My Story

Rules of engagement: Please understand that I have intentionally turned off comments. If you have any questions, thoughts, comments, or corrections, you’re more than welcome to talk to me (or email me)… thanks. You will notice a minimal use of names (and a concurrent abuse of pronouns) — this is to protect the privacy of the people who didn’t ask to be part of the story…

OK… I’ve wanted to explain how I got to be the enigma I seem to present to the world for a while now, but I never let myself finish it. Why? You need to read the blog post that indirectly provoked this, “A Moment Of Clarity”, to understand.

As most people are, I was born at an early age. I was named for my dad, but my parents (Robert & Cecelia, living in Hollis, NY at the time) didn’t want me to grow up as “Junior”, so I’m legally known as Robert Louis Hoffmann II. My dad is known as “Bob”, so that’s about the only version of my name I didn’t want to answer to — that generated far too much confusion. I settled on “Rob” early on, and then have spent a good deal of time correcting people… or not. For a chunk of my teens, I answered to Bob only because I finally did tire of correcting some folks. I kind of regret it – not taking ownership of my own name, I mean…

In terms of history, I was born right before the world changed. I was two months old (to the day) when JFK was shot. I was four months old when Beatlemania broke out. That’s the world I came into — the one The Dream Academy once sang about. Over the next few years, two younger brothers turned up — Bruce (in 1966) and Glenn (1968).

I honestly don’t have many memories of my childhood — which, by the way, is something that’s true of most of my life. Between the fact that there is nobody from my childhood still in my life (other than family, naturally) and because I tend not to retain much other than failure (see “Clarity”), a lot of this is my own history read back to me than my memories of living it.

The event that shaped my childhood — and, probably, my life — came at the end of my first-grade year (the 1969-70 school year). The elementary school (P.S. 33, Queens, NY) came to my family and said that I was far too smart for second grade, and that it would be best for my academic development to skip it. They were afraid, I think, that I’d have been bored. As best as I can tell, they didn’t understand the social aspect of school then nearly as well as they do now. Compound that with the fact I was a young first-grader (I turned 6 during my first month of first grade), and I was now a VERY young third-grader.

Anyone who’s worked with kids (now) knows that the difference between a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old is a chasm larger than the Grand Canyon… and that’s the chasm I spent the rest of my scholastic career on the wrong side of. It wasn’t totally by choice that I wound up a loner at school. I was the “smart” kid parachuted into a third-grade class that had been together for several years and that knew only that I’d skipped second grade… and there was no effort made to integrate me into the class (because nobody really knew it was needed).

So all the things you learned on your school playgrounds never happened to me. That awkward first crush… horsing around with your friends during recess… even the occasionally schoolyard brawl… all of it… at best, I was a spectator to someone else’s rites of passage, and at worst, I was off in a corner ignoring all of it. I truly believe this is why I can come off as a bit clueless socially… my instincts just aren’t trained.

With no minor distractions like friends, I wound up as valedictorian for my 6th-grade graduation class. This… this was a disaster. They stuck an immature, misplaced should’ve-been-5th-grader on a stage in front of thousands (ok, hundreds) of people, gave me a script… and saw me fall apart in tears mid-speech.

No, that wasn’t the LEAST bit embarrassing, especially when the audience started applauding to try to help pick me up and I freaked out more.

Fast-forward (PLEASE) to junior high (J.H.S. 109, Queens, NY). The school was close to home, and I had no real reason to hang around more than necessary, so I went home for lunch and any other time I could. In 1977, they made me valedictorian again — clearly not learning from experience. I did it reluctantly, and made sure I couldn’t become emotional during the speech. How? I read it at about 300 words per minute. I don’t think anyone had the faintest idea of what I said, including me.

The summer of ’77 was rough in another way. My parents were involved in a lawsuit to keep me from being shipped off to Hell (Andrew Jackson H.S., Queens, NY). Jackson was one of the worst schools in the New York City school system — to “improve” it (and because of the insane idea that shipping high school kids across the county was a good thing), kids from other HS districts were going to be forced to go there. Since my parents preferred me alive, they joined the suit. Eventually, New York City settled — but to remind us who was boss, I didn’t get to go to the school my mom went to — also the closest to my house (Martin Van Buren H.S.) — but was shipped to a slightly less-distant school that needed “improving” (Jamaica H.S.), although not as much as Jackson did.

