Cutting costs in a tough economic turndown

Published 12:54 pm Saturday, November 29, 2008

I have bad news. In the midst of the worldwide economic meltdown we are experiencing these days, I have taken a hard look at revenue from this column and find that I am earning but a tiny fraction of the $6.5 million I had projected for 2008, which leaves me no choice but to impose aggressive cost reductions, including a 75 percent reduction in writing time and the elimination of editing. I apologize for the inconvenience. And I thank you for your patience.

I don’t understand the economic turndown whatsoever and in fact wonder if “turndown” is a good word for something so catastrophic as to impel that bald man who appeared to be packing a revolver to accost me in the menswear department of Macy’s in downtown St. Paul, which is where I live now — I lived in New York for a while thinking it a prestigious place to be, but 10 years of cruising the neighborhood looking for a parking place convinced me otherwise. I was scouting the sportcoats, which looked bulkier and gloomier than how I want to look. I’m aiming to be limber and natty (remember that word, from back when men wore bowties and used hair pomade?) so that people’s faces light up when they see me and they not take me for a repo man, which is why I’ve shed some avoirdupois lately so as to look less threatening.

Anyway, he said, “Your column was all that kept me going the past 18 months through a ferocious divorce from Melanie, the outsourcing of my job and repossession of my mansionette and a nasty case of traumatic hair loss, and now I’m facing a prison term for whacking my stockbroker, but your column is a ray of light in my life, and could you spare me $20 to buy a sparkly T-shirt for my little princess?”

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He reminded me so much of a man I once took $3,000 off in a game of roll ’em poker in a back booth of Mom’s Cafe in Tupelo, Miss., back in 1969 when I was road manager of The Locusts. That man was known as Uncle Earl, and he was well sloshed on a drink called the Stroke, which I believe is made with rum, bourbon and sloe gin, and he was leaning hard on a bimbo in a red dress that displayed her glistening orbs like fruit on a plate. She was a fan of the Locusts, I discovered later.

As I say, Mr. Baldy appeared to be concealing a weapon in his pocket and one could imagine him fingering the trigger as he brooded over the bum hand life had dealt him, so I proffered him a 20, and now that I think of it, I was not in St. Paul, I was in Tampa. Weird.

This was on Monday. My column is due on Tuesday morning, but I was not thinking about that yet because with the cost reductions, I am allotting myself 15 minutes to write the 750 words which I once spent two hours on (believe it or not), but no more, and whenever a reader approaches me, such as Mr. Baldy — we were in the men’s room in the airport, BTW — and says how much the column means to him, I know that my 15 minutes was time well spent.

What was I doing in Tampa? Well, I was just about to tell you. Even as the column goes through painful changes, it’s important that I reward accomplishment, and so I have sent myself to Florida for a couple of weeks to bask in the sun and to celebrate myself and sing myself, as Walt Whitman once said, and to stay motivated so the column will continue to be strong and insightful, despite cutbacks, just as the bimbo stuck with Uncle Earl despite his lousy poker hand and just as the guy in Tampa — who, by the way, I now recall did have hair, one of those thinning ponytails that sprouts out of the back of the head — said to me, “I don’t know any other columnist who writes like you.”

I am assuming he spent the $20 on the T-shirt but maybe he got a large latte instead and a smoked ham sandwich. There is no way of knowing. What I know is that we will get through this turndown by being true to who we are. That is what has gotten us this far.

Garrison Keillor is the author of a new Lake Wobegon novel, “Liberty” (Viking).