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The International Writers Magazine: Joining the world of Madmen - Life Story Archives

Starting Out
Martin Green

“So you’re leaving us?” the Colonel said.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Think you’re ready to be a civilian again?   No more free room and board.  No more Army to take care of you?”
“I’ll manage,” I said.

We were in the Colonel’s office.   He was Ordnance Officer for the Seventh Army in Stuttgart, Germany.   I’d been drafted during the Korean War and was a corporal. For the last sixteen months I’d been more or less the Colonel’s secretary.  We had a curious relationship. I wouldn’t say he’d been my mentor (I don’t know if anyone even used the word “mentor” way back then) but I knew he considered me a hopeless college kid and he took a certain amusement in instructing me on how to survive Army life.
“That remains to be seen,” the Colonel said.  He lit a cigarette.  He was a man in his forties, ruggedly built, handsome, with jet-black hair, a square jaw and piercing blue eyes.  He used a cigarette holder, and I emulated him, not on base but when I went on leave, although I knew that instead of looking sophisticated and all-knowing like him I probably looked foolish puffing on my  holder.  “Do you have any plans?” he asked..
“To sleep for two weeks.”  Whatever our relationship, I could say things like this to the Colonel.
  “And after that?”
  “I guess I’ll have to look for a job.”.
  “I hope you’ll remember some of the things I told you.”
  “I remember them all.  Don’t be impulsive. Weigh all my options. Regard strangers as potential enemies, not friends. And don’t be a wise-ass.”
 The Colonel smiled.  “Well, maybe you’ll stand a chance after all.”
The next day I shipped out, going by train from Stuttgart to Hamburg, then boarding a troopship back to the States and my future. I stood by the ship’s rail, gazing out at the blue Atlantic, waves glistening in the sun. I didn’t know it then but at times of crisis in the future I’d make a habit of looking at large bodies of water. Perhaps subconsciously, the sight of something which had been there long before and would be there long after put whatever problems I had in perspective.
I’d just been talking with a group of soldiers, New Yorkers like myself, also on their way back to be discharged.   They were what we now call African-Africans, and they vied with each other in their stories of the cushy jobs they’d secured in the Army;  outwitting The Man, I suppose they’d say.  I wondered what kind of future awaited them back in Harlem.  As for myself, I’d return to my parents’ apartment in the Bronx, commandeering my old bedroom, then, as I’d told the Colonel, I’d look for a job, one, I hoped, that would enable me to move out to my own place.  The thought of wandering around the towers of Manhattan looking for work filled me with both excitement and anxiety.   I wondered what kind of future awaited me.
The next day the weather turned stormy and we were all seasick until we reached harbor in New York. 
I was sitting in a small conference room, wearing the civilian suit I’d bought when I’d returned.  I was interviewing for a job.   The alumni office of my college had sent me a slip of paper with nothing on it but a company name and a phone number to call.  When I stepped off the elevator in one of those glass and metal buildings springing up all over midtown Manhattan I’d found myself in a large reception room with a sofa and some armchairs and glass cases filled with plates and ceramics.   I’d thought at first that maybe the company manufactured dishes.  It was only when I was being interviewed that I realized the company was an advertising agency and that one of its clients was a major cigarette maker.
I was on one side of a table and three men were on the other side, which I felt was a bit excessive for someone like me interviewing for an entry-level job.   One of the three, I knew, was the Personnel man, his name was Jerry, red-haired and freckled, barely older than I was.  Another was a chubby, harassed-looking man in his thirties, Jack Goodman, head of the agency’s research department.  The third man looked like a matinee idol, handsome, with chiseled features and lacquered hair.
Jerry started by asking me a lot of questions as to why, as I’d been a liberal arts major, I wanted to work in advertising, implying that I should have been going back to school to study something useful, and what I thought I could contribute to the agency, his tone indicating he thought it was nothing much.   Remembering what the Colonel had told me, I tried to mask my dislike of this buffoon and answered all of his questions in an even, courteous tone.  It wasn’t easy.    
Jack Goodman then asked me questions about finding out who used certain products and if I thought advertising in magazines was better than on radio.  The matinee idol was silent until the end when he asked me how I’d increase the sales of their cigarette client.  The only thing I could think of was to hand out sample packs to people, as had been done in the Army, and which in fact was what had started me smoking.   I don’t know if I was responsible for the pretty girls who’d appear on the streets of Manhattan in the fifties,  giving out cigarettes;  I doubt it, as I’m sure somebody else had thought of this before.  At any rate, after I mentioned having been in the Army, they asked me questions about where I’d been stationed and what I’d done and I tried to make my job as the Colonel’s secretary (I didn’t use the word “secretary,” of course) sound as important as possible.   No one seemed too impressed and I was prepared to be dismissed, when the matinee idol, who was smoking a cigarette,  said, “Well, we should give a returning vet a chance,” and so I was hired.  The matinee idol, I found out later, was Philip Mason, head account executive for the cigarette company.   I was pretty excited about getting the job on my first interview until I went with Jerry to the Personnel Department to fill out papers and discovered that my salary would be $75 a week, not nearly enough for me to get my own apartment in New York City.
The agency’s research department, to which I’d been assigned, was working late.  The cigarette company, whose sales had been slipping, was going to launch a new campaign.  The government had released some reports that cigarette smoking was bad for you and that may have been one reason for the slippage, although all the cigarette makers vigorously denied the reports.  In any case, I was just as glad I’d stopped smoking upon getting out of the Army.  There’d also been rumors that our cigarette client might be looking for a new agency so everyone was on edge.  I’d learned that such rumors were common in the advertising industry and that under all the activity and bonding with the clients (every in our agency smoked our company’s cigarettes), ran an undercurrent of fear.     
