If I had grandchildren (which I do not), they would likely come to me in the next several years and ask, “What did you do in the Great Pandemic of 2020, Gramps?”
And I would reply, “Not much, kiddos. Gram and I went to the grocery store a couple of times a week, took a lot of walks (uphill whenever possible), and pretty much kept ourselves to ourselves.”
“Anything else, Gramps?”
“Oh, yeah – I organized the four-and–half decades of writing I produced after I arrived in Boston.”
• • • • • • •
I can summarize my overall education this way: I had eight years of the Sisters of Charity, eight years of the Jesuits, and it took me eight years to recover.
My Latin, Greek, and English majors in college left me with 1) a decided lack of any actual employable skills and 2) an abiding urge to write as often and as widely as I could.
Which led me to take a series of dead-end jobs that would pay the rent while I became a freelance media columnist, an advertising copywriter, and eventually a full-time broadcast journalist at age 48.
• • • • • • •
After growing up on East 89th Street in Manhattan and doing seven years in Ohio for college and whatnot, I arrived in Boston in September of 1974 just in time to watch the city turn into Crazy Town with the introduction of forced busing of high school students from white neighborhoods to black ones and vice versa. Not surprisingly, given Boston’s Balkanized – not to say parochial – culture, all-out racial warfare ensued.
And I thought, what the hell is wrong with this burg.
Regardless, about a year later, in the firm belief that civil service exams are the last refuge of a liberal arts major, I obtained a position as Claims Representative for the Supplemental Security Income division of the Social Security Administration, an opportunity that came about in this way.
I got my job at the Social Security Administration the same day I got caught shoplifting [a packet of razor blades from the Harvard Coop in the Longwood Medical Area].
It was 1975 and I was working at the Deaconess Hospital in Boston as an X-ray messenger, one in my series of “smartest guy” jobs – as in “you’re the smartest guy who’s ever packed orders at this warehouse” or “you’re the smartest guy who’s ever parked cars in this outdoor lot” or “you’re the smartest guy who’s ever ferried patients down to the X-ray department.”
That’s what a Jesuit education will do for you.
During the next 18 months I spent my time reviewing SSI welfare payments (which all started at top dollar when the program was introduced in 1974), reluctantly adjusting them – almost always – downward, and resolutely refusing to collect what the government deemed “overpayments.”
(All the gory details can be found at The Redemption Unit.)
At the same time I made my Boston literary debut by founding, writing, and publishing a newspaper chronicling the madcap antics at the SSA’s Park Square District Office (DO), which on the average day looked like a mashup of Hieronymus Bosch and Monty Python.
What occasioned the birth of The Nameless News was the appearance at the DO of the improbably named Woodrow Wilson, who walked halfway down the center aisle of the office, turned toward the windows, and threw a rock through one of them onto St. James Street.
The paper subsequently held a Name That News contest, which was roundly ignored by one and all of its readers. Meanwhile, the top brass at the DO informed me in no uncertain terms that I could not charge ten cents for a publication produced on their dime.
So this was the next edition.
Most notable in that edition was the publication’s first – but not last – media culpa.
The Free Nameless News went on to publish 22 editions in three stuttering volumes over the course of the next year. And it produced the highest compliment I’ve ever received: One Friday, three dozen hardened federal bureaucrats stayed fifteen minutes after work to get that week’s edition of the News.
The following Monday, the Assistant District Manager shut the paper down.
• • • • • • •
Full disclosure: I led a double life at SSA.
While I toiled as a claims representative by day, I also – despite having no actual music knowledge – became a Boston music critic by night, largely because there were multiple minor league music publications in town that were constantly elbowing each other for content.
I wrote for all of them – PopTop, Rock Around the World, Musician’s Guide, Nightfall, Night Life, whatever.
Nightfall was my favorite. It was an entertainment/culture/arts magazine, so I got to cover a wide range of topics and people.
On the music front, I reviewed everyone from the easy-listening Stanley Turrentine . . .
to the punk-rocking New York Mary . . .
to the hard-bopping Sonny Rollins.
I also got to do a bunch of interviews.
I sat down with crazy pants tennis icon Bud Collins over drinks at the Ritz Bar (his choice), for which I had to pick up the tab, thereby zeroing out whatever I got paid for the piece.
That same year, I interviewed Dave Brubeck in the lobby of the Colonnade Hotel after his concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall, which I wasn’t able to attend since Nightfall was a – wait for it – minor league music publication.
But, as I wrote almost 30 years later, “I had somehow gotten it into my head that Brubeck was too popular to be really good (and there was some element of resentment that he was so famous for Take Five when saxophonist Paul Desmond had actually composed it). Regardless, I remember that I was far less respectful than I should have been.”
Thankfully, I got a do-over the following year when Brubeck came back to Boston with a group called the New Brubeck Quartet, which featured his sons Chris, Darius, and Dan.
And then there was Red Auerbach.
He was flacking a new book – Basketball for the Player, the Fan and the Coach – so he would pretty much talk to any journalist, which happened to include even me.
After about 15 minutes, Auerbach let me know that the interview was over by starting to open his mail.
And so I was gone.
During that period I also wrote for Rock Around the World . . .
and Musician’s Guide.
I did not, however, restrict my freelancing to minor league music publications in Boston.
In May of 1975, I filed this report for the Jamaica Plain Citizen about a neighborhood fire.
In 1976 and 1977, I wrote dozens of book reviews for The Newburyport Current, where I was – ahem – an Associate Editor.
I also wrote dozens of book reviews for the South Shore News, where I was Staff Reviewer.
The minor league publication I wrote for most often, though, was Night Life, which happened to be, as far as I could tell, the last pulp magazine in New England.
Bob the Publisher essentially ran the magazine out of the trunk of his Lincoln Continental, which he would load up every few days with as many bundles of the magazine as would fit. Then he would drive to restaurants and bars all over New England, dropping off copies of the current issue and trying to sell ads for the next one.
The average issue was 100-plus pages of lowbrow pub-crawling, with the magazine’s most recognizable feature being the unfortunately named “Foxe of the Month,” a distinction that countless big-haired gals elbowed like roller derby jammers to achieve. All the runners-up who had vamped for the camera served as window dressing throughout the rest of the magazine.
I started out writing music reviews like this one about Gil Scott-Heron’s brilliant Bicentennial Blues gig at Paul’s Mall on Boylston Street over Fourth of July weekend in 1976.
Just a taste.
Downright intoxicating, no?
This piece about The Kinks featured one of my favorite ledes: “Ray Davies is the son Gilbert and Sullivan never had.”
I even got a chance to relate personal stories like this one about my myriad automotive catastrophes in pre-gentrification Jamaica Plain.
Drove me nuts graf:
Like snowflakes, no two bummers are ever exactly alike. Does the blizzard come to Boston in winter? Indeed – now’s the time to steal a snow tire or two. So they – I swear I don”t know who they are, but I want to – jacked my car up and removed my beautiful deeply grooved studded snow tires, then dropped the car unceremoniously back onto the street. I stood on freezing, drifting Sheridan St. at 2 A.M. and cursed the evil brutes at the top of my lungs. It didn’t make me feel and better, and it didn’t get me my snow tires [back].
That was my second car in JP, a 1970 Plymouth Duster. My first – a ’66 Austin Healey Sprite that I had loving coaxed to Boston all the way from Ohio – was stolen three days after I arrived. Oh, and the Duster’s gas tank was drained during the night on more than one occasion.
So eventually, I decided to drive away.
• • • • • • •
In spring of ’77, I exited both the SSA and Boston to settle up with my former fiancée in Cincinnati. (I had [checks notes] “postponed” our wedding the day before the invitations – all addressed, sealed, and stamped – went out, which made me sort of the Machiavelli of Matrimony as far as her family was concerned.)
As a parting gift to my fellow bureaucrats, I published Vol. 3, No. 1 (Only 0¢) of The Free Nameless News. It included this farewell note.
The final edition also contained a copy of my “Federal Employee’s Notice of Injury or Occupational Disease.”
Once I got to Cincinnati, the ex-fiancée was like a sign I once saw on the door of a London pub: Free beer tomorrow.
For six months, it was maybe next weekend.
In the interim I did two things.
The first was to find a paying job, which I did with the help of my friend and former downstairs neighbor, Earl Brown. He steered me toward a guy he knew at the local Job Corps center who was looking for a Supervisor of Recreation.
I made my way to the city’s West End and the Job Corps’ Romanesque Revival building, which happens to be Stop 91 on the Queen City Tour: “Designed by Samuel Hannaford and built in 1898, this was once the Convent and School of the Sisters of Mercy which was started by the Nine Sisters of Mercy who came to Cincinnati from Ireland in 1858.”
The interview didn’t go all that well: He thought I was underweight and overeducated for the position. But I eventually wore him down and wound up with the job.
And thus I became the night supervisor of what the Job Corps laughingly called its Recreation Center – a pool table, a ping pong table, and a few scattered card tables.
Upon my arrival, I replaced – and I use the term loosely – George Wilson, former starting center for the University of Cincinnati Bearcats basketball team (six-year average: 5.4 points, 5.2 rebounds per game) and former NBA journeyman (seven-year average: 5.4 points, 5.2 rebounds per game).
George Wilson was nothing if not consistently average.
During the orderly transition of power on my first night in the rec room, Wilson was the one who was 6’8″, 225 pounds. I was the one holding The Annotated Alice in Wonderland.
(In my defense, the Job Corps personnel guy – they weren’t called Human Resources whatevers back then – said all I had to do was sit there and make sure the guys didn’t kill each other. Or you, he muttered under his breath.)
I realized within minutes that there was no way I could survive in the rec room as The Guy Sitting Around Reading. What I needed was to legitimize myself in the eyes of the Job Corps corps.
Since my pool table chops were less than stellar, I headed to the ping pong table, buoyed by a decade of paddle-to-paddle combat in the basement of The Big House in Windsor, CT, where my folks moved after 20 years at 89th and Third in Manhattan.
My three brothers – Bobby, Jimmy, Terence – and I played endless games of ping pong in that basement (a.k.a. Spideyville), where we traditionally repaired for adult beverages and etc. around the oddly swaybacked table.
Consequently, my ping pong debut at the Job Corps was an unqualified success, seeing as I beat all comers. We then shifted to the pool table, where they all beat me in return.
Result #1: We were even.
Result #2: I never brought The Annotated Alice in Wonderland to the rec room again.
That didn’t keep me from going through the looking glass, though..
• • • • • • •
The other thing I did while I waited for free beer was to write for as many local publications as I could find in Greater Cincinnati.
I wrote book reviews for the Mt. Adams Gazette . . .
and for the Cincinnati Suburban Newspaper chain . . .
which liked me well enough to publish my picture, God knows why.
Cincinnati Suburban Newspaper, Inc. expired in 1986, long enough after I was gone that no one can credibly blame me for the chain’s demise.
In my attempt to write for every publication in the area, I even did a record review for the Black community magazine, Pride.
(Typo in the last line: “It should not be missed.” Not to get technical about it.)
Pride magazine folded the following year, long enough after I was gone etc. etc.
My most prolific work in Cincinnati was for The Rivertown Times, where I contributed book reviews, record reviews, and reviews of concerts by artists ranging from George Benson (a five-and-dime Nat Cole) to Led Zeppelin (“The crowd rarely rocked – Zeppelin’s noise level, sufficient to make dentures clatter at five hundred feet, is much more conducive to vibrating in place”).
I also hosted – in my acclaimed role as Waylon Tardi – The First Annual Rivertown Times Country & Western Album Awards.
Not bad for a guy who grew up in the Big Town, eh? As the folks at Variety might have said (but didn’t) ‘Slick’ picks hick licks.
My best efforts, though, were long-form narrative reports like this one reviewing the 1977 King Tut exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum,
Another piece chronicled the Spring Shoot held by the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association in Friendship, Indiana – an event my years of watching “Davy Crockett” in the mid-’50s made me eminently qualified to cover.
No way I’d ever get that kind of assignment in Boston.
• • • • • • •
Back at the Job Corps . . .
Kool Aid took a step back and let his eyes wander across the pool table. That was odd, since there were only two balls left – the cue and the eight – and they were lined up straight toward the corner pocket.
Tall thin and kinetic, Kool Aid stepped back up to the table.
Kool Aid smacked the eight ball at an angle and sent it careering around the table – one rail two rails threefourfive – until it came to rest pretty much in the middle of the green felt surface.
It was a ridiculous choice, but a great ride.
(That was the choice too many Job Corps participants seemed to make in life as well. If only someone could have convinced them to take the straight shot every once in a while, they pretty much wouldn’t be in the Job Corps.)
Those months I spent back in Ohio were less a great ride than a strange one, turning into The Summer I Was the Only White Guy in the Room.
That was true most nights at the Job Corps, and often true after I knocked off at 11. Earl worked second shift at the Post Office, and one or two nights a week we would meet somewhere, pick up sandwiches and beer, and go to one of his friends’ houses in Avondale to play bid whist until dawn.
Then there was The Great Shields Barbecue Flameout.
One night Earl swung by my place and said, “Man, I need some barbecue, y’know?”
“Sure – where to?”
“Shield’s, man. Gotta be Shield’s.”
“Shield’s is in Dayton, for Chrissake. That’s 50 miles from here. What’s wrong with The Barn down by Fountain Square?”
“No, man – gotta be Shield’s.”
So there we were, barreling up I-75 in Earl’s Thunderbird at 12:30 in the morning until we arrived at Shield’s. Inside, the staff and the customers and the rent-a-cop were all black and all looked at me as just another late-night hungry customer – the same way I was just another Job Corps guy and just another bid whist player elsewhere.
That was an education in itself.
Earl and I ordered some ribs (make mine mild) and took them back to the car to eat. Even the mild ones, I should have known, were super hot, and eating the slices of white bread soaked in BBQ sauce that sandwiched the ribs just made things worse.
The only thing we had to drink in the car was a bottle of Manischewitz Cream White Concord (don’t even ask), and that helped in one way but created its own problems elsewhere.
Then, the coup de grâce: Earl lit up a joint and wheeled out of the parking lot.
So we’re doing 75 down 75 and I smell something odd and I look over and see that 1) Earl has started to nod off, 2) he dropped the joint on his sweater, and 3) his sweater is now smoldering – thus the odd smell.
First things first, I slapped Earl awake then grabbed the joint then smothered the smolder.
Earl looked at the hole in his sweater.
“Damn, man, Lindsey’s gonna kill me for messing up this sweater,” Lindsey being his wife and likely source of said garment.
Not “Damn, man, I’m gonna kill the two of us falling asleep at the wheel.”
Since I was in marginally better condition than Earl was, I made him pull off to the shoulder and let me drive the rest of the way.
It was all so . . . five rails.
Meanwhile, my exchanges with the ex-fiancée continued to be maybe next weekend – until they weren’t. So I loaded up the Duster and took the straight shot back to Boston.
• • • • • • •
I can write faster than anyone who can write better, and I can write better than anyone who can write faster.
– A.J. Liebling
I wanted to be A.J. Liebling when I grew up.
But back in Boston, the minor league music magazines had experienced major attrition. Rock Around the World, PopTop, Musician’s Guide – all gone.
I didn’t have time to wait around for a civil service job, so I violated my longtime policy of taking the dead-endest job I could find and applied for the manager’s position at a Harvard Square store called A Wine For All Reasons, which is either a) the most ridiculous store name ever, b) the most Harvard Square store name ever, or c) both of the above.
Two brothers – the Bankers (really) – owned the store and started out by asking me what management experience I had.
“Well, I semi-managed an Ohio State Liquor Store in Cincinnati for six months. Technically I was a clerk, but I opened the store at 10 every morning while a line of guys suffering various stages of the d.t.’s stretched down the block and around the corner.”
The Banker Bros stared at me blankly, clearly not impressed with my managerial portfolio.
Then they asked me what I knew about wine.
My sole experience with wine consisted of being fired from the Stetter Wine Co. in Cincinnati eight years earlier after my failed attempt – at my fellow workers’ request – to unionize the warehouse, only to have them fold like origami at the eleventh hour. No one was happy with how that turned out, especially the Teamsters.
So I just said, “I know it’s fun to drink when there’s no bourbon around.”
They were equally unimpressed with that answer.
I then pulled out a copy of The Free Nameless News and told the Banker Bros I could produce a wine-soaked monthly newsletter for the store, complete with featured items on sale and – as a special bonus – a serial potboiler about all things grape-related.
Amazingly, they gave me the job, in no small part because they had an assistant manager who knew everything about wine and didn’t want to move up.
The serial melodrama – called The Wine Cellar: A light, dry, medium-bodied story – featured oenophile J. Redmond Tardi (retired civil servant and renowned bon vivant) and his maybe-not-so-faithful companion Coolie Solomon.
Here’s how Chapter Eight ended.
With his cellar well stocked, Tardi became the rage of his neighborhood and its most prominent host. At the end of every month he would throw a rent party, with half the proceeds devoted to restocking his closet. It wasn’t until he looked up from dinner one night and saw Coolie pointing a gun at him that he remembered the unfortunate incident years ago in Tangiers and his rash, but necessary promise.
“Let’s have it, boss.” The cold metal was inches from Tardi’s grapey mouth. “It’s got to be now . . .”
I know – totally loony, right? But somehow it worked.
As manager of the store, somehow I worked too. It turned out I had a genuine knack for 1) selling the extra bottle of wine and 2) upselling customers to more costly vintages.
Then came the Blizzard of ’78.
The snow started on Monday, February 6th, and didn’t stop until the next day, at which point the Banker Bros informed me that they fully expected the shop to be open on Wednesday.
So I got up at the crack of dawn and, because the Green Line was totally paralyzed, walked – shovel in hand – from Brookline Village to Harvard Square (4.7 miles, for those of you keeping score at home), which took roughly my entire life. I then proceeded to dig out the (of course) basement store and open for business.
Typical phone conversation that day:
“Good afternoon, A Wine for All Reasons.”
“Hi, are you open?”
“What – are you kidding? There’s three feet of snow on the ground, the whole state is paralyzed, and Gov. Dukakis has declared a state of emergency. Of course we’re open.”
I sold a helluva lot of wine that day.
A couple of days later the Green Line started running inbound from Kenmore, so getting to the store wasn’t as Bataan Death March as it had been. But it was still a pain.
(For the record: Former Gov. Michael Dukakis and I have significantly different recollections of the blizzard’s aftermath. He has insisted on numerous occasions that “The T never shut down, folks, during the Blizzard of ’78, I can tell you. In fact it had to carry thousands more people because I stopped all automobile traffic.”
(All due respect, Governor: The T might not have shut down, but the Green Line sure as hell did.)
Several months later the Banker Bros turned up unexpectedly at the store and dolefully told me that their father’s Davis Square liquor store was shutting down. (Rough translation: They had been running it and eventually ran it into the ground.)
The two then looked at each other, looked at me, and said “Why don’t you take your lunch break now?”
When I returned to the ridiculously named store, I was out of a job that I probably never should have had in the first place.
• • • • • • •
All the while I was flogging bottles of Burgundy and Bordeaux, I was also still freelancing wherever I could.
Nightfall had adopted a new, larger format, so I contributed some book reviews – this one about John Irving’s best seller The World According to Garp . . .
and this one about Michael Herr’s searing Vietnam memoir Dispatches.
I also got to make up this piece about Boston’s legendary lost swimming hole.
Unfortunately, Nightfall went under a short while later. Here’s an excellent visual history posted on YouTube by Brian Coleman (www.BrianColemanBooks.com), in collaboration with the David Bieber Archives (www.DavidBieberArchives.com).
At the 1:50 mark there’s a list of some of the contributors to the magazine.
Hey – that’s me there in “many more”!
And so it came to pass that Night Life, the cockroach of minor league monthlies, stood alone in the end.
I tried, in my own quiet way, to bring some middlebrow cred to the magazine by contributing arts and culture coverage, such as this review of John Gay’s one-man play about the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde.
Actually, the headline is a bit misleading: Price was fine; the play itself wasn’t Wilde enough.
The one-man play – in the form an imaginary lecture given by Wilde in Paris in 1899, after he had endured two dreadful years in prison for a sexual preference that was rampant throughout England, from countless third-form dormitories all the way up to the British Parliament – suffers from the one unforgivable sin in Wilde’s own skimpy moral code: tedium.
(To be fair graf goes here)
To be fair, Boston Globe theater critic Kevin Kelly loved it, and so did the Missus, who I hadn’t yet met but might have seen in the lobby.
