A Madison Avenue advertising creative faces up to the challenges of his job and his life with the help of copious cocktails – but is creativity alone enough to survive?
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They told us to make nice to each other, to open up and be free and easy with each other. They told us not to clam up, to keep talking because talk is the mother of ideas, they said. They told us that if getting it on together helped then by all means be their guests and close the door. They told us that everything we wanted to be depended on each other, that not to be meant tending bar, walking dogs, living in fifth-floor walk-ups way the hell out in Brooklyn somewhere. They told us to have each others’ backs because we’d either be kept on together or fired together.
We were two of the chosen ones from of a large cattle call of candidates trying to lift ourselves out of the bottom three percent of unemployment hell. We got bankrolled into a start-up ad agency in lower Manhattan because the managing partners couldn’t afford real art directors and writers so they were taking a flyer on kids like us with spec portfolios. They staged a mixer with refreshments and piped-in music so we could mingle, get to know one another and divide ourselves into teams. I caught a glance from an attractive young woman across the room and gravitated that way. I can’t remember what we talked about, mostly because I gleaned more from the look in her eyes. We became a team because we were into each other’s looks and the idea that the boy girl thing would add spice to our working day lives.
They gave us a crash course in strategic thinking, and soon Faye and I were brainstorming on a deodorant soap that claimed to hydrate and soften your skin at the same time. We thought hard about the assignment, but on one of our small-talk breaks we somehow wound up together on my chair in a body entanglement that spilled over onto the office floor. Once we had broken that kind of ice, it became progressively more interesting to think about ways to get it on together in an office environment than about ways to solve the deodorant soap challenge. When the time came around to show the fruits of our labor, we presented three half-baked ideas; the executive creative director hated them so much he scrunched the layouts up into a ball and made a perfect shot into the waste can across the room. Faye and I sat there, humiliated, watching as a rival team got so much praise heaped on them you would think their presentation had just won a Golden Lion at Cannes. The creative director threatened to fire us, but gave us one last chance on wheat pasta with twice the fiber, and we responded with a seismic change in concentration from each other’s bodies to each other’s brains.
The scene was known in the biz as a creative boutique, creative because we came unfiltered and boutique because it was small, new, and by definition, hip. It was a shop where there was no rhetorical middle ground. An idea was either kick ass or it sucked, and when we finally began to think of ideas they said were kick ass, I drew the layouts or storyboards and Faye wrote the copy. I held them up at meetings and pointed while she did the talking. I faked knowing looks and Faye faked consumer expertise.
Our first on-air TV commercial was for diet cat food where the cat was so heavy she fell through the floor. Recall tested through the roof and the client asked that we be assigned to the first in a series of corporate image commercials meant to establish Ralston Purina as the great altar of pet food products in America. It was a big ask for a freshman creative team so we gave it a forty-eight hour brainstorm, taking catnaps on the floor and Dexedrine in between while getting shot down again and again at internal reviews until we finally came up with something the account exec said had the grandiose aura required for such an assignment.
Faye and I weren’t invited to the presentation because of a youthful age and demeanor that wasn’t likely to exude a grandiose aura. Our agency president reserved a private room at a five-star restaurant in midtown and we could picture how it would all go down: After the third course and a round of port the client’s brand manager would look at the agency team expectantly. To relax things a bit our account exec would crack a joke relative to the circumstance and then segue into a brief overview of the creative strategy. Our prez would then stand with storyboard in hand, his fat forefinger poised under the first frame of our storyboard, and our exec creative director would begin to read the copy like it was all their idea:
“Open on an exterior shot of a domestic satellite floating in orbit. Move in on cat looking out one of the windows. Cut to interior shot where cat levitates through micro gravity to a child. Child calls to mom that Fluffy is hungry. Cut back to exterior of spacecraft-home receding into its orbital path. Mom’s fading voice can be heard calling from within for Fluffy to come and get her Tender Vittles. Dissolve to product shot and theme line: Ralston Purina, for as long as there are pets to love.”
