It was just about a year ago that I rode on a ferry like this one across Lake Champlain, on a public relations mission for the Department of Homeland Security, a client of the PR agency that employed me. Unbeknownst to me, my old PR career had only about three weeks left to run.
I finished a trip that started in Syracuse, where I rented an Olds, drove north until I hit the border shared by New York and Canada, put on a couple of community meetings where my client would explain the baffling new US-VISIT program, then drove through the Mohawk reservation and some of the bleakest farm country I’ve ever seen, then down into Plattsburg. After another meeting the next morning, my clients and I drove our cars to catch the ferry. Snow was starting to flurry.
My problems in Los Angeles were thousands of miles away. The last stop was Burlington, Vermont, near the university campus, where we heard about the hardship US-VISIT might impose on foreign students who wanted to weekend it in Montreal. During lunch before the meeting, the GM of the LA office of my PR firm checked in with me with more questions about a controversy in which the office and I were embroiled. The conversation was more than cordial, because we trusted each other. I returned to finish lunch with my clients, raced back for the meeting, and then followed them through Burlington’s downtown area as the snow began to fall heavily. Some wanted to drink beer, others visit old friends, others shopped, and as their PR person, my job was to accomodate all of it. These were federal government employees. Fun is parceled out to them in small morsels. Let them enjoy themselves.
But it was a Friday night. The airport was only six miles away, but six gridlocked miles, six miles that started uphill, six miles of icy, slippery roads… My clients made their planes, just barely, but I did not. The drop-off site for my rental car was, strangely, not at the airport. It was two miles away and everyone who worked there had gone home. Every car had at least six inches of snow on it. No shuttle back to the airport, no hope of getting back to LA that night.
I’m taking the car, I told them, this drafty gray Oldsmobile, I’m taking it and driving it to Boston. I’m flying to LA from there–get me on a 6 a.m flight. And off I went, into the night, outrunning the snowblast, barrelling through the Vermont darkness headed for Boston, listening to a homemade CD mix with Leon Russell’s “Out in the Woods,” James Taylor’s “Mexico,” and the ancient Electric Flag FM staple, “Groovin’ is Easy” among the obscure hits I’d collected. I called me wife now and again and she kept me good company. I switched off the music and searched for those 50,000-watt stations that fill America’s air on nights like this, picking up talk shows from New York City, basketball games from New Hampshire, francophone sports-talk hosts from Canada complaining about the hockey strike, NPR-type programming from the university towns hidden in the unlit woods around me.
Boston on a Friday night around midnight is a trap for drivers. It’s a city that never sleeps because no one can get home. Because of the Big Dig and its aftermath, the interstate ran aground somewhere in the middle of the city. You had to whip-turn to follow the detour: Left! Right! Get in the left lane! Merge here! Quick, follow that little sign! Wait, that’s One Way! All in a slow traffic sludge that took an hour and a half to navigate until I finally found my hotel near the airport. Where I slept. For about four hours. And then flew, nonstop, back to Los Angeles.
A few days later, I staffed another US-VISIT trip to Vancouver. My part of the trip was delayed by one day so I could talk to an internal investigator, a law firm the company had hired. A friendly interview, my third or fourth. I always told them everything they wanted to know and was brutally honest. That was my job, in this crisis. To help my company get through it, by providing exhaustive detailed factual information whenever and wherever they needed it. For once, clients didn’t come first–the crisis came first. The reputation of the firm was on the line. It was my job to help them deal with it.
Three weeks later, I was fired. I was given no reason. The only warnings I had were of a psychic nature. I sensed something was up at the Christmas party, and the disquiet lingered through the holidays.
A week after that, in January 2005, I was indicted by a federal grand jury for fraud. Eventually, two other people associated with this company would also be indicted, and one of them would plead guilty. The other one, and me, will go on trial in March 2006. That’s the plan anyway.
I will say nothing here about the case, except to state my innocence and affirm my strong belief that I will be exonerated. I’m not trying to draw attention to my old firm or anyone who worked there. That’s not what this blog is about.
Instead, it will be the story of, and reflections from, a man in exile from the life he knew–a life that now seems farther away in time than just a year. For 25 years, from the time I left Berkeley in 1979 until the day I was fired in 2005, I have been on someone’s payroll, nonstop. I took one vacation that lasted three weeks, one that lasted two weeks, and otherwise contented myself with one-week vacations, maybe one every six months. When I was working, it was not unusual to work until 10 every night. When it became possible to work on a computer at home, I started coming home earlier–and working there. I was late for everything that involved my family. My inner dreams and burning desires were subordinated to my jobs.
I gave extreme loyalty and, for the most part, was given loyalty in return. I was blessed with the confidence of my bosses, who gave me much responsibility and senior job titles. Many of my closest friendships arose from work. Work was my world for 25 years. First journalism, then working as a press and policy aide to a Los Angeles County Supervisor and then the Mayor of Los Angeles, then life as a PR executive, first for a small firm, then seven years for one of the largest firms in the world, and finally two years for another large firm.
Now that life is over. For a year now, almost.
Back in the 1960s, many of my favorite TV shows had a backstory. That story was usually told in the pilot episode, but it was so important to understanding each episode that the backstory was also incorporated into the opening credits. Sometimes in a song. You couldn’t look this information up on the Internet back then. You needed to be reminded. Of the seven stranded castaways. Of Dr. Richard Kimble, unjustly accused of his wife’s murder. Of Captain Parmenter, the clumsy goofball whose sneeze led his battalion into victory, and him to the command of F Troop. Of Ben Gazzara’s character Paul Bryan, told he has only two years to live. “You are my wife. Goodbye, city life! Green Acres, we are there!”
My life has a backstory now. “For 25 years, he worked in Los Angeles, telling its stories and making news. He spearheaded the City of LA’s recycling program, and worked to create LA County’s Department of Children and Family Services. He was a PR machine, a writer of press releases, speeches, crisis plans, even Internet sites. He knew all the top reporters in town, and had powerful clients. And then one day, in a miscarriage of justice that is yet to be redeemed, all of that was taken away from him. His reputation was trashed. He had to start all over again. He had to rediscover his life.”