So now I’m parachuted again — this time into a school that fed in from several diverse junior highs, each with their own cliques. Cliques which I had no prayer of getting into. I did find a few outcasts to cluster with, but since I was busing to school, I really couldn’t hang out and get to know people (well, I thought I couldn’t — I probably could, but by this time, I wasn’t expecting anything to work out). And in 3 years at Jamaica, I was only mugged once, so it’s not ALL bad. Fortunately, I didn’t get to be valedictorian (I probably would’ve turned it down at this point). Unfortunately, I managed to fall up the stairs to the stage at St. John’s University Alumni Hall during graduation when I tripped over my robe while claiming a math award. So three graduations, three disasters. Gotta keep that perfect record. One pattern in my life was established here — within days of high school graduation, I was no longer in touch with any of my “friends”. Perhaps that’s related to the fact that my picture doesn’t appear in the 1980 Jamaica H.S. yearbook — when it was reviewed before publication, they basically forgot I existed. If it weren’t for one picture of the school newspaper staff, there would be no proof I ever attended the place. So no, I haven’t done reunions, either…

Tangenting from the tangent: I get the sense my “pattern” comments don’t make much sense.  The point I’m trying to make is that, more than for most people, my friendships are what I call “transactional”. They’re part of some kind of other interaction (either as a co-worker, fellow student or customer) and tend to end when the interaction ends. If I could ever figure out how I managed to lose touch with so many people so completely, I suspect I’d understand a lot more about my own life…

OK, back from the tangent… now it’s the summer of 1980. I’m 16. Did I take a break to grow up a little? Of course not, it was 1980, the concept of a “break” didn’t exist, so I went right into a situation I was in no way mentally or emotionally prepared for. College.

I may have attended 10% of my freshman-year classes at Hofstra University. What happened was that I found the radio station (then WVHC-FM, now WRHU-FM). I fit in there — then, as ever, radio draws in the odd, the lost, and the misfits (and I say that proudly as one of them). But… I got so involved that I skipped classes to spend more time around the studios. Did you know that professors get really, really offended if you don’t go to classes? It reached the point that I walked into one final exam (I’d done the reading, but missed most of the class sessions) only to be told that I had two choices: take the exam and fail the course regardless, or take the signed withdrawal slip the professor was offering. I took the W. I’m not dumb, just misguided…

In August 1981, my parents found out that I’d flunked out of Hofstra. This… this was a disaster. I was a month shy of 18 with no clue what I was going to do next, and with my parents just a little upset over having blown a year’s tuition on me.

I wound up working for a “department” store near my home. It wasn’t a real department store — each department within the store was owned by a different company but branded with the store’s trade name. I worked for the firm that owned the men’s and women’s departments. It was an OK place to work (and I was also working part-time some of that time at the bowling center I walked past on the way to the store)… but it was the place where I first discovered that strange things happened around women I was interested in…

  • There was the girl at the Christmas party who was bombed beyond coherence throwing herself at me. Being a gentleman, I didn’t do anything more than help her find a place to sleep it off. I don’t think she ever spoke to me again, which I took as meaning she was offended I didn’t take advantage…?
  • There was the girl in another department who I was *very* interested in. But she had a boyfriend. Not that the relationship was going to last… he was the volatile type. So I made it a point to stay friendly with her. And that relationship did end… when idiot boy pulled over to the side of the road one winter night after dropping her off at home, fell asleep, and never woke up. Yep, carbon monoxide poisoning. By the time she finished mourning… well, I’m not sure she ever did.
  • There was the girl who I’d done lunch with a few times… she was the religious sort, and I knew that if there was to be any chance, I’d have to at least make the effort to see her church (this was pre-atheism, natch). So one Sunday morning I went… to be confronted with the most over-the-top fire-and-brimstone speaking-in-tongues revivalist church I never wanted to see. I think any chance of a relationship ended when she saw the look of horror frozen on my face… (this may have been the point where I did start to embrace atheism, although I claimed to be an agnostic until the last few years)

I mentioned the bowling center in passing. It’s where I really learned that I don’t do well in large-group environments. I had gotten friendly, I thought, with a group of employees at the place… we’d hang out, do those late-night bowling events (you know, colored-pin cash games, “disco bowling”, and all)… and I thought I’d finally found a comfort zone. Then one night, we had plans to go to another bowling center a short drive away… but they let me know that plans had fallen apart. I liked the “other” lanes, and knew some of the people there, so I went over anyway — to find my “friends” at the bar. Yeah. Plans hadn’t fallen apart. They just assumed I wouldn’t show up if I thought they weren’t going. Oops. Joke’s on me. Ha ha.

