Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Legend of Bill

a Quark
Life is about comings and goings, Samuel Beckett said. It applies to life in total as well as the many episodes over the course that we find ourselves a part of. While we are the main character in our own existence, we play supporting roles in those of others: sometimes major, like being a parent or lifetime spouse, sometimes minor, like being the guy who drops a quarter while trying to fish change out of his pocket in line at a gas station in Grand Island, Neb., and hits his head on the counter.

The temporary nature of life's shifting episodes is never more on display than in school and at work. In school I was almost always the new kid, making sudden exits and entrances from K to 12 across the Rust Belt. This experience has carried forth into my adult life, where I often feel like the new guy at work years after I've started. Of course, thanks to the attrition of the recent recession, that's literally been the case with no new hires in my wake.

But generally at the office, people are hired, let go and sometimes stay longer than you do. In a big organization it's all multiplied, and the faces often change more frequently than you can follow. You may share only one conversation with someone before he or she is gone and not even know his or her name. And when you realize the absence, you're left grasping at a ghost. ("The loud-breathing guy with the smoke-colored bifocals must've been shitcanned. I don't see him anymore. I miss that guy.")

Now I'm not a particularly outgoing person, so I'm not driven to acquaint myself with everyone at work out of some need to be loved or to dominate my surroundings. I really don't care. My associations on the job — from my first gig as a dishwasher at Ponderosa Steakhouse to my current position in the exciting field of higher ed — have almost all come through direct work or accidents. Still, I am not so heartless as to say I'm not happy these have happened. There have been some pricks and deadbeats, sure, but almost everyone else has been great.

When I think of these shifting faces in the foreground of my working life, I more often than not am brought back to one man who emblemizes both the briefness of office bonds and the strange, total immersion one has with certain people one is thrown in with.

I'm talking, of course, about Bill.

In January 1999 I moved back home to suburban Buffalo after a single grad school semester at the University of Florida in Gainesville. It had been one of the happiest six-month periods of my life. I went to a lot of parties and played in a couple bands. But I realized, sadly, that I had to get serious, you know, for the good of my career. So I applied for a transfer to Syracuse University's journalism grad program, which was a one-year, hands-on intensive slog. It would prepare me for my grand entrance into the New York City media market. I was 22.

Driving around in the gray and cold back in Buffalo, I was at least happy to be among my good high school friends. But I had another six-month window before shipping off to the next college, and I needed something to occupy my time, make some dough and pad the old resume. Eventually I found a want ad for, of all things, a music-writing gig. As luck would have it I was a freelance music journalist, having written for arts weeklies in college before transitioning to indie rock zines and Web sites. It seemed like this job, whatever it was, was made for me. And after a quick interview, I had it.

The magazine was called Behind the Scenes a small, oddly shaped (legal-sized?) weekly that had evolved from a Top 40 tip sheet for Tier 2 and 3 radio station program managers looking for the next hit. It covered Pop, R&B, Latin and Hip-Hop, with writers for each section. And it was all run out of a converted two-story house on Franklin Street in the hip-ish Allentown neighborhood. Down the block was free weekly Artvoice, and we had commercial rock radio stations across the street and behind us. It was the closest thing Buffalo had to a media district.

In my private life back then I was very much an artcore casualty, like many of my contemporaries, overdosing on the latest from D.C. and Berkeley, while stocking up on post-punk and prog reissues a very white, very '90s trip for sure. So, naturally, my boss Tony, who had played bass in the "Ladies Night" lineup of Kool and the Gang, tapped me to write the magazine's R&B section. I had no inkling of what was going on in contemporary R&B, but I dutifully reported for work each day to write quick, always-positive blurb reviews and interview lesser-known or washed-up singers — the only ones who would give our microscopic operation the time of day.

In addition to writing, I quickly became the de facto copy editor for the magazine, poring over each page and also the huge insert of Top 10 playlists we printed from radio stations across the country. I admit I didn't do such a hot job on the latter, but I was just trying to survive. Young and eager to please, I often took on the work the other writers shirked. After a month of this I was very stressed out. When my girlfriend at the time came up from New York to visit me, she was shocked at how miserable I'd become. I sometimes wondered if my new gig was going to kill me. 

I nearly quit, but Tony talked me out of it, and things did get a little easier. But what really helped was having a comrade in arms. Early on, Tony let our weekend-cross-dressing graphic designer go and hired a tall, gangly white guy from South Buffalo. This was Bill. He wore a baseball cap and tan work boots and often kept his Carhartt jacket on all day in his basement office at the BTS house. Add to this his nasally Great Lakes accent and he seemed about as blue collar as you could get. I have no idea where Tony found Bill. Like me, he just probably needed a gig. And in lean times we're often driven into the arms of the less than desirable.

But Bill was no dull dime. He knew Quark backward and forward and even found the hardest easter egg the developers had hidden in the software: the one where the Quark imp dances across the screen. It's like a 10-keystroke combo. And each week he designed the pages of our meager rag quite nicely, including those reams of playlists. Bill was a true professional.

The most important thing for me, however, was that Bill was sane, unlike, it seemed, the rest of the staff at BTS. They were all good people, sure, but I had a hard time seeing them working anywhere else. And that included my boss. The magazine was like a charity for the freaks, burnouts and greenhorns (me) of Buffalo's imaginary music industry.

