Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Mudskipper

At my best friend's wedding, I gave a speech that centered on cars and girls. Two things that have bonded us since we were 12. We've talked about both consistently over the years - not sports, not politics, not fashion, not work just cars and girls (now wives). He's got the better collection now but a long time ago, I was the one with the headstart.

Every teenager growing up in the Midwest dreams of one thing - a car. Not everyone cares about sports though most do. Dating in private is only possible with wheels. If you were unhappy at home as all teens are, long drives to nowhere were a great tonic. It was no different for me. The shame of my mother picking me up after school or practice grew by the day. I was the only student in my class not yet driving and I was without any friends who were willing to carpool out of their way. My life felt stunted.

In my home state, you could get a driver's permit six months before you were 16. The law was that you had to pass a written test and drive with passenger that have had their license for more than 2 years. Realizing I was rapidly approaching that age, seeking to drive with my parents - it was somehow concocted that having my own car would be better since I could practice without borrowing the family car. Practice was really just driving up and down the street and gradually within the confines of the neighborhood. No main streets, no stop lights and nothing over 25 miles per hour. So with great anticipation I awaited for the best Christmas present to come into my non-denominational life in February.

Unbeknownst to me, the idea wasn't hatched so as to help me learn how to drive in the relative safety of my own slow car. It was much more machevellian. My father wanted to spend nothing to buy a car, in fact he didn't want to even buy a car since it would inevitably include insurance, oil changes, part replacements, and all manners of repair of damage I would inflict on said machine. But an opportunistic colleague was relocating to a foreign country and wanted to get rid of his car. Maybe my father would take it off his hands for $800? That winter, Bob drove up our short driveway to officially hand over the car. It was a ten year old Honda Accord Coupe. Somehow, it was in superb shape for it's age. Best of all, the car only had 80,000 miles. It had literally been Bob's college car and he'd kept it all these years for sentimental value. It was the first car he bought with his own hard-earned money plus, he hadn't really driven it for the past half decade.

The Mudskipper was going to be a slow and obviously dated car. The temperature controls meant very little in extreme weather. Rain meant water in the car, wind meant more noise and the clutch was really an anvil. It had power steering, no power locks, no power windows, a stick shift, two doors and a hatchback. It was the color of wet riverbank sludge with two thin gold pinstripes on the side panels. The bumpers were a worn matte black plastic. The equally brown cloth upholstery just re-affirmed the seriousness of the color scheme. Still, it ran forever on a single tank of the cheapest gasoline, the lack of electrics meant nothing could go wrong .The stereo wasn't even top of the line when it was brand new, though it did come with 4 speakers. I came to like the old cassette player and the nuances of a manual radio dial. The sound was terrible but other than having no bass, Public Enemy was still frantic and angry.

My first task was getting the car into first gear. The first day was complete frustration and bone-jarring engine fits. Finally, I managed to start the car and not stall immediately when I released the clutch. Reverse gear took another day. On the third day I managed to drive out and then back into our driveway. Second gear came faster. I didn't get much beyond that for the next two months. Just driving out of my driveway, up the street, doing a three point U-turn, then back again repeatedly at 20 miles per hour was exhilarating enough.

Soon though, I was 16 and I started my adventures with the Mudskipper in earnest. It may have been short, brown, slow and ugly but it moved and that was all I needed. The prospect of wheels trumps all else. It didn't matter that the car wasn't a looker, or that it lacked every basic creature comfort, or that it was deliberately designed to go slow. I drove it to school and back every day. And tried to use my newfound fortune to ramp up my social life.

By chance, one of the prettier girls in my class needed a ride to a volunteer event one evening. She casually asked to carpool with me and I acted like I had done similar acts of kindness when I agreed. Her introduction to the Mudskipper was relatively tame. I picked her up from her place and we had idle chit chat. On the way back, she was more comfortable and her usual spritely self. She asked me to turn up the music - P.E., because I wanted to impress her. And the puny high pitched speakers wheezed like a grandmother lecturing little brats. Disappointing yet still interesting she remarked. Then she decided that I should drive faster to show her what the car could do. The next stoplight, we were lined up with a Mustang. She wanted to race him. I hesitated. She reached over, honked the horn, and gestured to the Mustang that we were racing. He quickly revved up his engine. I did mine. At green we both took off. As expected, the Mustang took off much faster. All the yelling and screaming didn't work though she ended up laughing furiously and we got a thrill just by being in that impromptu drag race. The Mudskipper may have been slow and tone-deaf but it still managed to make a pretty girl smile and laugh.

