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When I was a senior in high school, I applied for a $500 scholarship from an organization called the Sons of Italy.

I didn’t know much about the Sons of Italy except for the few times my Italian grandfather had mentioned them in passing. In their own words, here’s what the Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) are all about:

We are a national organization of men and women who represent the estimated 26 million Americans of Italian heritage, dedicated to promoting our culture, our traditions, our language, the legacy of our ancestors, and our contributions to the U.S. and the world. … We exemplify the very best of what it is to be Italian American.

To compete for the scholarship, I had to write a short essay on why I was proud to be an Italian. Easy money, I thought. I ate pasta and meatballs with my dad’s side of the family every Sunday for as long as I could remember. Surely, I could parlay this pseudo Italian-ness into a saccharine story about my Italian pride. Even if I didn’t really believe in the concept of ethnic pride.

When I told my family the next Sunday that I was writing the essay, my Italian grandmother beamed—that is, until I spoiled her good cheer by admitting that I was not, in fact, proud to be Italian.

“Not proud to be Italian?” she said, incredulously. “What would you rather be?”

It wasn’t that I would rather be something else. It was just that I never felt a sense of pride for being something that I had no control over. It’s not as though I’d been given a choice and selected to be half-Italian, 3/8 Irish, and 1/8 Portuguese. I’d simply been born with this heritage. The way I saw it, I was nothing more than a random soul floating around, eventually landing in a human body that happened to be a part of an Italian family from Queens, New York. How proud could I really be about that?

Over the years I’ve tended to identify more with my Italian side, perhaps for no other reason than my last name. (Had I been outfitted with my mother’s maiden name, Kelleher, I wonder if anyone would have sniffed out my Italian-ness.) But really my ethnicity was nothing more than a small talk topic of no more significance than the weather.

About eight years ago, my mother and grandmother (my Irish-Portuguese side) were invited to an unveiling ceremony for a new exhibit at New York City’s Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The museum opened in 1988 and serves as an educational memorial to the millions of American immigrants who settled in New York and lived in almost sub-human conditions as they tried to find work, raise a family, and build upon their social status ever so marginally with each passing generation.

My family was invited because one of the museum’s tours apparently mentioned one of my Irish-American relatives who struggled so mightily to find a social and financial foothold in 1860s New York City.

At the time I didn’t attend the ceremony, and didn’t give much thought to the Tenement Museum for years after the unveiling, even after my mother visited it a second time and assured me it would be worth my while for me to go see. I still didn’t budge, and so for our wedding anniversary she just went and bought two tickets for my wife and me.

In February 2015 we finally visited the museum. And I was blown away.

Our knowledgeable and engaging tour guide, Rebecca, unfurled the remarkable—yet almost banal for new Americans in the 1860s—story of Joseph and Bridget Moore.

Hmmm, I thought, Moore. When, earlier in the week, I had told my grandmother I was finally going to the Tenement Museum, the name she told me to listen for was Jane Moore.

As Rebecca continued to tell Bridget and Joseph’s story, I realized that the tour included more than a mere mention of a long-ago relative of mine; the exhibit was the story of my own family’s origins in America.

By the end of the tour, as I slowly connected the dots of the real-life characters in Rebecca’s story, my family members, I discovered that Jane Moore was the daughter of Joseph and Bridget, making her the grandmother of my grandmother—my great great grandmother.

The hour-long tour covered the many challenges Irish-American families like the Moores faced: substandard living conditions; not enough work opportunities; specious blame for bringing cholera to America; crooked politicians leveraging financial favors given to poor Irish for their votes; and little to no medical care or government-sponsored financial assistance. (In the Moore’s case, a lack of medical care or access to medicine led to the death of one of Jane’s infant siblings. The tour included a room recreated to look like the site of the child’s wake, complete with a tiny coffin.)

Towards the end of the tour, Rebecca showed us a picture of Jane and her husband; Jane was the only one of Joseph and Bridget’s eight children (four of whom died during childhood) to have her own children. One of those children was my grandmother’s mom. Rebecca told us that two of Jane’s grandsons grew up to be a New York City fireman and policeman.

