ED: Scroll/Skim/or Skip (S/S/S)…
“Keen fear of failure
dogged this climb from the start—
ink pen to the heart.”
“What are we looking at on the CPMs and CPTs on this?”
“Hitting budget targets across the saturation buy… significantly beating the SRDS millines.”
“You’ll get me those figures?”
“I’ll have Media messenger them over to you by end of day, sir.”
I fought to keep my eyes from floating over to the wraparound view, like so many ice cubes in the Perrier. My copy outbox was incrementally catching up with the inbox, to the point where FBC’s creative superiors had dragged me along to a key client luncheon with ChicagoOne Bancorp, specifically its marketing arm, amid interagency rumors that the city’s largest financial account might soon be under review. The adworld scuttlebutt had brought CD Phil Richmond scrambling back from New York, directing Ralph Desman’s bank team to beat a path over to ChicagoOne’s headquarters just off LaSalle Street on a progress/fence mending mission. Having picked up new blazer and slacks, I’d become marginally more presentable over the 13-hour days, to where Lacey and Bob Gelvart saw fit to expose me to the accounts presentable side of the business.
What I hadn’t anticipated in a Checker Cab ride through the Loop was that our exercise in client contact would take us up to the 60th floor of ChicagoOne Center, the city’s tallest skyscraper inside CTA’s downtown elevated tracks—more specifically the bank’s penthouse-style conference suite. Before taking a sideline seat at the horseshoe table, I walked the full four-corner window wall tour of the cityscape like a sightseeing Effingham joskin atop Sears Tower. Yet a sunny west suburban view clear out to Willow Grove did give me perspective pause until bank Marketing Director, Theodore Sandley and two subordinates called this lofty meeting to order.
“We will need to execute on the campaign collateral side, as well.” He shuffled through our status folder.
“We’re already on that, Mr. Sandley,” Lacey nodded my way. “Including the display cylinders, broadside mailers, countertop cards and teller window P.O.P.”
“I’ll also need to see your brand/message continuity on the entire creative mix…”
“We’ll be prepared to present comps by week’s end…”
“Keep me posted on pilgrim’s progress, Ms. Abbott-Tanzer,” said the Bancorp’s mid-career marketing director, collating his advertising reports and memos as we stood in unison the file out of the conference suite. “Forge ahead, people. Trust the lunch fare was to your liking. Now, better get good and better while the getting’s good, capische?”
Bank on that, I thought, folding my linen napkin, along with any pretense to really grasping all the undercurrents of this high-power summit. An initial item on the agenda was lunch itself: Grecian salads, sirloin sandwiches au jus, mixed berry compote with gold foil-wrapped mints on the side. Pullman-style waiters plied us with French Roast coffee, silver trays of china creamers and honey pots; by the time Sandley tapped his water glass, the entire horseshoe was primed to herd the agenda along.
I seconded successive refills, as several weeks of day-night marathons in the office had frayed my connective wiring. Speed reading client and account notes had taken its toll, not to mention brainstorming the hook and head, outlining the subheads and body copy, finding the tone and USP, juggling copy ‘voices’ between consumer durables and non-durables, straddling the line between denotative and connotative meaning, editing and word counting early drafts, revising and rewriting what bounced back in critical carmine red.
More and more, I found myself wringing my brain like a Checker cab wash sponge, dozing off at the Selectric keys, pumping Joe DiMaggio strong and black, taking spooky mind-clearing riverwalk runs past Marina City and the Merchandise Mart, cat naps on the 16th floor reception area sofa, back at it come the light of day—until my head felt like a porker on a platter, mentally disconnected from all bodily reality.
At least the role up here was simply to listen and learn, pay close attention, take some valuable notes, pick up on the context and complexities of client service, which suited me just fine. I took my turn firmly handshaking ChicagoOne’s marketing honchos, enthusiastically blurting, ‘you’re the one’, agreeing that this could really be the Cubs’ year. Then I followed FBC’s unnerved team down to a taxi ride back to the Iniquity Center, in cab number 3167, no less. “Some hoedown, huh?”
