Chapter 4

The Screwup

copyright 1997 by Pat Powers

Well, after every good time must come a bad time, and boy, did it. Here's what happened: I screwed up a cutline.

Sounds minor, doesn't it? It wasn't. In our publication, we made a practice of cozening up to advertisers and other industry leaders by running announcements of changes in their status: "People On The Move." Who's the new CEO of what. Or, more typically, who's the new marketing vp of what, because marketing vps, while high in the corporate hierarchy, tended to get dumped every time sales went down, so they showed up in POTME, as we called it, a lot (the office joke was that POTME meant, "Pot me, I'm a vegetable").

So. In the February issue of the Latex Blue Book, we ran an item that said Mr. Edward Alley was the new CEO of Rectified Emulsifiers Inc., a polymorphous extrusion firm based in Texas.

The only problem was, the name of the person who was the new CEO of Emulsifiers Inc. was Edvard Ailey. That's E-D-V-A-R-D A-I-L-E-Y.

Edward Alley was president and CEO of Chemicals of Nature Inc., a competitor of Edvard's.

This mistake somehow got through all the proofing cycles that we performed in the course of putting out a magazine. In any properly staffed magazine, every word in it proofed twice, but at least two people -- preferably three. But we didn't see the mistake -- or more properly, Mr. Abernathy didn't see the mistake, because it was he who found it -- until advance copies of the print run were delivered to our office.

To let such an item run in the magazine would at the very least have pissed off our major advertiser in a very big, bad way. Many thousands of dollars a year. It also left us open to potential lawsuits from both Ailey and Alley. Many hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Abernathy did the only thing he could do, under the circumstances -- he ate the entire print run of the magazine. 78 pages. 9,000 copies. Four colors. $7500 dollars.

That's the number that hurt. $7500 dollars. Editors, artists and writers may well enjoy their work, but publishers are in the game strictly to make money. When that doesn't happen -- or when, as often happens, they lose money instead of making it -- the pain is incredible.

And they spread the pain around.

We had an example in-house. Modern Thermocouplers wasn't doing well in ad sales. It wasn't attracting enough ad revenues to break even -- Mr. Abernathy was losing about $2,000 a month on it. (Mind you, his other publications more than made up for it.) I heard from the other editors about the way Mr. Abernathy handled that situation, in terms of personnel. First, he fired the sales manager. When that didn't work, he fired the editor. He'd promote the managing editor and the assistant sales manager to their former bosses' positions, and give them about a year to turn things around (considerably less time if it was obvious that they weren't up to the task) and then he'd fire them, and promote or hire himself a new sales manager and editor.

I heard from the editors who'd been around for awhile that this was a fairly common practice in trade magazine publishing. "We're about as disposable as those rubber gloves that doctors use when they give you a prostate exam," said one editor. "And sales manager are in pretty much the same boat."

Editors love a colorful metaphor.

Well, the incident happened on a Wednesday afternoon. Thursday morning, Abernathy held a conference with my editor, Tom Stoppell. The door was closed throughout the conference. There was a deep and pervasive air of gloom in the office while Tom and Abernathy conferred behind those closed doors. We all knew what was being discussed. We'd discussed it ourselves, and nobody could figure out exactly how it happened. Nobody remembered seeing the error in print. Sometimes it happens that corrections are indicated on a proof but not made. Not this time.

Nobody mentioned it, but another point was very clear -- to me and I am sure, to everybody else. The department where the mistake had occurred was one I had been editing. It had been my responsibility, and the only reason Tom was in the office with Abernathy instead of me was that as editor, he was responsible for everything that ran in the magazine.

And the thing that gave the whole affair an added sense of dread was the knowledge that I might be called into the office after Tom was.

When Tom came out of the office, his face was ashen. I tried not to look at him, but I couldn't help it.

Tom went to the center of the room and said, "Well, it looks as if we're going to be without my services from here on out. I want you all to know that I have enjoyed working with you."