Those grandsons are my uncles (my mother’s twin brothers), Chris and Kenny.

I’m usually not a crier, but something struck me in that moment. That I’m a sixth generation New Yorker. That my family’s humble beginnings had been preserved so beautifully. And that every day Tenement Museum tour guides like Rebecca are telling complete strangers from all parts of the world the story of how the Moore family survived an Irish potato famine in Ireland, a hellish five-week trip in the hulls of a slave ship, treacherous and sometimes deadly working and living conditions, and evolved into the family I belong to today.

I still can’t quite say pride is the right word for what I feel towards my ancestry, whether it’s the Italian, Irish, or Portuguese pieces of me. But I certainly have a new appreciation for all the work and sacrifice and hardship that led up to my own existence. And for that, I should strive to make my ancestors proud of me.

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.

On May 7 the New York Times published an expose about the horrific working conditions for manicurists in many of Manhattan’s nail salons, “The Price of Nice Nails.”

Specifically, the article pointed to many cases where workers were being paid abysmally low wages—after initially being forced to pay salon owners for the job in the first place—with little opportunity to earn more or work their way up to a decent living wage. Even well-tipping customers are no boon for these workers, because the salon owners are skimming their workers’ gratuities, too. The article also pointed to the hazardous conditions brought on by manicurists working with and breathing in harmful chemicals all day, often with no masks.

Suffice it to say the Times did not paint a pretty picture of NYC nail salons and many customers, including my wife, were left wondering if there was a way to be a “responsible” mani-pedi customer.

On Thursday night she had her first post-NYT mani-pedi. She went back to a salon she’d been to many times before, Angel’s Nail on the Upper East Side. Despite the claims in the Times, she felt Angel’s maintained a clean shop, the workers usually seemed in good spirits, and the prices weren’t dirt cheap to the point where she felt they were cutting corners on employee wages.

As the Times article pointed out, mani and pedi prices in NYC are actually lower than in other parts of the country—which is unheard of for basically any product or service I can think of—because a) the area is so much more concentrated with salons and b) salon owners pay their employees so little. From the Times story:

The typical cost of a manicure in the city helps explain the abysmal pay. A survey of more than 105 Manhattan salons by The Times found an average price of about $10.50. The countrywide average is almost double that, according to a 2014 survey by Nails Magazine, an industry publication.

With fees so low, someone must inevitably pay the price.

“You can be assured, if you go to a place with rock-bottom prices, that chances are the workers’ wages are being stolen,” said Nicole Hallett, a lecturer at Yale Law School who has worked on wage theft cases in salons. “The costs are borne by the low-wage workers who are doing your nails.”

If there was any question as to whether Angel’s Nail was aware of the NYT article (and the potential backlash against Manhattan nail salons), it was answered right away on the price board. My wife reports that in previous visits she paid about $33 for a mani-pedi at Angel’s. But this past Thursday, the same service was priced at $43–a 30% increase.

The way I see it we can interpret the big price bump in one of two ways: either the $10 difference represents the salon’s mea culpa over previously paying its workers poorly, now showing its customers that Angel’s has seen the error of its ways; or it represents a smart salon capitalizing on an opportunity to monetize its customers’ guilt for previously paying so little for their mani-pedis (though, why should customers feel guilty if the salon wasn’t doing anything wrong?).

The salon was nearing closing time when my wife arrived so she got the benefit of having two workers tend to her, one on the mani the other on the pedi. When she went to pay her total came to $47 (not the $43 from the price board, so now it was a 42% increase from her last visit). With the article in mind, she didn’t feel like she was in a position to argue, so she went ahead and paid it. On top of that she tipped BOTH workers, more than she normally would have. All told she paid around $55 for a the same mani-pedi that used to cost her about $38.

I can only assume other nail customers are seeing changes in the pricing–and possibly the level of service, cleanliness and customer service–at their local salons. I’d like to think its made the bad salons clean up their act. If that means the good salons are using it to make a little more money for themselves, well, I’ll leave the laws of supply and demand sort out whether that’s a smart strategy moving forward.

Have you been to a Manhattan nail salon before and after the Times article? Have you seen a difference?

