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Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax

11 Oct

Another excerpt from my comic (and wildly exaggerated) novel about my years as a journalist in the shipping industry:

[The New York head office] decided that we all needed to work harder, so [they] created a couple of other incidental publications, in addition to [our]quarterly high-tech supplement and the regular weekly magazine.  One of the new publications focused on updating information about the smokestacks on freight ships, called Ship Stacks of the West Coast, which Derek immediately christened Shit Stacks of the West Coast.

“Who reads this crap?” I moaned to Derek. “Who really cares what ship stacks look like?”

“Well, it’s important to people who need to identify ships at sea—the Coast Guard, for example, and the vessel charter market.”

Oh, Christ, the vessel charter market.

That was a whole ‘nother aspect of the industry, a dark, mysterious, and inscrutable corner of it. The only person we knew who seemed to understand it was an elderly, stooped-over, barely sentient gentleman named Hal Aikens, who lived in a senior group home somewhere out in the Avenues.

Hal delivered an exhaustive vessel chartering report, called Freights and Charters, to Derek on a weekly basis. It was virtually incomprehensible, written in an obscure jargon that neither Derek nor I nor anyone else we knew could really decipher.

However, we never got any complaints from readers about Freights and Charters, so Derek assumed that Hal knew what he was writing about, and kept running the report, week after week, year after year. All Derek did was correct any obvious spelling errors and format it for publication. It used up space in the magazine, if nothing else.

Also, Derek was fond of parodying Hal’s bizarre reporting style mercilessly when the spirit moved him. He called the parody report Farts and Chowders, and it usually went something like this:

“Yo’mama Is A-Ho Consolidators took the 70,000-tonner M. V. Pastafazoo with delivery at Oakland for a time-charter trip across the Bay, at a daily rate of $50,000, plus a ballast bonus of $1 million. The charterers listed their cargo as empty inflated burlap sacks.

 “Meanwhile, Bastinado Corp. paid the 27,135-deadweight tonnage M. V. Brokedick $4,500 per day for a trip from Japan via Australia to somewhere unspecified, any continent, with option return to Earth.”

I pointed out once, with some justification, that Derek’s tongue-in-cheek chartering reports actually made more sense than Hal’s real ones.

This was borne out by actual events, as we discovered when an issue of the West Coast Weekly Shipper was mistakenly published with Farts and Chowders instead of the real thing.  This happened when Derek’s private Veri-Typer files mysteriously got mixed-up with his regular magazine files, an incident which he suspected was a lovely parting gift from [a disgruntled employee].

No one in our readership even noticed the parody version of Freights and Charters when it ran.

In fact, a couple of people called Derek wanting to know how they could locate the chartering company that handled the M. V. Brokedick, and Derek was forced to tell the callers that the ship had just been unfortunately sent out for scrapping.

“There are people out there in our reading audience who believe that a ship called the Brokedick actually exists,” Derek mused. “I find that terrifying on so many different levels.”

# # #

More from “Western Waste”

10 Oct

Here is another excerpt from my first novel, The Epiphanies of Western Waste*.

Since his big promotion to Group Publisher, [our publisher] Alan had basically stopped coming to the office. He made frequent trips to Omaha to check up on a whole slew of Mid-Western trade publications that had fallen into his lap.  They served, of all things, the veterinary medicine industry, and were apparently among Simkins’ most profitable trade magazines.

“He’s up to his ass in brood mare insemination techniques and bovine diarrhea vaccinations,” guffawed Derek. “What could be a better match for a man of his talents?”

# # #

After one of Alan’s particularly long absences, Derek decided that we needed a firm course of action to steer our somewhat rudderless ship of a publication.

He called Stephen and me into his office.

“We have a publishing crisis on our hands,” he intoned gravely. “We haven’t had a publisher in twenty-two days. Twenty-two working days.  I’ve kept track of them carefully.”

“Therefore, we need to create a publisher, or rather publishers, to make up for the one we are supposed to have, but don’t.”

Derek had a way of making ridiculous and outrageous proposals sound completely normal. Stephen and I glanced at each other with a look that read: “Why not? It’s a slow news day.”

We watched as our boss slapped two packages of rainbow-colored children’s modeling clay on his desk. “One for each of you,” he said.

“Your assignment this afternoon is for each of you to create a clay publisher. That’s so we always have a publisher on site, even when Alan, is uh, out of the office attending to his many important duties.”

Stephen and I picked up our respective packages of clay and trudged dutifully back to our cubicles. I spent a half-hour or so shaping an approximation of Alan out of mine.

My version of the clay publisher had lime green hair and a cobalt-blue face, and was a pretty fair job, I must admit. I used a pencil point to poke tiny holes in the cheeks, approximating Alan’s freckles, and drew a scarlet spot on the nose with a red razor point marker to indicate substance abuse markings.

Derek was delighted with our sculpting efforts.

“Our antipodean friend, Lord Kevvy, owes you both a nice lunch soon,” he said.

This was one of Derek’s favorite lines.  He would often take us out to lunch on the company dime, and then later submit the bill on his expense report, claiming it was a meal with an advertiser or industry big-wig. It was the kind of thing you had to do when you worked for a cheap-ass Kiwi bastard like Lord Kevvy, he always claimed.

Derek later stationed the two Clay Publishers on his bookshelf just behind his Veri-Typer terminal. He saw them when he turned his machine on in the morning and again, when he turned it off at night. They were always watching over the Weekly Shipper’s esteemed editor-in-chief, their symbolic Plasticine protection extended over his editing efforts.

Alan eventually started showing up at the office again, at least a couple of days a week. Derek swore that his nose had been surgically reconstructed in the time he was away, but I was convinced that was just an uncharitable speculation, all too typical of Derek.

Shortly after Stephen and I made the Clay Publishers, Alan ducked his head into Derek’s office, while he and I were discussing a snout** for the First Call of a ship belonging to the People’s Republic of China.

“You wanna go make nice with the Commies, or should I send Stephen?” Derek asked.

Alan’s eyes alit curiously on the two Clay Publishers stationed behind Derek’s Veri-Typer terminal.

“What are those things?” he interrupted. “Creepy little buggers, aren’t they?”

Figurines, Alan. Those are figurines,” Derek replied, admirably deadpan.

Alan shuddered. “Don’t know why you’d want to put them on your shelf right there near you like that. Damn, those things give me the creeps. I wonder what weirdo you guys met on the street inspired them—I really do.”

That story traveled around the office, and for a long time afterward, Derek could make me and several other people double over with laughter simply by repeating the word “figurines.”

# # #

* The Ephiphanies of Western Waste, copyright 2012, by S. K. Cole. All rights reserved.

**a snout: jargon for an industry reception where copious amounts of free food and booze usually flowed, to the delight of underpaid trade journalists.

The Epiphanies of Western Waste

9 Oct

I’ve lived a lot of different lives, and each one has a specific demarcation point, a place in time that I can put my finger on and say, “There is where it began, and there is where it ended.” So there was the art school period, the struggling single mom period, the corporate p.r. period, and of course, the journalism period.

For a few years after I graduated from art school, I ended up as a reporter and editor for a now-defunct trade publication in San Francisco, serving–of all things–the Pacific maritime and transportation industry. How I got from art school to there is chronicled in my first book, a comical (I hope) roman-a-clef called The Epiphanies of Western Waste* (working title: not sure if it will stand.) Here’s an excerpt from the chapter about my very first day as a working journalist:

When I got settled in, Derek handed me a stack of press releases from a company that made a type of railroad car equipped with two sets of retractable wheels, so that it could move on the highway as well as on rail.

That was my first official story for the West Coast Weekly Shipper. I dived in with relish. I was amazed that my sources called me back, and allowed me to interview them about the new piece of equipment. At first I worried that they would catch on that I wasn’t really a professional journalist, but they treated me as if I was totally legit.