The room in which we worked was like a big classroom, each one of us at our own desk out in the open, except for Jack Goodman, who had his own little office.   The cigarette company wanted all sorts of  sales and advertising information.   Everyone was busy adding up figures on the big metal calculating machines we had at that time.   At the next desk, Al Zimmerman, Zee as he was known, glanced at me and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, Is all of this any use?   I didn’t know but I knew that Jack Goodman was frantic to get everything we could dig up.   Every so often, he’d dash out of his office and ask someone if he had that data yet.
I’d been working at the agency for three months.  Every weekday morning I’d take the subway from the Bronx down to Grand Central, then walk the few blocks to the office.  There, following the Colonel’s strictures, I tried to be friendly to everyone, even Jerry the Personnel guy, who I knew didn’t like me, but not too friendly.  I read the industry’s bible, Advertising Age, to keep up with what was going on (Advertising Age reported the rumors that the cigarette company was looking around), listened, observed and kept quiet.  Despite the Colonel’s cautionary advice, I’d become friendly with Zee.  He’d been drafted also and, although a college graduate, had actually been sent to Korea and seen some fighting there, which I thought was something to respect.
The figures I was adding were starting to swim before my eyes when I became aware that Jack Goodman had come out of his office again and was standing over my desk.   “Where’s that share-of-market data you were supposed to get?” he demanded.
  “I have them,” I said.   “I gave them to Zee to graph them.  I thought that’d make them easier for the account execs to understand.”  I was pretty good with numbers:  Zee was a whiz at graphics.
  “Oh,” said Jack.   “Okay.  That’s a good idea.   As soon as Zee’s through, bring them into me.”
When Jack had gone back into his office, Zee gave me the high sign.   We worked another two hours, to nine.   We weren’t getting paid for this overtime but they’d given us some money to pay for dinners.   I took the long subway ride back to the Bronx and went to bed, wondering what my future in the advertising world would be, if I had any.
 Olga Simonette’s apartment wasn’t too long a drive from the theater so I’d splurged on a taxi.   Now we were in the back seat, doing what was known in those days as “making out.”   Olga was a short, dark girl, very sexy, I thought, and professionally she was ahead of me; she’d been a production assistant (whatever that was) at a television station for two years (those two years I’d lost to the Army).   I’d been given her phone number by one of my numerous aunts, all eager to “fix me up” with a nice girl.   This was our fifth date.   The first time I’d met her for a drink after work.   The next two times I’d taken her to dinner, then it had been a movie and dinner.   We’d just seen a popular Broadway musical;  the agency, which hadn’t paid for overtime work but had given us dinner money had also given some of us theater tickets.
I was feeling pretty good about the agency.  The cigarette company hadn’t left us.  The new ad campaign was said to be going well and sales were picking up.   Along with all the data I’d given Jack Goodman I’d sent him a memo saying I’d noticed our company, which was an old and rather staid one, wasn’t doing as well with younger smokers as a few other cigarette makers whose ads were considerably jazzier.   I had no idea if this memo had gone anywhere but once in the men’s room Philip Mason had seemed to know my name and had told me to keep up the good work.  I’d just stopped myself from saluting and saying, “Yes, sir.”
When we reached Olga’s building I kissed her (and fondled her breasts) outside her door.   Inside, I knew, were her two roommates, so that this was as far as I was going to go.   It was very frustrating, but, as the Colonel said, premature attacks were self-defeating, and you should plan for the long-run battle.   My plan was to have my own place in Manhattan.   Eventually, we broke our clinch and I walked to the subway station.   It was once again back to the Bronx.
The party was in full swing.   The apartment was filled with young people, most from our agency, some friends, some people we knew, some we didn’t know at all.   Zee and I had moved in a couple of weeks before, right after my promotion and my raise in salary to a lordly $100 a week.   It was in Yorkville in Upper Manhattan, in a tacky building; it wasn’t big; it needed painting; nothing in it worked very well, but it was all our own.  
Naturally, Olga Simonette was there.   I’d had only two or three drinks but this was enough to make me almost drunk.   Around midnight I managed to drag her away and into my room.   It was hurried and I was afraid that at any moment someone would barge in but it was also good.   We went back to the party and I think she said something about my meeting her parents but I was drinking again and wasn’t paying too much attention.   Shortly after that, I must have passed out. 
I woke up back in my bed.   I had a blanket over me but still felt cold.   I looked at my watch.   It was three in the morning.   I remembered what Olga had said.   This was the 1950’s and sex hadn’t yet become as casual as eating and drinking.   Meet her parents?   Did our going to bed together mean that I’d more or less proposed?    I liked Olga but I certainly wasn’t ready to marry her, or anyone else.   And, it suddenly came to me, I wasn’t ready, despite my promotion, to become a full-fledged adman.   Did I really want to be in a business persuading people, especially young people like myself, to smoke cigarettes that might kill them?    Thanks to my following the Colonel’s precepts, my co-workers at the agency thought I was mature and confident, knowing exactly what I wanted.   But I knew now that I hadn’t the least idea of what I wanted and had no idea of where I was going.   After all the noise of the party, the apartment seemed strangely quiet.   I shivered and drew the blanket around me.   Well, tomorrow, as the Colonel would say, I’d re-consider my position and try to think of some new strategy.
Martin Green April 2008

Martin Green
It was a spring evening in San Francisco in the 1960’s.   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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