I was all set to write a snarky review about the season 3 premiere of The Profit. I assumed it would start off with a bang–and by bang I mean another stubborn, inept small business owner who, by halfway through the episode, the audience ends up hating and rooting for Marcus to walk away from.

Instead, I saw actual human beings having actual human emotion, and the story about the failing business was secondary.

Marcus and the audience first meets Mike and Chris of SJC Drums at a trade show in California. Their booth is packed and everyone seems to be having a good time–a little girl shredding it on drums!–but we learn that Chris, a “partner” at SJC, quit his six-figure job to make half that doing the operations and books for SJC. Oh and “partner” is in quotes because he doesn’t have any equity in the company for some reason. Huh?

The product seems top-notch–Marcus says the drums are “badass.” (From what I know about drums–literally nothing–they look really nice.) SJC’s customers, apparently, include Green Day, Imagine Dragons, and Lady Gaga. But they’re only making “15 points,” or 15% margin, on their drums. (Marcus says their low margins are “not badass.” Good one.)

Later, Marcus visits SJC a  their headquarters in Massachusetts. The warehouse is pretty messy and we learn their process for making drum kits stinks–Chris and Mike aren’t on the same page on which orders are the highest priority, which means the employees don’t know which ones to make first–and they are just about broke. Nothing surprising here as far as The Profit goes–if the business was doing everything right, Marcus wouldn’t need to be there.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Marcus sits Mike and Chris down in the back office and Mike tells him that he and his brother Scott started the company (SJC are Scott’s initials) but Scott left in 2013. Mike bought out Scott’s half of the business for–get this–$533,000.

WHAT???

Mike explains that in order to pay Scott back, he has been paying $2,000 a month and will do so until year 15, when he will pay the remainder in a balloon payment of $285,000.

WHAT???

Mike says he didn’t want to short change his brother on the way out–whether he jumped or was pushed we’ll find out later–by offering less than the company was worth. He starts crying when Marcus observes that Mike put his brother ahead of himself. “I wish he understood that,” Mike says through tears.

But something’s not quite right here. Mike’s coming off as the caring brother (no idea if he’s older or younger than Scott) but clearly something big and ugly happened that we don’t know about yet.

After a scene where now Chris is also crying to Marcus in the snow about how much he loves the business–despite being a 0% equity partner–Marcus is ready to BALL OUT. Here comes symbolic handshake and check time.

BOOM. $400K for a third of the business. Mike hesitates and has dumb concerns. Marcus shoots him down. YOU WILL TAKE THIS MONEY. Mike takes the money. But there’s a catch. Marcus is also pushing a third of the company to Chris, so they are all equal partners at SJC. Mike is like, oh yeah I was totally gonna suggest that, and agrees to Marcus’s conditions.

Marcus rounds up all the employees the next day, explains the deal he made with Mike, and tells them from now on they are selling three levels of drums–good, better and best. Instead of only selling kits worth of Imagine Dragons, they will sell sets that a beginner can afford and hits the 40% margin goal Chris set so that they can, ya know, make money when they sell drum kits.

But the staff is having trouble cutting costs without cutting quality significantly.

Marcus goes to visit the mysterious other brother, Scott. Scott is a soft-spoken, seemingly sensitive guy who clearly loves music and making instruments. (He estimates having made 5,000 drums in his life.)

Scott’s side of the story is that Mike hired all his friends to work at SJC and those guys would all make fun of Scott. Listening to him talk and having seen some of SJC’s employees, I can totally see that. Mike’s the guy with tattoo sleeves, a black cap and a black hoodie, and so is all the staff at SJC. Meanwhile Scott is a little artsy, maybe a little music-nerdy, not necessarily the go along to get along type. It’s not hard to imagine a work environment in which he, despite maybe being the most talented guy in the shop–AND THE FREAKIN’ CO-FOUNDER–might feel intimidated into walking away from his own business, which has taken on a bully culture in which he’s the sole target.

Marcus convinces Scott to come back to SJC, at least temporarily, to put his expertise towards their 40% margin problem.

When Mike sees Scott walk in with Marcus it’s Awkward City, population: 3.

