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The International Writers Magazine:Life Stories: MadMen in San Francisco

Coming of Age in San Francisco   
Martin Green


It was ten o’clock on a July weekday in San Francisco.   Outside, the typical fog still hung over the city.  In his small office, Paul Lerner was preparing a report on the latest monthly West Coast beer sales.   The largest client of the advertising agency for which he worked was a local brewer.   Their client’s sales were down slightly from the same month last year, something the beer company’s president, Oscar Fiegelman, wasn’t going to like.   As it happened, a meeting with Fiegelman was going on right now in the agency’s conference room.

Paul’s phone rang.  It was his boss, the Research Director, Bob Prosser.
“Paul, bring the latest sales figures to the conference room, please.”
“I haven’t finished my report yet.”
“That’s all right.  Bring whatever you have.”   Bob’s voice sounded urgent.
 
When Paul opened the conference room door, a hoarse voice was saying, “All that money I’m spending and we’re still only third in California.   Shit, maybe I’d be better off finding some other agency.”  
The speaker was a short, frog-like man at the head of the table who Paul knew was Oscar Fiegelman.
“But we do have a larger share of market and I’m sure our new campaign will …”

This speaker was Steve Selig, the ad agency’s head, a handsome man in his forties, who normally looked like a matinee star but who was now pale and sweating.
“The new campaign stinks,” interrupted Fiegelman.
Paul went over to where Bob Prosser was sitting, at the foot of the table, and gave him the report.
“Who the hell is that?” growled Fiegelman.
“This is Paul Lerner, our new research assistant.   He’s from New York.”
“Hah!” said Fiegelman, indicating he wasn’t impressed.  
 
Paul briefly wondered what the Colonel, his mentor while in the Army (he’d been drafted during Korea), would have made of Fiegelman.   He thought he knew: a bully who liked to use his power to cow people.  He deliberately smiled and said, “It’s nice to meet you, sir,.” 
Then he turned and quickly left.   One of the Colonel axioms was to keep  the enemy off balance.
 
Although he’d been introduced as the new research assistant, Paul had been with the agency for six months.    One of the reasons he’d left New York City for San Francisco, after two years in a much larger ad agency, was that he’d wanted to get out of the industry.    In that agency it had been a cigarette company which rumors had said might depart.   He’d hated the current of fear that ran through all ad agencies, fear of a client leaving.   But in San Francisco, although a research firm had shown some interest in him, only this agency had offered him a job.   He’d known that the beer company was by far its largest client, but he hadn’t known that the company president was a tyrant.    So now he was in a worse situation than before.   If the cigarette maker had left, the New York agency would have had to cut back but it would have survived.   If the brewer left, as Fiegelman had just threatened, his current agency would undoubtedly go under   
 
On his way back to his office, he stopped at the desk of Mara Kovaks, the research department’s secretary and all-purpose assistant.  
“How was the meeting going?” she asked.  
 “Not too good.”   Paul told her about Fiegelman’s threat.
  “Poor Bob. That man should be taken out and shot.”  
Mara was a woman in her forties, dark, attractive and tremendously competent.   She and her husband had come to the States from Yugoslavia several years ago.   Paul knew she’d been some kind of company executive there and her husband, who now drove a delivery truck, had been an engineer. 
  “Here, let me get you a cup of coffee.”   This was the 1950’s and women did not yet consider getting coffee for men to be demeaning.   
  “Has it always been so bad?”  Paul asked.
  “Not always.   Fiegelman senior died last year;  since his son Oscar took over it hasn’t been good.”
 
They talked a little more, then Bob came in.   Both Paul and Mara looked at him questioningly. 
  “Fiegelman wants more data,” Bob said.   “We’ll probably be working late nights.   Is that okay with you guys?”
 They said it was.   Paul remembered that when the cigarette company in New York was rumored to be leaving they had to work late nights.   Some things didn’t change.
 

It was a Friday evening. Paul had once again worked late, had a quick bite to eat, then had come to this party, which was in a large apartment on Pacific Heights with a view of the Bay.   He’d been told of the party by Bill Morrow, a media buyer at his agency, also a New Yorker, with whom he had a casual friendship; they sometimes played tennis in Golden Gate Park on weekends.   When he’d arrived at the party, Paul had talked a little with Bill about the agency.   Bill had told him not to worry too much about the beer account leaving. 
  “He enjoys terrifying the agency execs too much;  Selig’s scared to death of him.   Besides, I don’t know if any of the other agencies in town would take him.   His reputation has spread around.”  
Bill had then seen a girl he knew and had gone over to speak with her.
 
