Monday, June 15, 2009

Six Flags: An Appreciation

I have often joked that I'm the angel of death--shortly after I leave a company, chaos follows. Just as I was getting ready to ditch CMP and Computer Reseller News for Ziff-Davis and PCWeek, CMP had layoffs for (maybe...I think) the first time ever.

Then, just as I was preparing to leave Ziff in my rear-view mirror and move to CIO magazine and IDG, Softbank, the Japanese company that owned Ziff at the time, decided to cut its 600-year plan for Ziff (seriously) about 594 years short and sell the company. I don't remember whether layoffs ensued, but ownership chaos definitely did...and I'm not actually sure that it has ever ceased.

And then (yes, there's more), CIO, which had never had layoffs in more than a decade of existence, cut jobs only a few months after I left the publication to move to France. Some say that the Sept. 11 attacks and the infamous bursting of the dot-com bubble might have been the culprit there, but I'm pretty sure that it was my fault.

Alas, my spectre of doom now haunts yet another company, albeit a robust 19 years after my departure. Six Flags, my first real employer, is bankrupt. I am sad about this, actually, even though I realize that bankruptcy for Six Flags won't (or shouldn't) actually close any of the company's parks--at least for the time being.

In 1990, I was a 16-year-old hunting for my first job. I donned a suit and tie and went all over my then-dinky (and still not exactly massive) hometown of Midlothian, Texas. I was a clean-cut, well-disciplined, altogether goody two-shoes Southern Baptist kid...but it didn't matter. The economy in 1990 was lousy, and all the jobs I was applying for--sales clerk and the like--were taken by real people with real families.

So, I went where all the kids in Dallas-Fort Worth went when they needed summer money and had nowhere else to go: Six Flags Over Texas (or SFOT for short because I don't want to type the whole name 15 more times). The original Six Flags park, SFOT was named for the actual six flags that have flown over the state (and republic, for that matter) of Texas. (By the way, the history section of the official Six Flags site, linked earlier in this paragraph, is really funny. It talks about how SFOT introduced people to--quoting loosely here--cowboy culture, Spanish and French culture, and even Southern belles. Um, yeah, Southern belles--that's a nice way of saying that one of the flags that flew over Texas was that of the Confederacy, as in the Civil War Confederacy. I guess a reference to Southern belles sounded better than, say, cotton-pickin' culture or slaveholder culture. Ahem...)

Anyway, given that I had a pulse, I got a job at Six Flags. Well, sort of. I got a job working in the parking lot at SFOT: directing traffic, driving the trams that took people from the parking lot to the park entrance, sitting on the backs of the trams and blabbering into a microphone about the park to said travelers (while also--not entirely successfully--making sure the tram driver didn't hit a parked car as the tram snaked around a corner), and even riding a bike around the lot in some sort of so-called "security" role.

It was...well, awful, actually. The too-cool-for-school (or Six Flags) Arlington and Grand Prairie kids were far too hip for a Midlothian bumpkin, and each day (including, and especially, Saturdays and Sundays) brought another eight-hour shift in 100-degree-plus temperatures, heat that had the magnificent effect of radiating off of the pavement in the parking lot and being even hotter than it would have been in most places inside the park itself. Oh, OK, it wasn't as bad as roofing, or plowing fields by hand, or whatever other menial work our parents and grandparents did, but it did give me a strong appreciation for indoor work and air conditioning. Not that I really needed any of that.

Still, Six Flags, the teen-job refugee camp, kept me in paychecks and allowed me not only to pay off the repair costs of some of the damages I had caused to my car a few months earlier (I'm still a terrible driver) but also to hang out with my friends a bit and not be constantly skint. At $3.80 per hour and with a 52-mile round-trip drive, the job didn't exactly have me running in high cotton, but it was steady...and a start. For that, I'll always be thankful to Six Flags.

SFOT, though, was more than just the place where I had my first job. When I was a kid, younger than 16 and not yet able to legally drive on my own, it was nirvana--a place where a parent could take a group of friends and me and drop us off, thereby letting us pretend that we were going to pick up girls, which, of course, never happened. But we saw a lot of hot chicks, and back then that counted for something. I guess.

I saw an embarrassing litany of concerts at SFOT--well, two, actually, but they were Tiffany and the Bangles...and New Kids on the Block opened for Tiffany. (As God is my witness, I had no idea who they were. I didn't like them, but a male friend who was with me at the show and will remain unidentified ran out the next day and bought their debut album on cassette. As far as I know, he's married [to a woman] and has kids, so there you go...for whatever that's worth.)

Six Flags had everything--chicks (however distant), the opportunity for a little independence, fantastic rides, plenty of stunningly fatty food, rock-band t-shirts... It really was just about as good as life got in the summertime in Texas.

And now it's bankrupt, probably not in danger of going away altogether but certainly struggling. Personally, I blame the fact that the company's corporate headquarters are somehow now in New York City. (Seriously, how did that happen?) But it very well could be that, 19 years after my departure, I caused the bankruptcy at Six Flags. I am, after all, the angel of death. Beware! (But, if you're reading this, don't be afraid to consider hiring me...remember, things only go wrong when I leave.)

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