Mike tries to open the conversation but Scott is clearly hurt. “What did I ever do to you?” They go back and forth a while and finally agree to talk about drums rather than personal beefs. Marcus brings Scott out to the warehouse.

Now Mike is crying–literally crying, again–to Chris in the back office about how it’s too awkward, he won’t work at SJC if Scott is there, etc.

Marcus comes into the office and rather than trying to play therapist he gets REAL with Mike. He tells him his earlier apology to Scott during their bickering session was garbage. (Marcus was totally right, BTW. It was one of those apologies where you apologize for how the person is feeling, but not for your part in it. Classic apology loophole.) “I’m not Oprah. To think that your brother doesn’t add value is f—ing asinine.” Go fix it, he tells Mike.

Mike goes back to Scott and makes a better apology, but Scott is still not ready to talk about “brother things.” Mike replies, “Well just so you know, I am ready to talk about brother things. I want some sort of relationship that is healthy for us.” As much as Mike has ostensibly dicked over his brother, it sounds like he’s genuinely remorseful and feels really bad about what went down. This explains why he’d be agree to those ridiculous buyout terms. At this point I kinda just feel bad for both of them, not being able to settle their brother things.

They shake hands and leave the conversation there. It’s a rare case in reality TV where the emotion feels real, not manufactured by the producers.

The next day Scott is back and straight SCHOOLING SJC’s staff on how to cut costs for the drums to get to a “40 points” margin. Dude is just solving EVERY problem the rest of the guys couldn’t. Even Marcus is blown away. “It’s kinda cool to listen to your brother,” he tells Mike. “Cuz he’s got some crazy s–t in his head, but he’s very smart.” Watching Scott work is pretty fascinating, even if you–like me–don’t know jack about drum-making. He’s like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, banging out that math problem on the blackboard at MIT like it was nothing.

Thanks to Scott, SJC now has a prototype they can make for $537 and sell for $895–a 40% margin. They test it at a studio with fancy schmancy audio equipment–which, BTW, who the hell knew there was so much technology in music?–and it passes with flying colors. You could actually argue the SJC “good” prototype is actually too good compared to what you’d get from most beginner kits. But either way it’s within the quality standards of SJC’s brand.

Mike–who up to this point doesn’t seem to be all that valuable of an employee at SJC–has the tall order of going to Sam Ash in New York City with Marcus to convince them to carry SJC’s “better” kit alongside their better-known, multi-national brands.

They’re not having it.

Mike, a better salesman than I gave him credit for, pulls out the big guns ad plays up the handmade in America angle. On top of that he name drops Green Day–they don’t actually say say Billie Joe but it’s implied that “he” and Mike went to each other’s weddings–and says he could get the band to make an appearance at Sam Ash. Richard Ash, grandson of Sam Ash, eats it up. (This scene, BTW, feels TOTALLY fake, but whatever.)

Meanwhile back at SJC Mike and Scott are tight again. Mike says the best part of Marcus’s visit was that Scott is back in his life and they have a relationship again. Again, it seems genuine. They hug it out. And scene.

Marcus does it again–rescues a failing business, and this time mends a family riff. WHAT CAN’T THIS MAN DO?

New Paltz Notebook

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!

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.

This past Sunday I called ahead at Pick-a-Bagel so my order would be ready to pick up and pay for when I arrived. I did this to save time waiting on their line, which can be a little long on a Sunday morning.

When I arrived I saw that there was just one line for ordering and paying. I didn’t feel comfortable walking directly to the front of the line to pay for my order—if someone had done this to me while I was waiting to pay for my bagel, I would have hated it—so I went to the middle of the line and asked a few people whether they had already ordered their bagel, or if they were just waiting to pay. I thought a good, non-jerk-y compromise would be to enter the line between those people who had already ordered their food, and those who hadn’t.

I went up to one older woman on the line and asked her if she had ordered already. Her response to my question was, “BACK OF THE LINE.” I explained that I had already ordered over the phone, thanked her for her polite waiting on line advice, and walked to the back of the line.

