Wednesday, July 10, 2013

No. 330 – Stagnation

Performer: Genesis
Songwriters: Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel, Anthony Phillips, Mike Rutherford
Original Release: Trespass
Year: 1970
Definitive Version: Genesis Archive 1967-75, 1998

The other day, Laurie and I were talking about this here blog, and I was wondering which performer would have the most songs on it. I don’t know at this point. Off the cuff, I’d say it has to be Rush, but it could be Genesis when it’s all said and done. They did a lot of really great songs, many of which you probably never have heard before, like this song.

I wasn’t familiar with this song till the turn of the century courtesy of one of Scott’s Napster CDs at a time when my tenure at The Dispatch was at its nadir. After my breakup with Debbie and the Wheels debacle post-9/11, I hated the thought of going to work. I hated my bosses, hated the job, hated the whole place. I hated even more that I HAD to work there, because, really, what choice did I have?

So how did I go from there to being one of the best employees by the time I left in March 2003? The biggest reason, certainly, was that when I finally determined my next step, The Dispatch no longer mattered, because I knew I wasn’t going to be there forever. But the gig also became a lot more fun in late Fall 2001, and that stemmed entirely from a blast message sent to everyone in editorial.

Mine wasn’t the only Summer of Bummer for employees at The Dispatch in 2001. Due to a major personality clash, the Food Department went from a two-person staff that had a test kitchen in the basement next to the break room to a one-person department stuck in the middle of the desk desert, close to Business. I don’t know all the details of what happened, and it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that in the aftermath of the meltdown, the food editor, Suzanne, had to write a new restaurant review column every week in addition to her other duties. Because of her workload, she opened it up to others on staff. In the posting, she was looking for anyone who wanted to write a review for Carried Away.

Unlike the regular restaurant-review column, Carried Away was focused entirely on a restaurant’s suitability for carryout. It was a short column, about 8 to 10 inches, and each person would be paid a nominal fee of $50, which included food costs.

This piqued my interest. You might recall I had applied for and was summarily rejected from the post as the regular restaurant reviewer. I loved food and restaurants. Now, I also had my writing chops together from a year of doing BBT, and it wasn’t as though I had anything better to do with my time.

I spoke with Suzanne and told her I was interested. She gave me an assignment, and the sad part is I don’t remember where it was. Even though it would cut into my profit, I went twice, so I could try a number of different things.

Like with the restaurant-reviewer’s gig, I didn’t want to write about the food in too much detail. Maybe I’m biased, but I believe that the Average Joe doesn’t care whether the potatoes at Chez Trendy are infused with elderberries and a hint of tequila rosemary; he or she just wants to know if the food is any good.

So I wrote my standard Will-goes-to-the-restaurant review, where I basically tell a story describing the experience with hopefully a bit of humor attached. I wrote the piece on Sunday night, edited it Monday and turned it in on time.

Suzanne said it was excellent, very funny, and thanked me for it. This was in October 2001, I believe. Around Thanksgiving, I approached Suzanne and asked if she wanted me to do another review. I had figured that she still was overwhelmed by the responses she got from her internal query, and hopefully she’d be able to squeeze me in. She said in fact that aside from one other person, NO ONE had responded to her query.

I couldn’t believe it. I was so sure everyone wanted in on this gig (I had heard at least six staffers applied to be the restaurant reviewer), I hadn’t noticed that Suzanne had been writing Carried Away again. So I told her, I’ll be happy to write as many reviews as you want, and—happy to be rid of the extra work—she sent me on my way with a couple places on her radar. Before long, I was suggesting places of my own—great small joints I knew of around Columbus either by experience or reputation.

Soon after the New Year, Suzanne left for a new gig in Florida. Steve, who was the assistant Features editor, assumed Suzanne’s duties, and anything that he didn’t have to worry about was fine with him. He didn’t have to worry about Carried Away—he was a fan—and essentially turned the column over to me. He didn’t care what I wrote about, just turn it in on time—and keep it entertaining.

I didn’t care about the money. As long as it covered my expenses, that was fine. Instead, I got something better than $50. After eight years at The Dispatch, I finally had admiration for the quality of my work. It made me want to do the best work I could.

I worked hard on Carried Away, or as hard as one could on a single weekly 8-inch column. (OK, so it grew a bit during Steve’s oversight: More of my copy meant less of others that he had to find and edit.) I wanted to take care of everyone in the audience, so I made it a point to mix up the cuisine and the locations, ranging from the toniest suburban sandwich shops to inner city chicken-and-waffle shacks.

I wrote only good reviews. My feeling was you can find something that’s decent enough to recommend at almost any place that you go, and I had only 52 reviews per year. If I couldn’t find that at the first place I tried, I’d come up with something else.

I didn’t see the value in wasting words to write about some joint that was anything less than excellent, so I’d say, “go here, get this.” I figured that if the reader didn’t do that, well, that was on him or her. I also respected the business of restaurants enough that I wasn’t going to torpedo someone’s sweat equity just to soothe my raging ego.

I ate a ton of great food. I became a big fan of Indian and Vietnamese cuisine through Carried Away. And, I have to say, it was never not fun to go somewhere after I wrote about it and see the review posted on the restaurant wall. Michael’s Pizza had my review hanging poster-size in the front window of the store, which was a little intimidating, but what the heck—Micheal’s sausage and onion pizza was a killer.

So I became a restaurant reviewer, kind of, after all. After I took over Carried Away in Fall 2001, I wrote every review—doing an extra one ahead of time to cover for vacation weeks—until I left for Cleveland in 2003.

I continued even after they hired a new Food Editor, Robin. Sure, she took more control of Carried Away—she even (gasp!) edited me—but she still pretty much let me do what I wanted as long as I hit my deadlines, which was never a problem.

It was a blast, and it definitely made work at The Dispatch not only tolerable but enjoyable. And when I came back to Columbus in 2004 to be the official scorer at Clippers games, and I contacted Robin about maybe doing a review here or there, she gave me a list of five places and sent me on my way.

Yes, it was still only $50 per review, but you can’t put a price on workplace satisfaction and respect.

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