Sunday, August 31, 2008

101 Things to Do before You Die

Last week, there was one of those “go figure” stories in the papers. “Globe-trotting author” David Freeman, known for co-authoring the book 100 Things to Do Before You Die, died unexpectedly at the age of 47 after falling in his home and suffering a head injury. I haven’t read the book (“things to do before you die” books aren’t my bag), but I’d imagine it’s stock-full of travel tips to exotic places, running with the bulls in Pamplona, shit like that. Obviously, he missed an important one, not quite as exotic, and much more mundane: watch your step.

The story I saw in the New York Daily News has a picture of him: a burly fortysomething guy wearing shades, obviously in the desert with joshua trees visible behind him. It’s an odd picture: he looks like John Elway gone to seed, a strange half smile/grimace on his face. What really floored me was one line in the article: “David Freeman was born in California but moved to New York in 1986 to work for Grey Advertising.”

When I moved to New York in the fall of 1987, I landed a very short-lived stint with Grey Advertising that saw me getting laid off just after Christmas of the same year, which was a blessing in disguise as I hated the place. If I’m not mistaken, I worked for David Freeman for a few weeks. I might be mistaken. In my mind, I’m thinking “David Friedman” … but the above-noted newspaper fact is pretty close to my time frame. (Another obituary I found in an advertising trade publication confirms that he worked in advertising all the way up to his passing … it’s probably him.)

The picture in the paper looks nothing like the guy I remember: I remember a fastidious, well-dressed little guy who was the embodiment of yuppie ambition that ran rampant in the 1980s. James Spader could have nailed him in a movie. (I understand Spader’s a good bit beefier today, too.) The one similarity is blonde hair: it could be him, 20 years on. It looks like Freeman went to the desert on a vacation, had a wild peyote experience, saw things in a different light, and came out a new man: that sort of transformation.

If it is, hats off to him. While I don’t read books like that, I do respect the ability of any writer to come up with a concept like that, and not just sell it to an editor, but sell it to an audience who will pay money and time to scour the list and gather new and interesting vacation ideas. I wouldn’t have imagined the David Freeman I worked for one day authoring a travel book – then again, I didn’t know him that well. Seemed like a nice enough guy, was friendly. I think running into him was my first exposure to that sort of corporate ambition I’m now a lot more comfortable around, simply by attrition. I’m sure at the time I thought that quality was horrible, dishonest and shallow. I was fresh out of college, an English major, and really had no idea what working in an office implied or required. I was the one out of place -- not him.

What I remember more than David was our department head, a woman I’ll call Edna. Didn’t know it at the time, but one of those real scumbags you run into routinely in offices. I recall her pitching a fit because she couldn’t find the right color of carpet to have installed in her office, which filled her with existential angst that she’d take out on her underlings and coworkers by being bitchy and sarcastic. Came from a wealthy suburb in Westchester County, had a smarmy lawyer boyfriend, just someone launched into that way of life I want no part of. The kind of person who would push hard to ensure her wedding made it into the Sunday New York Times and take some perverse pride in that. You run into these people all the time in New York – they think they run New York, and, you know, they don’t run shit. But give them a title, an office and a background of privilege, and they sometimes start thinking weird, grandiose lies about themselves. No one liked her, which is the way of the world with people so transparent. This was Edna.

I’ve since learned that there are easy rules to follow in terms of getting along with people in an office. Simply stated, if you can talk to a person like he or she’s a human being, and not engage in some form of insincere role playing with the person, that’s someone you can obviously deal with and count on. Sounds easy enough? Man, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve dealt with some megalomaniac who makes that common humanity virtually impossible, who will wrap himself in a cloak of self importance and literally turn himself into a villain from a Charles Dickens novel, all for a few dollars more in his pocket … it happens a lot, especially the higher you travel on the corporate food chain.

On that first job fresh out of college, encountering people like this was a pretty sobering proposition. I really didn’t like it: thought I had left high school in the rear-view mirror. But have since learned that Corporate America is one big high school, complete with bullies and cliques and senseless rules. That, if you want the money, you have to figure out how to deal with, or spend a lot of time being miserable and unhappy with your lot in life. Just aint worth it. Granted, for decades now I’ve felt like I’ve been hanging onto this way of life by my fingertips – because I’m sane – but another reality is I’ve also learned how to deal with people even more fucked-up than Edna, which is to play along so long as you’re not under their direct control, and if that ever does transpire, simply figure a way out of the situation, which becomes obvious after awhile and vastly preferable to putting up with such nonsense. In that case, lady luck did it for me and sent me and a few dozen other people packing into the January snow. (I remember the HR woman weeping as she told me the news. Shit, I felt pretty good. I gave her some tissues and told her the truth, that this was perfectly OK with me! I gather she had to break the same news to other employees who had more to lose.) But I’ve since realized, you can just bide your time and find another job: it happens all the time, at least in New York. I shudder to think being stuck in such a situation, like a rural area or a job that pays so well it would be very hard to leave. But haven’t had that problem just yet.

Grey was a pretty stuffy place for an ad agency. Again, didn’t know this at that time, but would later find out working in a few other agencies. Since it was so large, it had all those byzantine rules and forms to fill out for everything, and I’ve found that any place that isolates upper management is generally a poorly run place. By that, I mean the guys who run the place will generally be on a certain floor, by themselves with their annoying executive assistants, and visiting them is like entering a gilded palace where one must bow and kneel, preferably avoiding eye contact, unless you, a mere mortal, want to burst into flames. I’ve worked in a few places where the guy or girl who ran the joint was right down the hall, and you could easily stop in and say hello if you had a problem: these places may have had other issues, but that sort of welcome informality wasn’t one of them.

Grey was one of those little fiefdoms in terms of power structures. The creative people would huddle in their offices on their floor, grumbling about the business-side people and such. In the past I’ve laid out my take on “creative” people in corporate environments: generally, a bad mix, unless the individual grasps he’s working in a business and not viewing the job as an unfortunate imposition on his wonderful talents and time spent as a sentient being on this planet. The business people were what they were, which I’d eventually find refreshing and honest, but, man, what a shock to a kid straight out of college! Many people went to college to learn how to be business people, but all I could think after that first experience was, nothing prepares you for the politics, personalities and bullshit of doing business, you can’t teach that, and you can only learn it by experiencing it. So, if you’re going to college, feel free to major in something creative that actually gives you pleasure and purpose in life, because you’ll have plenty of time later to be more rational and responsible. Unless you’re very lucky, or very rich, life will demand you be that way, or pay the price in prescription meds and such.

I’m going to embarrass myself here, but even more than that idiot department head, and the late David, and many other things about Grey (including more than a few very hot women … don’t know what it is about advertising and women, but there’s something in the water there …), I remember one thing very clearly. That makes me feel like a flaming asshole now, even though it was an innocent thing at the time. I may have done this two or three times. Can’t recall. But I dressed up like Kevin Rowland, the lead singer from Dexy’s Midnight Runners, as portrayed in their video “Come on Eileen.”

I feel like a fucking idiot now remembering this! But I thought that was a cool look (no one else did). I had a floppy old military hat that could be worn like a beret. And a pair of bib overalls. A t-shirt. A flannel shirt I wore over the whole thing. And brogans (work boots). Hey, it was an ad agency: people were supposed to dress flamboyantly (although most people rarely did, especially in a mortuary like Grey). I would never in a million years dress like that again in an office, or anywhere for that matter, but for some reason, at that time, I felt that need to do so. I remember one of the security guards in the cafeteria getting red-faced and telling me to go home and change, and I told him to make me. Security guard? Now, if they had a fashion guard, I’d have listened. Most people just took one look at me, grinned, and thought, “Ah, youth … glad I’m older now.” But, man, for obvious reasons, the memory of me being naïve and dumb enough to dress like that at work … I don’t know what I was thinking. But it happened, and, boy, do I remember it, like a rash on my penis or a broken heart.

I don’t want to leave you with that song in your head. So, in honor of David, and probably because he may have missed this city in his book, a song from the late Warren Zevon, "Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead." Really, sorry to hear of David’s passing, and no disrespect meant. If anything, I’m glad to see the guy did something cool in his life beyond the world of advertising. It's a good message to leave behind.

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