After a minute or two one of the workers asked me what I wanted. I explained that I had already ordered over the phone. He told me my order was in the front by the cashier and I could just pick it up and pay. But again, I didn’t feel right about cutting the whole line of people, most of whom had ordered and were just waiting to pay like I was.

Ten minutes later—after listening to the palaver of three 20-something guys, about how their friend’s co-worker who came out with them last night was a total, um, witch—I reached the front of the line and paid.

I didn’t lecture the cashier for not having separate lines for called in orders, or throw a fit of any kind. But I learned the lesson that calling in an order at Pick-a-Bagel won’t save me any time—that is unless I want to be the jerk who openly ignores all BACK OF THE LINE opprobrium from old ladies.

I wonder what H&H Bagels’ policy is on call-in orders. Hopefully it’s less rigid than their policy on celebrating new holidays

What do you think? Should I just have gone to the BACK OF THE LINE right away? What would you have done in a similar situation?

Remember Jeremy Lin?

In April 2012 I wrote a blog post about the excitement surrounding the emergence of Lin, the Asian-American Harvard graduate turned starting point guard for the New York Knicks.

By then the “Linsanity” that had overtaken New York City and the basketball world for a few months over the winter had all but died down. Lin would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury and later eventually sign with another team, where he performed well below Linsanity levels.

I got to thinking about Jeremy Lin as I was thinking about the upcoming final episode of Serial, the country’s most popular podcast about a 1999 murder. Serial’s final episode will be available for download on Thursday morning.

The series has elevated the audio format, and has generated interest of all kinds. Besides the Reddit community and others like it, who have no shortage of theories, we have others debating whether Serial is ethical. Whether it’s technically journalism. Whether it should exist at all. (Also, whether it’s okay for a brand to joke about it on Twitter.)

From what I’ve been reading online, most listeners believe there will be no real closure to the story. Serial’s host Sarah Koenig will likely end the show’s first season having accomplished nothing—i.e., nothing but entertain her audience for the last three months.

(Speaking of the end of Serial, here’s my own crackpot theory: Jay had a far bigger role in the murder than he admitted to police, and quite possibly framed Adnan knowing Adnan was an easy target. I say easy target because Adnan was Muslim in a mostly non-Muslim Maryland area—which was clearly a factor for some of the jurorsand Adnan was the victim’s ex-boyfriend. Also, Jay could count on the state’s star witness—himself—to push the investigation away from himself and towards Adnan, meanwhile getting himself a plea deal (and free lawyer) for cooperating with the state. Not crackpot-y enough for ya? I also feel like the popularity of the Scream movies back in the late 1990s somehow played into the idea of this real life 1999 high school murder where someone else may have been framed for the crime.)

Like Jeremy Lin, Serial will go on to play another season. (Thanks to listener donations the show can fund another Serial story—that is, if Sarah Koenig can ever recover from the first one.)

Jeremy Lin hasn’t come close to approximating the excitement he created in New York in 2012; he’s been extremely average as a basketball player. For Serial’s part, I think a second season with an equally specious story—maybe another intriguing cold case, maybe something else entirely—could be great. Will it be great as the first season? Maybe—but probably not.

Perhaps Serial’s legacy, more than its Linsanity-like excitement in the fall of 2014, will be that it opens the door for other would-be podcasters to create long-form, high quality, episodic, intellectual content that people will actual listen to, without producers having to worry about trying to sell audiences on a new (if not recycled) concept. “It’s gonna be the next Serial,” would be their oft-repeated—if slightly exaggerated—mantra.

As for the last episode of Serial’s first season, I haven’t been as pumped for a finale since Breaking Bad’s last episode in 2013. Serial won’t be wrapped up as neatly as I’d like it to be, i.e. Adnan is clearly guilty or clearly innocent based on new evidence Koenig has been holding back from us.

But that’s not really the point anymore.

Got a Serial theory? Let’s hear it.

This post was written in anticipation of MKT, an entrepreneur event hosted by my employer, Horizon Media. The event took place on December 15.

I’d been working at Horizon Media for a few months when I heard the story of how the company’s CEO and founder, Bill Koenigsberg, started his ad agency back in 1989.

