Blood on the Wires

Sixties flower children wore fringe and had free sex at outdoor concerts. Eighties operators bought junk bonds and fantasized about Madonna. And I daresay that the poster children for the ’00s, at least those who labored during the early part of the decade, will look back and whisper that they worked for a dot-com where the layoff hammer hit.

As of a few months ago, I was such a poster child.

Oh, sure, my co-workers and I–telecommuters spread around the country–had heard the rumors.

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Available online June 15
Blood on the Wires
Suz Redfearn

After a hiring binge that lasted nearly a year, our company, LocalBusiness.com, a business-news Web site, suddenly told us things had changed. They were having difficulty raising a second round of capital, they said. What comes next? Downsizing–we knew that from the stories we’d written about everybody else out there trying to ride the New Economy wave, then getting a concussion from hitting their head on the surfboard.

Over the course of several months, as the new economy faltered, working for a troubled Internet company that wrote news about troubled Internet companies had begun to feel like standing between two mirrors, creating the image of a most uncomfortable infinity. Lost stock options, broken contracts, shops closed down–we wrote about it, we read about it. But somehow, I and my sea of telecommuting co-workers across the country fell into a silly sort of denial, like the reckless teenager who careens around wet corners and assumes he’ll arrive home unscathed. We should have had our hands on the wheel.

It started the day a reporter on the West Coast was let go. Just one, we thought. Not bad. So we got cavalier. A colleague and I made a bet–she contended that if a bigger ax really fell, a layer of editors would get it; I predicted a mix of reporters and editors. There was a dinner riding on it. For some strange reason we felt shielded, safe; we trusted the company to get rid of a few of the nonproducers and leave the rest to do their jobs. Made sense, right?

But on the following Monday, such theories went straight into the shredder.

9 a.m.: Everything’s normal. I’m drinking coffee and working on a story for an 11 a.m. deadline.

11 a.m.: As I’m turning in the piece, a well-connected co-worker checks in on the instant messenging system–sort of like e-mail on speed. Bad news: A reporter in Florida had been terminated that morning. Ouch.

The poor guy, an award-winning writer, had been hired only a few months before. Awful, yes, but he was brand-spanking-new; in the world of staff trims, it made a sort of sick sense. I go back to work.

11:15 a.m.: Another co-worker soon reports that a well-liked and industrious reporter in North Carolina has been cut. Yikes! She’d been with the company for a while, gotten scoops galore; letting her go didn’t compute. Then it hits me: The butchery has begun, and the cuts are not being carried out in a logical fashion. Uh-oh.

11:30 a.m.: The layoffs have spread like a plague up the East Coast, moving from city to city as fast as it takes to make a quick, lawyer-assisted phone call. Reporters stop writing stories as the news of the carnage frantically spreads. A reporter in Pittsburgh goes down, then an editor in Philly. I’d met both of them at a company conference in September.

Is this all a nightmare? It seems so surreal, and it’s happening so fast. I wonder blindly how many have been felled thus far. If we shared a conventional workplace, I could sneak by the boss’ office and see who’s getting the ax. But for a telecommuter, it’s like floating in space.

11:40 a.m.: I send a message to a local co-worker: “Are you still out there?”

“Yes,” she shoots back. “Are you?”

“Yes.” Whew.

My apartment seems eerily quiet, like a peaceful village before a bomb hits. Am I safe, or will I be obliterated in a few minutes? No telling. I stare at the phone. It does nothing.

Noon: A well-connected source tells me that D.C. is next. There are four of us in D.C. At first I’d thought just a few of us might be vulnerable; now I realize we all are. I sit around with clenched teeth like I’m waiting for a punch to the gut. I send out messages, hunting for information. I quickly get word that an editor in Baltimore is the next fatality.

12:15 p.m.: Again, to one of my D.C. co-workers: “Are you still there?”

“Yes, but every time the phone rings I freak. Are you still there?”

“Yes.”

12:30 p.m.: Boom. The co-worker with whom I made the dinner bet contacts me; she’s been sacrificed. We’re both stunned. She’s the hardest worker on the Washington staff, a reporting machine. I thought she was immune. She was the last D.C. reporter hired, though. Still, it doesn’t make sense.

She’s frantic, doesn’t know how she’ll pay her bills. I get frantic. Just as I pick up the phone to call her, my editor messages me: “I was just let go. It was nice working with you.”

It’s a bloodbath. Two down in D.C., including my boss. I start to feel like a gazelle running in a pack. I’m in the center and safe thus far, but lions are picking off those randomly positioned at the outside. One by one they go down, get torn up. I keep running.

I get up and pace, feeling shaky and nauseous. My man calls and I can barely focus on what he’s saying. His words are like weird strings moving through my head. I stop and examine my reaction and realize it’s not really because I fear for my job. I realize it’s this odd form of empathy in overdrive. I’m devastated for my co-workers. What will they do? Where will they go? A peculiar thought flashes: If I can be this selfless in the face of danger, I’ll make an excellent mom.

1 p.m.: A co-worker mentions a 1:15 conference call for all of those who didn’t get whacked. “Didn’t you get the e-mail about it?” the co-worker said. No, I hadn’t.

My mouth goes dry. Maybe they just haven’t gotten around to delivering my call of doom yet.

1:15 p.m.: The e-mail still isn’t here. But someone slips me the number and pass code for the conference call, and I dial up. I listen for shock or surprise from the head honchos when I announce my presence. I don’t detect any. Perhaps I am safe.

The executives sound woebegone as they list the day’s casualties. Fifteen dead–and they haven’t gotten to the West Coast yet. Someone asks, “Is it safe to presume everyone on this call will have a job at the end of the day?” We are told yes.

1:35 p.m.: The call ends. As the plague moves west, the commotion fades on the East Coast and I’m caught up in the aftermath, taking calls from the freshly slain. They’re upset. They’re agitated. They want job contacts. They want to know who else was knocked off. They want to be reassured that the hacking wasn’t based on merit, or lack thereof. I can only tell them it seemed about as random as war, or flesh-eating bacteria.

2 p.m.: I cast about the rubble trying to figure out who my editor is. A disoriented freelancer asks me if his regular gig with the company is secure. No one seems to be able to give him an answer. The delayed e-mail about the 1:15 conference call finally arrives. It’s official: I’m a survivor.

3 p.m.: I’m still unable to think straight or write any stories. A source informs me that the massacre has moved through the West, taking down journalists in Phoenix, Dallas, St. Louis, Detroit, and the Twin Cities.

4:30 p.m.: I get word that the pillaging is done. Total for the day: 32 people, 27 percent of the editorial staff. Thirty-two people with pioneer spirits who took a chance on a start-up, on a dot-com. Thirty-two folks I met and cavorted with at company clambakes–and will probably never see again. I wonder why I was spared.

5:45 p.m.: It’s time to leave–to log off, to end the day and have the evening to myself. But I find I can’t. It’s like not being able to take your eyes off a terrible car wreck that you narrowly escaped. Lingering at my computer, I look at our Web site and see a feature story from a few days ago, with a headline so ironic it makes me want kick my keyboard. “What’s to become of the shafted dot-com workers?” it asks.

I wish I knew.

Suz Redfearn stepped down from her dot-com job to become a full-time freelance writer a month after this piece was written. Her national award-winning humor column, Germ Bag, can be found in Baltimore City Paper Online, www.citypaper.com. From Baltimore City Paper Online(Dec. 13, 2001).

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