You're Out 

The Riverdogs' Mike Veeck and others talk about being fired and how they bounced back

Here's a fun fact:

the probability that an American worker will be fired from his or her job is now higher than it has been at any time since the Great Depression.

And according to the U.S. Department of Labor, North Carolina and South Carolina reported the largest jobless rate increases from a year earlier at 4.7 percentage points. The topper? South Carolina currently has the second worst unemployment rate in the nation after Michigan. Michigan! We're one state away from starring in our own version of 8 Mile!

Bottom line: a whole lot of South Carolinians have been and/or will be canned this year — and that blows. You may want to cry, you may want to curse, but what you really want is to hear about folks who've had it worse. Then maniacally laugh in their faces. Okay, maybe not maniacally, but at least laugh.

Incidentally, we tracked a few of those people down. Each one of their stories is unique — and in some cases hilarious. But one thing is certain: they were all fired, and somehow they've all managed to recover.

For instance, there is Sharon Graci, actress, mother, and accused former juvenile delinquent. You thought she was just an unassuming thespian and co-owner of PURE Theater, but no. Long before Graci had Charleston audiences on the edge of their seats, she was headlining in her own personal teenage hell — retail.

She says dryly, "I worked in the sock department. All we sold were socks."

Every evening from 6 to 9 p.m. Graci manned her sock station. "It was so boring," she says. "I used to play with the cash register to entertain myself."

But her boredom got the best of her. "I rang up a purchase of $2,000 worth of socks!" Graci says.

"I tried everything to X out the sale," she says, the panic still palpable in her voice. "I mean it was a ridiculous amount of money for socks!"

She used every trick possible to negate the sum until the amount finally cleared. "At least I thought it did," she adds.

The next morning the manager accused Graci of stealing $20 from the till. Clearly two zeros hadn't made it into the deletion process. Graci swore her innocence, but the manager remained unconvinced, and the dejected teenager was thrown out like a pair of ripe gym socks.

"I felt so horrible," she remembers. "When I interviewed for other jobs and when they asked, 'Have you been fired?' I had to say, 'Yes!'"

The stigma stuck until college when she finally got positions in the theater department. "I realized I had to find work that held my attention, that I was passionate about," Graci says.

The PURE co-founder has since cleared her record and become a functional member of society. As for the fired thing, it was character building.

Being wrongly accused, like Graci, is one thing, but for all too many of us, sometimes there comes a day when you just wig out. Maybe a coworker spills coffee on you or your e-mail malfunctions or a client asks you if you're pregnant. And you're not. Whatever the case, the bitch switch has been flipped and there's no turning it off.

So if this happens, say when bartending, take comedian Timmy Finch's advice: If a customer asks for another drink, never say, "What's wrong with you people? What are you, idiots?!"

The Have Nots! co-founder now realizes that probably was not the correct response, yet that's exactly what he said, and surprisingly it wasn't because he thought the customer was pregnant.

"I kind of had an attitude problem," he now admits.

"There was this group of regulars who'd come in every day," Finch says. "We had these 16-ounce collectors' cups, and they would stack each drink into another cup and keep asking for more."

Eventually, this began to annoy Finch, until one day, without thinking, he called the customers out with the aforementioned challenge.

"My manager didn't really like that," Finch says. And the comedian was shown the door faster than a frat boy could down a Sex on the Beach shooter.

Like Finch, there are all kinds of ways to get yourself fired: Insult the customers, show up drunk, substitute Casual Friday for Dress-Like-a-Hooker day. But for well-respected local attorney Robert Rosen, getting the boot was taken to a whole new politically incorrect level.

Rosen of the Rosen Law Firm was getting his master's degree in history at Harvard when he was axed. "My dad was helping me pay for school, but I needed to work to make money," recalls Rosen. He took a gig at a hotel restaurant. "I wasn't good enough to be a waiter, so I worked as a busboy."

And as Rosen tells it, his boss, a burly German man, didn't think the student worked hard enough. "He was constantly riding me to go faster," the attorney says.

Blame it on the stress of graduate work or the annoyance of bussing filthy tables, but one day Rosen snapped. "He said something to me that I guess kind of peeved me off," Rosen says," So I turned around and gave him a Sieg Heil.

"I was fired on the spot," he adds with a sheepish laugh.

Lesson learned? "If you can't choke back things you want to say, don't take the job," Rosen advises.

And as it turned out, his spicy temper was far better suited for the courtroom. "Actually a lot of what we think of as bad personality traits, like a hot head or obsessive-compulsive disorder, are actually really good if you're an attorney," he says. "You've got to be able to stand up to people."

This is exactly what he's done with his law career. He's also written several well-received books, including The Jewish Confederates and A Short History of Charleston.

Like Rosen, Matt Lewis is doing all right. The co-owner of Baked has a store in Brooklyn and a new location in Charleston on East Bay Street. Even better, Oprah Winfrey sings his praises. But during the dot-com boom, he got a whole lot of nothing fast.

Lewis was living the dream as an employee of an internet start-up. "We were getting paid ridiculous sums. We had martini lunches. It was amazing," Lewis says of the life he and his coworkers were living.

But there was one problem. "We didn't have any clients," he recalls. "We'd come into the office and have a meeting about how we needed to start getting our teams prepared for all the work coming in, but no work ever showed up."

