Alex Mathews

Alex Mathews – writer, bared naked dude blah blah blah

Junk: A Memoir – Chapter 1

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Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you.

Forget the dead you left, they will not follow you.

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door

Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.

Strike another match, go start anew.

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

—Bob Dylan

“Scotch, no ice.”

This had been my mating call for the last few hours. I had walked uptown along Third Avenue beginning at Thirty-third Street, vowing to stop in every Irish pub along the way. You know the ones. They all have those green marquees with similar names like Blarney Stone, Blarney Star, or Blarney such and such. Each one guarantees prompt pouring by a red-haired lad named Sean or Seamus or some such. They usually don black trousers and a white cotton jacket bearing a nameplate below an embroidered green logo of the bar, much like the staff of a finer hotel. They dress a bit too smartly to serve drinks to the dregs of Manhattan’s midtown workers at any and all hours of the day or night.

More appealing than the dimly lit interiors and the upstanding staff, the smells emanating from these dank pubs are something one cannot eliminate from memory. Any customer entering one is immediately assaulted by the stench of stale smoke and booze, the aroma of sauerkraut mixed with rotting corned beef wafting from stainless steel service trays, along with the pervading fragrance of latrine cakes marinating in urine. These franchises litter the avenues and streets of New York, offering respite to all walks of urban life. My new friend Sean or Seamus nodded in response to my call as he reached below the bar for the Scotch, while grabbing a lowball with his other hand. He laid a cocktail napkin on the bar in front of me as I began to feel like I was finally acclimating myself to the smell of the place. Then came the drink. Before Seamus had any chance to utter a word, I drained the contents of my lowball, stood up from my barstool, tossed a five dollar bill onto the bar, uttered a thank you, grabbed my overcoat, and headed for the door. This was the third or fourth such place I had stopped into for a drink that afternoon, and if I wanted to make it farther uptown, I would have to pace myself.

For the record, I am not an alcoholic—at least not in the conventional sense. I feel it’s necessary to interject this. I don’t even like to drink, really. Sure, I’ve experienced my fair share of drunkenness in my day. I liked it at first, but after a few nights face down on the bathroom floor, where the cold tile is the only comfort to ease the nausea and vertigo, I decided long ago that drinking to excess is not the best route to go when seeking escape. I smoke a lot of pot. In this specific excursion, I was drinking for the sheer novelty of it. Since I am not an alcoholic, I can drink excessively and at odd times without having to worry that it’s some kind of problem. At this particular time, drinking with abandon seemed to contribute to my sense of misadventure. I was merely celebrating my newly acquired unemployment.

It was not my finest hour. I had left the studios at Marbury, Irving & Davis Advertising, Inc. at two ‘o clock that afternoon. The studio manager, Ronald Mooreland, had asked to speak with me when I arrived at eleven-thirty to begin my shift. I began to tend to my daily tasks of mounting endless quantities of magazine ads torn out of fashion magazines onto thick cardboard stock. Each ad had to be trimmed neatly and piled up for the account executives to pick up by the time specified on the job order. The idea behind this, it seemed to me, was so the higher-ups could review what the other agencies were dreaming up to peddle mascara, lipstick, shampoo, soft drinks, and sometimes diapers or cold remedies. I felt that it was a nice way to keep all the unnecessary employees at a large advertising agency working – generating billable hours and charging their heavily endowed clients for these materials and services. It was not uncommon for a girl to come down from her office with a pile of a hundred magazine ads ripped from the pages of Cosmo, Vogue, Seventeen or whatever drivel those women read, demanding that Mr. So and So needed these mounted ASAP for a very important client meeting.

Most of the guys I worked with in the studio were more than happy to oblige these girls just to get a smile from them, always entertaining the outside chance of getting laid. At least that was their thinking. Flirting with these account chicks was a necessary element of studio protocol; although most of the girls’ facial expressions showed how ultimately appalled they were by the idea of fraternizing with meager studio artists. I looked at these women a bit differently than my fellows. They were generally fresh out of college, proud to have gained employment at a reputable agency in the world of advertising known as Madison Avenue. This instilled in them the notion that whatever they were doing was of the utmost importance. I frequently remarked on the outrageousness and absurdity of their job functions. Here were girls who actually got paid to sit on their lazy asses and thumb through their favorite fashion magazines between phone calls to their old sorority sisters who had moved from the comfort of Sigma Chi to various positions of influence at law firms, advertising agencies, publishing companies, and whatever other industries where their Daddies could secure them an entry level position. Moreover, I felt for the clients who were footing the bill.