Koenigsberg was his early twenties, fresh out of college with a marketing degree in hand, when he went to work for a boutique media buying agency in Manhattan. (When an advertiser wants to buy space on a billboard, in a TV show, or on a website, it typically uses a buying agency to negotiate the price and purchase the ad for them.)

It was meant to be a temporary gig until he found something better. But he had a knack for the ad business, and ended up working at his first agency for six years.

He was doing so well, in fact, that the president of the agency promised Koenigsberg a car as a reward for his hard work. But when it came time to actually give Bill the car, the president reneged. Bill was not happy. When a headhunter called him with a job offer shortly after, he took it.

Koenigsberg eventually parlayed that job (from the headhunter) into an opportunity to buy the company that would later become Horizon Media, which he still owns today.

A small business in a big business’ body
Horizon Media is the largest privately held media agency in the world and boasts a client roster that includes GEICO, Capital One, and Burger King. With nearly a thousand employees across its New York and Los Angeles offices, it’s no mom-and-pop shop.

So it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Horizon’s office culture leaned towards the corporate end of the scale—by which I mean a stuffy, serious workplace straight out of Office Space—considering its size and the brands it reps. But it doesn’t.

Instead, Koenigsberg and Horizon have gone in the other direction when it comes to office culture.

Philanthropy is a major part of Horizon’s identity, forging partnerships with City Harvest, 96 Elephants, NY Cares, and Toys for Tots. Employees are empowered to host charity happy hours on The Terrace, our outdoor space which includes beer taps, with the proceeds going towards important causes.

In late October Horizon invited 75 first graders from a local elementary school to trick-or-treat in our offices. Afterwards the company treated the kids to lunch and surprised them with costumes the agency and its employees had purchased for them.

Horizon employees are also afforded myriad perks—many of which are unheard of at most companies—not to mention everyday use of its gorgeous office space. But at Horizon the extras go beyond happy hours or company sports teams or World Cup viewing parties.

At Horizon’s SoHo office it’s not uncommon to find Stephen Hall, Horizon’s chief marketing officer, in The Dunes—Horizon’s cavernous all-purpose space—interviewing guests like baker and Cronut inventor Dominique Ansel, or Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe co-founder Matt Besser. This past September renowned film director Robert Rodriguez stopped by for a talk as part of Horizon’s Hispanic Heritage Month event series.

MKT
In December Horizon will host MKT (pronounced “market”), inviting entrepreneurs to set up pop-up shops in The Dunes and sell their products and services. Businesses run by Horizon employees and their families and friends get first priority, after which vendors from the local small business community like Brooklyn Renegade, Union Square Holiday Market, The Market NYC, Scoutmob and Etsy populate the remaining spots at MKT.

You might be asking what a local marketplace of entrepreneurs selling their wares has to do with planning and buying media, i.e. Horizon’s area of expertise.

Business is Personal is intangible,” says Hall, referring to Horizon’s company tagline. “You have to experience it to believe it.”

Hall points out that every media agency is constantly trying to differentiate itself from the competition to land its next big client. But an event like MKT, he says, “turns words into action.”

The idea for MKT came from Leena Danan, Horizon’s VP of business development. “We started MKT as a celebration of entrepreneurship on [Horizon’s] 25th anniversary.” December 2014 marks Horizon’s third MKT event in two years. “This year,” Danan says, “we had multiple referrals both internally and externally, so we are thrilled that employees and past participants are excited to see MKT succeed.”

Horizon Side Hustle
Several Horizon employees have used MKT to showcase their talents outside of their day job.

Meeting and events specialist Brandon Smith, who raps under the name SMTH (pronounced “Smith”), has performed his songs at several Horizon events, including MKT.

“The second I get out of work it’s just straight to the studio, or straight to a shoot,” says Smith. “Every free minute that I have, I just put it into my music.” The music videos for SMTH’s songs, “Ticket to the Moon” and “Last Straw,” have been featured on MTV.

Alex Pagano has really taken Business is Personal to heart, running events for Horizon during the day—including MKT—and running her own business, Look Sharp Events, by night. Pagano recently organized her company’s largest event yet for beer brand Stella Artois, the “Butcher, Baker, Belgian Beer Maker” series kick off in New York City.

