Iron Law at Happy Times

Bad News, Unhappy News

Last time Tailpipe met Brigitte Lang, she was talking about the "circle of very positive people" who came together ten years ago to put out the first issue of Happy Times. The free good-news monthly newspaper -- with its steady diet of cute pets, triumphs over adversity, and accounts of people being kind to one another -- is supposed to offer an antidote to all of the widely publicized evils of the world. In place of Iraq casualties and terrorist atrocities, a piece about Ronald McDonald House chipping in to help the parents of preemie twins. No murder and rapine in Happy Times but a tender story about an old man who loves his cat. And always, some words of advice or wisdom from Lang, the rosy-thinking publisher, in her monthly column, along the lines of: Keep on hugging each other.

But then some former employees of Happy Times, whose office is in Boca Raton, stopped by the 'Pipe's garage to talk about some of the harsh realities of working for Lang's organization. To say the place is buttoned-down would be a vast understatement, they said. "Employees are told right from the start that there is to be no interaction," says Carl Davis, Happy Times' star ad rep for more than two years, who was fired last month, he claims, when he failed to report to work while he was in an intensive-care unit.

No interaction means no collegial cigarette breaks or lunch breaks, no chatting on the job, work-related or otherwise. (Hugs? Maybe a discreet clinch after work, when nobody's looking.) Employees quickly learn not to expect from their bosses any of the inspirational uplift that Happy Times' readers regularly get from the New Age sages who write for the paper.

"Brigitte doesn't talk to you," says Robin Werman, who was fired after taking time off to care for her sick mother. "She's the queen of the castle." But staff are expected to attend company social events. "If there's a company party, you have to show up or bring a doctor's note," Werman says.

The Happy Times enforcers are office manager Amy O'Rourke and Lang herself, the former employees say. "Brigitte is the principal," Werman says. "Her desk is at the back of the office, where she can watch everything. Break a rule and you get this piercing stare."

"There are no happy times at Happy Times," Davis says.

"For a good-feeling newspaper, they make it a very unfriendly place to work," former sales rep Dawn Tuckeradds.

Actually, Tailpipe was about to say that, for a good-feeling newspaper, Happy Times sounds a lot like the North Korean army -- though, of course, Happy Times' employees all have the option of quitting.

But here's the worst part. Get on management's bad side and suddenly your pay check starts to shrink. Davis was due for a $1,100 bonus, he says, when he started getting chest pains one day in September. After stays in two hospitals (he gave Tailpipe copies of his medical invoices), O'Rourke fired him. His last paycheck didn't include the bonus, because, Davis was informed, he had abandoned his job. Werman had a similar experience, she says. Not only was she shortchanged on her final paycheck but the company threatened to sue her to retrieve $1,000 in merit pay that she had previously received. "I had my lawyer call them, and I haven't heard any more about it," she says.

The 'Pipe tried to get Lang's side of the story, but she was too busy to talk. Production coordinator Jonathan Lederman, who answered the phone, said he could not speak for the company.

Fortuitously, though, Lang's October column addressed the question of -- what else? -- negativity on the job. Happy Times (which Lang claims has "1/4 million" readers, though she offers no evidence that her circ numbers have been audited by a monitoring company like the Audit Bureau of Circulations) is different from "corporate America" in that it encourages "a positive attitude in the way employees feel about each other and the company." Sometimes, though, individuals with wrong attitudes slip in, she says, including one former employee "who admitted that they would do almost anything in order to make money and maintain a hefty paycheck." You mean, expecting enough remuneration from your job to pay the bills? Really bad attitude, that. Tailpipe has finally figured out why he never got ahead.

This old auto part finally reached O'Rourke, who said: "If you've found someone who's unhappy with Happy Times, have them give me a call. We're all about being happy here. We don't want them having unhappy feelings about us. We would like to have them resolve their unhappiness. That's what Happy Times is all about." Tailpipe passed along the message. Davis said: "You've gotta be kidding me."

You Will Do Better on FCAT

A lot of you kids have met Mr. Special, the lovable penguin who comes to Broward schools to encourage you to do better on your FCATs. Wait 'til you see Mr. Griz. He's a ten-foot Alaska grizzly bear who shows up at the classroom door with a mighty roar. That's right, kids. You've got a real treat in store. Mr. Griz gives you motivation. He knocks over the furniture, eats all the crayons, mashes your science projects into the ground, tears the maps off the walls, and carries off children who have been identified by the principal as especially low FCAT achievers (you know who you are, boys and girls). Mr. Griz wants to make sure you get the message: If it's not FCAT-related, keep it out of school (and preferably out of your life). Like the principal and your teacher (who get paid bonuses if you do especially well in the FCATs), Mr. Griz wants to make sure that fun is stamped out in your classroom. Learning is not about enjoyment, kids. We're sure you got that message when the schools took August away. In other states, children just fritter their late-summer days away at the beach or summer camp. Did you say camp? Mr. Griz has a camp for you. FCAT camp. A lot of schools now offer extra preparation time after school and on Saturdays. That's FCAT camp, and you'll love it. So get ready to welcome Mr. Griz. Studies have shown that after a visit from Mr. Griz, students perform much higher in the state tests. Kids just can't help themselves.

Sonny Gets Blue

When the 'Pipe gets tired of watching paint peel, this old tube gladly settles for the next best thing: Hallandale Beach public access TV. Sadly, Hallandale Beach's city government has decided to pull the plug on the 'Pipe's favorite local programming -- ostensibly to free up bandwidth for shows that people actually watch.

In addition to depriving Tailpipe of his cure for insomnia, this move will cancel Arthur "Sonny" Rosenberg's show, Sonny's City Hall.The show, which has been running for 15 years, is hosted by former three-term Hallandale mayor and City Commissioner Sonny Rosenberg. He tells the 'Pipe that the city's decision to eliminate public access on Channel 12 was aimed at shutting him up.

Maybe so. Sonny's low-budget foray into broadcasting has been dedicated to shedding light on minor injustices committed by Hallandale Mayor Joy Cooper and the City Commission. For example, when Cooper recently awarded her father a certificate of recognition from the City of Hallandale Beach for his service to our military, Rosenberg was all over the story. Rosenberg took to the air with his large, gold-rimmed glasses and bald pate and, in his trademark monotone style, announced that Cooper's father didn't even livein Hallandale. Take that!

Rosenberg is also a stickler for signage. During campaign season, he dedicated more than a few episodes to showing pictures of political signs that were placed too close to the street, violating regulations by as much as a foot. Is there no atrocity the Cooper regime will not commit?

Though Cooper and City Manager Mike Good did not return Tailpipe's calls for comment, Rosenberg is convinced that they've had it in for him since they made his producer run an on-air message, filling a third of the screen, saying something along the lines of: These are nobody's opinions but Sonny's.

Though cable access won't be eliminated entirely -- it will be combined with other locally generated programming on channel 78 -- the City Commission will decide who gets a show and who doesn't.

Rosenberg isn't giving up. As long as he's breathing, he tells the 'Pipe, he'll be speaking -- intoning -- the truth about issues vital to Hallandale. The commission owes it to the insomniacs in their midst to put the man back on the air.

Jeeves' Crib

When builder Charles Jordan wanted to make improvements to his Sailboat Bend Art Deco home by restoring a cottage on the property as a cabana, the city initially green-lighted the plan.

Then Jordan got the word: A cabana's out of the question. How about a bedroom, Jordan asked, like a mother-in-law apartment? Fine, the city said. Then the planning department reversed itself again.

Jordan kept trying. A cottage? Nope. Studio? Nah. Pool house? No way. In fact, built into the city's planning and zoning code is a little-known stipulation that the only legal use for such a space is as servants' quarters. "I cannot use that building for anything but servants' quarters," Jordan says incredulously. "On my own single-family property."

Battling the city over such arcane absurdities is one of Jordan's skills, so he did some poking around and learned that the code was not an ancient artifact from some early era but was actually rewritten in 1997. The provision states clearly that anyone living in that structure "has to be a servant that is not part of the family." And the city is not backing down.

So it's back to the old drawing board for Jordan. Folks bucking the trend by renovating and restoring old homes instead of bulldozing them better stock up on starched white shirts, crisp linen towels, and silver platters.

-- As told to Edmund Newton

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