When I tell people I work in advertising, the most common response is, “Like Mad Men!” Yes, I tell them. Exactly like Mad Men. I get a similar reaction when I tell people I’m Italian. “Like The Sopranos!” they say. I’ve had numerous conversations—all of us have—where the most readily available access point is television or movies. Even historical events are more impactful with a cinematic gauge. Tell someone about D.B. Cooper and you’re apt to get a blank stare. Mention the part about him parachuting from an airplane with bags of stolen cash and suddenly your audience is enthralled, their eyes wide as they imagine a dogged FBI agent, played by Keanu Reeves, jumping out of the airplane after him.
In our hearts we know that real life can’t compete with the Hollywood version, but that doesn’t curb the disappointment when it falls short. In the last few years there’s been an unusual amount of Great White shark activity off of Cape Cod. Naturally we New Englanders were delighted. “Finally, it only took forty years! Will they close the beaches? Who will they hire to kill the thing?” I tuned in all summer, looking for a crackerjack team that included a hippie marine biologist and a salty old fisherman, only to be heartbroken when I learned that the matter was in the hands of professionals, learned men and women with high-tech gear and no intention of killing anything. Once it was clear that the shark would be monitored with an electromagnetic device, and not blown up by throwing a scuba tank in its mouth, I shut off the news and got on with my life.
The myth surrounding advertising is one of glamour, beautiful models, heavy drug use and office orgies. This may be true in some places, but where I work the ads are wholesome and family-friendly. I spent all of Thursday writing billboard copy for the Tallahassee Bureau of Tourism. Nine hours racking my brain for a clever headline to accompany four alligators playing golf.
Lately my job has consumed much of my time, so it seems appropriate to look back on where it all began: my first day in this business, before I realized there was more to this job than presenting storyboards to a conference room full of suits, like the opening scene of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
I’d returned home to Boston in the summer of 1999, after a failed eighteen months as a producer’s assistant in Los Angeles. I lived at home with my parents, waited tables at night, partied until sunrise and by day searched for a new career in the Boston Globe’s Help Wanted page, anyplace that would hire a 24-year old with a year and a half of experience and a portfolio of college newspaper film reviews. Every day I scanned past jobs I’d never heard of, vague and ominous positions like underwriter or controller or estimator. There were several postings for pharmaceutical sales, auditors, restaurant managers, analysts, machinists, even drivers, but nothing for “Entry Level Ad Agency”. Then finally there it was, in bold lettering, tucked away at the bottom of the generic PROFESSIONAL section.
CHAMPIONSHIP ADVERTISING, a sports marketing firm, is looking for ambitious, motivated self-starters to join our team. Exciting opportunities! Earn up to $1,000/wk! Applicants will be screened by phone. Call 781-XXX-XXXX.
Sports marketing? I imagined myself behind a camera yelling “Cut!” while Pedro Martinez posed with a stick of deodorant. I called the number immediately and left a voicemail. Two hours later, while in the backyard smoking a joint, dressed in my Terrycloth robe, the phone rang. I ran inside and answered. A woman introduced herself as Susan Bowen from Championship Advertising. She sounded husky yet articulate and spoke with a thick Boston accent. I pictured Mary Tyler Moore sitting next to a box of merlot.
First she asked about my experience as a producer’s assistant. Then she asked if I had a car. Then she asked how soon I could start. I told her I could start right away. “Okay,” she said. “I just have one more question.” It sounded like she was shuffling papers, looking for something. “Oh. Right. How would you describe yourself in one word?”
“Hm,” I said, rubbing my lips, my fingertips smelling like cheap marijuana resin. “I guess…in one word…I’d have to say…um…” I had no idea what to say. What would she want to hear? I scratched my head and looked over at the living room mirror. There I was, at four in the afternoon, unshowered, wearing a robe and boxer shorts, tufts of bedhead sticking out like a missile silo, my eyes watery and bloodshot.
“In one word…I’d say I’m ambitious. Yeah, ambitious. Or maybe smart. No, ambitious.”
“Well congratulations. Why don’t you come in tomorrow at nine, and we’ll see how you do in the field?”
“Do I have the job?”
“Looks good so far. Come in tomorrow, meet some of our staff, sit in on a couple meetings, and we’ll take it from there.”
She gave me the address to the home office in Woburn, along with directions from I-95. I thanked her, hung up the phone and fist-pumped my reflection in the mirror. Then I realized I forgot to ask about health insurance, which I need due to my chronic bowel disease. I also forgot to ask about starting salary. And vacation time. And what exactly the job entailed.
No matter. I’ll find out tomorrow.
