Wednesday, July 20, 2011


She had insisted every night for the last two months that we had to work late, usually until ten-thirty, eleven. Elizabeth was my boss, I looked across at her, just letting her speak. We were in the basement of McDonalds, again, I was watching her indulge in her nightly Big Mac and large fries, the tears starting to run down her perfectly made up face.

I really liked Elizabeth. She was bright, articulate and funny, but she was sucking the life out of me. She could sure nurse a Diet Coke, late night there in that Micky-D’s where we usually had the basement all to ourselves.

She was my direct boss, she was supposed to be my creative director. Her job was to partner me, the writer, with an art director and oversee our work - but early on she’d snatched me up for herself. She nicknamed me “Crafty,” always generous with the praise; the fact was, I enjoyed working with her immensely during normal business hours. But around 4PM each day her office phone would start ringing off the hook. Soon her cell phone would pick up the slack. “Oo. That’s Pauls,” she called her husband ‘Pauls’, “Just ignore it.” But it was difficult. The two phones would ring back-n-forth solidly for about an hour before he would finally give up. I heard her on the phone with him one day, explaining to him how he just didn’t understand her dedication, actually hanging up on him mid-sentence, turning to me. “He said ‘it’s only ADVERTISING’,” can you believe it?” I was kind of on Pauls’s side, we were selling underarm deodorant, for God’s sakes. And it wasn’t like we weren’t churning out about eight storyboard ideas a day during regular office hours. Yet, if I dared to pick up my bag around seven she’d stop me, “where ya going, Crafty!” Around eight she’d ask if I was hungry, and even though I was pretty sure my dog had peed and pooped my apartment and was starving to death, I’d accept her dinner invitation – a table for two in the basement of the McDonalds across the street for a dinner of burgers, fries, and sobbing over her failing marriage. Pauls was a drinker. He’d agreed to a 12-step program, he had been doing better as of late, but she had received phone calls from strangers at bars, asking her to come pick him up. He’d lost his job, had a couple of DUI’s under his belt; she had to retain an expensive lawyer to manage the damage. She’d tell me these stories that almost always ended in tears, sometimes sobbing to the point where I would have to fetch extra napkins for her from atop the garbage receptacle so she could wipe away her tear-streaked mascara.

I usually ordered the kid’s meal, I was sure my cholesterol was topping off at around 550 by now from our now every night tradition. I’d finish my Jr. meal in short order but would have to sit there patiently for at least an hour, sometimes more, waiting for her to finish her straggling fries and stories. A lone worker would come down to wipe tables, gravely pull a mop across the floor – he’d nod at me sadly, we were regulars.

Weeks went by. I’d overhear her talking to Pauls on those rare occasions when she would pick up the phone, often at my urging. He had been sober for two years except for his benders that would happen every four months or so. He sounded so sweet, I could often hear him pleading for her to come home, he’d made a nice dinner. I’d have a glimmer of hope that I could make it home before the sun set that night, before my dog had pooped and peed and starved to death as we “worked” the night away, but that night never came. Elizabeth always took my hand and walked towards the soft glow of the golden arches.

More time passed and nothing much had changed until one day I had a blow out with our big boss, Juliani. He had moved to the United States from Italy over 30 years ago, but clung to his accent, I supposed he thought it gave him an air of creativity. He had a mouth full of marbles delivery, waving his hands, shaking his long bangs out of his eyes, giving the impression that he was saying something of importance, though you could never actually make out any words let alone sentences – just a bunch of “you know’s’ between garbled, unintelligible creative directorship. He had come this far by his good looks, designer suits, an expensive watch, and not much else. I knew because I used to partner with him, back when I was just a kid, and he was mid-career. Our arrangement was simple. I would come up with the ideas, and he would present them, the client often calling him a “genius” – praise he would wave off with euro-mumbles of feigned humility. Years later we were at the same agency again, he was now a big creative director, me, still a lowly writer. My insistence on wearing Hanes men’s undershirts and jeans to the office, coupled with my call-‘em-like-I-see-‘em je ne sais quoi had kept me permanently planted at the bottom of the agency food chain. Two days after he brought me into his group he started parading my ideas upstairs to his boss claiming them as his own. He was kind of a genius after all – a master thief who had honed his skills in disparaging everyone around him. And on that particular day he had launched an email campaign blacklisting an illustrator who happened to be a guy I was also dating. The boyfriend/illustrator had a hard time translating Juliani’s mouth full of marbles Italian and he’d made a mistake on one of the frames. Juliani was angered, muttering in Italian, as he composed a letter blackballing the gifted illustrator to the entire creative department. “He eez STOOPEEED, I doon’t like dees guyz.” We had worked with him for months, he’d always done a great job, but Juliani was angered that the communication breakdown had resulted in making him late for his 5:30 tennis match. I begged Juliani not to send the email, to think about it overnight. But he hit the “send” button like a virtuoso hitting the final chord of a concierto. I told him to go fuck himself, and a week later I was called into HR and “laid off” due to the company’s “financial hardship”. I packed up 20 years of crap into 5 cardboard boxes that were left outside my office and I was gone by midnight.

I spent the next three weeks living the life I’d always dreamed of. Nowhere to be, buzzing out to the beach in my Beemer, music blaring, windows down, sunroof open, the agency had cut me a check that would subsidize screwing around for at least two months. Yet, everyday my cell phone would ring. “Hey, Crafts. I miss you,” it was Elizabeth, about to make up for lost time – our late night McDonald’s rendezvous were now history. She was going on about Pauls like no time had passed, about Juliani, and what a thief and asshole he was, how her sister’s dog was sick, and would probably have to be put down to “sleep”. She would often catch me when I was in the “zone” – cruising back from the beach, from eating a lobster tail, or sipping a nice glass of wine on the water. Yet, every time she’d call I would pull over, often driving behind a shopping mall in a parking lot to get better reception, to lend an ear. I didn’t have the heart to cut her off. And she had some good news. She’d been interviewing for a big job at another big agency on a very glamorous account and wanted to share her excitement with me, telling me every detail about the interview process, I would give her my undivided attention, parked there in a reception sweet spot, next to a dumpster at the back of a Stop n Shop. A week later she called to say she’d gotten the job – it was the last time I ever spoke to her.

I was sure she would take me with her; the job market was worse than I had expected. Agencies wanted younger, edgier creatives, luring them away with bags of money from smaller, more creative agencies where they were poorly paid. It was a rude awakening, but Elizabeth was my ace in the hole, after all – I was her “Crafty”. And now that she was running a huge international piece of business, surely she would have no time to cry over fries and Diet Cokes. But I would never find out. I called her several times at the new agency, left her cute voicemails, but she never took my calls, or returned a single message.

I recently thought about Elizabeth, what had become of her? I wondered if she was still at the big agency, if she had lured another young writer into the depths of a different McDonalds. Was she still married to the precariously sober husband? Had there been a funeral for her sister’s dog? A recruiter friend of mine had done a search and found she had not only left the big agency, but had left advertising all together. She’d up and moved to Seattle, and started a clothing company with her sister who was a wealthy lawyer who had a penchant for painkillers and red wine. She had told me all about her – and their strict Catholic upbringing, how their father had walked out one morning and never returned only to shame them all by making a fortune in the porn business, how their mother worked hard to support them and then would cry herself to sleep at night. So many stories, so many lost nights, there, in the soggy, subterranean warmth of the McDonalds – the one across the street from the ad agency where we worked.

No comments:

Post a Comment