Monday, March 9, 2009

Trading the Travel Agent

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

Some of the places I have worked have been fun, and one of which was at a trade magazine called Travel Agent. When I started there it was part of Fairchild Publications, which was bought out by Capital Cities/ABC, and after I left there a few years later, was owned by Disney, who siphoned it off to Conde Nast, who in turn closed it down.

CompuGraphic Verityper
My job was to take the writers’ hard copy and type it into a CompuGraphic Verityper and print it out as a long sheet, which was then pasted onto boards by others, and sent off to the printers. This was the mid-1980s, and the computer revolution was just around the corner. As Media Ecology theory teaches, when a new technology is introduced to a culture, it does not change any one thing, it changes everything.

When I joined the company, it was ensconced in a building around 52 Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, but we moved to 53rd Street and 7th Avenue at one point after it was bought by Capital Cities/ABC. The bottom floor was (and still is) Lindy’s Cheesecakes, the second floor was ABC’s Credit Union, known as ABE, and we were on the third.

The company that transferred us to the new location was called Clancy, who are one of the top corporate movers in the city. Just before the transition stage, there were piles of huge boxes in the hallway, with the company name printed on them. One day, as I walked by one, I noticed someone had hand written in marker, “Ok Clancy, get the boys and surround the house.” Recognizing the Bugs Bunny reference, of course I put in the next line, “All right rabbit! Where’s Rocky? Where’s he hidin’?” In a third handwriting, there later appeared, “He’s not in this stove.” Subsequently, “Oh ho, he’s hidin’ in the stove, eh?” By the time we moved, the entire scene had been written out by a number of hands. No one ever mentioned who wrote what, but to me, that no one questioned it was as cool as the actual event.

My department was full of interesting people. For one, my boss was a bit of a flake, and was in a punk band called Not the Gabors. While she was generally okay, she was not exactly on the ball. For example, she once hired someone incompetent simply because the woman was a body builder, never mind the lack of any kind of either experience or desire to learn. All of us had to pull her weight to keep on an even level, and as we were not paid for overtime, this was sometimes troubling considering what we were paid. One time, the boss-lady with the spiked bleached hair asked me how she was, as a boss, which seemed to me a silly question to ask an employee. Maybe how she could be better, but to rate her put me in an awkward position. What I finally answered, which was not what she expected but was totally honest, was, “Well, I’ve had worse.” I was kind of a smartass back then, so I got away with the passive-aggressive unofficial review.

One of my funnier coworkers was a Latino man named Ricky. He had married incredibly young, and at the age of 19 when I met him, he was already married and had two daughters. Fascinated with the military, he was seriously thinking of joining the Army if and when he left. He had this bit where, if there was someone around, he would hold his head and moan, like he had a headache, and when the person asked him what was wrong, he would answer, “Oh, it’s nothing. It’s just a flashback to ‘Nam.” This would always crack me up, because he was around 8 years old when that “war” ended. It was even better when he’d get sympathetic responses from people who were just reacting and not thinking.

The only person in our department at our level that was not in our clique (other than Mz Bodybuilder) was Harold, who pasted up boards. He was tall, lanky, and, well, honestly not too bright, though saddest of all he did not seem to know it. Being the somewhat abrasive punker (with a heart of gold) at the time, I played Harold like an instrument. For example, I shared a room with him and another paste-up artist, the fun and wacky Lynn. While I usually baffled Lynn with my obscure references and tendency toward non-sequiters, she had a lot more on the ball. Harold liked to insult me because I confused him (I would tell the following joke: Rene Descartes is on a train. Steward comes up and says, “Would you like something to drink?” Descartes answers, “I think not,” and then disappears. Harold called the joke – and me – stupid because he did not understand it). When Harold insulted me, most of the time I just let it slide. Once, over lunch, Lynn asked me why I let him get away with it. What I explained was I had nothing to prove to either him, or to Lynn, because she knew me better, and because I would respond when I felt it was worth the effort. This happened occasionally, such as:

In November 1985, I bought a camcorder. It was one of those big, bulky VHS ones that weighted 7 pounds, but was then near the top-of-the-line. While showing the camera off to a couple of the female writers, Harold chuckled and said in a nasty tone trying to embarrass me in front of everyone, “Do you ever take videos of yourself naked?” Without missing a beat or even looking up, I said, “No, I don’t have a wide angle lens,” and then kept on explaining the features of the camera. The writers, however, had a great laugh at Harold right there. And that Harold didn’t get what I meant made it all the funnier to them (and me). I gave Lynn a look like, “See what I mean?” She smiled back as if to say, “Got it!”

Harold loved Top 10 radio, and would listen to it out loud on his personal portable radio, which was on a table right next to me. This would drive me nuts, and I let him know my displeasure. Sometimes, when Harold walked out of the room, I would just change it to oldies station WCBS (when it actually played oldies), which drove him crazy back. Of course, Lynn, who was much more open minded about music than I was, witnessed and enjoyed the power struggle, while at the same time, it also stressed her out.

At some point, some crappy Huey Lewis song (crappy + Huey Lewis = redundant) came on and I commented out loud, in disgust, “Ugh! Huey Lewis and the News!” At that point, I walked out of the room and went to the bathroom to escape the drivel. When I emerged, Harold was waiting for me in the still corridor. He was visibly angry (he definitely had issues in the rage department). “I’m tired of you insulting my music all the time, Francos!”

“Let me fill you in on something, Harold,” I calmly asserted, not backing down. “If I was in a room by myself and a Huey Lewis and the News song came on, I would say, out loud, ‘Ugh! Huey Lewis and the News.’ It has nothing do to with you; it has to do with bad music. Get over yourself.” Then I walked back to my desk.

Harold was fired when he nearly got into a fistfight with one of the upper bosses. He often talked about how happy he had been working at his brother’s car detailing business when he was younger, and I hope he went back to it and is at peace.

As the technology changed, my job slowly vanished more and more. We received Macs and started using layout software rather than typesetting. The layout people went first. As more of the writers, especially the newer ones, typed their own copy directly into the computer, my typesetting coworkers were being let go. Until I was the only one left. Eventually, my job turned into doing the ad layouts for the entire magazine on the computer. This took me and hour-and-a-half, once a week, on Tuesday. The rest of the time there was nothing for me to do, but I was required to sit at my desk. I tried reading, but doing that for 8 hours a day became tiresome. There wasn’t even an Internet to roam. I was bored to tears, and became very agitated.

After a month of this, I asked my boss to lay me off because the rule at the time was that if I quit, I was not eligible for unemployment (same if I was fired). A layoff was the only way to get it. I carefully explained that it was more cost efficient to let me go than to keep in a room by myself (which could be used by a writer or editor). It was agreed, and I was gratefully and gracefully gone.


  1. That's an AM Varityper, not a CompuGraphic.

  2. You're right. I worked on both, but it's been so many years ago, I can't remember. I do remember that when they needed to test for a light leak, I had to work the machine in the dark, and had no problem with that; other times, I created boxes around text, which the manual stated it could not do (but wasn't really hard, just busy). Six months after I stopped working on the machine, I couldn't remember where the ON switch was. By that time, I was deep into another piece of equipment.

    Anyway, thanks for the correction, I really appreciate it; as I've often stated, I'd rather be corrected than remain wrong. 8)

  3. Note that Travel Agent Magazine is still viable and a going concern. I was mistaken that it was closed. 8)