Nouns and Verbs
I wanted something they didn’t offer. Something that combined charisma, creativity and erudition, and might one day bring me fame and fortune. Imagine James Dean smoking a pipe as he paints abstract art, with his girlfriend performing yoga in the background.
I wanted to study a strong noun or verb. One that communicated strength and genius; Moist, Friction, Rubbing, or even Passion. Passion seemed the best compromise considering my surroundings, but it wasn’t up to me. I had to choose something from the list “The Man” gave me. I became an English major, with an emphasis in creative writing. It sounded better than Communication, Biology, or the major that reeked of sulfur: Accounting. I still think studying passion would have been better than just plain old English. Passion in politics? Passion in psychology? Passion in Shakespeare’s England? Maybe I should have started my own university?
In the summer of 1991, with my generic degree in my common hand, I graduated and looked around. Who was hiring English majors? Who wanted someone who won the coveted Esther B. Wagoner award for outstanding short fiction at the Harvard of the West? Turns out almost no one, so I was once again at the mercy of my parents.
My father was always laconic. “Son, you’re creative and smart, but you need to be practical. I think you should go into advertising. We’ll pay for this one last thing if you want to do it.”
Dustin Hoffman came to mind, playing Ben in The Graduate.
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Ben: Yes I will.
Three years after this seminal conversation I had graduated from a reputable ad school, and found myself in my third month at a decent agency in Portland, Oregon. I was happy that I occasionally got to write something clever; but mostly I was happy to have a paycheck. I’d get back to nouns and verbs later.
I was the copywriting guy. My partner Kirk was the graphics guy. He’d been there for about three years, and his last partner had moved on a month ago. Kirk talked about his ex-partner a little too often. “He’s gone to a better place.”
I usually attempted an equally ironic riposte. “What, was he your family pet?”
Kirk made it very clear that he wasn’t bitter that he’d been left behind. While working at the computer creating flashy animation for the Internet part of our client’s campaign he’d chant his mantra quietly, imitating Yoda. “No, not bitter, bitter not am I.”
He occasionally offered more detail about his lack of bitterness. “I’m happy for him. He lives in a great apartment in Manhattan, drives a Jaguar and shags models. I support him with all my heart, even though I know he’ll soon die of leprosy. It’ll start with his toes and work its way up. It won’t be pretty.” He’d usually add something like, “I do this job because I love the process of creating ads 60 hours a week here in Oregon. You just can’t do that in New York. Too many distractions.” He said the words “process,” “Oregon,” and “New York” very slowly, like he was teaching the Indian names of Minnesota lakes to Chinese tourists. No, he wasn’t bitter, and to prove it he sighed a lot and stared out the window. Maybe if he looked hard enough he’d spot his ex-partner’s jag?
I was looking out the window one Friday afternoon. On a normal fall day in Portland it mists or sprinkles until your socks are soaked, and you can’t remember how it happened. But that day was unusual because the wind and rain came together in violent bursts that lashed the city, then blew east to attack the mountains. The rain began with a few big, silent drops. The drops came faster and faster, until the water coated the glass as though an angry neighbor had turned the hose on it. The wind pushed the rain from side to side, ignoring the laws of gravity. It reminded me of high school when five or six of us would pile into my VW Bug, and go through the car wash. The second the soapy brushes started scrubbing the roof we’d crank AC/DC on my cheap stereo and light a big joint of stinky Seattle weed. Our goal was to smoke the whole joint before the giant blowers pushed the water off the windows and blew our cover.
The wet Friday afternoon quickly turned into a soppy, lonely Friday night, with no progress toward our goal. We had to come up with our big idea before Monday morning. The rain pelted our window in sheets now, and I dreamed of window wipers for office towers.
The big idea for the evening was an umbrella strategy for a line of craft alcohols made in Oregon. The manufacturer had chosen cranberries, Oregon’s boggy wonder, as their gimmick. They made cranberry whiskey that smelled of Jell-O, cranberry gin that tasted like bananas, and cranberry vodka that burned your lips. They were about to go national, and they wanted a complete media campaign to accompany the launch. Print, radio, TV, Internet, the sides of elephants, whatever it took. It was a dream assignment; we got lots of free alcohol and had to drink it for research.
I was on a roll that night, but Kirk wasn’t buying it. He just squinted and listened to the wind as I stood on the table and practiced my Polish accent and brainstormed. “Release your inner cranberry. Cranberries are for lovers. You’re either with us you’re against cranberries. One batch at a time, 1000 cranberries at a time. They didn’t ask to be cranberries, but they don’t mind if you ask for them. Ever seen a cranberry puke? Cranberries make better lovers.” I could’ve gone on all night. “Kirk, are you listening?”
He took a deep, long breath. The rain and wind had died for a moment, as the sun dropped behind the towering Douglas Fir trees looking down from the hills above. He broke his silence. “Do you ever think about your soul?”
“What do you mean? Like do I have one, or do vampires have one?”
“No really, look at what we’re doing? Did you know that our business ranks below lawyers and salesman in respect? I have to shill for capitalism every day, and where does it get me? I’m making ads selling baby wipes and mufflers. My parents wanted me to be a painter — a real artist.”
I’d never heard him talk about anything but the ad business, women, and money. “No matter what you do you shill for something, right? I mean, you can shill for anyone who walks in that door or you can shill for one company all your life.” I wasn’t helping. I knew that everyone in the business thought about this now and then, but most didn’t want to talk about it.
I continued. “When I was in college I wanted to study one thing and really get into it. Like, if I could’ve studied “moist” I would’ve delved into the history of moist, the etymology of moist, the opposites of moist—like parched—moist in the bible, moist in feminism, moist in fascism, and so on. Advertising is like studying moist, but instead of a choosing a major I have a client in the business world who chooses me, and I study them.” I gave him a halfhearted toothless smile and sat down quickly.
He continued his thousand-yard stare, and changed the subject. “There are two kinds of people here at Johnson Biblowski. The kinds I likes and the kinds I don’t. To paraphrase Tolstoy, you can describe the happy ones in a few peppy platitudes, but you get copious copy out of the train wrecks.” I grimaced, but nodded my encouragement. “Now, of those I don’t like there are three subsets, no four, oh shit, I’ll stick with three. The prima donnas, the back stabbers and the complainers. There was a prima donna here two years ago. He thought we were all beneath him. It was like he knew he’d work at a big agency in New York any day now. He hated working on ads for regional clients, somehow got the corner office, and tried to get the interns to do most of his work for him. The really crappy thing is that it worked. He fooled the creative director with his fucking act. Then, he got that job in New York.”
“Then there are the whiners. I can only stand them because I pretend they’re crazy street people who just happen to work here. You should try that — it works every time. They whine about the free food, our designer chairs, having to do any work other than big TV campaigns, the odor the boss left in the bathroom. Anything. They can smell your creative juices from the elevator, and when they get a whiff they head straight to your office, poke a head in and start complaining about the bad parking space they got on vacation in Pittsburgh. My God, they need to be reminded what they do for a living. They get paid to sit around and think up silly ideas. They get paid to play Nerf basketball for inspiration. Do not be one of these people, and if you hear their shrill whines bouncing off the walls run to the toilet, pull your pants to your ankles, and stay in there as long as can.”
Had he been sampling our client’s whiskey again? “Finally, the back stabbers, the Judases. They’re everywhere in this business. I’m not one. They sneak a peek at your ideas when you’re in the shitter, then rework them just a tad and present them as their own. They casually tell the creative director that you haven’t been in the office much lately because of your coke habit, and so on.” Abrupt silence.
“Is that it, it seemed like you had more in you?”
“No, that’s it.”
We sat and stared at Kirk’s framed album cover from the movie Shaft. I lifted one leg off the chair, farted, and said, “Can you dig it?” Kirk finally smiled again.
He grabbed a big peace of foam core poster-board, about two feet by two feet. Then, with a big, red permanent marker wrote CRANBERRIES -- SOUL VODKA. “See, it’s red. Red cranberries equal love. Get it? Shaft would love it. We’ll have Shaft come running out of the forest, dive into a cranberry pond, and come up with a bottle of Vodka.”
I said, “I think we need a break.”
“You’re right. Have you ever been to the roof?” He didn’t give me time to answer. He grabbed the foam core board and jumped up. “Let’s go.”
We took the elevator to the 15th floor, as high as it would go. Then, to a gray metal door labeled “Roof Access.”
Kirk said, “I think they need some ad guys to write something catchier. Maybe ‘Stairway to Heaven?”
I shuddered and thought, “It’s a good thing I’m the writer in the partnership.”
We went through the door, and up two flights of metal stairs and out another much heavier door, onto the roof. It wasn’t raining anymore, but the wind gusts blew my bangs into my face and an errant gum wrapper or two over my loafers. A few puddles dotted the uneven, gravelly surface. We could see the dark clouds rolling over the hills to the west, the gray Willamette River to the east, and illuminated steel and glass in every direction. “Maybe they’re shooting a porno over there?” I pointed to a building directly across from us. We could see bright lights shining on models.
Kirk rolled his head on his neck like he was warming up for our one-on-one rooftop basketball game. “Sometimes I come up here to think, and spit on people on the street.”
He looked at me, stuck out his tongue, smiled a toothy grin, and ran full speed toward the edge. He stopped running about six feet from the edge, then slid through a couple of puddles to a stop, his toes ramming the knee-high ledge. I gasped. “My God, don’t do that, you could have flown right off.”
He stuck his tongue out again, jiggled his hips to an unknown beat, held his Soul Vodka sign above his head and jumped onto the ledge. I tried to yell, but nothing came out. He held the sign even higher over his head, turned to face the street below and yelled, “Soul Vodka — Dig It!” My body tensed and I took a few steps toward him. Just then, a few big drops of rain hit my face and an angry gust of wind hit us. His sign became a sail, and pushed him forward. He spun around, threw the board on the roof, and screamed like an actor in a bad horror flick. He reached out, grasping at air, then fell back.
My feet had been nailed in place. I waited a few seconds, then ran a few feet toward the edge. I stopped just short of the spot where my partner had been clowning around. I took a deep breath, then walked to the ledge and looked over. I could barely see his outline lying 15 stories below, between two parked cars on the dark pavement. I moaned quietly. “Oh fuck.” I looked down and cupped my hands over my face. “Oh, fuck.”
A few years later, one of our junior writers came into my office.
“What’s up Carl?”
He plopped down in my oversized leather chair. “I just don’t get it. I just don’t understand the people in this business. Do they even have souls?”
I looked out the window. A few drops of rain landed silently on the glass. “You just need to learn how to protect yourself.”
“I don’t know if that’s what I want to learn. Isn’t anyone sane around here?”
“No one’s completely sane. You just need to learn to spot the really, really insane ones. It’s a skill. You see, there are four kinds of people you need to look out for. The prima donnas, the back stabbers, the whiners, and the plain old doomed.”
He squinted a little and sighed, but I continued anyway. “Now, there was a prima donna here a couple of years ago…”
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED