Archive for the ‘Personal Essays’ Category

Petry Media Corporation, where I started my career back in 2005, officially shut its doors earlier this month. This is my version of a eulogy for the defunct company which, for better or worse, gave me my start in the media business.

“Do you play softball?”

I was asked this question while sitting in a decade-old, coffee-stained desk chair, waiting to be interviewed for a position at Petry Media Corporation. My potential new boss, Judy, was finishing up some paperwork and had me wait outside her cube for a few minutes. While I sat there, my would-be coworker, a guy named Ross, had ostensibly decided to conduct his own pre-interview.

Ross was my age and played for the company softball team. Petry didn’t have many employee perks, but softball, if you were good enough to make the team, was one of them.

Whether he was intending to or not, Ross put me at ease for my actual interview with Judy. By the time I finished a short while later, I was reasonably confident that I had the job. A couple of days later Judy called to formally make me an offer, which I accepted.* For a cool $26,700, I would be a research analyst at Petry Media. More importantly, I had my first real job in New York City.

*Earlier that week I had accepted the a research analyst position with one of Petry’s competitors. Before I could officially accept Judy’s offer, I had to renege on my acceptance at the other company. It was a pretty awkward call and my almost-new boss was pretty pissed—this was Friday and he had been expecting me to start the following Monday. You might be thinking that what I did was unethical, but the other company was offering an even lower starting salary, $22,000, so I didn’t really feel too bad about walking away.

What I didn’t fully understand when I accepted the offer, but would slowly piece together later, was how Petry actually made its money.

Petry was a “rep firm” for local TV stations across the country. If you own the local NBC station (a.k.a. “affiliate”) in a relatively small market like Green Bay or St. Louis, you might not be able to afford to hire your own sales people to sell TV commercials on your station. Instead, you contracted a company like Petry, whose sales team would sell your station’s air time—and collect a percentage of the ad revenue they bring in.

My job was A) to keep the inventory (the TV shows) current in the system so the sales people could sell the ad space in them; and B) to give my best estimate of how many people would watch them (i.e. Nielsen ratings), so the sales people knew how much to charge for the ad space. For the second part, the estimates were based on how many people watched that show in the previous season, or for a new show, how other shows like it had performed in the past. (If we didn’t have high hopes for a show, we would simply use “time period” estimates based on the ratings for the canceled show that ran during that day and time in the prior TV season.)

The job was far from rocket science—a lot of the work was glorified data entry—but I enjoyed learning about the television industry. I’d heard the terms “rating” and “share” before, but didn’t really know what went into calculating them.

I made fast friends with Ross (the softball guy). It turned out we were born a month apart, both former journalism majors, and both huge Yankee fans. Ross had grown up in Manhattan; even as a Queens-born kid, I found that fascinating. I was commuting into work every day from Long Island and didn’t know a whole lot about The City. Ross was my unofficial tour guide, directing me on things like best subways to take to get somewhere, or the fact that Fifth Avenue was Manhattan’s vertical dividing line between streets, e.g. East 54th Street and West 54th Street.

I had been at Petry for a couple of months when softball season started. I wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the team, but Marty, a veteran sales rep at Petry and the longtime manager of the softball team, let me try out. As the youngest guy on the team (besides Ross), I assumed I’d have no trouble playing my way into the lineup—but the fact that I even had to try out made me a little nervous.

I reached base on four infield singles and play solid defense in the outfield and made the team. (Eleven years later, I still play for the team. Over the years guys left Petry the company, but not Petry the softball team. Marty was the only remaining Petry employee to play on the team before the company closed up shop earlier this month.)

The other nice perk of working at Petry was lunchtime. On most days we used the unoccupied conference room to watch TV while we ate lunch—and we could usually push the lunch hour to 90 minutes. If it was “upfront season,” the time of year when the TV networks were previewing their new fall lineups to whet the appetites of advertising buyers and sellers, we got to watch the pilots for new shows that the networks would send to Petry (to help our reps sell them). I remember seeing the pilot episode of How I Met Your Mother and knowing it would be a hit.

The research analyst position at Petry, for most people who held it, typically had a shelf life of about a year, two at the most. Most of Petry’s research analysts followed one of two career paths. They either found research jobs at other media companies, or they entered Petry’s sales training program. (By all accounts the training program was fairly rigorous and low-paying. If you “passed,” Petry required you to sign a multi-year contract pledging your loyalty to them. This was, I gathered, a standard deal for rep firms.) The research-to-sales guys I knew seemed happy enough, but I wasn’t interested in selling for a living after a negative experience selling Cutco knives during college had left a bad taste in my mouth.