The brand manager’s eyes would be blinking and his mouth twitching as if he would like to speak but didn’t know what to say, as if he was trying to decide if it was the best idea he’d ever seen or the worst. Faye and I would later find out second-hand that our idea had somehow evolved into an unrecognizable animatic version of the original, only to disappear into the never-never land of quantitative and qualitative testing. The upshot would be a great tax-deductible dinner had by all except us.
The acquired craft of teamwork would see us through twenty months at the boutique and decades of gigs together in staff jobs on Madison Avenue and freelance forays into Jersey, Chicago and Detroit. Sometimes we won awards but sometimes we crapped out and and whenever we crapped out Faye would say the line between kick ass and godawful can be very thin but if you wanna blow folks away you gotta walk the line.
Somewhere along the line I reminded my pregnant Faye that we had forgotten to get married. She wanted to know if that was the kind of thing we could do online but I said waiting our turn with a bunch of other couples at city hall might be more fun and less bother, and it was. Afterwards we joined another couple for an impromptu wedding dinner at the Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan. They turned out to be cocktail connoisseurs so we shared a pitcher of vodka gimlets, indulged in a parade of seafood platters followed by a round of vodka sidecars, and so began our preference for vodka. From then on, we were a team through and through. I made the coffee, Faye made the bed. I did the taxes, she did the bank. I got the mail, she fed the cat. I took the garbage out, she washed the clothes.
“I’m going down to the laundry room so change your underwear,” she’d say.
“I changed my underwear yesterday,” I’d answer.
“You should change your underwear every day.”
“Why? I bet people in Europe don’t obsess about things like changing underwear and taking showers everyday.”
“Hello – we live in Brooklyn. Either change your goddam underwear or I’ll take the garbage out and you can wash the clothes.”
“What kind of cocktail would you like tonight, darling?” was always my way to deflect.
“Anything with vodka,” was always her answer.
That could mean a vodka martini, a vodka tonic or just the vodka eighty proof without the mix, ice or garnish. By the time we made it to our forties we’d have a cocktail plus a topper every night, a topper being an ambiguous quantity we sometimes lost track of. She once told me with slurred words while walking in a crooked line to the fridge that, “Vodka’s za cleanest booz, leaves no trace on your breath zo nobody knows you’re hammered.”
We never owned a queen or king size bed. “My friends’ parents all have bigger beds,” our daughter used to say, “So why not get a bigger bed? You guys can afford it.” We said we would but we never did. Whenever we traveled together and found ourselves in bigger beds we always felt obligated to take advantage of such unaccustomed luxury and we’d lay far apart, lost in the enormity of an endless mattress. The pull of double bed syndrome would inevitably kick in and we’d begin to inch closer. By morning we’d be breathing odorless 80 proof breaths into each other’s faces.
The drinking was starting to make us screw up. I booked an early morning flight to St. Louis along with a room at the Four Seasons when the potato chip focus group was with another client in Cincinnati. The brand manager in Cincinnati called the agency in New York that next day wanting to know where the hell the asshole art director was. Meanwhile, the asshole art director was walking in uninvited to a focus group for panty liners in St. Louis.
Faye was the copywriter in a new business pitch at Cocoa Puffs cereal but kept referring to it as Cocoa Krispies, our daughter’s favorite growing up. Later in a crowded elevator the agency creative director lost it and began yelling at her, wanting to know if she had been diagnosed with dementia, wanting to know if she realized her recurring reference to Cocoa Krispies instead of Cocoa Puffs might have cost the agency twenty million in new billings, wanting to know if she had any idea that the booze in her life was flushing her career down the toilet faster than she could say Cocoa Puffs. “Say it,” he screamed to the dismay of everyone in the elevator. “Cocoa Puffs, Puffs, Puffs. Say it, Cocoa -”
“Krispies,” she said.
Word of both incidents got around town and the headhunters were calling us less often. Our freelance lives were grinding down so we got into the habit of playing five hundred rummy after lunch. If I made a stupid mistake and put the wrong card down I’d berate myself and have what she liked to call a tantrum.
“Take the card back,” she’d say.
“No, never, not in a million years,” I’d say. “When I make a dumb-ass mistake I’ve got to live with it, die with it, go to hell with it. That’s part of the fucking game.”
“Willya take the goddam card back,” she’d say, and I’d take it back.
The day finally came when I realized I hadn’t drawn one storyboard frame in over six months and that Faye hadn’t written one line of copy in that same time-frame. Our phones still weren’t ringing and the underlying message in most of the emails we got was to get lost. We staved off homelessness by opting for the early retirement checks from Social Security and getting rid of an expensive parking space in the basement of our building. And then there was a timely if modest inheritance package from Fay’s dad when he died. But still, to be viable living creatures in an expensive neighborhood like Park Slope we needed to start making serious money again.
We dragged out all the photostat copies we’d made of our storyboards over the years for inspiration. We began developing a script that was a spinoff from the space cat spot we did way back at the Boutique, something we thought we might be able to pitch to a connection we once made at Pixar. We called it, “Holly and the Mice Nasties,” Holly being the pet cat of an intergalactic spaceship commander she didn’t want to burden with petty in-flight problems. Holly was then left to her own devices in dealing with a gang of mean little mice who had stolen themselves aboard at a planet called Rodentar. The script was good so far as it went but we lost our way trying to stay inside the mindset of six-year-olds while being sixty-year-olds getting half crocked in the process.
On days we took morning walks together we took turns deciding where to go. She once took me to Carroll Gardens to watch ancient looking Italian men play Bocce on outdoor courts and then to lunch in a nearby restaurant, sitting at the very table where a famous gangster once got murdered with a forkful of veal Scallopini in his mouth. I took her to the Greenwood cemetery in Sunset Park where we found a large piece of statuary depicting a naked club-carrying man trampling on two mermaids named Vice and Corruption. It was called “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” and the significance of its inclusion at Greenwood eluded us both, but there it was.
As we got older our walks got shorter and my posture began to go its own way. I was looking down more than up, and a world that once included geese flying in formation overhead was relegated more to pigeons panhandling for breadcrumbs. My orthopedic doctor said that my head was the heaviest part of my body and when tilted down was like a thirty pound dumbbell pulling on my spine. He said that in time the constant strain might cause minuscule fractures in my vertebrae that would heal in a bent over position and that the long term prognosis might be a bent over position from the waist wherein my face would be looking downward three feet from the sidewalk.
“Straighten up,” Faye said. “I married you for your looks, big guy.”
“How’s this,” I said as I walked with more of a backward bend from the hips.
“Better, but now you look like you’re walking with a broomstick up your ass. Swing those arms; loosen up. When are you getting that bone density test?”
“I’m not getting that bone density test. Women get bone density tests, not men.”
“Not true. Get the damn bone density test and talk to the doctor about calcium supplements, and why do I have to keep talking to you like I’m your mother? I’m your sex object – remember? Here,” she said and she handed me a water bottle filled with a mix of vodka, lemon juice and Cointreau.
Faye and I thought of ourselves as controlled alcoholics because we didn’t drink in the AM and because we followed the advice of our financial advisor at Fidelity Mutual who said the percentile rate of increase in our monthly liquor store bill should never surpass that of the national inflation rate, but he was an alcoholic himself. Then there was our primary care physician who was privy to our drinking over the years. Elevated levels of bad things were starting to show up in my blood, but Faye’s symptoms were worse. Her abdominal pain was exactly where her pancreas was and her jaundiced face and attacks of nausea were classic signs of damage there.
“How much eighty proof are you doing these days?” he asked.
“I’m cutting back,” she said.
“I don’t keep a booze diary. Like I said, I’m cutting back.”
“Listen to me, Faye; enzymes are secreted by the pancreas into your stomach to digest your food and you can’t live without it. Alcohol is the worst thing for that vital thing inside you and if you don’t stop drinking soon you’re a goner.”
“Goner. Very good doc, such a retro choice of words. Such a cool doc.”
“Cut the crap Faye.”