My first driving year with the Mudskipper, I made no upgrades or modifications and there was no damage small or large. There were no trips out of the city, and no adventures worth noting. It was a very reliable and economical high school car. At the end of that first year, as a reward for responsible driving and good grades, my parents traded in the Mudskipper for a brand new car. I believe the dealership gave us $1500 for it. A tidy profit. I never saw that car again.

Friday, January 21, 2011


I was fresh out of college and working in my first job. Well, my second job technically but we're splitting hairs here. For the purposes of my resume today, that second was my first. I was an account executive at the biggest ad agency in town, and I was in the group that generated the most revenue. So, in the eyes of the ad world and my relatives who cared, I was off to a good start.

The problem was I was the new guy on the team and I had the clients that generated the least amount of revenue. In terms of overall client rank, mine were at the bottom. Which meant that within this group, I was nobody. Though outside the group, I lived off the aura of said group, but everyone knew that I was the runt of the litter.

It came therefore almost as a decree from Zeus when I got the call. I was being tapped to work on our agency's largest account. And not only that I was still going to just report directly to my Group Account Director. And! I was going to be working on the client's most technologically advanced product. Praise to Mount Olympus, my chariot had come after all.

I was all of 22.

So I get to my first meeting with our clients. It was my boss, the Group Account Director, the client's Marketing Director and her Senior Brand Manager. There was also a technical manager there who started us off by explaining this new product. I thought it was relatively simple actually. But this was back in the 90's and tech was a foreign word still to most commoners.

I wanted to impress badly. I wanted to prove I belonged in that room. And as luck would have it, my previous first job (now forsworn but then acknowledged freely) had me working with this client's direct competition. It was not quite the same bells and whistles, but conceptually I had a very good grasp. Which meant I was going to open my mouth. I asked, I answered, I poked, I prodded, I espoused; just stopped short of proclaiming. I might have beamed a little. I was wise beyond my 22 years.

My boss had asked me to wait in the lobby while he finished some outstanding conversations with the marketing director. I think I had two cigarettes while waiting. It was a short car ride back.

We were walking in the office corridor. Past the receptionist, past the keycard entry door. Right after the door closed, he turned around to face me.

"So, I spoke to the clients after our meeting. Overall, they liked you, they thought you were smart and very enthusiastic"

I guess I didn't realize it was an audition but that I had passed so what did it matter.

"One thing though". His eyes sharpened.
"You need to learn when to keep your mouth shut. You talked too much and I don't want that to happen again. "

I was 22.

To this day, I can replay that scene in my mind like it just happened. That walk back to my desk never felt longer.

It's been the best lesson of my corporate career.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Teeth are clear. Hair is in place. Tie is straight. Hands are dry.

Steve took one last look at himself in the mirror, and he was ready. Well, as ready as he was going to be. He slowly unlatched the lock on the bathroom door, and walked out of the Starbucks – making sure to look both ways as he crossed the street and entered the building lobby. A quick show of identification to the security guard on duty, and he was ready to board the elevator. The ride to the thirty-fifth floor was a lot faster than he had anticipated. In a matter of seconds, the doors opened, and he was at the reception.

“Hi. My name is Steve Howard, and I have an appointment with Cindy Long at ten.”

“Have a seat and she’ll be right with you. “


Impressive office. Bright and airy, and all these modernist touches, he thought. The life-size Darth Vader sure didn’t do anything to detract from the cool factor. Who put a life-size Darth Vader figurine next to reception anyway? What kind of an office was this? Anyway, what did it matter? He was here for an interview, and he needed a job. Any job. Times are tough and this was the only interview he could get after six weeks of sending resumes non-stop. The bloodletting had to end, and it better end today.

"Steve? Hi, I'm Jen, Cindy's assistant. She's ready for you now. Would you follow me?"

"Great. Thanks. Impressive office by the way"

" Yeah, our CEO is a huge architecture buff and designed everything himself."


"Here we are. This is the CEO's office, but he's out this week. Have a seat and she will be right with you. Can I get you anything to drink?"

"No thanks."

It was the most impressive office that Steve had ever laid eyes on. It was easily bigger than his apartment, and it was a true corner office with a view of Central Park. Central Park! Damn. Must be nice to walk in to this every morning. The opposite side of the office was dominated by floor to ceiling mirrors. It reflected that same magnificent view of Central Park, only it had a wood bar across the middle. That was odd, he thought. Wait a minute, those are ballet bars. What is going on here?

