“Blind by petty climb
ambition can breed contempt—
on ladders wrung dry.”
“Opens up easily, does it?”
“Easy does it, like a charm….”
“That’s important, with my schedule and responsibilities now. Any other kinks or complications I should know about?”
“Just routine stuff for one this age. Believe you me, she’s right up your alley…”
“I-I-I’m not much into alleys anymore.”
With so many things seemingly heading south of late, I’d decided to explore possible domiciles back up north—Near North, though it was. After six straight days of long FBC nights, I began my Sunday troll in and around Lincoln Park, then fanned out toward the Eugenie Triangle, on the old, homier side of Old Town. I was idea depleted, copywritten off, exhausted from all the traffic particulates, and a mite exasperated with the Ashland Avenue Express. So I slow crawled my ailing squareback eastward on W. Eugenie Street, along bare, tree-lined rows of workingman cottages and bungalows dating back to the rebuilding explosion in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire.
Most were tidy two-story relics snug to the sidewalk with round pipe railings—no room for even a scouring pad-size front yard, and it looked as though extended families had owned them for generations. Then, beyond Orleans and Sedgwick, past the Twin Anchors corner tavern, a tiny red ‘For Let’ sign popped up just short of Hudson Avenue, in the ground floor window of a strangely incongruous brown two-unit box, fully face front to the walkway, which appeared to be more a chopped up former storefront and upstairs apartment than any sort of single family home.
The landlady, Mrs. Olivia Tovello, was a bit cagey about the history/ provenance of the place as she led me upstairs through a doorway to the right side of the facade. I could envision it being a carbonic neighborhood pop shop or gin mill turned Bugsy speakeasy with a second story love nest or card room in the bad old days. Maybe Dillinger hid away here before his showdown over at the Biograph Theater.
Still, the upstairs digs were plenty promising for a small efficiency: front room looking out on some budding oak and elm trees, kitchenette about the size of a Fridgidaire and crockpot, with a half-ass bath fit for a Fieldcrest or Cannon King. Plus, the Sunday go-to-purgatory church was just down the street, she said in her floral print housecoat, pointing toward the soaring brick steeple of St. Michael’s Church, across from her precious corner patch of backyard. Taken together with a reasonable rent, it was just the ticket for a freestyle studly about town—even someone like me—yet a little too tight for two…or more.
“Well, you better move quick on this little gem, fella,” she said, after explaining that she herself lived in the converted main floor one bedroom—with its smallish front windows where swinging doors or fruit baskets and Sealtest ice boxes used to be—so as to be on top of any sudden repairs. “I got other nibbles.”
“Uh, I’ve a few things to sort out, have to shuffle some situations around,” I hedged, noticing slight rust stain traces on the crackled porcelain. Nevertheless, the place was up for consideration, open for internal discussion, surprisingly so. “By tomorrow okay?”
“Up to you,” shrugged the landlady, straightening her blushing pink hair net as she ushered me back downstairs. “It’s your funeral…”
“You mean in the apartment hunting sense?”
There I left things, albeit with mixed emotions, promising a follow-up phone call, widow Tovello saying, ‘yeah, yah’ through her own storm-windowed aluminum door. Driving back through the more poshy pre-Fire Old Town Triangle toward Lincoln Park and North Avenue, I figured that I liked her place and price enough to call it a day search-wise. So what was the point, right? Righhttt…
Besides, a hospital call from a pay phone near the Historical Society updated me that I had a radioactive family situation to deal with. Mom had undergone a complete battery of tests, and physicians have determined that she had a 55-45 prospect of surviving invasive surgery, that final pre-op decisions had to be made, in a life or death matter of time.
With that, I pulled off in the squareback, heading for LaSalle Street’s sequenced greenlights and an expressway relay race southward to Chicago Lawn. But somewhere between the Dan Ryan and Adlai Stevenson, my Volks began showing fatal symptoms of its own. Never truly aligned, its front end started shimmying uncontrollably at these higher speeds, while the miles-worn fuel injection faltered worse than in Great Basin days, smoke of varying density and darkness filling my rearview mirror. The bugger got me to Francisco Avenue all right, but who knew where from there?
