by R. Dean Johnson
Tom doesn’t know I’ve been avoiding him. It hasn’t exactly been a conscious thing. There wasn’t an argument or a last straw; I’ve had no epiphany or change of heart. It just sort of happened.
Really, we’ve always been semester friends—hanging out when classes are in session, rarely doing much together on spring, winter, or summer breaks. But now we’ve graduated, both with business degrees from a school that has a great reputation for engineering. There were a couple graduation get-togethers, high fives and handshakes, bottles of beer and the occasional shot, the grin and requisite, “We did it.” Then, nothing. A perpetual break.
It felt normal at first, summer trips, hanging out with old friends back home, even a summer job that that meant nothing, paid almost nothing, just kept me busy while I looked for a real job. My career job.
But now it’s been too long and I know the call is coming: The one where Tom will catch me at home, force me to catch up, force me to account for my life over the past seven or eight or however many months it’s been, and I really don’t want to catch up. Not yet.
I’ve moved back to my mom’s house to save money and be closer to my “for now” job, the one I try not to talk about to anyone anywhere. I’m a valet at the Disneyland Hotel, a college graduate who parks cars and begs for tips. This might be fine if I at least had a girlfriend. I don’t. I don’t despite the three Christines I sort of dated my senior year: Christine from Advertising Club, Christine my coworker in the administration building, and Christine from Finance Class. The last Christine, the finance one, has been stringing me along since graduation and I just don’t want to go into that with Tom or worse, Tom’s girlfriend Shelly, who is always perplexed I don’t have a girlfriend and always saying, “We need to set you up with somebody,” but never setting me up.
It’s early on a Friday evening when the call comes, when I hear Tom’s Chicago-laced “Bah-bo!” ringing in my ear. He says it’s been awhile, then asks, “How you doing, man?”
I’m doing terrible, which is why my Disney valet voice takes over. My tone lands somewhere between sunshine and reassurance. It’s the voice that can make a family of five with mismatched luggage crammed into a sweaty mini-van feel just as welcome as the guy in the tailored suit who tips you just for saying good evening. It’s confident, friendly, and completely fake. “You know me, Tommy. It’s good to be me.”
A couple Friday nights ago after a party, I sat on the front steps of my mother’s house and listed the headlines of my life: Twenty-two and single. College graduate. Valet.
I’ve learned to hate people in Mercedes-Benzes because they’re old money and tip bad. I’ve learned to hate people in BMW’s because they’re young and successful and tip well, and that should be me. I stand on a curb and talk about cars I’ll never own, open doors for women I’ll never meet, and feel homicidal when a guy in a Ferrari stiffs me because I didn’t get his fast car to him fast enough.
If my mother could just be intrusive, expectant, simple, lazy, racist, too religious or not religious enough—anything out of a Flannery O’Connor story—this would all be easier. I could blame everything on her. But she is none of that. She is hard-working, understanding, and supportive. She’s proud of me for God’s sake. It’s awful. This is all my fault.
So there I sat in the dark, a little drunk, and cried just long enough to feel guilty and stupid for crying. I’m young, educated, and healthy. I’ve got good friends and good family support (my father is also inexplicably proud of me). Yes, the thought of going up to my old room—surrounded by my old baseball trophies and high school track medals, U2 and Smiths posters—was depressing, but alcohol is also a depressant. I knew that. That had to be part of it. This was just temporary. A speed bump. It had to be.
I ask Tom how he’s doing and hear exactly what I’m expecting: “Awesome.”
I believe him. Tom grew up in Chicago, yet in five years he’s adapted to So Cal in ways I haven’t managed in twenty. He may have a Ford Escort, but it’s a white one with the sports package so the spoiler, ground effects, CD player and big speakers make it a good car to be seen in.
The previous spring, when Tom and I were hopeful seniors about to graduate in the midst of a recession, we were seen in the Escort in Palm Springs. Of course Tom had friends who had a condo for Spring Break. Of course he was nice enough to invite me. And after a couple days in the desert, of course he had friends in San Diego who would let us crash on their living room couches. Just like that we were in the Escort, driving diagonally across the Mojave desert to San Diego where we would party with said friends, party at the beach, party in Tijuana, and make it safely back to school tanned, tired, and happy.