And with those words, he removed his few furnishings from his desk area and walked out the door, for good. That's how it's done in the modern office environment -- if you're fired, it's just pick up your things and walk out the door, and it's as if you never existed. Poofola. Vanished.

A few moments after Tom left, Abernathy came out of his office. Unlike Tom, he looked relaxed and composed.

"As you all know, I've had to let Tom go," Abernathy said. "I hated to do it, because he's been a valuable part of the LBB team for a number of years. But as you all know, there are mistakes which are simply indefensible in any publication -- mistakes which no publisher can afford to tolerate. I would like to let Tom's mistake slide, but I can't. The reason LBB gets the advertising dollars that make it possible for all of us to work and draw a paycheck is that it's accepted as a responsible part of the industry it covers. Mistakes like the one which forced me to have last month's issue printed twice would destroy our reputation, and our advertising would go straight down the tubes in a very short while. I've seen it happen on many other publications.

"It would have been tolerable if someone on the editorial staff had caught the error, but no one -- NO ONE -- on this staff did. I did. As publisher of LBB, I hold ultimate financial responsibility for the success or failure of LBB. It was my responsibility to fire Tom for endangering the magazine, and hard as it was, I did it. I hope you will all understand that I did not do it out of anger or ill will -- just a desire to protect the magazine. And I hope you will all join with me in the future in protecting our joint means of making a living in the future. That's all I have to say. Kim, I'd like to see you in my office now."

No more terrified beast was ever herded into the slaughtering pen than me. My brief career in journalism over -- and in disgrace. Lovely.

I sat frozen and stiff in the big plush chair and stared across the desk at Mr. Abernathy, at the scene of what had been my greatest career triumph -- getting a job in my field -- and now looked to be the site of my greatest personal defeat -- being fired from said job.

"Kim, up until this month, I've been very pleased with your progress as a member of our staff," said Abernathy. "It's been a real pleasure to hear from your co-workers that you've been doing an excellent job -- it seemed to demonstrate the soundness of the instinct that led me to hire you above many other qualified applicants. We've never advertised for any position at LBB without receiving well over a hundred resumes, quite commonly several hundred resumes. They typically include Dean's List members from prestigious journalism schools, and people who've interned on leading newspapers and magazines. In short, people with far better qualifications than yours. But I went with you because I knew you personally, and I liked what I saw of your character. And that's something you don't see in a resume -- character. No amount of ability or experience can make up for that.

"That's why it's so distressing to me that you were the one who edited the section of the magazine where this error occurred," said Abernathy. "Do you have any idea how it happened?"

"No," I said. "I don't. I checked the name against the original copy, I know that. And after the error occurred, I looked at the original copy. It was correct. I have no idea how the wrong name showed up there. But I'll take full responsibility for what happened. It was my section. I was the one who edited it."

"I'm glad to hear that you take your responsibility seriously," said Abernathy. "This is a serious business, it's not like waiting tables, where the most you lose if you screw up badly is a tip. Mistakes of the sort you made can destroy whole magazines, if they aren't caught. That's why I fired Tom -- he had the opportunity to catch your error, and he should have, and he didn't."

"I'm very sorry to have caused so much trouble," I said. I would not cry. It was unprofessional.

"I am sure that you are sorry," said Abernathy. "I'm just not sure that being sorry will be enough. I'm sure Tom is sorry, but he's now having to scramble around looking for a way to keep his wife and child in food and clothing, in a tight economic times, and in a very competitive field."

Abernathy fell silent, and I sat silently opposite, not knowing what to say, just wishing that he would get it over with if her were going to fire me.

"I think there may be a way we can resolve this without letting you go," said Abernathy. "It's called atonement. I will ask you to do something that will demonstrate your sincere contrition for what's happened, and we can call it even after that. Something you might not necessarily want to do. Do you think you might be up for something of that nature?"

"Sure," I said, as relief slowly poured through me. There was a way out.

"All right, then," Abernathy said, reaching into his desk. He pulled out a Ving card -- one of those plastic hotel room keys with holes punched in them. He slid the key across the desk to me. It said '107.' "Meet me in Room 107 of the Ambassador Lodge at eight o'clock tonight. We'll discuss the issue of atonement then."

