What the hell have I done: a conversation with Rachel Trignano
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
Rachel Trignano is one of those people you never stop meeting. Meaning, she'll never stop inspiring or surprising. She's not so much always on (in fact, regular, disconnected downtime is a key to her success) as she is almost always present.
I met Rachel when I was the editor of two Denver monthly community newspapers: Life on Capitol Hill and the Washington Park Profile. She was all things communications for the Colorado Symphony, and we connected frequently through work.
Immediately when I met her I felt I had encountered someone almost as crazy as me. Rachel is a no-nonsense, grab-life-by-the-horns person who I cannot track. Meaning: I have no idea where she'll land. And that inspires me.
As of this writing, she's gone rogue and has launched her own communications consulting firm. And she's thriving. Who knows what the future will bring.
Haines Eason: When I met you, I instantly felt comfortable. More on that below. For now, as you’ve said to me, you’re a mutt (Euromutt was the term, I believe). I am too—quarter Italian, the rest English. So let’s start with that. You’re a northerner whose formative years were spent in the South. After a fashion, I can say the same. But the birth home, it means something… You once told me a story about going back to a family home, in Jersey, over a storefront. Can you take me there again?
Rachel Trignano: Thank you! My mom's family was in Newark for about three generations, where they had a store. The neighborhood was, by my mom's definition, a slum. Given my family's tendency towards overwrought nostalgia, it speaks volumes that no one has ever wanted to return to that neighborhood. Lots of crime, lots of violence, lots of unhappy memories.
Not all of that was because of the neighborhood itself. The store belonged to my great-grandparents, which my grandfather, my Pop-Pop, reluctantly took over some time after the war. They had, for reasons none of us ever knew, converted the general store (cigarettes, magazines) into a toy store (dolls, bikes, books). Yet they never changed the fixtures. The brand of the store was "industrial"—I'd go as far to say that was the family's hallmark throughout their lives. From what I recall, a few different groups within our family lived upstairs above the store, but that's where my mom was born and raised until they moved when she was 14. My mom was born in 1953, and carried on the fine Helfin tradition of sleeping in a dresser drawer until they could get a crib. Frankly, I don't see anything wrong with this.
One day, maybe in '84 or '85, curiosity got the best of my mom and she wanted to see the upstairs again. It had been locked up for a few decades. She brought my sister and me up with her, and it was the most nightmarish thing I'd ever seen. I was maybe three years old, and I didn't know the word then, but it was squalor. People had broken in, been squatting in there. Furniture was at odd angles, cigarette butts were on the stairs. We just stayed a couple of moments, didn't venture inward. I knew then, as I know now, that that wasn't what she had lived in.
When they were there, it was clean, if not a bit sparse: the television set playing I Love Lucy, brisket cooking, that sort of scene. Not homey, knowing my Nana, but functionally utilitarian. Clothes were ironed. Hair was ironed. All that was gone though. Newark had gotten in. Imagine seeing your childhood home in ruins. That's what my mother felt in that moment.
HE: I have to follow up that first question with a question about working life because we’ve both worn so many hats. You’ve provided infant care, worked as a nanny, as a courier, an office manager, a retail shopgirl, a tutor, a substitute teacher, a waitress. I came to know you when you were everything publicity for the Colorado Symphony. (You also worked for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.) I see a thread of people and information delivery here. Let’s get literal, though. Talk to me about life as a courier. How, where, when? Why?
RT: Oh god, that was a shit job. I worked for this husband-and-wife team and they fought all the time. I was an office lackey in—get this—the early days of eCommerce. Pass the Metamucil, please.
Anyway, they sold marketing stuff (think embroidered apparel and anything you could print a logo onto), and I handled their local deliveries. I'd drive all over the suburbs and rural outskirts of Atlanta in the blazing heat in my beat-to-shit Mazda. Every time that thing got hit, it was a miracle: it would be totally driveable and I'd take the insurance money and buy college books. Can we say that now? Fuck it, why not. Come at me, Travelers.
Back to my beater Mazda. I'd get in that thing, turn up the radio, and get on the highway with the windows down in the 100 degree weather. That's a great feeling, and always will be. There's a spot about 60 miles north of Atlanta where you're pretty sure you're not going to turn back. I couldn't at the time, I was too broke and just trying to pay my way through school. I can't believe it took me so long to get in the car and not stop driving.
When I left Atlanta, I felt cracked open. It didn't hit me that I'd left until I drove through a tunnel somewhere in western North Carolina. I think that's why I didn't mind being a delivery gal, always on the road. There's no better feeling than leaving. And that's how I ended up here in Colorado. I just finally fucking left.
