uRb-N-gUyDz.com–2000-2001–13 months–Full-Time Food, Drink, and (briefly) Sports Editor.
After lengthy e-mail conversations and two phone interviews, I went for my in-person interview at the uRb-N-gUyDz office downtown. The office was located in the Omni, the building that formerly housed the Radisson hotel, where Max had wanted to house the Red Rover Productions office a decade before.
I interviewed with Jeb Snyder, the former Music Editor, who was now Editor-in-Chief, and Tova Byquist, the former Food and Drink Editor, who was now in a regional position. I’d never had an interview that went so well or felt so fun. We were all brimming with ideas, and tossing them back and forth with an exciting rhythm.
As a good luck charm I wore a bow tie to the interview, in honor of food writer James Beard. Jeb later told me they almost hired me strictly on the basis of the bow tie, because I looked so much like a food critic.
Jeb was a tall, charismatic guy—maybe five or six years my junior—with a good deal of journalistic experience under his belt. He’d lived and worked all over the country. His loves included Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, and alt-country music. He had an eerie sixth sense for sniffing out and spotting celebrities in public.
Jeb was metro-sexual before there was a term for it. He was very careful about his appearance, and I used to give him grief about the amount of money he spent on his haircuts.
While some of us were envious of Jeb’s effortless cool, Jeb, in turn, was clearly envious of the quick-wittedness of his editors. He wanted so badly to scale to the heights of comedic greatness, and wondered why that gift had been denied him. Many was the time when I’d let fly with a brilliant quip, and his smile would broaden, his face would turn bright red, and he’d nod, and I could tell he was thinking,
–Man, I wish I’d thought of that comeback.
In the early 1990s I’d been fond of a celebrity interview and photography magazine named “The Scene.” I liked it so much that when I went off into the wilderness of Bellville in 1994 to live with my mother, it was one of the magazines I got a subscription to, because I knew I’d not find it in the stores around there.
The only problem with the magazine was sometimes the readability of the text was sacrificed for the sake of stylistic experiments with color, layout, and font. This was particularly annoying if it kept me from reading an interesting article in its entirety.
So fast-forward a decade. Jeb started holding forth on his former jobs, and he mentioned he used to be an editor at “The Scene.” I wheeled around in my chair and said,
–At last! Now I can finally bust somebody’s balls about all that text in funny colors!
But seriously—how many times in life do you ever have a quarrel with a faceless entity, and then later actually meet one of the human beings behind it?
Sports Editor Kyle Fowler was very mellow and very much into sci fi, comic, and other branches of geekery.
We had a hipster chick, whose name I’ve forgotten, working as a web designer. I think she got laid off. All I remember about her was that she wore horn-rimmed glasses, often had her arm in a cast because she did so much computer work, and she dated pretentious Austin musician Wammo, and was sworn to secrecy as to his real name. (It took me a decade to discover his name is William David Walker. I don’t know what the fucking fuss was about—it wasn’t like any of the guy’s name was embarrassing.)
Martin Carr covered theatre and arts, and like Jeb, was very tall. Denise Lynch was our posh and somewhat aloof Fashion Editor. It pleased me no end when she would ask me how to spell some designer’s name.
Probably the most interesting guy in the office was Music Editor Danny King. He’d lived in New York, Israel, LA, and had played drums for Joe Ely, Charlie Sexton, Billy Bragg, Ronnie Lane, Martha Davis and the Motels, Alejandro Escovedo, and Ian McLagan. He had been co-owner of the ARC—Austin Recording Complex, and was a co-founder and President of the SIMS Foundation, a charity which provided Austin musicians with care for substance abuse and psychological problems. Danny’s Roll-A-Dex was filled with a jaw-dropping array of famous names. Between Danny, Jeb, and me, we could answer pretty much any music trivia question that came up.
My salary was $26,000 a year—not much for that kind of job—but a fortune for me, and twice as much as the next-highest salary I’d ever earned. I don’t know if I could’ve negotiated for more money—I’d never had a job before where I could negotiate. I was always told a figure and expected to take it or leave it.
Usually about one-fourth of my salary was inaccessible and “floating around,” as I put it. I didn’t have a credit card, so I had to pay for meals at any restaurant I reviewed out of my own pocket, then submit an invoice and wait for the company to reimburse me. So there was always money I couldn’t get my hands on.
Still, I was finally able to stay on top of my bills….It was the first time in my life I’d been paid adult wages, with enough money to cover all my bills and have some left over.
My duties included reviewing restaurants and bars, and editing the reviews of my army of freelancers. One of the freelancers, Ariana Pappas, had issues with me, and took exception to the way I’d edited one of her reviews, then had the gall to demand that I change it back. I didn’t mind her showing disrespect to me as a person, but I had a problem with her not respecting my position as her Editor. I e-mailed back,
–The edit stands.
I had problems with her from then on.
Most of the freelancers had been hired before me. One of them, Nancy Tuttle, had been offered the Food Editor job before I was, but she turned it down because she thought the salary insufficient. She always seemed to hear about the hot new restaurant openings before I did, and since she had a credit card and could eat at these places whenever she wanted to, she often claimed dibs on the reviews before me. This made me feel second-best.
I also had to write a regular newsletter, and though it had the highest subscription rate of all the Austin uRb-N-gUyDz newsletters, I didn’t enjoy doing it. At first I was able to put a little of myself into the writing, but as time went on, various Higher-Ups insisted I add more links and advertising, and take out any personal touches. Eventually anyone could’ve written it—a freelancer, or a robot.
We also had extra projects, assigned by regional, national, and MSN editors.
Every afternoon the entire Editorial staff, plus two or three interns, would gather around someone’s screen to preview the next day’s front page. (I never designed these—I never learned how.) We’d critique the overall look, and eight or nine pairs of eyes would look for typos. Jeb would ask everybody’s opinion. On one intern’s first day she seemed a bit surprised by my vote of no-confidence. He reassured her,
–Oh, don’t worry about B____. He never likes anything.
I thought most of our headlines and sub-headings dull and uninspired. Once in awhile, though, we’d get a good one in. I still to this day can’t believe Jeb allowed a sub-heading I suggested about an upcoming Sir Mix-A-Lot concert:
–His anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hon.
Carter Newton used to smile when I’d carp about my editorial arguments at work:
–B_____–these are the types of problems you need to be having at your job. Not all that shit you’ve had in jobs before. You need to be arguing about creative, artistic decisions. I’m so glad you’re in this situation now.
Though we were an on-line business, our computers were old and slow. I still had only rudimentary computer skills, and I frequently got angry with how badly my computer operated. I often pounded hard on the keyboard with my fingers, or shouted obscenities at the monitor. I’m sure I seemed like a madman.
Though I liked the people in my office, I didn’t care for the faceless Big Bosses in other cities. They seemed to have a great fondness for sending us long-winded e-mails that never really made much of a point. When we complained about these e-mails, Jeb explained that we only saw a small percentage of the ones that got handed down, that he forwarded us only about ten percent of the long e-mails that were sent to him.
We also had an inordinate number of staff meetings, or so it seemed to me. Staff meetings for our immediate office I understood, but I resented many of the meetings that involved phone hook-ups with Big Bosses, meetings that essentially rehashed those long e-mails.
Now one of the Big Bosses to whom I answered was Albert Beaumont, Vice President of Restaurant and Bar Content. He was also a former Food Editor of “The New York Times,” so I thought if I kissed his ass properly he might provide me with an entrance into that world.
I had no difficulties with Albert, and he didn’t write long, tiresome e-mails. I helped him design the uRb-N-gUyDz national guidelines for restaurant coverage. I think I impressed him during one of our annual “Best of” round-ups. Some of the categories had “Critics’s Picks” as well as “Readers’s Picks.” The readers in the Central States region had voted New Orleans-based Emeril Lagasse as “Best Chef,” and many of my fellow critics wanted to vote for him as well. But I argued that since Emeril was the 800-Pound Gorilla on the Food Network and was known all over the country, perhaps we as critics should help educate the public and introduce them to other chefs they might not be familiar with. I suggested Charlie Trotter of Chicago, and everyone wound up voting my way.
Every three or four months two things would happen—a bunch of people would get laid off, and the website would be totally re-designed. (The two events weren’t related.) The re-designs were just changes—never improvements. I assume they were undertaken so the web designers could keep their jobs.
One thing I resented involved the photos for the reviews in my section. This became a major sticking point between me and Jeb. He said I should call the restaurants and bars involved and set up time for our head photographer, Jerry, to come by and do shoots. I thought that Jerry knew his own schedule better than I did, and since he didn’t seem to do much besides smoke dope and obsessively talk to his wife on the phone, he had more time to make these arrangements than I did.
It didn’t take long before I began to get cranky and annoyed about the job. And I began to let that annoyance show. Not only did I yell at my computer, but often, when Jeb would tell us about a new assignment, I’d snap at him, and say there was no way in hell I could get that done on top of what I already was doing. I’d turn around and Jeb would be in complete shock at my rudeness and insubordination.
But Jeb was a patient guy. I don’t know how he did it, but every time we were faced with a seemingly impossible roster of assignments, he would talk us through it and motivate us in such a way that we managed to get everything done on time.
Still–what the fuck was wrong with me? Did I have a self-destructive impulse? Why was I deliberately ruining the only good career opportunity I’d ever received?
I think part of my problem was I had a lot to do and a lot of people to whom I had to answer. I had a relatively short amount of time in which to get all these assignments done, and anything that I felt was wasting my time or keeping me from my work made me angry. I guess I was afraid that if I didn’t get all the work done my bosses would yell at me, criticize me, insult me, humiliate me, chip away at my self-esteem, and eventually fire me, denying me the essentials of life.
I was good at what I did and I knew it. But I wasn’t good at all my duties. And I deluded myself into believing that I was better that I was, and worse yet, that I was indispensable.
I was also quite full of myself. Though I was producing the digital equivalent of bird cage lining, I acted as if I were writing deathless prose for the ages.
I made no attempt to learn the names of our interns. I wasn’t interested in who won “Employee of the Quarter,” whose birthday it was, or any of that forced socialization stuff of which most companies are so inordinately fond. I didn’t want to hear what companies our company had merged with or purchased or who made what stock projections for the next quarter.
When Jeb asked if I’d read the articles written by my co-workers in the office, or the other Food Editors elsewhere in the country, I ignored him. I wasn’t interested in what anybody else was doing. It was all the J. S. B____ Show. I put on blinders and buried myself in my work. I didn’t think there was anything anyone could teach me. Why, they were lucky to have a genius like me on their payroll.
My proof? Well, for one thing, the headlines and subheads in our office and all over the country seemed to be cliched and banal. I howled with scorn when a regional editor asked us to do a Thanksgiving round-up under the name “Talkin’ Turkey.” I didn’t think anyone in the office was bringing their A-Game, least of all me. We all could’ve done better. I was never satisfied. But being a perfectionist isn’t necessarily a bad thing—unless you’re a total dick about it, the way I was. I was totally lacking in humility and gratitude for this shot at success.
My first big assignment was the annual summer “Best Of Austin” round-up. This required generating a lot of content, so we had a lot of work for our freelancers. I was reading some reviews sent in by one longtime freelancer, and noticed that the writing style used in a steak house review was very different from the one the writer usually employed. I had a hunch. I went to the steak house website, and sure enough, this guy had cut and pasted content directly from the website into his review, without attribution. Jeb complimented me for my good eye, and e-mailed this guy that his services would no longer be required.
Despite my outbursts, things were looking up. Jeb and I attended a press screening of “Almost Famous,” and a few weeks after that on a Friday night I went to see the band Travis at one venue, followed by Tahiti 80 at a club just down the street. Max e-mailed me, saying that I actually, for a change, sounded happy, for maybe the first time in the decades he’d known me.
In the fall I attended the La Dolce Vita Wine and Food Festival on the grounds of “Laguna Gloria,” an Italian villa on the shores of Lake Austin, owned by the Austin Museum of Art. My ride was my buddy Matt, who was already beginning the networking that would soon lead to a career in politics.
Matt and I went to the Fiery Food Show at Palmer Auditorium. We sampled all sorts of hot sauces and salsas. Some were impressive. Some were bland. We came to a booth for a brand called “Judicial Flavors,” which was made by a group of lawyers as a hobby. We were given a release to sign before we sampled the “Lawyer’s Breath” hot sauce. We rolled our eyes, signed it, sampled, thought it was okay, then moved on to the hottest sauce they made, “So Sue Me.” Just as we were signing that release the “Lawyer’s Breath” kicked in, and it really packed a punch. But we pressed on.
We sampled the “So Sue Me.” It kicked like a mother-fucker. We howled. We screamed. We cried. We even did the stupid waving our hands in front of our mouths routine. We wandered the room–gobbling down chips, ice cream, bread—drinking water, Cokes, beer. Nothing worked. It took thirty whole minutes to quench that fire.
I saw a man with a camera crew. I recognized that he was Tyler Florence from the Food Network. We waddled over to him—Matt, tall and fat, me, short and fat—both of us wiping tears from our eyes. The camera turned to us. We told Tyler about Judicial Flavors. Months later, when Tyler Florence’s hot sauce special aired, there was footage of Tyler sampling and crying over the “So Sue Me”sauce, but Matt and I wound up on the cutting room floor.
We had a company picnic somewhere in the country east of town. All I remember was a swimming pool, a volleyball pitch, and several hours of alt-country music.
Whenever anybody got laid off, he or she would be treated to a farewell lunch. One guy decided to go out in style, and asked for lunch at Louie’s 106, an upscale restaurant in the Littlefield Building a few blocks from our office. We were given a private dining room in the basement, and the meal ran over an hour. When we left the restaurant, we found all the streets blocked off by the Secret Service and the Austin Police Department.
While we were eating, President-Elect George W. Bush had taken over part of the Driskill Hotel next door, and was using it to interview potential members of his Cabinet. We stood around for quite awhile, watching the Secret Service shut down open windows, and wrestle a protestor who tried to walk on a blocked-off sidewalk.
Jeb volunteered the editorial staff’s services for some Christmastime charity work, and needless to say, I was annoyed. I grumbled and bitched. I don’t like other people speaking for me or making commitments of my time without consulting me first.
We worked at the office all morning one day, then after lunch we all headed over to the old airport. Sleet was falling and the roads were icing over. A former airplane hangar had been taken over by Blue Santa, a charity affiliated with the Austin Police Department, which collected Christmas presents for underprivileged families.
An eighteen-wheeler was backed into an open door of the hangar. Some volunteers were standing up in the cargo trailer, tossing packages of toys, clothes, and other goods down to other people on the ground. The ground crew would then hand the packages to me and my co-workers, we’d load them onto dollies, then we’d haul our loads to the middle of the room. There were a dozen or more bays or stalls in the middle of the room, each devoted to a specific age group and sex (toddler boys, toddler girls, young kids, older kids, etc.), and we’d place our packages in whichever stall they belonged, making a big circle around the stalls. Once our dollies were empty, we’d go back to the truck and get loaded up again.
I remembered the lavish Christmases of my childhood. Within a few minutes I felt like a colossal asshole for having complained about getting volunteered to do this. Indeed, I got rather choked up and on the verge of tears thinking that these meager gifts we were hauling around would be the only Christmas many kids would have that year. I don’t know how many hours we worked there, but I did feel disappointed when we had to leave. The experience was one of my happiest Christmas memories in recent years.
Jeb asked me to find a venue for our office Christmas party, as well as a caterer to provide the food. Danny had booked us a swing band as entertainment.
Matt had a weekend gig tending bar at a winery on Lake Travis. I’d even helped him work a wedding one night. The highlight was dealing with a wine snob who was convinced that the white plonk we were serving by the carafe, and had purchased a few hours earlier in cardboard boxes at a nearby supermarket, was in fact a superb wine of other-worldly transcendence.
At any rate, the owner of the winery had run his business into the ground, and was no longer even making wine. He just rented the place out for events. And it was perfect for our needs and budget.
The party was a great success, but I was uncomfortable hanging out with the sales staff and their spouses in the Dining Room, so I hung out in the Bottling Room in back with Matt, the smokers, and the “bad kids.” Matt and I were the entertainment back there. Whenever the band in the other room went into a Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin song, like “The Summer Wind” or “On An Evening In Roma,” we would sing the whole thing. My co-workers were astonished that we knew all the lyrics and could sing on-key.
I really enjoyed the odd requests I’d get from readers all over the world. I was frequently asked to set up wedding breakfasts and other events. A woman in Italy wanted to prepare a Texas feast for Christmas, so I consulted friends, co-workers, freelancers, and area restaurants, to amass a collection of representative Texas recipes.
A woman who lived out of town wanted to surprise her boyfriend, a UT student, with a romantic weekend. I made arrangements for a bar for early evening drinks, a nice dinner, dessert, a coach ride around downtown, and a night at a cozy bed-and-breakfast. Matt found this highly amusing:
–You know, people say that Matt C___ is a man that makes things happen, but B____ is a man that makes people get BIZ-ZAY!