“Let that be a lesson to you,” Gelvart said, pointing a finger toward me. “Always be ready with an answer, make sure it’s the right one. And whatever you do, keep your off-the-cuff wisecracks to yourself.”
“That’s right,” Lacey added, after gaining a read on a Ralph Desman deep in situational thought. “Communicate what’s on their minds, not what’s on yours.”
Little else was said between Dearborn Street and Michigan Avenue, mutterings about testy cues and murderous deadlines, with a crucial legacy account on the line. It all was beyond my workload and pay grade, so when Desman suggested I return to my other inbox assignments for now while they retreated to his office for a strategy session, I bought in with a smile and post-test measure of relief.
Closing the door behind me, I leaned back in my chair, propped feet atop the desk and dialed my little radio up to a medley of the Silver Bullet Band. Break in the action, a mindless moment to recharge for another round of sales sheets and brochures.
Getting a little tedious, I thought, hardly advertising at its most Hollywood groundbreaking and glamorous. But this hacking was better than that hacking, I rolled the chair over to glance down over the Pioneer Court cab zone. I’d turned in my last trip sheet, so what was not to like, right—until Andrea at the reception desk rang through to my office extension, an emergency phone call from my dad and mom’s doctor.
“You’re the son? Well, sorry, young man, but the tumors are rapidly metastasizing…”
“So, what are you saying?”
“That there’s not a lot more we can do for her that doesn’t carry serious risk.”
“Well, what can you do?!”
“We could go in and excise some lung, if her heart can handle it. Or attempt a major chemo or radiation regimen,” said her attending physician. “Although I’m not sure she has the strength to withstand that, at all. We’d have to conduct full diagnostic testing first.”
“You…we’ve got to try, don’t we?!”
“Not according to your father…”
Wellen’s team granted me emergency leave for the afternoon, and I grabbed a taxi to my parents’ place—Checker 3173, to be exact. Dad was already at the hospital, which thankfully stood but several blocks away. I quick changed into jeans and an Irish cable-knit sweater from the Dingle Peninsula, then cut across Marquette Park to Holy Sacrament. On the way along Mann Drive, I realized that no news updates had surfaced on the lagoon homicide; by Kanst Drive, it appeared that Frankie Fuhrery’s neo-Gestapo were back out drilling, so self-Reichously so, albeit with a smaller bootprint.
Jaywalking against heavy California Street traffic, I tore into the hospital like a high school hurdler chasing a full-ride scholarship, meeting up with her assigned doctor outside the ICU. So briefed, I met up with my benumbed father in the waiting room. He was took pains to explain how mom had collapsed on the parlor floor into one of her pernicious coughing spells, only this one stealing her breath away, to an unconscious state.
Paramedics had rushed her here to Emergency, where she’d been under sedation and an oxygen tent ever since, ER doctors gently advising how serious-to-critical her condition had become, that she was in no shape to be visited for time being.
“Don’t want nobody cuttin’ into her,” my dad mumbled, as we sat hunched over on a vinyl-covered couch.
“Her lungs are pitch black, dad. They’ve got to do something, or else…”
“No, I said, not to my wife, they don’t!”
“You can’t ignore this, dammit—can’t you see? My mother’s not going to make it any other way,” I fretted, squeezing his slumping shoulders, noticing as how he was bonier these days, as if having lost considerable weight.
“Aghh, college boy,” he bit hard on the stem of his unlit pipe. “Think you know so much…”
“Believe me, it’s our only hope,” I looked him in the eyes, which were now heavy behind taped-frame glasses. “You just have to sign the papers…”
“I’ll do it, son, but it ain’t my doin’ no blessed how…”
“More French-Vanilla coffee, sir?”
“No thanks, I’m fine…”
“Interest you in a canapé?”
“We’ll return shortly with your patisserie du jour.”
FBC strategies had changed. The ChicagoOne account being as important as it was, VP and executive creative directors decreed that a senior writer from the corporate identity/institutional division descend from the 17th floor to assume the overall bank campaign copy duties.
That left some of Parker Hodinott’s smaller print advertising assignments flapping in the Michigan Avenue gales, beginning with a series of Chicago magazine and Stagebill program insertions for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. So Ralph Desman pulled me off the collateral slag heap to take up the textual headline and deadline slack, unspokenly on a trial by fire or be fired basis, which had me backseat cabbing like an election day ward boss down the Miracle Mile to Water Tower Place.
I entered a new, civilized, old worldly lobby with a bronze heroned sculpture and serenely spashing fountain. My creative charge was to draw theatergoers, orchestra patrons, polo chukkars and weekend trysters to the Ritz’s traditionally deluxe, if not dowdy, suites, clubby Greenhouse bar and legendary Epicurean alimentaire, at sky-high tariffs and rates.
First up, the hotel’s Café, which brought me to this mezzanine lounge for some ambience and research, from a quiet, bone-white table overlooking the darkly crated, cross-braced John Hancock Center and a Chestnut Street abuzz with mid-afternoon traffic. Couldn’t hear a thing, however, other than the clinking of china and crystal, the soft rustle of palms and pastoral tapestries, and a corner tuxedoed piano-string quartet playing Chopin under crystal chandeliers.
“Your Raspberry Charlotte, sir,” the white-coated waiter arrived with his sterling pastry tray, being so pleasantly presumptuous as to offer forth his personal choice. “Or you are welcome to try the Buche de Noel, perhaps La Cote Basques Dacquoise.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” I grinned, setting aside my legal pad, by now filled with bullet points, scratch notes and peripheral impressions. “How about I go for that one there, and I think that’ll do it, no check, please.”
“By all means, sir…understood,” the cheery waiter served me the small orange dish, then turned away, winking over to the maitre d’. “Hope you’ve found the salad and everything to your liking…”
“I’ll put in a good word or two,” I dessert forked into the Tarte au Citron, devouring it and the coffee, leaving him something of a guilt tip out of petty cash. With that, I thanked the hotel’s marketing staffer on the way out, pocketing several Frango mints, assuring her we would have a review draft sent over in short order.
But along with the Cobb salad and patisserie came the pressure. Outbound, I avoided the Center’s mall shops and highrise tower altogether, then shook off the Pearson Street cab line. I was driven instead to jog lightly up Michigan Avenue, around the enduring, by now endearing Water Tower itself, along glittering storefronts such as Tiffany, Bvlgari, Bonwit Teller, Florsheims and Saks.
Clutching my notepad like a tailback the rock, I shifted and dodged around clots of strollers, shoppers and the pickpocket scammers shadowing them all between Superior and Erie. Buses, taxis and all other classes of vehicular traffic echoed off Magnificent Mile highrises to either side, as I gasped, reached for an aha brainstorm of hotel ad head and taglines, coming up with nothing more than leg cramps. Look and feel was one thing; however I felt I should look for a little more background material on the Ritz Hotel heritage and historiography.
Choking on fumes, distracted by stylish shoe salon and art gallery windows, I impulsively darted across Michigan Avenue’s early tulip bedded median, ducking into a disheveled little Brent’s bookstore with as much history as the history section itself.
“Got anything on the Ritz Hotel in Paris,” I asked, out of breath from slipping through a horny backup around Grand Avenue, even though I discordantly knew from Desman that the original storied Ritz had nothing to do with the Four Seasons chain, which had leased the naming rights for their R-C Chicago.
“Who’s askin’,” shouted a podgy, white-haired figure in rumpled blue blazer and red checked shirt, from an over piled oak desk in a rear-store den. It turned out to be Studs Terkel, just back from a late whitefish lunch, holding court before Big Shoulders literati at Riccardo’s.
“I’m just a copywriter over at Forrester, Blaine—looking for a little background to flesh out these Ritz-Carlton ads I’m doing…”
“Hmph, advertising—what’re you writing that crap for? I know from working, so what kind of work is that,” snapped the local treasure, star eminence of news, letters, theater, classical FM radio and the early Chicago TV days of Garroway and Kukla, Fran & Ollie, chomping on a cigar butt, still sporting his boarding house upbringing and blacklisted political pedigree. Studs always noted as how the U.S. Communists formed in Chicago, although he never quite boasted as having joined the Party. Today, he peered up from a Broadway stage-play adaptation of his 1974 book, ‘Working’, with reading glasses perched on the tip of his rosy nose. “Lying for a living, that damned ad game—an execrable waste of talent, enormous waste of time.”