For the most part Lewis was unconcerned; he figured clients would show up eventually. Which is why he was excited when his boss sent out a company-wide e-mail requesting all 80 employees meet at an upscale hotel for a staff meeting. Must be time to announce that big client, Lewis thought.

"We were all led to a conference room that was set with a swanky breakfast," he says. But then something odd happened. "They closed the doors, and we see these armed guards come in.

"The company owner got up and told us we were all laid off," Lewis adds. "They thought we were all going to freak out."

The irony of the whole thing was the staff was asked to return to the office and clear out their desks, but Lewis says there was nothing to clean out. "We hadn't done any work, so we didn't have anything on our desks."

College of Charleston Professor Chris Lamb has his own tragic tale. Nearly two decades ago, Lamb was working for a newspaper. He wrote a weekly column on the front page of the metro section and a weekly column in the features section. "I also was a metro reporter," Lamb says. "I had begun writing for the features page more, even though I technically belonged to the metro section."

According to Lamb, the features editor then asked him to become a full-time member of her department and the metro editor agreed. So for all intents and purposes, he was now part of the features section. And here's where Lamb may have made a mistake: he decided he liked his desk where it was and didn't want to move to the features department. Lamb stayed put, and no one seemed to mind.

Shortly after, word started to spread throughout the newspaper that layoffs were around the bend, and Lamb got the sense he might be one of those included. One day, he was called into the managing editor's office. As Lamb tells it, he was told he was being laid off because he wasn't being productive as a metro reporter. "I explained to him that that was because I was now working in features," Lamb recalls.

"Even though a memo had been posted that I was now in features, there was the impression I was still working for [the metro section]," Lamb adds.

He went home. The world didn't end. He received a lot of phone calls — some from people he barely knew. "It was really quite touching. It's like being alive for your own funeral," he says. "As it turned out, it was the best bad thing that ever happened to me."

Bowling Green State University had accepted Lamb into their doctorate program two years in a row, and he had previously declined. Once he was terminated, he called up the school and was accepted for the next academic year. "I had time to go home, spend a quiet summer there, and then start my doctorate program. I got my Ph.D. two years later and have been teaching ever since. I rarely think about working for newspapers."

Given the newspaper disaster right now, that's a pretty lucky break. Moral: Watch where you sit.

If only it was that simple for every job.

Kelly Love Johnson, writer and former skirt! magazine editor, as well as recent Linda Ketner campaign publicity manager, was once an employee at a fast food restaurant.

"Then I got mono," Johnson says. The illness had her out of school and off the restaurant's schedule for a month. Though she was told she could come back when she felt better, when Johnson rolled in a month later, her name wasn't on the schedule. "I was like, am I fired? Did you fire me?" Johnson says.

Although Johnson was shocked that she was let go, she was quick to rally and soon had another job. "I developed a thick skin," she says.

While attending the College of Charleston, Johnson started freelancing. She remembers the stress of multi-tasking: "I was working, going to school, and writing on the side."

And then she got a break. "I got a piece published in Mademoiselle," she says. The article was a humorous first-person take on being an adult. "It was all about how I had a real job, but was still unable to manage my money," she recalls. Shortly thereafter, she began freelancing full time and eventually landed a job at skirt!

"I loved working there," Johnson says, but last year she decided to leave the magazine when the opportunity to work with the Linda Ketner campaign came up. The fact that Ketner didn't win was devastating and much like losing a job.

"When she lost, I literally sat on the couch for two weeks," Johnson says. Now with the campaign over she is a full-time freelancer once again, doing speaking engagements and publicizing her book, skirt! Rules for the Workplace: An irreverent guide to advancing your career.

This is her advice for others: "You can't change the way the economy is now, so you have to find a way to work within it." Pragmatically speaking, she knows this isn't an easy or a simple option. Ultimately though, she thinks people should look at being fired as an opportunity, not a failure. "It's a chance to change and try something new," she says.

While it's true that it's good to take a chance, sometimes it can blow up in your face. Literally. No one's more familiar with that than Mike Veeck, Charleston RiverDogs president and the man known for perhaps the single-most notorious promotional event in baseball history — the Disco Demolition.

"You may have heard about it," he says tongue-in-cheek. "I got some people to blow up a few records at a White Sox game. Well, actually about 100,000 people."

On July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park, Veeck put on what was to be a small event. The ploy: fans who brought a disco record to the double-header between the White Sox and Detroit Tigers, would get in the game for 98 cents, and then have the opportunity to watch a crate full of vinyl records by Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, and other disco acts blow up between games.

Thousands of people who were denied admission climbed the fences. Records were thrown like frisbees. People stormed the field. Chaos ensued. "I didn't work again in the big leagues for 20 years," Veeck says.

Today Veeck is the Grand Poobah of baseball promotion, a fact that Charleston RiverDogs fans know quite well. His past foibles may never escape him, and that's alright; he's not much for whining. "Whenever I think about sliding into that carping zone, I remember my daughter."

Rebecca, Veeck's 17-year-old has retinitis pigmentosa and started losing her vision at age seven. "I've watched her go blind with the grace and dignity of a warrior," he says, and that gives his message new meaning.

He adds, "When you think your life is tough, open your eyes and find the heroes and see how they handle real trouble."


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