Friday, December 08, 2006

Chapter Three: Incoming

One Hundred Twenty-fifth Street sliced Harlem end to end from the East River to the Hudson and was Jack's favorite portal to Manhattan and a route into the big city that drivers who knew Jack -- or at least knew his face -- would take unless told otherwise. Coming down off exit ramp of the Triboro Bridge and crossing through First, Second, Third and Lexington Avenues filled Jack with a childlike excitement that he never tired of. With the wide eyes of the child who spent his first seven years believing the entire world was as white as he was until meeting a colored boy named Eugene Lloyd in the second grade and not another until high school, Jack was mesmerized by the vibration of daily activity all along the sidewalks of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. In sharp contrast to Boston's Newbury street, where the pavement was scrubbed and swept hourly, or at least looked that way, and where the pedestrians were mostly white, mostly blonde and mostly well off, One Hundred Twenty-fifth Street, even in the stinging cold of this early January morning, was alive with characters of every shape and color.

The planet was well represented on these streets with Africans, Chinese, Puerto Ricans, Iraqis, Jamaicans, and all sorts of other people of color living and working in a buzz of organic harmony that the world outside of New York City was incapable of emulating. Jack loved to watch them all and he particularly loved the mix of old time retail stores, churches and theatres that still thrived here in spite of so-called progress. From the Hue-Man bookstore, where authors the likes of Maya Angelou and Bebe Moore Campbell regularly read and recited for rapt locals, to Triple Candie, a theater where Harlem's best emerging young artists could fearlessly polish their craft, to Kelly's Kitchen, an authentic soul food joint where it would not be out of the ordinary to find Al Sharpton discussing l'oppression du jour with a gaggle of hangers-on, Harlem was the anti-Boston, so wonderfully electric and fantastically diverse. If Jack's plane had delivered him to Tajikistan, it could not possibly feel any further from Boston than Harlem's One Hundred Twenty-fifth Street. And that is precisely why Jack was drawn to this place so.

The Lincoln Town Car headed south on Adam Clayton Powell until it entered Central Park at its northernmost end, moving down through its fifty-two blocks of frosted trees, rocks and ponds, running trails and bicycle paths. On this particular morning, a film crew was shooting in the intersection where Seventy-second Street traversed the Park. Above the broken tree line to his right, Jack could see the twin towers of the San Remo Apartment building on Central Park West, the boyhood home of Broadway lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim, and so many other notables. The San Remo, in all its Italian baroque splendor, represented the quintessential New York City sophisticate lifestyle -- the perfect marriage of art and habitation. Blocking the normally smooth flow of traffic through the park were a trio of large panel trucks bearing the brilliant red logo of Silvercup Studios, an expansive series of soundstages in Queens where countless movies and television shows were filmed. In the middle of the intersection, in the blaze of the faux sunlight generated by the huge lights, Jack spotted actor Kevin Spacey and an actress that he could not put a name with but was sure he had seen on cable recently. Star gazing rubberneckers just made the holdup worse. "A new Coppola film," the driver said without moving his eyes from the crowded roadway. "I heah it's about Mayah Giuliani." Jack acknowledged this little scoop with a somewhat interested "Oh", mentally noting Giuliani's former Mayor status.

Upon exiting the park, Jack instructed the driver to take him to Barnes & Noble at 45th and Lexington and wait while he grabbed an armload of the book that Tracy had so brilliantly recommended. It had just turned eight-thirty when the car pulled up to the curb at the bookstore and the double glass doors were in the process of being unlocked. A long line of half frozen twenty-somethings crowded the doorway where a poorly designed flyer announced "A Book Signing with Noah Levine, author of Dharma Punx". Levine, a former skate punk, drug addict, and petty thief-turned-Buddhist instructor had recently been enjoying talk show ubiquity hyping his somewhat successful chronicle of his miserable childhood in the Bay Area which included stealing VCRs from neighbors to buy crack. I have my own tortured childhood to keep me company, I don’t need to read about someone else's, thought Jack to himself as he proceeded to push his way to the front of the line holding his open wallet over his head to give the illusion of an authoritative badge or ID.

The car limped painfully through the crush of morning commuters to 48th Street then over one block to Third at which point Jack, saddled with briefcase and books, jumped out and walked briskly to the front entrance at 295 Third Avenue, home of FLY and his Bastards.

"If it's Mr. Landers, it must be Monday," said Tulo Ayoolo, the friendly Nigerian security guard posted at the front desk of the expansive marble lobby. "Good morning Mr. Lahnders," Avoolo added.

"Good morning Tulo," offered Jack. "Good weekend?" inquired Jack as he signed the guest register taking care to note the time of his arrival.

"You will be seeing our friends at FLY this morning Mr. Lahnders?" asked Tulo as he checked Jack's briefcase for "suspicious" items, a procedure mandatory since 9-11. "You must like this book very much to purchase so many," the guard said looking in the Barnes and Noble bag.

"Gifts," said Jack, closing his briefcase.

It was 8:50 a.m. when Jack entered one of the building's 16 elevators. In ten minutes Jack's natural talent as a salesman and persuader would be tested.

Coming soon, Chapter Four

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Chapter Two: The Birds

Blair Landers was startled out of a sound sleep by the crashing of a bird against her bedroom window. The graceful bow window in the master suite faced east, causing its panes to darken, losing their transparency as the sun rose, making this sort of aviation disaster relatively common. But as Blair fumbled for her eyeglasses on the end table and gazed toward the window, she saw not one, but two nearly identical signs of impact on the frozen glass. Swinging her legs out of bed and onto the carpet, Blair rose slowly and walked to the window. On the snow covered deck below her window lay a pair of cardinals. A male as red as geraniums, and his less colorful, but no less beautiful, female companion lay side by side, their necks badly bent and broken. Even from two stories above Blair could clearly see that they were both very dead.

Clearing the snow from a small patch of her garden beside the deck, Blair picked away at the frozen ground with her green-handled Brookstone spade. The ground was three months frozen requiring a good bit of effort to penetrate. As she picked at the ground, Blair wondered about the cardinals. How did they first meet? How do birds meet? How many days or months or years had they flown by each other's side? Were there babies in a nearby nest waiting for their parents to bring breakfast? Lifting the two cardinals into her gloved hands, she carefully placed them into the small hole she had managed to carve from the frozen earth. Dead only minutes, their bodies were still supple, their eyes still open like tiny black pearls. Blair stared into the grave, her eyes welling with the tears of a hundred lifetimes, tears for broken relationships, for parents long since dead, for a marriage increasingly losing its intimacy and connection, and she began to cry, almost without control. There she kneeled, the knees of her jeans soaked from the snow, her breath clouding the frozen morning air, sobbing over two dead birds who had the rotten luck of not being able to tell the sky from its reflection.

It was just after 7:30 a.m. when the phone rang. The kids were still out like lights and Blair new that if she didn't rattle them out of their beds soon, they'd be late for school.

"Hey," Jack said, checking in as he normally did on his way into Manhattan. "The eagle has landed."

"Hi Jack. What's up?" Blair replied, not completely recovered from the cardinal couple's funeral.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong, Jack."

"You sound like you've been crying. What's wrong?" Jack pressed. "Have you been keeping up with your meds?" he asked, knowing full well that Blair hadn't taken her antidepressant in a week. There was a rhythm to her madness. She'd dutifully obey her doctor's instructions long enough for the Venlafaxine to kick in. Once the clouds of depression and anxiety lifted, once the propensity to cry at the drop of a hat subsided, once she no longer daydreamed about running from her home, her kids and Jack and never coming back, that's when she'd convince herself the medicine wasn't necessary. Soon she'd drop back into a dark pit filled with the demons of an abusive childhood and a life awash in disappointment until such a time that she would choose to climb out again. Then whole exhausting cycle would begin anew.

"Jesus, Jack, can't I just feel bad once in a while without you pushing drugs on me?" shot Blair. "It's OK to feel off without having to constantly medicate yourself."

"Honey, this isn't just off, and it's far from being once in a while," answered Jack trying to stay calm and non-threatening. "Please get back on the meds."

"What's your day look like?" Blair asked, redirecting the conversation.

"I've got my regularly scheduled ass whipping at FLY at nine, said Jack. "There's some major stuff going on and with a little luck I might be able to sell some TV. If that happens, I'm going to try to make the 1 o'clock shuttle back and who knows after that? I wouldn't expect me for dinner. Sorry."

"It's alright, go sell something to those bastards. I'll see you when I see you. I gotta go get the kids up and off to school."

"Take your pill. I'll call you on my way home," said Jack. "Love you."

"I will. Me too," answered Blair.

Blair hung up the phone and walked over to the sliding French doors that opened onto the deck out back. Peering over to the spot where she buried the cardinals, she wiped the sleep and what was left of the tears from the corners of her eyes and then headed upstairs to rouse the kids.

Jack leaned his head against the chilled window of the Lincoln Town Car as it entered the Midtown Tunnel and closed his eyes.

Look for Chapter Three in December.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Chapter One: The Bastards

The last thing Jack Landers expected when he limped out of bed that sub-zero January morning was to be dead by lunchtime. Not that he didn't expect an entire shit storm to come barreling at him once he hit his spacious corner office at Shaughnessy + Greene Advertising, perched upon the 42nd floor of the Prudential Tower, high above Boylston Street, one of Boston's main business arteries, as had become the drill that kicked off every week of the busy season. But dying never crossed Jack's mind.

The Bastards, as Jack had come to affectionately refer to his clients at FLY, a flailing running shoe brand that had barged into the category much too late with much too little to offer or differentiate itself from the likes of Nike and Reebok, to say nothing of dying brands like Converse and Tretorn, made a habit of scheduling the weekly account status meeting at 8 a.m. sharp each and every Monday. To add to Jack's disdain for this client's lack of consideration for anyone with a life, Fly's Senior Vice President of Marketing, David Sapperstein, an ex-Polaroid channel marketing manager whose hiring was, in Jack's mind, somewhere between appropriate and inexplicable, mandated Jack's in-person participation at their tragically hip mid-town Manhattan offices. As sure as he was that this standing engagement was designed solely to test him, better yet, simply piss him off him, Jack never missed a meeting despite the idiotic travel ritual required to show his face for thirty excruciating minutes and create the optics -- a favorite word that Jack admittedly overused -- that servicing a New York City brand from a Boston shop was as easy and natural as working with any of the dozens of ad shops two blocks over from FLY on Madison or down in Tribeca. The business of advertising is all about appearances anyway. Why shouldn't the people who labor, if that is a fair word to describe this work, be any different? Inasmuch as the work itself -- the beyond-expensive television spots, the sumptuous four-color, two-page magazine ads known to as spreads in the business, that made art directors wet their surfer shorts, and the high-profile billboards in Times Square -- were all about creating appearances for brands, so too were there appearances to be kept up in the business of client servitude. Overt displays, or even subtle harmonics of inconvenience, difficulty or hardship were the kiss of death for an out-of-towner, worse yet a white bread New Englander like Jack whose bloated mortgage and comfy lifestyle were bought and paid for courtesy of the Bastards and their spiteful little Monday morning meeting.

On one of two snow white four-foot by eight-foot dry erase boards that hung in his cranberry red home office that Jack used to scribble and sketch communications outlines and marketing models, Jack's Monday morning travel agenda lay scrawled in permanent marker. Jack liked to refer to it as his weekly double triathalon...car, plane, cab, plane, cab, car.

4:30a Car service pick up at house, review meeting agenda with Tracy
5:45a Arrive Logan terminal C
6:30a Delta Shuttle, open seating
7:20a Arrive LGA
7:30a Car service to FLY
8:30a Arrive FLY
9:00a Client meeting
9:45a Car service to LGA, debrief with Tracy
11:00a Delta Shuttle to Logan
12:10p Arrive Logan
12:15p Car service to S+G
1:00p Arrive S+G

Tracy DelAngelis was in the late stages of making a name for herself at Shaughnessy + Greene, which at seventy-five was Boston's oldest ad agency, originally started in the late twenties in Southie by the Irish mafia as a money laundering operation. As it turned out, the agency's legitimate revenue generating activities rapidly outpaced its criminal alter ego and eventually an upstanding business was born. A twenty-nine year old Account Supervisor on the verge of being kicked up to Management Supervisor, Tracy was recruited -- more like lured -- by Jack out of Weiden & Kennedy, Nike's famous Portland, Oregon-based ad agency, because of the obvious cache she would bring to S+G having worked the entirety of her young career surrounded by the likes of Mike, Andre, Dennis and countless other white-hot sports celebs.

It impressed Jack that, as a lowly Account Supervisor, she enclosed a reel of TV spots -- her reel of spots -- along with her resume during the interview process. Art directors have reels. Writers and producers have reels. But an account person with a reel was akin to an art director with a balance sheet. What blew Jack away further were the creatives themselves, the very ones listed as references on her resume, the ones who actually made those spots, who stood behind Tracy's claim of contributing to the work when Jack anonamously called to inquire. At Weiden, Tracy DelAngelo was well known as one of the good account people. One of few who knew precisely how and when to throw herself on the proverbial sword in defense of the work. And when ardent sandbagging failed, how to bend the work without breaking it. She had a natural talent for wearing down clients with beautifully articulated and believable treaties on why the spot could not possibly work without the Iggy Pop tune or why showing actual shoes in the ad would ruin the viewers' fantasy of the product and ultimately suppress retail sales. Slick beyond her years, Tracy was worth every one of her 115 pounds in platinum in a a "creative-driven" shop like W&K.

Tracy took the job at Shaughnessy + Greene, not for the fat salary, although one hundred thirty thousand dollars a year could keep a girl in Kate Spade and Emilio Pucci even in a town as pricey as Boston. The money was sweet but the real lure was the potential payout of helping to successfully resuscitate an ailling me-too brand like FLY. If the stars aligned just so, Tracy would almost certainly be looking at a VP/Management Sup title within six months and an Account Directorship not long thereafter.

Tall at five-foot ten, with boyishly short auburn hair, green eyes the color of currency, and a runner's tight yet lanky physique inherited from her mother Joan, a retired Ogilvy & Mather Copy Chief whose entire career was spent hopping back and fourth between New York and Frankfurt eating, drinking and sleeping the Mercedes Benz business, Tracy was the kind of woman that men, and other women, noticed. Looks notwithstanding, what appealed to Jack during the protracted interview process was her raw, if not wonderfully naive, ambition. Throughout his career, Jack made a practice of hiring people who he could sense would soon have their eye on is job as they were the ones who could always be counted on to pull twice their weight with nary a complaint while making him appear tireless and brilliant. Tracy's intent to leverage Jack's back as a ladder to the top of S+G was probably best exemplified in her willingness to rise every Monday at 3 a.m. to accompany and brief him on the way to Logan so that he would be at the top of his game when he touched down at LaGuardia; a gesture so selfless and painful that it caused Jack to sometimes distrust, if not resent her.

At 4:30 a.m. sharp the late model black Lincoln Town Car rolled into Jack's driveway as quietly as if the driver had cut the engine and coasted the last five hundred yards to the oversized modern cape that Jack and Blair agreed to build the night of Jack's promotion to Executive Vice President; a sign in the ad business that one had indeed arrived as much as one can arrive in the ad business. As was his Monday routine, Jack had been up since three, showered, dressed, sipped a tall blue plastic glass of iced coffee with milk and three Equals, checked email, surfed WSJ.com and Adweek.com and dabbed his shoes with a bottle of Lick-Wi-Black Military Spit Shine shoe polish while standing on the previous day's Boston Globe. Jack's driver, Vincent "Vinny" LaPore, oddly, an Italian from South Boston who Jack liked to think of as an Uncle from the wrong side of the tracks, had a standing order never to use the horn. If Jack wasn't standing in the driveway by 4:45, Vinny was to leave and presume Jack sick, if not dead. This was Jack's way of insuring that Blair and the boys would not be needlessly awakened three hours before any sane person had a need to be.

But on this bitingly cold new year morning, Jack slipped silently out the front door -- the automatic garage doors were much too noisy to exit that way -- picked up the Globe from the driveway and threw it back onto the faux farmers porch, and fell into the back seat next to Tracy, who with white legal pad in hand was rearing to go.

"Morning Jack," said Tracy barely looking up from her MacBook Pro laptop upon which she was polishing the agenda they'd soon discuss.

Jack flashed Tracy an artificial smile sliding into the back seat. "Morning Vin," he mumbled as he fumbled his briefcase onto the floor in front of him. Jack then turned to Tracy. "Tell me what I think." This was a phrase that Jack had been using as a conversation starter with Tracy every morning for a year. It was his way of affirming Tracy's role as the nerve center of the account team, the keeper of everything significant, the Radar O'Reilly of account management.

"You think that the drop in FLY's retail comp store sales are a possible backlash for dumping Andre Tyler after his domestic violence conviction," shot Tracy. "You think that the new TV spots that we've been awaiting approval on for five weeks will counter some of that reverse momentum by redirecting consumer attention to FLY's sponsorship of the upcoming winter games. You think that the sooner we get into production and on the air the better off everyone will be."

"What else?" Jack deadpanned knowing all too well that there was always more and seldom was it anything he wanted to hear.

"You ready for this one?" teased Tracy.

"Oh Jaysus, what now?"

"Jermaine O'Neal was on Connan last night wearing a three-thousand dollar Zegna suit, striped Gap t-shirt and a brand new pair of FLY Flyers," Tracy reported. "Blue suede uppers, yellow soles. You know the ones. Jermaine fucking O'Neal. The one with the bloated Nike contract committing eight-figure endorsement suicide on national late night TV. Can you fucking believe that?" Tracy winked at Vinny who was alternately watching the road and the backseat exchange in his rear view mirror. "It gets better," Tracy beamed. "O'Brien makes some joke about the size and color of the FLYs -- something stupid about Elvis. O'Neal then takes off one of the shoes and puts it on Connan's desk and the camera guy moves in for a close up and stays there as a transition into the commercial break."

"Fuck," Jack said and then paused. "And what do I think FLY should do in response?" asked Jack knowing very well what the exact right answer should be.

"You all but demand that the new spots go immediately into pre-production. You strongly suggest that we hit the air as soon as our media people can buy the time. We run the shit out of the Blue Suede spot we produced last year just as a place holder until the new work is finished," said Tracy. "You stop at Barnes & Noble at 45th and Lex on the way in, pick up 20 copies of "The Tipping Point" and hand them out in this morning's meeting to drive home the short window of opportunity that's been served up on a silver platter here. Then you get back on the plane and hope like hell they were lis..."

"The
book
is
a
great
idea," interrupted Jack slowly, one word at a time.

The book, a somewhat popular little business tome from a few years back, told the stories behind products like Hush Puppies and Etch-a-Sketch which rose from unknown to all the rage suddenly and almost inexplicably after being seen on the feet and in the hands of pop culture luminaries. The idea being that one seemingly isolated, singular event was capable of triggering an entire cultural landslide and Sunami of demand for any product fortunate enough to serendipitously end up in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. And this was Fly's place and time.

"They have to say yes," said Tracy. "By mid-week they should begin to see signs of sales lifting ever so slightly in the urban centers of most of their top markets. They won't want to miss the opportunity to capitalize on their fifteen minutes of fame."

"Know what I think?" asked Jack. "I think they'll laugh the whole thing off. Know why? Because David Sapperstein hates Jermaine O'Neal," explained Jack. "And because he hates O'Neal, everyone hates O'Neal. And Sap is too fucking smug to do the right thing when it flies counter to his own biases."

"So he's an asshole," shot Tracy. "You could, however, deliver your opinion with enough passion, spin and theater to make him think he'd be an asshole not to seize this moment."

"Oh really, how?" asked Jack.

"Fuck if I know. You're the EVP, Jack. You've got four hours till touchdown. Figure out how to make it his idea," said Tracy.

Look for Chapter Two of The Last Retainer in November 2006.

Copyright 2006 Psynchronous Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.