A year in the life of a dot-com employee

Photo by Shem PamplinThis time last year, almost to the day, I was wrapping up the first week of my new job by viciously karate-chopping and roundhouse-kicking my now-former copy editor in the head.

The action was happening on the screen of a vintage, eight-foot-tall, arcade-regulation Mortal Kombat video game, but the stakes were still high: my boss and CEO, Gary, was in one of his free-spending moods, awarding a crisp C-note to the winner of the first annual office-wide, round-robin Mortal Kombat tournament.

Funny now how it was called "first annual."

I lost badly in my first round of virtual combat, but I didn't care. I was spending the first Friday at my dream job drinking bottles of bitter microbrew and playing video games after a satisfying day of work. I had just started writing for, an Internet start-up in a Costa Mesa office park, and one week in, I already knew that this was the job I wanted to retire from—the job I was led to believe I could retire from if I chose.

Until this first week on the job, I knew just one thing about Internet start-ups: boatloads of people were getting filthy rich off them. Industry legend had it that even the secretaries at Yahoo! were now millionaires because they had chosen slave wages with stock options over entry-level salaries. There were some signs of a waning economy in the Internet industry in early 2000, but the horror stories of failing dot-coms were still several months off. As far as most people were concerned, the gold rush was just beginning.

Make no mistake, I never wanted to get rich; most working writers aren't in it for the money, and that's always been fine by me. But I was a few months into my marriage and needed a steady payday as opposed to the irregular freelance checks I skimmed by on as a swinging bachelor.

So I'd sent Synge my résumé along with a few of my best clips. They were looking for "edgy and irreverent" writers. Because Synge was "aiming to become the MTV of the Internet" (a phrase frequently used in team meetings and always sounding more like a prayer than a goal), they needed a small army of new recruits. A month later, I got the call: "Can you come in for an interview?"

After two weeks of interviews and writing pointless features on spec to prove I knew the difference between a first- and a third-person story, I was hired as a content producer for The Ultimate Pop Culture Experience ™.

Quick back story on Synge: after a failed attempt as a fluffy website for the teen set, the company shifted gears in late 1999 and re-launched as one of the premier portals—or "online communities"—for the highly desirable 18-to-34-year-old demographic. Its purpose was to function as a destination point for Generations X and Y and whatever the trendy subculture of the month was at the time. At its peak, it read like a cross between Maxim and Spin, only better—in my opinion, anyway.

I'll admit I was pretty proud of myself when I got hired at Synge. A few weeks after I started, an editor there told me I had been picked over quite a few talented writers in what she called "a highly competitive race."

"Finally," I thought. "I paid my dues, and I'm being recognized for my writing."

It took four more months before several co-workers finally told me one of the reasons I got hired was because the vice president of content (affectionately nicknamed Spicy by the CEO) thought I was gay.

"Hey, everybody," Spicy allegedly chirped one afternoon before my first day. "I just want to announce that we've officially filled our Hispanic Gay Guy quota."

She meant me.

I don't remember my first reaction when I heard the Hispanic Gay Guy story, but I do remember laughing—eventually. It actually took her three months to figure out I was straight, even though I checked off the "married" box on all the new-hire paperwork I returned to her. Maybe she thought the picture of my wife on my desk was of my transsexual life mate.

None of this would have bothered me if this hadn't been the same person who, along with the CEO, thought that could jump into the media forefront with a "Racist Joke of the Day" feature.

But such insensitivity can't sully the memory of my first day on the job. Me, the Hispanic Gay Guy, sitting at my enormous oak desk overlooking the connecting 55 and 73 freeway onramps. I felt like a writer boldly sailing into uncharted editorial waters; I actually had my hands on my hips in a comic book-like stance, looking toward the new media's distant horizon.

This was cooler than just being a writer. I was now a content producer! I was a journalistic pioneer!

For months, the working conditions at Synge were great. The offices were done up in typical dot-com décor: part Romper Room, part Animal House. A small disco ball hung from the ceiling. A Ping-Pong table doubled as our conference area. Plush furniture was covered in faux animal fur. If Greg Brady had had an office in the '60s, this is what it would have looked like.

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