A woman called to say her daughter’s favorite special occasion restaurant was the Old San Francisco Steak House, and she especially liked a dessert they served. But try as she might, she’d never been able to get the restaurant to tell her the recipe. Now her daughter was undergoing brain surgery, and she hoped that when her daughter woke up afterwards, she could serve her that dessert.
I called the restaurant, asked to speak to the manager, mentioned who I was, and told him the story. Needless to say, he e-mailed me the recipe in a few minutes. A few days later, the lady called to say that the operation, and the dessert, had been a big success.
We had a policy that once a restaurant review was posted it had to remain in place for at least six months. If a restaurant got a less than favorable review the manager might call and complain. We stretched the policy a bit in the case of Giorgio’s, the fanciest restaurant in town. Nany Tuttle had reviewed it, loved the food, but thought the décor dated and tacky. The Giorgio’s people kicked up enough of a fuss that I was sent to review the place again. And…I had the exact same experience Nancy did. I thought the décor was jarring. But I just chose not to address it in my review.
A few weeks later the story broke that the chef at Giorgio’s was getting a job in the Bush White House. Everyone in the Editorial Department got excited. If an Austin chef was going to be named White House Chef, that would be HUGE news. Jeb arranged to get me a driver. I tried to set up an interview with the chef, but he was too busy to talk to me. We did learn, however, that the chef was going to Washington to serve as an advisor, not as a chef. I suspected that had the Giorgio’s people not been pissed off with us, we might’ve gotten an interview.
The Neon Tumbleweed restaurant downtown had gotten a bad review, and the owner called Jeb to complain. He stood his ground, but said he would send the Food Editor to review the Neon Tumbleweed location in Northwest Austin. I took Matt along. (The amazing thing is that the entire time I was a Food Editor, I had a great deal of difficulty finding people to come with me and eat free in restaurants and drink free in bars. I needed a second person so I could sample more than one dish.)
I thought Neon Tumbleweed a nice place, and the service was very good too. But the menu was very wordy, filled with elaborate descriptions of the various ingredients in the dishes. I knew there was no way I could remember all this verbiage, so I pulled a little card out of my pocket, covered it with my corner of the tablecloth, and began jotting the descriptions down.
While I was doing this, Matt looked up. Matt does not have a poker face. He tries to lie, but he can’t hide it.
And he found that a waitress was staring right at him.
He gave her his “deer-in-the-headlights”/ “hand-in-the-candy-jar” look.
She looked over at another waitress. Waitress Number Two stared at Matt.
Waitresses One and Two looked over to the Manager. Then all three of them looked at us.
–We’ve been made.
And from that moment on, the service, which had been very good, became excellence. The Manager himself brought me my food.
My friends Riley and Carter Newton came aboard as freelancers. Danny assigned Riley some band reviews and Riley wound up not writing a goddamned thing. Carter reviewed Louie’s 106, and after I edited the piece, Jeb pronounced it the gold standard for freelance writing.
Carter did a few more reviews, and then I sent him to review a place called Carmelo’s. I waited. And waited. Carter didn’t return my calls or e-mails. Later he admitted that he was embarrassed that he’d failed to finish the piece and had avoided me.
The deadline to submit the piece came and went. Jeb was angry at me. I was furious with Carter.
He finally sent me what he had written. He tried to fatten it up by using the words “traditional” and “Old World” over and over. After I pared all that dead wood away there were maybe thirty words I could use for a review that needed to be 150-words long, not counting a 75-word sidebar. I’d never been to Carmelo’s before. So I examined the entire website, studied the menu, and what little Carter had managed to say, and from that built up a review that I’d categorize as “Speculative Fiction.”
I’ve never believed in getting other people in trouble with their jobs. That’s just an off-limits area, as far as I’m concerned. Fucking over a friend on his job is unconscionable.
During the spring, it was announced that the company was going to start allowing readers to comment on reviews. I warned Jeb and the Office Manager that this was a bad idea, and as soon as any idiot could post nonsense on our site, we’d have angry business owners to deal with. (Of course, nowadays, most sites allow reader feedback, but this was less common in those days.)
And so, when under-aged Presidential daughter Jenna Bush tried to buy a margarita with someone else’s ID at a Tex-Mex place called Paco’s, everyone that hated the Bush family posted something derogatory on the Paco’s uRb-N-gUyDz profile. The owners and manager of the restaurant called me to bitch, but I passed them on to Jeb with a self-satisfied smile.
We had a policy that if we had a bad experience in a restaurant we’d have to go back a second time, to make sure that we’d not just gone in on an off night. And since I’d worked in so many aspects of the restaurant business myself, I tended to give the subjects of my reviews the benefit of the doubt. I know the problems that can come up in a restaurant.
I went to a Mexican restaurant for lunch one Friday and the food was so bad I had food poisoning all that weekend. A few weeks later I reluctantly made a second visit. I tried to order something that I thought wouldn’t make me sick. The waitress brought out a taco salad which was served in a large, deep-fried tortilla shell. I noticed there was half an inch of water standing in the bottom of the bowl, and tipped it so the water could run out. The waitress said brightly,
–Oh, that’s probably water from where they washed the lettuce!
After that she scampered over to the front of the restaurant and actually lay down on the bench by the hostess’s stand. Now in my day, when I worked in the restaurant business, waiters and waitresses weren’t allowed to sit down in front of the customers, much less lay down, because it would make us look lazy.
I got food poisoning again, so I gave this restaurant my one really negative review. Shortly thereafter, the salesman that handled all our restaurant accounts told me that this restaurant was owned by the Mexican Mafia. It was a restaurant during the day, and a dance club at night, and it was the club that brought in the real money.
One source of conflict between me and Jeb was that I liked to take hour-long lunches in restaurants, while Jeb often preferred that we eat quick lunches at our desks. I came back from lunch one day and stopped at the southwest entrance of the building for a smoke. Suddenly I heard all sorts of noise and sirens and clamor and saw cop cars and ambulances tearing around the corner. Shortly thereafter, I went inside and asked people at the elevators what was going on. They said the hubbub was over on the hotel side of the building, on San Jacinto Boulevard.
I went upstairs, but curiosity got the better of me, and I went back downstairs again and around to the east side of the building. Part of the sidewalk was roped off and a tree was missing some branches. A body was sprawled on the sidewalk, covered with a blanket. It seemed the person had fallen from a balcony. Was it a suicide or an accident?
I wanted to know more, but the hotel employees were sworn to secrecy. It took me awhile to find out the whole story. Some guy had become dangerously paranoid and locked himself in his room. He thought government agents were coming to get him, so he went out on his balcony, pulled a chair over to the railing, and tried to climb up onto the edge of the railing, and pull himself up to the balcony of the room above or lower himself to the balcony of the room below. He slipped.
Scuttlebutt has it that his ghost haunts the hotel.
The company announced yet a new site re-design. This was so elaborate that we were to have a day-long training session, and staffers from the Houston and San Antonio offices were driving up to sit in on it. We had to come to work an hour early (which meant I’d be useless with exhaustion for the day), we had only thirty minutes for lunch, and were kept an hour later than usual.
I didn’t learn a thing. They just tried to cram too much into our heads in one day. I got some dirty looks for nodding off and loudly fidgeting. A few weeks later when the new re-design was unveiled, Kyle, who’d been trained on a prototype version, showed me everything I needed to know in twenty minutes.
March 2001 brought the biggest event on our calendar—the South By Southwest Film, Interactive, and Music Festival. Since there were no food events to cover, I assigned to work the Interactive and Film portions. My friend Carter Newton was running an event called “20×2,” where twenty speakers had two minutes a piece to define a topic through a speech, song, or other sort of presentation. I reported on that, as well as several other sessions.
The amazing thing was I only had to write about a paragraph or two about everything I saw. The rest of the time I could just swagger around the Convention Center, act like a Big Shot in the Journalist’s Lounge, smirk at all the hipster out-of-town journalists and their bizarre interpretations of western wear and cowboy chic, and fantasize that this convention would be the first of many similar events in my new career as a journalist.
For the Film portion of SXSW I had tried and failed to set up telephone interviews with Johnny Depp, Michael Moore, Ron Jeremy, and Penelope Spheeris. It was funny calling all those agents and publicists in LA and New York. They spoke and thought quickly, and were very impatient with my relaxed, flannel-mouthed Southern bullshit. They wanted me to hurry up and get to the point.
I did land an interview with character actor Jeffrey Tambor, who was coming to town to promote a film called “Never Again.” He was gracious and funny, and the conversation seemed more like a chat between equals, rather than an interview between an unskilled regional journalist and a celebrity. He seemed pleased that I’d done my homework, and was surprised that I was familiar with the 1970s play, “Sly Fox.”
So one day I had wandered all over the Convention Center as much as I cared to, and was about to leave, when I heard Tambor talking behind me. I turned around and introduced myself, and he introduced me to his publicist, as well as his co-star, Jill Clayburgh. He said he’d really been pleased with how the interview had turned out, and asked if I was going to the premiere of his movie at the Paramount Theatre that night.
–Well, I’d like to, but the SXSW people were really skimpy with the press passes, and didn’t send me one for your movie.
The publicist said she’d call the SXSW office and fix that, but Tambor said,
–Fuck that—you’re coming in with us. Meet us in front of the Paramount at 6:30 and we’ll walk you in.
So I made my way over there, crossed the red velvet rope, told a guard who I was, and waited. And I enjoyed the hell out of watching the reactions of the crowd, as they tried to figure out who the hell I was. Our photographer Jerry happened by, so I told him to stick around and photograph the arrival of the celebrities. I also had to explain to him which of the people were celebrities, and then what there names were, because he knew nothing about them. I also told him where to stand and set up his shots for him.
Tambor and I chatted briefly. I didn’t have much to say to Jill Clayburgh. I wanted to ask her when Bertolucci’s “La Luna” would come out on DVD, but I couldn’t remember if she starred in it or not. Tambor introduced me to the director, Eric Schaeffer, and I told him I’d recently rented his film “Wirey Spindell.” He perked up and was amazed.
–How did you manage to see that in this part of the country? We weren’t able to convince Blockbuster to pick it up.
–Actually I got it from an indie store called Vulcan Video.
The premiere was fun and exciting. I schmoozed with all involved. On my way out of the theatre I sneered at “Hollywood insider” Harry Knowles, standing there behind the velvet rope with all the other rabble, looking obese, clueless, and ridiculous as he always does.
The next day I walked into the office and announced I had to write a review of “Never Again.” Jeb asked,
–How you gonna do that?
–I went to the premiere.
–How did you manage that?!
Later on in the week the Newton brothers’s lack of interest in looking at a clock or meeting deadlines caused me to miss a concert, and I was so angry I never attempted to attend another SXSW concert again. The week ended with me running into First Lady Laura Bush with her security detail while I walked my dog Fred a few blocks from my house.
The next month I covered the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, which was based at the Four Seasons Hotel, but had events all over town. The focus of the Festival that year was Spanish food and wine. In preparation for this, I interviewed three important local chefs.
Passes were required for all Festival events and sessions. The Festival officials said I could sign up for a certain number of free passes, but they apparently didn’t think me important enough to offer me a free pass to the black tie Culinary Masters Gala at the end of the weekend. And though I didn’t own a tuxedo and didn’t feel like going through the trouble of renting one, I felt insulted by the slight.
I’m not a competitive man per se, and I’ve never been the kind to respond to things like contests, but I am hypersensitive to ranking and to the existence of competitors. I don’t like the fact there are other people to whom I’m being compared. I was especially resentful that there were other Food Editors in Austin more famous than me.
Cornelia Earnhardt of the “Bugler” was the best-known critic in the local foodie world, and had a reputation for her ego. She was morbidly obese, and tottered around on two canes. At food events she’d find a central place to sit, plop down there all night, and receive her admirers. I’m sure she never went out on restaurant reviews. She had an army of minions for that. I never met any of them and never heard anything about what they looked like.
Doyle Perry of the “Tribune” had the anonymous critic thing down—he looked more like the sort of middle-aged Everyman you’d see in a hardware store on a Saturday morning than a guy who spent his time in fancy restaurants. I met him once. He seemed nice enough. Still, I wondered why he felt the need to hand out so many four- and five-star ratings.
(Albert Beaumont said the awarding of a five-star rating on a restaurant should be a media event. What he was aiming for was a standardized star system that would mean the same thing in any city in the country. So a meal in a five-star rated restaurant in Austin should meet the same exacting standards and taste the same as that in a five-star rated restaurant in New York, Paris, or London. It should be the sort of meal a person remembered his entire life. I confessed with deep embarrassment that I’d not been to any of those cities or eaten in any five-star restaurants. I’d had some good meals in Austin restaurants, to be sure, but none of them were among the highlights of my life. And so, I never awarded five-stars to any Austin restaurants, because I didn’t have the breadth of experience to where I felt right in doing so.)
My only other restaurant critic peer, if you could call him that, was some asshole who did reviews on a radio station, but since I never listened to the station, I’d never heard of him. (He later did reviews for a paper for which I was a columnist, and his biographical profile at the end of each review was one-third the length of the review itself.)
Now, having said all this, I was still concerned with proving I was at least the third most important food critic in town. Sometimes my friend Matt said I was, and sometimes he teased me that there were several others ahead of me. The fact that I was not being recognized and heralded really angered me.
So, since I wasn’t going to the Gala, I signed up for every other event and session the Festival officials offered me. On the Friday morning of the first day, I swung by my office on the way to the Four Seasons. Though I was good at keeping a low profile when out doing reviews—the Neon Tumbleweed incident being the sole exception—I always made myself very conspicuous at food events. On this occasion I was wearing a jacket and another bow tie. I looked like G. K. Chesterton with a particularly bad case of gas.
The sessions were all fascinating–even one where a flamboyant British designer lectured on his new line of crystal glassware. In the afternoon I went to a sherry tasting at the Malaga Tapas Bar. The sherry was so delicious that after I drank it down I wanted to eat the glasses it had been served in. One of the people at my table was an old professor from San Antonio. I walked with him back to the Four Seasons as he told me about his life. He and his wife used to travel Spain all the time, especially to collect old books. They lived in a house designed by the famous Texas architect O’Neil Ford.
That night I worked my way around the ballrooms of the Four Seasons, sampling food at booths and tables set up by leading restaurants from all over the state.
The next day was a Saturday. It started with a wine tasting. We were told that the wines we’d be drinking were seldom imported into the United States, so we were in for a treat. Some of the wine makers were in attendance, sitting behind a table on the dais. These were elegant old Spanish grandees–titled men. They looked like they’d stepped out of a painting by El Greco.
The way I figured it, if I was being served a one-time-only treat, I wasn’t going to waste it. So when I was served a glass of wine I didn’t sip it, swirl it around my mouth, then decorously spit it into a silver bowl. I drank the whole thing.
And I’d not eaten breakfast.
By the end of the tasting I was feeling no pain, and wandered upstairs to the Journalist’s Hospitality Suite, hoping to soak up all that Spanish wine with some breakfast foods. Unfortunately, the room was staffed by members of the Ladies’ Aid Society or Junior League or something like that. They saw my badge, saw I was the uRb-N-gUyDz Restaurant Critic, thought I must have the most interesting job in the world, and insisted on asking me all about it. I didn’t want to lose my interesting job or reflect badly on the company by making a scene at the fanciest hotel in town, being drunk and disorderly before noon, so I put my acting skills to use, and feigned sobriety while answering questions between mouthfuls of croissant.
Early afternoon was alcohol-free. I mostly remember a lecture where some prominent food writer held forth on the micro-climates of Spain and made the assertion that Spanish cuisine was more rich and varied than that of France.
From there I cabbed it over to my neighborhood, to the Granite Cafe, for another wine tasting. By the time this was over I’d had twenty-one glasses of wine over the course of the day. I was on that thin line that separates acting like a gentleman of taste and breeding from jumping onto the table and waving my penis at the crowd, so I took the rest of the evening off, walked the three blocks home, and slept like a bastard.
The next day I took a shuttle from the Four Seasons out to Driftwood, Texas, to the Salt Lick Bar-B-Que, where I visited even more booths and sampled more food. The highlight of this day was totally unexpected. I drank a cup of all-natural milk from the Promised Land Dairy in Floresville, Texas, and had a Proustian sense memory. I had not drank milk that tasted that way since the late 60s or early 70s, when my grandmother still had milk delivered to her door in bottles. The rush of memories almost made me burst into tears.
A few weeks later I covered the “Taste of Austin” food event at the Driskill Hotel. I don’t remember much about this except that LBJ’s daughter Luci was one of the guests, and when I decided to interrogate some of the chefs, I knew to look for them out on a balcony, where they were all gathered to smoke.
Everybody in the restaurant business smokes.
Things started happening quickly.
We had another company picnic—this time in Pease Park. We worked the first half of the day, then took off at noon. But I got engrossed in something I was working on and left hours after everybody else. I went home, got Fred, and called a cab. We arrived in time to see everyone packing up and leaving, though Jeb and Kyle finally got to meet Fred. I then took Fred to the Dog Park.
Jack, our Office Manager, got a job in Seattle. He called us all together for a meeting. It was memorable because he mentioned every single person in the office by name and what that person taught him. Of me he said,
–B_____, I’ve watched you go off and eat in fancy restaurants and greasy spoons. Sometimes you come back with a big smile on your face. Sometimes you come back with food poisoning. But you keep on going back out there. You keep going, day after day. From you I have learned to take the bitter with the sweet.
It came for my Annual Evaluation. Jeb took me into a private meeting room. The evaluation was only so-so. There were a lot of things he said I did well. And a lot that I needed to work on. I did not have a good attitude. I seemed to deliberately ignore certain tasks, even ones that I had been specifically assigned, if they didn’t interest me. The on-going trouble with setting up photo shoots was the best example. I’d not taken the initiative to learn how to size photos, leaving Kyle to do the job for everyone in the office.
I was genuinely shocked. I get criticized by people all the time, but the criticism is usually inaccurate or unimportant, and I can blow it off. Rare are the times when people call me on my real bullshit. I had assumed Jeb would just ignore my various glaring problems, praise me for my achievements, and send me on my self-satisfied way. I think maybe it was my pride that was wounded, because I thought I had everybody fooled. I knew he was right. There wasn’t a single charge he made that wasn’t true. I just didn’t think he’d bring all that stuff up.
But a few weeks later, I learned that Sharon, one of the regional bosses, had despite my spotty evaluation, decided to up my salary to $27,300 a year. And while I liked getting the extra money, I actually felt bad for Jeb. It felt as if Sharon had shrugged off Jeb’s observations as unimportant. I thought that, after the kind of evaluation I’d gotten, maybe I didn’t really deserve a raise. Jeb was in the right and I was in the wrong. And it was very strange for me to even consider someone else’s side in a question like this—especially where money was concerned. I almost felt like I owed Jeb an apology.
And then, it was announced that many uRb-N-gUyDz offices around the country would be down-sized, with many of the editors moved to one of four media hubs: New York, Chicago. LA, and Atlanta. Jeb was going to LA. Kyle to Chicago. I began to get ideas. I began to get excited.
I’d not given much thought to leaving Austin. Now I could think of nothing else. I’d drained this small city dry. I’d exhausted its possibilities. But imagine, being an up-and-comer in New York!
I’d noticed how, in the on-line world, you didn’t have to work for years before you got a chance at advancement. The work was fast. You proved yourself fast. The old protocols and procedures were now archaic. I’d watched this for months.
My plan—to the extent I had one—was to work a few years at uRb-N-gUyDz, rise up through the ranks a couple times, then maybe move on to a different company. I now had a chance at that.
Where to live? New York, probably. Chicago was my second chance. LA I wasn’t sure about, because everyone insisted I couldn’t get along there without a car. But then again, people had said that about every place where I’d lived. Atlanta was out of the question. No more Southern humidity for me. The only thing I had any interest in seeing in Atlanta was “The Wren’s Nest,” the home of “Uncle Remus” creator, Joel Chandler Harris. That was it.
I met with Sharon. I was excited. I said I was really stoked at the idea of transferring to a new city.
Sharon said I was good at what I did. Sharon said she knew I would get even better if I continued the way I was going. Sharon said she thought the best course of action would be for me to stay in Austin for the next six to twelve months. At the end of that time, I’d be really good at what I did, and then we could look at a transfer to a hub market.
I tried not to be too disappointed. Fortunately, the transfer idea hadn’t been circulating long enough for me to get really obsessed about it.
Jeb, Kyle, Martin, and Denise left. Their departure was strangely low-key. I took over Jeb’s duties as Fire Warden for our floor. I helped herd people down the stairs when a burned bag of microwave popcorn caused a fire scare.
Kyle gave me his Swingline stapler, in honor of Milton, the harried, much put-upon worker in the film “Office Space.” I added “Sports Editor” to my roster of titles. I knew next to nothing about sports, but I thought it would be a good exercise to try and see if I could master the job. Anyway, it would be fun to swagger in to UT Football Head Coach Mack Brown’s press conferences and cop free tickets for my sports-loving friends.
We got a new Editor-in-chief, Alice, who transferred in from Houston. I continued making a bazillion print-outs a day on the office printer. Danny and I kept going to our favorite Vietnamese place for lunch, slurping pho soup and discussing Jewish mysticism.
I e-mailed a news story to my co-workers past and present. Apparently some guy who’d gone through a bad divorce went to his son’s Little League game with a gun and killed his son, his son’s coach, and finally himself. The subject line I used?: “No Hits, No Runs, No Heirs.”
Albert Beaumont e-mailed me. One of his former co-workers from the “Times” was coming to town to gather info for a special interactive section of the paper. Would I look after him? You bet I will!
I e-mailed the guy. He was staying at the Driskill. He was mostly interested in places to eat and places to hear music. He mostly wanted to to know about Tex-Mex and barbeque places:
–Just tell me the places you like to eat when you’re not on duty, when you don’t have to review a place.
–Well, actually, when I’m just eating for myself, I usually go for something Asian or Italian.
I totally blew this guy’s idea of what Texans were all about.
I called David Bull, Executive Chef of the Driskill Hotel. As an act of professional courtesy, I hepped him to the fact that a journalist from “The New York Times” would be staying in his hotel that weekend, so they might want to up their game. Bull was effusive in his thanks.
Albert Beaumont announced he was going to be paying a visit to certain cities to meet with their Food Editors. Austin was one of the stops.
I adopted a second Basset Hound, Cleo. She was in ill health and the previous owners had misrepresented this in their e-mails. I could also tell she’d been abused at some point in her life.
We gathered the freelancers and circled the wagons for another summer’s “Best of Austin” round-up. The big crowd-pleaser. The monster that ate content. Busy busy.
We dove in.
Albert Beaumont wrote to say something had come up and he’d not be coming to Austin after all.
Sharon asked me if we could speak in one of the meeting rooms.
She told me that she was laying me off. She was also laying herself off. 131 in all would be leaving. She rattled on for ten minutes about how this would be the best thing, ultimately, for the company, how streamlining the workforce would make uRb-N-gUyDz a healthier, stronger company. But I didn’t give a shit about uRb-N-gUyDz anymore. I was frantically trying to figure out how I would function with no ground under my feet.
I did not see this coming. People had been laid off right and left all thirteen months I’d worked for the company. And I was bulletproof. You can’t have an on-line city guide without restaurant and bar coverage, can you? But I had noticed the scent of death that fills the air of an office during lay-off seasons, and I had been scared by it like everybody else.
I would be working for two more weeks. (They still needed me for the “Best of Austin” round-up.) And I appreciated having the time to wrap up my affairs, to pass on my half-completed projects to the handful of freelancers that would take up my slack.
I e-mailed some friends with the news….
My severance package was a check: one month’s worth of pay. And it lasted exactly one month.
I was told that out of consideration of my past status, I would be paid a higher rate for any freelance work I did for the company—quite a bit higher than the normal freelancers received. But even this honor was taken away after a few months.
My farewell lunch was low-key: me, Danny, and Hugh the IT guy at a Thai restaurant. Hugh made an observation that I’d thought about many times myself:
–You know, for the kind of work we do, most of it could be done from home. We really don’t need an office this big. We could just e-mail our work in and get together for the occasional meeting. It would be easy enough to figure out if someone wasn’t doing their share of the work.
I wrote a farewell letter.
I posted it to every single person working in the company.
I said that I wasn’t so much upset about losing my job as I was proud of having had the opportunity to work with so many talented people.
Danny said it was a classy exit.
Since I didn’t have a computer at home at the time, I asked Alice if I could drop in some afternoons and use my old computer, to catch up on my e-mails and such. She said she was fine with that.
The Editor-in-Chief in San Francisco and several regional people encouraged me to apply for the job of Food and Drink Editor in San Francisco. I thought about it, but decided to pass for several reasons: 1) They only wanted to pay $30,000 a year, and San Francisco was the most expensive city in the U.S. at that time. I didn’t want to have to share an apartment with eight people and live off ramen noodles. 2) Considering all the lay-offs the company had been doing, I was afraid if I took the job, I’d get out there, get laid off, and then would be stuck out there with no financial safety net and no connections. 3) My knowledge of wine was spotty. I didn’t think I could be a food writer living so close to Napa Valley and get away with not being a wine expert. 4) rumor had it that Albert Beaumont was grooming one of his “New York Times” proteges for the job.
Jeb and I stayed in touch. After a few years I asked him for a letter of recommendation, and he sent back a glowing one. A year after that an independent executive evaluation firm wrote me, saying I’d been named as one of Jeb’s references. Could I describe what it was like to work under him? What was he like as a leader? I offered my honest opinion. I sent back high praise.
A few years later Jeb started a blog. Before long, I was a guest columnist, supplying articles, pictures, and yucks-a-plenty. He told me that if he had to do an employee evaluation on me now, based on the sort of work I was doing on his blog, the way I was following his guidelines, he’d give me the highest rating.
I kept in touch with Danny too. He remade himself—this time as a real estate broker, specializing in show biz clientele. But he continued playing musical gigs and doing charity work on the side.
Just about everybody left uRb-N-gUyDz for bigger and better things. Even our Copy Editor, Phil Lassiter, wound up a Paris-based travel writer for “The New York Times.”
About two months after I left uRb-N-gUyDz Carter Newton took me out for drinks at the Dog and Duck. I had thought having this uRb-N-gUyDz job on my resume would suddenly make me a hot property—that I was sure to walk right in to another good job in no time. I had thought wrong.
Now Carter is a master of trendy bullshit business-speak. He’s fluent in it. He enjoys using it. And he spoke to me for forty-five minutes, telling me the steps I needed to take to get my life back on track and land another good job. At the end of his monologue he asked if he’d been of any help. I shook my head.
–Sad to say, no you haven’t. I didn’t understand a goddamn word you said for forty-five minutes. It was all just empty buzzwords hanging on air. So could you explain all that to me now in English?
But his “English” didn’t help either. And I was entering into a dangerous time. I’d ask people—friends even—questions, and they wouldn’t give me straight answers. I’d ask where to look for job leads and get a discourse on how to rewrite my resume or how to behave in an interview. I’d repeat myself, and ask about where to find job leads, and they’d tell me what to write down on job applications.
It reminded me of how when little kids don’t want to hear something they put their hands over their ears and yell,
–LA! LA! LA! LA! LA! I CAN’T HEAR YOU! I’M NOT LISTENING!
The uRb-N-gUyDz bosses looked at their bottom line, realized they’d made ridiculous projections to their stock holders, and with the click of a mouse condemned me to a decade or more of poverty, illness, and madness. I would lose my friends, my family, and any shred I ever had of hope. Meanwhile, the company’s owner, Hershel Roth, was spending many times my annual salary on diamond-encrusted cock rings to bestow on his dewy-cheeked catamites.
And me? Well, on September 10, 2001, I went to an employment agency. I’d brought along a copy of my University of Texas employment application, because it broke down my job skills in great detail. I handed it to the girl who waited on me and explained how useful it would be in preparing a profile of me.
She led me to a tiny, stuffy room with no air conditioning so I could take typing and computer tests. (Indeed, I found that all testing rooms in all employment agencies seem to be small, stuffy, and un-air-conditioned.)
I took the tests.
My typing speed was slow. My computer skills were incomplete and unimpressive. The girl said she’d prepare a profile of me and let me know if anything came up. She handed back my UT application. Clearly, she wasn’t going to need it. And it was also obvious I’d never hear from that agency again.
–I’m just gonna sleep in tomorrow. What could happen?