I met John years ago in what feels now like a totally different life. He was an experienced disk jockey at the classic rock radio station, and I was a part-time employee and college student. He had dedicated a great deal of his life to making it in this business, and I was wondering whether I even cared enough to try.
If I learned anything from my brief time working in radio, it was that you had to be married to the job in every sort of way in order to make it anywhere. My time certainly was brief. Just barely over a year as a paid intern and part-time weekend shift kid before they told me via email that they were having to do away with all us little people. Downsized via email. Odd experience.
The job took dedication that I didn’t have. A lot of the people who worked for years in the business to have a stable career didn’t have what most could consider a stable life outside of it. At least, the ones I interacted with were like that. Granted, they were often the ones at the classic rock part of the studio, so it could very well be that the ones working in oldies and news had more going for them. I didn’t know them as well.
John was an odd one to say the least. He worked the night shift, and I wonder if a part of that assignment had to do with his odd personality. How much of it was choice, how much of it was because the other guys didn’t want to have to interact with him? If the rock station were a high school, the daytime DJs were the partying cool kids and he was the band geek. In real life of course, they were all the stoners, but this was their world, so the dynamics were different.
I first learned how odd John’s personality was when he told me about his hobby of collecting odd bugs he found around the station. I hadn’t considered collecting any bugs ever since my third grade bug collection had been met with a resounding B-, so I hadn’t given it much consideration in the years since. However, in his free time, he read a lot of science journals and articles about insects. It wasn’t just a strange hobby, but something he actually knew a lot about. Something he studied. One of the things he cared a great deal about outside of work at the station.
Insects weren’t his only interest, of course. A Detroit native, he was fond and oh so very proud of his boys from Hockeytown: the Red Wings. I was working there when the Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008. I, being a native Mississippian, knew nothing about hockey. He, being a Michgander somehow transplanted in the Deep South through the paths that a career in radio take you, wanted to talk to anyone who would listen about what the Wings had done. I was always willing to listen. Thanks to him, I still keep up with the Red Wings, and since one of my closest friends is a fan, I still get to talk to somebody about how they’re doing.
I would work the late night baseball broadcasts for the little AM station that was desperate enough to carry minor league broadcasts, and the office was right next to John as he started his night shifts. We would talk each others ears off about various topics, since we were the only people in the station at the time. Nobody could get mad at us for being too loud, so long as I played my commercial breaks just right and John recorded his between-song bits in time. They were good times, because neither of us cared to try and impress the other, and those situations always produce quick and honest bonds between people.
Cigarette breaks with John were frequent and frequently held the best conversation. I didn’t smoke, though, and was mostly there to chat and to occasionally help John light his smoke when he wasn’t quite able to. He was in the early stages of a neurological issue that ran in his family, and occasionally he would be too shaky to efficiently light his cigarette. It was rare when it happened, but for being somebody who actually wanted to talk with me and wasn’t just using me as an intern to do work they didn’t want to do, I was always glad to help John with anything he needed.
Like the time there was an insect he wanted to catch but needed my height. He told me exactly the best way to trap the bug and was so incredibly excited that I was able to do it so well. That moment led to him calling me “Robberfly” for the rest of my employment at the station, as what I snagged for him was an extremely large version of the odd and fuzzy fly. Not the best nickname I had ever received, but it made him happy.
I often wonder about John. I hope his health is alright. I hope he still has time to read about his insects. I certainly hope that he is happy, as it seemed like nobody in the station back then really was. I hope he has somebody to talk to. Back then, I probably didn’t really appreciate John as much as I should have. He was an odd, but strong, personality, and one that would sometimes intimidate my 20-year-old self. I was just trying to fit in with the lunatics I worked for. Looking back, though, I really do enjoy the fact that he enjoyed talking with me and not just handing me all the work that he didn’t want to do.
There were many people at the station back then that I met, and most of them I wouldn’t really have much to say to now. If I saw John today, though, I would ask him to sit down and discuss the Red Wings with me.