Monday, December 22, 2014

Street Scene.

Jammed at work, I made my way early this morning to northernmost of the two offices I am toiling at.

I stepped out of the deli, coffee and seltzer in hand and saw an old Hasid in the baggiest sweatpants I've ever seen shuffling down the street. His beard looked like an explosion at a mop factory.

I waited at the corner for the light to change, not daring onto 10th Avenue before I had full right-of-way. Tenth is a crazy avenue with people streaming uptown at speed from the Lincoln Tunnel, just four blocks south.

The Hasid caught up with me as the light switched. And as it did, a be-turbaned cabbie in a Ford Explorer hesitated his vehicle then tore through the red, just missing me.

"Hey!" I screamed helplessly.

"Don't yell," the Hasid said. "Cabbies are allowed to go through lights."

I turned and looked at his disheveled face. It was old and had seen things.

I was about to speak.

"You know that," he cut me off. "You know that."

I agreed. And walked, safely, to work.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Our new kitchen.

Years ago a wise man said to me, "Eventually, time and tide will catch up to you. You will be, no matter how hard you try to elude it, ensnared in the net. The net from which there is no escape. Eventually, your wife will prevail and you will be building a new kitchen."

"Not me," I scoffed, thinking like I was Superman and invulnerable to kryptonite.

The wise man shook his head slowly, laughed and repeated tellingly. "Eventually. Eventually."

Well, I'm sad to say, eventually is now.

My wife, an otherwise intelligent woman with a Master's degree in Genetics, spends her waking hours talking about the relative virtues of Sub Zeroes, Thermidors, Wolfs and Vikings.

When we visit friends we don't talk about our careers, or our travels, or our kids. We look at cabinets. Study the way drawers pull out. And Talmudically discuss the virtues of six burners over four.

Nothing else, not beheadings in the Middle-East or cop killings in Bed-Stuy seems important. We are, finally, building a new kitchen.

The same wise man said to me, "George, look at it this way. A city kitchen is like a Mercedes-Benz. If you have a small one, it will cost about $40K. A mid-sized one will cost $75K. And a large one, well, you can't afford it."

For now on, I order in.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The end, almost, of a long week.

As the year winds down, it seems to get busier.

I've been jamming on sundry assignments which all seem to be peaking at about the same time. All at a time when I'd like to be home, watching a movie, sitting with my pup, Whiskey, in front of a fire.

Good thing I'm not doing that.

I don't have a fireplace.

This year has not been a smooth year.

I'm not sure any years are.

I got fired at the end of the first quarter and felt stripped, old and eviscerated.

I suppose after some dark days, weeks or hours, I rallied and realized I had done my homework. That my reputation, portfolio and network would serve me well.

And they have.

So have friends who have encouraged me.

Who sent me little missives of hope, or leads.

So now as the sand runs out of the clock of 2014, I'm busier than ever.

I don't know what 2015 will bring.

It's a crazy business.

And a crazier world.

I do know.

I'll work right through it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

My father and the dagger. A re-run

My father grew up in a row house in West Philadelphia. The neighborhood was poor and “ethnic,” full of immigrant families where English was not spoken. My father’s parents came from the old country—from Russia or Poland, depending on whose raping and pillaging army was ascendant, and they knew little of the language. They conversed in Russian or Polish or Yiddish, or even some German they learned along the way. My father called grapefruits “oranges” his whole life. Something in some Chomskied corner of his brain prohibited him from seeing the two fruits as distinct.

Despite this my father seems to have read more than anyone I have ever known. I say seems because he knew a million facts, he knew history like a PhD. , but I never actually saw him read a book. He just somehow absorbed information from the ether.
My brother and I shared a bedroom in our little tilted house in Yonkers. Though I was the younger brother, I had the top bunk. Even as a little kid, I couldn’t sit upright because our ceilings weren’t but six and a half feet high.

When my father was around, which wasn’t all that often, he would come into our bedroom to read us a book before we went to sleep. He wasn’t one to read us kid’s books. He didn’t value them and didn’t find them interesting. Even when I was, say three and my brother was five, he would be reading us Plutarch’s “Lives,” Malory’s “Le Morte d'Arthur,” “Gilgamesh” or maybe something more contemporary, “Washington Square” by Henry James or “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Hemingway. There was no Dr. Seuss for us.

All these years later, I have little in common with my friends and colleagues. Their childhood memories of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and such, I cannot fathom. My throwback Thursdays go back Millennia, not decades.

One night, my father came into our bedroom holding a greasy brown paper bag and two copies of Richard Lattimore’s just published translation of Homer’s “Iliad.” From the bag he pulled out two sheathed daggers of the cheap sort that in those days you could buy at a museum gift shop of the corner candy store. The daggers were about ten-inches long from stem to stern, with the hasp and the sheath bedecked with ersatz plastic gems. He handed my brother a dagger and a copy of Lattimore. And then he did the same with me.

“Philip of Macedon slept with a copy of Homer and a dagger under his pillow against assassins,” my father said. “His son, Alexander the Great, did the same. And a few centuries later, Mithradates emulated the Macedonians by sleeping with the Iliad and a dagger under his pillow.”

My father continued as if in a trance. “Philip, Alexander, Mithradates. Three of the greatest, most enlightened leaders the world has ever known. Conquerors of Attika, Xerexs, Cyrus and Darius. Conquerors of the riches of the East. Lovers of democracy, liberators of the enslaved.

“I ask you to consider that these men slept with a dagger under their pillows and a copy of the Iliad.”

With that my father left our room.

Everything would have been ok if things ended right there but, of course they didn’t, they never do. In school, we were given one of those banal assignments where we had to describe what our dog was like, or our house or our bedroom. I chose to describe my bedroom, which in the scheme of things probably wasn’t the wisest choice because I revealed to my teacher, who revealed to the principal, who revealed to the Yonkers School District that I slept with a dagger under my pillow.

I suppose this all caused quite a stink. But of course they totally neglected to say Homer was under there too.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Dick Rich, 1930-2014.

It was reported in "The New York Times" yesterday that Dick Rich died. He was the Rich in Wells Rich Greene. Here's his Times' obituary.

By the time I had entered the industry in the early 1980s, Wells' reputation was already tarnished. But for a few shining years in the 1960s, they were as hot and as good as can be.

Wells Rich Greene opened in 1966 and just two years later had billings of $59 million and were one of the 15 largest agencies on Madison Avenue.

That's a rise.

No one, of course, no one remembers Dick Rich today.

It's like baseball players not knowing Ruth or Dimaggio.

Or even Aaron or Mays.

We eat our young and spit out our old.

Dick Rich wrote one of my favorite commercials. The Alka Seltzer one above.

I'll think about him today as I'm tortured by another day of powerpoint.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Meetings. All day.

I made it through a day of fair excruciation.

That might not be a word, but you get the point.

I don't know who decided to build office parks in the middle of nowhere
then have the temerity to call a glass rectangle amid parking lots a park.

I don't know who decided the human brain can function after being
beaten by powerpoint.

And what's powerpoint anyway?

Who has the power and what's the point?

My point is, I'm drained.

I'm supposed to see friends tonight, people from my past
but all I really want to do is curl up with a good Myrna Loy movie.

BTW, I don't think Myrna Loy or any wise-cracking film ingenue
would stand for a day of meetings like this.

She'd say, "Listen, Buster. What you have to say doesn't amount to a hill of beans."
And then she'd sashay out and have eleven martinis.

Me, I'll eschew the martinis.

I've got another day of this tomorrow.


I traveling on business today and tomorrow. I'm in Atlanta.

Actually I'm in a hotel in Atlanta.

Which could be a hotel in Seattle or Cincinnati.

It doesn't matter where I am. By the time you are encased in fluorescence you could be anywhere.

It's not a great way to end the year--traveling right before Christmas.

I'd rather be home winding down.

Than listening to Ray Charles sing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" while it's 60 here.

But I can't complain.

I've worked the whole year save four weeks right after I lost my job.

I've stayed busy.

Done good work.

Made some friends.

Made my monthly nut.

Yeah, ok.

There's more to life than surviving.

But when you get down to it, surviving beats the alternative.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Grow up.

I've been thinking a lot about Uber lately, the app-based cab company that Wall Street values at $40 billion--twenty times the value of the world's newspaper of record, "The New York Times."

You'd think that a company with Uber's market cap would start acting like a company that's in the big leagues. You'd think they'd act something like a grown up.

They'd screen their drivers--you know, for little things. Like whether or not they were convicted rapists.

They'd have a customer service phone number. If you had a problem they'd give you someone to talk to.

And, you'd think, they'd be able to accept and learn from criticism. Not plan smear campaigns against reporter who find out dirt about them.

But Uber does none of these things.

To my mind, they act more like a petulant child than a legitimate business.

Lack of grownupness is endemic in the world today. Failure to do the tough jobs that no one really wants to do. Being ready with excuses instead of solutions. Going through the world as if all the lights on the way to the airport would magically turn green just as you arrived.

I see it with clients.

I see it with agencies.

I see it in the people that work in those places.

I have a friend who screws up on occasion. She has a way of dealing with her screw ups when I call her on them.

"I wasn't thinking," she responds.

What a way to go through life.

Not thinking.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A report from the Upper East Side.

