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Mister Cokehead, Media Recruiter


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I made a new friend via e-mail a couple of weeks back. He runs a tiny advertising-temp agency and has a most pleasing electro-epistolary manner. So much so that when he shot me a note last week proposing I come in and meet him, I wrote back, “Dude!…”

I’d already Googled Dude’s unusual, double-barrelled name and discovered he was an occasional road-race athlete, with 10k times resembling my own. Except he was male, a bit younger, and not taking his racing seriously.

Hey! We would get along like thieves afire. Thick as houses!

So I get to his Murray Hill warren at 2 pm today. He’s not as handsome and dashing as I’d imagined, but he immediately greets me by name and I greet him back.

Then everything falls apart. He thinks he sent me “paperwork” for me to fill out. I don’t know what he’s talking about. He has his colored girl print out a new set and then he mixes it up with somebody else’s references.

He asks me if I have a portfolio. Well I do have a Prat case that I bought in 1988 and toted around to Art Directors for a few months when I thought I was going to be an editorial illustrator…but I certainly do not tote it around now. Not in this century. I do have a pile of junk–ads, cartoons, layouts, logos, corporate identity, Flash banners–displayed in a website, but it’s not something I spend a lot of time on.

[I know all about Portfolios. I got wise to them back in the 1980s. They were (and are) a strange obsession of commercial-art colleges. An example of anal-retentive typography on this page, a highly derivative ad treatment on that page (four-word hed in Futura Bold, powerful b/w image)…a little bit of everything…and that fourteen-dollar-an-hour job (1989 dollars) is right around the corner. Or so the career counselor at The Art Center/School of Visual Arts/Parsons was advising the kids. I loved graphic design and the occasional classes I took at the School of Visual Arts in the 1980s, so it took me a long time to accept the hard fact that graphic designers are a very dim breed. I started to figure this out at The San Diego Reader, where we had a designer who couldn’t read more than ten words of an article without moving his lips, and that took too much effort, so generally he gave up around word eleven, and picked whatever graphic or illustration suited his grasshopper whim, however inappropriate it was to the article he was laying out. He’d have an article on some grand-opera production going on in San Diego, and because he very much liked the old photograph of Dame Nellie Melba in 1920, he’d use that as the main design element for the layout, which turned out to be a cover story. Only trouble is, all the references to Melba’s visit to San Diego in 1920 got axed early in the edit process, so the design motifs made so sense whatsoever. Later on when I was at Salomon Smith Barney we had a very talented and charming designer who was very good at putting a green square next to a pink triangle but quite out of his element with anything involving the real world. Once he came to me with an outline map of Oceania and asked me which island (New Guinea or Australia) was the one that had Sydney. But I digress…]

Bad to worse. I’m at the temp agency, showing my poor excuse of an online portfolio. Now, I am pretty good at Flash. Timeline, code, you name it. I show Mister Double-Barrelled some Flash pieces on my portfolio. One of them is a complicated device that displays Flash banners as though they were on a TV. The whole point is that I created the coding behind this device, but he is focused completely on the low-resolution content I use as examples. He thinks the content shown on the device is what I’m showing off, not the device itself. He talks a mile a minute, bobbing his head up and down, looking from side to side.

I try to explain, as I point to the display on his big-screen iMac. He asks me to repeat. He doesn’t understand me. My diction isn’t bad, he just wants me to face him as I explain. The guy is either drugged out or half-deaf and needs to read my lips.

He natters on, like somebody smoking a midnight eight-ball. Slurs his words. Starts a sentence, then kills it for whatever happens to be the latest and newest idea in his drug-fueled grasshopper brain…says something completely unrelated, keeps interrupting me, then asks me to repeat and clarify myself and talks over me.

Fucking madman.

He asks another question, I try to answer in detail. Then he hurries me along. Finishes my sentences, finishes them wrong. Not a clue, no idea what I’m saying, doesn’t know or care. He listens for buzzwords coming out of my mouth, hoping that one of them will connect with something he thinks he knows about.

Scary. How soon do I get to leave?

This is the most unexpected and offputting encounter I have ever had with an employment recruiter. It’s not just his abrasiveness and herky-jerky manner, which might simply reflect a brain with to much Red Bull or coke. And I am too much of a libertarian to find fault with those indulgences.

No, his presentation suggests a much deeper problem: a lack of professional experience in any field other than temporary job-placement. For years he’s taken phone calls from secretaries and HR halfwits who relay their temp needs, he shouts back to them what he thinks they want–"you want a photo retoucher who knows type fonts? Photoshop? Someone expert with masks and channels? You don’t know? Does it matter? How high can you go? Minimum billing I can do is $45 an hour"–and either there’s a sale or there isn’t; then he does this again and again, all day, year-in-year-out. He doesn’t know what he’s selling and neither does the halfwit at the other end, but they both know a little lingo about graphic software. A meeting of the minds.