“We have to do this, dad,” I said, as we sat on the living room sofa, reading over a pre-surgery schedule I’d just picked up at the hospital. Mom was scheduled to go under the knife by week’s end. “We have to do this for her…”
“Dang it, how’d I let you talk me into…”
“I’m only looking out for mom, for us, dammit!” I glanced at a Chicago Lawn throwaway, one of its front-page articles noting that the body in Marquette Park’s lagoon had been identified as from Englewood and that the youth’s killers were suspected to have ties to a bloodthirsty new Cobra offshoot of the old Blackstone Rangers.
“She ain’t up to this operation business, I’m telling you,” he scooped the bowl of his pipe and reached for some Prince Albert. “I know what she wants, I know what’s best for her. Here, you come back in out of the blue, mister college know-it-all!”
“That’s got nothing to do with it, dad. This it just common sense…she doesn’t stand a chance any other way, I’m telling you.”
“Well, we’ll just see what makes sense now, won’t we?” He fired up his pipe with a matchstick, lighting out for the kitchen and adjoining back porch.
“Dad, c’mon, I…” My voice trailed off in the void, as I felt the weight of the decision I had pressed upon us. Another pointless glance at the local newspaper found a below-the-fold tint box sidebar that Frankie Fuhrery had won Marquette Park clearance for continued Neo-drilling, so long as his gatherings followed agreed-upon limits as to size, timing and provocative displays.
“When in doubt, you dummy…”
“No, hey, that’s way too rough…”
“We’ve got the layout, we’ve got the art. But mostly we’ve got a deadline. So let’s dummy the sucker in.”
Another long week began in Larry Castalone’s office, mustered around his design board, piecing together a workup on the first of Ritz-Carlton’s half-page ads. The junior art director had pasted up a screened halftone, dummied copy blocks and hotel logo, bordered with slim 1.5-point rule lines. All that remained was the headline, which precipitated this qualitative difference of creative opinion. He was thinking visual, ruffling his curly hair in impatience, arguing for expedience, the quick and easy, plugging in what we already had on hand. I was thinking verbal, however, and that meant dropping in one of my first-draft headlines on the Ritz café. Admittedly, I was loath to hang the fate of this stylish advertisement on my off-head jottings, but his Big Apple tenacity overruled the room.
Outside my next-door partner’s office, the 16th floor was relatively quiet early on, the latest buzz being that ChicagoOne had just bought into a revised bank campaign, full-page ads to counter cards, although details of the winning concept had yet to water-cooler wash over the department.
“You see the message,” asked Castalone, sticking to his old-school process of press-on typing the LetraSet demo headline wording onto his layout, consonant by vowel.
“That blue note,” I was a trifle chagrined that he was feathering in that ‘Café Society’ stinker. “What do you know about it?”
“I’m the one who dropped it in your inbox,” he checked display text alignment with his sliding rule bar. “There’s just some craptrap going around the floor about certain personnel, you and me included.”
“Was getting some coffee Friday afternoon, you know? Happened to overhear Wellen jawing with Phil Richmond before he shuttled back to New York…”
“Hell, I never even got to meet the big dog before he…”
“Well, Phil knows all about us,” Castalone said grimly, punctuating the provisional café headline with a burnisher and mallet. “Ralpharoo told him he was concerned about my pacing and production. Richmond told him to start reviewing designer portfolios again—see, what’d I tell you? It’s dog eat mutt around here, and I’m about to be eating Rival…”
“Aww, maybe you misheard them or something…like, they’re just trying to keep you on your toes.”
“No chance, Hemingway, and that wasn’t the half of it,” he rubber cemented a tissue overlay atop the hotel workup. “Phil had something to say about you. He said he’d been watching you from a distance. That he was questioning your professional comportment, whether you were cut out for this world, would be an FBC team player—even wisecracked that grad school had let out, and who was dressing you these days.”
