Part 4 of a 6 part serial from Lou Aronica and The Story Plant.
At The Creative Shop, April Fool’s Day is right up there with Christmas. Everyone gets into the act. The receptionist routes calls to the wrong people (not the important calls, of course. In preparation for the event, Ron Isaacs sends out a memo to the entire staff the day before describing “business that cannot be screwed with”); someone always quits (sometimes several people if the efforts aren’t properly coordinated); someone deletes all the playlists and replaces them with Lawrence Welk and Liberace (this year we also got Johnny Mathis, which to some of us was okay); and at least one wall in the lobby is painted over, the images of Wolverine or the Tasmanian Devil replaced by a photograph of Richard Nixon. Even the accounts have gotten involved. Two years ago, Daz and I spent an entire morning scrambling to come up with a new pitch for the irate CEO of a hugely important client before getting a call from his secretary saying he was only kidding.
The feature event every year, though, is the April Fool’s Day party Daz throws in the designers’ bullpen outside his office. It has on occasion involved formal business attire (hence providing the only suit in Daz’s closet), plastic food (it’s amazing how much some of that stuff looks like the real thing), kegs of alcohol-free beer (which created an amusing variety of alcohol-free buzzes), and fire drills. There are always donuts, though Daz has steadfastly refused to explain why. And a cardboard cutout of some random guy is always propped up on one of the counters to preside over the proceedings with the man’s dour expression. Each party has a theme, though Daz won’t tell us what it is ahead of time and it is never easily discernible. I usually need to ask him about it at the end of the day, though on occasion someone has guessed. Even I got it right once, which made me inordinately proud. Though Steve Rupert volunteered to have the company pay for the party after the first one was such a huge success with the staff – this was, after all, exactly what management had in mind when creating the work environment – Daz has always insisted on footing the bill himself.
“Why should the Shop pay for it?” he said once when I asked him about it. “It was my idea.”
“Your ideas make the Shop a lot of money. If they volunteer, you should take them up on it.”
“Nah. Then it wouldn’t be my party anymore. And they’d probably want to get involved in the details.”
Daz was big on parties. In addition to this one, we probably threw a half-dozen of them a year at various levels of excess. The biggest of all was our birthday party, which could extend in one way or another for the entire six days separating our two birthdays. But Daz was capable of dropping a party on us at a moment’s notice, suddenly inviting twenty or thirty people to his place (or, if it were essential that the party involve video games, my place), buying a case of tequila and “letting things happen.” And he prided himself on his ability to “conceptualize” parties. Even the most casual ones had motifs. He’s never confirmed this for me, but I’m guessing he had matching paper plates, cups, tablecloths, and goody bags at his parties when he was a kid.
This year, Daz ordered prodigious amounts of Chinese food, decorated the bullpen with air fresheners, provided a soundtrack made up exclusively of one-hit wonders, and gave us T-shirts to wear featuring various cast members from “Undeclared,” the Judd Apatow TV show that Daz loved and whose one truncated season he still watches regularly on DVD.
I came out of my office about twenty minutes before the party started to survey the backdrop. Daz had just put the Dour Man on top of a bank of filing cabinets.
The guy looked especially unpleasant to me this year, though I was fairly sure the cutout was the same one Daz always used. I had no idea why Daz was so fascinated with the Dour Man. With the food and drink table just below, he would peer over all of us throughout the day. I always thought it was a little creepy, but the one time I said this to Daz, he gave me an unusually clipped response. The kind that said I should just leave it a mystery.
“You’ve figured it out already,” he said when he saw me.
I shook my head, smiling. It tickled me that he got so caught up in this stuff – which of course meant that I got all caught up in it as well. “I’m gonna need a little more time.”
He walked over and handed me a T-shirt. “Got it now?”
I held the shirt in my hands and examined it, then glanced around the room again. “Not a clue.”
He laughed and walked away. “And I was being ridiculously obvious this year.”
This humbled me. I wondered if Daz somehow thought less of me because I was so ineffective at decoding his themes. I put the shirt on and went back to my office, determined to come out a half hour later with the answer. In spite of my best efforts, though, I failed.
Not long after, the party was in full swing. This was the kind of event that people showed up early for. Of course, anything that got you out of work was a draw. But with Daz’s parties, “fashionably late” often meant showing up on time. Even for The Shop, this was an opportunity to cut loose. Everyone got just a little bit louder, a little bit crazier, a little bit less inhibited.
About an hour into the festivities, Daz danced with Carl from the mailroom to “Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba, and Michelle sidled over to me. She carried two beers (alcoholic this year, as far as I could tell) and handed one to me. Michelle was the most beautiful light-haired woman I ever met in person. Where Carnie’s beauty drew you into its depths, Michelle’s emanated. She truly did brighten a room when she entered it. Since Michelle was the main media buyer on my team, we worked closely on a daily basis. That she and Carnie were both in my orbit was one of the true fringe benefits of working at The Creative Shop.
“Did you get any of the XO chicken?” she said. “It was great.”
“No, I haven’t made it as far as the food yet.”
She nodded in the direction of the Dour Man. “Want me to get you some?”
This question somehow made me a little uncomfortable. “No, thanks, really. I’ll get there eventually.” I glanced out at the dance floor. “Hey, if Daz plays ‘Sexy and I Know It,’ you and I are going out there.”
She smiled. “You’re on.” Her body swayed slightly to the rhythm of the music. “Figured out the theme yet?”
“No, not yet,” I said, genuinely chagrined. “I’m working on it. I’m determined to get it this year without begging the answer out of Daz.”
Michelle laughed to herself and said, “Maybe there isn’t one this year. It would be just like Daz to have us all racking our brains and then say, ‘April Fool’s.’”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I said, surprised. “Now I’m kinda wondering why Daz hadn’t thought of that before.”
“Maybe he has. Maybe he’s fooled us all into thinking there were themes to his other parties when there really weren’t.”
I glanced over at Daz, who was getting “knocked down / but I get up again” in ridiculous ways with Carl. “I don’t think so. Daz is a clever guy but he’s not that clever. And he’d never be able to keep it from me. I’d know.”
“Yeah, I guess you would.”
Michelle’s movements intensified. I wondered if she wanted me to ask her to dance. We’d done so several times at clubs, and I always liked dancing with her. She was nearly as graceful as she was gorgeous. I was about to say something when she leaned toward me and said, “Listen, I was wondering if you and I could maybe go out for a drink sometime. There’s some stuff I want to talk to you about.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, a little thrown off by the request.
She laughed. “You just got a really funny expression on your face. It’s nothing major; just some things I don’t want to talk about in the office.”
I tried to adjust my posture to seem more casual. “I get it. This isn’t always the best environment for a conversation.”
I immediately chastised myself for saying something so officious. I thought about suggesting we retreat to a quieter corner, but that would be difficult to find today. Throw a client into this room and everyone here would revert instantly into top-flight professionals. With no clients around, though, it was part bacchanal and part playground.
Just then, Gibb, who insisted on staying at his desk even though the party was practically swirling around him, came up to me. “Rich, you have a call. The guy seemed pretty insistent.”
Obviously someone who didn’t know about this Shop ritual. “Okay, thanks, I’ll be right there.”
I looked at Michelle, who seemed to be watching the exploits of her colleagues with a bit of remove. She was definitely thinking about something. I touched her on the arm. “You okay?”
She turned and smiled at me. I didn’t take my hand from her arm right away. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You looked like you were somewhere else.”
“Nope, right here. I was just thinking about whether I should go out on the dance floor.”
She really didn’t look like she was in the mood for dancing anymore. “We can have that drink anytime you want.”
She nodded. “Thanks. We’ll set something up later. Go take your phone call.”
I went back to the office and picked up the phone. It was only then that I realized Gibb hadn’t told me who was on the line.
“Hello?” I said tentatively.
“Rich, this is Noel Keane from Kander and Craft.” Kander and Craft was the fifth largest ad agency in the country. “Do you have a few minutes?”
I snapped instantly out of party mode. “Sure.”
“How are things going for you over there?” Keane had an Australian accent, though it sounded like one processed by numerous years in New York.
“Great,” I said, settling into my chair. “Never better, really.”
“That’s good to hear, even if it might make this call pointless. I was hoping we could get together for lunch sometime soon.”
I excused myself for a second to close the door, which also allowed me another moment or so to get my bearings. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?”
“I’d like to get together with you if possible. Something has come up in our downtown office that might be of interest to you.”
I was a little stunned that Kander and Craft was calling for me. I hadn’t expected to show up on their radar screen for another couple of years. That’s when it dawned on me that this could be a joke. After all, the Australian accent did seem a little put on.
“Listen, why don’t you call me on April second and we’ll see if it’s still interesting then.”
“Excuse me?” The way Keane said that left little reason for me to believe that he was kidding. I felt like a moron.
“You were serious about that, weren’t you?”
“Is this a bad time to call?” he said, with just enough of an inflection to make it clear that people never considered it to be a bad time to get a call from him.
