My first job out of college was as an entry-level Video Journalist at CNN headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.
It sounded incredibly exciting at the time. But the salary for this peon position was pretty meager, and during the tech boom years of the late 90s, when we heard rumors of 20-something millionaires who spent their days playing foosball, it seemed downright cruel. At $20,000 dollars a year, we “VJ’s” hardly lived in the lap of luxury. Instead we lived in the tacky, cookie cutter shantytowns that sprang up on every corner back then. One company built so many crappy apartment complexes that we deemed their slogan,
“Building tomorrow’s ghettos today!”
My mother, a stern Finnish woman, was convinced that CNN founder Ted Turner took great satisfaction in our sad existence. In her eyes he was a ruthless, penny-pinching fiend whose sole aim in life was to thwart my happiness. Not only that, but he apparently micro-managed his network to an extreme. Whenever I’d complain about anything at CNN, she’d blame it all on Ted Turner personally.
“The bathrooms on the third floor are always stinky.”
“That Ted Toor-ner. Not cleaning the toilets,” as though he were a shiftless janitor who spent all day telling dirty jokes and ignoring his bowl-scrubbing duties.
“The Brunswick stew in the cafeteria gave me gas.”
“That Ted Toor-ner. Makes his employees fart all night with his food,” as though he were in the kitchen stirring the stew himself and tossing in extra onions with gleeful abandon.
I’d say, “I hate working the 7pm-to 4am shift.”
“That Ted Toor-ner. Exploiting you hard-working kids for his own pleasure,” as though he were perched in his penthouse apartment at the Omni hotel, rubbing his hands together, watching me enter the CNN Center through a telescope as he cackled,
“Here comes that Dutton girl. Boy do I love to see her on this miserable shift!”
While I didn’t necessarily blame Ted Turner for my lot in life, working at CNN was the root cause of my empty wallet. If necessity is the mother of invention, my CNN salary was the mother of desperation. I did anything to save a few bucks.
I treated the salespeople at Macy’s like Moroccan bazaar merchants, haggling five bucks off a dress for a lipstick stain that I had furtively smeared on the sleeve minutes before. I wouldn’t throw out a tube of toothpaste until I’d sliced open the tube and scooped out the gunk smeared on the inside. All my furniture came from K-Mart. I even begged them for the beat up floor models at a discount. I had my TV stand for three weeks before noticing that some uncouth customer had stuck a massive pink wad of Bubble Yum under the shelf.
Obviously, none of my fellow VJ friends were loaded either. Everyone was just barely scraping by. As a way to cut costs and find bargains, we became reliant on our internal computer message board called READ-ME. It was a forum for finding a roommate, helpful hints on cheap mechanics, and gripe fests about unfair distribution of free food at the workplace.
The best part about READ-ME (and most crucial to us cash strapped peons) was the buying and selling of a litany of strange stuff. A sports anchor moved out of Atlanta and tried to sell a shoebox full of old pens and paper clips for five bucks. A producer requested a used breast pump. A political reporter begged for a kidney.
READ-ME proved instrumental in reporting theft too. If you worked on an overnight shift, odds were you were stuck with the Hard News Café to provide meals after the food court in the atrium closed.
This was usually a dismal prospect. The only time people got excited was when the Café offered the famed Turkey Tetrazzini. The electricity in the air! People would message each other exclaiming:
TURKEY TETRAZZINI TODAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
But for those who chose not to play the cafeteria lottery, the breakroom fridge was fraught with peril. Employees who brought leftovers to work in Tupperware routinely found that their dreary casseroles had been stolen. So, in READ-ME there would be accusatory entries like:
“Today someone stole my lunch. I’m pregnant. How do you feel you bastard, taking food out of the mouth of my fetus?”
Others got specific about the type of food that was snatched:
“Someone stole my blueberries. What kind of an animal steals a man’s blueberries?”
Still others tried to get witty, posting gems like:
“Egads! Who is responsible for the theft of my tasty vittles?”
I hated those people. They were the same ones carting around the mugs that read:
“You don’t have to be crazy to work here-but it helps!”
The rampant poverty was on full display one day when a weather reporter magnanimously bestowed us VJ’s with some left-over peanuts from a holiday party that none of us were invited to. The nerve! Eyeing those three pathetic Ziplock bags of Planters party mix, I was livid. Was this any way to treat your professional colleagues? Scattering meager Christmas crumbs in our script-ripping area? But one by one all my co-workers’ eyes lit up as they exclaimed “Peanuts!” and happily wolfed them down. I realized it was a lost cause.