International Writers Magazine:Life Stories:
MadMen in San Francisco
of Age in San Francisco
was ten oclock on a July weekday in San Francisco.
Outside, the typical fog still hung over the city. In his
small office, Paul Lerner was preparing a report on the latest monthly
West Coast beer sales. The largest client of the advertising
agency for which he worked was a local brewer. Their
clients sales were down slightly from the same month last
year, something the beer companys president, Oscar Fiegelman,
wasnt going to like. As it happened, a meeting
with Fiegelman was going on right now in the agencys conference
rang. It was his boss, the Research Director, Bob Prosser.
Paul, bring the latest sales figures to the conference room, please.
I havent finished my report yet.
Thats all right. Bring whatever you have.
Bobs voice sounded urgent.
When Paul opened the conference room door, a hoarse voice was saying,
All that money Im spending and were still only third
in California. Shit, maybe Id be better off finding
some other agency.
The speaker was a short, frog-like man at the head of the table who
Paul knew was Oscar Fiegelman.
But we do have a larger share of market and Im sure our
new campaign will
This speaker was Steve Selig, the ad agencys head, a handsome
man in his forties, who normally looked like a matinee star but who
was now pale and sweating.
The new campaign stinks, interrupted Fiegelman.
Paul went over to where Bob Prosser was sitting, at the foot of the
table, and gave him the report.
Who the hell is that? growled Fiegelman.
This is Paul Lerner, our new research assistant. Hes
from New York.
Hah! said Fiegelman, indicating he wasnt impressed.
Paul briefly wondered what the Colonel, his mentor while in the Army
(hed been drafted during Korea), would have made of Fiegelman.
He thought he knew: a bully who liked to use his power to cow people.
He deliberately smiled and said, Its nice to meet you, sir,.
Then he turned and quickly left. One of the Colonel axioms
was to keep the enemy off balance.
Although hed been introduced as the new research assistant, Paul
had been with the agency for six months. One of the
reasons hed left New York City for San Francisco, after two years
in a much larger ad agency, was that hed wanted to get out of
the industry. In that agency it had been a cigarette
company which rumors had said might depart. Hed hated
the current of fear that ran through all ad agencies, fear of a client
leaving. But in San Francisco, although a research firm
had shown some interest in him, only this agency had offered him a job.
Hed known that the beer company was by far its largest client,
but he hadnt known that the company president was a tyrant.
So now he was in a worse situation than before. If the cigarette
maker had left, the New York agency would have had to cut back but it
would have survived. If the brewer left, as Fiegelman had
just threatened, his current agency would undoubtedly go under
On his way back to his office, he stopped at the desk of Mara Kovaks,
the research departments secretary and all-purpose assistant.
How was the meeting going? she asked.
Not too good. Paul told her about Fiegelmans
Poor Bob. That man should be taken out and shot.
Mara was a woman in her forties, dark, attractive and tremendously competent.
She and her husband had come to the States from Yugoslavia several years
ago. Paul knew shed been some kind of company executive
there and her husband, who now drove a delivery truck, had been an engineer.
Here, let me get you a cup of coffee.
This was the 1950s and women did not yet consider getting coffee
for men to be demeaning.
Has it always been so bad? Paul asked.
Not always. Fiegelman senior died last year;
since his son Oscar took over it hasnt been good.
They talked a little more, then Bob came in. Both Paul and
Mara looked at him questioningly.
Fiegelman wants more data, Bob said.
Well probably be working late nights. Is that
okay with you guys?
They said it was. Paul remembered that when the cigarette
company in New York was rumored to be leaving they had to work late
nights. Some things didnt change.
It was a Friday evening. Paul had once again worked late, had a quick
bite to eat, then had come to this party, which was in a large apartment
on Pacific Heights with a view of the Bay. Hed been
told of the party by Bill Morrow, a media buyer at his agency, also
a New Yorker, with whom he had a casual friendship; they sometimes played
tennis in Golden Gate Park on weekends. When hed arrived
at the party, Paul had talked a little with Bill about the agency.
Bill had told him not to worry too much about the beer account leaving.
He enjoys terrifying the agency execs too much; Seligs
scared to death of him. Besides, I dont know if any
of the other agencies in town would take him. His reputation
has spread around.
Bill had then seen a girl he knew and had gone over to speak with her.
Paul had been at the party for about two hours now. There
were a few attractive girls but they were all surrounded by other guys.
Besides, remembering the disastrous outcome of his relationship with
a girl in New York, whod assumed that hed wanted to marry
her after theyd spent one night together, he was in no hurry to
start anything. He was tired from his nights of working
overtime and was ready to go home when he saw a girl by herself looking
out the window at the lights on the Golden Gate Bridge.
She wasnt bad-looking, he thought, and started walk in her direction.
