Jim Varagona

Month: October, 2009

The Letter

Yesterday I received a call from the lawyer representing our class action group against InkStop (see How It Went Down at InkStop). Someone from the Fox affiliate here in St. Louis wanted to talk to somebody in town about our story. I told him I’d be willing to do it, especially since I had been in 2 other pieces for NBC and CBS here.

Sean Conroy of KTVI gave me a call and we agreed to meet in front of my old store. Both he and his cameraman were very nice and expressed their sympathy for our situation. Conroy explained that he was eating lunch next door at the San Sai restaurant and noticed the sign that I put on our door, which was in essence, a letter to our customers apologizing for the lack of notice that we were shutting down. I can only imagine how many customers missed out on returning the substandard private label ink we sold. Anyway, I put the sign up a couple of weeks ago. The wording was mainly written by the manager of one of the Pennsylvania stores, with a few tweaks.

It reads:

To our Loyal Customers…

The Employees of InkStop would like to apologize for the misdeeds of our Corporate Management.

On October 1st, after store hours, and one day before our own payday, the Corporate Board announced through an email to us that they were closing all store effective immediately, and that they would not be paying their employees for a total of the last 3 weeks worked. They also informed us in this email that they had not paid the medical coverage for employees since August 2009, even though this money had been withdrawn from our paychecks.

Since then, most contacts with the corporate offices have since been terminated, including the 877 Information Number and all online services for both customers and employees.

Again, we the employees would like to apologize for any inconvenience this has created. For more information, or to keep up with our lawsuit against the owners of this company, please Google “InkStop.” There’s plenty out there.

The letter to the customers of InkStop in Maplewood, MO. The door also is decorated with two eviction notices for non-payment of rent.

The letter to the customers of InkStop in Maplewood, MO. The door also is decorated with two eviction notices for non-payment of rent.

The reporter was impressed by the grassroots effort to hold the corporate goons responsible and not walk away from this. Even though our case is pretty good, these people are dastardly and will do whatever they can to avoid paying everybody they owe money to. By staying in the eye of the media, we are letting folks know who the people are that are responsible and what they did to affect so many. Dirk Kettlewell, that means you.

I thought the piece turned out pretty good. I look a bit rough, but this was on short notice, and at least I got my point across.

Here’s the link: InkStop Stores Close With Little Notice (KTVI)


All Clear

Dylan with cake face at his 1st birtday party. The slight bulge on the side of his forehead is a plate that will absorb with time.

Dylan with cake face at his 1st birtday party. The slight bulge on the side of his forehead is a plate that will absorb with time.

Dylan’s follow up appointment with the plastic surgeon regarding his Craniosynostosis went great. The doc pointed out a bulge on each side of Dylan’s forehead and said that those were plates that would absorb within a year. He said that things went very well.

We were able to see the results from the CT scan that was done last week. The doctor showed us the first image of Dylan’s skull from when he was first diagnosed. We observed the ridge in the skull and the resulting bulge in the back. We then segued into images taken last week, which showed a dramatic improvement. The ridge was virtually gone and the head looked so much rounder and normal. He said we shouldn’t have to have any more follow up visits with them. That’s great because no matter how on time we were, we always waited at least a half hour to be seen.

Apparently given the good results of the surgery and my son’s good looks, which he obviously got from me, they asked us to send them photos, so that he could be considered for advertising for the hospital. Since my career as a model didn’t take off, I have the highest hopes for my son now. I promise not to become a stage dad.

From my unsuccessful modeling years (1997-98).

From my unsuccessful modeling years (1997-98).

My Cranio Kid

A few months into my 1 year old son Dylan’s life, the pediatrician commented that his head shape looked odd. He had us take Dylan to a plastic surgeon at the children’s hospital, who confirmed that our son had Sagittal Craniosynostosis. In simple terms, it meant Dylan’s soft spot was virtually closed up early on rather than taking its course over a year.

From WebMD:

More than half of all cases involve the sagittal suture. The sagittal suture runs across the top of a baby’s head from front to back. The baby’s brain usually develops normally in these cases, but the head becomes abnormally shaped. The skull may become long and narrow or very flat and broad in front or back or on the sides. This depends on which suture closes prematurely.

So most likely, Dylan would have been fine if we left this alone, but doctors told us his already large (over the 90th percentile for his age and compare that to his height and weight which are under the 15th percentile) and abnormally shaped head would continue at that rate. To give our son a normal shaped head while we had the opportunity was a difficult decision given in involved cutting a piece out of his skull and that the surgery would take 5-8 hours. We decided to do it, but had to wait until he could better handle the anesthesia around the suggested 9 month range.

Dylan, right before his surgery. Notice the bulge in his forehead.

Dylan, right before his surgery. Notice the bulge in his forehead.

On June 29, 2009, Dylan went in for surgery. He was so happy in the morning even though we had to get him up at 5 in the AM and he hadn’t eaten since midnight. He was smiling at his nurses and doctors not knowing what lay ahead.

We were told that during most of the 5-8 hours that Dylan would be out, he would be resting on the operating table while the work would be done on the piece of his skull on a separate table. The piece would be taken out and have slits cut into it like venetian blinds. It would then be reinserted with those slits giving the skull room to grow normally. The incision had a zig-zag to it to help hair grow in better to mask the scarring. He would look fairly normal immediately after surgery except for being on drugs and having a large bandage wrapped around his head. After the first hour or so, the swelling would set in, swelling his eyes shut, which compounded with any pain felt despite the drugs would be the most traumatic for our son.

Before surgery, during blood draws. Notice the indentation halfway back on his elongated head.

Before surgery, during blood draws. Notice the indentation halfway back on his elongated head.

When it came time to hand Dylan over to the medical professionals for the procedure, I became very emotional. It was the most emotional I’ve been since my brother passed away. It was a definite moment of realization in my short time as a parent so far of the extent of my love for the little guy.  We had all of the assurances from the doctors that they do these things fairly often, but they were cutting into my son’s friggin’ head.

To pass the time, my wife and our parents sat around talking and using the hospital’s wifi. I kept folks abreast of developments through my Twitter account.

Dylan 1 day post-op w/ me.

Dylan 1 day post-op w/ me.

We actually received the call sooner than we expected that they had finished. I hoped that was a good sign, and it was. Everything went well and according to how it was explained to us. It was very difficult to see him so swollen and the whine he had during his time in the hospital will stick with me. It was kind of drawn out and drugged up. He spent a day and a half in the PICU and another day for observation. By then he was off the major painkillers and opening his eyes again.

When we got home, he received lots of Tylenol. He seemed more annoyed than in pain. He not only had a bandage wrapped around his head, but the itchiness of the stitches, which dissolved and fell out over time. Luckily or not, he also had his first teeth coming in the week this was all going on, so he seemed to focus on the pain of his teething more than anything.

It has been about three and a half months since the surgery. We went for one successful follow up a month after. A few days ago, Dylan had a CT scan to check things out to make sure everything looked good. If it does, we shouldn’t need anymore follow-ups.  Dylan has turned 1 and since his procedure, his hair has grown in well to cover up the scarring. His head has a great shape to it now, which seems like a weird thing to say, but that was the goal of this, which should make his life easier. No one wants to be that guy with the odd shaped head.

Dylan maxin & relaxin

Dylan maxin & relaxin

How It Went Down at InkStop

I saw this coming. I am unemployed now, and I saw it coming. The signs were all there. I tried to tell others. My comments and information were scoffed at. Surely the company would find their way through this they would say. A higher up told me to stop talking shit. I have learned from this situation to trust my gut, because I was right all along. And it was probably worse than what I assumed.

The night of Thursday, October 1st, 2009, was cold and rainy. I had just finished working a full 12 hour shift at the InkStop store I managed. On my way home, a co-worker from another location called me. He had heard from his co-worker who heard from her boyfriend that worked at another location from his boss that we were not to show up for work the next day because we were all out of jobs and we were not going to be paid. I told him that nothing that the company did surprised me anymore. We had listened to lie after lie about product shipments that never came, about eviction notices that simply meant the company was tactfully renegotiating leases, and that overall everything would be okay.

My boss, who had only been on the job for several weeks, was ringing in. I told the guy I was talking to that I would let him know what was going on, and then I clicked over.

“Well I guess you’ve heard the news,” he said.

Let’s back up here. We were told repeatedly not to gossip or listen to rumor during these mysterious times. Boss man himself told us exactly a week prior that no stores were going to close, that the company would give advance notice if anything like that would happen, that product would be coming soon for our big 4th quarter, and that our many investors would take care of us. I couldn’t blame him for believing what this company ran by con-artists had told him. Why would they hire someone and open a few new stores in other parts of the country in that past month only to shut it all down? Nothing really ever made much sense, but I wasn’t about to believe the lies he was passing to us from headquarters, and I’m sure he had his suspicions as well. He was going into stores where employees told him that they haven’t seen any substantial shipments for the past nine months, where they told him about receiving visits from sheriff’s deputies for non-payment of rent and visits from utility providers saying we had 24 hours to pay up to continue service. Unless you drank some pretty tasty Kool-Aid or were sporting some nice rose-colored specs, you would be concerned with the hand you had just been dealt.

A day after boss man told us about the great things that would happen, he was told he had to go close a store 4 hours away. So much for advance notice. I scrambled to find out more if I could. Some employees in other markets were tweeting about stores closing in their markets. Jobvent.com, which had been a haven for folks concerned about the way the company was being run, had a few posts discussing store closures in more markets. I used sources I had along with this information to calculate that in several days, 10-15% of the company was suddenly being closed down. From what we knew, the district and regional managers were as blindsided by this as we were.

I could only expect a store closer to me would close. Sure, it makes sense to close lowest performing stores, but you also have to figure that many of these stores had received judgments against them in the courts and had run the course of appeals and dragging ass as much as they could to “renegotiate leases.” It makes sense in an economy as uncertain as it is during this time with a company that was struggling to try to lower rent, but is not paying the best way to accomplish this? Maybe to get to the bargaining table, but once your ass is taken to court, you would think the relationship with your landlord would be soured. After poring over court dockets, it seems that InkStop may have been able to settle some of these cases, but after paying up something, they went right back to not paying. Again, you’d assume that would tick a landlord off even more. For the store we ended up closing, that was the case as they had recently lost an unlawful detainer case, which spelled the end of the line. I tried to be as optimistic as possible when I told my findings to that store’s manager after they received a default judgment against them weeks before. Would they close? I am no legal expert, but since I had been looking into the long list of lawsuits against the company I worked for, losing an unlawful detainer case means you’re gone. I said maybe they could drag it out, but 45 days seemed like the maximum amount of time they’d be able to drag out. My optimism was giving it 45 days.

So the day before it all shut down, a group of us had to gut this store that received the judgment. 1500 square feet filled with product, which we loaded into a rented trailer and unloaded into another store. We then had to dismantle all of the fixtures, load them up, and then empty those into a storage facility. It was the most work I had done in one day for this company. We had opened stores in the past for them, but never worked with such a deadline and so much physical work crammed in to meet it–all for naught.

And now back to our program.

“Well sir, I’ve only heard rumors, so why don’t you clear that up for me?,” I replied to my boss.

He went on to explain the conference call he was on an hour before our conversation. The CEO, Dirk Kettlewell, explained that they needed more funding to keep InkStop going, but temporarily all 150 some odd stores were shutting down, effective immediately. I knew that meant for good. We all knew that any hint of optimism was all part of the long trail of lies. Boss man added that we weren’t going to get paid the next day. How convenient! Take your workers to the absolute last day before they find out they will not get paid, therefore getting an extra week out of them on top of that. It sounded genius, in an evil kind of way. We were (and still are) fucked.

I could tell that my superior was just as surprised by all of this. We could only blame those at the top for not being able to pay our bills the next day and having to juggle our remaining funds for the foreseeable future somehow. I frantically, mid-conversation popped a u-turn in traffic, in the rain, to get back my coffee maker and other personal effects like a magnet with my son’s photo on it or the personalized mug I got for my first Father’s Day with a picture of us on it. As I drove back, I called my one associate multiple times. Of course this would be the time she doesn’t pick up her phone. I left several screaming voice mails, getting progressively louder like it would summon her to pick up her cell phone. And I called my wife telling her what we feared would happen, but weren’t entirely surprised by.

I zipped to the back of the store to grab my personal items and sped off in my car back home.

Finally my associate called me back. I told her the news and she cried and screamed in disbelief. We had talked about this happening though. It’s that damn how and when that sneak up on you. We had even had specific “What will we do when we’re unemployed?,” half-joking conversations. The time had come.

We couldn’t have stopped this. It was almost destined to happen with the long line of mistakes that we saw being made. Some were lucky to get away before it went down. I had looked for other work, but given the sad state of our economy, I came up empty. As things got worse, I grew my beard out and said I would stick with the company to see how it all would end, thinking we had several more months. I didn’t really figure it would rob me and countless others from substantial amounts of money that we worked for or that it would happen so abruptly.

Update 10/27/09

Here are some links of press coverage. I went on a media blitz in St. Louis getting the following coverage.

KSDK: Ex-InkStop employees say they are laid off and unpaid

KMOV: InkStop employees left out of work, unpaid

St. Louis Post Dispatch/STLToday.com: InkStop runs dry leaving ex-employees unpaid and unhappy

Special thanks to Casey Nolen of KSDK, Chris Nagus of KMOV, and Steve Giegerich of the Post Dispatch for those pieces.

Also Janet Cho of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has done an excellent job of keeping up with this story with the several pieces she has written. Here is a link to the tagged InkStop content that she has done.

The Afterbirth

I blogged regularly for about 3 years on the DiabetoBlog. The archives can still be seen here http://www.diabetoboy.com/diabetoblog.html

I slowed and eventually stopped around the time my son and first child, Dylan Matthew (named for Bob Dylan and my late brother Matt), was born a little over a year ago.  Work was bogging me down as well as settling into a new house, our first.

Days before my son turned 1, I was laid off from my job as a retail manager, which is a story in and of itself, but more on that later. Now I contemplate: What to do? Where do I go from here? How can I provide for my family?

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Media Communications, which has proven to be worthless for me. Since graduating and getting married several years ago, I have been in the retail trap. Once you have the skills and experience, those jobs are always there. The experience of dealing with all types of people is always entertaining for me. I enjoy helping people, even if it is finding what ink they need for their printer or explaining the differences of latex and lambskin condoms to a person much older than me (true story).

Given this economy we are in, who knows where I will end up? I’m enjoying spending time with my son and wife. I was seeing less and less of them with my previous job, so in a way, this is a great reset for me. This is a time to unwind from the stress of a bad situation, get to know my family again, and get to know myself for that matter.

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