Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The copywriter who came in from the cold.

Intrigue at the office. Makes me think of how much advertising is like a bad spy story. Alliances, affairs, double-crosses. To that end:

I met Lubjek at precisely the highest point of the bridge, right over the center of the river. I don’t know how he did it, but he was on-time to the second. I had said, “Let’s meet at eight,” and at exactly eight, with no seconds on either side, he stepped out of a black Trabant that sped away in the fog of its own diesel gloom.

“Lubjek,” I said.

“Tannenbaum.” We didn’t shake hands. We didn’t nod. Our eyes never met. But in unison we each took a long drag on the cigarettes we were smoking. Again in unison, we exhaled in a Trabant-like veil of vapor.

“I have the K. file,” I said, nodding toward the black leather attaché I was carrying.

“I have the Z. papers,” he responded.

“The K. files will tell you how to access Q. through R, S and T. But you can’t say how you got them.”

“And the Z. papers. They will connect you with D, E and F. Assuming you can find G.”

“We know where G is,” I bluffed.

We exchanged attachés. To be extra careful, I cuffed mine to my left wrist.

Lubjek lit another cigarette, throwing his previous one into the muddy water below.

“Stoyanoff is onto Timoshevitz and Korsakova is having an affair with Timoshevitz’s brother’s wife.”

“Complicated,” I said.

“Keep an eye on D. He is not to be trusted. And E, well, you probably already know that he drinks too much. And when he drinks too much, he talks too much.”

“That’s how people wake-up dead.”

I drew a cigarette pack from my coat’s inside pocket. I shook one out, then offered Lubjek one. He preferred the pack he pulled from his own jacket.

“From Kazahkstan,” he said. “Turkish tobacco.” He drew 50 percent of the cigarette down in one inhale.

“Latchkey is the one to watch.  As far as I can spit,” I said, spitting, “I trust him. He could interfere with E., crossing L. and that could stymie getting through to F.”

I put my hand out and we shook good night.

That was wishful thinking.


The night was anything but good.

A morning, early.

It was an early morning, like before 6 early.

Late yesterday, I got an email about a pressing assignment. Not a pressing assignment like I have some wrinkled shirts to iron. But a pressing assignment--you get the idea.

We walked over about a block and a half to a small conference room to chat about the assignment. It seemed fairly important and very rushed. Stuff is needed late today.

So, like I said I got in before six. I put Rossini's "Semiramide" on my iPod. If Semiramide doesn't make your blood flow faster, like Formula 1 faster, well something's wrong with you.

I guess because I've been around the block more than a few times, I tend not to look at assignments--especially 'writing' assignments with a great deal of trepidation. The analogy I'll use is this: You might think your car is in serious trouble because it's spewing oil. I've come to realize that that's an easy problem to fix. Just find the pinhole and seal it.

But most people start screaming that it's the end of something. It's not. There are minor things to handle in order to make things right.

In any event, like I said I a couple of ticks before 6 I sat down at my table. I put Rossini up high, and I did what I do.

I typed.

I typed and I re-typed.

I read and re-read the notes that were passing for direction.

By around 8:15, I was pretty sure I had plugged all the metaphorical leaks and I sent my copy around.

There's a chance, of course, that I did a lousy job and people will hate what I've done.  There's a chance I'll be yelled out. Castigated. Flagellated. Lacerated.

But those are the risks you take.

It's better to put something out there and worry than merely worry in the abstract.


Monday, July 27, 2015

What's happened?

I spent the first 32 years of my career not having heard the following words that for the last five or seven years I've heard dozens of times a day.

Content.

Narrative.

Ecosystem.

Story-telling.

Insights.

Conversations.

Activate.

Amplify.

Use-case.

Creators.

Makers.

Has that much changed in human behavior that we've needed to invent a new vocabulary to mark it all?

Or are we getting better at bullshit because that's what we get paid to do?

Over at the scurrilous comments section at "Agency Spy," I just read that a planner I once worked with is "a brilliant champion of digital truth. Baptized at the fractious crossroads of storytelling and technology."  

What does that even mean? 

What does any of this mean?

I, personally, am so alienated from the vapidness of our garbage culture (a culture where Donald Trump is a thought-leader) that I have practically left the ranks of the living. I don't watch TV. I don't go to the movies. I'm finding it harder and harder to listen to the nightly news on NPR.

And while I make my way through a fair portion of "The New York Times'" non-fiction best-sellers, that doesn't count as being in our culture. Because our culture is reading comic books grandiosely called 'graphic novels.'

As Neal Postman pointed out in his classic "Amusing Ourselves to Death,"

"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. 

What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. 

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. 

Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. 

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. 

Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. 

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. 

Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture... . 

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. 

In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. 

In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. 

In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. 

Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”


Friday, July 24, 2015

Tempest on Tenth Avenue.

I went to a little deli on Tenth Avenue and 45th this morning, a couple of blocks from my office. It's a cruddy little place with a water-stained undulating ceiling but I like it anyway. There's no pretense here. Just a place to pick up a couple of bottles of seltzer and coffee from an urn the size of a suitcase nuclear bomb.

The place was empty when I walked in. A couple of guys sitting on plastic milk-crates restocking the soda refrigerators in the back, one crooked-cigarette manning the grill and the counter man, a medium-sized middle-aged Puerto Rican who was born, like Scaramouche, with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

A young lady walked in, a winsome young lady.

Scaramouche immediately picked out a banana for her from the pile on the worn linoleum. He held it up to his ear like a phone.

"I have only 40 cents this morning," she apologized. "I owe you a time."

We watched her, carefully, as she sashayed out.

Before I knew it, about six or nine dark men walked in in their construction clothes. They were picking up their various breakfasts, shouting orders and getting their joe. Commotion.

A short Puerto Rican got ready to pay. He was staring into his phone, had headphones on and was playing a video game.

"$3.25," Scaramouche said.

"I owe you from yesterday," said the gamer.

"How much?"

The gamer made a back hand motion with his strong right hand as if, across the counter, to slap Scaramouche.

"I get the same thing everyday."

"$6.50."

The gamer peeved but funny said, "Anyone have a dog collar so I can walk this mutt outside."

They exchanged toast and coffee for a five and a one.

"I'm 50 cents short," said the gamer.

Scaramouche was shoveling sugar into a coffee cup now, his back to the gamer.

"You pay me tomorrow. 55 cents."

"50."

"Interest."

I paid and left.

It was already a good day.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A firing, a joke and a philosophy.

Yesterday, like most other days, there was a big firing on Madison Avenue.

It doesn't matter who or where or what.

Sometimes it's an agency that gets fired by a client.

Sometimes it's a high-falutin' creative big-wig.

Sometimes, like yesterday, it's an agency president.

Like I said, it doesn't really matter who or where or what.

To my eyes, all these firings are faces of the same coin.

Agencies, or clients, or departments were hoping for a quick heroin fix. When that isn't delivered, the axe falls.

There's an old advertising joke I like a lot about a woman who dies and goes to heaven.

St. Peter is interviewing her, looking over her dossier.

"Something doesn't make sense," he says. "You've been married for 25 years and records show you're still a virgin. How do you explain that?"

"Easy," she replies. "My husband was an ad man. Every night, he'd sit on the side of the bed and tell me how great it was going to be."

Here's the truth, the pithy core of the matter.

Work, transformation, business success takes   w   o   r   k.

No pomaded puffin dressed in all-black has a secret formula that will all-at-once back-up a semi filled with $100s to your agency.

Judge people by their track records.

Not their promises.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"Squint" Quinones in the Mexican League.

I got a call last night at nine, just as I entered my still-being-renovated apartment. It was German "Squint" Quinones, a pitcher on the Seraperos whom I played with in the Mexican League 40 years ago. 

Squint was in transit, from Mexico City, where he lived, to Boston, to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where he played AAA ball for four seasons before giving up the ghost. The Pawtucket squad was having a reunion--a Juegos de Viejos--before they closed the old ball park for good and had invited back every player who ever wore the Pawtucket flannels.


We met at a little bar down the block from me, Bailey's Corner, a suitably dim place without too many hipsters and too much noise. After downing a Leinenkugel or two, Squint and I were decently lubricated and began, as old men do, to talk about old times, back to the when the right-hander first appeared for the Seraperos.

We had our usual line-up that night. After playing a week in right, with a rookie filling in for me at third, because Bonilla was out with a hamstring, I was back at the hot corner. 

“Brutus” Cesar, CF                .308  4   47
Arnulfo Adame, 2B                .277  2   40
Daniel Garibay, LF                .293  20 103
Salome Rojas, 1B                 .262  22  91
Jorge Navidad, 3B                .287  11  73
Clemente Bonilla, RF            .252   8   44
Isael Buentello, C                  .244  13  65
Angel Diablo, SS                   .217  0    19
German Quinones, RHP         0-0  0.00

I'll admit, I didn't mind my six or seven games way out in right. But playing out there is not the game I signed up for. 

You don't think, maybe, of ballplayers being lonely in the field, but it is, in right anyway, a sort of no-man's land. It's not unusual to go three innings or four without a ball hit in your direction. And aside from a desultory backing up of first base lest an errant throw escape the leather of Salome Rojas, there just wasn't that much to do.

