Bait and Switch, Chapters 1 & 2

(To read the Prologue, which – duh – preceeds these chapters, CLICK HERE)

Part One

– 1 –

The two men looked at each other with what the street called hard eyes, though neither was familiar with the term.  Both hailed from neighborhoods that had SUVs in the driveways and nets on the playground baskets.

“You look nervous, Mister…” – the man in charge here glanced at a pad in front him – “Schmitt.”

“You’re good.  Should I call you Sherlock?”

Neither broke eye contact, though the man in the necktie squinted, as if he’d never met a wise-ass before.

“I don’t get it,” said the man.  “You come in here — your idea, by the way – cut a sweet deal for yourself, then go all Bruce Willis on us.  What’s up with that?”

“Color me paranoid.”

“Really.  Why don’t you tell me about it.”

“I’d rather you tell me about it.  Especially my deal.”

“I made some calls, everybody’s signed up.  At some point you gotta trust.”

“Not too keen in the trust department.  Especially lately.”

“That’s unfortunate.  Try to work around it.”

The man named Schmitt was sitting at a well-worn table with a hideous green surface, something the DMV might have cast off when the new budget popped.  The man in the bad necktie, who had been sitting on the edge of the table to gain some sort of psycho-babble height advantage, took a chair across from him, producing an envelope from a folder.  From it he withdrew two photographs, candid mug shots, which he plopped onto the table in front of his guest.  The lighting in the room was dull, but not enough to mask the surprise in Wolfgang Schmitt’s eyes.

“Friends of yours?”

Schmitt’s mouth was gaping open slightly.  Sherlock studied his face intently, never once looking at the pictures.

After a few moments he added, “I take it you know these people.”

Schmitt nodded slowly.  His head twitched, a quick snap or two, as if to emerge from some dizzy reverie that had fogged his ability to think.  As if he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“I come here to cut a deal, and you show me pictures of people I haven’t even described yet.  That’s a nice trick.”

“We try,” said the man. 

“Remind me not to piss you fellas off.”

For the first time, the man now known as Sherlock demonstrated he was capable of smiling.  “Maybe we should take this from the top,” he said.  “If you’re ready.”

Schmitt glanced down at the photographs.  And again, he shook his head, this time in resignation.

“Ready or not,” he said.

And so it began.

– 2 –

ENTRY #11: ADVERTISING – the career hipper-than-thou twentysomethings can’t wait to crack, and burned-out fortysome-things can’t wait to leave.  After a few decades schlepping chips, shoes, booze, soap, hope, and the all-important corporate image,  you wake up one hung-over morning and realize you’ve contributed absolutely nothing to the universe.

– from Bullshit In America, by Wolfgang Schmitt

 

Six Weeks Earlier

Funny how things turn out.  There I was, sitting in what was easily the most ridiculous business meeting in the history of the Windsor knot, when it suddenly dawned on me that my advertising career was history.  That I had broken through the lowest possible threshold of professional humiliation and self-flagellation, which in this business is something south of subterranean.  Quitting wasn’t something I had been pondering, the idea just descended upon me like a heavenly truckload of fertilizer.  Upon the meeting’s conclusion I would slither back through a maze of mauve Herman Miller cubicles to my little eight-by-eight – trust me, the ad agency digs you see in the movies are pure bullshit – cast off my pretentious artsy-fartsie tie and write a scathing letter of resignation.  Then, free at last thank God I’m free at last, I’d go to lunch.

That’s what I intended to do.  Except out of sheer habit bordering on addiction I happened to check my email before heading out.  One of the messages would change my life. 

Hey, shit happens.  But I digress. 

The meeting was about gum.  Chewing gum.  Chiclets, to be precise.  I hadn’t seen a Chiclet since I was a kid in the car going to church, when my mom would pop them by the handful in an attempt to camouflage the smell of Salems on her breath.  The gum – they actually had a flavor called chlorophyll in those days – made her smell like a science experiment, but then again my mother reeked of an entire science fair most of the time.  Now, nearly three decades later, my dear mother languishing in a home for the intellectually-departed, Chiclets had returned to my world in the form of a sales conference gimmick.  My client was a marketing clone from one of our largest high tech accounts, whose current mission on earth was to arrange for a box of Chiclets to be on each conference attendee’s pillow when they checked into their room at the Bonaventure Resort in Florida.  A fine idea indeed.  That and the t-shirts with the meeting’s theme emblazoned across the back – “Chew ‘Em Up, Spit ‘Em Out” – would have them panting to get back out there and sell sell sell.  No matter that the vast majority of invitees would be falling down drunk from the flight in. 

Chiclets on the pillow were easy enough to arrange (career tip: make the client think you live for shit like this), but the kicker was that the company logo was to be imprinted on each piece.  Today’s meeting was convened to present samples to the client and, God willing, move on to more pressing issues, like the seating chart for the awards banquet.

What a valuable service to mankind I was performing.

The client was a twenty-six year old Berkeley MBA named Becky who had missed her true calling in the funeral industry.  I’d worked with her before, and from the gravitas of her demeanor, not to mention her I-wish-I-had-a-penis wardrobe, you’d think tschotskies and cute little promotional videos about print cartridges were the precursors to the return of Jesus Christ.  Or in her religion of choice, the resurrection of David Packard.

After holding a piece of the gum up to the light and considering it solemnly, Becky announced, “This is the wrong PMS.” 

Time and space froze.  The angels trembled.

“Is not,” shot back our lead graphic artist, Stacy, an attractive enough woman in an Ellen Degeneres sort of way, which gave her and Becky some common ground.  She was also a known ball-buster who tended to storm out of meetings when someone had the audacity to challenge “her art,” which actually happened rather frequently.  In her spare time she did calligraphy on antique toilet fixtures, so go figure.

“No,” said the client in a firm tone, “it’s wrong.”

To appreciate the moment, you need to know that little miss pants-in-a-wad here didn’t know what the term “PMS” even meant until the previous meeting.  At least in the graphic design sense – she was most certainly an authority when it came to the more common interpretation of the acronym – when Stacy had waxed eloquent on the unique challenges of using industrial food dye as a marketing tool.

Following my client’s lead, I held a piece of the lime-tinted gum toward the heavens and analyzed the color with all the heartfelt concern of a diamond cutter.  Everyone in the room was doing the same, the fate of the world at stake.

“Awfully close,” I offered.

Becky turned to face me with an expression of outrage no less extraordinary than that of the courtroom audience at the reading of the O.J. verdict.

“Excuse me?” she practically yelled.  “Did you say close?”

“As in,” I responded, “nobody will notice.”

“Nobody will notice?  Are you, like, shitting me?  You obviously haven’t met the executive vice president of marketing, which someone in your position ought to know means branding, who will quickly and happily fire the ass of anyone who fucks with the corporate design standard!  Which means me, which in turn means you.  Are we perfectly clear here?”

It was now okay to curse and rant, my client having set both precedents in one sentence.  Such are the rules of engagement in meetings like these.

The room began to tilt.  Maybe it was the fact that my old man used to ask if we were perfectly clear right before he’d pop one upside my head, but Becky was beginning to really piss me off.  In another time I would have answered with the word “Crystal,” but one of my trademark shit-eating grins wasn’t the best strategy at the moment, a moment in which I realized

I wanted to be anywhere on the planet except in this business in this room with this person.  Instead I waited for the silence to become poetically awkward before I pulled out my best I-won’t-sink-to-your-level tone.

“Becky.  Chill.  It’s gum for shit’s sake.”

I didn’t think her previous facial expression could be trumped, but that little masterpiece of contortion was now a distant runner-up.  You’d think I’d just announced my intention to masturbate on her shoes.

Little did I know that one of the junior designers attending this meeting – a kid who shaved his head to better show off the tattoo of a vine creeping up the back of his neck – had taken the liberty of popping one of the samples into his mouth.  Chewing gleefully, it was he who broke the silence, and in some small way, helped change the course of my life.

He said, “Dude, it tastes like chlorophyll!”

“Excuse me?” said Becky the client.  “Since when did anyone ask for your opinion?”

It was in that instant that I decided I was out of there.  Not that ink boy here was a friend of mine or anything, or even that I was the selfless defender of the non-exempt employee.  But Becky had just crossed the line. 

Her eyes were menacing slits as she leaned across the conference table in my direction.  “Just fix it,” she said, sounding exactly like you’d expect a rattlesnake to sound if one were suddenly graced with the ability to speak in our equally-forked tongue.  With that she snatched up her purse and an oversized tote bag sporting her company logo and stormed post-haste toward the door.

“Becky,” I said loudly – okay, I barked it – not recognizing my own voice.

She turned back, also less than familiar with my own tone.  Her eyes dared me to cross the line.

I said, “One of us needs to get a life.”

Her jaw dropped open.  Normally, having delivered such a coup de grace, I’d have grinned like Jack Nicholson ordering egg salad.  But not today. 

She remained motionless for many seconds.  Then her head began to shake as she slowly turned and completed her immanent departure.

The creative team remained both motionless and silent for nearly a minute.  Then, still chomping on the gum, his teeth a pale shade of green, the tattooed designer finally said, “I love this freaking job,” which made everyone laugh.

Everyone, that is, except me.  I didn’t love this freaking job at all.  And thank God, based on what was waiting for me in my office, I no longer had to.

###

If you’d like to read more of “Bait and Switch,” CLICK HERE.

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