“Uh, I’m kinda new at this…was thinking about fleshing out the Ritz tradition thing,” I muttered, scanning up and down the European History shelves. “You know, getting off to a good start, making like I know what I’m talking about…”
“We don’t carry any of that PR bilge here,” Terkel replied, as if Nelson Algren and Ben Hecht were still standing here with him in Studs’ Place. “And if you had any integrity as a writer, you’d get out of that racket like a bat outta’ hell.”
“Just aiming to tell a better story…” I stood frozen in awe of the world-renowned author for a moment, then turned to head for the exit.
“So tell a story, a real story,” Terkel replied, in a sharp, professorial tone he’d liberally honed since his early lawyerly days. “Get yourself straight, why don’t you? There are real, honest tales to tell out there, instead of yackin’ yur yid over that crooked corporate drivel. There’s plenty of good you could be doing in this world, a young cove like you…”
“Will do, sir,” I nodded on my way out, tin bell ringing on the front door. “Thanks much for your help.”
I wanted to write that off as the overhang from too many Riccardo’s martinis, but Stud’s message still stuck like a Post-It note on my prefrontal cortex. Pulling up the sport jacket lapels, wrestling with a flapping necktie, I fought a chilling wind further up Michigan, cutting over the Tribune Tower crosswalk, traffic snarling from either direction, loping through Pioneer Court back up to my office, legal pad full of raw jottings and scribbles, yet without a clue what they would amount to upstairs.
Andrea handed me a phone message right out of the elevator, with a two-hands choking gesture around her neck, and nod in toward the 16th floor offices. FBC’s hallway was quiet and all but empty, doors closed, everybody busy doing their creative part, up and down the aisle. The first things I noticed upon entering mine were a new nameplate and overloaded inbox. Centered atop my typewriter was yet another new ad assignment redirected from Parker Hadinott, sleeved in a blue interagency folder, with a memo by Desman to arrange a briefing meeting with the client therein.
A sinking feeling overcame me, the one where a body is slap bobbing in a sea of 50-foot Pacific swells. I tried to shore up with a phone call to Holy Sacrament Hospital, where nurses advised that mom remained in the ICU, that her condition had neither worsened nor improved since I last checked. No great relief there, so I felt compelled to answer the voicemailed call.
“We really have to talk, Kenny…”
“So let’s talk…”
“No, I mean face to face. There are some things happening up here that we need to discuss.”
“Uh, I’m really getting swamped here, Moon—you don’t know. Let me just get on top of this some before…” My mind was racing like Michigan Avenue traffic after a bridge hoist, staggering thoughts of 4 a.m. diapers and the cycle of life.
“Before what? Before I have to call and leave you a message again…”
“No, I’m thinking before I invite you downtown for a well-deserved night out…my treat, for a change…”
“Just make it sooner than later, okay? See you soon, Kenny…” CLICK.
Done. I began leafing through my inbox, only to find the top of the pile half stuffed with red-lined rewrites and revisions, clipped with a typed blue note memo reading, ‘Word to the wise, sharpen it up and step it up.’, left unsigned. Not knowing quite what to make of that, I dialed a quick client call, then gathered up the blue folder and my legal pad, leaving my office, such as it was, caffeinated wide awake. Andrea Dudic assured me she would take any messages—particularly parents’ wise—and I expressed down over to the Wrigley Building cabstand to loyally grab a Checker pointed south.
As a Punjab Indian driver raced down Michigan Avenue, a rush of ad ideas hit me like a Ritz-Carlton Hotel tab: ‘Join Our Café Society’, ‘Come Rest On Our Laurels’—mindless slogans like that, going who knew where, nevertheless anxiously scribbled onto my notepad at a Michigan-Madison Avenue backup, just in time to enter a far more storied local shrine two blocks beyond.