I picked up the key. The relief had turned to despair at Abernathy's words. As a waitress, many, many men had asked me to meet them in their hotel rooms, and always for the same reason. So I had a clear idea what Abernathy wanted.

"I don't think I can do it," I said.

Abernathy sat silent for a moment. "I respect that," he responded. "If you decide that you can't atone for your error, I'll act accordingly. If you decide you can, I'll act accordingly. It's completely your decision, and I don't want to pressure you either way. You should know, though, that if you tell anyone else I am giving you this option, I'll deny it. This is special treatment, something I don't generally believe in giving my employees. So what I think you should do is think about what you want to do, then either show up or not. I'll be in Room 107 from 8 to 8:30. If you don't show by 8:30, I'll conclude you're not interested and leave. It really is all your decision, but frankly, I hope you decide to show. I like having you on our staff. Why don't you take the rest of the day off and think about it? I know it's been stressful. I'll explain to the group that you're under stress and have to leave."

With those words, Abernathy hustled me out of the office, and I went home to my apartment. I was in a real state throughout the drive home.

I got home and mechanically, without thinking about it, made up a chef's salad for dinner, even though it was way before my normal dinnertime. I was so distracted, I'm surprised I didn't screw it up badly, but after years of salad for dinner, it's gotten to be something I do on autopilot, like driving.

I found myself wishing desperately that I had someone to talk to while I chewed my lettuce and thought over my problem.

It was an old, old, problem for me, but I hadn't been put under this kind of pressure before. When you are a small, well-endowed woman, there's a certain kind of man who just naturally attempts to prey on you -- literally. If I didn't carry a taser in my purse, and use it when necessary, I'd have been raped at least twice, maybe three times. There were several other occasions when I had had to punch men and kick them to alert them to the fact that I meant business when I said, "No!"

Not that I hadn't said, "Yes," on a few occasions. Quite a few occasions. I had had a long succession of boyfriends since junior high school. In fact, I'd always thought of boyfriends as disposable creatures, because there were always plenty out there when you tired of the one you had. Or when they tired of you.

I'd spent plenty of time rolling around naked in various cars, beds, on floors, and so forth -- especially in college. I guess that was in part because I was one of those women for whom birth control wasn't much of a problem. Our family wasn't Catholic or fundamentalist or anything, so I didn't have any head problems with it, and my body adapted to the Pill quite nicely, thank you. Some people have problems, and for some people, it's about like taking aspirin. I was one of the aspirin types.

I'd never really fallen in love in all that time, though there had been several boys I might have fallen in love with -- certainly, I liked their bodies well enough. But in college, I was thinking about my career, not babies. Knowing that I wasn't interested in a serious relationship, I gravitated towards men who weren't interested

Things were different during my stint as a waitress. I started out thinking about my career, just like I had in college. Then, as waitressing began to settle around me like a cloud, I realized with a kind of horror that this could be it. Get your degree, work in a restaurant because you can't find work in your field, then marry some guy who makes a lot of money to get out of waitressing and have his babies.

That could be my life. I got plenty of offers, and would for another few years -- until the crinkles in the corners of my mother's eyes began appearing in mine, and the men stopped being so damned interested in me, and waitressing was all that was left.

It was scary.

But hell, if I got married straight out of a restaurant, I might as well have stayed home. All that money and effort my parents and I had expended on a degree -- right out the window. My mother had already pointed out, in her subtle way, that if I wanted to get married, I had better find somebody 'while the bloom was still on.' It was so crude, so direct, and so true.

But, all calculations of that nature aside, the fact was that I wanted to work in my field. I wanted to be a writer, a reporter, an editor. Me. I. And I wasn't ready to give up.

So I didn't do any serious dating while I was a waitress. I continued to see a succession of guys, mostly waiters who were on the trail of their own dreams, for whom I was an attractive way-station. A couple of them said they were in love with me, and probably thought so. But I wasn't in love with them.

Now, Abernathy. Geesh.

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