Paul had been at the party for about two hours now.   There were a few attractive girls but they were all surrounded by other guys.   Besides, remembering the disastrous outcome of his relationship with a girl in New York, who’d assumed that he’d wanted to marry her after they’d spent one night together, he was in no hurry to start anything.   He was tired from his nights of working overtime and was ready to go home when he saw a girl by herself looking out the window at the lights on the Golden Gate Bridge.   She wasn’t bad-looking, he thought, and started walk in her direction.   He was only a few feet away and she must have sensed his approach because she turned and he saw she had a large port wine birthmark on her right cheek.   It was too late to retreat so he introduced himself to her and learned her name was Caroline, that she was from the Midwest and that she worked in a bank downtown.
 
When she found out he worked in an ad agency she asked him a lot of questions about it and said she’d always thought it was a glamorous business, unlike, say, banking.   Paul laughed and said it wasn’t so glamorous.   He told her about the agency’s problems with its beer account, trying to make it sound more humorous than he really thought it was. 
  “Oh,” she said.   “Then why does anyone put up with it?”
 Paul tried to explain the nature of the advertising world, how every agency, even the big ones, was deathly afraid of losing a major account.   He realized that he was talking a lot and that it was because Caroline was easy to talk to.   It was time to leave, he thought.   He looked at his watch, then said, “Uh, you’ll have to excuse me.   I have to talk to someone over there.”  
He found Bill and they made a date to play tennis on Sunday.   Paul was on his way out when he thought, What the hell!   He turned around and went back to Caroline, who was still standing alone by the window, got her phone number and said he’d call her.
 
;
The conference room was filled to capacity.   The agency was presenting its revised campaign to Fiegelman, who, as before, sat at the head of the table, looking more frog-like as ever in what seemed to be a green suit.   Bob Prosser was again seated at the foot of the table.   The others included account executives and copywriters.   Tom Selig, the agency head, was himself making the presentation, standing at an easel with a pointer.   Paul was seated alongside the wall.   This was the first time he’d attended this kind of meeting.   Bob had told him he might be needed if Fiegelman had questions about the details of the marketing data they’d be reviewing.    Paul remembered the Colonel’s admonition.   Listen and observe.   Don’t commit yourself.   Hold your fire..  
 
The new campaign focused on their client’s being a local company; it’s slogan was “A California Beer for Californians.”    Paul thought the ads put up were pretty good.   The latest ad featured a blonde model in a bikini offering a bottle of beer to a tanned, muscular young man with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.   Fiegelman interrupted.
   “I’d like to meet that blonde,” he said, then cackled.  
The two minions seated on either side of him obediently cackled also.
  “That can be arranged,” said Selig.  

He put up the next ad.   Paul could see that he was sweating.   After the last ad, Selig said, “Now we have some interesting market data.   We think we’ve found a new demographic for your product.”   He looked at Bob, who stood, put a large graph up on the easel and began to discourse on facts and figures.    He was just getting into his presentation when Fiegelman croaked out. “I don’t give a shit about demographics and all that crap.   Let me meet that blonde and I might consider the campaign.   Go on, sit down.   And you might do something useful.   How about getting me some coffee?”
 
Bob went to the phone at the end of the room and made a call.   In a few minutes, Mara came in with a cup of coffee, which she placed in front of Fiegelman.   He took a sip.
“This takes like piss.   Who the hell made it?”
“I did,”  said Mara.
“Then I want you fired.”   He glared at Selig.   “Fire this bitch right now or I pull the plug,” he said.      .
Selig started to say something but Paul had already stood up.
“Actually, I made that coffee, this morning when I came in.   And you don’t have to fire me.   I quit.” 
There was a time when you couldn’t hold your fire any longer.   With everyone staring at him. he left the room.
 

Paul stood looking out over the Pacific Ocean.   After leaving the meeting, he’d walked back to his apartment, taken his car and driven out to the spot where tourists usually went, by the Cliff House where you could sometimes see and hear the seals on the rocks.   The morning fog had burnt off and the sun glistened on the waves rolling in.   He recalled that not too long ago he’d been standing like this on the deck of a troopship coming back from Europe, looking at the Atlantic Ocean and wondering what was in store for him.   He could never have imagined that he’d now be here 3,000 miles away.
 
Well, he’d done it.   It was, contrary to the Colonel’s philosophy, not exactly a well-thought out move, quitting like that.   Still, it had felt good, and it still felt good.   Somehow, although he’d left his home, his parents, had his own place, his own life, until now he hadn’t felt like a real adult.   Everything depended on a job that he’d known he couldn’t stay in.   By leaving it, maybe he’d come of age.
 
Of course, his quitting hadn’t been an entirely spontaneous action.   The Colonel had always said to leave a line of retreat open, and he’d talked to the research firm that had shown some interest in him when he arrived in San Francisco and found out they had an opening.   Also, there were two or three other possibilities, with local companies, not ad agencies.   Advertising was something he was never going back to.   He suddenly felt hungry.   There was a coffee shop in the amusement park that was then on the other side of the highway by the ocean.   He’d get a bite to eat, go back to his apartment,  call the research firm, then call Caroline.
© Martin Green May 2008
<mgreensuncity@yahoo.com

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