Tuesday, December 15, 2020

My Year of Living Dangerously

The year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and eighty (1980) may be remembered as the most critical in my life. I made decisions that would, more than any other, determine its direction forever, and so I choose this occasion to elaborate.

My So-Called Life

In the summer of 1978, I graduated from the University of Cincinnati, with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Graphic Design. Being raised in a "Procter and Gamble family," it only seemed to make sense that I would seek out a company, large or small, to hire me for life. That didn't quite happen. Early in my interviews, I was asked to work for a small advertising agency -- as a free-lancer. The thought of going into business for myself had not occurred to me until the moment they asked. I said yes, and for two and a half years, it made all the difference.

My academic training was excellent. Unfortunately, the ability of my instructors to transfer such knowledge to real life left something to be desired. This was despite an internship program that essentially allowed me to graduate with eighteen months of real job experience. But there I was, working in Cincinnati by day, and living with my parents in the eastern outskirts of the city at night. There wasn't much promise there for a young designer in the late 1970s. "Mother Procter" was queen of the industry, and set the pace not only for the big agencies and creative houses, but for the bottom-feeders consisting of cigar-chomping geezers whose creative acumen was reduced to cranking out one piece of overdecorated future landfill after another. They'd look at my work. "Very nice, but can you spec type?" I'd go to agencies for ad work. "This stuff is too creative. Have you tried looking for studio work?" Then I'd interview at studios. "Most of this stuff is straight advertising. Have you gone to the agencies?" Most guys were amicable, some were very instructive, a few were simply jerks with bad polyester suits and even worse comb-overs. Most of them were not as aware of the industry's big picture as they thought they were.

That big picture wasn't looking too good in the late 1970s. The recession of the last "hope and change" guy, Jimmy Carter, was wreaking havoc. They left behind the riff-raff that constituted my interviews, contrasted with the occasional pompadours with Italian suits and the usual pretensions, who thought they were doing a podunk town like Cincinnati a favor by hanging their shingle there. Between clowns to the left of me, and posers to the right, I was stuck in the middle with no place to go. A few of my colleagues were disgusted with the local scene at the offset, and headed to New York or Chicago.

I couldn't blame them. Cincinnati was home to a number of two-year trade schools devoted to "commercial art" or related fields. Without the burden of academic and liberal arts requirements, these storefront diploma mills pumped out graduates equipped to do the low-end production work, without pushing the envelope in terms of design. "Scaling new heights of mediocrity" was what one art director called it. Their work didn't break new ground, but it was the bread and butter work for smaller and less aggressive markets like ours. A portfolio of purely creative innovation might wow them in the Big Apple, but it didn't cut much ice in the Queen City.

And yet, provincial though it was, Cincinnati was about as "big city" as I could handle, or so I thought.

Mama's Boy Is In The House

Early that year, I hooked up with a commercial studio run by one of the city's most respected illustrators. A former agency director of a firm eventually bought out by Young and Rubicam, he later presided over a family affair. His wife kept the books, his older son used the studio as his apartment (the cause of occasional awkward moments when female visitors spent the night there), and his younger son came in around mid-afternoon. Waiting for Junior was work that I could have been doing, as opposed to sitting around half the time. I was paid by the hour.

The rest of my life wasn't setting the world on fire either. Looking back, it was easy to see why. I was twenty-five and still living with my parents. The older of my two sisters had already married and had a son. My younger brother left home during sophomore year of college, and wasn't coming back. I was also dating this girl whose horizons were even shorter than mine. I'm not sure how we ever connected, really, unless you count either boredom or low expectations as an excuse. Not only that, but in addition to three months of dating her, it took me two months to dump her. After all, I was her ticket out of living with her parents. This mistake alone was reason enough to get outa Dodge City.

As dismal as things seemed, my life outside the office was coming on its own. Cincinnati was home to an emerging roots music scene. I was becoming known as a musician, organizer, somebody who was good to have around to get events going. The bluegrass people, the Celtic people, the contra dance and international folk dance crowds, they all knew me.

But when you added it all up, I seemed to be at a standstill.