HE: More with the commonalities we share. Silence. I play a good extrovert but need a lot of downtime. Seems you do, too, from what you tell me. You’re a baker when no one’s looking and love to cook, generally, and sometimes you go days without talking. Take me through a baking marathon. Recipe loves? Inspirations? I am imagining a lot of rapid activity followed by reading while the oven does its thing…
RT: First of all, who are these fucks who don't have a sweet tooth? I don't trust them. I bake for the pleasure of the practice and I give it all away. I'm allergic to wheat and have no interest in gluten-free baking. I'll let someone else be good at that and reap the rewards.
I just started trying breads again after failing terribly at them about 10 years ago. Nothing complicated, as a rule, for breads ... and I hate sourdough. I can't even eat it, and I'm not going to bake it for anyone.
I bake pies mainly, and finally got my crust recipe just right. For years it was good, but now I think it's actually great: buttery, flaky, not too crumbly. I really enjoy the organizational process of cooking and baking many things at once—the preparation, the timing.
I cooked Thanksgiving dinner this holiday season for a little group of great people and everything turned out just fine. I don't know why I like to bake so much at once. I suppose because I'm already there and it's a mess anyway, so... For example, if I'm baking bread, I'll work on a pie. Maybe take a walk or run an errand while the bread rises. When the pie's in the oven, I'll work on macarons. Those are dreadful to make. I've gone through several batches and each one is somehow worse than the one before. Usually, I'll pick a new recipe—not a hard one, just a new one—and work at it until I'm happy with it. That's where I am with macarons right now. I'll get there.
So that's a baking marathon: somewhat planned, ceaseless, surprisingly tidy. Quiet. I don't often play music when I bake. When I cook, yes, but not when I bake. I like baking in the quiet on a sunny afternoon. Baking at night feels like you've fucked something up and are working late at the office. Baking during the day makes more sense.
As for what inspires me, I am obsessed with the Great British Baking Show. No fuss, no drama, just people who love baking trying to create something delicious and beautiful. I scrutinize that with the intensity of the Zapruder footage. I don't have a good attention span for anything on TV—I usually have to do something like crochet or do a crossword or fold laundry when a show is on. But that show sucks me in. And of course it gives me ideas for what else I should try. I just got a nice lemon curd down, and next up is cobbler, and rainbow cookies (you know, those three-layer Italian cookies)—those are divine, and a childhood favorite.
I'm going to start canning fruits this summer, especially peaches, for impending cobblers. Simple cakes and cookies aren't a hassle, and I love making frostings and fillings from scratch. I've got a mean sugar cookie recipe, too. And, no, you can't have it.
I’m running hard to build my life as a writer who can work remotely, and I’m going to make one go finding a place to buy here. If I can’t find something, I’m going to move back to a red state, to a small or medium-sized city where I can afford a great house, make a living writing, and, most importantly, vote. I lived in a red state for 16 years and felt my vote actually made a difference.
HE: That’s a bummer. I like sugar cookies. I also like you, and I like you because I trust you. I wanted to interview you because what you do is what you are, and I trust people who operate that way. Your tattoos, your stories, your wide-ranging clientele in need of communications consulting… Anyone who quotes Zappa (and I’m referencing your Denver “Creative Mornings” … er, performance?) is good people. So, back to work, but also, play… Walk me through how you came to the work you currently do. Oh, and why don’t you also just talk a little about how it overlaps with your creative side, too?
RT: Again: thank you. You know, it never once occurred to me I'd write for a living. It didn't appeal to me at all. I studied History and American Studies at a very small, intense private university back in Atlanta (Oglethorpe). It was like a playground for the brain. I loved it. We read at times hundreds of pages a week. I can't begin to guess how many papers I wrote. It felt like a miracle when an assigned paper was less than 20 pages. And I was such an ass, I'd shrink my margins and use 1.5 spacing to fit more in there. Once I didn't even finish a paper—it was going on 30-something pages—and a professor basically said, "Please. Stop. Just … here, it's an A." I was one-tenth of a point from summa cum laude and it still kills me. All honors, all As, presented research at a symposium panel. I went after academics like a linebacker. I was on track for a career in academia and my professors, all of whom I had tremendous respect for, were so supportive of my writing. A few suggested I should just do that, and I guess I thought I would—just about esoteric shit like the concept of the restoration of memory in post-Stalinist Russia.
I didn't start calling myself a writer until other people, mainly my friends, started calling me a writer. That was maybe in my late 20s. I was in arts marketing and PR for years, and I later got into marketing tech. Writing was always part of my work. I decided about five years ago that I wanted writing to be the only thing I did, so I started an emergency savings, quit my job and picked up piecemeal freelance work—some of it pro bono—until I could build more of a portfolio. I picked fellow freelancer's brains and tried to connect with as many people as I could. Freelancing and consulting is a bit of a fucked system, as it can all go away in months, weeks, days. The next gig is never guaranteed, but I think a part of me needs that hard swim. It keeps my brain from getting bored.