He was only a few feet away and she must have sensed his approach because
she turned and he saw she had a large port wine birthmark on her right
cheek. It was too late to retreat so he introduced himself
to her and learned her name was Caroline, that she was from the Midwest
and that she worked in a bank downtown.
When she found out he worked in an ad agency she asked him a lot of
questions about it and said shed always thought it was a glamorous
business, unlike, say, banking. Paul laughed and said it
wasnt so glamorous. He told her about the agencys
problems with its beer account, trying to make it sound more humorous
than he really thought it was.
Oh, she said. Then why does anyone
put up with it?
Paul tried to explain the nature of the advertising world, how
every agency, even the big ones, was deathly afraid of losing a major
account. He realized that he was talking a lot and that
it was because Caroline was easy to talk to. It was time
to leave, he thought. He looked at his watch, then said,
Uh, youll have to excuse me. I have to talk
to someone over there.
He found Bill and they made a date to play tennis on Sunday.
Paul was on his way out when he thought, What the hell!
He turned around and went back to Caroline, who was still standing alone
by the window, got her phone number and said hed call her.
The conference room was filled to capacity. The agency was
presenting its revised campaign to Fiegelman, who, as before, sat at
the head of the table, looking more frog-like as ever in what seemed
to be a green suit. Bob Prosser was again seated at the
foot of the table. The others included account executives
and copywriters. Tom Selig, the agency head, was himself
making the presentation, standing at an easel with a pointer.
Paul was seated alongside the wall. This was the first time
hed attended this kind of meeting. Bob had told him
he might be needed if Fiegelman had questions about the details of the
marketing data theyd be reviewing. Paul remembered
the Colonels admonition. Listen and observe.
Dont commit yourself. Hold your fire..
The new campaign focused on their clients being a local company;
its slogan was A California Beer for Californians.
Paul thought the ads put up were pretty good. The latest
ad featured a blonde model in a bikini offering a bottle of beer to
a tanned, muscular young man with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Id like to meet that blonde, he said,
The two minions seated on either side of him obediently cackled also.
That can be arranged, said Selig.
He put up the next ad. Paul could see that he was sweating.
After the last ad, Selig said, Now we have some interesting market
data. We think weve found a new demographic for your
product. He looked at Bob, who stood, put a large
graph up on the easel and began to discourse on facts and figures.
He was just getting into his presentation when Fiegelman croaked out.
I dont give a shit about demographics and all that crap.
Let me meet that blonde and I might consider the campaign.
Go on, sit down. And you might do something useful.
How about getting me some coffee?
Bob went to the phone at the end of the room and made a call.
In a few minutes, Mara came in with a cup of coffee, which she placed
in front of Fiegelman. He took a sip.
This takes like piss. Who the hell made it?
I did, said Mara.
Then I want you fired. He glared at Selig.
Fire this bitch right now or I pull the plug, he said.
Selig started to say something but Paul had already stood up.
Actually, I made that coffee, this morning when I came in.
And you dont have to fire me. I quit.
There was a time when you couldnt hold your fire any longer.
With everyone staring at him. he left the room.
Paul stood looking out over the Pacific Ocean. After leaving
the meeting, hed walked back to his apartment, taken his car and
driven out to the spot where tourists usually went, by the Cliff House
where you could sometimes see and hear the seals on the rocks.
The morning fog had burnt off and the sun glistened on the waves rolling
in. He recalled that not too long ago hed been standing
like this on the deck of a troopship coming back from Europe, looking
at the Atlantic Ocean and wondering what was in store for him.
He could never have imagined that hed now be here 3,000 miles
Well, hed done it. It was, contrary to the Colonels
philosophy, not exactly a well-thought out move, quitting like that.
Still, it had felt good, and it still felt good. Somehow,
although hed left his home, his parents, had his own place, his
own life, until now he hadnt felt like a real adult.
Everything depended on a job that hed known he couldnt stay
in. By leaving it, maybe hed come of age.
Of course, his quitting hadnt been an entirely spontaneous action.
The Colonel had always said to leave a line of retreat open, and hed
talked to the research firm that had shown some interest in him when
he arrived in San Francisco and found out they had an opening.
Also, there were two or three other possibilities, with local companies,
not ad agencies. Advertising was something he was never
going back to. He suddenly felt hungry. There
was a coffee shop in the amusement park that was then on the other side
of the highway by the ocean. Hed get a bite to eat,
go back to his apartment, call the research firm, then call Caroline.
© Martin Green May 2008
I was pretty excited about getting the job on my first interview until
I discovered that my salary would be $75 a week,
It was a spring evening in San Francisco in the 1960s.
Paul Weiss had gone back to his guesthouse room after dinner, intending
to work on his resume, but the sight of his cramped room seemed to drain
all his energy
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