Since I didn’t have any friends, I celebrated alone that night, at Golden Star, the Chinese restaurant in Newtonville. There were always one or two familiar faces there, as well as Huey, the skinny Asian bartender who never spoke. This led me to believe that he was hiding something, like an inventory of Gremlins stashed in the back. At the bar that night was Roy Carbone, a city worker I knew from the neighborhood. In front of him were two packs of Marlboro Reds, five Keno tickets and a bottle of Bud Light. The beer bottle’s label was peeled off and torn into a pile of tiny shreds that sat next to his ashtray. “Hey buddy,” I said, slapping Roy’s back and taking the stool next to him.
He turned slowly to me, squinting through a plume of cigarette smoke with eyes that were set far back in his square head. “Do I know you?”
“It’s Danny. Pellegrini. I used to work at the restaurant next door.” I had hung out with Roy about sixty times over the past three years. What I should have said was “we snorted a gram of coke in the alley behind Pizzeria Uno last Sunday”, but I thought that might have been too forward.
“Oh yeah,” Roy said. He reached out to shake my hand. His fingers were thick and shaky, like four Jimmy Dean sausages on a frying pan, popping in their own grease.
I pulled out seventy-three bucks—my entire nest egg—and set it on the bar. Then a flash of prudency hit me and I tucked a twenty back into my pocket, just in case. I bought Roy a beer and ordered myself a Dewar’s—a taste I had acquired from my father’s liquor cabinet. Huey dropped off the drinks with a nod.
“I got a new job today,” I told Roy. “Advertising.”
Roy exhaled smoke across the bar. He swallowed forcibly for a moment, as though battling a severe attack of heartburn. “You want a job? Go up Church Street, up the fire station. Go see Dicky Iacuzzo, ya know, Joanie’s father. Tell him I sent ya, tell him you wanna take the firefighter exam. He’ll take care a yas.”
I nodded and tapped my finger on the rim of my rocks glass. “That’s an idea,” I said.
Roy continued, mumbling about how he was going to kill someone named Tommy. I drank my glass of Dewar’s and watched the Red Sox game on the TV above the bar, thinking about my new career in sports marketing.
We were the last ones to leave Golden Star that night, at a few minutes past one. I drank six Dewar’s and bought three of Roy’s beers. We also split an order of Teriyaki chicken and Peking dumplings. I spent all of my money, even the emergency twenty I was saving for gas.
I threw up twice on the walk home. When I finally got to my parents’ house I laid down in the front yard, smoked a cigarette and stared up at the moon. And that’s where I woke up, four hours later, to the smack of the Boston Globe landing on the front walkway, right next to my head.
* * * *
The traffic on 95 was slow moving. My head felt like it was in a vise grip. I was queasy and on the verge of heaving, as though my stomach was an oil drum, sliding around the back of a van, filled with watery refuse that spilled over the rim at every bump in the road. With every gag reflex came the burn of cheap scotch and the aftertaste of Asian beef. Even with the air conditioning on full blast I was brined in sweat. My neck was slimy underneath my shirt collar, my armpits and tailbone were damp, my butt crack felt like it was leaking. Droplets of melted hair gel trickled down my forehead and stung my eyes.
The hangover would wear off soon; the glory of a career in advertising, however, was infinite.
According to the site map in the office park’s lobby, Championship Advertising was located in suite 3C. The names of the neighboring businesses were stenciled in gold leaf lettering; Championship Advertising was written in black Sharpie on a piece of white paper that was taped over the previous occupant. A wave of nausea came over me. I rested my hand on the site map and took a deep breath to steady myself.
I arrived at suite 3C, my shirt sticking to my torso after walking up two flights of stairs thanks to an elevator that was OUT OF SERVICE. The smell of Golden Star’s barroom—a mixture of carpet mold and cigarette ash—seeped from my pores. A swell of diarrhea rose up from the pit of my stomach and then quieted. I knocked and walked in to the office.
The reception area was the size of a standard tollbooth. I introduced myself and was told to wait in Susan Bowen’s office at the end of the hall. On the way I passed a half dozen cubicles and saw two men and four women, all in their twenties. They sat at their desks and appeared to be hard at work, but something was missing. That something was computers and phones. And though they dressed professionally, in skirts and slacks and neckties, they were gaunt and ratty-looking, something about them slightly off, the incongruous white socks, the pencil-thin beard, or the prison tattoo creeping up from under a collar. They looked back at me as I walked by, their eyes straining to send a non-verbal message, one that I interpreted as either “help us” or “run”.
I arrived at an office with SUSAN BOWEN on the door. It was written in Sharpie and scotch-taped over a placard that read STORAGE. A moment later Susan walked in with a young woman in tow. “Hi, Danny. Susan Bowen. Nice to meet you.” We shook hands. There was a rip in her pantyhose and a lipstick stain on one of her front teeth. The smell of makeup and polyester was so pungent I almost gagged. She gestured to the young woman behind her. “This is Heather. You’ll be shadowing her in the field today.”
