Déjà vu, that French term meaning "already seen," the feeling you get that you've been here before, it can be creepy, right? You start investigating your memory to find what it is you're remembering.
I got that feeling when I read about Dallas City Manager A.C. Gonzalez's so-called shakeup of top staffers at City Hall. Big shakeup. New people come in. But nobody goes out. Nobody gets fired. And then it came to me. Oh. This is a Dallas Times Herald shake-up.
We used to call it a Black Flag shake-up, after a TV ad nobody will remember now: "Kill roaches without poison, unpleasant odor or mess. Black Flag Roach Motel Trap. Roaches check in, but they don't check out."
I was working at the Times Herald, the city's other daily newspaper, when it went out of business in 1991. I had gone to work for them back when they were still owned by The Los Angeles Times. We put up a good fight, beating the Morning News in all the leading indicators. Briefly. Then Robert Decherd took over the News and kicked our asses.
When the competition got serious, the L.A. Times ownership, a California company called Times-Mirror, fought back, in its own gentle surfer-dude kind of a way. For some reason -- I wondered if it was a West Coast thing -- Times-Mirror couldn't stand to fire anybody. Hey, I don't like to see people I know get fired. And Times-Mirror's aversion to the ax was undoubtedly why I myself was able to endure there for so long.
But Times-Mirror's idea for the Big Fix, The Solution, The Next Big Thing, was always to bring in somebody new from the outside. Before each new man or woman arrived at the paper, he or she was painted for us as Jesus Christ, the one who will turn it around and save us all. Upon arrival, Jesus Christ was always given a title that had the words "managing editor" in it somewhere.
One day in the newsroom I counted more people walking around with the words "managing editor" in their titles than reporters. One of them even had an oxymoronic managing editor title -- at least I thought it was -- like "assistant associate assistant managing editor."
I called over a friend of mine, a guy I could talk to, who was an associate assistant managing editor, and I pointed it out. I said it was impossible for the other guy to be an assistant assistant. My buddy argued with me. He said, "He's not an assistant assistant. He's an assistant associate assistant."
I said there had to be an algorithm out there somewhere by which a certain number of words before the words "managing editor" equaled "not any kind of managing editor at all." My friend said, "Hey, Schutze, we may need to you to pinch-hit on night police beat for a while."
I dropped it. Like most of the grunts, I was already doing three jobs by that point.
When City Manager A.C. Gonzalez was selected city manager by the City Council six months ago, he pledged a major shakeup of top management at City Hall. I never believed that would happen. Gonzalez is a career insider.
I thought to myself, "Oh yeah? Hey. Before you roll out the guillotine, just show us how much of a stomach you've got by telling us what you're going to do about the massive concrete fake white-water 'feature' the city installed in the Trinity River three years ago, closed to recreational use ever since, just sitting there totally screwing up paddling in that whole stretch of river because it's such a stupid mess."
You know, a test. If a guy can't admit the white water feature was a mistake, he's never going to have the stomach to wield the ax on any of his lifelong buddies who made that mistake or others. And, indeed, that is just what we see in this current so-called "shakeup." He's bringing in a couple of Jesus Christ assistant associate assistant city managers from outside. All the top managers removed from their jobs have been sent to other easier jobs but with their top-job pay intact.
Assistant city managers check in, but they don't check out.
So what have I got against that? Do I just lust for bloodshed? Do I love seeing people get canned? No. No, I really don't. I believe that in heaven, no angel will get fired and no angel will take a cut in pay. All changes of assignment for angels will be lateral.
But right here, right now, I can't shake this nasty little case of déjà vu. On that awful last day at the Herald, we were allowed to go into the building to collect our personal items, and then we had to line up at the door to get back out so that security could check and make sure we weren't looting. Sad sad day. A hot day, as I remember, and the A.C. in that building was always weak (no pun intended).
I looked up and down the line ahead of me and behind -- everybody slump shouldered and sweaty, boxes and bags in hand, a few with tears in their eyes. Tragic. Then I looked again. Almost every single one of them was a managing editor.
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