Regardless, putting lipstick on a chauvinist pig (that would be Bob the Publisher) was never going to pay the rent, so after I lost my job at the wine store I was thisclose to taking another civil service exam. That’s when Bob made me an offer with real money attached to it: He and I should double-team bar and restaurant owners, with him selling ads and me writing full-page stories on the spot (take that, Mr. Liebling) about how their establishments and their chowder and burgers and fries were second to none.
(As penance for my transgressions, I subsequently spent the next four decades preaching the gospel that – like kids and matches or Tom Wolfe and a spaghetti dinner – advertising and editorial should be kept apart at all costs. I like to think I eventually paid my debt to society.)
While flacking for Night Life, though, I wound up paying a much higher price.
In addition to the butt-numbing drives around New England and the mind-numbing small talk with endless bar owners, there was a tremendous amount of drinking involved in the gig. No way you could order tonic water and lime while everyone else was knocking back shots of bourbon.
One night in late fall of 1978, after a hard day tearing down the wall between advertising and editorial, Bob the Publisher and I wound up in Chinatown around 2 am at the Four Seas restaurant owned by Harry Mook, who was described as “the most influential member of Asian organized crime in the district” during a 1991 statement to a U.S. Senate committee by – wait for it – Robert S. Mueller, III.
(At the time, Bobby Three Sticks was Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division, United States Department of Justice.)
One year after Mueller’s testimony, Mook was sentenced in US District Court to three years and 10 months in prison on racketeering convictions involving: 1) the bribing of Boston police officers and 2) an international money-laundering scheme.
But on that night in ’78, he was still The King of Chinatown.
In attendance at that particular soirée were Mook, Bob the Publisher, me, and local TV news anchor Jack Cole, whose main claim to fame came when, breaking for commercials after a feature on chimney sweeps, he told viewers, “We’ll be back with more alleged news in a moment.” (He was suspended for a week.)
Round about 4 a.m. I’d gotten outside of pretty much an entire bottle of brandy. I remember arguing with Cole about whether the Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks heavyweight championship fight earlier that year had been fixed. (I said yes. He said no.)
I also remember arguing with our host about whether he was Chinese-American, although I don’t remember how we got on that topic.
“I an American,” Mook said. “No hyphen.”
“C’mon – I’m Irish-American. You’re Chinese-American.”
“No hyphen. Where my knife? Where my gun?”
At that point, I decided that the men’s room was the better part of valor.
I remember standing in the men’s room . . .
And then I wasn’t.
I woke up 12 hours later in a room at the Kenmore Square Howard Johnson’s with no idea how I got there.
And I thought, man, I gotta get a real job.
Three months later I was hired as a copywriter at Filene’s flagship store in Boston’s Downtown Crossing.
• • • • • • •
When I started looking for respectable work, I thought maybe I should try to find a job where I’d write during the day, so I wouldn’t have the urge to write at night so much.
Consequently, I skipped the civil service exams and poked around until I got a chance to apply for a copywriter’s position at Filene’s. “Just come in next Tuesday with your portfolio,” said Peter Lamir, the vice president of advertising.
Problem was, I didn’t have a portfolio of ads, unless you counted those puff pieces for Night Life, which I didn’t.
So over the course of the weekend I created a whole bunch of ads featuring clothing, luggage, housewares, cosmetics – anything you might find in a department store. And, amazingly enough, it worked.
As Filene’s sole copywriter I banged out anywhere between 30 and 35 ads a week, everything from institutional ads to missy dresses to junior culottes to layette, the definition of which I had to look up when the work order landed on my desk.
Most of the ads were pretty straightforward, except for the ones that weren’t.
My magnum opus during my time at Filene’s was the eight-page perfume spread I created in 1981. Seven perfume brands paid Filene’s to run full-page ads in the Boston Globe Magazine the Sunday before Mother’s Day. I convinced the department manager to pay for an eighth page and cooked up an episode of Filene’s Mystery Theater.
For extra impact, roughly 20,000 reprint copies were distributed throughout the 12 Filene’s stores.
Perfume sales at Filene’s the week before Mother’s Day normally topped $150,000, which was real money back then.
Every Mother’s Sunday managed to . . . cut that number in half. Apparently, very few people wanted to hard-boil Mom.
At first I felt kind of bad about the dismal return on investment – you know, all those dollars and no scents. But then the ad won a Hatch Award from the Ad Club of New England, so that perked me up a bit.
The ad also won an Athena Award for Retail, in Newspaper Magazine or Special Section.
In the sidebar, Filene’s ad director Virginia Harris – a wonderful boss who once introduced me thusly: “This is John Carroll, he’s very cerebral” – tried her best to spin the sales disaster.
It generated great excitement in the community. People were intrigued – including our vendors.We feel it was very successful in achieving our purpose, which was to build an image of excitement, as well as quality and value, for our customers. And being one of two stores in the market, we have to fight for position. Every once in a while we want the special impact of a series of pages.
God love her.
The most lasting impact of my work at Filene’s, however, came from promoting the flagship store’s Executive Shopping Service created by the lovely and talented Tina Laurie Sutton, late of Glen Cove, Long Island.
