in show hosted by Ken Dito called Sportsphone 68. I listened religiously as Ken and his callers talked all things pro sports and picked apart the futility of our local teams. One of the most popular pastimes on the show was for a caller to ring up and propose some potential trade to Ken. For instance, some rube would opine that the Giants should trade Jack Clark and a player to be named later to Boston for power-hitting Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice, and then Ken would pick it apart and tell them why it was wrong; or in rare cases, why it was actually a great idea.
After months of listening to callers pontificate, wheel and deal, I got it in my 11-year-old head that I needed to stop passively listening and start participating in the grand conversation. At Dito’s urging, I dialed up Sportsphone 68 one night from my parents’ bedroom, was placed in the queue by a KNBR operator, and waited for Ken to take my call, listening from the bedroom’s clock radio all the while.
I really had a doozy of a basketball trade for him: ship out the Golden State Warriors’ top scorer, Robert Parrish (later to be a superstar in Boston, alongside Larry Bird), to the San Diego Clippers for the NBA’s then-leading rebounder, a big lunky Dutchman named Swen Nater. Dito jumped on the phone far faster than I was ready for him – “Sportsphone 68, you’re on the air”. Out of the clock radio, four seconds later, I heard Ken’s exact words pour out: “Sportsphone 68, you’re on the air, we have Jay from San Jose and he has a trade for us”. I was totally baffled and discombobulated, as everything he and I would say came out of the radio a few seconds later, and in that moment, I couldn’t tell my ass from my elbow.
“Uh….Ken…..um….uh….I’ve got a trade for you…..uh….Robert Parrish….uh, hello?….uh….for Swen Nater.”. Ken’s immediate and precise words were seared into my brain for eternity: “Now son, why would you want to do THAT? Thanks for calling – and turn off your radio next time you call”. Happily for KNBR listeners, there would be no next time.
In no way was that very public misfire the end of my sports obsession, but as I headed into my teens and the 1980s, I found new ways to fill my mental space, mostly by discovering punk and post-punk music, and the related unrefined thrill of record collecting. It took me until my late 30s to regain some of that same strange accumulative behavior with regard to sports – at times going through my obsessive motions with NHL hockey, at times with English Premier League soccer, and always with major league and San Francisco Giants baseball.
Today I work it all around my other, more important life obligations, and am better able to let it ebb and flow in a somewhat managed and non-off-putting manner. I let the internet shuttle much of the information I need directly to me in the form of podcasts, video clips and email newsletters, and though I recognize that my attention span is shortening and my intelligence is likely plummeting, I do appreciate that I can now dip in & dip out of Fulham or Warriors or Sharks or Giants mania at will.
That said, I possess the same sort of perverse pride many modern adults feel about their pre-internet-era childhood obsessions. We had to work at it all so much harder than these kids do today. Perhaps that actually deepened my love for the game. I’m not sure if I could have psychically handled having every 1978 MLB game instantly streamable on TV or my phone; every baseball book instantly deliverable to a Kindle; every argument-settling stat able to be called up at will from Baseball Reference.
I certainly recognize the ultimate frivolity of all this leisure-time onanism, both then and now, yet then I call up with clarity my memorized .306 / 25 / 98 Jack Clark 1978 stat line, and remember that I still know one thing – something very, very special – that only Clark, Mrs. Clark, about ten thousand other 70s baseball dorks and I know.
“Your employees — they just don’t like you” — Melanie Coyle, Cellular One Customer Service Director, to me in 1995
No, I wasn’t always the sure-footed, wizened, mentor-to-many corporate leader and in-demand management guru that I am today. In fact, my first real job as a “manager” began as something of a train wreck. Cellular One in 1995 almost broke my spirit, sapped my will to live and nearly got me sent packing for the high crime of being a nervous-Nellie, fumble-footed, greenhorn manager.
My adventures in the nascent world of cellular telephony started in the Fall of that year, when I exited after six years at Monster Cable (more on thatexperience here) and excitedly joined South San Francisco’s Cellular One as a Customer Service Supervisor. This was a pretty heady and massively profitable time for that industry, although the “mobile landscape” looks amazingly quaint by today’s standards.
Back then every market in the United States had only two cellular network carriers — an “A” carrier and a “B” carrier. Most of us didn’t have cell phones yet. “Car phones”, installed on the floorboards of an automobile, were actually still a thing. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the two mobile operators were GTE and Cellular One, the latter of which was a joint venture between AirTouch Cellular and AT&T Wireless. Down in Los Angeles, those two actually competed against each other, with the “A” carrier being L.A. Cellular (AT&T) and the “B” carrier being AirTouch. Confusing, sure, but nothing like it later became with the arrival of Sprint and many others. Competition was minimal, in other words.
Cellular One really had two problems at that point: counting all of the piled-up money they were making from the exploding mobile phone industry, and something called cloning fraud. This is how I came into the story.
First, a little bit about cloning fraud, which, again, sounds totally ridiculous in the 21st century. Anyone’s analog phone signal back then could be “cloned” by dastardly tricksters and malicious thieves. These guys waited by roadsides and at intersections with “cloning devices” that eavesdropped on signals and could easily capture a phone’s unique information, which could then be quickly reprogrammed into a new phone. Seriously! Now said phone number would be associated with two devices, and unbeknownst to the legitimate bill-paying Cellular One customer, the other phone would then go off and place calls to Mexico, Canada and Timbuktu. All of these calls, local and otherwise, would show up as massive (and very expensive) surprises on the monthly bill. This would, of course, immediately prompt a fretful and angry call into Cellular One from the legitimate bill-holder.
After my initial company training, I was told that I would be leading 8 call center representatives on the “Reactive Fraud” team. We would “react” to people whose phones had been cloned. I’d sit in a cubicle with my reps — later this became a pod-like “hub” in the center, with all of the reps in a circle at smaller desks around me — and I would intelligently coach them on bettering their craft, using my accumulated six years of wisdom from answering phones at Monster Cable. I was also warned that my job had very nearly been given to Kathryn, who was the team’s “Lead” (sort of an associate manager or the team’s Vice-President), and that she was none-too-happy for having lost out on a promotion to the job in favor of this new guy from outside the organization. As I came to find out, neither was my new team.
So here’s what I walked into. Cloning fraud was totally out of control, and angry bill-receivers were calling up en masse to scream at us — “I didn’t make these calls to Mexico!!!” etc. We had eight reps answering calls, but when those reps were all on the phone, calls into our “queue” would stack up, while callers listened to inane hold music. When there were ten calls in queue, a scary red light on the wall would light up, and someone would have to mute their line and yell “ten calls in queue!”, just in case there might be someone available, eating a snack or otherwise ignoring the tense pandemonium of the Reactive Fraud call center.
Yet what I didn’t do was answer calls, even when the light glowed hot red and bedlam ensued. I totally talked the talk without walking the walk. Why not? I guess I felt at the time that it was “below” my lofty perch as a newly-minted supervisor. I not only wouldn’t walk even a millimeter in their proverbial moccasins, I also had something of a fussy, perfectionist orientation at work back then that almost certainly rubbed some people the wrong way. I had even taken a work-administered personality test that flat-out called me a “perfectionist”, and it wasn’t described as being a desirable trait. This, I’m certain, came off in how I coached and managed the team.
A team that was already peeved that Kathryn wasn’t their leader now found an instant way to dislike me, and rightly so. I divined a chilliness bordering on hostility from most of them even after only a couple of weeks, and this truly pained me, so I made more than a few ham-handed attempts at “team building” to overcompensate. These mostly went nowhere, and likely made things worse. They ranged from forced “Hey, how was your weekend?” talks to morose team lunches that I tried to liven up with jokery and witty banter. I wore my weakness and nervousness on my sleeve, and even I was very aware of it at the time.
I never really figured out if Kathryn helped to rally the troops against me, but I do know that 3 employees, led by a rep of mine named Ann, went to my boss’s office to tell her just how awful I was. This then resulted in a “performance talk” between me and my boss. Ann — wow. She really, really hated me, and absolutely dripped contempt every time we talked. Was it unfair? I certainly thought so at the time — but I’m not so certain of that now.
I struggled with maintaining my serious I’m-here-to-coach-and-develop-you job role with my more natural state, which is to want to get along swimmingly with everyone. I tried to raise the meek defense to Stephanie, my manager, that at least some of my 8 employees liked me — Wayne did! Amy did! I was told, with regard to Amy, that “everybody already knows she’s your favorite”, which I had no intelligent retort for, because this was in fact true.
Very quickly, after another complaint from an employee, I was put on an “action plan”, the failure of which to fulfill would result in my termination. This was devastating. The job not only paid well, it was in one of the hottest industries on the planet, and I’d just gotten serious with a new girlfriend (now my wife). We were looking into moving in together and building a life together, as one does. I’d been, if not a “rock star” in my six years at Monster Cable, a highly-regarded employee who got really good performance reviews and had almost no friction with anyone, neither bosses nor co-workers. To now be called out as a “bad manager” was dumbfounding.
Worse, my eight reps were about to become twelve reps. My reactive fraud team soothed angry bill-receivers down by explaining cloning fraud to them, then “writing off” (zeroing out) their entire bill, rather than have them pick through the bill line-by-line saying “this one’s mine; this one’s not mine” and so on. Yet there was also a Proactive Fraud team on a different floor. These 4 reps were led by a cowboy boot-wearin’, pickup-truck drivin’ dude named Tim, whom they all adored. These reps had a magic terminal that they used to look into call activity as it was happening. They’d pick out those numbers that were spiking with calls to Mexico and elsewhere, then proactively call the customer to let them know they’d need to change their phone numbers. Back then, that really was the only way to stop it — change the number, which is what my reactive fraud team did as required.
I was informed that the Proactive Fraud team would now be mine as well, and that they were moving to our floor to sit with my other reps. You can imagine that this went over like a fart in church when Tim had to break it to them. At least two of the new women on my team, Julie and Rhonda, were vocally clear about how displeased they were to have to work for me.
Thankfully by this time, in early 1996, I had gathered my wits somewhat and returned some small semblance of pride. I was now personally answering calls, sometimes when there were even less than ten sitting in queue. I was able to share and revel in the lunchtime tales of some of the morons who called us, such as the reactive fraud call I once took in which the caller, whose bill I refused the write off in full, prodded me with “The fact that I have an MBA doesn’t impress you? The fact that I have a juris doctorate doesn’t mean anything to you??”.
Most importantly, I was off of my action plan, having successfully “resolved my issues”. It wasn’t easy, and it stressed me out no end to have to win over the reactive team while integrating the highly resistant proactive team. I wasn’t sleeping well. Julie, in particular, was consistently “snippy” and overtly hostile with me, but now that I finally had a little wind at my back, I was able to authoritatively remind her what her job was and what was expected of her, without having to worry about it boomeranging back on me. Somehow, just as the management books said it would, this approach worked.
Another employee of mine was more problematic. While he could be outwardly charming and fun, he often brought a massive chip on his shoulder to work, which then infected his calls. I’d listen in to him actively arguing with customers for no good reason, or ignoring their concerns by changing the subject — even going so far as to flat-out hang up on them during difficult calls. Now it was time for me to put together an “action plan”, which I sweated and agonized over because it was likely to lead to my having to fire him. We endured this sort of tense tête-à-tête with each other for about a month, and somehow I got out of canning the guy by quietly pawning him off on another department by arranging for a transfer (!). I still feel a little guilty about that one.
After my abysmal start in 1995, the comparatively better 1996 gave way to 1997, when I announced to my boss that I’d be leaving Cellular One in the late summer to get my MBA at the University of Washington in Seattle. I’d talked with some of the happy marketing people upstairs, and found out that they were doing much more creative & interesting work than I was, and were simultaneously making a great deal more money. They told me that an abrupt career change at that point in my life, aged 29, could be smoothed out by possession of an MBA, and while I’d much rather have gone back to school to study global literature, journalism or political science — really, just about anything other than business — I’d felt my path had already been set, and my risk-averse nature pushed me out the door toward my fate.
I never picked up a phone in a call center again, nor told anyone else how they might do it better. I never again found myself shamed and stained by an action plan. I learned a few things about what not to do as a newly-hired manager, which came in handy later on, particularly on one relatively recent occasion in which I again stepped in to lead an existing team of ten people.
Cloning fraud itself began to fade as new digital technologies were adopted both in the network and in handsets themselves, and as I was leaving Cellular One, the world was agog about the runaway success of the most advanced phone to date — the Motorola StarTAC, a flip phone with limited “SMS” capabilities. I cut virtually all ties with anyone and everyone at Cellular One, as I still held onto residual paranoia about what I envisioned was a widespread perception of my managerial incompetence, something that I’m now pretty certain I was merely imagining.
The whole experience seems to have been one of those trial-by-fire toughening events that make a life what it is. In the grander sweep of things, it was a decidedly minor bump in the road that I reckon I’m glad happened when it did, even if I’m still totally pissed at myself for not grabbing that tenth call in queue, thereby maybe avoiding the whole fiasco in the first place.
Admittedly, my first choice for fast food work in 1984 was at the Princeton Plaza branch of McDonald’s, also for $3.35 an hour, which was the era’s bottom-floor minimum wage. After straight-up hiring me during my initial interview — warm, pimple-pocked bodies always welcome — McD’s, alas, only gave me three hours of work per week for my initial month. My weekly gross of $10.05 just wasn’t going to cut it, even in that Reagan era of low taxes and high margins, so I quit McDonald’s before I’d even scraped my first grill or wrapped my first Filet-o-Fish.
Wienerschnitzel were more than happy to bring me aboard the team, however, and they threw me as many evening and weekend hours as I could handle. The chain, some of you may remember, was once called Der Wienerschnitzel. This is the place my dad used to take us to in the 1970s in Sacramento, a hot dog palace with a massive triangle-awning design (much like the old International House of Pancakes) and yellow-and-red color motif (representing mustard and ketchup, one presumes). The company did away with the “Der” in 1977, it is said, because their German conjugation was stupefyingly incorrect; it would have been rightly called Das Wienerschnitzel, but the place I toiled at seven years later was merely christened “Wienerschnitzel”, as it is to this day.
They were, and remain, “The World’s Largest Hot Dog Chain”. While they kept several varieties of hamburger on the menu, including a rye-bread-meat-&-cheese delicacy known as the “Patty Melt”, Wienerschnitzel was all about the dogs, and for what it’s worth, those dogs were fairly tasty, as harmful calories go. There were 5 core dogs during my day: the simple “Mustard Dog”, as no-frills as you’d imagine; the “Kraut Dog”, a nod perhaps to the company’s mangled faux-German ancestry; the “Chili Dog”; the extremely popular “Chili Cheese Dog”; and my hands-down favorite, the relatively healthful “Deluxe Dog”, which included mustard, onions, two tomato slices and a bun-length dill pickle tucked behind the meat. We had fries, we had drinks, and that was about it, save for a gross batter-dipped “corn dog” on a stick that only a handful of children very rarely ordered.
My first exciting day on the job — on any job — nearly got me canned before my 4-hour shift was even done. I was shown how to man the “french fry station”, in which my responsibilities were to pour frozen potatoes from a plain brown bag into a basket, then drop the basket into a fryer for two minutes, then salt the resulting fries profusely once cooked. More importantly, I had to listen to the audible orders called out by the cashier (“Three chili-cheese, two large fries, one patty melt”) for my lone cue word — fries — then scoop them into either a large cardboard holder (you know the kind) or a flimsy paper bag.
As you’ll see from the image to your left, french-fry scooping is totally and unfairly a right-hander’s game. I happen to be left-handed, and I’m embarrassingly uncoordinated with my right. Within minutes I was slowing down orders and angering customers as I fell way behind in my scooping, prompting the mealy-mouthed boss, a balding, middle-aged nincompoop named Dave, to patronizingly swoop in to “school” me on how to properly shovel french fries into a bag. I was trying to do everything with my left hand, and it wasn’t happening. “Is this even going to work??”, an exasperated Dave asked, rhetorically. Luckily mercy — or the pain of having to fire and hire yet another teenaged moron — intervened, and Dave hrumphed and mumbled his way into an immediate “lateral transfer” of me over to the drink station, which is where I wanted to be anyway.
Ah, drinks. Working the soda machine was home for my first 4–6 months at Wienerschnitzel, and it was glorious. I stood immediately to the cashier’s left. She’d slide over the paper receipt, I’d eyeball the various requested sizes of Dr. Pepper or Coke or Sprite, and I’d then position the appropriate cup under the nozzle after filling it halfway with ice. That’s it. Self-serve drink stations hadn’t been invented yet, or rather, were only situated at places like 7–11. It was way better than working “in the back”, flipping burgers or squirting mustard on hot dogs. I got to interact with the customers, too, and it turned out I kinda liked that.
Granted, my interactions with the hoi polloi were usually of the “a little less ice/a little more ice” variety. San Jose has a heavy Mexican immigrant population, and one time a young Mexican guy came in and looked me dead in the eyes & said with the utmost gravity, “Give me lots of ice”. I duly responded, yet when I handed him over his cup he retorted, “I said lots of ice, homey — I don’t want no snow cone”. Still one of my favorite customers of that or any other era.
We moved a great deal of high-fat caloric product, especially during meal times. Wienerschnitzel’s “rush” was an all-out war to quickly feed legions of people, and it could get really stressful. Thus, those of us who “closed” — working until the store shut down at 11pm, plus another hour to clean up — relished the relatively peaceful late nights for all sorts of hijinks and shenanigans. There was a oafish guy whom we worked with named Ralph who told the assembled crew one night that he’d actually drink the grease trap — the accumulation of hamburger drippings and fat runoff — on a dare. Not for money, merely on a dare. I believe I actually made the initial dare, which was rapidly seconded by all 4 of my remaining co-workers, at which point he loosened the metal contraption from beneath the grill, hauled it outside behind the store, tipped the contents into his mouth, made one swallow, and promptly barfed. And yes, his name was Ralph.
Late nights were also when the drunk-driving customers would stagger in. One night the cashier position was being womaned by a sassy Latina named Deena, and I was again working to her left, pouring drinks/snow cones. Two disheveled alcoholics shuffled in, and one proceeded to order, “One cheeseburger, dropped on the floor”. We both engaged in some customer-friendly double-takes and polite clarifications — “Sir, can you please repeat your order”; “Sir, that’s not something that we serve here”; “Sir, are you sure that that’s what you’d like” and so on. Once he’d confirmed his demand, we were absolutely going to ensure that supply kept up; or rather, Deena was, as she first loudly announced the exact order on her microphone to the entire staff and all Wienerschnitzel patrons, then proclaimed “I’m going to make this motherfucker myself”. She then strolled back to the hamburger station, grabbed a waiting cheeseburger with the flipper, lifted it high above her head, and slapped it down hard onto the disgusting tile floor, the same floor that Ralph, myself and others had been striding across all night. After putting it on a bun and dressing it just so, she then delivered it directly to his table, rather than calling him to the counter, which was truly customer relations above and beyond the norm.
I, like Deena, used my burgeoning skills to eventually graduate to direct customer relations, and for a time I was the only male cashier on the Branham Plaza Wienerschnitzel staff. My winning personality and customer-centric charm may have been a factor; more likely, I had not yet succumbed to any graft nor embezzlement outside of the odd Deluxe Dog, and therefore could be trusted handling small bills. I had a high school friend also named Dave who’d come in after football practice, and he would routinely proceed to order (and eat!) 2 hamburgers and 3 hot dogs in one sitting. I may have occasionally cut him a deal or two on that extra chili-cheese dog, but I think manager Dave found me to mostly be “on the level”, even if I couldn’t scoop a fry to save my life.
I bungled the biggest opportunity presented to me, however, and it’s something I deeply regret to this day. As McDonald’s had its clown and Burger King its king, so Wienerschnitzel too had its mascot — “Der Wiener Dog”. One Saturday it was announced by our new manager Kim that Der Wiener Dog himself was going to be spending the day waving at cars on the corner of Pearl & Branham in San Jose, which meant that an employee of Wienerschnitzel at Pearl & Branham was going to be spending his or her day holed up in the Der Wiener Dog costume.
The only criteria for the role was that you had to fit into the thing, and as it turned out I fit into it perfectly. Immediately overcome with a rash of hormone-surging teenage embarrassment — “this is so lame” etc. — I announced that I wouldn’t do it, no way. Thankfully, my co-worker Debra was another person whose shape filled out the costume as remarkably as mine did, but I proceeded to watch her with envy from my cashier station all day as she handed out lollipops, danced with children, and flagged down Camaros to pull into the parking lot for 2-for-1 chili cheese dogs. I was so instantly filled with regret for passing up this golden opportunity to break from the norm that for years I told a “white lie” (OK, a bald-faced, straight-up lie) to friends that I, indeed, had been the Der Wiener Dog for one unforgettable day. But no.
Around the time I was going to the Valley Christian High School Senior Ball with my co-worker Cheri (more about that here), I came upon my one year anniversary as a Wienerschnitzel employee in good standing. My reward for my year of service was a raise — a whopping ten-cent raise from $3.35 to $3.45 per hour. As would become my annoying stock in trade in subsequent jobs, I immediately argued to Kim that my immense contributions to the firm were outsized relative to those of my slothful co-workers, and that I deserved at least a twenty-cent boost in my hourly enumeration. Rebuffed, I quit Wienerschnitzel without so much as two weeks’ notice, choosing to meekly call in my resignation from the comfort of my familial home rather than bombastically give it face-to-face to my exploitative corporate overlords.
I never worked in food service again. Perhaps Kim blackballed me. More likely, once I graduated to lucrative $4 per hour phone soliciting jobs, there was no looking back. Wienerschnitzel, including the location at the corner of Pearl & Branham in San Jose, survives to this day, although as a lesser light in the pantheon of American fast food. I dropped by there a couple of years ago for old times’ sake (and because I was hungry as hell) after visiting my parents. They still have all the same hot dogs, and a whole lot more. They’ll now even put chili on your french fries — something we didn’t have the gastronomic foresight to even suggest to management! I excitedly told the young man at the drink station that I’d once held his job, over 30 years ago (!), in this exact same location, in that exact same spot, doing the exact same thing behind the same Wienerschnitzel counter…!
I didn’t even want to go to my high school’s “Senior Ball”, but I ended up going to two of them — mine, plus a bizarre, Christian-themed non-dance at Valley Christian High that turned out to be even more demoralizing than my own.
These blessed events occurred during the Reagan-era 1980s, somewhat after the values of traditional male/female courtship had started to crumble, even while the codified rituals of mating remained. I had totally bailed on attending my end-of-year Junior Prom the year before, in 1984. I told myself at the time that this was because I was too much of a self-identified “outsider” to actually care about what the normal kids thought was important. Perhaps there’s even a bit of truth there, yet it’s much more likely that I either couldn’t identify a likely date, or I was too chicken to ask one to accompany me.
What I mostly remember about the Spring of 1985 was how much I thirsted, yearned for high school to be over with. Matriculating from San Jose, California’s Gunderson High and getting the hell out of town and high-tailing it to college had reached a fever pitch, yet there was the informal yet significant pressure of the vaunted “Senior Ball” to contend with. Alas, I didn’t have a girlfriend, nor any likely candidate to become one at that juncture, and this caused me much internal consternation, frustration and even embarrassment. Perhaps college might bequeath the debut of my inner lothario, as I was mere months away from embarking on a move to Santa Barbara to attend the University of California (spoiler alert: it mostly didn’t).
As Gunderson’s Senior Ball approached, I contended with some very gentle parental pressure to attend (“It’s your last year — why not attend? It’s a tradition” etc.), which my internal teenage guilt and shame thereby magnified into some pretty intense pathos, forcing me into a tortured corner of my own making. I was going to have to do this thing, because damn it, I’m worth it. I’m a totally normal late-adolescent. Totally normal. I can take a foxy girl on a fabulous dress-up date. Oh, but girls mostly ignore me. I’ll probably be laughed at when I ask someone. Wait — what if I’m mocked by dudes for whom I’ve chosen as my date? Then what?
This sort of ping-ponging internal monologue was a shining hallmark of my adolescence. With hindsight, I’ve learned that this certainly was in no way unique to me. By the time I actually gathered the gumption to ask someone out, the 12th grade gossip mill had already churned out many of the names of whom was taking whom. Like a baseball draft, we were already down to the 42nd round. Virtually every girl I personally knew was “taken”, and those who remained either couldn’t hit the fastball, only had three of the five tools, or were too frequently fooled by the off-speed pitch. Or I was too lame and superficial to see the “lady” hiding inside of the girl.
But wait! Dawn Collins. Dawn was a junior (i.e. an 11th grader), the sister of a classmate and sort-of-friend of mine, Brian Collins. At this writing both reside in the where-are-they-now files, and appear to be completely unfindable on social media or the internet writ large (I tried really hard, for about five minutes). In 1985, Dawn Collins was an out-of-my-league beauty who, unlike most 16–17 year-olds, actually smiled at me in the halls and laughed at my rare and feeble attempts at humor in the infrequent moments that the two of us socialized.
I grappled with a massive bout of nervousness regarding how I might be perceived for inviting a mere junior, let alone Dawn Collins, to go with me, which reflected the tyranny of small differences in numeric age that are endemic to young people in my culture. Overcoming this, I somehow phoned to ask her to accompany me to the 1985 Gunderson High School Senior Ball, and to my delight and terror, she politely and immediately said yes.
Honestly, that’s pretty much the high point of this part of the story. Any ideas I had at all about what I was supposed to do in this scenario — the boutonniere, the suit, the etiquette of appearing at Dawn’s house and meeting her parents — all came via careful coaching from my parents. All I remember is the tension. Dawn and I pretty much ran out of things to talk about during the 20-minute drive it took to get to the hotel where this thing was being held, yet she was extremely gracious and cool in the face of what was clearly not destined to be the proverbial Night To Remember for either of us. The theme of the dance, in fact, was “One More Night”, after the recent Phil Collins hit of the same name. Indeed it was merely one more night.
There was some awkward 80s dancing, some fancy food on my plate that I didn’t eat, and this lone picture that you see at the top of this page. I recall sitting at a circular table with fellow students who weren’t my friends or even acquaintances. One of Gunderson’s few African-American students, a funny dude named Derek, broke a Hoover Dam-sized wall of tension by loudly complaining to a waiter about the rare meat he’d been served by proclaiming “This thing is still mooin’!”. Those seconds were the first, and possibly only, time I actually felt comfortable the entire night.
If Dawn and I talked again during my last two weeks at school outside of brief pleasantries, I really don’t remember it. There was no after-party, no chugging wine coolers in the parking lot, no rented limo to take her down to Santa Cruz to make out on the beach, nothing like that. My lasting impression of her was that she was a hell of a “good sport” for accompanying me to something I had no business attending, nor any true desire to attend.
However, there was yet a second Senior Ball to take part in! In the week before mine, I was demurely asked by my Wienerschnitzel co-worker, Cheri, to accompany her to hers. Cheri — whose last name I’m sure I knew at the time, but don’t recall now — had the stones to actually ask me to my face, unlike me, who resorted to nervously calling Dawn, despite seeing her repeatedly at school every day.
Now I don’t pretend to know how it really all went down, but given the lateness of her invitation — the Valley Christian Senior Ball was only two weeks away — I got the sense that this time it was me who was the godforsaken 47th-round draft pick. Never mind asking out a junior, how about the dorky guy not from your school, from the greasy fast-food restaurant you worked at – a guy whom you’d never even flirted with before? Cheri was a shy, pretty, sweet and very Christian girl, and I have to believe that she too was suffering from the same internal torture/pressure I had.
I liked Cheri, I really did, but I was thrown totally off guard by her invite — which I of course accepted immediately (hey, I’m not a total heel). Perhaps I didn’t spring into action right away, or maybe it was her fault for asking me so late, but by the time I made it to the rented-suit store to grab something to wear, the only thing left was a foul, loud burgundy suit. Ashamed, I rented it nonetheless, hoping against hope that others might show up at Valley Christian’s soiree with the same color suit. (One other doofus did, but everyone else kept to smart & classy gray or black suits).
I’m able to call up even less about this event than my own, save for one jolting surprise. After the initial hors d’oeuvres were served, my extensive Senior Ball experience had trained me to expect that this was when we’d begin our dancing, likely to the Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Eurythmics hits of the era. I hated (um, hate) dancing, but you know — at least I had a little bit of recent background in Senior Ball dancin’.
Instead, a motivational speaker climbed up to the podium, and proceeded to deliver a stem-windingly unbearable thirty-minute speech about accepting Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior Into Our Hearts. As if these poor urchins weren’t suffering enough! Having been an atheist from the age of five, albeit a terribly naive one who didn’t expect such a performance at the Valley Christian High School Senior Ball, I quickly lodged a muffled complaint with Cheri about this turn of events. She didn’t exactly scowl at me, but she was decidedly less than pleased. I was not the Dawn to her Jay. I was, unfortunately, the Jay to her Cheri.
There was a dinner, I believe, and then a disturbingly quiet car ride home. Cheri never talked to me again at work (sensing a trend here?) aside from grunts of begrudging recognition, and then the summer was upon us. We both quit Wienerschnitzel right after the Ball and got on with real life, getting ready for college or to better ourselves with one last summer job.
I’d have passed on both of these things had I foreseen both my eventual discomfort and the anticlimactic nature of these Balls. I hold few regrets from this time, aside from wholly normal longings of the “if only I knew then what I know now” variety. I’d have brimmed with self-confidence, charm and outstanding sartorial choices. I’d have rejected the dog and pony show of the Senior Ball, and invited Dawn Collins — and hell, probably Cheri too — to drink Rolling Rocks behind the Oakridge Mall with me instead.
Maybe if they ever turn up on the internet, someday I will.
Suckering the gullible and “the great unwashed” has been a time-honored tradition in America since the Articles of Confederation. From 1800s medicine shows to 2010s online Viagra and Cialis scams, the list of methods used to successfully part Americans from their money is perpetual and never-ending. My personal role in this cavalcade of cruelty is quite small, yet is ultimately a stain on my conscience nonetheless.
Our story takes place in 1988, at the unmarked offices of Broughton Hall Publishing at 3554 State Street in Santa Barbara, California. I was a 20-year-old college student in desperate need of spending money. Broughton-Hall were a mendacious peddler of hokey booklets that promised riches and rewards to credulous and similarly desperate rubes all over the United States. We operated a pseudo-boiler room, of sorts, in which we’d take incoming long-distance calls from people all over the country who’d been pulled into our orbit by classified ads placed in their local throwaway weekly papers and in niche magazines. These ads promised them “Foreclosed Homes Available for $1”, “How to Get a Job in TV Commercials” or “How to Get a Job on a Cruise Ship”, among other schemes.
This was how I made my living during the summer of 1988, between my Junior and Senior years of college at UC-Santa Barbara. Upon reflection and further investigation, the whole thing has turned out to be even more unseemly — and criminal — than I’d remembered.
I don’t recall how I stumbled upon the gig answering calls at Broughton Hall, but my background in outbound phone soliciting (aka “telemarketing”) was obviously impressive enough. I’d attempted to sell storm windows to homeowners in sunny San Jose, California for a few months while in high school, working for a company called Roval; I’d similarly earned some subsequent drinking money conducting surveys for a Board of Supervisors candidate in Santa Barbara earlier in 1988 (he lost).
The woman who hired and brought me into Broughton Hall was a mousy thirtysomething who effectively gave me my script and then set me loose. Her oversight, as we’ll soon learn, was nearly nonexistent, which made for a much more satisfying work environment than I’d anticipated. I worked elbow-to-jowl with about 25 or 30 other “sales reps”, I guess you’d call us, taking calls for four hours at a time from our hapless marks. We were a motley mix of college students, housewives and yes, pseudo-professional phone solicitors, some of whom had been putting in daily 8-hour shifts at Broughton Hall for several years. I remember at least one dopey lifer who let it be known it was that he — not us moonlighting part-timers— who was the top telemarketing dog in the office.
What we were “selling” to our callers was a variety of dreams, escapes and get-rich-quick ideas — and ultimately, a pack of lies. Broughton Hall would place simple classified ads that peddled some fantastic hook — “Earn money Reading Books! $30,000/year potential”; “Repossessed VA and HUD homes available from government from $1 without credit check”; “Wanted: People interested in becoming actors for TV commercials”, and so on.
Each ad provided an (805)-area code phone number to call for details. This was usually 805–682–7555 or 805–962–8000. The caller would identify to us that they were calling “Extension T-1018” or “Extension “J-1060”, which would then tell each rep in the call center which pitch we needed to read off. “T” might mean we’d talk to them about how to get a government job; “J” might mean how to get a job on a cruise ship; “X” might be how to buy a home for $1.
The codes for which scripts to read were on a taped-up piece of paper on the walls in front of our tiny desks. I’d take a call from someone looking for a job in the airline industry, for instance, and I’d start talking about how the airlines were hiring right now, how the opportunities were too lucrative to pass up, and that — wait for it — for only $10 we’d send you a book called “How To Get a Job in the Airline Industry” that would tell you all about it. No homes, no jobs, no cars, no TV auditions. A book.
Invariably and predictably, this was a big letdown for my callers — and it’s where my finely-honed sales skills would have to come into play, had I had any. With the passage of time, I’m a bit fuzzy on which skills I even used, exactly, but I recall being at least decent at the job, if not quite a “top seller”. I also recall that my soft-spoken, mousy-haired boss really didn’t care much one way or the other.
The whole scam was to sell books — not books, mind you, but cheap paper booklets. These were written by pseudonymous authors like “Robert Hancock”and “Sylvia Carpenter”, both of whom, judging by the range of titles they published, certainly knew a great deal of information about a great many completely unrelated things.
Broughton Hall wouldn’t really let the telemarketers see those 8.5”x11” paper booklets, shameful as they were. They were kept in a locked back room, yet I was able to find my way in there once with some co-workers who had tipped me off as to just how sordid this whole endeavor was. The booklets were flimsy and poorly-written lists of tips and advice, more than anything else — nothing that would truly enable one to buy a home for $1 nor get a job in TV, but that pretended to do so well enough that, I’m assuming, the company could claim “truth in advertising” on some delusional level.
Our customers, if they didn’t balk at the $10 price, would then be asked to provide a credit card for the book (most didn’t have one), or accept the book “C.O.D.” (cash on delivery), which was the inevitable payment method of choice for most. While COD ran the risk of remorseful non-acceptance once the mailman showed up at the door, the decline rates for the book were far smaller than one might expect. I seem to recall a figure along the lines of 25% rejected and returned, which meant that 75% of our COD customers were still excited and eager for their promised financial or employment windfalls, even when the sad and depressing booklet actually arrived a week later.
Who were our customers, ultimately? For lack of a better term, they were the near-permanent denizens of America’s lower socio-economic stratas — my countrymen and countrywomen who habitually read publications like the Weekly World News, and who would spend money on long-distance calls based upon promises made in a 2-line classified ad. Toll-free 1–800 numbers did exist in 1988, but ours was a full-charge long-distance call to the 805 area code. I suspected that Santa Barbara’s “805” area code played to our advantage, as it may have reminded our callers of the free calls they’d previously placed to “800” numbers.