This was the bowling center job where I basically announced my resignation by throwing a softball-sized “keychain” at the manager’s head. This was also the bowling center where I snapped at being taunted by another bowler by throwing a bowling ball at him. Overhand. I was a tempermental late-teen/early-twentysomething.

This was also the timeframe, roughly, where I found out that alcohol and I are a bad combination. I may be off slightly, but I think it was New Year’s Eve 1981 where I got so drunk that I made a sloppy and belligerent pass at a friend’s girlfriend (she dumped him the next day, and it wasn’t ever clear if her outrage at my stupidity was a reason)… and it was New Year’s Eve 1982 where my brothers and I finished off a good-sized bottle of champagne before the call came from my parents about the accident (the parents were fine, the car… not so much). As the least bombed of the three of us, I went to get them. I really thought I’d pulled it off… until the next morning when I was informed that if I ever drove drunk again, I wouldn’t like the consequences… you can do a lot of things in life, but you can’t fool the parents. Or, at least, my parents. After two consecutive New Year’s disasters, I basically decided that if alcohol caused that much trouble, it wasn’t for me.

Back to our story, though… realizing that I needed to do so, and thinking myself a bit more mature, I made another attempt at college in 1983. I went to Queens College of the City University of New York. Once again, I found the radio station, but this time, I went to classes. I also met the girl who may be the closest to “the one that got away” that ever entered my life. I’ve told this story on my #1 hits blog, so I’ll summarize… she was beautiful, funny, I think she was interested in me… and had Greek parents who would have slit her throat had she brought home anyone who didn’t have Hellenic roots. There was no chance.

We never dated, and our friendship drifted apart after I got restless about getting into radio, and moved on to the Connecticut School of Broadcasting in 1984. This… this was a mistake. I went to CSB mostly because of their vaunted placement method (advertised incessantly on TV and radio at the time). You know what that turned out to be? A binder full of ads cut out of the trade magazines — in other words, I could’ve subscribed to the trades for 10 years for what my parents paid for one year at CSB. Don’t get me wrong, the training finally paid off. 20 years later.

Coming out of CSB, I couldn’t find a radio job — I turned down the only offer I got because it was in Monroe, Louisiana (in 1985!), where I was kind of concerned about being a northerner in the delta — so I went back to the bowling business for a while before I took a job with B.Dalton Booksellers. Shortly after I was hired, a young woman came on board. We became pretty good friends — to the point where I’d usually be her ride home if we worked the same shift. We talked a lot, but never dated — mostly because she was usually dating someone else, but also because I was so over the whole “relationship” thing that I wasn’t even looking. I am pretty sure she was the one who once looked at me and asked if I had any idea she was flirting with me… to which I said something intelligent like “buh?” In the end, it wouldn’t have worked out, mostly because she left B.Dalton for a noted women’s college where (as the joke I’ve used for two decades goes), she went in a straight teenager and came out a lesbian activist… we keep in touch, sort of, through Facebook, and once same-sex marriage was legalized in New York in 2012, she married (and later divorced) her partner.  She’s a single parent to their one son now.

There was one other actual dating attempt in there somewhere – a woman I met through the bowling business. For years, I’d been involved with the organizations that ran youth bowling on Long Island, and she was another of the volunteers. We dated a few times, it looked like things might get interesting, and… well, I don’t know, honestly. I don’t recall if I ever found out why she stopped returning my calls. It just… ended. Distance has muddied the timeline, but I think this was before or at the same time as I was working at B.Dalton. After this, I pretty much stopped looking.

Somewhere in there, I found time to finally get a degree – my Associate’s in Liberal Arts from Nassau Community College.

From B.Dalton, I wound up with my first tech job — B.Dalton was purchased by Barnes and Noble, which moved to shut down B.Dalton’s helpdesk in Minneapolis and move the jobs to their Long Island headquarters. I was hired as part of the transition team (getting to spend some very uneasy time with the B.Dalton people who were losing their jobs) and wound up staying on as a system tester and support person for B&N.

Through all of this, I was living upstairs from my family (cheapest rent in town!). This posed a dilemma in 1990 when my dad’s then-current employer, Drexel Burnham Lambert, fell apart in the fallout of the Michael Milkin scandals. His loyalty cost him, as since he was at Drexel at the end, he was basically toxic on Wall Street.

Fortunately for him (after a long year of looking), a Chicago-based firm (then Kemper Securities, now part of Wells Fargo) was interested. Unfortunately for me, this meant I had to make a decision — try to find a place to live on Long Island, or follow the family to Chicago. When I discovered that my B&N salary might pay for a comfortable cardboard box on the Island, it became an easy decision. The pattern continued here, by the way — other than the one friend from B.Dalton, there’s nobody I knew in New York that’s still in my life.