Back in February, my professor who headed my department back at UC convinced me to send a slide portfolio of my work to something the Government called "The Federal Design Registry." I had just started working for the Mom-and-Pop studio, but I figured, what could it hurt?

The Other Shoe

Then in September, three things happened within about a week that heralded an impending change of life. First, a cousin of mine suffering from severe depression hung himself on the tree in his yard. Second, I finally got rid of the crazy girlfriend. But the third thing was what did it. A few weeks after the boss said I was doing a great job, his younger son graduated from the rinky-dink trade school, and the place wasn't big enough for both of us. Cincinnati is a small town when it comes to who's doing well or not-so-well. The Big Guy couldn't afford the bad rep to hit the streets, so he told me he was cutting me loose because I was doing a NOT-so-great job. His son's predicament was a mere coincidence. Lying through his teeth wasn't anything personal; it was business.

The worst thing was that the old-timers I knew and spoke to saw nothing unusual in this. I began to lose some respect for my chosen profession. I had heard of guys being "black-balled" so some studio hack could save face, but never thought of myself as much of a threat.

I free-lanced for a couple of months, but hardly enough to live on. Then I got a letter from Washington, an "inquiry of availability," they called it. I had just landed a contract with Procter and Gamble, the kind of work that the aforementioned bottom-feeders (including the one I had just left) would have killed for. In the three or four weeks I was there, I had a blast. The prospect of following my father's footsteps -- well, sort of -- was a great rush. I was sorry I hadn't gotten in there sooner. But however long they would have kept me under contract, it wasn't a sure thing.

Meanwhile, I was being interviewed on the phone, by an art director who was well respected in Washington. He worked for some agency whose name I had never heard. He was impressed with my work, and after listening to his own resume, that was good enough for me -- to tell him I'd think about it over the weekend.

The Epiphany

You know those times when, out of the blue, you suddenly realize your destiny has been hitting you in the backside? I'm not sure how it happened, only that it did. No, I take that back; I'm sure. A few years earlier, I had my palm read. It was just for fun, mind you, at a time when kids try just about anything once. When I remembered the "prophecy" that I would, in a quest for inner peace, move to a city near a large body of water, and meet a man who would change my entire life, it all started to make sense.

Pretty lame pretense for a life-altering decision, but let's face it, it didn't take much.

Mom didn't take it well at all. How would I ever survive without screwing things up royally? This was the conventional wisdom in our house, one that didn't always apply to my younger siblings. I answered it with a question: what the hell else was I going to do? That crazy ex-girlfriend had just visited me, and she wanted me back. Fortunately, I had the perfect excuse. In a sense, she represented everything I had to escape -- a life spent "scaling new heights of mediocrity."

My folks had already suggested I take a job at the post office, and do design work on the side. Had I followed that advice, I'd be a postal worker today. So much for five years of college.

It all added up. Either I get the hell out now, or spend the rest of my life wishing I had.

So, on Thursday, the 11th of December, I loaded everything I could fit into a newly-purchased 1980 Honda Civic, and headed up Interstate 71, toward the rest of my life in what was politely known as "the Nation's capital." That life as a Federal Employee began on the 15th of December. Forty years ago, and everything that has happened since -- the good, the bad, the ugly -- can be traced to that one decision.


How has it changed me? In some ways more than others.

Back home I'm still known as "Dave." Here in DC, even my closest friends know me as "David." It took me at least twenty years just to feel at home here in the so-called "Nation's capital." I managed to lose some speech patterns, though. I pronounce "neither" as "NYE-thur" instead of "NEE-thur." Same goes for "either." When someone says something I didn't hear, I say "come again?" instead of "please?" (because the Germans who settled around that part of Ohio would say "Bitte?" in the same situation). Then again, the gals my uncles married are still called my "ants" instead of my "ahhnts." I could probably go back to Ohio right now and fit right in. I have yet to decide if I want to. The musings of Tom Wolfe notwithstanding, you really CAN go back home again. Just don't expect things to stay where they were when you left.

Although I still refer to women as "gals."

(FIRST IMAGE: The author, in a May 1978 publicity photo, with his late-1960s vintage Gibson J-160E.)

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