While I looked for work at other companies around my year mark at Petry, Ross and I had tons of down time once we got our work done. We spent a lot of that time talking about Moneyball and the new trend of advanced metrics in baseball. Sometimes, when things were really slow, and felt like we’d “run out of internet,” we’d tinker with some of our work processes.

Part of keeping the inventory current was loading “tapes,” or the most current data files from Nielsen that had the ratings from all the shows in the most recent “sweep” period. (In my nearly two years at Petry, I never actually saw a “tape.”) The process involved putting certain codes in an application that looked like it was stuck in 1980. The numbers and letters we entered into the program’s various blank spaces didn’t seem to correspond to any sort of user manual. So, we wrote our own. When we found a step that didn’t seem to make sense, we changed it and put it in our manual (i.e. a Word document). Before we knew it, we’d literally rewritten Petry’s antediluvian process for uploading ratings data to its network. (I’m sure it’ll eventually be placed into the Petry time capsule for our great-grandchildren to discover.)

Eventually, Ross left Petry for a job at CBS, where he was already freelancing on weekends, trying to break into sports production. I left a few months later for another media job. Having Petry on my résumé helped me land the gig—my new boss had also started her career there, too.

Petry gave me my start in the grown-up working world, and while I left the company for greener pastures ten years ago, I’m still thankful for the time I spent there. R.I.P. Petry.

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A while back I got a letter—in the mail—from someone in SUNY New Paltz’s alumni relations department asking me to give back to my alma mater. (I’ve written before about my feelings donating to my school, so I’ll save you having to read that rant again.)

The letter, which was ostensibly personalized to my year of graduation (2004), included a reference to the “unforgettable” a capella group at New Paltz, Absolut A Capella.

Referencing something from my time at New Paltz was a smart move, and likely a tactic many alumni relations people at all different schools use as a way of getting grads to feel all mushy inside about their college experience—and to loosen their purse strings (or their Venmo accounts or whatever people use to pay for things these days).

But here’s the problem: I have no effing idea what Absolut A Capella is or was! I don’t doubt that there was an a capella music movement at my school during the years in which I matriculated (I’ve always wanted to use that word) at New Paltz—they made a whole movie about it, and I’ve confirmed with friends that this was a thing at other schools—but I have NO recollection of such a movement at New Paltz. In fact an a capella group, based on my experience at NP, was the exact opposite sort of thing that would have been indigenous to the culture of the school.

(A quick Google search confirmed that Absolut A Capella is and was indeed a thing at New Paltz, originating in 2001, my freshman year at the school. Further, if you click on the link in their Facebook profile it brings you to what appears to be an Asian website about catering. And, despite my holding a journalism degree from New Paltz, this is where the investigation ended.)

The stars of Absolut A Capella...?

The stars of Absolut A Capella…?

Anyway I thought of the legendary Absolut A Capella last night when I came across a Buzzfeed article called “15 Things Only A New Paltz Student Would Understand.” (How does a small, public liberal arts college get a feature on internet darling/juggernaut, you ask? Per the site: This post was created by a user and has not been vetted or endorsed by BuzzFeed’s editorial staff. BuzzFeed Community is a place where anyone can post awesome lists and creations.)

I don’t want to dissect this unvetted, unendorsed post written by a college student—who, BTW, probably just got more eyes on something she wrote than I ever have—because that’s a little lame and weird. That said I do have a couple of notes as someone who graduated from New Paltz 11 years ago.

None of the following items on her list are endemic to New Paltz, specifically: hilly parts of campus; student-athletes using Gatorade bottles; a preponderance of dyed hair; overly aggressive campus cops; printing quotas—you know what, nevermind. This article stinks to me, but maybe current New Paltz students love it. Maybe seeing people with dyed hair is completely mind-blowing to the modern college student. Whatever.

I’ll leave you with a glimpse of the SUNY New Paltz I remember, from an excerpt of a thing I wrote when I was in school as part of a Joan Didion “Los Angeles Notebook” knockoff:

It was a late October afternoon, walking on my way to my Literature of Journalism class. It’s about a five-minute walk through campus to the Humanities Building. As I walked to class on this brisk autumn day, dreading the thought that it will only get colder than this as we get into winter, I see a girl walking towards me.

Like many colleges, New Paltz tends to be extremely liberal. So whenever I walk through the campus and streets of New Paltz, not much surprises me.

Walking towards me and eventually past me on my left side is a girl wearing a sandwich board. However, instead of the board reading the sandwich special of the day for a local deli (which would have been odd enough), it was painted like a stick of Doublemint gum. As I am prone to do when I am in New Paltz, I shrugged it off and walked to class.