What's more, you are too far away to participate in an activity I excelled in, that of infield chatter. I could gab with the best of them and, once I learned the lingo, argue with umps, insult batters and their mothers in gutter Spanish and, in general, make a bi-lingual nuisance of myself. There was none of that out in right.

I'd read, of course, in "The Catcher in the Rye," how Allie, Holden's Hollywood older brother had written poems on his glove to memorize while stationed on the greensward. But I wasn't about to scribble John Donne on my Rawlings, no matter how often and for whom my bell was tolling.

We had a new pitcher on the mound that night who had come up from a lower level of the Mexican League, having, we heard, lit up the dusty little town he pitched for with a wicked speedster and an unorthodox delivery.

As he took his pre-game tosses, we infielders gathered around. No one else was yet in the ballpark, it was just us Saraperos, playing ball and warming up.

German Quinones wore cerveza-bottle thick glasses and was throwing loosely, almost gently to the plate. Nonetheless, and seemingly without effort, his fastball cracked in Buentello's mitt. The man had stuff.

"Toss something hard," Hector told him. And Quinones kicked his left leg high in the air and leaned back to put something extra on the pitch. Buentello caught the strike, then stood up and walked to the mound.

"It's good," he said. "He is fast."

We left the mound area, went to the locker room and generally goofed off until it was game time. There's so much waiting time when you're a ball player. Waiting for the ball to come your way. Waiting for your ups. Waiting for the game to start. Waiting for it to end. Most of all, waiting to for the bumpy bus ride into another too sunny town to be over so we could wait around for yet another game.

The game began and Quinones did something I've never seen before or since. As Buentello entered his crouch, Quinones took off his lid, wiped clean his thick lenses and squinted into the stocky backstop's mitt. He looked for all intents and purposes like a latter day Mexican Mr. Magoo on the hill, as if he couldn't see the 60-feet 6-inches from the slab to the plate. Once he squinted for a good five seconds, he let go of his hard one. It sailed a good six feet over the head of a leaping Buentello and into the stands.

All of Quinones' warm-ups went this way. He was firing like a blind man with a rifle, squinting with each pitch into Buentello's crouch.

Buentello went out to calm his rookie nerves, but Quinones calmed him down instead.

"They call me 'Squint' he said. "Soy practiamente ciego." I am practically blind, if anyone asks.

The game began and the first batter stepped in. Quinones wound and knocked the straw hat off a woman sitting in the stands eight feet down the third-base line. Then he came back with a fastball right down the center of the plate. Then came another mis-guided missile, this one almost decapitating the umpire.

Finally, after three walks and two conferences on the mound, Squint began finding Buentello with some regularity. In fact, he struck out six of the next nine batters, the other three grounding out harmlessly. In between throwing strikes, Squint mixed in a pitch now and then that went 20 feet over someone's head, or into the opposing team's dugout, or would plunk the opposing batsman on the square of his back.

Squint went on like this for about six weeks, scaring the crap out of the other teams because of his bad eyesight, erratic control and blazing fastball. He was striking out dozens and gaining wins.

After those six weeks, Squint had moved to second in our rotation behind the Seraperos' perennial all-star, Tito Puente. He was, if memory serves, something like 6 and 2.

But eventually it caught up with him.

We were playing a three-game set down in Campeche, all night games, which left us nothing to do all day. Squint headed out to the racetrack to bet on the ponies and at the racetrack one or a couple of the Piratas de Campeche spotted him.

They saw him sans specs,  reading the small type of the Racing Form. They saw him following his horses around the track. All without squinting, all without his blind man's glasses. Word quickly got around. Squint could see.

From that day forward, Squint's squint scared no one. He still had good stuff, but once the opposing batsmen were no longer afraid of being beaned and maybe killed by an errant pitch, Squint's edge was gone.

Squint began to be hit and eventually fell back in the rotation, ultimately becoming a little-used reliever.

Squint and I talked about old times for a couple hours, until it was time for him to cab to LaGuardia to make his flight to Boston.

The drinks were on me.

Squint couldn't see his way to paying.




Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Trouble.

Last night while the rest of you were sleeping, I wrote a beautiful "Keatsian" manifesto simplifying problems so complex it was like the Rosetta Stone in its ability to make clear the indecipherable.

Unfortunately, it all disappeared, all those words I was sure I'd remember in the morning, I forgot.

So this morning, as I arrived at my lonesome strip of desk, I had work to do.

No time for blogging.

I'm behind the 8-ball.

Not a comfortable place.

I'll try to write later, if I get a moment.

I heard yesterday from an old Mexican League friend, a pitcher called Squint Quninones. He'll be in town, passing through tomorrow on his way to visit old teammates in Boston. He was hoping we could bend an ear and an elbow.