He took a quick look at the door. Well, there were two doors. One from each corner of the office. Two entrances. That was a first for him. Both had a sleek metal disc that looked like a giant stainless steel frisbee affixed on the mirrored wall. And in between those two doors was what appeared to be a hidden panel. I wonder what was behind that, he curiously wondered. Well, no one was around. Steve got up and two the three quick steps towards the panel and gave it a slight push. The hinge creaked a little, and with the small opening, a hidden secret was revealed. A bathroom. The guy has his own personal bathroom. Now that is cooler still. Of course, the ballet bar is still there, but hey, no one is perfect.

Quickly, he pulled the door shut, and sat back into the Wassily chair. Mental note. Make a point to mention that he likes the Wassily chair. That design history class really came in handy - who was the designer again? What else do I say other than the view and the chair? He started to make a list of all the points of interest in the room. View, mirrors - wait was that too obvious? Scratch the mirrors. Chair, the Noguchi coffee table. The awards. That was it really right? Right. Not too much. He was there to talk job not design.

More minutes passed. Still no interviewer. This is strange. Why hasn't anyone come in? Slowly he began to let his mind loose. Is there a camera in here? Are they watching me? His eyes darted around every corner of the room. No, protuding lenses. The computer? Screen's not pointed at him. Teddy Bear-cam? Hidden between the awards and the books? Not that he could tell from his seat five yards away. Ok. Now he was starting to sweat. He could feel the dams slowly opening and the deodorant was kicking in. His palms no longer dry. This was stupid. I'm here for an interview not Punk'd. Still more time was passing, and every second brought another morsel of panic.

A good twenty minutes later, he heard footsteps. Mercy.

It was Jen.

"Steve? I'm sorry but Cindy can't make it today."

"Oh, ok. Should I come back later today or should I reschedule for later in the week?" He really needed the job.

"Um. I don't think she'll be available any time soon. But let me check and see what is possible."

"I'm sorry. Wait. What do you mean what's possible? So, I'm not getting the interview?"

"Well, Cindy just went into labor, and she's going to be on maternity leave. I'm not sure what her plans are for the position, and I'm going to have to get back to you."


"I'm sorry, she's early."


"Here's my card. Why don't you e-mail me tomorrow, and I will see if I have an answer for you."

"Oh. Ok. I'll e-mail you tomorrow then." Repeating her instructions because fog had moved in.

"Let me walk you out"

"Thanks. I'll e-mail you tomorrow then."

"I'm so sorry"

"It's ok. I'll e-mail you tomorrow then. Thanks."

Friday, January 7, 2011

Subway Star

Woman 1/7/11

I wish Scott Schuman was there to take her picture. That's how good this look was. Literally from head to toe.

First the toes. They were encased in turquoise cowboy boots. The best part? Each had a prominent large white star with red outline debossed onto the the front of the boot. Her boot tips were distressed and dark, possibly from the first snow that was falling this morning, but given the salt stains on the sides, it was more likely that these were no snow virgins. On their own, these boots were already making a statement.

Interestingly enough, her scarf was this large New York Red Bull team scarf. Red polyester on one side, and blue on the other. The team logo was featured prominently, and she was evidently not ashamed to be sporting the team colors.

Given that she was on the waifish side, it wasn't surprising that she was clad in skinny jeans. The fact that there were these bold zippers on the inside of the jeans - they were almost a continuation of the statement started by the boots. On her fingers though were oatmeal wool fingerless gloves. No nail polish.

She was bundled the entire time in her black wool overcoat. Military-inspired, double-breasted and epaulets on the shoulders. I think she knew it was a plain winter coat because on her right breast area, she had decorated the coat with a cluster of three pins. Two buttons and one broach. The buttons? One was the Union Jack with "Anarchy". The other was placed upside down deliberately and after much investigation, this seemingly political pin actually said " United We Bargain. Divided We Beg". The broach? A pair of lips outlined with rhinestones. Individually, each says something. Collectively, I'm not sure but it made for a great addition to her coat.

Of course, the hair was an essential part of her look as well. She had bangs and a shoulder length poofy style. Think Supremes and not Snooki. Her chestnut locks were quite voluminous, and just about overpowered and covered the blue hoodie.

And what woman's look is complete without the bag? It was a vinyl travel bag with a shoulder strap - reminded me of the old Pan Am bags that were so ubiquitous in my youth. White with blue accents, and distinct use markings and stains all over. When I finally caught a glimpse of the logo on the front, it said " Jetsave. The Transatlantic Holiday People". Do a search.

Finally, her face? Cherubic. Very young. Innocent bordering on angelic.

The main question that lingered was? How old was she? High school? College? And did she consciously know she had a style? What did her friends think? What did her enemies think?