On that same route to class I noticed a girl wearing devil horns, and again, I thought, “OK, nothing I haven’t seen before in New Paltz.”

Suddenly, I realized it was Halloween, and though I felt like an idiot because I didn’t figure it out right away, I didn’t feel that stupid about it. I see things like this on the other 364 days a year that aren’t Halloween. But instead of a feeling of frustration, or confusion, I kind of just laughed it off and thought, “Just another day at New Paltz–my college.”

Was there something unique to your college experience that you think people who graduated when you did could appreciate? Share in the comments!

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The Cool Sub

“JEN-ri? Is there a JEN-ri Rodriguez in this class?”

“Uh…it’s Henri,” Jenri said.

I was four minutes into my substitute teaching career, and I was already butchering a student’s name while trying to take attendance.

“Oh, um, sorry about that.” I may as well have been repeating Bueller.

I’d gotten the subbing gig through my mom, who was a middle school teacher on Long Island. It was late 2004 and I was a few months out of college at that point, with little in the way of job prospects. I’d snail-mailed my cover letter and resume to every publishing house in the tri-state area in the hopes of getting something entry level with my journalism degree, with visions of reading manuscripts for a living. But after receiving just one response—a polite but unequivocal “no”—I took a part-time job at The Sports Authority for $8 an hour to hold me over with first student loan payment looming.

The prospect of dealing with 13- and 14-year-olds all day was not appealing to me in the least, but subbing paid $110 a day and didn’t require any teaching experience—plus I’d be out of work by 2 pm every day. Meanwhile, I continued to look for full-time work and kept a couple of shifts a week at The Sports Authority.

Like every substitute teacher in the history of substitute teachers, I was determined to be “the cool sub” who wasn’t a stickler for the rules. After I made a few appearances, all the kids would be glad to see me when their teacher was out. “Nice, we got Mr. Calise subbing today,” they said in my insanely unrealistic fantasyland scenario.

Delusions aside, I knew better than to attempt any actual teaching. I fully understood that my job was to do nothing more than take attendance, hand out whatever busy work the teacher had left for her students, and make sure the kids didn’t fight with each other or destroy the classroom. I was a glorified babysitter.

After my first day my name was in “the system,” meaning that the night before a school day I would receive an auto-dialed call on my cell phone, which would tell me my assignment for the following morning.

There was no ostensible rhyme or reason behind my subbing assignments—as far as I could tell, they simply were pulling my name out of a digital hat. In my short career working at the school, I subbed in just about every subject.

One day they had me covering for a music teacher. His “classwork” for the kids was having them watch the part of the movie Grease they were up to from the last time he’d been out. I had very strict instructions to “fast forward through the sex parts.” By the third or fourth class of the day my censoring was faster than Greased Lightnin’.

The music teacher’s final class of the day was off the middle school campus at an elementary school, where all I had to do was put on a Charlie Brown video for a class of first graders. Unlike the junior high kids, who gave me a hard time about everything I said or did, the first graders were afraid of me. But once I turned off the lights and put on the video, they were entranced and seemed to forget I was there. When a song started in the Charlie Brown movie, they started singing along in unison in their little voices. It was the only time in five months subbing that I actually considered becoming a full-time teacher.

My most coveted subbing assignment was phys ed. (I cannot overstate the satisfaction of being allowed to come to work in a polo shirt and track pants.) The kids were even wilder than they were in their other subjects, but each phys ed class was taught by three teachers, so I pretty much just played with the kids and helped corral any stragglers back to the pack. Usually the “lesson” I co-taught was a game that could be played by fifty or sixty students at a time. One day we did volleyball with a twist—each side had about thirty kids volleying an oversized beachball that required at least five people pushing at the same time to get it over the net.

I didn’t typically interact with the teachers I’d subbed for once they came back to work. I would usually leave a short hand-written note for each period’s class in the teacher’s mailbox, letting them know whether the kids completed their classwork (or at least pretended to work on it) and whether they behaved.

On one occasion, I wrote a scathing note about a science lab class that had given me a particularly tough time. When I came for work the next day, I got called back to that classroom during the period that the class had behaved so poorly the day before. The teacher for whom I had subbed told me, in front of the whole class, that her students were not allowed to do a lab that day because of how badly they’d behaved for me. The kids collectively glared at me for having ratted them out. I did a terrible job of hiding my smirk as I thanked the teacher and left the room.

After almost five months of subbing, I finally found a full-time office job in the city. One of my last assignments before I left was a shop class. I didn’t know the first thing about shop — I hadn’t even taken shop when I was in school — but luckily the teacher had left a video.

