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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Friday, May 27, 2011

"BBD&O Hired a Colored Boy"

Among our constant Netflix fare we have been looking at consecutive episodes of "Mad Men," a series set in the highly glitzy and rigidly "white" New York City advertising world of the later 1950's and on into the 1960's.   So far the only faces of our color to be seen and heard for just a few seconds have been people serving in the then traditional more humble capacities: a waiter, a house maid, an elevator operator.   And in fact Jewish people are the only minority of any kind to be seen or mentioned with any frequency at all at the ad agency depicted, and even they, though they are indistinguishable from other "white" people, don't seem to be among the employees there and, along with liberals and Democrats, are spoken of none too favorably, and that includes the few who appear and have roles to any extent -- all of them being business executives and customers of the agency.  It is a world strictly confined to only one favored group, "white Christians."

But John F. Kennedy has just been elected, and the times are shown to be slowly changing, a development that so far has been barely noticed by the agency's executives.   They are much too engrossed in excessive amounts of smoking, drinking, tomcatting, backbiting, wise-cracking glibbery, one-upmanship, and a wide variety of other forms of disreputable behaviors, obviously picked up in the best frathouses.

We have gotten to the second year of "Mad Men," and in one of those early episodes two of the highest-placed executives in the agency in question are having a drink in a clandestine juke joint, and one offhandedly remarks,"I hear BBDO hired a colored boy."  

They do not take the subject any farther -- a sign that it was for a position closer to their level of rascal rights than to elevator operator or janitor.

This episode is set in 1962 or maybe early in 1963.   Marilyn Monroe has just died of a drug overdose, but J.F.K. hasn't been shot yet.

Just a year or two after the time depicted in that episode, I was in New York City --it must've been in '64 --  with literary ambitions on my mind in terms of selling something and maybe even living there for a while, and I got the chance to go to that self-same BBD&O that is mentioned so much on "Mad Men" -- Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborne -- to apply for a job as a copy writer.

You will not be surprised to hear, that though being "ready" was a clarion call in those days of the racial barriers that were being slowly broken down, I reported to BBD&O on some upper floor in one of those bizarre New York city skyscrapers woefully unprepared in one key respect: my wearing apparel.   If I even owned things as questionable as a suit and a tie, which is doubtful, they were back at home in D.C., 160 miles away.  But I was so nonchalant and principled about things in those days (as I still am) that I don't think I would've reported in that kind of get-up anyway.   Otherwise it was a pleasant interview, and I came out of it feeling that my chances were good.

I told the guy I was still living in D.C. but that unfortunately I had just been called for jury duty, and I had to go back home for that, and it would only take two weeks at most.  He quite agreeably gave me an assignment to work up some copy for an advertising campaign of my choice, and he told me to come back to New York as soon as my jury duty was over.  He also advised me to wear a suit and tie -- a "monkey suit" as I was, and still am, in the habit of privately calling that inexplicable piece of men's wear.

And I went home to D.C. and reported for jury duty -- and was promptly excused from it.   But instead of going back to New York early, I stayed at home working hard on coming up with my idea of some advertising copy.

When I thought I had enough to show the guy, I drove back to New York.   But he was somewhat irked when, unwilling to tell any lies, I disclosed that I could've shown up again as much as a week or two earlier, and you can guess the rest.

Ever since I have wondered what would have happened if I had gotten that job, and that has been heightened lately by seeing "Mad Men."

But, as with all the other speculations about the roads not taken, of which I have had my share, in BBD&O's case I don't feel any regrets.

 I flatter myself that even in the highly cut-throat atmosphere of the agency shown on "Mad Men," I would have survived as far as my co-workers would have been concerned.  I have shown many times that I have an unusual knack of getting along with even the worst of the baboon-butts of the world.   And I was not intimidated by that one brief glimpse I got of that high-powered advertising world just by walking through one floor of Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborne.   I was arrogant enough to think that if I wanted to, I could do anything I put my mind to.   At least that was what my mother, my sister, and a number of others always told me.

I think I torpedoed myself there with knowledge aforethought  because in the academic and aspiring writer worlds in which I moved, ad agencies were looked upon as being the pits and the death of the soul, in spite of the obvious financial advantages.  So that was one thing.  Also I have never liked anything about New York City, of which I had already seen enough from an early age, and it was hard to picture living there.   But the most important thing was that I would have had to leave my loving, aging, twice-widowed mother living alone in D.C., and I had trouble with that idea, unless somehow I could've managed to move her up to NYC with me, which would not have been comfortable for her to do, or unless my sister could have taken care of that, and she had fish of her own to fry.

  Still, what if, while I was busy writing my Volkswagen ads,  BBD&O had had somebody walking around to look at all day long like the spectacularly endowed "Joan" character (real name: Christina Hendricks) in "Mad Men?"   Now that IS something to think about!


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