This post is an excerpt from the book I’m working on.
In 1984 I thought I should work at Atari too, alongside my husband Leonard and his brothers. After all, I had a Barnard degree, had played a lot of Atari games in bars, taken programming courses, worked at AT&T and a trade paper and in public relations. I had been features editor of the college paper and could write well. I could research. I could make a contribution. But when I asked for a job at the company’s magazine, Jack was adamant. “Husbands and wives should never work under the same roof,” he said.
My husband’s company needed help, though. It was running on fumes. They had a line of computers that were competitive in the market, but Jack was focused on creating an even more powerful line. The trick was to keep selling current Atari machines to keep up income while building future lines.
One of the tools for supporting sales was the company magazine, a mishmash of all things Atari. Formerly called Atari Connection, it was re-named Atari Explorer. It had subscribers and ads, but not enough copy. The in-house staff had all been fired, and the magazine owed back pay to most of the freelancers in Silicon Valley.
Mel Stevens and Neil Harris, who had moved with Jack from Commodore, were in charge of communications. Mel was an old-school marketing guy from New York, separated from his family, who had a voice of gravel and the unfortunate habit of catching you on the way out to chat for an hour or so. Neil was a young marketing guy, techie and science fiction enthusiast from Philadelphia who had the soul of a hacker, a wife he brought out with him as soon as he could, and the eyebrows of Count Chocula.
Mel and Neil didn’t have time to write copy for the magazine, but I did. Despite Jack’s pronouncement, I arranged to freelance for them from home. I wrote about the wonderful things people were doing with computers in general and Atari computers in particular. One piece, “Masonite, Glue, and Computers,” was about a Texas non-profit that used anything they could find – including Atari computers — to help the disabled. Neil was so pleased with my work that he asked me to help with layout and headlines. After the magazine went to the printer, I submitted an invoice for $15 an hour, a very reasonable rate. Two weeks went by without a check.
We were spending Friday night with Len’s folks when Jack called me aside. I knew something was up, because he’d been saying some strange things over dinner, like, “You know why the Chinese say the sea is so great? Because it is lower than anything else.”
I dragged myself into the living room where Jack was waiting. He stared at me from under lowered eyebrows.
“Preeva,” he said in his rumbling voice, “my sources tell me you submitted a bill for $375,” he said.
“I did some writing and editing for the magazine,” I said, trying not to let my voice crack. “It came to 25 hours.”
“What did I say about husbands and wives working under the same roof?”
“That they couldn’t,” I said. “So I worked from home.”
Jack turned red as an apple. “You’re like a little girl running to her mother when she doesn’t get what she wants from her father!” he shouted. “Your husband is being paid, why should you ?”
“You know we’re trying to turn this company around and cash is very tight. We are not employees, we are OWNERS. You don’t need the money and the company does, so you are not getting paid.”
I barely kept from letting him see me cry.
Jack’s accusation cut me deeply. His premise — that husbands and wives didn’t work under the same roof — didn’t match the reality of what I saw, which was that his lovely house and beautiful wife were as much a part of his business as any office. I was so upset about the incident that I didn’t return calls from my editor, and refused to read the latest issue of Atari Explorer when it came off the presses.
Someone else was reading it, though. “How did you write that article on MIDI?” Jack asked me a few days later. MIDI, short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, was revolutionizing live performance and recording by providing a way to link different instruments through a computer. Atari machines were the first to have a good MIDI interface. “It was fairly technical. Did Leonard help you with it?”
“Certainly not,” I said. “I went to Drapers Music Store on California Avenue, where the musicians go. Then I interviewed the people who make the MIDI accessories. It’s amazing what people will tell you if you ask nicely.”
I was fed up with being “an owner” because I was married to Leonard. I was not sure if I was an owner, or owned by Atari. There were “Property of Atari” stickers all over my couch, the conference table we ate from, my living room chairs, even my phone.
“You know, my mom kept the books for my dad,” I told Jack a week later. “The wife of the candy store owner stands behind the counter. At least let me work for Atari for free.”
“For free?” said Jack. “With pleasure.”
I was finally part of the team.