If it sounds like a hellish way to earn a living, consider that once you’ve been doing job-placement for a little while, you can’t do anything else. You’ve been selling canned goods over the telephone, basically, and you don’t have the skills for anything else, at least not anything that pays well. Moreover you’ve acquired a gimlet-eyed contempt for your merchandise and clients, and the idea of somehow joining them in the trenches is unthinkable.

***

It all reminds me of a similar shoestring operation I hooked up with soon after getting out of college. I wanted some paying work right away, so I went to a temp agency that advertised with big classified ads in the New York Times. I kept noticing this place that said it had plenty of jobs with a Major Television Network. The firm had a grandiose title, something like “Madison Avenue Agency for Advertising Communications.” There was a cardboard sign on the door and no indication of prosperity within–a bare office with a spindly pockmarked fellow named Clifford Scott and his colored receptionist. Clifford was nice when you first met him. Terribly friendly, terribly eager to meet the new talent. His slipshod charm made you overlook his frayed collar and dirty nails.

I asked him about the jobs in TV, and after some hesitation he told the Major Television Network was TelePrompter. TelePrompter, in addition to making cueing devices, once owned a few cable tv stations, though no one mistook it for a Major Television Network. This was a while ago. How far back? Let’s say 1979.

Anyway I did not get a job in television. But Clifford placed me immediately, that very afternoon. I was sent up to 53rd Street to answer telephones on the third floor of the Museum of Modern Art. I was very pleased with my good luck. I observed the lady who was VP of Public Development (whatever that might be) and with what bonhomie she greeted her coworkers as she sashayed about in her nubby raw-silk multicolored jacket, and thought to myself: “Hah, in a year or so, I’ll be giving orders to some functionary like that, and wearing an even finer raw-silk jacket.”

They didn’t need me to answer the phones at MOMA the next day, so a day or two later Clifford sent me to Foote Cone and Belding, an ad agency on Floor 42 of the Pan Am building. FCB had a very strange work schedule, at least for their temps. Nine to five, but you were required to subtract exactly 75 minutes for your lunch break (which had to be between 12:15 and 2:00), so that your daily billable hours would equal exactly 6.75 hours. You see, they wanted you to have a full lunch hour and have enough time to get up and down the elevators, but they didn’t want to pay you for all that travel time.

I typed one or two memos and otherwise spent the day reading the Sunday NYTimes Magazine and doing the crossword.

I was one of two temp typists. The other was a fat sulky Jewish girl named Robyn Fineman, who spent the day ostentatiously reading the Hunter College course catalog. I tried to joke with her once or twice. I got nowhere. She was fat, she was Jewish, she had issues. She was crushed with shame to be working in such a menial position. Actually she was borderline mentally ill and lucky to have a job at all, but let’s not get stuck on Robyn… Bad moods prevailed in the whole department. One of the account executives I worked for was a fat and thoroughly nasty shrew by the name of Helene Lo Grasso. When she gave me a scrawled page to type, she tossed it on my Selectric (as hard as you can toss a sheet of paper). One sentence was totally undeciperable, so I went into her office where she was bullshitting with a coworker. “Oh what is it NOW?” she yelled in her working-class Staten Island honk, following it up with assorted expletives and insults. In lofty tones I informed her that I couldn’t understand her writing and she had no grasp of punctuation.

Did I mention this was a one-day assignment? Initially I understood it to be longer, but something didn’t quite work out. Clifford never gave me direct feedback. Neither did he send me back to FCB, or anywhere else.

I decided that Helene Lo Grasso was to blame. But I knew how to find her. Before leaving, I had slipped the Foote Cone & Belding directory into my Whitney Museum of Modern Art tote bag. And for years afterwards I would send Helene Lo Grasso padded envelopes containing dogshit and roadkill (after first ascertaining that she still worked in the place).

Trite and childish, I know…but why be more inventive? This fat pig didn’t warrant imagination.

I kept following up on Clifford Scott, too, checking the classifieds to see if his enterprise was still in business. It finally folded around 1984. A year or two before that I dropped in to say hello. The agency seemed even smaller and rattier than before. So did Clifford. I told him I had a very good job but hated it, and wanted to go back to temping, preferably in advertising. He pretended to remember me, but obviously couldn’t, though he seemed to be thinking back very hard, and I imagined that the confused expression on his face suggested a faint memory of a bad smell.

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