Wednesday, August 4, 2010


“Lunch is served in the conference room,” this other writer at my advertising agency "Vicky" said in her usual lackluster manner as she passed my office on the way back to hers. We were working the weekend on some creative push; would lunch be pizza, Carnegie Deli sandwiches, or maybe that upscale Chinese we’d ordered a couple of times before? This was my first job after college, free food and black sedan car service rides home after 8PM were the icing on the cake of my dream job at this agency. I was being paid to come up with creative ideas for major advertisers, working the weekend wasn’t that unusual, but I liked what I did and these perks just sweetened the deal.

I meandered towards the conference room that overlooked 3rd Avenue, I didn't want to appear to be too excited about the free food. The long room was silent, the red swivel chairs empty, the long oval table had no cardboard pizza boxes, Chinese food containers, the perfume of pastrami, onions, and lox was not in the air. I saw something there in the middle of the table: a baggie-full of white powder. This was lunch, a considerable amount of cocaine – compliments of the agency. I would have to fend for myself and get a cheeseburger downstairs. I prayed they would be open on Sundays.

It could have gone either way with Vicky, food or cocaine – she had a pretty well known eating disorder and a perpetual sniffle. I had seen blood trickle from her nostrils on more than one occasion. Her vile temper commonly manifested in shrill bouts of fowl language grounded in deep-seeded hostility towards her mild mannered husband/creative partner, “Hal”, or towards our flamboyant “straight” boss and creative director, Grant. But Vicky was highly valued at this place and paid accordingly, she and Hal had a way with writing charming jingles, these syrupy-sweet 30-second songs they would churn out for children’s cereals and toys. Vicky was the real brainchild of the married creative team. She would chain smoke behind closed doors, coming out only to fill the ladies room with the smell of vomit. A few hours later she would emerge with a charming little ditty for toddler’s toys or strained carrots. She would flatly present to Grant in his corner office while Hal stood by smiling like a serf awaiting the King’s approval. Grant would laugh and clap his hands like an excited girl at her first birthday party – but sometimes tried to put his stamp on the work by suggesting a one-word change, sending Vicky in to a tirade. “You’re a FUCKING HACK, Grant – I fuckin’ HATE you! And you, too fucking PUSSY,” being careful to include Hal, “You want a piece of shit, I don’t want any part of it – you two FUCKIN do it YOURSELVES!” With that she was out, pushing the elevator button a hundred times in a row, in perfect time to her coke induced heart rate. Hal would follow Vicky out a few moments later, after making apologies to Grant, taking the next elevator down after her – he would now have to listen to her on the long ride home to Long Island in their glossy black Mercedes. Sometimes Vicky wouldn’t come back for days, or even until the next week – and only after Grant would send her roses and a note of apology. She would bounce back into work with a shiny new attitude, but within an hour or so she would default to her usual verbal attacks towards poor Hal, who would eventually emerge from their office, saying pleasant “hello’s” to all of us as though nothing had happened, knowing full well that we’d all heard the horrid hubbub through the walls. It was just another day at my dream job, one day I went into the first stall in the ladies room, Vicky had left her signature, smeared feces on the steel grey wall.

It all started to get me down, I was having a hard time sleeping and getting to work on time. Grant had taken to leaving angry notes on my chair, “It’s 9:30 AM!! WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU????!!!!” on a violently torn off piece of art director’s paper, scrawled in angry bold black marker. He didn’t cut me the slack he cut Vicky; I had already started winning creative awards for my work, but she had the Midas touch when it came to churning out magic for their big money clients. But it wasn’t just Vicky, or the flamboyantly reactionary Grant, the whole place was topsy-turvy. My partner had a bong under his desk made out of a gallon milk jug and parts of a garden hose and had lines all laid out under his office phone. The secretaries smoked weed in the stairwell, I had been enticed once and almost got caught by one of the building’s security guards after a high-speed chase down the stairs. The following week the whole office had the day off to attend the wake of a handsome bearded thirty-something guy who worked with us ¬– his heart had given out after an all-night party he had alone in his apartment on a Tuesday night. My dad had warned me that advertising was a tough business, but I wasn’t sure he had this in mind.

One of the girls I worked with suggested I see her therapist. She was a rich girl who attended private schools, the daughter of one of the partners of the agency – an older woman way past her heyday who seemed perpetually baffled and most definitely gay; all of the partners had past advertising successes and closeted homosexuality in common.

I entered Dr. Gary’s office on 12th Street. It looked like how I imagined a shrink’s office would be. The walls were lined with leather bound books, deep comfortable couches nestled in burnt orange shag carpeting, a fresh box of tissue was within arm’s reach. I would leave our 55 minute sessions feeling better, he zeroed in on some core issues quite quickly before coming to his final diagnosis: I had a really fucked up job. He jotted down another patient’s phone number, he would tell him to expect my call. This fellow was at another agency and would see me about a new job. The next day I called and went to see him in his tiny office, a worn out Death Of A Salesman-type with grey-ish hair and skin to match. He talked slowly without looking at me, his face lit in the darkness by the lone light that hung over his small desk. I thanked him and put out feelers around the city, I was inspired to finally make a change.

Two weeks later I had an interview at one of the largest agencies in the city. I was told to take a seat by the group creative director, an openly gay man with taught shiny gel-tan skin, and black eyeliner, expertly applied. He had a framed poster of Bette Midler framed over his desk, she had always been one of my favorites, I had been told on more than one occasion that I was Bette’s mini-me. Taking a cue from Bette, I turned the creative director’s office into the gay baths, peppering the interview with well-placed sass. I was glad I had randomly chosen to wear a 1940’s style dress with platform shoes that day, I thought to myself as I walked the 12 blocks back to my job at the other place.

Grant was sitting at my desk when I came back, he was holding a pink memo he’d snatched from the receptionist intended for me, it said to call the new big agency back right away; apparently I’d gotten the job. “What the fuck is THIS,” Grant demanded, sensing his power was diminished with the impending job offer clenched his perfectly manicured hand. Vicky appeared at my door, “SHUT the fuck UP, Grant – or I will get the FUCK out of here and YOU can write this kiddie porn YOURSELF.” Grant stormed past both of us – Vicky hugged me, “congrats, kid, I hear you’re getting out of this shithole, we’ll miss ya.” Vicky smelled of cigarettes, coffee, and trace vomit, but the sentiment was real. I had gotten a lot out of this place. The harrowing screaming matches, rampant cocaine use, the overdose by a former employee, Vicky’s eating disorder spin-art displays on the ladies room walls; it all defined my first job in advertising – and made every job after it seem like a piece of cake.

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