Thursday, October 22, 2009

My father gets a job.


My mother decided it was time for my father to get a job. Enough of a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Enough of the 1949 Studebaker and the 1951 Plymouth. Enough of the cracked linoleum tile in the kitchen floor. Enough with not shaving every day and laying around the house like a galoot. Enough of the swings from plenty to nothing and never knowing which way was up. It was time to get a job.

There wasn’t a lot my father could picture himself doing. When he was a boy during World War II, he had worked in the Philadelphia General Post Office sorting mail. All the able-bodied, red-blooded men were over fighting in Europe or the South Pacific, so he could get a good, steady civil service job even though he was just 16. He told a story how one Christmas, when most of the Gentile postal workers had the day off, he was given the job of guarding a mail truck. He was to sit in the back with a heavy revolver while the truck made its way to its destination. I pictured my father sitting in the back of an open truck through a grey and slushy Philadelphia on Christmas waiting to gun down Jesse James.

But working in the Post Office was no good now. It was the Kodacolor sixties and you needed a Kodacolor house with a Kodacolor car and a Kodacolor career.

Because my father had had some moderate success as a songwriter, he figured the industry best-suited to employ his modest skills would be the advertising. After all, a lot of commercials were jingles, musical ditties that even if they were little more than basically insipid, at least it appeared that writing them might be lucrative. What’s more, shooting commercials seemed like fun. There are pretty girls, bright lights and you’re, after all, you’re making television.

My father knew nothing whatsoever about advertising but that did not deter him in the least. We had an old RCA black and white television self-contained in a beechwood cabinet with doors that closed and of course my father, like the rest of America, watched his share of TV. How hard could it be to come up with a dancing cigarette pack or Josephine the Plumber?

My father was surprisingly methodical in finding an agency. Probably for the first time in his life. He got ahold of a Manhattan Yellow Pages and started with “A” and went right down the list. He got to “K” when he got a job offer as a junior copywriter.

All at once, a change came over my father. He dressed like the other fathers, got up with an alarm clock and took the train into Manhattan to work. No more hanging around the house all day or running around all night scrounging up little bits of business. No more hare-brained schemes. My father was now a workingman and he seemed ok with it.

Within the first couple of weeks as a junior copywriter my father sold a television commercial. It was for a toothpaste called Macleans which promised to get your teeth irresistibly white. The idea was simple, an attractive couple with big, toothy smiles tobogganing down a mountain, laughing and smiling at each other and rolling in the snow. All accompanied by this song, in an ersatz Beach Boys-style.

It’s Macleans, the toothpaste that cleans,
With a new kind of taste that’s wild,
What a taste, what a zing!
When you smile, all the bells will ring!
Get ‘em white, irresistibly white with Macleeee eeeans.
And my teeth are--
Macleans white all over
Yeah they are!
Macleans white all over.
Yeah yeah.

My father came home with a flimsy plastic 45-record of this song as a demo and we listened to it over and again. This was cool. My father was writing commercials about things we had in the house. Macleans toothpaste.

Now when we tried Macleans, it actually tasted pretty rotten. The taste had no zing! it wasn’t wild. Our teeth looked the same, they weren’t white all over. No bells rang when we smiled. But none of that mattered. This song was going to be on TV like the shows we watched. My father wrote it. He was practically famous. My father.

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