Change

In the long-lingering, super-heated autumn of Orlando in 1983, the radio airwaves were infected with a weird brew of compulsions and guilty pleasures — “Let’s Get Physical” by Olivia Newton John and “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett, “Hurts So Good” by John Cougar and “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell. You could feel the hair spiking and shoulder pads swelling as the music video age of MTV stole center stage of the cultural landscape.

I was 25 years old and fresh out of luck in finding any decent garage band with which to stake my fortunes as a future rock god (are any garage bands, by definition, decent?) My day job in the local newspaper’s office supply stockroom was perfect for a late-night party lifestyle; alone in my warehouse tucked away in the distribution center, I could sleep off the rougher edges of hangovers at my desk and listen to the hard rock FM station for the rest of the day when I warehoused stock and filled orders.

“Shake It Up” by the Cars, “Waiting For a Girl Like You” by Foreigner: Are only the songs of our youth memorable?

Is only youth memorable?

* * *

When I think of the things I inventoried for the fifty or so artists working in the pre-digital Advertising, Marketing and Editorial art departments—vellum paper and art boards, opaque and charcoal pencils—not to mention pre-press supplies like X-acto knives by the gross and a pallet of wax —it’s hard to understand how all of that work-ware, that functionality, that used to require a space bigger than a mosh-pit for herd of elephants, has all but vanished into a computer the size of a newspaper delivery box turned on its side.

And the special orders! Kor-I-Noor pens in a million colors, Selectric font balls in Prestige Pica and Orator, presentation binders and special printing papers and Day-Timers! So much was needed to paper-clip and hole-punch a robust corporation in a high-flying industry.

“White Wedding,” Billy Idol: No end to the couplings of necessity and convenience when your industry is flush with ad dollars.

* * *

When I wasn’t filling orders, stocking shelves or delivering supplies, I sat at my desk in the corner of that stockroom typing purchase requisitions on an IBM correcting Selectric. I typed out interoffice memos on pages that had printed at the top INTEROFFICE MEMO (to remove all doubt), stuffing them a yellow-gold interoffice envelope with holes punched into them so you couldn’t miss the correspondence inside) and then put them in the wall-mounted basket outside my stockroom door for the mail clerks to pick up twice a day.

“She Blinded Me With Science” by Thomas Dolby: If there were new media dreams in 1982, they were lost in my head while I slept a slow afternoon hour, head resting on the cool surface of that IBM Selectric. They were MTV video dreams, at most, slick and garish with stage neons, spectral with the exhalations of fog machines. “Thriller” by Michael Jackson.

But also “Shock the Monkey” by Peter Gabriel, living in what comes after “Solsbury Hill.” Manifestations gather slowly, are hard to see: And then they’re everywhere at once.

* * *

Delivering supplies daily out to the varied departments, the newspaper back then was a thriving, noisy, torrid hive of production. Three hundred reporters and copy editors banged away on stories at Atex terminals (there were still a number of manual typewriters in use by die-hards) and whooshed copy down to Composing in vacuum tubes. There were over a hundred classified advertising reps fielding telephone calls and entering orders into mainframe terminals, and a like number of circulation telephone sales reps selling subscriptions and fielding delivery complaints.

It was infernally hot in Florida already (always); men wore ties in pastel-colored short-sleeved shirts and the women wore business dresses with modestly-heeled shoes. (The white-collar dress code was strict, whereas since I had no conduct with the public and was considered blue-collar, I could get away with jeans and t-shirts.) Back then our paper commanded the highest rate in the country for a full-page ROP ad; the company was rolling in dough, expanding editions out to the counties, opening an off-site commercial printing plant in Lake County, beefing up bureaus in Tallahassee and Washington.

“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” by the Police, “Working For the Weekend” by Loverboy: For me, back then, all that furious daytime energy translated into a hard thirst for mindless pleasures at night. A lone wolf drinker, I drove all over town looking for good music and companionable women. There never was much of either as the hours ground down to closing time.

Was it the magnitude of what awaited for me at 8 o’clock the next morning, there in the production center where hundreds of tons of presses were coiled and oiled and inked and calibrated for their next furious run? Those presses still appear in my dreams, three decades later, feral, awesome, ravenous, falling down through the world, roaring into the earth’s moten core.

“Back on the Chain Gang” by the Pretenders.

* * *

Much as I liked the digs and dress code of the stockroom, I was broke most of the time (bar tabs). So when an opportunity arose that autumn to promote to an open buyer’s position, I took it, cutting my hair to a professional length and wedging into Hagar Action Slacks and black clopper shoes that made me feel like I was walking on wooden eraser blocks. The newly-minted professional.

I sat at a desk in the four-person Purchasing department (two buyers, a secretary and a manager) in a plush brown desk chair and spent my days on the telephone filling requisitions for press parts and copier toner, fleet replacements and cases of orange juice I drove out to the publisher’s house. It was an odd way to feel the pulse of the newspaper, but I did. It was like tending some colossal humunculus by sending Steelcase office furniture here, blanket wash there, oiling a knee joint or a mandible with millions of plastic delivery bags or tons of newsprint.

That beast’s job, it seemed, was to stride coast to coast of the Florida peninsula, reaping the news from wherever it hid and ripping market share away from competitors. Like those summer thunderstorms that mount up to 50 thousand feet of pent lightning and thunder and rain, the beast, that daily miracle, having drank Florida on that day in 1983 to the dregs, then roared those massive presses into motion, raining out 350,000 newspapers that sped on pulleys into Packaging where inserts were stuffed and bundles were strapped, piling them onto pallets that were sped by forklifts into a hundred Circulation trucks which fanned out into the sprawling dead-asleep Central Florida megasuburb, dropping off at substations in Kissimmee and Deltona and Winter Park and Ocoee where vans and station wagons waited to bag all those newspapers and then hurry through subdivisions throwing newspapers to every other addresss, where the only sound other than newspapers hitting driveways was the drone of a/c units and the hiss and flap sprinkler heads.

“Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League, “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor: Why are those songs still loud in the wells of memory? Are they really about the mindless pleasures of swoony blue moonlight dazzling a black ocean’s heave? Is it really about being 25 and clueless, dreaming music video dreams? Or was there something else going on, the sense of something about to split under the hot Florida sun and give birth to the dragon that would then devour its own womb with such relish?

* * *

I maintained all the copier leases and the annual typewriter service contract. Copiers were big back then and expensive and churned out some 3 million copies a year. IBM and Kodak reps fought incessantly with each other for the next contract. And with some 700 Selectric typewriters scattered around the various buildings downtown and the bureaus, their service contract was also a big deal.

One day the prettiest woman in the world walked into my office trying to sell me her business machine company’s service contract—big brown doe eyes, poofy lips, long auburn hair smooth as silk, curvy under a somewhat-discreetly-buttoned business suit. (All this was a decade before Botox and boob jobs became passe.) Her company was a small player in the Orlando market but had ambitions. She was proof. She was new at it and couldn’t do much more than bat her eyelashes; we were both embarrassed by the ruse. (I wasn’t the guy they thought they were going after. He was 30 years older than me.)

“Heat of the Moment,” Asia: We drove to lunch in her company car, a plush Lincoln Continental that felt like a mobile living room while noontime Florida burned. Very awkward moments during the beginning of lunch until we ordered beers and soon forgot who we were supposed to be, laughing about school and parts of the country we had emigrated from.

She didn’t get the contract, and I never saw her again.

In two years, typewriter service contract was no longer necessary.

* * *

About that time I purchased the first personal computers for the company, eight Apple Lisas that for some reason we placed on the desks of the department secretaries. (Privilege.) They only did budgeting on them, using an old number-crunching program called VisiCalc. Each Lisa cost $10,000 and ran on a 5 Mhz Motorola 68000 chip. (A new quad-core Mac Pro today runs on a 3 Ghz chip— about 1,000 times faster—and costs about $2,500.)

“Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This,” the Eurythmics: Eighty thousand bucks to perform once-a-year function.

The secretaries didn’t like those Lisas, the harsh learning curve, the leap from a Selectric’s fast, elegant touch. They had been long habituated to those columnar pads I had before maintained on my stockroom shelves, all of it laid out in plain English.

Caught in the snare of their own privilege, they soldiered through the budgeting season of 1982. Pecking away on the Apple’s ungainly keyboard, squinting at their tiny screens, a weary Tech Services guy usually standing behind them, showing them which button next to push.

Back in 1876, an Western Union internal memo pronounced: “The ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be considered a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”

“Should I Stay or Should I Go,” The Clash: After budgeting season the department secretaries revolted and as a group got their Lisas carted off, vowing never to use such devices again.

As it turned out, Apple Lisas were never again used for what the company thought they were for.

* * *

That spring IBM released the IBM XT personal computer, a machine that could deliver the same punch as an Apple Lisa at half the cost. By the end of the year, 50 were in use. A hundred more were purchased in 1984.

It took some cajoling, but the department secretaries gave PCs another try. The IBM ran Lotus 1–2–3 spreadsheet software, which was much more user-friendly.

Still, the word processing program favored by was a thing called WordStar and required programming commands to do things like underscoring a word. Files were saved on 5–1/4" floppies, an improvement on the 8" floppies some of the dedicated word processing boxes called for.

In the summer of 1938, Steve Jobs spoke to the International Design Conference in Aspen. Among a lot else, he said:

“Apple’s strategy is really simple … We want to put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes.”

That wasn’t the Apple Lisa, but then the Lisa wasn’t Jobs’ baby. His was the Mac and it was still in development. The IBM PC beat it to market by six months, and the lion’s share of the personal computer market at our company, like the rest of corporate America, went to IBM.

Jobs also said something at that 1983 conference that revealed just who would own our future: “And we really want to do it with a radio link in it so you don’t have to hook up to anything and you’re in communication with all of these larger databases and computers.”

“Every Breath You Take,” The Police. The World Wide Web wouldn’t launch for another decade, but Jobs figured rightly that we would all clamor to get on that boat.

* * *

In 1984 another 200 IBM PCs were placed around the company. The first Macintosh computers also showed up in the art departments.

Company profits peaked in 1984, as they did for the entire newspaper industry. Profits have never returned to those levels.

“Missing You,” John Waite: I met a woman at a bar and we fell in love. She was a singer, I was a guitar player, we thought we’d put a Top-40 band eventually on the road. We moved in together. She bought fans and put them on the walls. We got cable TV with Home Box Office. I worked by day at the newspaper, she worked at night as a topless club waitress. She watched music videos by day and practiced her voice; I watched booby-bouncy movies at night and practiced guitar. But having achieved enough of what she wanted, within eight months she grew bored and then one day said she didn’t love me any more. I moved out, sleeping on couches and floors of friends or the beds of one-night stands until I got my own apartment, drinking beer and practiced riffs on a black Les Paul playing through a Pignose practice amp.

“The Boys of Summer,” Don Henley. Then headed out to drink too many nights of the week.

“When Doves Cry,” Prince: And got up every bruised and blistered morning to suit back up again as an 80's professional and haul my ass back to the newspaper.

* * *

By the mid-80s, most of the artists had switched to Macintosh computers and were creating digital art for advertising, marketing and editorial. Like that half of my former supply warehouse was no longer needed. There were a few diehard artists who wouldn’t make the switch — many were close to retirement. Luddites, they gloomily sketched glorious artwork no one was asking for.

“When Doves Cry,” Prince. Most of those artists are long gone from the newspaper, laid off or bought out as departments shrunk and consolidated.

One of them does freelance work for me now in my latter-day newspaper job, creating graphics and doing layouts for ReMIND. Many others are Facebook friends who are doing whatever—a familiar job for ex-newspaper workers.

In 1988 I promoted to a communications/event planning position in Human Resources. Just about everyone had a PC or a Mac on their desk.

I was into the line of Mac successors: Macintosh IIsi, 6100, 7100, Quadra 750, 850. Nothing ever worked quite right. Systems froze, files got lost, software conflicted with other software. The hardware guys said it was a software problem, the software gals said it was a hardware program. The pissing contest never resolved.

I wasn’t alone. Whole departments were staying up half the night with font conflicts. The 24-hour miracle was turning into a nightmare.

Life outside of work found a gear. I quit playing in bands and got married.

Insert song {here}: When I Google the greatest hits of 1988 through 1991, I have a hard time humming any of them. Had the change already occurred so greatly that its unconscious minstrels were no longer needed?

Or was it just I no longer needed to drink that music like booze?

* * *

In 1992 things at the newspaper were changing fast. Ad revenues were down, circulation falling. I was told that my annual veterans’ dinner celebrating long-term employee service would be cancelled the next year. Loyalty to company was not honored as much, perhaps because the company’s loyalty to its employees was flagging.

This was demonstrated in clearest terms that November when 100 employees received layoff notices effective immediately. I was part of the reduction in force operation, walking stunned employees back from HR where they had received the news to their workspaces, helping them to pack up family pictures framed in lucite and nameplates and employee-of-the-month awards. One Editorial employee called it “sniper fire,” the news raining down from unseen managerial heights.

The managing editor had helped to create the list for Editorial. After his work was done, someone higher up added his name to the list.

Some of the layoffs were due to redundancies created by networking. A nervous system cabled with computer wires had come into being, linking Orlando and other far-flung properties with the corporate home office in Chicago. This greatly enabled communications, but it also made local functions like benefits administration unnecessary.

In HR, two of our benefits coordinators got cut. One of them had been with the company for 20 years and her daughter had died in an auto accident six months before. The job had helped her stay on operational since the funeral.

If it was any consolation, the next year the HR director and two of her managers — including the benefits manager — found out in one meeting that their jobs had been eliminated. (Only my boss survived.) Watching them file out carrying their boxes of plants and goofy awards, you could almost hear corporate hands washing themselves of their local accomplices.

But then, it was also inevitable, don’t you think, with so many redundancies?

* * *

In 1993 I divorced. Corporate pressures were insane. I had a Mac for newsletter layout and a PC for more HR-related projects (PC being the lingua franca of company culture.) The top brass all talked about synergy and the need to think 15 years ahead.

That year the World Wide Web came into being, and we all got online from our computers at work. The company launched a newspaper website that tried to look and act like a newspaper just on a screen.

It was strange to know that I could easily, blithely, dangerously switch from working on a Quark Express layout for a story about recycling efforts in Operations to Netscape Navigator and a site offering a peek at what was inside the Swedish Bikini Team’s locker room. Insanely easy. A broken barrier.

The presses churned on, but the market was disappearing.

Hip hop and grunge on the radio, all sounding like news from a foreign country.

* * *

I left the newspaper in 1998. I’d been over-stressed for years and had nothing left to give. I had re-married and settled in the small town I still live in.

By then the Internet was beginning to challenge the daily print paper as the go-to source of information.

Communications were fast and faster, too fast, maybe. The corporation seemed to be spinning out of control, too aware of itself, micro-managing small and smaller solutions.

I found gardening a great comfort, hands in dirt a religious equivalent to purging them of all of the week’s keyboarding.

I got my first home Mac that year—a 333 mhz iMac with 6 gigs of hard drive, encased in a Bondi blue box. It replaced my third PC, a 1993 Compaq desktop that I used solely for writing projects, using WordPerfect.

When I listened to radio any more, it was either NPR while commuting.

At home I listened mostly to piano jazz — Bill Evans and Lyle Mays, Oscar Peterson.

“Blue in Green”: So many files lost to crashed external drives and bad diskettes. Half of Central Florida burning due to out-of-control wildfires, moonlight at 4 a.m. sweet over the garden, the smell of blooming jasmine coming through the opened windows along with the harsh bite of smoke.