On the phone, Tom asks what my plans are for the night.
“Open for business,” I say.
“Sweet,” he says. “Remember Albert?” Albert and Tom were in the Marketing Club together and did mock projects and went to national competitions. They wore suits and gave practice presentations. It’s something I probably should have done, but it all seemed ridiculous at the time, especially since I was going to be a copywriter at a slick Los Angeles advertising agency and probably wear shorts to work every day.
“Yeah,” I say. “I remember Albert. Where’s he working?”
“He hasn’t found anything permanent,” Tom says and suddenly I’m recalling Albert fondly. “But he’s been interning at this modeling agency in L.A. and they’re throwing a hotel party tonight.” Albert, it turns out, can get us both in. “Think about it, Bah-bo. Models!”
Tom offers to drive the Escort. I’m so glad I picked up the phone.
The summer before graduation, Tom and I both worked internships at L.A. advertising agencies. He got stuck filing things and running errands. I landed at Thompson Recruitment Advertising in West Los Angeles. It was a new, niche agency formed out of J. Walter Thompson, one of the giants from advertising’s heyday of martini lunches, fat bonuses for everyone, and client parties at swanky hotels. JWT. That’s what you called it: J-W-T. The Creative Services Director had just transferred from JWT – New York. The Creative Director had just moved down from JWT – San Francisco. The big wigs were all at JWT – Chicago. And dammit, JWT – Seattle was always on the phone, forever understaffed, always with some new crisis, some impossible deadline they’d agreed to and needed LA to bail them out.
And even though we were just a cog in that big JWT wheel, even though our name could only be abbreviated to the semi-cool, Thompson Recruitment, our office was on Wilshire Boulevard with all the other big-time ad agencies. From my twenty-second floor cubicle, the Beverly Center was spitting distance away—just a mall, but Beverly Hills’s mall. A few more miles west and it’s the Westwood Village, UCLA, and Brentwood, or in LAmen’s terms: money, money, money.
On my first day, the Creative Director told me I had a lot to learn but I’d learn it; they’d turn me into a real copywriter by the end of summer, make me the hip ad guy I’d imagined myself since switching majors. He assigned me to a senior copywriter named Schraff who had an ex-wife, a young daughter (over whom he doted), and a vintage Mercedes. Schraff also had a few deadlines hanging over his head and no time for an intern, so for the first few days I alphabetized print ads and brochures that were going into the agency’s library. Schraff promised I wouldn’t spend my summer filing so I should use this as an opportunity to learn the agency’s clients. He meant it.
My first real project was a print ad for Del Monte, or as I’d learned through my filing, the multi-million dollar, hundred year-old company that cans just about every fruit and vegetable imaginable. Del Monte needed some accountants in their corporate office. The suits (what hip ad guys call the account people) were buying ad space in the back of some trade magazines only read by accountants and college seniors hoping to become accountants.
After reading the rest of the background material in my job folder, further becoming a temporary expert on the company, product, and target audience, I filled two pages of lined paper with headlines. Schraff said to write at least fifty, from which I could show him ten, which I did, and he chose: “Last Year, We Canned Thousands.”
“It’s a great line,” Schraff said. (Hip advertising guys don’t call it a headline). He said the irony was smart and then showed me how my other lines were clever but not smart. There’s a difference. Bad copywriters, hacks, write clever. Good copywriters write smart. We presented the lines to John, the Creative Director, who agreed that the ironic line was the best of the lot and not too bad, especially for an intern.
As we walked back to Schraff’s office, he translated John’s reaction as a genuine complement. John wasn’t supposed to get excited; he was in charge. Schraff then picked through a stack of job folders on his desk until he found the Fujitsu project, my reward for the Del Monte success. Fujitsu needed some software engineers and the suits were planning a radio spot on some college radio stations. “Take a crack at it,” he said.
