How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.

As with life, this blog is developing and changing. It began with a lot of stories that occurred on my career path from Albany to Madison Avenue and back.

There were some similarities to the AMC series "Mad Men," and then I went even farther back in time with a somewhat fictionalized version of growing up in Troy's Little Italy.

And now, a new development. As my free lance advertising and marketing career winds down, I'm becoming more interested in the theatre arts that my father and his 3 brothers helped instill in me as I grew up.

As a result, I've volunteered to help promote the Theatre Institute at Sage, and now, to continue a long-interrupted desire to be behind the proscenium, I've joined the newly formed Troy Civic Theatre, and was actually fortunate enough to appear in their first production.

So, I hope you'll enjoy the new stories that will develop from this latest turn.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Confessions of a Retrosexual

Retrosexual is a recent neologism that can have many different meanings. I'm using it today to headline what, for me, sex was like ten years after the day“The Pill” was approved, which, incongruously, is exactly fifty years ago today, Mother's Day 2010.

Take it from someone who was married in 1960 and divorced in 1970 – it took a while for the Pill to have its effect.

As I've said, the Sexual Revolution started without me, but I caught up. It wasn't easy, being raised Catholic, and having been indoctrinated into believing that sex was only for married couples, and only for procreation.

All of a sudden, the world changed, and sex was supposed to be for fun, for personal fulfillment, and all because it was now child-proof.

This came as quite a shock, and it took a lot of getting used to. All of a sudden, women could explore their sexuality without the consequences of conception. And men like me had to get used to the idea that women actually wanted sex.

Many times during the seventies, I had to be convinced that a woman really wanted me to do to her what I wanted to do. I didn't even think of it as “with” her. But I was willing to learn.


The New York City Dairylea “shoot” was a wonderful experience, but when it was over, I was still a hick copywriter from upstate, with an unhappy marriage, a girl friend who would soon disappear, and no concept of what to do or where to go next.

Living with a wife and three young daughters in a second floor flat “on the hill” in Cohoes, with a city park abutting our backyard didn't seem too bad to me, but I let myself be persuaded by my in-laws that we should have our own house in the suburbs.

And so we moved, into a development in lower Saratoga county, where the back yard abutted Interstate 87 – the new superhighway from Albany to Canada.

A home can seem like a dream, or a trap, depending on your situation. For me, it symbolized everything I didn't want, and crystallized my terror. Of course I loved my daughters. But I had fathered them without understanding the responsibility I was taking on. Now I was turning thirty, and I was just starting to grow up. I agonized about leaving. I knew I had to. But I kept putting it off.

I wasn't one of those man-boys who constantly leave one woman just to go to another. I knew I had to learn how to be on my own. And besides, after some wonderful – and tearfully honest – nights and weekends with young Andrea McCabe, she had taken off for her backpacking tour of Europe, and I wouldn't hear from her for many, many months, after she had re-settled in Washington, DC.

It was agonizing, but I finally told my wife and children what was inevitable. When our families were told, the very people who were against our getting married were now totally opposed to our getting divorced. I was despised.

My wife, with her strong Catholic upbringing, claimed her life was over. That wasn't true, of course. In fact, within a few months, she was asking for the divorce to be speeded up, so she could marry a man she had met at Parents Without Partners. I complied, they combined families and have been together ever since. I'm glad of that.

But I felt worthless, and took steps to insure that I was. I left Barlow-Johnson, the agency that had given me the opportunity to create award-winning commercials, and joined the spin-off agency with an alcoholic account man and a one-armed art director that was doomed to fail.

With the help of a beautiful, buxom young department store model, Ginny Gosziewska (I don't think that's how she spelled it, but it's as close as I can come), I found and furnished a third-floor walk-up on Albany's State Street, a few blocks from a beautiful park and around the corner from her apartment. We got involved briefly, at her suggestion, but not seriously. Not only was I not ready for the sexual revolution, I was so nervous in bed and so convinced that sex was wrong, I didn't perform well.

She left, too. I remember her sending a letter to me that she had written while she was sitting in London's St. Paul's Cathedral. In it, she extolled what she considered my virtues. I didn't believe I had any, and cynically told her so in a rather cold note. Never heard from her again, of course.

I was getting what I believed I deserved, which wasn't much. But I hadn't hit bottom. Yet.

I'll get back to the fun of advertising soon, but today is a day for some inspirational stories and life lessons.


One of the repeating patterns of my life seems to be a building up of pressure, and a sudden release. It happened at WPTR in 1964, when something about the job of Continuity Director rankled me and I walked out without a plan.

It happened again a few years later, at Barlow/Johnson, the agency that gave me the opportunity to write and produce real, “New York style” radio and TV commercials for Dairylea. I was headquartered in the Latham office, near Albany, and the main office was in Syracuse.

Our office was overseen by Ned, something of a martinet, who seemed to become more rigid as the mores of the country became more permissive. He was in control, and dammit, he would run the office his way. By now, I had joined the rebellion in fashion, had let my hair and beard grow ever longer, and (gasp!) stopped wearing a necktie.

That was the proverbial straw – he insisted on neckwear for the men under his command – me, Richard, an alcoholic account man with “hip pocket” accounts, and Nunzio, a mysterious but extremely talented one-handed art director.

Ned didn't realize it, but Richard and Nunzio had been scheming to break away and start their own ad agency, and because Richard's accounts would go wherever he went, would have a client base to start with, right out of the gate. Nothing as dramatic as the weekend raid at Sterling Cooper at the end of “Mad Men's” third season, but the effect was the same.

They, in fact, carried it off, and shortly thereafter, I departed and joined them, sacrificing a half of what I was making in hopes that we would become wildly successful.

We didn't have a lot of accounts, but those we had, we tried to make the most of. One way to get more accounts is to get attention with the ones you do have. I remember writing a headline for an upscale furniture store's mattress ad that I expected would get lots of reaction. It was a double entendre I heard on David Frost's TV show – “For the bed you can be proud of, every time you make it.”

The ad ran. Nothing happened. People either didn't read it, or didn't get it, or didn't care.

It turned out to be just another reason for me to feel worthless.


It was one of the worst days of my life. It was 1970. My first marriage was over. I had left three beautiful little daughters, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. Even I didn't know why.

I was thirty years old, making less than ten thousand dollars a year working for an alcoholic who only dreamed of matching his father's advertising greatness, but who was incapable of achieving it. I was giving half of my meager take-home pay in child support, living on peanut butter sandwiches and milk, in one-half of a third floor walk-up.

Only one electric outlet worked and, on the worst winter days, I had to use the kitchen oven to heat the place, because the old furnace couldn't push enough hot water into the ugly, icy radiators. It was the first time I had ever lived on my own, and I didn't have enough self-esteem to ask for the needed improvements.

My third floor neighbors were an incongruous couple, a bright, well-scrubbed elementary school teacher named Pam, and her drugged-out boyfriend, Willie. I gave them a key to my apartment, in case -- I don't know in case of what, but I did it.

It was a cold, dark, sleety day, I had no car and had to take what passed for public transportation in Albany – a noisy, smelly bus that only ran from the suburban office once every two hours, and didn't even get me home, but to a corner on the edge of the most depressing part of the city, seven blocks away from my apartment.

As I trudged home in my Gohn Brothers black coat, with my long-haired, bearded head bowed down to avoid the sting of sleet and the eyes of strangers, I felt like I was in an unlikely painting that had come to life, a collaboration of Munch and Hopper. I plodded up to the third floor, unlocked the door to my apartment, and in the dark, without wanting to turn on the lights to see my living room with its few pieces of other people's cast-off furniture, I walked into the bedroom, threw my coat on the bed, and returned to the front room, sat on what passed for a sofa, and with head down, tried to think of a reason not to kill myself.

It was then that I started smelling something you shouldn't be smelling in your living room. It was unmistakably the smell of excrement.

Am I that depressed that I shit my pants and didn't even know it?,” I asked myself. I didn't think so. I reached over and turned on the room's one lamp. I looked at my shoes. I had stepped in a dog's leavings, and left a trail. But the trail came not from the front door, but from the bedroom. And I didn't have a dog. But Pam and Willie did. I changed my shoes and went next door.

Pam and Willie were home. I asked them if they had let their dog into my apartment. No, they hadn't, but there was a stray dog on the street and they took him in. Trouble was, the two dogs didn't get along, so they put the stray in my apartment for a while.

Well,” I said, “that dog shit in my bedroom and I tracked it in to my living room. I'd appreciate it if you'd clean it up.”

And they did. And I sat there, actually laughing. Here I was, at such a low point, trying to find a reason not to commit suicide, and God, or The Mistress of the Universe, or whatever you call what got us here and keeps us here, had given me an answer.

The answer, the way I interpreted it was: just when you think things can't get any worse, something's going to happen to make you laugh. Even if it takes dogshit in your bedroom, it will happen. And if you don't like that reason for living, read Hamlet's soliloquy. That's what I did that night, and found a reason to go on.

Soon after that, Sevan called. And life got very interesting again.

Next time: A long distance relationship with a city woman and the big city.

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