* * *

Digital music — freely traded, easily downloaded — almost destroyed the recording industry in the first decade of the new millennium. Revenues between 1999 and 2008 fell by 50 percent. The industry has seen large-scale layoffs and all of the major record chains have folded. Investment in new talent is small; new acts have the added responsibilities of managing, recording, marketing and distributing their music.

What music is there to remember? Maybe I’m not the only one getting old.

* * *

My younger brother died in 2008. It was a shock, he was 44. I flew out to Portland and met up with my widely-scattered family there, to salvage his effects and see to his burial.

I returned with his Mac Powerbook G4 laptop. It enabled me to finally migrate from my 10-year-old iMac to a wired, contemporary workspace.

It was strange making my dead brother’s virtual desk my own. He was an amateur photographer and his Powerbook was filled with dozens of shoots. (My older brother, also a photographer, got all of Timm’s camera equipment, but he struggles to make a buck as a photographer in a world flooded with iPhone snaps.) There were folders of resumes and tax forms — he never made enough money — and some correspondence, though I expected much more. Questions surrounding his death flowed into my explorations into his Mac. Interrogating the sidekick.

I didn’t find much, certainly not enough. He had several secret online lives that I’ve discovered only the faintest outlines of. Passwords were cryptic. He had been taking too much Ritalin — an attention drug that many with sotted online lives get addicted to. Right after he died the American Heart Association put out a warning that parents need to be careful putting kids with attention-deficit-disorder on the drugs since it was proved to cause heart attacks. Who knows? We never will.

For several years I posted his pictures to a memorial blog. Listened to the songs he collected on his iTunes.

“September 15, September 15”: On the day he died I know he was listening to my favorite Lyle Mays-Pat Matheny tune—his iTunes said so. I was so in love with that song back in 1982 when my heart broke for the second time. How did my kid brother, who was separate for so many years, come to love that song, too?

Joined at the laptop, I grew to feel like he was my twin, eight years removed.

* * *

Last summer I visited my old newspaper haunts- the first time in fourteen years—meeting up with a former co-worker who’s still in finance management there. Downtown Orlando seemed to be recovering from the recession, with lots of new condo development going on and robust lunchtime foot traffic on the sidewalks.

Not so for the newspaper. Though it still operates from the same building, the workforce is down by two-thirds, from 1,800 when I left to less than 500. Where there were once 100 employees working in Classfied telephone sales, there’s only one. (Dot-com classifieds outfits like Craigslist and Monster have taken away almost all of the classified revenue, and off-shore processors field what’s left.) The finance department used to have at least 40 employees; now there were four, three occupying offices with window overlooking Orange Avenue and the other sitting square in the middle of a large room filled with empty desks.

It was like that as we toured the building, passing whole areas that were shuttered and without lights, functions no longer needed or employable.

I’d read about how fast newspapers were devaluing (the Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, was sold for $515 million in 2006. $139 million in ’10 and $55 million in ’12), but seeing it was unsettling.

I passed an empty pre-press staging area where on every desk was an unused Mac.

Just a few press operators were working on one bay of presses (the second hadn’t been used in a while). Of the three packaging stations, one was in use.

My old stockroom had been shut down, the space now used for surplus that couldn’t be sold—old Steelcase desks and PCs and faxes.

“Don’t Stop Believing,” Journey: I thought of those wild productive days 30 years ago in those rooms, ghosts whirling every which way carrying out a miracle that apparently no one much cares about.

The beast I had once worked for had been devoured by the 24–7 online cycle.

* * *

Nowadays at the gym I listen to an iPod while churning away on the recumbent bike, trying less to chisel than ward off more fat. One of my favorite workout jams is “Change” by John Waite. Its vibe of clear, straight-ahead, soulful rock hammering keeps my legs still churning. I think of horses running in the surf and presses whirling deep under the landfill of history.

When I tell someone about my history of PCs, I always talk about ordering in those Apple Lisas for the department secretaries in 1982. Those fledgling computers were truly little engines that could, even if the secretaries didn’t think so, signifiers of tidal changes wrought by technology that can’t be levied or dammed or sent packing.

For better or worse, the change now owns us.

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