Earlier this week, as my few readers may know, was my birthday. And my wife, as is her custom, decided to provide me with a birthday meal.

"Would you like Italian, Chinese or Jewish," she asked one evening before the blessed event.

"I really have no preference," I said evasively. "Frankly, they all turn out Jewish anyway."

She laughed at that and we went on with our days.

When I arrived home on the evening of my birthday, a delicious aroma was wafting down the hallway and the crockpot was simmering with a brisket the size of, if not the Ritz then at least as large as a Con Edison two-man manhole cover.

I think somewhere in Texas or wherever they breed cattle, grizzled, spit-strewn cowboys pick out the largest bovines they can find and brand them with the Star of David.

"We got us a Jew Cow," they say to each other. And they corral them into a separate pen complete with vinyl slipcovers and deep-pile carpeting where they have both dairy and meat cud for said cattle to chew on.

These Jew Cows are shipped to New York and women like my wife get a little beep on their phones--a text message reading "Jew Cows at Fairway."

They quickly run there and buy a brisket that could feed the Denver Broncos for a week.

Esthetes and hipsters disparage the Upper East Side where I live. "It's boring," they tell me.

Of course it is.

We can hardly move.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Knight Spot.

My old man never stopped writing songs and never stopped trying to sell them. He had had one hit--a follow up to the Be-Bop classic, "Salt Peanuts," written, depending on who you believe, by either Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker.

When Salt Peanuts was filling the "beat-sunglasses-in-the-dark" end of the dial, my father wrote a follow up, a song he called "Two Peanuts." Somehow he peddled the song to Charlie Parker who, strung out, or drunk, or just plain nasty, or something, turned my old man down. My father then took it to a local trio, Woody and the Termites, who happily recorded the song.

This was the summer of, I think, 1963, before the Kennedy assassination when the world seemed full of much more promise. A local radio station started playing "Two Peanuts," and playing it a lot. Before long, station after station picked up the single, and my father's little ditty jumped from our shabby little precinct in Yonkers and became a nation-wide sensation.

The old man was a young man then, just 35 or so. He decided he had had enough of working for someone else. He'd take the $2,500 he made from "Two Peanuts" and go into business for himself.

Just down the street from our tilted little home was a small empty building that had been about nine different restaurants in the previous six years. This joint my father decided he would turn into something every town needs: the last place everyone goes before they go home.

He decorated the place with some old faux armor and swords and lances and junk he had found and picked up for $75. With these accouterments in place, he named his restaurant "The Knight Spot," and he was in business.

There was one catch, or at least one primary catch.

My father decided the Knight Spot would be open 24-hours but he didn't want to hire help. He figured that between him, me and my brother, we would somehow manage. Here was his thinking. He would do the heavy-lifting, the morning rush that stretched from about 5AM to 9. He'd nap at the cash register from 9 to 12 when the lunch crowd would arrive. My brother and I would show up and man the shop when school was over, from say 3 to 11--my father's sleeping hours. Then my old man would return and the whole cycle would start over again.

Things went along fairly ok for a month or two. The Knight Spot was bringing in money and my father was feeling like he finally held a winning ticket. He didn't even question that he had a seven-year-old (me) and a nine-year-old, my brother running the place for a good portion of the day.

I, in particular, was a resourceful sort. I knew at an early age my way around a kitchen. And the Knight Spot's menu was pretty basic. Most of the customers between 3 and 11 would want little more than a burger, or a slice of pie and a cuppa. It wasn't too hard to keep the Knight Spot up and running.

One night, however, things went bad. A bear of a man came in and sat across from me at the 12-stool counter. He mulled over the vinyl menu like a Talmudic scholar and finally he announced "steak. Broiled. With onions and mushrooms. Medium well."

I turned on the giant industrial broiler in the back--it was an oven the size of the bedroom my brother and I shared. It went on with the whoosh of a Gemini rocket. I placed the steak, just as my old man had showed me, about an inch or two under the flame. Then I went off to saute the onions and mushrooms.

In just about a minute, the Knight Spot was filled with a thick viscous smoke. Apparently, I had placed the cow too close to the broiler's flames and some fat, and then the fatty steak caught on fire. Flames were leaping out of the broiler.

My brother, always a calm head, called the fire department while I ran into the kitchen with what my father called a "fire distinguisher." It was roughly the same size as I was.

By the time my father and the fire department had arrived the fire was out, the windows were open and the Knight Spot was airing out.

However, that's where the trouble began. The fire department--some wise guy my old man said--called child welfare and the whole infrastructure of Yonkers' government came around to shut the Knight Spot down.

My old man attributed the whole thing to me and my brother "horsing around" and swatted us, accordingly, in the heads.

He'd have to come up, now, with a new scheme to make his fortune.