I arranged for the audio-video set to be wheeled in, a tall tower with a heavy tube TV and a VCR, just like the ones we used when I was in middle school.

I popped in the VHS, which turned out to be a recording of an NBC Saturday morning TV special about technology from the early ‘90s—remember, this was 2005—hosted by none other than rapper-actor LL Cool J. (About the video: The creators apparently thought the future would be a lot like The Jetsons, minus flying cars and meals in pill form. Strangely, the creators of the special hadn’t seen the iPhone coming.)

Maybe I’d become more comfortable being in front of a room full of kids, or maybe I was a little giddy because I knew I was leaving soon for my new job. Whatever the reason for my newfound jocularity, I decided to make a little off-the-cuff comment to the class about how outdated the video was.

I said: “Looks like this is LL Cool J somewhere between ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ and In the House.” I smiled goofily at my own humorous observation, as if to say, “Am I right???”

I was met by twenty blank stares from the kids. Immediately, I realized my mistake: LL Cool J’s career-defining hit song, “Mama Said Knock You Out,” came out before they were born, and his moderately successful sitcom In the House was canceled in 1999. Most people my own age would not have gotten that reference, no less a room full of 13-year-olds.

After the class’ complete non-reaction to my “funny” comment, a rare break from the “serious substitute teacher” character I’d played for five months, I slunk back into the darkness for the rest of the period.

Not long after my LL Cool J gaffe, I found myself on the Long Island Rail Road, commuting five days a week, two hours each way, in and out of the city. Staring out the window of the train, my insanely unrealistic fantasyland thinking kicked in again and I wondered briefly if any of the kids had even noticed I was gone.

“Yo what ever happened to Mr. Calise?” Jenri would say. “Who?” Jenri’s friend would ask. “You know,” Jenri would reply, “the cool sub.”

This story was also published on Medium.com.

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Whenever I quote Dumb & Dumber in front of my mom—which almost always goes over her head, leading me to explain that it’s from the movie—she reminds me of the day she took me to see it.

For whatever reason, she allowed my friend Nicky and I to pick the movie she that day in 1994, and she and her friend Lana agreed to see whatever we chose.

Jim Carrey was fresh off of In Living Color (Fire Marshall Bill, anyone?), and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask had already come out that same year. Our pick was a true no-brainer: Dumb & Dumber.

To hear my mom and Lana tell it, it was the worst 107 minutes of their lives. But for Nicky and me, at age 12, it was the funniest movie we’d ever seen.

When I talk about my favorite all-time comedies I still put Dumb & Dumber as my runaway #1 (the rest of the list, in no particular order: Austin Powers: Goldmember (or at least the opening scene), Wedding Crashers, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Knocked Up, Groundhog Day, My Cousin Vinny and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

I have many friends with whom I can quote the movie’s most obscure lines and still get a chuckle if the context is just right.

  • If someone asks you if want to grab a bite to eat, you might say, I swallowed a big June bug while we were driving. I’m not really hungry.
  • If you come into work on Monday and someone asks you how your weekend was, you might say, Not bad. Fell off the jet way again.
  • If you are planning a vacation with your significant other, you might say, I want to go someplace where the beer flows like wine.
  • If you and a friend can’t remember someone’s name and then your friend finally gets it, you might say, I was way off! I knew it started with an S, though!
  • If you’re having a singles night out with friends and they want to do a lap, you might say, I’m gonna hang by the bar, put out the vibe.
  • If you’re waiting on line at the post office and the customer in front of you is arguing about needing extra postage for their package, you might say, You can’t triple a double stamp.
  • And if you can’t figure out how to end a conversation, you might say, Big Gulps, huh? All right! Well, see ya later.

When I heard the Farrelly brothers were making a sequel to the movie I considered a comedic masterpiece—and maybe the last Jim Carrey film before he was Jim Carrey—I admit I was bummed. Why mess with perfection? (They made a D&D prequel in 2003, but as far as I know no one from the original movie was involved, so it felt more like a student film homage to my favorite movie. I didn’t see it.)

"Let's go get a coupla bowls of loud mouth soup." (Photo via collider.com.)

“Let’s go get a coupla bowls of loud mouth soup.” (Photo via collider.com.)

Nevertheless, I knew I’d have to go to the movies and see for myself whether a 20-years-later sequel did anything to tarnish Dumb & Dumber’s legacy, à la Rocky V.*

*Until the sixth Rocky movie, Rocky Balboa, came out in 2006, Rocky V was the only Rocky film I’d been old enough to see in theaters, so I had no frame of reference for how bad it truly was relative to the original, or the first three sequels, until years later.

As I was watching Dumb & Dumber To (the sequel) in the theater a few weeks ago, the following thoughts crossed my mind: If I saw the original D&D film for the first time today, as a 32-year-old, would I enjoy it as much as I did when I was 12 years old? And would my 12-year-old self have enjoyed D&D2 if it came out back in 1994?

I have these debates with people every so often, about whether certain movies “hold up” over time. Do they feel outdated if you watch them ten years later? And for comedies in particular, are the best lines from a movie be as funny the second time you hear them, or the fifth, or the hundredth? When you watch the same comedy five years later on TBS (without the curses!) do you even laugh at all? Or by that point is the movie’s value to you solely nostalgia?

Dumb & Dumber To, when judged on a standard of all comedies, is average to below average. The plot is pretty stupid (especially the first scene that explains the last 20 years in Lloyd and Harry’s world, as teased in the first trailer); the main characters are definitely stupid.

The tone was similar to the first film, and to other Farrelly brothers comedies, where the humor borders on mean-spirited until you realize that the joke is always on Lloyd and Harry, even if they’re being jerks to someone else. Most of the jokes ranged from slapstick to overtly crude and/or gross to dumb wordplay misunderstandings (in the original Lloyd uses the phrase “tea and strumpets”; in the sequel he mispronounces “g-nat”), which were all common to the first film.

"I gotta take this. It's my dead dead. (Photo credit: nypost.com.)

“I gotta take this. It’s my dead dead. (Photo credit: nypost.com.)

Over the course of two hours I had a couple of big laughs, a few small laughs, and the rest of the time I sat there thinking about what the sequel does or doesn’t do to the original film’s legacy, if it has one.

Because I was so young when Dumb & Dumber came out in 1994, I can’t recall with great accuracy the climate around comedy films or the movie business in general. But I looked back and it turns out 1994 was actually a ridiculous year for movies. The top grossing films of that year were Forrest Gump (depending on who you ask, this is one of the best movies of all time), The Lion King (arguably the best animated movie of all time), and True Lies (anything James Cameron directs does a gazillion dollars at the box office).

Here are some other titles that came out in 1994: Speed, Pulp Fiction, Interview with the Vampire, Angels in the Outfield, Little Women, Might Ducks 2, Major League 2, oh, and The freakin’ Shawshank Redemption. Not to mention the two OTHER aforementioned Jim Carrey comedies. For the full list of movies from 1994 with box office grosses, go here.

So with all those memorable films, Dumb & Dumber somehow emerged as my favorite comedy of all time. Again, perhaps it was nothing more than the fact that I was 12 years old Jim Carrey was becoming a star. I can’t know that either way.

I don’t care at all what the critics say about D&D2, though I think most of the reviews have been negative (25% on Rotten Tomatoes and 36 on Metacritic). Even if it was just an ersatz version of the original, an unnecessary coda to an already perfect comedy, I don’t care. Because if nothing else it gave me an excuse to replay all the best jokes from the original in my head, and to go out and see a movie with a friend who I don’t see as often as Harry sees Lloyd. And as for Dumb & Dumber‘s legacy, I’d say it’s still in tact.

Big Gulps, huh? All right! Well, see ya later.

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The morning of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade here in New York City is always the coldest morning of the year. (I have not consulted the farmer’s almanac to confirm this fact but trust me, I’ve been there, and I’ve never been colder.)

From around the time I was five or six years old, until I was about 12, my mom woke us up each Thanksgiving morning while it was still dark. She filled a backpack with bananas and clementines, a few books, and a Thermos of hot chocolate. And with that, my mother, younger brother and I hopped on a subway from Queens into midtown Manhattan to see the Parade.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade doesn’t begin until 9 am, leaving from Manhattan’s Upper West Side (just west of Central Park, the same area where they blow up the balloons the night before) and marching south until eventually winding up outside the Macy’s storefront at Herald Square. (That’s the part you see on TV.)


My brother Danny and me at the parade. (Photo credit: Mom.)

Of course if you want to see the parade in person, you can’t just show up at 9 am. Our plan each year was to arrive in the city as early as possible, find a spot in the street along the parade route where we could lay out a blanket and my brother and I could sit and have an unblocked view of the floats and balloons; Mom usually ended up somewhere behind us. Standing 5’4” she had a better view of us than she did the parade, which was fine for her.

For a breakdown of our first year attending, I’ll let Mom tell it in her own words:

The first year that we went, I had not done any research. I knew the parade route, what time it started, and I suspected that it would way too crowded at the viewing stand near Macy’s. So we arrived somewhere on Broadway when the parade was well underway and the crowd was 8 to 10 [people] deep.

We walked for blocks behind the crowd with me looking for places where you could squeeze your way through the crowd up to the front. Once I realized that there was not going to be an opportunity for you to move closer to the parade, our next best option was to go up.

On a street corner, there was a tall block of concrete with a flat surface at the top, perfect for viewing a parade if only one could hoist oneself to the top. There was already a person on the top, and not much more room for another. I started to lift you up there, but it was higher than I could lift you. The person at the top, a young man, reached down to you and pulled you up. For the rest of the parade, I stood at the bottom of the concrete block, looking up to make sure you were safe and not about to fall off.

My mom would do her best to entertain us for the hours between our arrival and something actually happening parade-wise. We had our books, maybe a couple of games, and an unending conversation about how freakin’ cold it was. We couldn’t put on enough layers to stay warm on those late November mornings. We found respite in the hot chocolate, though it was a double-edged sword in that the more we drank, the more we’d be tempted to give up our spot to find a bathroom somewhere on Broadway.

Once the parade actually got going it was—as things seen through the eyes of children can sometimes be—magical. Our eyes lit up at the first glimpse of the new balloons featuring our favorite characters (think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). But we also liked the recognizable old school characters who kept coming back, like Snoopy and Woody the Woodpecker. (Incidentally, as a child I always had trouble wrapping my head around the word “float.” If the balloons are actually floating in the air, why are we calling the displays on wheels “floats”?)

The kids all around us were as excited as we were, maybe more so—after all, we were parade veterans by Year Two. One year, I remember parade marchers running alongside the floats throwing confetti up in the air towards us kids in the front row. The younger kids went especially bananas for this, and each time someone who looked like they might have confetti approached, they (okay fine, we) chanted, “CON-FET-TI, CON-FET-TI, CON-FET-TI.” A little boy a few years younger than my brother was sitting next to us, and got so caught up in the chanting despite not knowing the word “confetti” that he chanted, “BET-TY, BET-TY, BET-TY,” just to be a part of the excitement around him.

(While sitting in the front row for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade might not hold the same cache as, say, sitting in the front row at a Yankee game, it still felt pretty special. Unlike most high-priced event tickets, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was first come first serve, and it only cost you a couple of hours of sleep that morning.)

The most memorable celebrity sighting from our years of attending the parade was when we spotted “Michael Jordan” on one of the floats. MJ is in quotes because we were never really sure it was him—in-person parade attendees don’t have the benefit of the inane but occasionally informative TV commentators telling them who’s on which float. My mom snapped a few photos of him, but we’ve never been able to authenticate with 100 percent certainty that the blurry image of a tall, bald black man was in fact my childhood sports idol. Years later we still pored over that photo like it was the missing clue in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (Mom says: It was him!)

Another year, we were sitting in a spot across from the Winter Garden Theater, where Cats used to play. Mid-parade, we watched as three actors dressed as cats frolicked across the parade route, from the side where we were sitting and into the Winter Garden. Was this a planned act, maybe even mandated, by the theater as a form or free advertising? (Probably. These days ad executives call this “native advertising.”) Or did the actors decide impulsively that they wanted to be a part of every show in the vicinity of the theater, not just their own? (Less likely, but I’m not ruling it out. Also, they may just have been trying to get a cup of coffee across the street.)

The Parade always closes with Santa Claus and his elves, an unapologetic reminder that Christmas is a month away (and, I suppose, to get your Christmas shopping done at Macy’s). The kids are happy to see Santa coming to town, but sad that he’s the last float they’ll see until next year. (Mom says: We—or maybe just I—always thought that it was so funny that when we arrived home, the tail end of the parade was still on TV and we could say, “We were just there!”)

Despite the early, early morning wake-up and the almost unbearable cold—or perhaps because of it—there was something noble about attending the Thanksgiving Parade each year as our own three-person unit. I’m sure Mom tried to rope in family or friends to join us, but most people would be crazy to accept. Still, when we returned home and joined the rest of the family for Thanksgiving dinner later that day, everyone seemed glad that we had gone. It was as if we were representing everyone we knew who liked the idea of going to the parade, just not the going part. (Mom says: This is definitely true. I remember when we stopped going, Aunt Mary seemed disappointed.)

Last year my wife, her parents and I went to the Parade. It was cold. Really cold. Mom decided to skip it and meet us after. Time served, I suppose.

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Pulling Cables

“Hey Bobby, what’s the weirdest job you ever had?”

No one’s ever actually asked me that, but if they did, I’d pause, pretending to think about my answer as if I wasn’t waiting for someone to ask me that. Then I’d say, “Um, I guess I’d have to say…pulling cables.”

The asker, not trusting their ears, would say, “Did you say waiting tables? What’s so weird about that?”

“No,” I’d say. “I said pulling cables.”


During my senior year of high school I scored a plum job answering phones at a billing center for a prominent medical lab–prominent meaning there’s a good chance this lab has tested your pee and/or blood for something at some point in your life. My friend Nikki’s mom worked there and set us up with the gig through a temp agency. The job paid $10 an hour, plus time-and-a-half overtime, and was just 15 minutes from my parents’ house.

The following August I went away to college and when I came back for winter break that December, the billing center had moved offices–it was now about 30 minutes from my parents’ house. They were still willing to bring me back, but I was worn out from my first semester of college–which included a lot of driving as part of my job as the world’s worst traveling knife salesman–and decided I wasn’t willing to commute a half hour each way for three weeks, even for a job I really liked. (Five  years later, I commuted two hours each way for a year to my first job in the city that paid less than I’d been making at the billing center. Even now, living and working in Manhattan, my commute is 40 minutes each way on a good day.)

The temp agency still had my paperwork on file and my contact there set up my friend Sean and me with a three-week gig for the same rate of $10 an hour.

We were placed at an obscure technology company and told to show up the following Monday for some work “pulling cables.” We, of course, didn’t know what that meant (I’m not sure our contact did, either, but to her credit she kept a straight face when she told us). But for $10 an hour–far more than I’d been making selling knives–we were willing to just about anything for three weeks. Or so we thought.

Imagine an office building in one of those industrial office parks, a la The Office’s Dunder-Mifflin. In that office building, imagine a large room off a drab hallway. The room is filled with a constant humming sound emitted from a few dozen computer servers each about six feet tall–the same kind of server someone decries as being “down” when they can’t get on Facebook at work.

In this room, the floor isn’t really a floor. It’s tiled with 2’ by 2’, removable square panels mounted on a series of metal stanchions. Under the floor is a snake pit of thousands of computer cables that connect the servers to…well, I was never sure what they were connected to.

Our temporary boss was a man who introduced himself to us as Robert–but whose office door had a nameplate on it that said “Moshe”–explained that our assignment for the next three weeks was to pull up any loose cables that were no longer connected to anything at either end and put them in a pile off to the side. We were basically there to remove the dead snakes from the snake pit and leave the live ones alone.

The process of pulling a cable always began at the end of a cable which had already been disconnected from a server at one end of it. I would hold that loose end, then wait for Sean to get in position. Sean would remove one or more of the floor tiles a few feet away in the direction we assumed the cable was running–as I wiggled my part of the cable in my hand–in the hopes of locating any semblance of movement created by my wiggling. If Sean saw movement, he would grab that cable and hang on tight, waiting for me to run ahead to the next spot where I anticipated the cable continued, then lift up those tiles to find the same cable and grab it.

This leapfrogging would go on for sometimes five minutes, other times 20, until we could locate the end of the cable and pull it completely out of the floor. We would then put it on a small pile of cables that we had successfully removed. Our dialogue when tracking and pulling a cable would carry on as follows:

“Do you see it?”


“What about now?”


“Okay you should definitely see it now.”


“Do you wanna just start over with a new cable?”


(The conversation might also have included a string of profanity around the word “STANCHION!” if one of us had banged our shin on a stanchion.)

We made it about four hours into the first day before Sean said, “Bobby, I can’t do this anymore.”

“What do you mean?” I said. The work was mundane as it gets, but I wanted to rack up as many hours as I could. I needed the money.

“I can’t do this for eight hours a day for the next three weeks.”

“Okay, fine,” I said. I, too, was growing mind-numbingly bored, but wasn’t as willing as Sean to admit it just yet.

We finished out the first day but on the next morning, after talking it over some more, we approached Moshe/Robert to explain that at best we could do this work for four hours a day. Any more than that, we said, we’d lose our minds.

Moshe-bert agreed to our reduced hours a little too quickly–making me wonder if we were not the first ones to hold the prestigious cable puller position–and we went to work.

Even four hours a day was brutal, as Sean and I reached a state of delirium that no amount of coffee could remedy. Still, we pulled cables as efficiently as we could, and added them to the pile. When we found a particularly long cable, we cut it in half to make the pile seem bigger. There wasn’t a quota as far as we knew, but “doubling up” made us feel like we’d accomplished slightly more than we actually had.