“Okay then, I’ll quit,” she said but a week later she was dead.
An acute attack of pancreatitis complicated by a gallstone condition killed her before the ambulance made it to the ER. We’d been married thirty-eight years, four months and a day, but looking back at the foreshortened view it seemed like we’d merely skipped over a few small puddles together. In the weeks that followed I was strung out like a wire stretched to the breaking point. The only way I was able to cope was to stay in bed.
“It’s one-thirty, dad, and you’re still not up,” my daughter said when she came to visit.
“So what,” I said.
“So nothing, I’m just saying.” She pulled a curtain aside to let in more light. “It’s such a nice day and the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. You should get out and take a walk in the neighborhood.”
I never liked cherry blossoms and was so-so on the neighborhood. My back and neck had worsened over time and I’d become more bent over. Looking down at my shadow moving over the sidewalks and streets beneath my feet had become a matter of course, but I took my daughter’s advice anyway, got out of bed, dressed and went outside for a lap around Grand Army Plaza. The brightness of the sun and vividness of the blossoms only accentuated the blur of grief around me, the kind of grief that can be hallucinatory. I thought I saw part of a handgun peeking through the newly paved street I crossed next to my building. Most of it was below the surface with just enough of a bullet chamber and trigger exposed to know it was a gun. The message was clear, that a bullet through my brain was the only way out of the funk I was in. I thought it was a phantom gun of sorts. I thought if I took a photo of it with my cell it wouldn’t register but after I took the shot it was more there than ever, cropped and awesome in its sense of purpose.
That night I had a dream wherein the gun was in a holster strapped to my lower left leg but my lower left leg was no longer part of me. I was strapped to a table and my limbs were being summarily pulled out of their sockets by my doctor. Each part of me was thrown into the mayhem of an asphalt-mixing machine. I could feel the pain of my absent flesh being chewed up into ground meat and I could hear my bones crackling and breaking down into smaller pieces indistinguishable from the gravel of blackened tarred mix. The only part of me that survived intact was the gun, one of those small snub-nosed thirty-eights that ended up peeking through the dry new pavement of Vanderbilt Avenue.
It was four in the morning when I got up and downloaded the gun photo from my cell phone. The old art director in me went to work on my computer adding contrast for depth and a touch of solarization for sharpness. I could sense Faye watching over my shoulder like she always did whenever I was working on something that appealed to her writer’s sense of things. “Wow,” I could hear her say as she looked at the gun on my screen. “What a killer idea, documenting all the crazy things you find imbedded in the blacktop of city streets.”
The curtain of the theatre was drawn open again. I needed to stop moping around and get my ass back out there shooting more stuff. The pretense would be a documentation of city fossils, but the real thing would be Faye and I chasing another one of our ideas out the window, her in my head with words and me scrounging up visuals from the streets. I would shoot wherever I found the best specimens and if that meant in the middle of busy intersections I’d take my chances. I’d have to mobilize my calcified arteries and arthritic vertebrae into a major hustle. I’d gear up from shooting with an iPhone to a state of the art Nikon camera, micro lens, flash unit and monopod. The equipment and its ancient photographer with a drinking problem would be part of the process, the process would be the art and everything that happened along the way the brush strokes.
When I started shooting Faye was in my head with the words, and each evening I transcribed them from brain to keyboard as best I could:
My heart pounded and blood pressure rose to flush my face as I knelt on my knee pad in the middle of a heavily trafficked street, my stooped over posture well suited for what I was doing. I labored over my low-set tripod with a water bottle at my side to wet down the pavement so the flash would reflect pinpoints of light on the wet surface that looked like stardust. What was once a pulverized soda can was then a zapped space ship floating through the universe with all hands on board dead so long they were skeletons in their space suits.
Later that day I photographed the flattened skull and ribcage of a city rat, the shredded thumb and forefinger of a lady’s glove, the piece of a tarnished DVD that looked like a half moon in the grunge of a polluted sky, all mangled and crafted by millions of tires over time into strange landscapes of unlikely art. I wore a high visibility safety vest of fluorescent orange with reflective yellow tape as I went about my madness on the avenues and parkways of Brooklyn. If something in a street I crossed over caught my eye I’d wait at the far curb to gauge the timing of the light. When I went back I’d wet down, hunker down and shoot at different angles, distances and framing modes. There was an addictive thrill in milking the situation as long as possible, knowing that if the traffic light overhead turned its angry red eye on me before I finished I might end up looking like one of the flattened objects in my viewfinder.
In the blink of an eye it was another decade later, and piles of blacktop photo prints were laying around. They were once destined to be edited down for a photo essay submitted to art and photography journals as a prelude to a coffee table book of esoteric photographs. But I never got around to any of that, maybe because the art was the process, and how do you submit a process. I kept shooting in the middle of busy streets anyway, like I kept eating food to stay alive. My daughter heard about my life-threatening goings-on through the doorman grapevine, and I became the defendant in a family intervention with her, my son-in-law and Jessie, a granddaughter Faye and I never got to know very well. They came with faces full of the mission at hand – getting the old guy back on a more seemly track to death.
“Of all the things to photograph, dad, why pavement for god sakes, and in the middle of Flatbush Avenue,” my daughter said.
“I wear an orange safety vest,” I said.
“He wears an orange safety vest,” my son-in-law said to the ceiling.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, grandpa,” Jessie said. “Try photographing flowers. They’re more accessible.”
“I hate flowers.”
“Then shoot extreme close ups and they won’t look like flowers. Make abstract compositions.”
“I don’t even bother lugging a camera around anymore. I just frame the shot with my hands and say click.”
“That’s ridiculous,” my son-in-law said.
“But that’s what I do.”
“Oh dad,” my daughter said, trying to suppress an onset of hysteria. “Please take your pretend-photos in a safe place. Think about us for a change and our feelings for you, and about Mom and what she would think about all this.”
I was about to say it was Mom’s ghost who gave me the blacktop idea but thought better of it. Jessie picked up one of my old prints from a pile on the coffee table and looked at it closely.
“What do you see?” I asked, as she came by my side so we could look at it together.
“I see little pieces of a plastic toy with traces of gold paint.”
“They could look like many things, Grandpa, depending on who’s looking. It’s kind of like a Rorschach test, don’t you think? What do you see?”
“I see pieces of a wing and a bird’s beak,” I said, and she traced her finger around the shapes.
“Yes, I see that, a little once-upon-a-time bird,” she said
“And what else,” I asked again.
“I see heartbreak on the face of the little kid who lost it. What do you think Grandma would see?” she asked.
“I think she’d see a spoiled brat who has bigger plastic superheroes at home and couldn’t care less about a little thing that doesn’t walk, talk, shoot or kill.”
“And I can see his Gen Z mom holding on to his stroller with one hand while sucked into a Twitter scroll, oblivious.”
“It’s a nothing thing lost at a nothing moment in a nothing place,” I said.
“And years later you’re on your knees, risking your life trying to photograph it,” she said.
“Oh, isn’t the irony delicious,” I thought I heard my dead wife whisper.
“Like you were trying to photograph pieces of God,” Jessie said.
“No, not god,” Faye whispered. “It has to be something more knowable.”
“Like pieces of…” I hesitated, trying to think of something.
“Like pieces of the Maltese Falcon,” my darling ghost whispered.
“The Maltese Falcon,” I said.
“The Maltese what?” Jessie asked.
“Falcon,” I said, and she Googled it.
“A falcon statuette from a 1941 movie,” she said. “It was supposed to be jewel encrusted, and it says here that according to script it was the thing dreams were made of. What kind of dreams do you think they were talking about, Grandpa?” she asked but Faye and I were so transfixed by how wondrous our granddaughter was that we hardly heard the question.
Our daughter was looking at Jessie and me like our heads were sheared off just above the eyebrows. My son-in-law was looking at the ceiling again. Jessie was still waiting for an answer, looking at me like she had just discovered something about herself – that she loved Grandma and me and wanted to be part of the team.