By lunchtime, I felt as if I had been a journalist all my life.

This is easy, I thought, as I typed my notes into the Veri-Typer computer screen and started to arrange them into the first draft of a story.

I’m actually starting to like this intermodalism stuff a little bit, I thought.

When noon rolled around, Derek, Tracey, Dal, and Stephen took me to a “first day at work” lunch at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant nearby.

“Be sure and try the Chicken Almond Ding,” Derek advised, as we pored over the menu and laughed at the hybrid “Chinglish” spelling errors. I did, and it turned out to be a passable vegetarian version of Chicken Almandine.

“Derek’s been a vegetarian for a long time,” Dal explained to me. “We tolerate vegetarian restaurants for his sake, if the food’s not bad.”

“Now, Dal, let’s get down to the important stuff. In other words, who should play Liz in Western Waste?” interrupted Tracey.

“Sissy Spacek,” replied Derek, not missing a beat.

“I can see it,” added Dal, giving me a somewhat disconcerting once-over.

“Sissy Spacek?  Western what?” I mumbled through mouthfuls of Chicken Almond Ding.

Western Waste, of course,” said  Tracey.

Western Waste?”

“You didn’t tell her about Western Waste?” she asked Derek.

“One can’t cover everything in a thirty-minute interview,” protested Derek. “Besides, I didn’t want to scare her off.”

“What is Western Waste?” I asked again.

Western Waste is the hilarious, engaging, multi-episodic story of a small put profitable weekly trade publication, based in a colorful, wino-infested San Francisco slum. The trade mag’s called Western Waste because it serves the municipal waste disposal industry. And the story features the adventures of the kooky and quirky—but very lovable—cast of employees from diverse backgrounds, who come together every week to publish it,” explained Tracey in a bored voice, as if describing an established fact that nearly everyone should know about.

“At some point we’re going to write it all up and sell it to Hollywood, and then we’ll all be rich,” added Dal. “The thing will practically write itself. All we have to do is copy down things that happen daily in the office, and throw in a few wino stories once in a while. It’s a T.V. series—you know, sort of like Night Court or Barney Miller.”

“But why is the magazine in the T.V. series about waste disposal, instead of about shipping?” I asked.

Four pairs of eyes stared at me, with a distinct look in each of them that silently read “How can anyone ask such a stupid question?”

I shifted uncomfortably in my chair.

“Well, because waste disposal is funny,” Derek finally said, in a kind but condescending voice. “And shipping isn’t. Not funny at all.”

“These are small details,” snapped Tracey crisply. “The main thing is, we have to finish the most important part, which is casting ourselves, and after that, as Dal says, the thing will practically write itself. So, what do you say Liz? Are you up for Sissy?”

“Umm, I don’t think I look much like her,” I replied guardedly. “I mean, I think she’s known as ‘Sissy Spaced-Out’ – is that really me?” I didn’t pause long enough for an answer, fearing the worst.

“And besides,” I added quickly, “she’s years older than I am.”

“True,” said Derek. “I hadn’t thought of that. We have a rule that all cast members of Western Waste have to be approved by the person who is being portrayed by them. So how about, umm,  Roseanna Arquette?”

Roseanna Arquette was one of the year’s Hollywood “It Girls.” I didn’t think I looked or acted much like her either, but I thought she was a more flattering choice than Sissy Spacek.

I decided to quit while I was ahead.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m in. Roseanna Arquette, it is.”

“Congratulations, Liz. You are now officially a member of the cast of Western Waste. By the way, this one’s on Lord Kevvy,” said Derek, brandishing his corporate credit card when the bill came. “Lord Kevin Simkins, I mean. You know about Lord Kevvy?”

I nodded. “I read that he owns half of Canada.”

“And half of New Zealand, too. He’s a cheap-ass Kiwi bastard,” said Derek.

# # #

*The Epiphanies of Western Waste, copyright 2012, by S. K. Cole. All rights reserved.