“Huh, then why didn’t he say that to my face?”
“That’s not how it works here. But it wasn’t just about dress code. Richmond also hinted that he saw you as an awkward fit right now. That Chicago’s demographics are changing and you’re a little too white bread to adequately reflect that reality.”
“He said that?!”
“Can you believe it? He went on about affirmative action and equal opportunity, that he had a black copy wunderkind over at Leo Burnett he was looking to lure away once he returned from FBC’s New York conference.”
“Well, that’s beyond my control, that’s for sure,” I muttered, wishing I’d quickly re-written that Ritz café headline. “I guess all I can do is keep my head down and working on what they’ve given me until I hear otherwise.”
“That’s what I’m doing, but at least they’ve issued you an actual nameplate, mine’s still just in magic marker,” Castalone said sarcastically, removing the hotel ad workup, sheathing it with the tissue overlay, placing the bluelined mechanical board into a large intra-agency envelope. “I’ll pass this along to Parker Hodicott, with a little luck, he’ll sign off and kick it along.”
“I’ll get back to the copy for those other pieces,” I sighed, ready for a visit to the coffee room myself.
“Whewie, dressed for success again, are you,” asked Lacey Abbott-Tanzer, passing by as Castalone slipped out his door, bound for the other wing of the floor. The account exec snapped down on her diet gum, running her finger under the lapel of my only sport coat. “Early Robert Hall?”
“Why would that be any of your concern,” I countered, already steamed over the art director’s recounting of corner office events. It made me wonder whether she was just abreast of this creative department undertow, or actively abetting it. “Can’t wait to boot my Pro Magnon ass out of here, huh?” Couldn’t believe I just said that to her, here.
“Not quite yet,” she smiled breezily, gliding Wellen’s way. “Then again, a woman’s work is never done.”
“Well, sorry but I have some ads and a pile of collateral to get back to,” I turned in the opposite direction, toward my closed office door.
“That would be well advised,” she teased, over her red pantsuit’s padded shoulder. “But at least you might be pleased to learn that the rumors are true. Our ChicagoOne Bank revamping was a major hit with the client, up and down the marketing mix. And they really went for our hooky new tagline…”
“You mean despite the bonehead blurting from a blabber mouth like me,” I moped. “So, what did you all come up with?”
“Touché,” she paused, tossing me a copy of the bank’s marketing plan. “In any case, it turned out to be something quite clean and simple: ‘At ChicagoOne, You’re The One’.”
“Yes, I just need another day or two to pull together the deposit, first and last, Mrs. Tovello, I’m hoping you’re willing to extend me a bit more time,” I said, pounding the IBM keys, phone cradled against my shoulder. “Of course, I know this is a gamble, however I want to start out on the right foot with you. Oh, thanks so much…” CLICK.
The last of the ad copy for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel insertions was rolling through the carriage of my Selectric II, at least as good as I could get it at this stage, and I was fixing to hit Mr. Coffee again when my extension rang. It was late afternoon, and Melissa was on the line with some pointed questions and updates. Not that I had a great deal of spare concentration to draw upon, but proceed we did, the typewriter humming away like a low-grade dental drill. After exchanging wary pleasantries, I mentioned my shadow contribution to the ChicagoOne campaign.
“But they do have to acknowledge where the slogan came from at some point, don’t they,” Melissa asked, as if attempting to read my facial expression over the transom. “So, where did it come from?”
“I dunno, Moon. These things, they just pop into your mind. It’s almost mysterious, never know when—hard to explain…”
“You mean, for an uncreative crafty like me…”
“No, hey, that’s not what…”
“Sure it’s not, Kenny. Anyway, good news,” she gushed. “I’ve already enrolled in a pottery lab here in Skokie. That’s not all. I’ve also come across a dreamy two-bedroom apartment in West Rogers Park, near Loyola. That way, we can be right near the lake and not too far from my dad, only a stone’s throw away, and my bubbe is getting on in years. So that’ll make him real happy, too…we’ve been catching up a lot lately.”
“Wow, that is…good news,” I said haltingly, turning off the typewriter for better absorption. “Bet it’s real pricey…”
“No, that’s what’s so amazing. Now that you’re making the big bucks, I’m sure we can handle it between the two of us. So you’ve got to get up here lickety-split so we can take a good look together.”
“Lickety-split, huh,” accent on the split, I thought, fiddling with some white-out on a couple of sudden typos. “Well, I’m on tight deadline, Moon, but let me see if I can juggle my schedule a little. I’ll call you a bit later, how about that?”
“Juggle away, Kenny, and let me know as soon as you can,” Moon said firmly, as if we were still in Boulder, and she was dragging me out of the sack for an 8 a.m. seminar. “Then I can set us up an appointment.”
“Sure, Moon, I’ll get right on that, okay? Hi to the animules…”
“Sooner than later, Kenny. We’ll be waiting…talk shortly.” CLICK.
Two bedrooms—what’s with the two bedrooms? Ohhh, shit! I yanked a barely typed sheet for the Symphony ad, tossed it aside, then fed a new blank into the roller, hadn’t a clue why. Looked like she was telegraphing me that ‘late’ no longer adequately covered the status report. Making big bucks? Hell, here I was hanging by a thread, on industry minimum wage. We’ve really got to go over this whole situation, she and I; things are moving too quickly here, we have to hashover the scenarios, explore all the possibilities, gain some broader perspective. Make her dad and bubble happy? All well and good, but Skokie, or at least only a stone’s throw away. Just as such repercussions were sinking in like ice water in my eyes, came a quick triple-knuckle knock on my door.
“Hey there, speed, how goes it,” Bob Gelvart opened wide, self-styled dashing in his brushed denim blazer over sleek Champagne sateen vest and slacks.
“Where’ve you been,” I asked sullenly.
“Gelevanting up the North Shore, where else,” he tapped my inbox, still piled high. “On location in a Kenilworth mansion for a Hendley Furniture TV spot—you know, the big-time national broadcast stuff—where the models and movie stars are. Play your words right, maybe you’ll get there some day.”
“Wouldn’t know about that personally. But good news on the ChicagoOne front, right?”
“The A-team was on the case,” he chortled, moving the box aside so he could plop his broad khaki beam on the corner of my desk. “Would you expect anything less?”
“Winning tagline for the whole campaign, huh? Wonder where that idea came from,” I ventured, fishing for some sort of kudo or nod.
“Ah, ideas—they’re just out there, particles floating in the stratosphere. You just have to pluck them out of the air,” Gelvart said, folding a paper airplane out of my discarded sheet, sending it aloft, targeting my office window. “Anyway, the reason I stopped by was that I received a call from Parker Hodicott at O’Hare. He said his flight out of JFK was super delayed, and that he’s running late. He wants you to meet him down at the Billy Goat to massage some re-writes—should be there in about an hour. You know, the Goat. As in Belushi, the Olympia Café—Cheezborger, Cheezborger, Cheezborger—it was all over Saturday Night Live…”
“Dunno…don’t watch much television, to tell you the truth…”
“Who does anymore, right? Well, I’m off—got a hot new campaign to get back to. Top secret, a real jaw-dropper—believe me, it’s boffo. But stop by and bear witness to true advertising genius when you get the chance, see how it’s done at the Clio level…this baby’s going to win me a corner office…”
“Will do, soon as I break…free.”
“Just remember, their message is the message,” said Parker Hodicott, senior copywriter, numerous years in grade. “You’ll want to keep it tight, make it punchy, get your USP up front, because that’s the only thing they likely will bother to read.”
“Tight, punchy,” I nodded, shuffling through my typed sheets like they were overstuffed precinct hit jobs.
“Now, a little atmospherics can be warranted on these softer, more indirect institutional assignments—to bait the hook, but you must sell the proposition, hit marks consciously and subconsciously, reward them for their interest, rouse them to action, before they turn the page.”
“That’s not what I’m doing here, or…”
There was a decidedly windy chill in the air at the foot of North Michigan Avenue, but not so much in the weather underground. I had descended riverside esplanade steps to the bowels of Lower Mish. A continuation of Wacker Drive’s winding Emerald City aside the Chicago River, this Magmatic Mile began at the under deck of Michigan Avenue’s leaf-span bascule bridge, similarly designed in the Roaring 20s for commercial through traffic, delivery vans to tractor trailers serving businesses along the way.
A scenic route, it wasn’t, but it helped to keep diesel fumes under the showier wraps—the narrow two-way lanes of this dark, ever-clotted aqueduct-style artery were bordered by a series of thick concrete standards supporting the drive’s upper deck, nicked and gouged as they were by rigs backing in and out of tightly crammed loading docks. Nothing of great interest to see down here, save for Fruehauf and Freightliner fanatics; I’d seen most of it in my race-around cabbing days, although never quite connecting with the blazing neon signage just beyond a dim cavern below the Wrigley Building.
“No, no,” Hodicott countered, skimming my rough draft for Ritz-Carlton’s weekender suites. “You’re waxing on, far too florid. You’re not conveying the client’s story for their glorification. You’re communicating their story to the prospective customers or patrons—that’s the bull’s-eye.”
“So you’re saying this copy is all a bust…”
“What I’m saying is, you need to pay-off an attention-snaring headline straight away. Shorten these sentences, streamline the syntax, try some fragments for pacing, fine-tune the cosmetics and modifiers. Cut out the colons and semi’s—this is paid advertising, not a novel or dissertation. Marry your copy to the visual. Make it sing, but stick to your word counts, and close the deal with a meat cleaver of a pitch.” He ashtrayed his Lucky Strike, then slugged into his happy hour choice: Malort Manhattan, with a twist.
“Cosmetics, fat,” I wavered, deflating against the stiff green back cushion of my metal-framed chair. “And I thought my music reference stuff was base-coat muscle…”
Tucked between two blue and white support stanchions, amid the icy stalactites of a lingering Chicago winter, this blustery subterranean haunt’s wood-carved signage read, ‘Billy Goat Tavern, Est. 1934’. Greek immigrant William Sianis actually moved the place down here in 1964, from his Lincoln Tavern out on the west side. He was suitably goateed, all right, but the name change came earlier on, when a goat fell off a passing truck over across from Chicago Stadium and bleated into his bar. The goat became ‘Murphy’, heavy drinker that it was, and this tavern and its cart-pulling mascot burrowed in strategically between Sun-Times riverside headquarters and the Tribune Tower, the latter in all its gothic glory.
Little wonder that the place got plenty of ink from opening day, and quickly became underground zero for the newspaper crowd, spearheaded by columnist, Mike Royko, and various literary lions. More recently, the Billy Goat had gained backhanded notoriety nationwide, via John Belushi’s ‘Olympia Café’ sketch on a late-January SNL. Another neon window sign read, ‘Butt In Any Time’—so I’d done just that, sheathed copy sheets and red pencils in hand, into a packed, boisterous house going up in convoluted plumes of tobacco smoke.
I had met up with my copywriter superior at a red checker-clothed table midway along the Goat’s wood-panelled Wall of Fame, which served to light up the whole place even florescent brighter. I’d paused to soak in the nearly full-length wall, framed drawings, political cartoons, yellowing news article blow-ups and photos of ink-stained luminaries, from Colonel Bertie McCormick to Theodore Dreiser to James Farrell and Joe Medill, with a higher-brow tribute to Bellow and his Herzog.
Before we dug into the rewrites, I ordered a per diem triple cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger—no fries, chips, no Pepsi, Coke before setting aside my laminated menu, souvenir material, to be sure. Parker settled on his regular rib-eye steak.
“Long form is long form, all well and good. But if you want to pontificate, link up with Royko and his Slats Grobniks over there. FBC’s paying you by the brilliant saleable idea, not the word.” With that, the senior copywriter snuffed out his Chesterfield butt, finishing with a groan and sneezing/wheezing jag that sent him off to the head. “Never forget the adage, salesmanship in print.”
Hodicott had pointed over to a table near the bar, where the acerbic political columnist held court, thizzoner now swapping spit heatedly with Sun-Times rival, Irv Kupcinet, as in Kup’s Column. As far as I could hear, the two opinion pols were debating eventual mayoral primary prospects for Daley darling, Jane Byrne—the Consumer Affairs head recently fired by labor union-besieged Michael Bilandic.
Boss Royko argued that it would take more than a City Hall bombing and gravedigger strike to bury the current mayor in favor of a daffy woman challenger—more along the lines of an act of God. He cited the broad shoulders and sharp elbows of Machine stalwarts like Dan Rostenkowski and ‘Fast Eddie’ Vrdolyak; Kup reminded him that Byrne was a niece of powerhouse Daley crony, Alderman Edward Burke. I sipped at my fountain Coke and glanced about at Wall of Fame photo snaps and portraits of sundry Chicago celebs and such notable news wretches as Dave Condon, Bill Granger and Edgar Munzel.
Opposing walls held framed shots of a succession of horny Billy Goats on bar stools, cavorting behind tavern bar tops with Sianis family and friends, or it and BG’s founder being ejected from Wrigley Field during the 1945 World Series—the goat deemed too odorus. Sianis supposedly said, cursed be the Cubs, who hadn’t been back to the Fall Classic ever since, likely never would be. Even now, newer posters among the photos hailed Belushi, Murray and Aykroyd, rather than Tinkers, Evers and Chance.
Everywhere about the barroom, news was being gathered, opinions were being challenged, calls being rehashed, smoke-filled deals were being struck, tips surreptitiously exchanged. The rigor and romance of the journalism game: At once, the Billy Goat was so alive with intellectual fervor, while drowning in mind-numbing alcohol and nicotine toxicity, morning edition deadlines be damned.
“You all right, Mister Hodicott,” I asked, as he sat back down.
“Parker to you, junior,” he cleared his throat, lighting up. “But it’s this damn stubborn virus, too many airport lounges, too much climate shift.”
“So, you were back east for a meeting, or…”
“Naw, I live back there, Connecticut,” he groused, stuffing his Chesterfields back into his gabardine, brown jacket liner label reading, ‘Hart, Schaffner & Marx’. “My whole family’s there, near Darien.”
“But you work…here….”
“Tell me about it. They’ve had me on this yo-yo routine for going on a year. Ever since the main office dumped half of the 16th floor here in a Creative Review Committee coup. So I’m Mister Fix-It, and they fixed me up but good, right out of my cozy perch at Madison and 54th—banished me to the midwest boonies here, saying I was better suited to traditional print than major broadcast anyway. As if I went to Yale and mastered in drama to shuttle a thousand miles back and forth every weekend.”
“Hell of a crazy commute, huh? You didn’t have a say?” I glanced up at the clock, showing late enough to where I looked to be spending another night on 16th’s reception couch.
“I’ve got a second mortgage on a clapboard Colonial and three kids in private school—what kind of leverage is that? Plus I have no idea what my libber wife is up to in my absence, besides burning through my paychecks, that is. So I hole up at a small hotel over on Delaware Place during the week and write whatever drek they tell me, knowing I’m disposable at a moment’s notice,” he lamented, as our per diem platters arrived. “You, too, can be a grand prize winner. Become a lean, mean writer or a big fat hack—the choice is yours. But if I were you, I’d get out while you still can.”
“Cleaver of a closing pitch you’ve got there, Parker…but I wouldn’t exactly say you’re overweight.”
Care for more?
Chapter 42. Under the gun, under
the knife: Then a new idea is revealed,
while old ideas still fester, before a
late meeting is thick with disharmony…