“Machiavelli and Me”

Palo Alto Review, Volume XIVPalo Alto Review, Volume XIV

There’s a paper-thin separation between the summer jobs of one’s college years and the career-starters in which we find ourselves immediately after college. One day you’re a lifeguard; the next day you’re a stockbroker. In my case, one day I was a construction site gofer and the next day I was a Manhattan ad agency rat packer.

The shift from my carefree summer strolls along life’s edge to the intense marathon that would consume the next thirty years was as abrupt as the crack of a starter’s pistol. Simple suddenly gave way to cunning. Direct was out, duplicitous in. Perception was truth. The summers of my youth were surely gone. Fortunately for this young marathoner, their memories lingered.

* * *

“Chrissakes, boy, you mus be bout the dumbest sum bitch on the planit…starin’ at weld arcs! You college boys about dumb as possums.” So spoke Bones, his hillbilly twang accentuated by the decibel level of his voice, raised particularly high to assure maximum exposure of his point of view. Bones was one of the welders on the construction crew. He was speaking to yours truly, one of the gofers on the construction crew. I was considering pointing out to Bones that, in fact, I hadn’t started college yet (it being the summer before that momentous event in my life), but I quickly realized that that detail wasn’t going to advance my position. Instead, I opted for the “yes, I am a dumb shit, let’s move on” approach.

My summer jobs were purposefully physical affairs to help me prepare for the coming football season. I worked with a rough-and-tumble crew of mechanical contractors, often lugging large lengths of cast-iron pipe around the job site.  It was a pretty effective way to toughen up my body. Then one day, I made the mistake of giving my eyes a workout.

It was my first summer on the job and I was helping Bones lay pipe in the main crawl space—a place as dark, damp and miserable as its name implies. It got pretty boring after awhile—nothing to look at except the weld arc that Bones created every so often. In the context of the crawl space’s dullness, it was a magnificent explosion of fireworks, and it had a rather hypnotic effect on me. After work, I went home—a day like any other day. But that night, I awoke to a primal scream—my own, and the all-too-real sensation that my eyes had been torched with acetylene. Nearly a day passed before I could open my eyes, and a couple more before I could see normally again. The doctor said I was lucky. “Weld arcs can blind you,” he informed me, adding, “That’s why welders wear those heavy masks you idiot!” Bones, of course, offered his own perspective when I returned to work—that bit about me being on the intellectual level of a possum.

Bones and two others on our crew were straight out of the hills of West Virginia. Those poor devils were on the road every morning by 5 AM to get to our Baltimore construction site on time, and heaven forbid if the coffee wagon wasn’t there when they arrived. “Hemme a coffee, an’ one o’them sticky buns,” was always the first order of business.

My mentor on the job was George, a city boy from Baltimore’s southwest corner, who had little formal education. That may have put him on the low rung of the socio-economic ladder, but it didn’t make him stupid. With opportunity and motivation, George might well have been designing buildings rather than plumbing them. Tall and 30-something, George’s intelligence and thoughtfulness seemed at odds with his apparent acceptance of his place in this rough-hewn working environment. I was always struck by his patience, notably with me, given my tendency to regularly return from the supply truck with the wrong thing. “Nope, that’s a three-eighths-inch female nipple. I need a five-eighths-inch male nipple. I’ll be waiting, college boy,” George would calmly say. College boy was, of course, a pejorative among the crew. “Fifty cents holding up five dollars” was another way of making the point that, on this totem pole, I was low man. But as long as I could answer George’s inaugural questions each summer, like “What’s a wassop?” (and other terms totally unrelated to mechanical contracting that George would teach me), he considered me fit to be his gofer. Not that I was exclusive to George. I was an equal opportunity fetcher, often loaned out to Bones and some of the other boys.

There was Ed, for example—a scraggly, skinny-assed guy whose arms and legs flopped around like Scooby-Doo. Ed’s self-confidence must have been severely dented early in his life because he never seemed to be able to do anything on his own…always double-checking things with the crew foreman. But come Friday afternoon when the pay envelopes were distributed, Ed knew exactly what to do. Ed could suck the marrow out of his days off. In fact, it wasn’t the least unusual for Ed to show up Monday morning to report that he had never made it home that weekend.

Then there was Bobby, a throwback to the ’50s with his perfectly coiffed pompadour, twice-rolled shirtsleeves, and irreverent, infectious laugh. Bobby considered himself quite the babe magnet, constantly moaning about how worn out he was, thanks to the sexual demands of whatever older woman was keeping him at the time.

Walter was another one. A bit of an anomaly among the crew, he was much older and seemed reasonably together. Walter particularly enjoyed imparting life’s wisdom to me, like “always make sure she gets hers first” and other deep thoughts.

They were characters…simple, hard-working, hard-living, and straight-talking. They were the antithesis of the work crews of my future…and oddly enough, the antidote.

* * *

Having brushed off the dust of my summers in construction, I entered the world of advertising with charmingly naïve expectations honed by one-too-many Rock Hudson-Doris Day movies. Unlike construction, advertising—the business and the commercials—was full of people who looked good and talked smooth. A basically harmless bunch…or so I thought. Like construction, the ad agency was full of characters, but they weren’t so simple, and they were much more dangerous. You might fall off a ladder on a construction site, but with only so many rungs on the corporate ladder, you were more likely to be thrown off that one headfirst.

Someone told me early on in my advertising career that Machiavelli never met an ad man he didn’t like. It didn’t take me long to understand what he meant. I knew one who old Mach would have loved.

Ray was a tall, pencil-thin, 40ish, unnatural blonde with all the mannerisms and charm of a praying mantis. He epitomized the pejorative term empty suit. Nonetheless, Ray was a vice president (like lots of unspectacular people in the considerably broad midsection of ad agency management) and I was a lowly something-or-other.

I reported to Ray, as did a woman named Marie; she was slightly above me in the pecking order. Together, we were the account management team for one of the agency’s major clients in the early ’70s—very famous brand, owned one of America’s best-known ad slogans.  Ray never liked me, which I attributed (correctly I hope) to the fact that he knew that I knew he was an empty suit. On the other hand, Ray loved Marie, as did the client, which was all that really mattered to Ray. Trouble was, the client was becoming equally fond of me, which was beginning to make Ray a bit of a fifth wheel—a precarious position for a mediocre advertising executive in mid-career.

One day, Ray called me into his office. He was wearing his best Cheshire-cat grin, atop one of his signature gray-and-white-speckled suits—the jackets of which he never removed, presumably because he thought it made him look more important, something not even a crown and scepter could have accomplished. He presented me with a copy of an internal memorandum.

“Did you write this?” he asked.

I quickly perused the three-page document and responded, “No.”

“Your name’s on it,” he said.

“Yes, I see that…but I never sent this memo.” (I had been working on a draft of our monthly status report, which was in the typing pool. This was a version of that draft.)

“Really? How do you suppose it got here then?” Ray asked, his tone dripping with sarcasm.

I could feel my pulse rising and a tingling sensation race through my body as this insipid exchange continued for several minutes, until Ray finally said, “You know, Jack is quite unhappy about this.” Jack was the Executive VP over all of us, and the individual to whom the memo was addressed.

The memo, among other things, disparaged Marie’s contribution to recent developments on the account. It looked as if I had gone over Ray’s head and sent a memo to his boss trying to make myself look good at Marie’s expense, and indirectly Ray’s. Two paragraphs were particularly damning. I’d never seen either, much less authored them.

“I’ve handled this with Jack,” Ray said, “so you’re going to be all right. But you will be reassigned immediately.”

I was speechless.

“Oh, and I’d avoid Marie if I were you. She’s very upset.”

It was stunning. The bastard had placed the knife in my back so carefully that I felt it neither on entry nor exit. I just knew that I was bleeding.

I was indeed reassigned, to a far less prestigious and important client, from which lowly vantage I spent the next few months justifiably worrying that my “career track” was prematurely en route to a dead end. But then a fortuitous thing happened. The praying mantis preyed on one too many underlings. This time, not only was Ray’s double-dealing a bit too blatant, but it also led to the discovery of his rather creative approach to expense reporting and other questionable practices. Ray quickly went away, and my formerly bright career was somewhat refurbished by his ignominious departure. My youthful innocence, however, so fully in bloom only a few summers earlier in the company of George and Bones, was forever lost.

For many years after, I kept a quote on my desk, positioned so that I alone could read it. I’d seen it in a magazine article during those gloomy months spent in the ominous shadow of Ray’s Machiavellian ways. The quote was attributed to an individual trying to recall the days before he was paranoid. It read:

I’m constantly filled with rage and insecurity. I consider them the twin towers of neurotic success.

* * *

Neurotic though it was, I went on to have a reasonably successful advertising career, doing business literally around the world and dealing with characters of widely divergent nationalities and cultures, many of whom were as colorful as the construction site bunch and others far more devious than Ray.

I think about them all now and then. And when I do, it’s my recollections of Bones and George and the rest of the boys of my collegiate summers that hold up particularly well. I knew who those guys were. I liked how they communicated. There was nothing remotely Machiavellian about it.

Occasionally now, I drive past one of the building complexes that were my summer construction jobs back in the ’60s. My eyes smart a bit, as I instinctively revisit the physical pain of that stupid arc burn. Then I invariably take a warp-speed ride through the mental hyperspace of the 40 years since, and the psychological pain of being burned by the likes of Ray. The memories of my summers with the boys stand up well to the comparison. In their own strange way, those summer days kept me grounded through the circuitous journey of my paranoia and neurotic success.




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