Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Taking the buyout: one year later

June 24, 2011 was my last day at the Austin American-Statesman, where I worked for 16 years as a music critic, three-dot columnist and feature writer. The terms of the buyout, which was taken by several other longtime staffers, was two weeks pay for each year of service. I received my last check on Feb. 10 of this year.

What was I thinking?

Because I was 55 at the time of the offer, with at least 15 years of service, I’m fully vested, so I have retiree healthcare (at about $200 a month for me and my son, which is taken out of my $1,100 a month pension.) Not a lot of guaranteed money, but I live in an old RV in a trailer park and try to make money freelance writing to break even each month.

I cashed in for complete freedom, which isn’t always such a great thing, but sometimes it’s just what you need. Here’s a story.

Enroute to Austin in 1984, I set down a vintage alligator doctor’s bag to buy a newspaper outside a Denny’s in Hawthorne, Cal. and walked away engrossed in the front page story. The bag contained $6,000 in cash belonging to my employer Mr. Lucky T-shirts, which was owned by Rollo Banks. I noticed it was missing after about 10 minutes, but by the time we drove back the bag was gone. A man had found the bag and was taking it to the counter to turn it in, then looked inside and hurried out of the restaurant.

The guy actually called us at the motel after the newspaper ran a story, and told us where to find the alligator bag, which contained several half-smoken marijuana stubbs, six or seven hits of LSD and the title and registration for Rollo’s beautifully restored 1958 Chevy. The money? Yeah, right. I have to credit Rollo with being so relieved to get his car papers that he didn’t really bring up the money with me. For such a hardass, he was a cool guy.

But I was devastated. We worked really hard for that money. And I didn’t know you could just wire money from one bank to the next even if they weren’t affiliated. What was I fucking doing running a business? All the way on the drive from California to Austin- me in the U-Haul followed by Rollo in his ’58- I beat myself up like I was Jake LaMotta and his brother. By New Mexico I decided that I didn’t want to be in a position to let myself or other people down again. All I wanted to do was to find a little shed with a mattress somewhere, where I would spend the days collecting aluminum cans for money. And at night I would write. Low overhead, low expectations, almost zero responsibilities. Just keep breathing until the real thing comes along.

And 28 years later I’ve finally reached that dream. Instead of rummaging through park garbage cans, I write bios. I do stories on people who have them. But, basically, I live in a mobile device charging station with a couple of cots. Oh, don’t fell sorry for me, I love it. (On the days I don’t wanna do a header off the Pflueger Bridge.) I’m the part of the Bill Haley story where he goes to Matamoros to relax.

But I also miss the job like crazy. It was easy and I was good at it and it gave me a place to go each day, which I what I miss most of all. Every time I’m going east on Barton Springs Rd. and I turn left on South Congress instead of going straight, it takes a little out of me. I loved just about everything about that big white building at 305 S. Congress, mostly the people. Popping in at the biz section for office gossip, talking sports (and more office gossip) with Lady Halliburton, flirting with my secret (married) office crush (what up, Joi?) and bantering with the L&A crew. And everything was free.

But I’ve been able to do things that I wouldn’t have otherwise, so the social sacrifice of a writer’s life kinda makes it worthwhile. I was able to start my new website, an outlet for such previously shot-down ideas as “Welcome To Mediocre, Texas,” which I’d been pitching to the Statesman for five years (‘whew’ says the series of rejecting editors.)  I also started writing about sports, my first love, for CultureMap and Horns Illustrated. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had writing without methamphetamine.

But the two projects of which I’m most proud took five months of the twelve since I was unemployed. I spent the first two months researching and writing a history of Austin music in the 1950s, a neglected era in this music mecca. It ran in the Austin Chronicle in late March. The last three months of my free money period were spent researching and writing “He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes,” a 52-page booklet on the 1920s gospel music pioneer who was educated in Austin. It comes out with a remastered CD on Tompkins Square in mid-August.

That this has been one of the best, and one of the worst, years of my life, was especially apparent on June 1, when it took me half an hour to walk nine painful blocks to the Erwin Center to see my son graduate from high school. When he goes to college orientation July 2, I’ll be in the hospital having hip replacement surgery.

On June 24, 2011, it just so happened that my favorite gospel group, the Jones Family Singers were scheduled to play Antone’s that night, so I got them to come to the Statesman and sing a few songs for the newly departed. I’m always promoting them (which no longer is an ethics issue since I’m unemployed), so my idea was to get the staff videographer to film the group and then send it to Poynter/ Romenesko to show how we do buyouts in the live music capital of the world. I even paid $100 to do it, but never got anything back. (Main drawback at 305 S. Congress is the number of people just taking space.) But as it turns out, the best thing about leaving the Statesman was that I was able to book two nights of gospel music at SXSW and based on that, the Jones Family Singers are currently being followed by Alan Berg’s talented and dedicated documentary film crew. This is going to change the Jones Family Singers’ life and keep mine the same, which is cool with me.

It’s been an up-and-down year, yes. Every morning when I wake up I have to think of something to do. But it beats collecting cans and sleeping in a room with a padlock on the door.


2 thoughts on “Taking the buyout: one year later

  1. For our mutual final day at the paper, Michael brought the Jones Family Singers for a short set in the decidedly secular newsroom. Of all the emotions that day, the brightest was the hope personified by those voices. Thanks for a beautiful sendoff, Michael. All the best to you.

  2. read your article on last day buyout. Mike Malone (rollo banks) was my neighbor in Chinatown, Honolulu for over 12 years. i ran a few donut shops and Mike and I would have lunch together several times a week. i found your site as i was googling Mr. Lucky T shirts. Mike designed my t shirt logo and i ran across the screen transfer transparency. thanks for the memories of Mike. My wife knew him also and we often talk of the ‘old times’ back in Chinatown and Mike and the characters that hung out there. if you’re interested in seeing the transfer, send me an email. thanks again. al

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