I’ve been missing the steady tone of a good novel, so when my book club decided to read Barbara Kingsolver’s newest, “The Lacuna,” I felt relieved to be given the assignment even though the book is long and time is short. Plus it gives me something to do in the middle of the night.
One of the best lines I’ve read so far is this: “Mother is a museum of bad words.” I wonder what I’m a museum of?
These days, I am a museum of unrepentant desire. Fortunately, my appetites are pretty benign: chocolate, sleep, red wine and hot showers. Sometimes my longings run to a perfectly placed sleeping bag under a starlit sky. Being curled up next to a river or under a meteor shower is a bonus.
But beneath the surface, with a bit of probing, I find something more malicious, like fire in the maw of a dragon, a baseness that lives in the negative spaces between my cells, not contained within, but defining them nonetheless.
In 1980, just graduated from college, I went to work for an advertising agency in a mid-sized Indiana town. At first, all I did was place and track media buys. Our biggest client was Roman Meal Bread. The details are a little fuzzy, but my recollection is that the agency had hired Pittsburgh Steeler Rocky Bleier as spokesman for our client, and we were buying a lot of advertising and getting a 15 percent commission on all those purchases.
Eventually, I was promoted to copywriting. We had several small banks as clients, and deregulation had just happened. Competition from savings and loans was heating up. I wrote ad copy and radio spots about the benefits of keeping your money in a real bank, and away from those amateurs at the S&Ls. It was dreadful work.
My boss, I’ll call him Sam, was very smart, but he was a drunk. He raided the agency’s bar at five o’clock every night. Since he rarely made it into the office before mid-morning, we often worked late, Sam running through case histories from his long and varied career in the ad business. We’d work for a while, sipping (or gulping) our cocktails, then move the party to the neighborhood bar on the next block. Sam lived 45 minutes away on country roads, and it was a miracle that he didn’t kill himself or someone else driving home in the middle of the night after eight or 10 drinks.
Working at the agency, I also met two commercial photographers who did occasional contract work for us and had a studio a couple of blocks away. They’d invite me to lunch at the Taco Bell next door. We called it “Black and Decker” because they used an electric drill to mix the refried beans. They’d call me when the newest Vogue magazine showed up in the mail, to come to the studio, drink cheap wine and critique the photography. I’d help set up props and sets occasionally for photo shoots and watched them fuss over tiny details, getting the shadows just exactly right.
The photographers both claimed unhappy marriages, living with their own demons. But I saw in their work a deep passion for excellence, and took that to heart.
I don’t know what Sam was drowning out, but I know what he was drowning in: bourbon. He had three or four ex-wives, and his kids weren’t speaking to him. He’d had triple bypass surgery. He was a classic, in a “Mad Men” sort of way. He had a deeply flawed personality, seeped in dark matter. In the end, though, the job was my opportunity to sit at the feet of a man with a brilliant marketing mind and learn about this crazy business.
I left all that behind when I married and moved away. The agency folded, bankrupted under a mountain of debt when the commissions on all those advertising buys were spent on booze and high rent. One of the photographers had multiple sclerosis, and died in a nursing home a few years ago. The other is living happily ever after with his new wife and young son.
And me? I’m trying to remember the lessons I learned all those years ago, without succumbing to the dragon’s breath.