They called from places like Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Hemet, California. They called from Dothan, Alabama and Alligator Point, Florida. They did not call from New York City, Cambridge nor San Francisco. I recall most calls ending in a disappointed “oh…no thanks…..nevermind”, once I’d provided my punchline, but occasionally I’d truly have to work hard to overcome objections to close the sale. “Wait, is this really going to work?”, I’d be asked. My response was invariably, “Take a look at the guide — it will tell you everything you need — and I’ll have it in today’s mail for you. Can I mail it out today? Will that be credit card or COD??”
One guy who’d called in about the foreclosed homes told me, “Ten dollars?! I only have two dollars — one for the home, and one for the call!”. Others might regale me with tales of their previous “acting experience” in junior high school musicals, or tell stories about that one time they’d flown on an airplane to grandma’s in Corpus Christie, and how they’d always had a love of airplanes and wouldn’t it be a real treat to work on one…? We even had an suckers-bet closing pitch for money-conscious consumers: “Send us a copy of your phone bill, and we’ll pay you back for the call!”. I have little insight into how, or whether, this was actually ever done.
Sometimes one of the two supervisors would tape a $10 bill on the wall in front of our row of phones. Whoever first conned, say, twenty customers into giving us their addresses and accepting COD delivery of these booklets that day would get the money. Tactics like these enabled Broughton Hall to become a powerhouse in their field, such as it was.
I believe in retrospect that my demoralization set in early, because even though I only worked at Broughton Hall for about 5 months, I moved quickly with several co-workers into “improving” our calls, solely and completely for our amusement. For instance, we’d dare each other to take calls using ridiculous foreign accents. I remember trying on my best “British” for one of my Tennessee gentleman callers, and then laughing so hard in the middle of my spiel that I hung up on him.
We inexplicably had the ability to each jump onto each other’s phone lines, using the landline phones with 6 square, clear-plastic punch-buttons that represented line 1, line 2, line 3, and so on up to 6. Getting onto each other’s calls was simply a matter of each of us pressing the same blinking square, indicating an incoming call, at the same time.
One other college student co-worker and I perfected this game in which we’d both jump on the same call as it came in, then “trade” lines in our script, one after the other. I’d read one out to the caller (“We’re excited that you called in about getting a government job today”), then he’d read the next one (“That’s why we’d like to tell you how to unlock the secrets of getting a job in the government”) — with no thought given to how absurd we must have sounded. Amazingly, we actually made it through most calls doing this gag without being caught, nor without cracking up. I only remember one person saying, “Hey — there are two of you talking!”, which we hotly denied before carrying on the gag. We tried to take it to the next level once, in which we traded off every word, but this unfortunately lasted about one sentence (“We’re.” “Excited”. “That”. “You” etc.) before we each lost it, and abruptly abandoned our caller.
I had a favorite co-worker toward the end whose name escapes me, but he was a Mexican-American who deliberately did everything in his power to make me laugh on his calls. In the course of taking down a customer’s mailing information, he loved to confirm the spelling of their names or streets by saying things like, “That’s a B, as in Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato Sandwich?” or “That’s a T, as in Turkey with Extra Gravy”? I don’t know how he held it together while doing that routine, but I know many of my own calls were severely disrupted by half-listening to his.
If it sounds like my aforementioned supervisor was fairly “hands-off”, that would be 100% correct. She either didn’t believe in call monitoring, or didn’t care to do so. Perhaps she liked the paycheck and hated employee conflict; perhaps she was retaliating on behalf of economically oppressed America by letting us persist in our shenanigans. I know that I skipped my final scheduled day of work in October 1988 due to having stayed up until 5am with the members of the rock band Mudhoney, who had played on my college radio show the night before and drunkenly crashed at my cousin’s and my apartment. When I sheepishly showed up a few days later to collect my final check, my absence was only barely noted, and I happily put Broughton Hall behind me.
Until I started writing this “wasn’t this early job of mine so funny?” piece, I didn’t even recall the name Broughton Hall. I only remembered where it was located on State Street, and using Google Earth, I was able to grab the photo you see here of the exact building in which it was located in 1988, which now houses a fitness center, as well as its address at 3554 State Street. Noting that it was located then next to the still-active coffee/tea/gift shop Vices & Spices, I called that business, and I asked them if they remembered the name of their next-door neighbor of 28 years ago, and after the longtime owner Henry Wildenborg went off to ask his longtime partner, Mr. Wildenborg called me back with the name Broughton Hall, which then fired off not only my memory synapses but also a furious Google search.
The ad jumped out at Nichole Cook, an at-home mother with one child and another on the way.
Read books at home and get paid for it, it basically said. Unable to work outside the home but needing the extra income, Cook, of Wahiawa, jumped at the chance.
She called the company and was impressed at how much they said she would be paid for proofreading manuscripts. “This is cool,” thought Cook. “This isn’t one of those scam things, or so I thought.”
Broughton Hall, a Santa Barbara telemarketing firm that advertised work-at-home guides in newspapers across the nation, including Hawaii, yesterday pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to one count of false advertising in interstate commerce, a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act.
“In their ads, they represented that people could earn $30,000 a year working at home and they had no basis for making that claim,” said U.S. Attorney Brent Whittlesey.
The violation carries penalties of a maximum six months in jail and $10,000 fine. Broughton Hall was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $236,000 to victims of their fraudulent advertisements, Whittlesey said.
Broughton Hall, one of the largest telemarketing companies in Southern California, was also ordered to dissolve the corporation and is prohibited from conducting business anywhere in the future, he said.
The company had been operating for the past 20 years, with revenues of $4.5 million a year. Broughton Hall officials could not be reached for comment.
It turned out that this 1999 conviction was not Broughton Hall’s first brush with the wrong side of the law. In 1998, The Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the California Attorney’s General office and the Tulare County, California, District Attorney’s office charged Broughton Hall and five other Santa Barbara-based telemarketing companies with fraud, and sought redress for complainants.
From a November 1998 press release:
The California Attorney General filed a civil action in state court in San Diego against Broughton Hall and its president Pamela R. Byrne. The complaint alleges defendants engaged in false advertising and unfair business practices and seeks an injunction, restitution and civil penalties.
According to the Attorney’s General office, Broughton Hall, which does business under the names of “Employment Information Center” and “Information Center,” places classified ads in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States. The ads are generally under the “Help Wanted,” “Employment Services” or “Business Opportunities” headings and promise $30,000 or more per year income potential for reading books or for doing typing or word processing at home. Broughton Hall does not, however, provide employment or employment services, the Attorney’s General office said. And consumers who call the company to get a refund are put on hold for as long as an hour, treated rudely, and hung up on.
Having been wholly shut down in 1999, there’s not much of a further online trail to follow for Broughton Hall. It appears that they received their proverbial just desserts. I had mostly forgotten this unsavory job of mine save for some of the wacky stories I’ve just relayed until my memory was jarred by my cousin Doug, who’d remembered me unwinding over a beer with stories from each day’s telemarketing sessions. I’m honestly surprised and chagrined that the scam lasted as long as it did at Broughton Hall.
Later, in the 1990s, we’d see the introduction of the nationwide “Do Not Call” list that legally prevented telemarketers from rudely interrupting one’s dinner (it is not a coincidence that Roval Storm Windows of San Jose, CA is no longer in business?). We got the internet, which provided far better ways to lure in unsuspecting prey. We saw the evisceration of the classified ad marketplace by CraigsList and others, which lessened or removed these sections from both supermarket tabloids and weekly newspapers (in the latter’s case, the classified ad-pocalypse removed weekly newspapers themselves). We effectively saw the death of COD.
And — perhaps FTC and local law enforcement actually kept their eyes on the ball for once, it would seem, and decided to prosecute deceitful and harmful trade practices such as Broughton Hall’s.
My role in all of this doesn’t keep me up much at night, given that I was a doofus post-teenager with zero true work experience and a lack of a finely-honed ethical compass. Rather, the story illustrates a small link in a long chain of hucksterism that undercuts the stories American commerce tells about itself, and illuminates uncomfortable truths about class, education and small-e exploitation. That would be “E”, as in “English Muffin with a Poached Egg on Top”.
Thank you to Doug Miller for the inspiration, and to Henry Wildenborg for the detective work assistance.
Think back to your first serious, full-time paying job — particularly one you stayed at for longer than a year or two. Chances are, much of your lifelong sense of the workplace — how it operates, how one maneuvers within it, and how work does or doesn’t get done — was stamped upon you at that first job. Perhaps every place of employment since then has been implicitly or even explicitly measured against that formative experience.
For those of us who worked diligently and hard at Monster Cable in the early 1990s, these lessons, such as they were, haven’t been easily forgotten. To a person, the people with whom I’ve kept in touch with since that time have amassed a fantastic assortment of stories, anecdotes, quotes, quibbles and lifelong relationships that were incubated during that time. On Facebook, we’ve shared some of these hijinks and shenanigans back and forth, leading me to dubiously anoint myself the oracle and shepherd of these times, lest they be forgotten by all.
First, some background.
I graduated from college at 21 years of age in 1989 with a highly uncoveted degree in English literature, with zero idea of what I actually wanted to do with my life. After losing out on a much-desired copy editing gig, and while quite seriously considering full-time work slumming it as a parking lot attendant & living with my parents in San Jose, I answered an ad to be a customer service rep at Monster Cable in South San Francisco, CA. I recall thinking at the time that it was probably a cable television company, and that cable TV might be kind of a fun sector to work in.
Six years later, in 1995, I left Monster Cable — but not after accumulating six years’ worth of ridiculous character observations, uninformed workplace stereotypes and enough stories to fill a three-ring binder.
Monster Cable in the early 1990s was in the throes of a transition from being a consumer electronics bit player driven by a self-imposed cult of personality around founder, CEO and “Head Monster” Noel Lee to being a quite successful and profitable cog in the greater audiophile ecosystem.
The company, far from being in cable TV, sold high-end speaker cable and what we then called “interconnects” that linked various pieces of your stereo set-up together. No longer limited by the “garbage wire” that came in the box with one’s speakers, consumers were now free to spend ten, twenty and even hundreds of dollars upgrading to Monster Cable’s superior products, with the assurance that said cables had been minutely engineered to flat-out sound better. Audiophiles loved them, or at least claimed to.
The company had a “pro” line as well of guitar cables and keyboard hook-ups that Lee worked closely with various cheeseball musicians like Boz Scaggs and stores like Guitar Center to promote. Lee’s marketing prowess was truly something, and it helped make his company into a behemoth that would later have the money to spend on full naming rights to the San Francisco 49ers’ stadium (“Monster Park”, 2004–2008) — though, truth be told, the naming rights were procured for a bargain basement price of $6M for 4 years. The company attended every trade show & conference and maximized every branding opportunity available to them, building a dealer network around the country that was getting drunk on the high commissions and profit margins Monster Cable sales afforded them.
In the early 1990s, the smaller, soon-to-be-bigger company — both factory and offices — was located near the 101 freeway at the end of a cul-de-sac in an industrial part of South San Francisco, at 274 Wattis Way. This is where our story takes place.
Before we get going, I want to issue a caveat that there’s no animosity nor ill will on my part to anyone in this story. With the passage of nearly 25 years, these pre-internet recollections of workplace foibles and chicanery are just that — fun recollections. There were well over 500 people who cycled through Monster Cable’s employment doors during the early 90s, and this oral history contains only a very biased smattering of them. Of the ones not consulted here, some are deceased; some have zero internet presence; some were in upper management, and would therefore negate this as a “bottoms-up” tale; and obviously, most simply weren’t asked (this isn’t a book, merely an online-only oral history).
More to the point, I recruited those whom I was already friends with and had kept in touch with over 20+ years. Sadly, it’s far more “dude-centric” than I had wished for, and does not reflect the fact that Monster Cable was a very gender-integrated workplace with women well-placed both in upper management and in virtually every department. I asked multiple 1990s female co-workers for contributions but had to settle for the (excellent) reminiscences from some of my male comrades.
So take this as tenderly-remembered tales from a long-ish time ago, told by a small cross-section of people who were there.
Noel Lee — The Head Monster
Thayer Walker: Noel Lee was a non-stop marketing machine who introduced the audio world to the high-end cable industry. His constant tweaking applied not only to the development and marketing of products, but to his theories and philosophy of company functions and culture. There would be a collective departmental cringe followed any statements that began with “Noel wants…”
Danny Tanaka: When the Soviet Union was collapsing in, I think about, 1991 Noel had gone to Moscow to talk to a man about being the Monster Cable distributor for Russia. The State Dept. had issued advisories about the safety of being anywhere in the Soviet Union. I was sitting in Irene’s office when she called Noel at his hotel and suggested that he leave and go to Germany or London until the situation was better. She told him that there were reports of tanks in the streets. After looking out the window he reported back that there was literally no one in the streets and he didn’t see any tanks either and no he wasn’t going to leave. I later learned that the hotel staff knocked on his door and convinced him that it was time to go.
Phil Keeley: I started at Monster when it was located on Townsend Street in the late 1980s. It became clear that Noel and his inner circle were sort of their own clique: Rita, Jim Hanson, Irene Baran and others. Long, closed-door meetings. Strange, urgent plans being hatched. I decided I would never be among this inner circle, and had no desire to get to know the King Himself. So I ignored him as best as I was able.
Danny Tanaka: Noel’s gold-digger girlfriend was a gem. She showed up one day with three unsavory Hong Kong Chinese guys in black suits and black ties and sunglasses. They never unbuttoned their suit jackets. She wanted to introduce them to Noel because they wanted to invest in Monster Cable. I don’t know how he got out of that one.
Jay Hinman: I rarely had interactions with him. There was something about him being the CEO, and me being this green customer service rep, that kept me a bit intimidated. One time in Chicago at a Consumer Electronics Show, I happened to be walking next to him for one of the first times ever, and he just reached out to his right and handed me his really heavy briefcase — “Here”. Not hey, do you mind carrying this, I’m a little tired, but “here”. So I silently walked him to the taxi line and handed it back to him once he got in. I couldn’t believe it. We didn’t speak, he didn’t say thank you — just “here”. I don’t think we spoke again for at least another year or two.
Glenn Munlawin: In Dallas at some CEDIA show, Noel needed help to his car. He was at the booth and asked, er, commanded me to walk him downstairs to where his car was parked (Porsche 911). Since he had a limp (I heard later he had hip problems) he stopped and told me to just fetch his car, which was literally almost 50 feet away.
Jay Hinman: Late in my career there — seriously, I’d been working there at least four years at that point — we went into a 6-person meeting with Noel and sat around a conference table, and before we got started he pointed right at me and said, “Who’s he?”.
Phil Keeley: Six or seven years after I started, I was the Production Manager. On many occasions the PA system would announce that I was needed in Noel’s office. I inevitably ignored these pleas. But Noel had such a short attention span that whatever urgent query I might answer was quickly forgotten as he beat up on those foolish enough to assemble in his office while he free-associated plans, products, financial schemes and other disorganized topics as they entered his head. One of the mysteries of my informal power was my complete lack of fear of Noel Lee.
Howard Harman — The Silver Fox of Sales
Jay Hinman: Harman was a white-haired, smooth-talking sales VP — a true “silver fox” — who was impossible not to like. He was quite successful in working with our dealer reps, and had a personality that was all its own.
Glenn Munlawin: Whenever he walked into the men’s restroom and he saw you at a urinal, his infamous phrase, “Shaking hands with the champ, eh?!” never failed to bring a laugh.
Jay Hinman: He said it every time, without exception, during the six years I worked there. That’s a lot of “shaking hands with the champ”.
Thayer Walker: Howard would see you at the coffee maker, waiting for the pot to fill. “Drinking on the job, eh?” he’d say, quick-stepping his way through the office, slim and upright, silver hair and beard trimmed just so. He was your pal, and tried to encourage the cubicle inhabitants in the non-air conditioned section of office where we received consumer calls and battered our old keyboards to enter the orders. “Working hard or hardly working?” he’d say on his way to the fax machine.
Danny Tanaka: I remember him walking around at Chinese New Year’s with his little red lai see envelope in which he had replaced the $5 bill with a $100 bill, just to flash in front of people so that they would think he got more money than they did.
Jay Hinman: There was this attractive woman named Diane that worked there a short while, and one time she was wearing a miniskirt and walking down a long hallway with Howard following her at a distance, and me following Howard at a similar distance. His eyes were zeroed in on her for a good ten seconds as we walked, and finally he couldn’t help himself. While she continued to walk, he stopped her progress with “Wearing your short dress today, eh?”. She turned beet-red, and starting walking quite a bit faster.
Thayer Walker: At the Christmas party one year he played the Santa, and as he careened down the stairs from the changing room, I made a crack about his beard and skinny legs. “Eat shit, Thayer”, Santa said, reeking of alcohol as he passed.
Jay Hinman: Noel was really enamored with this Israeli operations management concept called “The Theory of Constraints”, which was coined by a guy named Eliyahu Goldratt. It’s about overcoming bottlenecks in the manufacturing process, among other things.
Danny Tanaka: The Theory of Constraints really does work. but unfortunately it is pretty much entirely for the benefit of the organization and not the customer.
Jay Hinman: They brought in an intense Israeli consultant named “Green” to teach us all the theory, even those of us not in the factory, and to use it as a basis for how to operate. It wasn’t hocus-pocus at all, but I remember how pissed everyone was to have to go to these on-site classes, and how they made everyone in the company read this book about it called “The Goal”.
Danny Tanaka: I believe Green worked for The Goldratt Institute and also ran our short lived Israeli Factory (MCI). He would come to teach us about “Herbie” and how to mitigate the “Blue Machine”. Green used to ship what was immediately available and then make multiple back order shipments to eventually fulfill the customer’s order. The national distributors were enraged. Every shipment required them to open a new duty application, at tremendous extra expense to them. A Monster Cable motto was “Short before long”. It meant that if you can fill 4 small orders and one big order, do the small ones first so that they can get their orders early, and the big order still ships on time. What could go wrong?
Jay Hinman: There were all these concepts in Hebrew, like “Chupchik”, that we had a lot of fun mocking.
Danny Tanaka: In ”The Goal” the constraint is labeled the “blue” machine. I recall half-serious discussions about painting all the machines blue in the factory and issuing blue lab coats to everyone.
Thayer Walker: Throughput, it was called. A key principle of the Theory of Constraints which was part of our indoctrination into the company culture and operations. Identify the constraint and arrange resources to accommodate throughput. “Throughput” we’d say, index finger sarcastically in the air, and trot out to the factory floor to see where the piece of paper was that represented an order being built by the lines of Southeast Asian and Chinese ladies on the soldering line, or by the Vietnamese guys in shipping.
Work in the Pre-Internet Era
Jay Hinman: It’s amazing how important the fax machine was to our business. Every order that wasn’t called in by a dealer or by a dealer’s rep came dripping off the fax machine. I eventually got really good at changing the paper and the toner, lest we go without thousands of dollars’ worth of orders that day.
Glenn Munlawin: We worked off this kludgy DOS-like system called AMOS designed by some Israeli engineers. How Noel or Irene met them, I forget, but that thing was a beast. It would freeze the whole data entry system prompting our boss to call out a company-wide announcement that AMOS was going down.
Thayer Walker: My narrow view of the company was guided through AMOS. AMOS operators stared at the classic green screen and pounded stodgy keyboards with a resonant clunk to every keystroke. The credit department, where I started as a credit/collections grunt, used a module that allowed access to customer accounts, invoices and a few loopholes to billing that we weren’t supposed to touch. The internet was years off for the company and even more for the department.
Jay Hinman: In 1989 and 1990, we didn’t even enter in our own orders from dealers. We’d write them down on a piece of paper, and a “data entry” person would come in during the night and “enter them in”. It was maybe an hour’s worth of work each night, tops, but I know they were taking six-hour shifts. Eventually management took the twenty minutes or so it took to train us on AMOS.
Thayer Walker: Our green-screened terminals did not access the outside world; we communicated by printed letters. For this there was a little bank of Apple Macintosh boxes which we used for writing polite letters of concern for money.
Jay Hinman: If a customer called in to see when an order was going to be shipped, I’d have to walk the length of the building, back into the factory, back to shipping, and ask them. They’d tell me where it was in the queue, and I’d walk back to my desk, and call the customer back and tell them “tomorrow”. I lost a bunch of weight that first year, mostly due to tons of back-and-forth from my desk to the factory and back.
Thayer Walker: The marketing departments and anyone connected to Noel were working on Macs. In my group, we kept our heads down and eyes on the green screens.
Danny Tanaka: I was in Human Resources, but had to use the same workstation Mac SEs that everybody else used until it finally dawned on Nicki, the VP that this wasn’t very confidential. Then I got to have my very own exclusive Mac and printer.
Glenn Munlawin: Danny sat near me, and I always thought it was funny he would interview candidates right in the open. Totally no privacy!
Danny Tanaka: I eventually got a real office too so that I could interview people and talk to employees in private. Those awful Nextel walkie-talkie phones that Noel was in love with. Fortunately, I only had to use one if I was on the road somewhere.
Thayer Walker: In the mid-1990s we started to hear about email, and that people within the company were sending them to each other. I checked all the screens I could access in AMOS for any type of portal in which we could type messages at someone, but there were only a few general modules that could “broadcast comments”, usually through an internal application specific to obscure operations.
Jay Hinman: When we got true email in the office in 1994, it was a total revelation. It was DOS-based, but I could still send Glenn a prank email, and he could send me one back. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. Sometimes we even used it for work, too.
Thayer Walker: We heard that Green had developed a PC-based version of AMOS that had color screens (!). “Beautiful”, he said during one of his visits from Israel to our factory. But Noel held out, wanting AMOS to keep working and to not have to spend the capital on infrastructure. So we continued faxing and phone calling, word processing on the shared original Macs, and printing our communications while the rest of the world talked about this new internet.
So….Did Monster Cable Actually Work…??
Glenn Munlawin: Allegedly, the sound was richer and more full with Monster Cable products. It was an accessory, according to MC literature, that your preamp, speakers and other audio and video electronics needed.
Jay Hinman: I flew down to San Diego to train store reps at The Good Guys on how to quote two prices on stereo equipment to consumers, always starting with “Well, your price with the Monster Cable is…”, even if they’d never heard of Monster Cable, and only then moving on to a glum, “Oh, and your price without the Monster Cable is…”.
Glenn Munlawin: When a sales rep at a store was selling a full home audio or home theater system, you didn’t want to “leave money on the table” by falling short of your commissions — sell them Monster Cable as a “necessory”!
Phil Keeley: Did Monster Cable perform as promised? Well, my read on it was yes and no. The success of the product was part relentless marketing, part science (electrons, man!), and part stoners’ convincing themselves they could “hear the difference.” At the low and mid-range, it made no difference. You had to have a five or ten grand system in your “listening room” to really hear the improvements, and that was only if you were into classical recordings. For rock, not so much.
Jay Hinman: To Noel’s credit, he dabbled in every angle he possible could to wring money out of perfectionist audiophiles. When vinyl stopped being dominant and CDs took over, he created these 5-packs of sticky “CD Sound Rings”. You’d stick one on top of a CD, and it supposedly weighed it down and brought out deeper, richer audio tones than you’d otherwise hear.
Thayer Walker: “Blue Light Special” was a big sales idea we had to implement following one of our department chats with Noel. Whenever we contacted any dealer for any reason, we were to try and offload a ton of overstock inventory at half price. Orders didn’t come to us directly; they came from our reps around the country, via fax, written in various forms from hand-scratched to early word-processing templated. They were done deals, but we were instructed to call the reps back and offer a set of, say, thick, ugly beige P2P cables or CD Sound Rings at half off with each order, or whatever the “Blue Light Special” was that week. Very few orders were actually amended, and very little of the overstock moved. Eventually the program went away.
Phil Keeley: Monster Cable’s success was also partly a matter of a booming economy, and aggressive competition between all the regional and national players; the Best Buys, Good Guys, Circuit City, Magnolia Hi-Fi, J&R Music World and son on. There were thousands of stores nationwide selling TVs, stereos and music. We were shipping millions of dollars of product to these selling machines. At one show or another I commented to some industry guy my astonishment at the tractor-trailer after tractor-trailer that was leaving our docks — out into America. He one-upped me by informing me of the hundreds of thousands of televisions they sold per year. We really couldn’t quite grasp the scale of these numbers.
Thayer Walker: Monster Cable — I think it was Howard Harman — came up with a brilliant business move for us to scrape through the recession of the early 1990s: embrace “Joe Six-Pack.” A slew of entry-level products would be developed and marketed to him, Joe Six-Pack, and the company would be saved. We were to embrace the idea, and drop the snobbery practiced by our true Audiophile customers. Monster had first established the market in high end listening through better cables. We would get the calls from individual audiophiles, all alone in dark rooms, wanting to share their experiences in their audio worlds with a captive customer service voice. Yet then we totally changed the game on them, opening the door to Joe Six-Pack, and releasing the flood of cheaply-made, but highly marked up, high-volume-sales-required cables for Joe.
Phil Keeley: In that respect, Monster Cable did work, because it certainly sold well.
The Office Ambiance
Jay Hinman: I can only speak for our department, AMD (Accounts Management Dept.), but when we weren’t busy there was a lot of messing around and intra-company pranks.
Glenn Munlawin: We tried to start up a phony program called “Monsters Helping Monsters”. We were joking about announcing this effort during the monthly Monster birthday cake ceremony, in which a program was put together to enable each Monster to give each other a helping hand, be it a loan, lending his/her car, babysitting. whatever. We even typed up some flyers via the Apple desktops in the back by accounting, using the Monster font, too. It never got off the ground.
Jay Hinman: During slow periods, I would do this phone trick with Glenn in which I’d call one of our friendly dealer reps, perhaps Audio Associates in New Jersey, then right before they picked up, I’d immediately transfer the call to Glenn, who sat one cubicle over. His desk phone would ring, he’d be going “Hello, hello?”, and Audio Associates would be saying, “But you called me! What do you need?”. “Wait, I didn’t call you!” etc. Loads of fun.
Thayer Walker: Part of the job in AMD was also dealing with consumers, who called for help with broken products, detailed product information, or sometimes as an audiophile who just wanted to talk to another human about their experiences alone in dark rooms full of audio equipment and cables.
Jay Hinman: It was soon very clear to me that the extreme audiophiles were truly a breed apart, like any obsessives with too much time and money invested in any one weird thing.
Danny Tanaka: A guy called me one Friday afternoon to enquire about technical specifications on the Monster 1000 phono cartridge. In the course of our conversation, I was stunned to learn that he was from the New York Audiophile Society and that they were going to listen to two or three different cartridges playing exactly the same selections, drink some wine and argue about which one sounded the best. A typical Friday night for the audiophiles.
Thayer Walker: We’d often get the questions about where the products were made, and had word from the top that we were to say all of it was made in the USA, even though weekly containers from China disgorged tons of the primary components for assembly, and later in complete packaging. Customers on the phone would harangue us and threaten to never buy another Monster product if they found out our stuff was the same as all the low-qualify knockoffs coming out of China, stealing American jobs or enslaving children in Asia. This continued for years, until there was a certain percentage that put us over the line of being able to claim “US origin”.
Jay Hinman: This era at Monster Cable coincided with the apotheosis of bestselling “pop management” books from would-be gurus like Tom Peters, Steven Covey and Jim Collins. Consequently we’d get new company mottos all the time, unveiled at all-hands meetings to fire up the troops.
Thayer Walker: “Act as One” was a seemingly simple and reasonable Monster Motto that came with a list of core others that Noel made up. After one of the company rallies he’d hold, we middle managers would greet each other in the warehouse aisles with “Act as One!”, followed by a Roman salute from the chest. “Move the Needle”, or do something that affects the company metrics positively. Very inspiring.
Life On the Factory Floor
Thayer Walker: Each order that came in was built by the factory in the back of the building, down to the soldering and packaging, which trickled down a conveyor to shipping, and was stacked on pallets until the thing was complete — or was held there by the evil credit department, awaiting some payment issue. That last part was my job.
Phil Keeley: It once got back to me that workers were stealing speaker and interconnect cables. We brought a fellow whom we’d busted into my office, and I interrogated him. It turned out his brother-in-law had recently bought a stereo, and the thief boasted that he would “cable” the system for him. He swore he did not intend to sell the cables. He was generally a good worker, a decent guy; an illegal Mexican earning just above minimum wage — as pitiful then as it is today — and trying to impress this brother-in-law. Of course, I knew we were buying the stuff for pennies-a-foot and selling it for a dollar-a-foot. What the guy wanted probably, at cost (including labor), was about five or six dollars’ worth of cables.
Jay Hinman: Sometimes they’d just throw older cables onto the carpet — things that we’d normally sell for $80 — and just let the office employees have at it.
Phil Keeley: Together we made a list of what the brother-in-law needed, and I sent a supervisor out to the returns area to hustle up what he’d intended to steal. Thereafter, all employee thefts had to go through me for approval. It was the Anti-Theft Theft Program. Probably the first and only time such a policy has been initiated in the history of American Manufacturing.
Thayer Walker: The system-head office personalities like me had to learn a fashion of charming our way through the harried factory leads, or around the benignly uninformative system status indicators to move things ahead of the standard process.
Jay Hinman: So much for the Theory of Constraints — we could badly throw off the shipping schedule simply by asking Phil (our friend) or someone in shipping to do us a favor, like prioritizing a massive $10,000 Circuit City order over 30 smaller and very late orders, thereby making 30 small customers angry and one large customer very happy.
Thayer Walker: Phil Keeley was the master of these workaround practices. A frantic AMD rep might find him out in the smoking area, besieging him with their sad story of the needy customer who’d been waiting for a week or more for their order to ship. The rep might be holding a copy of the order, or just a scrap of paper with a number on it, which would be totally ignored by Phil as the rep ambled through the factory lines looking for evidence of the lost order. Bits of it could be queued up in the soldering line, while others were stacked as spools of clear-coated copper spools in boxes, but not in shipping.
The factory leads would snap into action at Phil’s request and crank out the lagging work orders, often ahead of other, just as important and late orders on the floor. A final stop by shipping manager Hai’s office, or supervisor Long, both of the Vietnamese core of shipping guys, would alert everyone down the line to watch for the thing that was being pushed through. Oh yes, your order is shipping today, we’d say on the call back to the factory rep in Richmond, VA, Houston, TX or across the bay in Oakland, CA.
Jay Hinman: If I can remember one thing extremely well from those days, it was the shipping manager Hai trying to get in touch with Thayer on the company-wide intercom in his heavily-accented Vietnamese, with disgust, pleading and resignation in his voice because he’d been asked to prioritize something ridiculous: “Thayer, please pick up line 58…..Thayer……line 58….Thayer….”
The Monster Music Record Label
Thayer Walker: Noel Lee sincerely wanted an audiophile-quality record label that would coexist in Monster’s realm within the consumer electronics industry. In the hallways there were autographed photos of music stars, many of them of dubious fame, though these were not all Monster Music record label artists. The usual pattern was for the company to latch on to one act, then record and unsuccessfully market them to unsuspecting consumer audio dealers.
Jay Hinman: I was a young alterna-jerk music snob already, but that aside, I was still taken aback by the utterly tasteless and vanilla musical acts we were flogging and/or partnering with.
Thayer Walker:Midnight Voices were an early 90s black and white rap group, (“pink and brown”, I overheard the marketing whirlwind Babs Stock call them.) They were good guys, hard-working, with a solid album recorded and released by “Monster Music”. Yet they were also stuck in a tiny subsidiary of a smallish, non-music industry company.
Either in desperation or through a contact with Noel, Monster contracted Babs Stock, known at the time for her work with San Francisco-based Journey, to promote Midnight Voices, a band formed by Mohammed Bilal and Will Power.
Jay Hinman: That was Babs’ sole job — to promote Midnight Voices. She was incredibly quirky, as were so many people at this company. I liked working with her. For some reason, she used to frequently end questions with “…in life”, i.e. “How are things going for you, in life?” or “What have you been up to lately, in life?”.
Thayer Walker: Babs occupied the large corner cubicle near customer service, and her frenetic voice could be heard over the din of line printers, keyboard clacking and consumer calls, hammering existing dealers and outside mom and pop shops to buy the forthcoming Midnight Voices album. CDs and records were printed and stocked in the warehouse, posters adorned the walls, and Babs harangued her industry connections to promote and buy the album. But nothing moved very quickly. Babs eventually self-destructed and disappeared in France; Midnight Voices found a different agent, and lead singer Mohammed got famous on MTV for his role in Real World.
Jay Hinman: It’s hard to square with the music of today, but there was a very popular 1970s-rooted sound called “smooth jazz” that was obviously a big favorite of Noel’s. Think Kenny G, George Benson, Spyro Gyra, and even Sade. The epitome of cheese, favored mostly by guys with mullets, midlife-crisis sports cars and expensive audio equipment.
Thayer Walker: A secondary function of Monster Music was to contract famous or once-famous bands for the Consumer Electronics Show party and awards ceremony Monster threw every year in Las Vegas. Legit acts like Tower of Power, who appeared several times over the years, would draw the biggest crowds. George Benson, BB King and Earth, Wind & Fire were up there as well, adding to the autographed, framed poster collection in the walls of fame back at the office.
Employees who worked the convention would be conscripted to run the show on a Friday night after a long week of booth duty and hard labor. Some years the acts were relatively unknown, friends of Noel or of a previous generation. Tuck and Patti, Amanda McBroom and Boz Scaggs highlighted a few of those shows, and with straight faces we would usher guests to their tables, point to the free bar and leave them to it.
Thayer Walker: Monster of the 1990s was a classic, organically-developed small company that was bursting its seams as it took on the big league industry dealers and then grew outrageously. Six years into it I was seriously burned out on customer service, the proximity to consumers and the antics in marketing and sales. My systems and internal operations experience were noted and championed by VP of Ops Irene Baran. In that environment I was offered a job in the establishment of a Distribution Center, a giant warehouse where all orders would be fulfilled. Others in production and operations got on board with the growth and promotions through more expansion into a bigger facility, additional warehouses and international companies that kept us operations people extremely busy into the 21st century.
Experts and specialists started being hired to run operations after about 2001; the homespun career party ended, the factory and warehouse went away as they offshored and out-of-stated those ops. I had worked and travelled in Europe (and fantasized about living in Holland or Germany), helped start an office in Ireland, set up systems in Tijuana and Ontario, smoothed feathers with a giant corporation in France, and solved logistics problems between foreign entities from the EU to Singapore. That was a long way from being the little credit guy with the green screen and stacks of invoices. Good times.
Jay Hinman: I left in 1995 to chase a job in a field that I thought might turn out to be hot, the “cellular telephone industry”, which I still work in to this day. I quite seriously thought that without me and all of my institutional knowledge, there was a chance that Monster Cable might start to slide and eventually go out of business. What an ego! I remember hinting something along those lines to Irene as I was leaving, and she quite rightly and magnanimously said, “This company’s a lot stronger than just one person, believe me”.
Glenn Munlawin: Reflecting back at my career at Monster Cable, I really had a good time there. Despite Noel’s eccentricities, the people I met and worked with made it all worthwhile. Can’t believe it has been over 25 years. I admit, I have used Noel’s marketing slogan, “Don’t leave money on the table” for a marketing campaign I was managing. People thought I was a genius!
Immense thanks to Danny Tanaka, Glenn Munlawin, Phil Keeley and Thayer Walker for their recollections and memories for this piece.
Dedicated to Daniel Graham, Vern Smith, David Poole and others who are no longer with us.