Do you remember that scene in “The Revenant” when someone asks Leonardo DiCaprio if he’s afraid of dying?
“No,” he says. “I already did it.”
That’s how I feel about radio.
“Aren’t you afraid that you’re gonna be made obsolete?”
“No,” I say. “I already did it.”
For the three or four of you who read about My Radio Life, you know that I traded at the Chicago Board of Trade for 18 years. Soon after I left, the pits closed as trading went to the computer. I wasn’t there for the end, but I was there for the decline.
So I left the Board of Trade in a hurry and Alexis and I bought a couple of radio stations. That sounds like the beginning of a tale of triumph, but it’s not that simple. In my former life as a pit trader, I was made obsolete.
For 175 years or so, men stood around and raised their arms and gesticulated wildly and yelled at each other, and somehow out of mayhem trading happened. It’s hard to explain if you weren’t part of it. It’s even harder to explain in that you can’t go watch it anymore.
“175 years they’ve been trading in pits in Chicago. And when we come along, it ends.” That’s the observation of one former trader. It’s a sad thing, really, what trading in pits did to a lot of people, including me. It gave us unrealistic expectations of what life had to offer. The experience screwed a lot of people up, including me. It took a while to detox from the effects of Chicago pit trading.
When the computers came along, I did try to adapt. I rented space in the CBOT building, installed computers, hired traders, traded on the computers myself. I even had computers installed in my house. After I tucked my daughters in for bed, I’d walk down the stairs and check on the overnight traders. I was addicted to the trading, I’ve told the three or four of you that, but I was not addicted to the technology.
I just endured the technology. What I really liked was just standing in a pit and yelling and gesticulating wildly as men had done for 175 years. It worked for me.
Why is this pertinent today as I get out of bed a half hour early to write Another Thousand Words to the three or four of you?
It’s because, in the wake of the bankruptcy of Strack and Van Til grocery stores, I’m trying to figure out what makes someone or something obsolete? And how do you deal with that? Are Strack and Van Til stores becoming obsolete?
I sure hope not, because the future of 6,000 families is at stake. After I wrote to you on Saturday, I went downstairs and looked at the NWI Times. There it was on the front page –
Layoff notices mount at area grocery chain. Ultra Foods will lay off 752 in Illinois.
Highland-based Strack and Van Til has reported to Illinois that it will lay off more than 750 workers when it closes seven Ultra Fresh Foods stores, bringing the total number of layoffs at the supermarket chain and its embattled parent to 1,935 this year… That includes 138 layoffs at the Lansing Ultra…, which it spent millions to renovate in 2015.
If any of you who were laid off is reading this, my heart goes out to you. Not only because you just lost your job. But also because you lost your job at a company that’s been a rock in northwest Indiana and the south suburbs for generations. Many of you laid off – and many of you threatened with losing your jobs – have been working for the company for many years. Once again, my heart goes out to you.
Here, on a Monday morning at 4:29, for some reason the words of my friend who never saw it coming at the Board of Trade ring in my ears, but with a twist.
“This grocery chain’s been going strong for six decades, then when I come along, my job goes away?”
That really is bad luck. There’s no other way to put it. You know what the competitive factors are. Aldi, Meijer, Sam’s Club, Whole Foods, Amazon. There’s a lot of reasons why people go to local grocery stores just a little bit less than they used to. For the 1,935 of you who have lost or are about to lose your jobs, it can feel as if what you do, which is to provide great groceries and service at a competitive price – and what your stores do, part of which is to provide good-paying jobs and to reinvest back into the community – can seem obsolete.
And, by extension, you yourself can feel that if you have been made obsolete. I hate to put it so bluntly, but there has to be some of you who feel that way.
That’s how I felt for a long time after the computers took over the pits and I was made obsolete. I went into a mental tailspin that took years to pull out of. But, if I have to admit it, I did finally get the plane to level off. It’s possible, but it’s horrible.
A lot of men I knew at the Board of Trade somehow did not level off the plane. They refused to accept the New Reality. Divorces, bankruptcy, drugs, gambling, death. Yes, death. One day I’ll tell the story of what the Chicago Board of Trade experience did to unsuspecting Midwesterners.
But that’s a blog for Another Thousand Words. What I am struck with today is the theme of becoming obsolete. I certainly don’t want to be insensitive to the plight of 1,935 people who have lost their jobs from “Highland-based Strack and Van Til,” as the paper says. That’s not my point at all.
My point is that there has to be life on the other side of Ultra Foods. For some of you 1,935 who just started at Ultra, this WARN notice that Strack and Van Til gave to the state of Illinois – Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification – isn’t that big of a deal. You’ll move on to another job and one day the Ultra thing will just be another few lines on your resume.
It’s the people who have been in the company for a while that I worry about. You gave a portion of your life to building a company that you believed in. And now the company that you believed in is letting you go. There is horror in that. I understand that, and have lived it. I won’t patronize you with any sayings right now.
“When one door closes, another opens” isn’t part of this Another Thousand Words. Nothing I say or anyone else says can speed the healing process. Just suffice it to say this Monday morning in the early stages of May that I understand that there is pain that you are going through. That’s all I got for you. Sorry.