My time in Chicago was relatively uneventful. I worked a series of retail jobs — starting at Crown Books, then going to something more stable at Montgomery Ward (ha!), then to Fair Lanes where I managed one of their bowling centers. And that last job was how I wound up in Richmond. (The pattern? You got it, other than my family, nobody from Chicago is still in my life.)

While running the Fair Lanes in Bolingbrook, I spent some spare time trying to figure out the odd AMF-provided system we used in the back office. Over time, I worked out a polling system that allowed my district manager to pull data from all of her area locations, which gave me a bit of working knowledge of the system, which came in handy on the weekend it died. I spent most of that weekend on the phone with AMF in Richmond, and found out two things: one, they had an opening, and two, one of the staff members there was someone I’d worked with in that second bowling job in New York (before and during the B.Dalton gig). She put in a good word, I got the interview in Richmond in May 1994, and came here in June. I crashed for a few weeks with the former New York co-worker, and drove her nuts because I’d never done the roommate thing before. Good thing my apartment came available, otherwise I think she’d have killed me.

I stayed at AMF for seven years, until that awful day in the spring of 2001 when Goldman Sachs (which had done a wonderful job mismanaging the place) called the Richmond staff into the warehouse and told us that one of every five of us would be leaving permanently. Since I sat near the office HR was using for the executions, I was one of the first let go. It turns out that about a year earlier, a middle-manager who wasn’t terribly fond of me changed my position so that it was an outlier on the organizational chart. He knew that at some point, layoffs were coming, and he set me up. I heard that about a year later, he was led out the same door in the next series of layoffs. (The pattern? You got it. Other than a couple of perfunctory LinkedIn connections, nobody from AMF is still in my life.)

Meanwhile, a former AMF co-worker had landed at Trigon Blue Cross shortly before the layoffs — and when he heard I was available, he got my resume in the door on the last day of the hiring period, and I started working there in July 2001.

I was there just two months when the world changed again — it was surreal, watching our network slow to a crawl as everyone tried to get out on the Internet on that one day in September 2001.

That job lasted close to 8 years — and again, it was finances that ended it. Over time, Trigon had become Anthem which became WellPoint, and WellPoint eventually valued executive bonuses over all other things… which meant that when Dell offered a ridiculously low price to take over the helpdesk and desktop support, WellPoint took it (and the CIO and CEO made a ton of bonus money, while service went to hell in a handbasket). My last day at WellPoint was in October 2009. I wasn’t worried. I knew my stuff, and I’d find work. (The pattern? Too soon to tell, and with Facebook, it may finally have been broken.)

After ten months sitting at home, reality set in, and I went back to WellPoint — sort of. Through TEKSystems, I wound up at a WellPoint subsidiary for what was supposed to be a short-term gig at their helpdesk. That lasted two years, and wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had. I worked for an uncommunicative manager in an impossible situation — WellPoint couldn’t risk outsourcing the helpdesk, but had no interest in spending any money on upkeep, staffing, or for that matter much else at the subsidiary. It’s a zombie company now. I feel badly for the people who are still there. (2014 update: last I heard, they’re still a mess.  The manager was let go in 2013.  Most of the folks I work with moved to other positions.  I’m SO glad I got out.) (2016: WellPoint finally changed their corporate name to Anthem because the old name had become so incredibly toxic.  They still outsource their IT and it’s still a disaster.)

Side note: if you have been paying attention, you’ve noticed a lot of dead brand names… every employer of note is either gone, rebranded, or changed… the bowling centers wound up part of national chains, B.Dalton is now part of Barnes & Noble. Crown Books and Montgomery Ward are gone. Fair Lanes is part of AMF, which itself is a Frankencompany merged with parts of Bowlmor and Qubica.  Trigon became Anthem became WellPoint became Anthem again.

Fortunately, with help from a recommendation from a former WellPoint co-worker, I landed (finally) at my current position in August 2012. I’m at the helpdesk for McGuireWoods LLP (DISCLAIMER: this blog doesn’t intentionally reflect their opinion about anything). And it’s not bad. Nice place. A lot of nice people.

Now the story has a couple of other through lines that carried through the Richmond years:

  • Shortly after I moved here, I found a bunch of fellow wrestling fans on the Internet and, for a while, drove from Richmond to Alexandria to Baltimore (and sometimes on to Philadelphia) regularly for shows. It was my first exposure to lower-level indy wrestling, which led me to the Virginia wrestling scene, and — after a few years — to my first gig as a ring announcer at a dusty high-school football field in Gloucester, VA. I wound up spending close to a decade doing the ring-announcer-slash-commissioner role — among the highlights were the night I clotheslined a wrestler, and the night I took the NWA World Title away from another one for getting caught cheating. The wrestling community is kind of like the Mafia. Once you’re in, you’re never really out. I eased out of active participation a few years ago, and only make a handful of shows a year, but when I do go, it’s kind of like I never left. If there were more shows close to Richmond, I’d probably figure out a way to make it co-exist with the next thing I got into…
  • …which was finally reaching my lifelong goal of making it in radio. In 2003, a friend who I’d actually helped get her start in radio (I’ve told that story before…) left that position and (according to the program director who hired me) told him about me. I got an audition, then a 2-hour Sunday show on 90s-hits station Star 107, then (after it flipped to oldies as Oldies 107.3 — it’s now 107.3 BBT) would spend seven years doing weekends and, occasionally, nights or middays before coming off the air in 2010. Even after two ownership changes over the last decade, I still work there, doing VCU and Richmond basketball production and off-air work.
  • It was also during this time that I wound up at CSz Richmond and ComedySportz. Now this blog pretty much STARTED at ComedySportz, so I am not retelling that story here — go back and read the entries starting in July 2005. I should note that I am no longer as much of a brat about the whole thing as I was then — it took a while, but I did realize that no matter what provocation I felt, I was supposed to be an adult, and failed to be one. So it was more my fault than anyone else’s. The problem is that I never thought I’d go back to the improv community — so when I started going to shows again in 2009, the ashes from the bridges I’ve burned remained in the air (and are still there). Those folks in Richmond’s improv community who were around ComedySportz in 2005 seem wary of me… not that I blame them… and I don’t know that I’ll ever fully regain their trust. That may be a problem if I do go back to doing tech (the “Mr. Voice” role) for CSz in 2013. But I know it’s my problem, and I’ll deal with it [see the August 4 note, below].  (2014 update: I started at CSzRVA in August 2013.  It’s been awesome, and the trust issues don’t seem to be there.  I’ve even managed to work out a working arrangement with the one person who I’d really been hurtful to.  As to more current events — read the blog.  You can’t miss it.) (2015 update: it’s been a roller-coaster.  Some really good times, and some really bad ones.  Just like life, I guess.)(2016 update: not much of an update.  Some good, some bad, some frustrating, and something new that might change all of that…)

So there you have it. A somewhat rambling, overly-long, autobiography.

Why did I write it? Not sure, really. I think it came out of the realization, after the death of a friend at the end of 2012, that my life is so insular that nobody really knows the whole story — or many pieces of it — except me. That means that, if I go, my story would die with me — and I’m not about to let that happen.

I realize it’s not flattering, and it’s not meant to be. I’m trying to be brutally honest (while protecting the unnamed people who make appearances in my life story) — I’m not exactly the most “normal” person around. I’m socially awkward and difficult to get close to. I’ll trust you when I meet you, but it’s very easy (too easy, sometimes) to break that trust. I miss being part of a group of friends, but I’m uncomfortable in a group environment (go figure that one out!). And I really, really don’t like being the center of attention (but I write a blog, and post a lot on Facebook). You can see that play out in my choices in life — I played baseball briefly, but umpired for years. I was an OK bowler, but loved organizing and running bowling tournaments. I was a ring announcer (and had to be all but threatened to do that one clothesline), not a wrestler. I do radio, where nobody can see me and I can’t see them. I love to watch improv comedy, but have never set foot on a stage to do it — yet I’ve hosted concerts (for Oldies 107.3) and one improv jam (at CSzRVA).

Basically, I’m more comfortable helping the people who have the talent, not being the one with the talent. Hosting and facilitating is OK. Putting myself out front isn’t. Not sure there’s a difference to anyone else, but in my mind… it’s huge.

On Facebook, I describe myself as “[A] puzzle that I haven’t figured out yet. 🙂 I’m looking to buy a clue.” After over 50 years, I’m no closer to one.  (2014 update: Well… maybe a little.  We’ll see.)

If you read this far, let me remind you that you’re free to talk to me about it. Or just shake your head and wonder why. It’s all up to you. Thanks for your time.

— originally posted January 12, 2013 11:19pm.  Updated November 11, 2014 and February 6, 2016.