I haven't seen or heard from Squint in 40 years, so naturally I don'y want to miss the chance to have a beer with him.

No story from Squint as yet, except maybe the story of how he got his nickname.

But no time for that.

Like I said, I'll try again later.

Monday, July 20, 2015

A Larchmont wash-out.

Though the radio said the rain would, at times, be torrential, we went up to the beach on Saturday anyway.

Whiskey insisted.

I know it doesn't make a pile of sense to attribute an understanding of chronological time to a Golden Retriever, but somehow Whiskey understands when the weekend is here. Accordingly she makes it abundantly clear to us that she expects to go swimming.

So, again, despite the reports of inclement weather, we loaded up the Simca for a day in the country.

Since we left before 7AM, we made it up to Larchmont in fewer than 30 minutes. Along the way, a light drizzle began, which we decided to ignore. It was hot enough out--even at 7:15 that the mist was welcome and cooling.

My wife jumped out of the car with Whiskey and walked to water's edge with Whiskey's breakfast. Whiskey ate like she hadn't seen food for a month. And by the time I had parked and locked the car, she had already fetched her day-glo orange bumper a half dozen times.

My wife tries, but Whiskey appreciates my arm. She appreciates how far I can throw her toys into the sea. And she appreciates that I'll toss a stone nearby her floats to better help her mark what she needs to retrieve.

By the time I arrived at the beach it was raining harder. There was one other guy there. A 40-year-old with a water-loving Viszla named Elsa.

Now it was pouring and there were bolts of lightning from down about Co-op City way. The thunder roared.

All of us humans, took cover under an all-too-porous aluminum dock. It did nothing to shield us from rain that had turned torrential.

Still, I braved things. I kept tossing Whiskey's float into the water. She kept doing what she's been bred over the centuries to do. Bringing it back to me.

Finally, after about ten minutes, we were as wet as the sea itself.

We ran for cover and made it to the Simca, which was dry. Even the leak near the right passenger-side window. Lothar, my Croatian mechanic, down in Tom's River has done wonders with the 50-year-old machine.

Whiskey was wet on her tarpaulin in the back. My wife and I were dripping on the vinyl in the front. The engine turned over. I shifted into first and we drove back to the city. Whiskey wondered why such a short session.

My wife further convinced I am out of my mind.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Like no other training in the world.

When I was knee-high to a cockroach in this business, with a portfolio and a prayer, I got a job in the in-house advertising department of Bloomingdale's.

I didn't know it at the time, but I'm not sure I could have had a better start in the business and, for that matter, adult life in New York.

For one, Bloomingdale's at the time was a hive of creativity. We did great promotions, shot with the best photographers, and the store was the center of a lot of attention in many circles.

Second, and most important, I had to write at least ten ads a week and I had to get them out the door.

There was no time for dilly-dallying. No time to ping and pong. No time to wallow in my innate lack of confidence.

No. You had ads to write, to get approved, to get shot, to get approved again, to take through the buyers, to proofread, to fine tune.

This was all before digital, all before computers, practically before overnight shipping.

Today, more often than not, all time is crunch time.

Something that should take weeks, well, you're expected to hand it in in minutes.

I usually get stressed but I do my best to handle it.

Maybe this afternoon, I'll drop by 59th and Lex and buy a few pairs of socks.

My way of saying thanks to Bloomingdale's.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

He ain't heavy.

There's a deli down the street from my office on the corner of 10th Avenue and 47th Street. It's a dirty little place that'll make you a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich and dispense thick black coffee, where you can pick up a turkey sandwich on a stale kaiser roll along with a bottle of seltzer.

In short, it's a deli like about ten thousand others in New York.

The thing I like best about the joint is its name: 5 Brothers Deli.

Brothers and Deli seem to go together in New York like Original went with Rays went with Pizza.

There are more brothers than the Karamazovs.

There's Brothers Delis numbering from Two to Nine.

I think this all grew out of a place over on 9th Avenue called 7 Brothers Deli.

They grew to be successful and other Delis began to Brotherize their names.

So there's a 2 Brothers Deli out in Flatbush. A 3 Brothers Deli at 900 8th Avenue. A 4 Brothers Deli at 4402 White Plains Road in the Bronx.

Like I said there's a 5 Brothers Deli on 10th and 47th. A 6 Brothers Deli at 689 10th Avenue. A 7 Brothers Deli over at 719 9th.

There doesn't seem to be a local 8 Brothers Deli, though there is one in Philadelphia. Appropriately enough, "the city of Brotherly Love."

As for 9 Brothers. They're a Circus Act in Yonkers. Right now riding unicycles while juggling.