Des’ Sweet Treats was founded by Desiree Walker and her daughter, Shayna, who works in human resources at Horizon. Desiree found baking therapeutic while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. “I began playing around with a simple bread pudding recipe to create a variety of flavors,” she says. “My family and friends were my taste testers since my taste buds were off. … The rave reviews received were encouraging and many people began to suggest that I make baking more than a pastime.” Des’ Sweet Treats has attended every MKT event since it started.

External MKT-ers
Brooklyn-based TGT (pronounced “tight,” as in keeping it tight), founded by entrepreneur Jack Sutter, is one of the most exciting new entrants in this year’s MKT.

“I came up with the idea for TGT because I hated using a bi-fold [wallet]; it wasn’t the product for me,” says Sutter, who was at one point using a broccoli rubber band to carry his money. “I knew there was something better.

“I really had a need for this wallet and I kind of had a vision for what it could be,” says Sutter.

After producing some prototypes using scrap leather from a furniture store, Sutter took to Kickstarter—an online platform for crowdsourcing creative ventures—to fund production of his wallets on a larger scale. His funding goal was $20,000. He has raised $317,424 from more than 7,500 backers.

Sarah and Carlos Perla run Made with Nachos, a t-shirt company out of Brooklyn. The Perlas are design school grads who design all their own shirts, and hand-print them in their home studio. They shared the story behind their unique company name:

The name Made with Nachos came about one night when Sarah was cooking dinner. She asked Carlos if he could taste that “special ingredient.” Knowing she meant “love,” he responded with a wink and a smile “What…nachos?” and from that day forward they described things that made with love as Made with Nachos.

The Karako cousins, Michael, Sean and Daniel, are the founders of the reversible tie company Flip My Tie. The Karakos are the sons of the founders of Karako Suits, established 32 years ago in New York City, so men’s fashion is in their blood. They are participating in MKT for the first time.

Sean Karako says he was inspired to start a fashion line while watching ABC’s Shark Tank, the hit reality TV show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to big name (and big bank account) investors. “I saw all these entrepreneurs bringing great ideas and I thought to myself, our fathers have built such great relationships overseas that we should take advantage of it.”

Meanwhile another tie company is making its second MKT appearance. Davor Anic is a former TV producer in Europe with a master’s in fashion design and technology, who moved to the U.S. and started his own tie brand. Anic says he chose to specialize in ties because Croatia, where he’s from, is the “homeland of neckties.” (It’s true. I looked it up.)

It’s a great thing that a company like Horizon Media encourages entrepreneurship—not unlike the kind that Horizon itself was built on. But at the end of the day they still have a media agency to run.

“If everyone [quit Horizon and] did their own start-up we’d have a problem,” Hall jokes, “but we want to create an air of opportunity.

“MKT is like an open mic night,” he says. “If you’ve got some jokes or you can carry a tune, here’s a stage.”

If you’re a frequent visitor to this blog you may start to notice a couple of changes to the site, which I’d like to quickly address.

URL
I recently purchased the URL 250squarefeet.com. I know bobbycalise.wordpress.com has such a nice ring to it, but I figured I’d mix it up a bit. As I mention in the About This Blog section, this is a reference to the size of my first apartment in Manhattan.

Ads
I’m experimenting with some advertising on the site. I don’t expect it to be too intrusive or take away from the reading experience overall.

Content
While I still plan to publish personal essays like “The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Tradition” and “I Will Never Run the New York City Marathon,” I am shifting my focus a bit to concentrate more on small business. I will profile small businesses, and write about experiences I have had with small businesses from the customer POV. Additionally, I will be doing more TV episode recaps of shows like Shark Tank and The Profit. I realize these sorts of posts may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s where I’m headed.

Aesthetics
If I haven’t done so already by the time you read this, I am planning to change the look of the blog just to freshen things up.

For everyone who’s been following my blog up to this point, I thank you tremendously. It’s hardly a get-rich-quick scheme, but I love doing it when I have time and something to say. As always, you’re welcome to respond in the comments section.

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