Since I wasn’t shy about expressing my surprise and indignation about the excesses that is modern advertising, it was really no wonder that Ronald’s request to meet that day was to shit-can me. I had finished mounting a Photostat of a thirty-second television spot with frames drawn by what seemed to be the hand of a six year old child (billed to the client at a hundred dollars per frame) when he asked me if I had a moment. We stepped into the seclusion of the dry racks where wet Photostats hung before they were to be heat mounted to Styrofoam.

“I gotta let you go,” he said, his eyes dropping to the floor as he spoke.

“Okay–” I said, attempting to mask my surprise and disappointment.

“The studio has been slow lately, and the account guys are asking me to cut back on our overhead,” Ronald prattled, his eyes still surveying the gray rubber tile of the studio floor.

I began to feel bad for this guy. I could tell he didn’t want to be firing me. At the same time I began to feel the anxiety of my own reality. The sting of my thoughts began in my legs and briskly traveled up into my chest, as I quickly reviewed my financial situation. I had sixty dollars in my pocket, maybe five hundred in the old checking account. The agency owed me about two thousand dollars. It was the beginning of the month, so my rent of a thousand dollars was already paid. I had a healthy bag of pot at home—at least two days’ worth. For the moment, I had money to burn. I thanked Ronald for the memories, and began to walk towards the studio. He went the other direction with some apparent destination in mind – probably anywhere but where I was going, so his gait was confident and quick. I walked in to my cubicle—one I shared with the other freelance mount boys (an honorable title indeed).

There had to be some reason other than the one given by Mr. Mooreland for my disposal. After all, I was passionately vociferous about how the work that came through the studio was completely ridiculous, and I was first to complain when the workload was too heavy from the demands of the extremely productive account girls in search of the ultimate magazine ad. In addition to my constant harping on the business, I was also known to have perhaps the best work ethic on the entire fourteenth floor. I arrived promptly at eleven or eleven-thirty, and left normally at six or seven, taking a long lunch from two to three-thirty every other day so I could ride the six train uptown to buy a bag of pot in Spanish Harlem. There was a Jamaican record store that sold it over the counter. I would always burn a bowl before getting back on the subway to head back to the office. Despite all that, I never failed to account for eight billable hours, all charged to various clients that purveyed make-up, soda, liquor, aspirin or soap.

I was a freelancer, not bound by the stringent requirements of a regular employee. I used that as the rationale for the freedom I took to come and go as I pleased. Many times we would have to stay into the wee hours of the night to mount the garbage that came down from the latest creative director whose genius was purchased at a premium to save the latest campaign from ruin. This was billed at double or triple the regular rate, and the boys in the studio loved it when the call came from upstairs that we needed a team to stay late. At least two or three days a week, we would work until two or three in the morning. Since such events were commonplace, I felt quite justified in arriving at mid-morning. I was the self-appointed swingman, although in retrospect it might have been good to discuss that with Ronald at some point during my employ.

Then of course, there was the creative billing system I had developed for myself. I was hired as a freelance artist to be paid at a modest hourly rate, billed by the job to the client for whom the work was ordered. After a year of diligent accounting and invoicing, I decided that just wasn’t sufficient. I deserved more. Since the senior folks in the studio could bill exorbitant fees based on the studio’s extravagant price sheet, and after seeing how much latitude they exercised with their billing, I decided I was entitled to the same privilege. Who would have known that cutting and pasting could be so lucrative? I gathered the accounting guy had finally caught on. Still, Ronald hadn’t actually said anything about any of my misconduct, so I could keep some portion of my dignity when it came to explaining to my friends and family what had happened to my great job in advertising.

My fellow workers were surprised and concerned, but by this time I was not interested in accepting sympathy. Pride would not permit me to seem vulnerable or in any way affected by this recent turn of events. I liked all of the people in the studio. I would miss them. I told them all as much. I needed them to know I didn’t care about losing my job. Although it was a lie, I needed to appear in control. My primary concern was to say a cool goodbye and get my ass out of the building as quickly as possible. After all, the Blarneys were calling.

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