I’d considered myself lucky to even be delivering fares unto Orchestra Hall in my taxi days, let alone passing through its gilded foyer. Home to a top Five/tier, world-class symphony, the Daniel Burnham-designed brick concert fortress was about to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And as far as I could see, Andrew Carnegie had nothing on Theodore Thomas, the Chicago Orchestra founder whose name was inscribed in its magisterially friezed and filigreed facade. Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven nominally rested over the hall’s overarching ballroom windows; Bernstein had conducted here, as had Ravel, Copland, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff.
I was here to gain further input for a series of commemorative mezzotint ads featuring classic moments in recent Chicago music history—Sir Georg Solti conducting the Symphony Orchestra through Mahler’s Seventh, Rostropovich captivating Ravinia’s Festival with his cello performance of the Dvorak Concerto, for starters, Wilhelm Furtwangler notwithstanding. An Orchestra Hall promotional aide festooned me with photos, clippings and reviews, to where I hobbled out to South Michigan Avenue, head and hands full of copy possibilities.
The FBC clock was ticking, and I needed a quiet place to get some of this material down on yellow ruled paper. Visualizing my office as an inbox piled with drudgework and headaches, I instead found refuge between two roaring lions a couple of blocks back up Michigan Avenue—one defiant, the other on the prowl. The Beaux-Arts temple that was Chicago’s Art Institute seemed at first to be anathema to such solitude and concentration, but I found a secluded mid-afternoon table in its Museum Café where I could fashion some rough drafts of the symphony ads to follow the Ritz-Carlton Hotel notations. Nothing set in concrete, yet enough of a start to hack back to the Iniquity Center with a head of creative, if not redemptive steam.
Another day, another time: there was simply too much to absorb in this sprawling aesthetic wonder anyway—graceful wings rich with worldly historic epochal sculpture prints and textiles, otherworldly modern art in all its dazzling protean forms. Still, there was no escaping the Institute’s galleries of fine paintings, and its celebrated Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections stopped me flat as a numbered litho print.
I turned my Timex wristwatch face down, and began roaming among Monet’s ‘Wheat and Haystacks’, ‘Beach at Ste. Adresse’, Water Lilies and Giverny Poppy Fields, studying Manet’s Seascapes and ‘Philosopher, Beggar With Oysters’. I paused at Renoir By The Water, especially at his Two Sisters; was sent adrift by Cezanne’s Bays, memories unleashed by Caillebotte’s rainy ‘Paris Street’ and Toulouse-Lautrec ‘At the Moulin Rouge’, the pointillist wonder of Seurat’s ‘Sunday Afternoon, La Grande Jatte’.
Closer to home, I felt the thrilling authenticity of such familiar imagery as ‘American Gothic’ and Nighthawks, no less awe inspiring than Da Vinci at the Louvre. Amid the classical artistic genius, all these profoundly creative masterpieces, my mind wandered to Syd’s studio, flashing on her impressive paintings to date, and all the masterworks she potentially had ahead of her. I wondered whether the sun was shining on her workshop, or if San Francisco’s winter and Athren Guildersol were still keeping her company there at night.
In any case, time to get back to FBC. The next Checker in line hauled me back across the Michigan Avenue Bridge barely before the afternoon rush hours. The sun had popped out over the verticality of Pioneer Court, Tribune Tower gothically imposing as its ‘World’s Greatest Newspaper’ masthead; the Wrigley Building as naturally radiant as it was when ivory floodlit after dark, our Iniquity Center still soaking up all the riverside daylight between Michigan and the Lake.
I snatched a message Andrea had left for me upstairs on the corner of her desk and stepped lightly, warily into my office. It appeared that the 16th floor would be slaving well into the night on their ChicagoOne bank account, so I closed the door behind me and sat in for another overnight of my own. That was when I looked more closely at the blue message slip, two phone numbers with exclamation points: one for my father, the other Holy Sacrament Hospital’s ICU.
Care for more?
Chapter 41. Homeward decisions come no
easier, intra-agency pressures building by the
day. Then a harried old goat bucks the trend
and happens to turn a head…