It was early June. I’d been interning for a week. I was so in.
On the way to Hollywood, Tom wants more details on my life after graduation. I avoid talk of the three Christines and pare down months of frustration to one significant accomplishment: taking a copywriting class I saw an ad for in Advertising Week (a trade magazine for people who are in advertising or want to be). “You know that Nissan campaign, ‘Built for the Human Race?’” Tom nods. “That’s the guy who taught the class. He’s at Dentsu, but he used to be at DMB&B.” To show how accomplished an ad guy I’ve become, I spit out: “D’Arcy, Masius, Benton, & Bowles. It’s way west on Wilshire, almost at the beach.”
I tell Tom I’ve been working hard on my portfolio, which is more important than your resume for getting an advertising job. This is all true. I say my book (because a hip ad guy doesn’t call his portfolio a portfolio) is done and I’m just trying to make it better. This is also true. For months I’ve been applying for any entry-level copywriting job the Advertising Week classifieds have to offer. I’ve had just two interviews, no offers, and don’t tell Tom any of this.
Tom keeps the music pumping in the Escort, nodding his approval to everything I tell him, like how the Dentsu guy says keeping up with pop culture is vital. It keeps you from repeating what’s cool now and makes you write what’s going to be cool next. That’s how you stay a hip ad guy, even before you are one.
“Sweet,” Tom says again and again until I’m out of news I’m willing to share. Then, he tells me why a guy with a girlfriend is allowed to go to a modeling agency party without her: “Shelly and I broke up.”
She’d gotten a job and an apartment in downtown L.A. and asked Tom if he thought it was time to take the next step. He knew it was, but he wasn’t ready, so she gave him a deadline, a date that was passed, extended, and passed again in the months since Tom and I last spoke.
My first draft of the Fujitsu radio commercial was good, though you call it a spot, not a commercial. I’d made some comparison between Bruce Springsteen and hard work. Schraff said if radio spots ran for two minutes, I’d be all set. Radio spots are one minute. Fifty-eight seconds, actually, because you allow a second at each end for the previous and following spots. “Tighten it,” Schraff said and this became his mantra for the summer: When the lines were tightened and we’d chosen one for the head, I’d have to tighten the subheads. When the subs were tight it was time to tighten the copy. I was forever tightening copy. The designers and art directors don’t want copy taking up too much space. The creative director wants the copy to sing. The client wants the copy to be as informative as an annual report. It’s a riddle and interesting on the first or second revision. After all, copywriters write copy. It gets frustrating around the sixth or seventh revision when you’ve done everything everyone has asked and they still come back with something to add, something to take out, or when one of the suits reminds you that this particular client doesn’t like big words, or long sentences, or conjunctions. All of these rewrites, the frustration mounting, and then one afternoon Schraff told me what every copywriter should know: “Nobody reads the copy.”
Schraff meant the target audience, the people for whom the ad is intended once it’s approved and finally in a newspaper or magazine. The other copywriters at Thompson Recruitment confirmed this. People read the head and if they like it, scan the ad for the subs or bullet points. If they’re still interested, they go right to the bottom of the page to see what they’re supposed to do (call now), or where they’re supposed to go (stop by for a test drive), or how they should be thinking (Coke is the real thing).
This was copywriting, the real thing, which was fine by me. With every tightened line, every annoying revision and revealed secret, I was closer to hip ad guy greatness.
The modeling agency party is at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel—an L.A. landmark where the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, and Shirley Temple stayed. Where the first ever Academy Awards were held. Where Marilyn Monroe posed on the pool’s diving board for a sun tan lotion ad. The party is in that very pool area. Hors d’oeuvres will be served. There will be an open bar. It’s so LA.
In the Escort, Tom and I prepare for the models we are certain to meet. We know they’ll be too pretty to look at. They’ll have heard every clever line in the book, so we consider purposely awkward lines to catch them off guard: “Hi, I’m Tom; my aunt is very sick.” We brainstorm obtuse lines to seem aloof and unimpressed: “I’m sorry, I don’t shake hands; can I get you some fresh fruit?” We toy with the absurd: “Hi, I’m Bob, it’s terribly disfiguring to meet you.”