At the end of our three weeks, our pile was disappointingly small. But by then we didn’t care–the small dent we’d put in the snake pit was negligible (the before and after pictures would have looked identical) and I’m sure Robert-Moshe was left wondering what the hell he’d paid us for.


Pulling cables wasn’t the last time Sean and I worked together. Four years later we were new college graduates looking for the dream jobs we’d been promised our entire academic careers. Instead, with our first student loan payments looming, we settled for part-time sales associate positions at The Sports Authority. The application included a drug screening. My former employer, the medical lab, tested our urine.

The job was pretty miserable, as most retail jobs are. I made $8 an hour but Sean, who had previous forklift experience (not a joke), made $8.50/hour.  We spent our weeknight shifts barely interacting with the bare minimum of customers perusing the teams sports section of the store, offering help on items like hockey sticks and mouthguards, which we knew nothing about.

The rare non-miserable “highlights” of working at TSA were: 1) someone in the receiving department had a “hook-up” at a convenient store and brought in free day-old Krispy Kreme knock-offs; 2) the break room had a VCR and three donated VHS tapes, Home Alone, The Mighty Ducks, and Billy Madison, which we watched literally every time we took a break; and 3) wait no, just two non-miserable highlights.

As Sean and I pondered where we’d gone wrong, how we could have a Bachelor’s degree in hand yet no job prospects worthy of one, our only saving grace–our mantra, really–became, Hey, at least we’re not pulling cables.

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Last week I started to write a blog post called “The Death of Fantasy Baseball,” about how the fantasy baseball league I’ve played in for the last seven years had finally dissolved. It was going to be a Classic Bobby nostalgia story about how something I loved while I was in my twenties was suddenly less appealing to me in my thirties. (My recent piece about being called “sir” at a Hoboken St. Patrick’s Day party falls into this category.)

But before I could hit “Publish” in my WordPress dashboard to make the piece go live, thus effectively ending my spotty fantasy baseball career, the league started to gain some momentum. Rather than the twelve teams collectively throwing in the towel and skipping fantasy baseball this year, it seemed that we were preemptively missing our league before the season would have even started. (If my fellow managers from the league disagree, feel free to mention that in the Comments–but I certainly felt this way.) On a group email chain we reignited the conversation and agreed upon a date and time for our online draft–a Friday night at 8:30, which should tell you how much our lives have changed from our twenties to our thirties.

The biggest reason the league almost fell apart was that most of us didn’t feel we had enough time to prepare or maintain our teams. Our league is one of the more demanding fantasy leagues, using advance “Moneyball“-friendly statistics categories (e.g. on-base percentage rather than batting average) that most casual fantasy baseball players wouldn’t pay attention to–and the kind that are harder to find on basic “best and worst” rankers on ESPN.com or Yahoo!. It’s also a daily league, meaning lineups can be adjusted each day, rather than a “set it and forget it” weekly lineup that some leagues employ to save everyone the anguish of feverishly checking each day’s match-ups.

I’d been dreading doing the research leading up to the draft–ranking each player by position (e.g. first base or left field) based on our league’s stats and thinking about a strategy for who I would select first, who I would wait to select later in the draft. In this way I felt like an athlete who retires despite most experts saying he could probably play for two or three more years. It’s not that he doesn’t still love his sport, but the preparation, the conditioning, the practicing, the media attention leading up to game day was no longer worth the high he would experience from actually playing in the game itself. (I realize the irony of comparing my fantasy baseball preparation to what an actual athlete goes through to get ready for a season, but I’m sticking with this comparison. Hey, it’s my blog.)

In fact, preparing for and running the league had been so challenging for me that a few years ago, I approached my friend and fellow fantasy manager, Brian, about running a team together. Rather than throwing away our separate $100 entry fees* on two under-managed teams that would finish last and second-to-last in our league, we figured we could co-manage and only lose $50 apiece.

*This is a hypothetical $100, of course. There, that should satisfy the fictitious attorney The 250 Square Foot View keeps on retainer.

The co-managing approached actually worked, leading us to a second-place finish that season. (I think both our wives were happy to see that after six months of “Honey, gimme two minutes…it’s my week to check our fantasy team,” some money was coming back in our direction.)

Now that we’ve drafted our team, I think we’re in pretty good shape–though I say that literally every year, despite winning the league just once, in my first season, when I didn’t know what I was doing–and I’m feeling confident about the upcoming season.

It’ll also be my favorite real (i.e. not fantasy) baseball player Derek Jeter’s last season, and, perhaps, my last year playing fantasy baseball. Who knows, maybe we’ll both go out on top.

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