Heather was roughly my age but dressed for her seventies, with a double-knit blouse, knee-length skirt and boxy high heels that were a size too small, making the tops of her feet look like loaves of bread rising out from two baking tins. She had puffy, chipmunk cheeks that were spotted with constellations of acne. It looked as though she’d just ate 100 mg of prednisone for breakfast.
“What exactly will we be doing today?” I said. And then, as an after thought: “…in the field.”
“Well, Danny, Championship Advertising is a direct marketing firm. We present local businesses with the opportunity to connect with and support some of our hometown professional sports teams, and in doing so gain awareness on a much broader level. For instance: last month PepsiCo hired us to promote a sweepstakes among local real estate offices. The winner got a one month free billboard on one of the Fleet Center’s loge sections.”
“Wow,” I said. “That sounds exciting.” It did. Sort of.
Susan continued. “Today, of course, you and Heather will be working on a different initiative, but you get the picture.” She turned to Heather. “All set?”
Heather nodded, and the two of us were off, into the field.
* * * *
“Do you mind if I turn this down a bit?” I said, reaching over and lowering the volume on Jammin 94.5. “It’s a little early for Brittney Spears.”
“Sorry,” Heather said. We inched along interstate traffic in her Honda Civic. “And sorry about the air conditioning. I’m gonna fix it once I get the hundred and forty bucks.”
I nodded and leaned my head against the passenger-side window. The glass was hot against my temple. I felt faint. The edges of my vision blurred.
“What’s that smell?” I said.
She sniffed the air. “It could be exhaust. There’s a hole in the floorboard. I need to fix that, too.”
It definitely wasn’t exhaust. Something smelled sour, like spoiled milk. I looked toward the back seat and saw a menagerie of empty McDonald’s containers. One of them had the crust of a cheeseburger still inside it.
My mouth filled with saliva. I rolled down the window and leaned my head out. Heather asked me to roll it back up—apparently the sounds of the highway distracted her.
“So, where are we going?” I said, trying to be cheerful.
I waited for Heather to say more but instead she picked her nose and flicked away the debris.
“What are we doing in Billerica?”
She pointed at a three-ring binder wedged between the two front seats. I picked it up and opened it in my lap. Inside were sheets of pre-cut coupons, clipped together in packets. I flipped through one of them. The text and images and limited-time-only deals whirled past my eyes, but two things stood out:
Subway and Domino’s Pizza.
“What is this?” I said, barely audible.
“This week I’m meeting with businesses to discuss enhanced value lunch opportunities.” She nodded toward the binder. “For $19.99 a month they get premium access to Subway and Domino’s Pizza’s benefits program.”
I opened the packet again and examined one of the coupons: One large, thick crust pizza with any choice of topping, two large sodas and a bag of Lay’s potato chips. All for four dollars.
“There’s seven hundred and ninety dollars’ worth of food in there. We’re selling it for two hundred and forty. We’re giving these businesses over five hundred dollars.”
I was speechless. Heather mistook it as awe and continued. “I know what you’re thinking. Commission, right? What’s our end? Six percent. Well, I get six percent. But you will too, once you’ve completed your training and built your own client list.” She turned to me and smiled with a sinister overbite.
Suddenly it was hard to breathe. I looked out the window. We had gotten off the interstate a few minutes before and were now on a rural highway, in a remote area, far away from anything.
* * * *
The main commercial street of Billerica looked like a quaint Cape Cod neighborhood after a nuclear holocaust. The sidewalks were pitiful strips of dying grass. The businesses looked like residences: one-story, flat-roofed houses set back from the road, their windows barred and front yards overgrown with weeds. The late-morning heat approached ninety degrees, causing the air to hover in waves and turning the horizon a sickly pink, the color of a faded scab.
Heather and I walked along the sidewalk of dead grass. She eyed the offices for prospective sales while I struggled to remain conscious. I was dehydrated. My clothes stuck to me, especially my boxer shorts, which were crammed into my butt crack like a sumo belt, chafing my scrotum. I walked peg-legged in an effort to minimize the pain.
“Let’s try this place,” Heather said, pointing at one of the shitholes on our side of the street. We turned up the front walk.
“Can I ask you something?” I said. “What does any of this have to do with sports?”
She sighed, opened up her binder and held it in my face. I looked at the top sheet of coupons. Printed underneath the Subway logo was: “The Official Sandwich of the Boston Red Sox.”
“Does that answer your question?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, my right hand unwittingly forming into a fist.
We reached the door. Heather rang the doorbell and we entered into the foyer of a Russian dentist’s office. A woman with a surgical mask around her neck quickly approached us looking alarmed. “What is matter?” she asked in a thick eastern European accent.
She seemed relieved once Heather explained our business there. I half listened as Heather fumbled through her sales pitch, repeatedly referring to the binder, gushing about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a yearlong membership to a fast food chain. From my other ear I heard fax machine transmissions, drilling, and some screaming.
“Ma’am, as a premium member you not only get great deals on all Domino’s Pizza and Subway products, you also get all food made to order. Like, if you want extra cheese, or extra mayo, all you have to do is call this toll-free number and create a…hold on…” Heather flipped through a few pages in her binder. “…a custom profile.”
I felt like crying. The woman shook her head. “No. Not interested.”
Heather held up a finger. “Also there’s a cookie of the month club…”
“I don’t have time for this. Now you leave please.”
Heather nodded, thanked the woman, and we left. To her credit, she was resilient. She clutched the binder against her chest like a schoolgirl and marched down the sidewalk. “It’s okay. One down, forty-nine to go.”
I dropped my head in my hands.
Next up was an animal hospital. Before we turned up the walkway a pickup truck drove by. Half a dozen guys, shirtless and sunburned and drinking cans of beer, were packed into the back. They honked and whistled and shouted at Heather.
“Yeah, sweet ass! Wanna jump in the truck with us?”
I looked at Heather. Her hair was frizzy from the humidity and sweat streaked down her face. “I’m used to it,” she said. “I just ignore it.” She walked up to the animal hospital’s front door.
As soon as we walked through the door my stomach leapt into my throat. The hospital was one dingy room filled with cages. The stench assaulted me: animal food, animal feces, animal entrails, animal cadavers…all mixed together to form a potpourri of diseased wildlife. A man in a white smock came out from behind a row of cages, adamantly shaking his head. “No. No. You were here two days ago. Please…”
That was all I heard. Before Heather could respond with her irrefutable sales pitch, I was outside, in the front yard, vomiting.
Two down, forty-eight to go.
“I might be coming down with something,” I said on the way to our next stop, a pawnshop called Billerica Buy & Sell. “I’m gonna hang out here for this one, get some air.”
“Okay,” Heather said. She looked confused for a moment, then promptly turned on her heels and marched toward the pawnshop, determined to close the deal.
I walked to the corner and leaned against a mailbox. The noontime sun drilled into me. I peeled off my sport jacket and undid my necktie. My shirt was soaked. For a second I thought I would die right there, in Billerica, on a Wednesday afternoon.
A ’64 Chevy Impala convertible pulled up at the intersection. The driver was a muscular black man with a doo rag and sunglasses. He turned to me. I waved hello and smiled. He smiled back.
“You are one pathetic motherfuckin’ white man,” he said. “You have yourself a lovely day now.” The Impala drove off.
A few minutes later Heather walked out of the pawnshop. She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “Not interested,” she said. “Oh well. You wanna grab some lunch?”
“Where?” I said, wiping tears from eyes.
She shrugged. “McDonald’s?”
I convinced her to drive me back to the Championship Advertising headquarters. She was weary, citing the mid-day traffic as a potential hazard. I assured her there would be no traffic in that direction at this time of day. I was wrong. Construction had closed down two lanes and it took us an hour and forty minutes to get back to Woburn. With the return traffic, she wouldn’t be back in Billerica until the close of business. I apologized for the inconvenience and wished her luck, then slammed the door shut. She drove away, the tailpipe of her Honda Civic scraping the pavement behind her.
I never went back to Championship Advertising, and they never called. Something told me this kind of thing happened all the time.
* * * *
Today I sit in an air-conditioned office, one furnished with a computer and a phone. I call composers and tell them I need a music track, something “uplifting and approachable, but still unique and with a bit of an edge.” I make videos that depict a world where everybody smiles, where product is the hero, where flaws are retouched and where life casually coexists with glaring brand logos. I write commercials about people who feel great and look slim. I help sell the tools that will equip you for the happiest, most fulfilling life imaginable.
Is it like Mad Men? Not exactly, but it’s not terribly different, either. And that’s not the point, anyway. Make-believe is not a gauge for reality. I remind myself of that whenever I get frustrated and existential at work, those times when I regret leaving the movie business, or the disappointment I feel when I argue with a co-worker and our banter lacks the machine-gun tempo of All The President’s Men. The best we can hope for in this life is happiness. And the only gauge for happiness, like it or not, is misery.
So if you ever find yourself stranded in Billerica on a sweltering July day with a vicious hangover and no quarter, consider it an investment.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
Best of the Fool: