Saturday, February 28, 2015

A night in New York.

Uncle Slappy, Aunt Sylvie and my younger daughter, Hannah, arrived last night. No special occasion, they just  all decided that since the other one was coming, they might as well come too. 

In our atomized world, it's very rare for families to get together. I only wish my older daughter could have driven down from Boston to make it a real reunion. Alas.

It's been a heckish couple of weeks for me, culminating in an agency discussion I didn't want to have, and though I felt like crawling inside a Whiskey bottle (and I don't even drink) instead, I fired up the Simca and drove out to LaGuardia to pick them up.

The Grand Central--which is blithely called a 'parkway'--was crazy in the night. Straggling commuters were rushing home to Kew Gardens or Massapequa and a Golden Horde of wayward taxi cabs was descending upon one of the world's most obsolete airports.

I dodged Dodges, tiptoed past Toyotas, and hustled by Hondas and finally took the Simca out of gear and waited for my family in a secluded spot off the beaten track not far from the American terminal. In short order, a fire-plug of a cop sidled by and tapped on my window. I opened my door to talk to him.

"Your window don't work," he asked.

"No," I said, winding it down. "It's a little recalcitrant in the cold. The door's easier."

"You know this is an active pick-up and discharge area. Let me see your license."

"I'm waiting for my 86-year-old Aunt and Uncle," I said, handing him my documents.

He sidled back ten minutes later like Gary Cooper in "High Noon."

"Get out of here," he said. "Drive around the perimeter."

I complied. Of course, the perimeter signage is about as decipherable as the "London Times'" Cryptic Puzzle translated in Cuneiform. I took a wrong turn somewhere and found myself in the long-term parking lot. 

"What the hell," I said to myself. "I shoulda had them take a taxi. I'm in for $40 in this lot." A cab is $25.

I sat in a special space--a Priority Executive Gold VIP space, because everything in the world today is segregated by cash--and I waited for my cell to ring. It did in about twelve minutes.

It was the breathtakingly level-headed Hannah. She had already collected Aunt Sylvie and Uncle Slappy and her roller bag. I drove to an appointed place and picked the threesome up.

We then drove to Patsy's Pizzeria, one of the last vestiges of East Harlem that is still Italian. They have a coal-fired brick oven and make one of New York's surpassing pizzas. We picked up a few pies and a salad and drove home from there.

We feasted on the pies, chatted until 11 and then I went to bed, as did Aunt Sylvie, while Uncle Slappy and my wife stayed up chatting.

In all, a pleasant end. 

To a horribly crappy day.

Friday, February 27, 2015

A lousy post.

I've found it hard to write this morning.

It could be that I've been juggling the demands of two separate full-time freelance assignments for about a month now, and the seven-day-a-week 16-hour days have finally gotten to me.

Or it could be that I'm out of stories, for now, of my sojourn almost four decades ago to Saltillo, Mexico and the Mexican Baseball League. And with Hector Quesadillo, my manager and 'father-figure' from back then finally dead and buried, well my memory pool is drying at the edges.

I also haven't tripped up to the Tempus Fugit, my favorite bar. Or the Whore of Babylon, my second favorite. Those places are always good for a tale, or a joke, or something to think about.

Finally, I haven't gotten an infusion of Borscht from Uncle Slappy for more than a month. He's down in Boca and loathe to come up to New York, where a mountain ram could slip off the sidewalk and into the M-79. You can be laid flat, run over and squished and no one would know it till the ice melts in June or August or some time. That is, if it ever melts.

So, I am fallow this morning. 

My prodigious fingers are barren.

If something comes up, I'll try to write.

But for now, have a nice weekend.

And don't believe everything you read.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sears, get serious.

I wrote about Sears yesterday. Today, I'll write a bit more.

I should say at the outset, I haven't been to a Sears since I went to the Santa Monica store in 2010, looking for sheets and towels for my daughter's college dorm room. We couldn't find anything we liked. Or any help.

Two weekends ago, I was in Raleigh, North Carolina, visiting the same daughter. I walked through a Sears store to get to another store in the mall.

That's my hands-on experience with Sears.

Probably more than Gordon Bowen ever had.

But that's besides the point.

Advertising cannot cure Sears.

But it's clear to me that a better product can.

Someone at Sears has to figure out how to combine low-prices and good service. That is, so long as they have thousands of bricks and mortar stores, they have to be at least as good as Amazon in satisfying customers.

Advertising can't do that.

Someone at Sears also has to figure out how to get their store-workers how to smile and be helpful. It would probably be good to have executives walk the stores--all the stores--every day.

Sears also has to figure out what they sell. The sheets I tried to buy five years ago had the same amount of cotton in them as Saran Wrap.

If Sears is strong with Kenmore, and Die Hard and Tires, fuck it, concentrate on your strengths to get people in the store.

Steal a page from Target from when they were hot. Designer loss-leaders.

Steal a page from Nordstrom: sales help that's actually helpful.

And steal a page from what Delta Airline's done in their advertising from Wieden and Sprint's done with Deutsch LA. Stand for something. Something other than 40% off.

I can't imagine that rebounding from lows is that different from rebuilding a basketball franchise. So look to what the San Antonio Spurs have built. Not the New York Knicks.

That is cultivating talent. Having a philosophy. Being consistent. And having strong leadership.

I know how to write ads not turn around retailers.

So it's fine to ignore this.

It's probably dumb as shit.

But it's better than what you're currently doing.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sears and our industry.

I've been burning the candle at both ends of late and have done a pretty shitty job of writing about advertising. 

That's bad when your blog is named Ad Aged. And is about, er, advertising.

But yesterday I read that Sears, the once mighty retailer, has fired McGarry-Bowen, a once-mighty agency. Or the other way around.

And it made me think.

When I started this blog, it was subtitled: "Will Madison Avenue Become Detroit?" That is, will the industry adapt to modern audiences or will it perish?

I suppose you could ask the same of Sears--will it go belly up?

More important for us in the ad industry, what agency has the brains and the experience to turn a moribund brand around? To bring it back into relevance?

Not through K-Mart-like bullshit like "Ship My Pants." Which does nothing for the brand, but fundamental re-building.

Does any agency have a turn-around process and turn-around case-studies? Does anyone have turn-around cred and a five or ten year plan?

I think Deutsch LA is doing an excellent job with their "Cut your bill in half" work for Sprint. It's not the most creative work in the world, and will probably soon start polarizing viewers, but you immediately get what Sprint's about. And they appear to have momentum.

If I were CMO of Sears, I don't know who I'd turn to as an agency.

I don't need a tweet. Or a viral video. Or a dopey stunt.

I need a vision. A plan. Stamina and patience.

All in short order in our industry.

And the world.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The leaving.

The room was filled with a dusty sunlight and even though the lights were out and the curtains were drawn, it was light enough to read or thread a needle. Hector and Teresa's guest room was nearly perfect for me--I had stayed there virtually all season--but it could have used a couple sets of black-out blinds.

I saw in the sunlight, the thin silhouette of Karmen Rodriguez, my inamorata of the last few months. She was busily moving around the small room. I reached over and was able to grasp her left ankle. It was small enough that I could wrap my hand around the whole thing, with my fingers over-lapping.

"C'mere," I said, pulling her toward the bed.

"No," and she kicked my grip away.

I sat up, annoyed, in bed and reached up and opened up what passed for curtains. Now I was wide awake and I could see what she was doing. She was filling my small canvas duffle with all my things.

"Karmen," I said, dumbly.

"No," she replied. "Today is your last game and you will go."

I've noticed through the years that there's no arguing certain facts. This was one of them.

"I've told you, Karmen," I said in Spanish, "I am leaving but not tonight. I know it's my last game. But I'm staying till November first." One week from now.

She had emptied the small set of drawers in my room and now sat down on the bed.

"The season is over for me, too." She was a ticket-taker at the Seraperos' stadium--the Estadio de Beisbol Francisco D. Madero. "I will to New York go with you."

I got up out of bed and removed a t-shirt and a pair of jeans from the bag Karmen had packed. I dressed in hurry, without answering her. Then together we walked from the bedroom we had been sharing into the house's kitchen. Teresa and Hector were there, at their small tile-topped table, drinking coffee. 

I poured myself a cup, large and black and poured half as much for Karmen, filling the rest of her cup with cream. Just the way she liked it. Teresa got up and kissed me good morning, and then Karmen.

"Huevos?" She asked and began cracking before I could answer.

Hector and I talked baseball. We had had a game the night before, against el Indios, and we had won 7-2. As ever, Hector went over the game, virtually pitch by pitch, highlighting especially my two singles, the second of which had driven in a run. He had a memory like that--a memory of every pitch, every play, every error.

I scooped my eggs down and drained my coffee and then a second cup. Hector got up and put on his Seraperos wind-breaker. Karmen put on mine. And the three of us took Hector's old Datsun to the stadium, each of us kissing goodbye Teresa.

We prepped for that afternoon's game with the Guerreros de Oaxaca--the Oaxaca Warriors. Puente was on the mound, our best arm. I was at third, and the rest of the line up was our usual one, except Rigo Beltran would be in center, in for "Brutus" Cesar who was out with a groin.

The game came and went, like the tide. Of no consequence at all. Nothing really has consequence when you compare it to the tide. But we were no-where in the league standings and Oaxaca was worse.

Unlike the 49 other players who were suited up that afternoon, I was approaching the game a little differently. I knew I'd never play serious ball again. No college ball for me, I had played pro, after all. Nothing from here on in other than fat-guy softball leagues in the park. Softball is like kissing your best friend's sister. It just doesn't count for much.

We were down 5-4 and had two men on with two out in the bottom of the 9th when it was my turn to bat. A pitch came in as fat as a grapefruit, but instead of plastering it and giving the Seraperos the win, I got over-eager and swung from my heels, popping a towering out to the Guerreros second baseman who fielded the ball in right center.

That was it.

It was over.

There was beer in the locker-room and, though we had lost, a genuinely celebratory mood. The season was over and we were 25 young men with most of our faculties in tact. A few of the guys, Buentello, Garibay, Munoz, Robles, Bernal, had lugged their suitcases to the ballpark and would be driving home for the winter. We hugged them goodbye. We said have a nice winter. We might have even expressed sincere emotions and feelings, things unusual among a group of guys.

I dressed slowly--I had no place to go, and packed my stuff for good. My Rawlings glove and Ridell spikes another season older. I threw on an old grey sweatshirt I had worn in high-school and walked into Hector's small cinder-block office.

"I'd like to keep my hat," I said to him. "Is that ok?"

The uniforms were property of the club and unlike American baseball leagues, we didn't get new ones each season. Our flannels were worn and patched--darned like my mother used to darn socks, if you can imagine.

"Si," Hector said. He motioned me to sit and I complied.

"You play next year," he said. "Beisbol should not for you be over. Do the fall season of college and play with us all spring and summer. You should not end on a pop-up."

We'd been over this and I did not answer. Finally, I said, simply, "I have to go."

He threw back on his windbreaker and we drove home together.

I can't remember much of my off-week in Saltillo. I helped Hector fix things up around his house and painted the kitchen for Teresa. I spent, you would have too, as much time as possible with Karmen, but it wasn't enough.

Then, as quick as bad news, it was time to leave. Karmen, Hector and Teresa walked me to the bus station in Saltillo. A dusty stump of a building just off of Route 40 leaving town.

I hugged Teresa first, for a good five minutes. Hector grabbed my hand and held it tight for another five minutes. "Mi hijo," he repeated, "my son."

Then it came time to say good-bye to Karmen.

I kissed her softly and handed her a small envelope I had had in my pocket. I gave it to her. Inside was 10,000 pesos. Virtually all of the money I had made that summer. Almost one-thousand dollars. I also handed her a poem I had translated from 19th Century English into the best Spanish I could muster.

No son de largo - Ernest Dowson
Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam.

Ellos no son largas, el llanto y la risa,
El amor y el deseo y el odio;
Creo que no tienen parte en nosotros después
Pasamos por la puerta.

Ellos no son largos, los días de vino y rosas,
Fuera de un sueño brumoso
Nuestro camino emerge por un tiempo, luego se cierra

Dentro de un sueño.

"I want you to have this," I told her.

"I want you to stay."
They Are Not Long - Ernest Dowson

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam.

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses,
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

The bus, a rickety affair that had a greyhound wearing a sombrero painted on the side came in and dieseled.

It was time to leave.

Time to say goodbye, also to Jorge Navidad.

Saltillo disappeared behind me. Eaten by dust and memory.

It was time to return to the home I never had.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pop culture.

I don't  like popular culture, I'll admit.

For my dime all art comes from censorship and subtlety and both of those elements are missing in modern expression.

As Keats said in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter..."

I think about the rape scene in "Gone With the Wind." Do you remember it? Of course you don't. It consisted of Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs and Scarlett deshabille the next morning.

In other words leave something to the imagination.

I don't need to see blood and gore and rape.

It doesn't make things clearer or more gruesome.

If you want to see horror, see the clip above.

I haven't seen much that tops it.

No matter how much blood is splattered.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A bad night in Saltillo.

Late one September in 1975 as I was wrapping up my one-season professional career playing third base for the Seraperos de Santillo in the Mexican Baseball League, I almost got my head knocked off.

I was tired of playing ball for the first time in my life. I was tired of the routine. I was tired of the dust. Tired of the dripping showers and the rusty shower-heads in a dozen “visitors’” locker-rooms scattered around that sad country. Even tired of the guys, guys I loved.

I was tired, I guess, of being a kid and playing a kids game with a bunch of over-age kids. They were men, but they’d rather put Ben-Gay in a guys jock-strap to burn his balls than read a newspaper or, god-forbid, a book. Though I was just 17 at the time, I knew it was time to put away childish things.

My friends back in the States were starting college and going to tweedy football games at small elite colleges and bonking their tweedy eyeballs out. While I was traveling through Mexico on rickety buses, picking ground balls out of the infield dirt and swinging and missing. What’s more, my right hand had swollen up to twice its usual size with two broken fingers that I was playing through. I had stopped a line-drive with my non-glove paw, knocking it down mittless and chucking the guy out by a yard.

I thought about what my life would be if I hadn’t sojourned south. If instead I was taking Chaucer and macro-economics and doing all those other things that everyone else was doing not because they wanted to, but because, and I suppose this is tragic, they never thought about doing anything else other than what everyone else was doing.

My friend Chris, my first friend when I transferred to a new high-school, would eventually drop out of the college he had been programmed to go to, and give up the life that had been prescribed for him and become a long-haul trucker. He called me in Saltillo one evening, high on amphetamines, speeding his freight, an 18-wheeler stuffed to the gunwales with watermelons from Sacramento to New York. But he, too, eventually returned to the fold and to college, earning, some years later a PhD. In neurophysics or something else I surely don’t understand.

Maybe, I thought, I was always just better at leaving places than staying places. Whenever things got too much for me, which they did often, I would leave. Even in Saltillo—where for the first time I had people around me who showed me love, Hector and Teresa, and at this point in the season, a girl called Karmen, I would leave town for hours at a time and walk in the desert until I was lost or it was dark and then find my way back groping among the cactus and the javelinas.

This afternoon in particular, Francisco Moscow, a journeyman lefthander called on me at my room in Hector’s house. Moscow was a marginal player and like many marginal players was always looking for a new pitch, a new delivery angle, anything that would give him a slice more of a chance to hold on, and maybe become something more than marginal.

A lot of people do this. You see guys who swing and miss curveballs by a good eight inches tinkering with how they hold their bat, how they stand at the plate, even the size and weight of their lumber. No one, through the years, has the courtesy or the honesty to yell at them that schoolyard taunt that soured so many marginals from the game—‘Aunt Jemima makes a better batter.’

No, they’ll tinker till they die. Thinking if only they had done this or that, they’d have accomplished this and that and made it big. I suppose that’s most of life. Years of ‘if-onlys’ punctuated by one big and final ‘never did.’

I headed out to the stadium with Moscow, picking up Uribe, a guy who was always messing with his batting stroke along the way. We decided I would mess around at catcher, Moscow would chuck to me—tinkering tinkering tinkering—and Uribe would work on his hitting.

Why they picked me to catch, well, I dunno. I was never pals with those guys. I guess they just picked me out as a tinkerer too. Only not on my game, maybe, but my life.

I remember seeing, as I jogged out to the backstop, a catcher’s mask, Buentello’s I think. But for whatever level of stupidity I was ensconced in at the moment, I didn’t grab it and put it on. I caught Moscow that afternoon without a shred of equipment on, save a catcher’s mitt that was left in the bullpen and my old Riddell spikes that I had toted down from the States.

Things went ok for about 20 pitches, Moscow grooving them to Uribe so Uribe could get his bat going. Then I started working with Moscow. Even though I was young, I was our manager, Hector Quesadilla’s favorite, his prize pupil, his eyes and ears on the field. The other players, even the older ones, listened to me. I suggested to Moscow that he work his curve straight over the top, rather than dropping his arm and throwing three-quarters.

I inched up from where I was crouching to handle his pitches. And Moscow tried his new delivery. Uribe swung late at the pitch and I had leaned forward out over the plate and then, whack, Uribe’s bat at full-swing met me square on the flat of my forehead.

I fell backward behind the plate and grabbed at the wound, afraid to remove my clutch for the blood. I don't remember if I blacked-out or not, but the next thing I remember is Uribe and Moscow crouching down beside me speaking Spanish and me unable to understand a word of it. Finally, I removed my hands from the point of impact, slowly, tentatively. Like I said, afraid of the blood. But there was none.

The strangest thing was, I could no longer hear anything. I just had Leadbelly’s “Bring Me Little Water, Silvie,” going through what was left of my head.

                        Bring me little water, Silvie
Bring me little water now.
Bring me little water, Silvie
Every little once in a while.

Don’t you hear me callin’
Don’t you hear me now
Don’t you hear me callin’
Every little once in a while.

Don’t you see me comin’
Don’t you see me now
Don’t you see me comin’
Every little once in a while.

As I sang to myself, Moscow lifted me up to my feet. And then he and Uribe got my arms over their shoulders and walked me slowly off the field, my feet dragging in the dust like an old wounded soldier. They lay me on a wooden bench in the still-empty locker-room and grabbed some ice-packs from the old Frigidaire that was in the corner of Hector’s small office..

Hector came in—Uribe had called him from the payphone in the clubhouse—and he got me standing and walking again. When he spoke to me, I still couldn’t understand Spanish. Something in my head had gone haywire and he began speaking to me in his rough approximation of English.

“My son, we ambulance to the hospital.”

“No,” I said, standing on my own, with only one hand gripping a supporting girder. “No, I’m just a little rattle-brained.”

“Rat-brained,” Hector said. “You are a little rat-brained.”

“That’s right, I’ve played baseball too long without a helmet. And it’s made me rat-brained.”

The ambulance came and with it, a doctor. He did the requisite doctor things. Like you’d test a drunk-driver. Shining a light into my eyes, feeling the grapefruit-sized lump on my noggin, having me touch the tip of my nose with the tip of my finger. Everything seemed fine. I was even able to take in Spanish again and speak it.

As you’d suspect, I sat that night, didn’t play. And Hector gave hit me, Uribe, and Moscow each with a 250-peso fine, about $20. But he never collected the money from any of us.

Least of all me.

He had to take it easy on me.

After all, I was rat-brained.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Stopping by Desk on a Winter Morning.

Stopping by Desk on a Winter Morning   
                                      with apologies to everyone

Whose desk this is I think I know,
I’m sure she’s on vacation though.
She will not see me working here
When she is back, I’ll have to go.

My MacBook Pro must think it queer,
I haven’t time to have a beer
Between six projects and a pitch,
When you’re freelance, that’s your year.

I’m working hard, my day rate's rich
My poor left eye though has a twitch,
From working weekends, nights, vacation
When you’re freelance, no 'on-off' switch.

My desk is humble, a temp work station
It’s here I do my best creation
And form ideas right from gestation.
When you’re freelance, you ban frustration.