Blogging was rain delayed today!! :)
Gary and I have been watching Mad Men, season two, on video. We became addicted to it when Robert bought season one and shared it with us. I suppose we shouldn’t admit to even liking it since it is essentially about sex, alcohol, smoking, and back-stabbing in a 1960s New York advertising agency. But I find it fascinating because it mirrors some of my own experiences. I worked for an ad agency from 1971-73.
We were so far from the glamorous world of Mad Men that our little agency shouldn’t even have used the term “advertising”, but the owner must have thought he was in the big league because he wore a flashy suit, drove a Lincoln, and owned an airplane. His daughter and son-in-law ran the agency and he honored us with his presence and opinions about once per quarter, more often if we did something stupid.
We created grocery ads, drug store ads, and a few department store ads. I have no idea what the sales department did because most of them were part of “the family”. I worked in the art department. We also had a union print shop next door.
The art department was staffed by one of the strangest groups of people I have ever worked with. I’m not sure if it was the creative nature of the business or just the hiring practices of the front office, but we had some genuine characters in our department. First of all, I have to tell you that I was there because I desperately needed a break in my life.
I had worked for the county hospital for just over a year and in that time I had seen numerous people die. I had watched a patient try to jump from the ledge across from our office. I had worked in the TB, psychiatric, ER, geriatric and neo-natal departments one too many times. I had been part of a strange case that would later go to court as a wrongful death suit. I’d been in a traffic accident on my lunch break. I’d been stalked for months by a salesman who visited the hospital offices. I’d just had a baby and was on maternity leave. I had to find a new job instead of returning to the hospital.
So…when an ad appeared in the paper for a proof-reader at an ad agency, I thought my dreams had come true. It was easy. It would be fun. It paid more money. Not for a moment did I foresee how different it would be from what I imagined.
My first shock was that I worked in the basement. No windows. I can’t even begin to describe what an adjustment that was for me.
I started in the proofing room with three other employees. Easy stuff. We checked every line of copy for mistakes. We checked prices, spelling, wording, and placement. We checked to make sure the illustration matched the copy. We had to make sure the Del Monte copy said “catsup” and Heinz said “ketchup”. I was a whiz and I put two proof-readers to shame with my speed and accuracy. J The guy next to me was good, but he was smart-alecky. After about a month the boss had a talk with the two of us and told us we were going to be trained for the art department as “paste-up artists”. Since both of us had shown such a flare for catching mistakes, he wanted us at the source of the ads, and then the department wouldn’t have to correct so many mistakes later. Made sense, and the art department seemed much more exciting than the proofing room.
Now you have to remember that this was the seventies. The art department consisted of two typesetters, an artist who did illustrations by hand, a “color cutter” who made plastic overlays for each color to be printed, four grocery ad artists who hand lettered and illustrated the grocery ads, and six paste-up artists who cut, waxed, and aligned the typeset copy and illustrations for the drug store and department store ads.
The typesetting machine at the agency was as big as a refrigerator and had its own room! The two typesetters worked at key boards and attempted to translate the copy turned in by the stores. Much of the copy was hand-written so that was the first opportunity for mistakes. One of the typesetters was the sweet young wife of a seminary student (who by the way later officiated at our wedding). The other was a hippy who wore short-shorts and white shirts, without a bra, and was constantly in trouble with the front office over her appearance. Her boyfriend played in a rock band. I could never understand how they got along in that little 8x8 room without hurting each other.
The freshly typed copy arrived in our department and had to be trimmed and waxed. It was waxed by putting it through a machine with rollers. The hot wax adhered to the back of the copy and that allowed it to stick to the pages and yet be moved several times if necessary. We worked, standing, at drafting tables with large rulers called t-squares. We aligned the copy, double checked it with the t-square to make sure it was straight, and mashed it down with a roller. Then we checked it again to make sure we hadn’t moved it too much. Completed pages were then turned over to our boss for a quick check before being sent to the proofing room.
My boss died long ago of a massive heart attack. He was only 42. I remember that one of the first things he ever told me was that he wanted me at the drafting table in front of his desk, “So I can train you, and so I can look at your ass.” Did I say it was the seventies? He did know the business, and he did train me quite well, but I was never comfortable knowing he was watching me and there wasn’t much I could do about it other than quit. Other men in the department made obscene remarks all the time- to me and to every other woman- I guess we just became oblivious to most of it. They also told bad jokes, smoked , drank insane quantities of coffee, gambled at lunch time in serious poker games with the printers, and drank insane quantities of liquor at local bars after work.
One of my boss’s vices was sugar and cream with a little coffee thrown in for color. I am not kidding when I tell you that he put seven teaspoons of sugar and half a cup of cream in a cup and then poured coffee in it. He carried that cup and a cigarette in one hand. He’d put the cup down and the cigarette in his mouth if he had to show you something. Thankfully he couldn’t stand too close to anyone because his huge stomach got in the way. His winnings at the noon poker games were legendary and his losses with the women in his life were too.
Our color cutter also smoked constantly- I mean every moment of the day. He was also deaf and only a couple of people on the staff knew enough sign language to tell him what to do. Just imagine for a moment the panic and confusion of the department the day he set his trash can on fire! We were all shouting like idiots until the guy closest to him ran over and grabbed the trash can and poured coffee in it.
The illustrator was a Southeast Asian man who spoke very little English, but was far, far more talented than our agency deserved. I always got the impression that he’d been in a much higher position in his own country. He was supporting a large family and trying to get other family members moved over to America.
The men in our department were all older, except for the young kid who moved from proofing with me. I realize now that most worked for our agency because they couldn’t get a job at the real agencies or they had been pushed aside for younger, better ad men. For the most part they just did their jobs, although one flirted with me constantly. I went out with him a couple of times and then found out that he wasn’t really divorced, but only temporarily “separated” from his wife. A liar and a cheat. Oh well. I think one of the other guys was in a permanent state of depression. The world, at least his version of it, was going to end at any moment.
The only other woman on our side of the department was a wiry, fast-talking older woman who was married to a contractor and had twin teenage boys who drove her absolutely crazy. She smoked like a chimney and cursed like a sailor. In the second year of my employment, after Gary and I were married, we bought a new Blazer and I took her for a ride in it at lunch time. She dropped her cigarette and burned a hole in the front seat!
The grocery side of the department included a woman whose little brother had been in my high school class. She was a flamboyant blond who entertained everyone with detailed stories of her busy social life. She and her colleagues loved music, so the radio always blared in their department. I remember the day they called everyone over to hear Roberta Flack singing “The First Time ever I Saw Your Face”. The whole staff actually stopped working until the song was finished. Her co-worker was a tiny Hispanic woman who claimed to have no sense of taste whatsoever because of a childhood case of some disease. She ate only things with crunchy textures- no creams, sauces, puddings, dips, mashed potatoes, etc. She was so skinny and so short she looked like a child. The boss of the grocery department was a big teddy bear of a guy who had long bangs that he frequently pulled on in frustration over some problem with the copy. He was very young and had trouble controlling the women in his department. He wanted to be a real artist, but was stuck writing “two bunches for a $1” and drawing broccoli. He smoked in a way that always looked like he was angry with the cigarette. The only other guy in his department was a young man who was still learning the trade, was very quiet, and who I suspect had a boyfriend at home.
My time at the agency was like a roller coaster ride. There was always drama in someone’s life. With all the drinking, smoking, womanizing, and gambling going on there had to be drama. The child of one of my co-workers tried to kill himself. The owner’s family became embroiled in a bitter battle over the adulterous behavior of one of its members. One of the office staff married a printer and was forced, over the objections of the rest of the women, to quit because of the danger of a “conflict of interest”. There was a bad poker game that resulted in some angry words and very bad behavior. Then there was a printer’s strike and we were subjected to all kinds of verbal abuse for working. My boss had his first heart problems. My lying co-worker finally got that divorce. We lost several clients. Our hours were cut back. I suppose others might have seen the signs, but for me the end of the ride came abruptly…
We were given our checks as usual, without so much as a word of warning. I took mine to the bank and it was “refused for lack of funds”. That’s when we found out the company had filed for bankruptcy. The profits had been spent on vacations and Lincolns and airplanes! It would be three months before we got paid. In the meantime the company lost most of its staff and carried on with only the most loyal, or most desperate members. I went on to a series of six very bad short-term jobs. But I learned from each one and eventually ended up with a winner that I loved for two years.
I guess that’s a very long reason for enjoying a television show! But sometimes it’s fun to remember those crazy years. And maybe my stories help explain why I’m a little crazy!