City Paper is not for tourists
It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday. You’ve got no deadlines to meet today. You’ve left all your messages in the circles of voice-mail hell. You’ve exhausted all encounters of the cyber kind. The top of your desk and your desktop are both clean. It is one of those languid, tai chi kind of days, when you get a little listless and anticipate the arrival of the UPS woman and the bike messenger so you can chat.
You want to crack the door of your basement office and sneak upstairs to brew some jolting java, but that’s taboo, because then you’ll be tempted to do “just a load” of laundry, or let the dog out for a run, or catch a glimpse of CNN…or worse.
You forget just why it is that you like working at home.
Experts agree: This home-office stress disorder may be fleeting, but you still may need help. No, you don’t have to pop Prozacs and Zolofts. Nor do you need to return to the eighth-floor office and its built-in healing centers: vending machines, water coolers, and coffee-klatsch cubicles. But you do need to strip off those attractive sweats, roll out of that fabulously appointed basement office, and join the Home Alone Support Group.
Twice a month these folks gather to share beer, pizza, and ennui. The group is constant, its founders steadfast: They meet at the same Cleveland Park Pizzeria Uno on Connecticut Avenue NW just so no one gets confused. And during each meeting, every member stands up and says, “Hi…I’m Andrea. And I work at home….”
But Home Alone Support Group leaders insist that their forum is more professional schmoozing than therapy. There’s no role-playing or pillow-bashing or even motivational-speak. Founder Jeffrey Itell eschews themes, dues, or lecturers.
“I’d like to keep this unstructured, where you make your own connections,” says Itell, a 38-year-old free-lance writer and editor of the Northwest Side Story, a kind of subversive neighborhood shopper. “It’s all about networking,” Itell says over the restaurant din. “What we do now, at 5:15, is I’ll stand up and let everyone give their pitch. We’re here to sniff each other out.”
Ahh, sniffing. So it’s also a primal sort of thing, or at least as primal as one who sits in an office next to the kitty-litter box all day can get. Those who hole up in garrets are no longer just wildly neurotic, pasty-skinned, agoraphobic writers and computer hacks. With corporate downsizing and the infobahn, more and more workers from all disciplines are self-employed or telecommuting from home for an Ozlike boss with an Internet address. The Home Alone Support Group, which averages about 35 people and has had as many as 50, boasts representatives from the export/import industry, private investigations, law, hospitality (aka bed-and-breakfast), fashion, public relations and fund-raising, and of course, the inimitable Mary Kay.
On a recent November Thursday, the networking energy at the Pizzeria Uno bar was palpable. Business cards were passing from palm to palm, and small groups developed to coo over new books and projects. The beer flowed, and members cavalierly ate pizzas (provided gratis by the restaurant) heavily garnished with onion—and even that didn’t stop the peripatetic networking. On her way to a book-signing at Borders, sometime member Marcia Weiner attracted a crowd as she showed off her debut ethnic cookbook, Mexico, and accompanying CD.
It was in May 1994 that literary agent Robert Schepard (who has since moved out of the area) suggested to Itell that he write about the new wave of home workers in the Northwest Side Story. So Itell placed a tongue-in-cheek ad looking for home-aloners. The response was so terrific that he decided the Home Alone Support Group was his destiny. Since then, other members have helped him transform it from a support to a networking group, like Jenna Norwood, a public relations specialist who volunteered to be a coordinator at the first meeting. And Jeff Porten, a group facilitator and computer consultant who has made house calls to every Home Aloner who owns an Apple.
“I saw the first ad in Jeff’s newsletter,” Porten recalls. “The first meeting was supposed to go from 2 to 4, and we got home about 8 p.m.” It was at that first meeting that Porten found his literary agent, who is helping him develop and pitch books on computing. Porten also says that “60 to 70 percent of my consulting business comes from the group. If I didn’t make it to that first meeting, I wouldn’t want to hypothesize what I’d be doing now. I would not miss a meeting unless someone is paying me to be somewhere else.”
Not everyone is quite as charged as Porten, of course. There are somewhat bedraggled folks who arrive at the meetings looking a tad down on their luck. There was more than one sallow pocket-protector type and at least one Stephen King look-alike desperately seeking a ride home. For them, the free pizza, the happy-hour-price beer, and the passing conversation is what the doctor ordered.
Then there are the first-timers in search of a network, like Andrea Berman, a 35-year-old writer and project planner who is organizing a tour to Italy “just for diversion.” She’s says she’s here because she needs some company. “When you work in an office, you run into people and you can problem-solve together. I’m an extrovert.”
One longtime member, Linda Jay, owner of a B&B called “Mrs. Jay’s,” says that she is on her fifth consultant from the group. “I’ve gotten my attorney, my speech consultant, my makeup person and my computer consultant—all from Home Alone. I’ve spent thousands of dollars here, and pretty soon I won’t be able to afford to come to these meetings anymore.”