By the time we arrive, we think after a drink we can go for one of these approaches. We’re not sure which. Maybe we’ll know after two drinks.
On casual Fridays at Thompson Recruitment, I’d wear something from my collection of thought-provoking t-shirts. Sometimes it was a band t-shirt, like The Smiths one with the kid eating ice cream or my U2, Joshua Tree one that was a statement on everything from apartheid South Africa to exploited El Salvador. My favorite was the one with the American and Soviet Union flags side-by-side, on fire, revealing a giant peace symbol beneath. The Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall had fallen back in November, and I was all about Soviet Premiere Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika.
Thompson Recruitment, however, was all about billings. Clients. Profit. They had several defense contractors on the balance sheet and Schraff started bringing me projects for Northrop and Grumman. They were still in business. Still building hi-tech ways to kill people and they needed some new blood, young engineers who could inject a little life and creativity into the killing business. I told Schraff I’d rather work on the Chevron project, or the USC University Hospital project, because when it came to writing ads for defense contractors, I was a conscientious objector. Schraff said he had no problems with my politics, though I’d be an out-of-work conscientious objector if I couldn’t suck it up and write the ads I’d been assigned. I grumbled, sulked, and finally wrote for the target audience of worried Engineering grads: “The Cold War is Ending, and We’re Just Getting Hot.”
Schraff congratulated me for doing a good job despite my views. I tried to think about the future, the cool LA digs I’d move into (maybe near the beach) and the car I’d buy (maybe a Jeep) now that my soul was safely tucked into my wallet.
When Tom and I tell the huge guy holding the clipboard our names, he shines his tiny flashlight on the list and finds them. Albert has come through. We’re totally in.
The hotel pool area is not huge like something in Las Vegas, rent isn’t that cheap in L.A., but it is nice—lots of tropical plants, soft music filling the air, and flowers floating in the pool. The party is busy but not over-crowded. The open bar has everything but a long line. Tom and I know enough not to get beer; we don’t want to look like a couple of frat boys. We get real drinks, a Martini and a Whiskey Sour, then over-tip to prove we can afford more drinks later if, for instance, we end up at The Roxy or The Palace, dancing with models.
We find a spot near a planter, a blind where we can look for Albert and glance at the dozens of women who come in all flavors of magazine beautiful. We wonder if Albert can introduce us to any of them and we nod in the direction of our favorites, the ones we just might talk to as soon as we finish these drinks.
In July, Thomson Recruitment threw a lunchtime company picnic at a park in the Fairfax District. Schraff drove us over in the Mercedes. The CBS studios were right across from the park—a big, bland, box of a building I loved as a child because shows like The Price is Right and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour began with the announcement, “From Television City in Hollywood, this is [insert show title here].” No matter the day or the hour, I was certain Bob Barker and Cher were inside, just yards away from me in the family Pontiac.
A lot of the creatives were stuck back at the office, trying to meet a big deadline. I ended up at a picnic table with the suits, most of whom I did not know, including the woman who sat down next to me. She asked if I were a freelancer and I made a joke about being a freelance intern. “How about you?” I said.
She introduced herself with a name that sounded familiar, followed by her title: Chief Executive Officer.
I tried not to let that intimidate me, not that she was trying to, and said, “So now is that a figurehead position, or do they actually make you work?”
She assured me that she did indeed work, then stopped talking to me altogether.
When I found Schraff standing by the swings, I reported what I’d said.
“Ohhhhhhh,” Schraff said. “Did you really say that?”
He laughed, then said he shouldn’t have laughed, then decided to take me back to the office before I said anything else that might annoy anyone who mattered.
The thing about a modeling agency party is that while there are a lot of young, single, beautiful women around, there are also be a lot of young, single, beautiful men. Every other guy around the pool looks like James Dean, only with better hair, or Elvis Presley, young Elvis except with an earring and a little a less greasy. Their designer shirts and sport coats put them ahead of the fashion curve, make them simultaneously gorgeous and manly. Worse, these guys can talk shop with the women. They share anecdotes about diva makeup artists and debate which photographers are hacks and which are true artists.
Tom and I have made friends with a couple other non-model guys who, like us, are now on at least their third drink and not moving from the comfort zone of this very spot. It’s a middle school dance with alcohol and it gets worse the moment one of our new friends, coming back from the bar, says Keanu Reeves, the actor and undeniable heartthrob (even if you think he’s a terrible actor), is sitting on a planter by the pool. He’s Hollywood big at this very moment. His last two films, Point Break and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, have been making a lot of semi-talented people really rich. His other recent role in My Own Private Idaho, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, is an actual attempt at acting. No matter the results, you can’t fault him for that. And there he is, stubbly face and stringy hair mostly hidden beneath his hooded poncho. He looks normal, even kind of awful, but he’s Keanu Reeves looking awful. Keanu Reeves in a semi-circle of guys, sipping drinks and also not talking to models.
One morning before the two hour commute from my mother’s house in Anaheim to Thompson Recruitment, I watched a news story about Iraq invading some country I never knew existed, Kuwait. There was video of military helicopters hovering at window-level with the skyline of Kuwait City. But other than thinking they’d given that city a pretty unimaginative name, a real hack job, it didn’t seem to matter to me at all. Besides, Schraff had me working on the Chevron project, a self-serving print ad for their employee outreach programs. I’d coupled a photo of various Chevron employees with the line, “We Put A Lot of Energy Into Developing Tomorrow’s Resources.” Schraff said it was smart. The copy, however, was a mess.
On a fifth or sixth draft of the copy, I ran into Schraff just outside John’s office. “It’s ready,” I said. John opened his door just then and stepped into the doorway, a grin on his face, happy to watch his senior copywriter mentor the intern.
“Is it tight?” Schraff said.
“It’s tighter than Sheena Easton’s stomach,” I said, knowing this was a funny line, ready to bask in approving smiles from Schraff and John.
John smiled on cue. Schraff gave it a laugh and said, “From the Bally’s commercials?” It was exactly what I’d meant. For months Bally’s Gyms had been running spots with the Scottish pop star, Sheena Easton. She struts on a Stairmaster in a black dress and high heels, then sort of lifts, sort of dances with silver dumbbells in a “gym” that’s lit up in neon like a nightclub, the other people in the gym dancing behind her. Clever, yes. But smart? What full-time mom or career woman wants to carve an hour out of her day for a gym packed with sultry Sheena Eastons?
“Oh, is that a commercial?” I said to Schraff. “I thought it was a music video.”
Schraff’s smile disappeared. John’s face went back to Creative Director serious and he muttered an, “Excuse me guys,” as he stepped between us, headed for the elevators.
Once John was more than ear-shot away, Schraff said, “There’s no way you could have known this, but John art directed those spots when he was at JWT – San Francisco.”
So that was it. I’d just offended the guy who could write me a weighty letter of recommendation, the guy who might have opened the door of JWT – Chicago or New York for me.
Schraff assured me John wasn’t angry, probably just in a hurry. Everything would be fine.
“Okay,” I said, certain that it wouldn’t be.
Around the fourth drink Tom and I are ready to surrender. I tell Tom I’ve got to powder my nose before we find the car and make the long retreat back to my mom’s house. It’s the best line I’ve had all night, and I wasted it on Tom.
Near the doors to the lobby, two new guys are taking in the scene: one in a grey suit, all business, clearly not a model; the other a curly-haired guy in glasses, a mustache, and some kind of patterned, button-up shirt, almost a Hawaiian or a fifties retro but not quite hip or ironic enough to be intentional. They’re an odd duo, meaning one of these guys must be somebody, and when the curly-haired guy gives me the cowboy nod—the slight, friendly bow of the head that says, “Howdy, stranger”—I recognize him. “Weird Al” Yankovic looks exactly like the nerdy, goofy, architecture student he once was in college. He also looks exactly like he does in his music videos, meaning he couldn’t look less like the pseudo rock star he actually is. I don’t own any of his albums, though turning Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” into “Like a Surgeon” and revising Michael Jackson’s, “I’m bad / you know it,” to, “I’m fat / you know it,” make me laugh every time. Not exactly biting satire, but clever.
I return Weird Al’s nod and his eyes dart to the side, then back to me before getting a fraction bigger, his lips drawing together into this frown that’s also a grin, and it’s as if he’s saying, “We’re out of our league here, but if you don’t tell anyone neither will I.”
Late in the summer, John caught me at the elevator on my way to lunch. I acknowledged him with a nod and decided not speaking unless spoken to would be best. After a few floors worth of elevator music, John said Schraff had been singing my praises, carrying on about how much I’d learned. “What are your plans for fall?” John said.
We stepped into the lobby and John said based on the agency’s workload and Schraff’s recommendation, he’d be willing to take me on full-time.
“What about school?” I said.
“You don’t need to finish school. You can work for us now.”
“I feel like I should,” I said, feeling at first young and not ready for a real job, then just as quickly thinking that if I’m hot property now, without my degree, I’ll be even hotter this time next year after graduation.
“Well, think about it,” John said, jingling his car keys and suddenly in a hurry. “It’s salaried and comes with full benefits. You don’t need the degree.”
In Tom’s Escort, we say how impossible it would have been to talk to any of those women. Even if we’d somehow gotten a conversation started, Tom says, what would they want with an under-employed college graduate? He isn’t just talking about me; he means himself. Tom hasn’t had any luck since graduation either. He was certain I’d have gotten an advertising job by now and all these months had felt too embarrassed to call. But then Albert called him about the party and, well, he couldn’t not call me about that.
I tell Tom about a creative director who called to say I was the best runner-up for a position he’d ever had. At my only other interview, the creative director’s sole comment was to point out a typo in my book. I tell Tom stories about being a valet, about getting verbally abused because the free parking spots were full, or the dinner service was slow, or the directions to Hollywood didn’t account for all the traffic on Interstate 5.
We drive and talk, really talk, and it’s the best part of the night.
Outside my mom’s house, we make plans. Tom’s sister is in a sorority at San Diego State and she’s invited him down for some tailgate parties. He’s already met the sisters. They’re beautiful, smart, and best of all, approachable. I’ll have college and the worries about graduating during a recession in common with them.
When I actually meet these women in the fall, Tom is right. They think interning at a hip L.A. advertising agency must have been amazing. They have plenty of friends who are under-employed too. And when I share my theory about having the rest of my life to work and how a mindless, no-pressure tipping job is actually a nice break after college, they buy it, especially when I add the line, “I get to wear shorts to work every day.” It’s a good line, and it gets me through the year until I land an actual advertising job. It’s a small shop, fifty miles south of L.A. in the ultra-planned, uptight, conservative and immaculately clean city of Irvine. But I’m thankful to be a junior copywriter with a terrible salary, and Tom is just blocks away in a business park, manning a cubicle at an investment bank and getting paid really well to crunch numbers.
A couple times a week, Tom picks me up for lunch in his new, swept profile, six-CD changer, metallic red Ford Probe. We discuss plans for the weekends, talk about maybe getting an apartment near the beach, or maybe, when our resumes are a little stronger, moving on to something bigger and better, something L.A., or Santa Monica, or at least San Diego.
R. Dean Johnson grew up in Southern California and now lives in Kentucky with his wife, the writer Julie Hensley, and their two children. An Associate Professor in Eastern Kentucky University’s low residency MFA in creative writing program, the Bluegrass Writers Studio, his essays have appeared in Ascent, Louisville Review, Natural Bridge, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. For information about his forthcoming story collection, Delicate Men (Alternative Book Press), visit www.rdeanwriter.com.