My first encounter with her was thoroughly memorable: I was enjoying the peace and quiet of the eighth-floor Glamour School Room (a leftover from the Filene’s Working for the Working Girl days) where I often went to do my writing, when Tina passed through on her way to the cafeteria.
She was wearing a teal skirted suit that fit in all the right places. She had alabaster skin and a cascade of dark hair that would have made Botticelli swoon.
I knew her by sight so I asked, “how’s business?”
“Thin as the gold on a weekend wedding ring.”
Wow – smart, beautiful, and quotes Raymond Chandler? That’s the trifecta all day long.
(To be honest, I was thinking about a different Chandler quote: “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.”)
The next time I saw Tina she was standing in my office doorway (by then I’d been bumped up to Copy Chief) and said, “My boss told me you’re supposed to produce an ad for my service.”
“Sure – let’s have lunch.”
Classy guy that I was, I took her to the Superior Deli, where a bowl of beef stew cost $1.25. She had an egg salad sandwich.
Once we got settled in, Tina said, “So what do you want to know about my service?”
“I never talk business at lunch,” I replied smartly.
Soon enough, though, I produced this ad, which I managed to sneak into the Wall Street Journal on multiple occasions when the department buyers didn’t come through with the merchandise that was supposed to be featured in the store’s monthly ad.
I also produced this Boston Magazine ad aimed at those pathetic guys who wind up at Filene’s around seven o’clock on Christmas Eve looking for something to buy for the wife or loved one (or both).
Meanwhile, Tina and I ate lunch at the Super Deli every weekday for the next ten months until I went off to work for a local ad agency.
Two years later we were married.
P.S. Not long after I left Filene’s Tina did too, because management offered her a promotion with lots more responsibility and zero more money. So she took her clients – and $250,000 in annual sales – from Filene’s in Downtown Crossing to Bonwit Teller in the Back Bay.
Filene’s never again featured an Executive Shopping Consultant in their ads; they just promoted the service.
• • • • • • •
The second time I went looking for a copywriter position, I had a real portfolio of Filene’s ads. But the creative directors at the Boston ad agencies I pitched mostly said my experience was too retail oriented, so thanks but no thanks.
The partners at KK&M, though, thought I’d be a perfect fit, since the Brighton-based agency specialized in retail and real estate advertising.
I got hired as Copy Chief even though the agency had no copywriters, so there was no one for me to actually chief around. Regardless, on my first day Dennis K burst into my office and said, “I need a ‘Hi, I’m Marty’ right away.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I quickly learned that Snyder Leather was a major client and its radio spots generally started like this: “Hi, I’m Marty from Snyder Leather. Nothing says luxury like a beautiful leather coat or jacket from Snyder Leather.“
That was nonsense, of course, since Snyder Leather’s products were cheap knockoffs of actual high-end coats and jackets. But why get technical about it.
The problem, as I saw it, was that Marty spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on local radio stations to bore the hell out of the entire Boston market. So I figured I should try to do something about that.
I figured I could upgrade Snyder Leather’s advertising by employing a Happy Days Fonz-a-like to promote Marty’s knockoff leather goods. That worked pretty well, and we didn’t even get a cease-and-desist from Henry Winkler’s people.
Then I decided to up the ante: We’d kidnap Marty off the air and play out that year’s campaign as a police procedural/product promotion.
The pitch did not go well.
Are you kidding – what if someone tried to actually kidnap me?
Your last name is Epstein, Marty. Worst case scenario, some schnook in Somerville named Marty Snyder gets snatched – not your problem.
Yeah, well – how would Dennis feel about being kidnapped on the radio?
Believe me, his wife Janie would love it.
Regardless, that campaign never ran.
• • • • • •
I started out at KK&M as Copy Chief with no copywriters and wound up Senior Vice President, Creative Director.
It was all basically the same job.
During my eight years there I wrote at least a thousand ads, from Public Service Announcements . . .
, , , to an early piece of branded content I created for Bentley College in 1984. Forget dog bites man. Forget even man bites dog. I am Ivory-soap certain that I was the first one to employ this formulation.
I also produced promotional pieces for the agency itself.
My biggest jump-start, as it turned out, was an ad campaign for the conversion of hundreds of rental units to condominiums at The Brook House in Brookline.
The developer told me, “Make something that everyone will be talking about.”
So these teaser ads ran one Sunday in the Boston Globe’s real estate section.
And these teaser ads ran in the Globe the next Sunday.
And this full-page ad ran in the Globe the following Sunday.
Hard to know who was smoking more weed at the time – me in creating the campaign or the developer in approving it.
Either way, people did talk about it, so mission accomplished .
I also created ads for the AM news radio station WEEI.
Playing off the tagline On top of the world, around the clock, I pitched a TV spot that started with this explosive scene from James Cagney’s classic White Heat.
The camera would then pull back to rise above Boston, then the United States, then the globe, eventually resolving to the station’s tagline.
Unfortunately, the Cagney estate wanted way too much money for the rights to the footage.
So we settled for a helicopter shot where we buzzed the State House dome (which was illegal even then) and ran it backwards for the big pullback.
Not exactly what we wanted, but way more fun to produce.
• • • • • • •
Commercial radio in the 1980s was very much a major medium (actually, it still is). Retailers flocked to it for its narrowcast audiences and wide-ranging reach. The conventional retail approach held that print was for product advertising and radio was for brand image.