At meetings, in the design room, at lunch, Bill and I would shake our heads and wonder how the hell we were going to survive. My boss seemed to change his mind daily about the rag's direction, its editorial voice, its focus. He wanted positive reviews then he wanted critical ones. He wanted to start an Internet radio station. At one point he asked the writers to pull double duty and solicit for advertising. It was all a fucking mess.

At the start, just to get away from this, I would eat lunch by myself, grabbing some Arby's then parking on a stretch of Fourth Street next to the 190. It had a fantastic view of the Buffalo skyline. Don't laugh at that sentence. Buffalo actually has a really nice Art Deco city hall. I'd sit in my car and eat and read books, mostly about music, like Miles Davis's autobiography.

However, as the pressure mounted back at the office, I began to feel the human urge to get my problems off my chest, so Bill and I started to eat lunch together. We most often went to another old house down the block, which someone had turned into a kind of all-American restaurant that hosted VFW meetings. Over burgers over the weeks, Bill and I vented. And he began to share with me the details of his life.

He was probably around the age I am now, though I never asked. He was single and lived somewhere in Allentown. Bill had a hard-scrabble upbringing. A lot of his stories involved him running from the cops as a teen, getting tackled and beaten by them. I felt sorry for him, given my placid, middle class childhood. Whenever we had a major change at the rag, he would try to slough it off as just another familiar kick to the ribs in the story of his life. "People have been fucking with me since I was born," he'd say.

Bill told me that in his spare time he rode his dirt bike in the wasteland near the abandoned train station on the outskirts of downtown. He also liked to take his dog in his white panel van to some secluded forest and, in his words, shoot off a thousand rounds of ammo. An All-American way to blow off steam, certainly, though people who play with guns for fun have always made me a bit wary. But I could sense the human decency in him. Deep down I knew Bill would never splatter my brains all over my brand-new sea-green iMac.

True, you couldn't deny that Bill was a little more tightly wound than the average man, and it brought a certain edge to the workplace. Our co-worker Rod, the hip-hop writer, recognized this and thought it would be funny to have Bill on his radio show on Buffalo State's station, you know, just as an observer. For working at a contemporary music magazine, Bill's music tastes were firmly Sabbath and Hawkwind. But he was a good sport and open minded, as Rod brought in guests from various rap labels to talk about their records on the air. The thought of bug-eyed Bill the white, Carhartted gun enthusiast reviewing the latest coming out of No Limit was amusing.

Rod and Bill, truth be told, were some of the first older people I spent a large amount of time interacting with in the workplace. I had older bosses in my high school and college gigs, but they mostly gave orders and moved on to another part of the restaurant or radio station. I had a lot of deep conversations with these guys that often touched on bigger things, and I came to the conclusion they were both fundamentally good, if a little bruised by life.

They were amused that I dutifully kept my relationship going with my girlfriend, even though she lived seven hours away in New York. I would make the drive at least once a month to see her, parking my folks' car in White Plains and training into Union Square. I'd find myself dancing with her at a party or watching bands at some club, and the thought of Behind the Scenes Magazine never entered my head. To me, I was really just killing time — Buffalo, then Syracuse — till I could finally, triumphantly move to the Big Apple.

Rod and Bill said I still needed to love and lose, as they had done in their younger days. That would open up something deeper, a bittersweet understanding of Life, capital L. Bill said his last serious girlfriend — a NASCAR-circuit photographer — ended up a crackhead, and he dumped her. Again, I felt sorry for his dramatic misfortune. But he was right about me. My girlfriend ended up leaving me that New Year's Eve, and I began the new millennium full of the very same hurts the guys said I'd lacked in the spring.

But before that happened I had to finally quit Behind the Scenes. Tony, perhaps feeling guilty for the shit he put me through, hosted a big send-off. And I was even given money for college books. As I was preparing to leave that final day, Bill very quietly and humbly walked up and said good luck. I really want to believe he also said, "Just remember Bill Lundin Jr."

Maybe I'm inserting false memories into my head, I don't know. I just wish I'd told him he was one of the best people I'd ever worked with and that I'd never forget the weird months we spent together in that surreal old house. But I only said thanks and shook his hand.

When I came back to visit BTS for a holiday party that December, I was told Bill had moved on. A live calypso band played in the basement that night, and Bill's office was dark. I sat at my old desk upstairs and talked to a few of my former coworkers. My life, as a full-time grad student, was completely different only six months on, full of papers and practice reporting. The weekly weights of publishing had been lifted from my young shoulders.

Tony had no idea where Bill had gone. I partly wondered if he was preparing for Y2K. He once told me the Canadian government was amassing troops near its borders in anticipation of calamity. I wondered if he might go join them. Or fight them. I felt guilty that I was assuming he'd gone crazy.

But chances are that Bill merely moved on to the next paying gig until he could no longer tolerate it, just as I have done since the year 2000. Just as most of us do today. I've gotten a little better than the younger version of myself at sticking things out, especially with kids and a mortgage in the mix. I guess that makes me an adult and I'm to be commended.

What toughing it out on the office circuit has afforded me are those chance meetings, the brief and the sustained, with my fellow human beings, thrown together by necessity. I can think back to moments when the struggle was daily and so all-consuming I felt I could never get out: of the two-story house on Franklin, the record store on 23rd Street, the bureau high in the sky overlooking the West Side, the half-empty office by the Chicago River.

What sustained me were the people I felt I could endure it with. People like Bill and so many others. I wish I could talk to all of them again, many now gone in the ether of time and distance. I hope they're at least doing well, wherever they are. And most of all, I hope Bill is finally happy.

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