I think that's why I find parenting so appealing: I like extremely hard, extremely rewarding work. Copywriting can be creative, but it's also tactical—you have to stay on top of consumer expectations, shifting trends, have a solid data-driven strategy, all of that. My years of writing poetry and prose help me turn a clever phrase, but I see copywriting as problem-solving more than anything else, and that's what I enjoy about it. If anything, my "creative" work—shows, performances—help me attract people I actually want to work with.
Quite a few of my clients reached out to me because they liked my silly travel blog, whatthehellhaveidone.com, and didn't even look at my portfolio. And that's fine with me, because I'd rather work with people who are cool with me talking about a Wisconsin tour guide's granny panties and my inability to buy good host gifts. People use the word "authentic" all the goddamn time when talking about their business and brand. It's not untrue, just overused. People want to connect with people and like who they work with. If you like weirdos who swear a lot and aren't going to tell you what you want to hear, we should work together. Otherwise, Jesus, who has that kind of time to waste?
HE: Indeed. As everyone before us has said, time is ticking, is precious, is not to be wasted. I trust you and I know you trust me, so I’m just going to go for it… Per time and ticking … you say above you are attracted to parenting because it’s both hard and rewarding. I have a few questions for you. Do you hope to fit motherhood into your current working life? After that: as you are someone I consider a strong person, do you grapple with/feel the weight of society’s expectations of motherhood? (I.e. do you feel the pressure of an external timeline?)
RT: I don't feel the weight of society's expectations because I don't care about their expectations when it comes to my personal life. You want me to vote? Fine. Follow traffic laws? You bet. Get pregnant? Hang on. I feel completely unburdened in that sense, because humans are, as an ironclad rule in my world, absurd. I can't blame anyone else for feeling that pressure, because it certainly exists. It just depends on what we do with it. In this specific scenario, your hands can't be tied unless you offer up your wrists. Fuck that: I talk with my hands. So no, I don't feel pressure.
Trignano and her characteristic laugh. Photos by Haines Eason.
Desire is another story entirely. The want to be a parent has ebbed and flowed over the years, from intensely strong in my mid-20s to pretty much gone by my 30s. I think it's coming back, though. I like the idea of a family: a symbiotic mess of mammals who bond and laugh and clean and fight (gently). I'm 35, but I don't hear a ticking. More like a laughing. I'm not into the "Have a baby" thing, I'm into the "Let's try to raise an upstanding member of society" thing. Adopting or fostering are most appealing to me, and I operate under the assumption I'll be going it alone either way. I trust less the people who say "You'll find someone" and more the people who say "Oh please, you'll be fine."
I wasn't exactly raised in a two-parent household, and I'm feeling confident that I can be parent enough by myself. However, I have a big friend-family who are supportive of me, and of this. I wouldn't be so glib to say I'm not worried about parenting if it happens: it will be completely overwhelming, to be sure. I'm not thinking about how that plays into my career yet. I'll make it work. I always do.
HE: I believe you will.
My last question has to do with your adoptive home, Denver. I can’t say “our” anymore as, obviously, my wife Joni and I have left. Interesting that this interview began when I was a resident and is ending as I become a Kansan. My wife and I are solidly middle class; part of a disappearing breed. We both had great jobs and could not make a go of it in Denver. Or, we could have, but owning a home and thus becoming “more permanent” members of that society were out of reach. But you have stayed, and you’re working harder to have the life you want. Do you agree with those there who say Denver is losing its middle class? Are you concerned for Denver? For our culture at large?
RT: Hah, yes, I think it’s safe to say I am concerned for our culture at large.
Specifically regarding the Denver housing crisis: it’s heartbreaking, and I don’t want to participate in it anymore. This happens in so many cities; it’s starting to feel like “when” not “if.” And that’s the problem: so many people treat the gradual removal of the non-wealthy from cities as an intrinsic part of growth and prosperity. It’s infuriating. I just read an article in a local paper about the severe shortage of staff for service and labor work, especially restaurant work and construction. The story did not mention anywhere the lack of affordable housing throughout metro Denver. I moved here on a whim, something I’ve never done before. I’d visited once and knew there was a good quality of life here. It’s a charming little stone city that is so eager to grow and create. Those are wonderful things. It’s also overrun with people of significant means—whether from here or not—who are willing to shrug and say “that’s the market.”
Enough of that. We know it’s a problem. I don’t have a solution that doesn’t involve massive upheaval and perhaps eating politicians. I can’t say I regret moving here, as I’ve met outstanding humans and found good work. If I’m pushed out of Denver, as will likely be the case, I’m going to be far more strategic about my next move.
I’m running hard to build my life as a writer who can work remotely, and I’m going to make one go finding a place to buy here. If I can’t find something, I’m going to move back to a red state, to a small or medium-sized city where I can afford a great house, make a living writing, and, most importantly, vote. I lived in a red state for 16 years and felt my vote actually made a difference. I was around people who were different than me all the time. That’s good for all of us, and we need to do that more. So we’ll see where I am in a year.