But it didn’t always have to be that way.
Enter the Rogue Buyer from Able Rug.
The tagline – “This guy may be a rogue to Able, but he’s rugs to you” – was one of my favorites, and got spun off into a series of other ads. The spot itself [checks resumé] won a 1981 Hatch Bowl.
Radio was great fun. For local furniture chain Brazil Contempo, I got to channel Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
Along the way I even composed some music. For Control Data Institute, a vocational computer school, I wrote the Bad Job Blues. Back then, Little Joe Cook (rest in peace) was the bullgoose Boston bluesman, so I hired him to do vocals for the spot.
The song had three verses, each with the refrain, “I got the blues/I got the Bad Job Blues/There ain’t nothin’ in this world/Worse than those Bad Job Blues.”
We’re in the studio, and here’s what Little Joe sang:
I got the blues.
I got the Bad Job Blues.
There ain’t nothin’ in this world
Worser than those Bad Job Blues.
Except Little Joe pronounced it woiser.
So, given my good Jesuit education, I said, “It’s worse, Mr. Cook – worser isn’t really a word.”
Little Joe smiled at me and said, “Worser is better.”
And he was right. My version was worser. His version was better.
I also got a chance to write – well, half-write – a tune for Niteshoes, a club that opened in 1987 on Route 1 in Saugus, home to big-haired gals and bigmouth guys. Copywriter Buddy Martin and I wrote alternating lines of this jingle.
My favorite part was the announcer with the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Pipes: “Niteshoes. The hottest dance club in Boston. Hot music, hot looks, hot times. How hot? If Niteshoes opened in Salt Lake City . . . they’d close it.”
Not long after, Niteshoes was, well, closed.
• • • • • • •
In addition to WEEI, KK&M’s other media client was the Tab Newspaper chain, for which I was a triple threat: I wrote the chain’s ads, I supervised their production, and I played shortstop on the Tab softball team in the Greater Boston Media League.
On April 15, 1985 I trundled down to the old Boston Garden with two of my teammates – AdEast editor Greg Farrell and Tab reporter Mark “Tuna Can” Jurkowitz – to catch the closed-circuit telecast of the fight between undisputed middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns, the world junior middleweight champion who was moving up in weight class.
Hagler, the pride of Brockton, was the undisputed hometown favorite, but the Tale Of The Tape looked to favor Hearns in age, height, and reach.
Also undisputed: The first three minutes of the fight constituted one of the greatest rounds, if not the greatest, of all time.
As we exited the old Causeway Street barn after those eight minutes of frenzied fighting, I said to Greg, “that was direct response at its best, yeah?”
And he said, “wanna write that up for the next issue of AdEast? I need it by five o’clock tomorrow.”
Paging Mr. Liebling. Paging Mr. A.J. Liebling.
Crowd went nuts graf:
The Garden crowd had started in a frenzy and worked its way into high gear. Between rounds they would hold whatever pitch they had reached, then crank it up another notch when the action was rejoined. It built and it built and in the third round, it blew.
It was a direct response to Hagler’s ultimate response – occasioned, oddly enough, by a break in the action. The referee stopped the fight to check the cut on Hagler’s forehead. Hagler, always fearful of the officials in Las Vegas, decided to put the hammer down.
He crossed-up Hearns with a right lead to the temple that sent the challenger stumbling backward, somehow staying upright, halfway across the ring. And Hagler chased him, and landed another vicious shot to the same place. That’s when the oblivion express pulled into the station. Hagler’s third right took care of the baggage.
The roar went beyond sound. It became the very air itself.
(Favorite phrase in the piece: “cheek-seeking missiles.”)
The folks at AdEast liked the piece well enough that not long after, I had my own monthly column, the first of which addressed a topic I would return to often in the next decade or so.
The lede that kept on leding:
I am the snail darter of polite society. I am the bald eagle of the great indoors.
I am one of Boston’s last – gasp – cigarette smokers.
I am not, however, afforded the respect bestowed on your normal endangered species. My motto comes not from the Sierra Club, but from 16th-century poet Sir Thomas Wyatt: “They flee from me that sometime did me seek.”
Oh, how they flee.
From there I discussed the 4.5% decline in cigarette advertising that quarter; a lawsuit by some Massachusetts smokers against tobacco firms, claiming misrepresentation of their product; and plans by Philip Morris to publish a quarterly magazine for smokers called, inventively, Philip Morris Magazine. For my money, they should’ve gone with Smoke and Mirrors.
That column also established the style of signoff I would use for the next decade when I wrote about the advertising industry.
In subsequent months I a) wrote an imaginary boardroom/strategy session of executives looking to change the formula for Pepsi-Cola (the Coca-Cola Company had introduced New Coke several months earlier), b) covered that year’s Hatch Awards as a 15-round heavyweight bout between Rhode Island boutique shop Leonard Monahan Saabye and Boston mega-agency Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos (LMS by a knockout), and c) dispensed New Year’s resolutions for clients, agencies, and the communications world at large.
(I should note here that Greg Farrell was a thoroughly splendid editor – smart, funny, and game for almost anything. It was always a gas writing for him.)
I also wrote this column about the Boston Herald swiping nine comic strips from the Boston Globe.
Rupert Murdoch (“the proverbial self-made man who worships his creator”) had purchased the Herald a few years earlier, and he launched a serious run at its crosstown rival Boston Globe.
(At the time, the Herald’s daily circulation was somewhere north of 365,000; the Globe’s was well above 500,000. These days, the Herald daily print circulation is less than 30,000, the Globe’s around 90,000.)
Drove the Globeniks nuts graf:
Arguably, the greatest strength of the Herald is its uncanny knack of finding a hard-news angle in its own circulation gains and promotional activities . . .
Once it got the comics, the Herald launched a series of hard-hitting features, painting this as the most significant exodus since Biblical times. “The Comics Are Coming,” headlines crowed, and even the creators of the strips came to meet their adoring fans.
Although they’re 35 years old, I like to think that my capsule summaries of the shanghaied strips still ring true.
Not long after I filed that piece, I found out that Greg had become editor of the New England edition of Adweek.
Ten days later I was the sole proprietor of a biweekly column at that fine publication.
• • • • • • •
Adweek magazine published six regional editions at the time: East, New England, Southeast, Midwest, Southwest, and West. I started in the New England edition and eventually worked my way up to the mothership in New York, appearing for several years in all the editions of the magazine.
My first column for the New England edition got off, I’ll be the first to admit, to a rather odd start.
Then again, I was kind of on to something.
[McAdvertising] will be the clarion call of the here, the now, and the path of least resistance. We Want What We Want as McPaper [USA Today] would headline it. No longer will creative teams be burdened by reams of marketing information. They’ll get two, maybe three, facts to work with, and they’ll be a helluva lot happier for it. Small space – McNuggads – will regain its former position of prominence.
I was a decade or so ahead of the digital advertising wave and the snackable content era that was soon to come, if you’re keeping score at home.
After that debut, the column managed to find somewhat surer footing.
And then, out of nowhere, who should show up but Dr. Ads, “[my] old ROTC buddy and frequent Crazy Eights opponent.”
That vacation the Doc mentioned – the Missus and I bombed around Italy for a couple of weeks – also became a column.
And then, like a bad penny, Dr. Ads showed up for a second time.
Two weeks later I scored an exclusive interview with the Cheerios Kid. General Mills was bringing him back after he’d been on the shelf – and off the shelves – for 30 years.
Happily, I even got a chance to channel my inner Raymond Chandler again.
In virtually every hard-boiled detective story, the shamus gets sapped down at some point. You could produce a Ph.D. thesis on the myriad ways that writers through the years have described characters being knocked out. I thought mine (at the end of Part I) turned out pretty well.
All the hard-boiled writers will tell you that you can just hear the faint swish of the sap before it explodes against your skull. I didn’t . . .
I only felt the cool night air and my head shatter into a thousand streaking comets. Then I was riding one. Then I was gone.
The columns above represent two-thirds of my output in the first five months I was with the magazine. All told, I produced 157 columns over the course of eights years at Adweek.
During that time I got to spotlight my ad campaign for Irving’s Lounge, one of the last dive bars in Brookline. (Spoiler alert: The ads never ran.)
For one stretch of time, I had a lively back-and-forth with the fine folks in the direct mail dodge.
I also got to tell further tales of my Travels with the Missus (something I have continued to do in other venues).
All the while I delivered a steady stream of ads ‘n’ ends to the splendid readers of that fine publication.
Adweek was truly one of the best writing gigs I ever had.
• • • • • • •
In the fall of 1988 I got a chance to freelance for Ken Hartnett, the legendary Boston newspaperman who had been State House bureau chief at the Boston Globe, managing editor at the Boston Herald American, and in ’88 was about halfway through his five-year stint as editor of the Middlesex News.
I started writing about sports – of all things – at the MN’s sister publication, The Daily Transcript. My first piece was an amicus brief for Red Sox left fielder Jim Rice, who days earlier had manhandled manager Joe Morgan after he pulled the dyspeptic slugger for a pinch hitter in the eighth inning of a game against the Minnesota Twins..
Rice landed at the bottom of a local media pig pile. I was, as far as I knew, his lone defender.
Nuts to the local media graf:
Rice’s tango with Red Sox manager Joe Morgan last week has led to a thoroughly reprehensible unloading of of 14 years of venom by assorted sportswriters, fans, and for all we know, his dry cleaner. It may all be true – Rice’s surliness, his arrogance, his physical intimidation of people around the team – but it doesn’t have anything to do with the current offense. It has to do with giving Jim Rice a little taste of mean.
This column about Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, by contrast, was less amicus and more valedictory.
Shortly after that piece, I got bumped up to the flagship paper’s Metrowest Town Meeting, a sort of people’s op-ed page described as “An open forum of public opinion on issues of the day.” I was its advertising critic, starting with political ads.
Soon enough, though, I branched out into seasonal work.
I also covered an advertising dustup between tony Newbury Street and funky Filene’s Basement.
And I even dipped into the issue of new technology and the ad industry.
In all, I wrote ten pieces for the Metrowest Town Meeting over the course of three months. In the fall of 1990, Ken Hartnett brought me back to analyze the ads for statewide races in Massachusetts.
I loved writing for Ken, but even he would have conceded that the Metrowest News was a minor league player in the Boston media ranks.
I wanted to move up to the majors.
(to be continued)