“No, no, I’m sorry. Lunch would be great. I’d love to hear what’s going on with your firm. Just tell me when you want to do it.”
“I happen to be free tomorrow if that works for you,” he said quickly.
Tomorrow? I looked down at my calendar. I had a client lunch that I could definitely reschedule. “Yeah, I can make that work.”
“Good. Is DB at one o’clock okay with you?”
DB Bistro Moderne. The man knew a little something about recruiting. “That sounds good to me. Is there anything you want me to bring along?”
“Just bring yourself,” Keane said with a little chuckle I couldn’t quite interpret. “That’s all that matters.”
“I’ll do that. Thanks for calling.”
“I look forward to meeting you, Rich. I’m sure we’ll have a nice lunch.”
After we hung up, I sat at my desk behind my closed office door for a short while before returning to the party. I felt kinetic and riveted to my chair at the same time. I’d never been approached like this before, though we certainly had some people come after us when we put ourselves on the market before joining The Shop. I had to admit that I liked the way it felt. This must have been what it was like for Michelle to enter a bar. Even if nothing came of this – and it was hard to believe that anything would – it was kinda sexy.
I decided to check out Noel Keane on the web. I was shocked to discover that he was the Executive Vice President, Global Operations at Kander and Craft. He was the guy who made the firm run – the entire firm, all twelve offices worldwide. And he was coming after me. He must have a kid who loved BlisterSnax.
If you were serious about a career in advertising, you had to have at least a little bit of interest in Kander and Craft. They weren’t the largest firm in the field, but they were perhaps the most visible. Their ads had a discernible crispness to them, and they always scored big at awards time. The odds were good that if you remembered an ad you saw on TV last night, it was done by K&C. They were the gold standard. And they wanted to talk to me about something happening in their downtown office.
My head spinning with this new piece of information, I eventually opened my door and headed out. Daz was standing only fifteen feet or so away, and when I came out of my office, he walked over to me.
“Everything all right?”
I smiled and looked over at the Dour Man. “Yeah, I’m fine, why?”
“The closed door thing and the Invasion of the Body Snatchers thing happening in your eyes right now.”
I shook my head briskly. “Nothing. Stupid client tricks.”
I made the decision in that moment not to mention the call to Daz, though keeping a secret from him felt very strange. I guess I didn’t want him to think that I even considered breaking up the act – especially since I had no intention of doing so. It was just so much easier to avoid the whole topic rather than worry him about something he had no need to worry about.
“I thought you had all of our clients trained to provide a hassle-free environment during parties.”
I shrugged. “Me too. Guess I need to crack the whip a little harder, huh?” I realized I left the beer Michelle gave me in my office and thought about going back to retrieve it.
“You missed the Macarena,” Daz said.
“There’s something that’ll keep me up nights.”
“You missed Michelle dancing the Macarena. That’s something you should regret for the rest of your life.”
I nodded sadly and then looked around. “Good party this year. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Although given the day, they could just be pretending to be enjoying themselves.”
“Nah, you can tell the difference. People don’t spontaneously start a kick line when they’re faking it.”
“Yeah, good point.” Just then, Chess came over and handed me a bottle.
“You look like you need a drink,” he said.
Was that because I didn’t have one or because I still looked dazed from my conversation with Keane?
“Thanks,” I said, clinking bottles with him and taking a long drink. I turned to Daz. “All right, I give up. What’s the theme?”
“You really can’t figure it out?”
“Tried and fell flat on my face. I really, really tried. You beat me again.”
He patted me on the shoulder to let me know he wouldn’t hold this against me. “Think about it. Chinese food. One-hit wonders.” He pointed to his T-shirt. “This great show.”
“I don’t know, stuff that you like way more than most people do?”
“Things that don’t last!” he said definitively.
“Chinese food doesn’t last? It’s been around as long as the Chinese have.”
“But an hour later you feel hungry again.”
I shook my head in mock disapproval of the mildly racist comment that I knew held no trace of racism coming from Daz. “I should’ve seen that coming.”
He smiled, obviously proud of himself, and then put a hand on my shoulder. “Come on; let’s get back into the fray. If you’re really lucky, I’ll put on ‘99 Luftballoons.’”
Daz bopped off into the crowd and I followed behind him. As I did, I looked at the faces of my colleagues, several of whom I’d known for six years and many of whom I genuinely liked. How could any place be better to work than this? The Creative Shop had gotten under my skin, become part of me, provided me with a safe harbor. There was no way I would leave this place until Daz and I were totally ready to strike out on our own.
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