In the mid-1970's I had a “book,” or portfolio of ads, that was full of clever headlines for small upstate clients, like this early “high tech” ad for Dodge Fibers, introducing Teflon-coated industrial products. The problem was, there was a recession and nobody was hiring.
I followed my pattern of leaping before looking, because smart, sexy Sevan and I wanted to build a life together, and that meant I would have to make it in New York. So, there I was, going months without a job, hanging out at Sevan's TV production company, and it wasn't as easy as I thought. In fact, it was downright tragic. But, as Steve Allen once said, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”
I guess I can laugh about it all now.
It was one of the few help wanted ads for a copywriter all year. It was for an agency that was actually on Madison Avenue. I showed up for an interview. So did every other unemployed copywriter in the tri-state area. If I got the job, Sevan would buy that junk sculpture trolley we saw in the window. The good news was, I got the trolley. The bad news was, I got the job.
The name of the ad agency was Alan Wolsky & Friends. Honestly, I never met any people who called themselves his friends. If this were a Dickens novel, Alan Wolsky would have a more descriptive name – something like Snortly Grumpler, and the agency would be called Fairleigh, Short & Balding, none of the partners in existence, because Grumpler would have squeezed them out, destroying their hopes and dreams and picking over the remains of their honest work like a turkey vulture.
Get the picture?
I was a good – almost great – copywriter. I was inexpensive. He was impossible to work for, and, if I had really listened to him when he hired me, I would have understood. But I desperately needed a job, or I would lose Sevan. She really couldn't stand idleness – hers, mine, or anyone else's.
Snortly – I mean Wolsky – told me his rules. Work Monday through Thursday, 8:30 to 5, Fridays, 8:30 until he released you. Turns out, he was serious. He would often – almost always – make work for people so that he could exercise this abuse of power. Dickens would have pictured his home life in shades of gray and shadows of ebony, and pointed out that if Grumpler couldn't be happy, no one could be happy.
Everybody who worked for him followed those rules. George Romero couldn't have cast the Wolsky employees any better – dead eyes everywhere.
The work itself was okay – I managed to write some interesting billing stuffers for American Express – you know, those overpriced blankets, knives and whatnots that used to fall out of your monthly statement and be thrown away immediately, until the company wised up and attached the offers to the return envelope, so you have to tear it off, guaranteeing that you'll at least see it before you throw it away.
I had a half an hour for lunch, and luckily, I found Paley Park, a delightful pocket park with a waterwall that was only a few minutes walk from the office. I'd either bring a lunch or purchase a cream cheese and walnut sandwich at the little stand there, sit and enjoy the sound of the water drown out the noise of the city and the anguish of my situation.
One day, when everything else in my life was in a Dickensian funk, I decided I had no choice but to walk away.
I guess being enthusiastically willing and readily able to re-enact scenes from erotic novels with your live-in lover isn't enough for a lasting relationship. Maybe for a long distance one, but not a live-in one.
It also doesn't help when the woman's parents are dead set against establishing a permanent, legally sanctioned relationship, their objections based solely on my ethnicity.
It seems that Sevan's Jewish parents forbid her to marry me, simply because Italians were part of the original Axis of Evil during most of WWII. Never mind that my grandparents (all four of them) came from Italy to escape that kind of tyranny. And never mind that, if they had asked, they would have learned that all of my eligible Italo-American relatives fought against the Axis – some of them in the very regions our ancestors came from. I was Italian, that was bad, and that was that.
So, it was time to find my own apartment in Manhattan. It was a studio in the fifties, on the east side, and it was noisy. Most apartments in New York are noisy, and you learn to deal with it. But this place was positioned perfectly so that even the sound that emanated from factories in New Jersey was beamed directly into my bedroom, and amplified by a factor of four million.
Nothing could cancel out the horns, sirens and screeching brakes on the streets outside, or the dancing, laughter and sexual activity from the inside of the building, none of which emanated from my space.
I was more totally alone, and forgotten in Manhattan than the guy who wrote “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
True, I had a found a job. But it was so unrewarding and painful to go to that job, I started to fantasize about sorting shirt fabric in a bleachery or delivering mail in blizzards – two jobs I had experienced between the few college semesters I had under my belt.
I hope the statute of limitations is in effect, because, just as I disappeared from the job, I disappeared from the apartment. My friend John Caldwell came down to the city and helped me load up my few meager possessions, and I skipped out on the lease, although skipping is the wrong word, intimating as it does a kind of free-spirited, carefree attitude. I was full of care. And my spirit was in hock.
Where does a man who runs out on his lease, his job and his dream run to? Mom, of course. There was no place left to turn.
So, failure of failures, I returned to Troy, to a not-too-happy-to-see-me mother, who had to re-convert her sewing room back into a bedroom for her penniless son.
It wasn't like it is these days, when college graduates who can't find work are expected to return to the nest. First of all, I wasn't a college graduate. I had flunked out of college. And I wasn't a kid – I was in my mid thirties, a divorced father of three – the first divorced member of the entire extended Italian family. On both sides. I had no money, no prospects, and there were no jobs in my chosen field.
If ever a mother was entitled to say 'I told you so', my mother was. But, God bless her departed soul, she never said it.
She took me in and helped me out, along with my sister and her husband. My brother-in-law lent me his car so I could go out into the boonies where my three daughters lived with their mother, step-father and his brood, and bring them back for Sunday dinner every other weekend. I'm eternally in their debt.
After being turned down by every ad agency in the area, one ray of hope shone through – a job as assistant communications director for a very well-established outfit – The Albany Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church.
As unlikely as it may seem, promoting the agenda of the church I rejected was the only job that was offered to me, and although I felt I would be punished for it as a blasphemer in Dante's farthest infernal ring, I signed on.
And I met a cast of characters and situations even a fiction writer with the greatest of imaginations could not – would not – have created.
Next time: I'll be damned.