The Man in Black

November 20, 2017

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You are in the basement of a church, with twenty or so other people seated around an extended horizontal folding table. The usual cross-section, many have nothing in common except for a desire to stop drinking. A lot of them brought coffees from the neighborhood Starbucks. The meeting is nearly over.

Dallas is a thirty-something woman with black hair laced with purple. Wrapped around her left bicep is a tattoo of barbed wire. The tough exterior belies her fragility. Dallas is a newcomer, five long-ass days and longer nights under her belt. She is finishing her share.

“Now that I’m not drinking, my friends don’t want anything to do with me.” She looks around the room. “But what kind of friends are those, right?”

People nod. They’ve all had to say goodbye to their drinking buddies. It comes with the territory, this new life. Dallas continues.

“Anyway, they can go fuck themselves. My daughter’s the only other person that matters to me. I’m doing the deal. I’m doing it!” She taps the Big Book resolutely. “That’s all I got.”

‘Thank you, Dallas!’ the room chimes. It’s a good way to end the meeting. A newcomer with grit.

The first time you saw Dallas, at the loft, you didn’t think she’d get 24 hours. Yet, here she was. The secretary rings her bell then reads from the script:

“As there are only a few minutes left in the meeting it is now time to ask if anyone has a burning desire.”

No hands go up.

“Come on, people. This is the time and this is the place!”

A man raises his hand. His black shirt and pants contrast with his pale skin. He has on sunglasses, which if this weren’t AA might seem peculiar. But not here. The second part of the program’s name is Anonymous. He clears his throat.

“I have a burning desire.”

“Excellent!” The secretary responds. “The man in black has the floor!”

The joke garners a few chuckles from the group. Why not? It’s Friday. We are not a glum lot is a popular phrase from the Big Book.

The man in black reaches into the gym bag sitting in front of him and pulls out two liters of Dewar’s White Label. One at a time he places each bottle on the table.

“What I desire is for each you to have a drink.”

A gasp fills the room but the man in black pays it no mind. He begins arranging large sized Dixie cups into a neat row on the table. He opens a bottle and carefully begins pouring the scotch into a cup, then another. The smell permeates the room.

The secretary rises. Though stunned like everyone else, somebody has to do something. This is her meeting.

“Excuse me, sir,” she says. Her voice quavers. “Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing? This is a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Raising an eyebrow, the man in black merely smiles. He could be tending bar.

“Well, I’ve already told you, Mam. I want you all to have a drink with me.” With that said, he slides a full cup to the woman sitting directly across from him. “Starting with you, sweetheart! You look like you could use a pop. I hope you like it neat.”

April, a frail creature no more than 18 years old, looks at the drink and the man with terror. She can’t speak. She is literally shaking.

“I…I…”

The man frowns. “What’s wrong, darling? Scotch not your drink of choice? Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. I was the same way at your age.”

April whispers. “Please. If I have another drink I… I’ll… I’ll die.”

In the room, shock has turned to anger. A few men push their chairs back. Enough is enough. They rise.

Undaunted, the man in black continues looking directly at April. He casually pulls a large handgun from his bag and points it at her face. Inches separate the barrel from her nose.

Everyone freezes.

“No, no, no darling, you’ve got it all wrong.” He says, clucking at her, twitching the gun. “If you don’t have another drink then you’ll die.”

He looks at the standing men. With his free hand he indicates for them to sit. When they do he returns his attention to the young woman.

“Now drink up, darling. It’s damn near closing time.”

With a shaking hand, April lifts the cup to her mouth and sips. It is her first taste of alcohol in almost a year. She grimaces. The man cocks the gun.

“All of it.”

When she is finished she places the empty vessel down in front of her. Two tears collapse from her eyes, the mascara making them look like black rivulets. She sobs quietly.

“Like riding a bicycle, right?”

A couple chairs down from the gunman, an addict named Roberto can no longer hold his tongue. “Please, sir, I beg of you-

The man in black wheels around and points the gun at Roberto. His voice remains calm, sickeningly so.

“Don’t worry, Senor. There’s plenty to go around. Matter of fact, you can drink straight from the bottle. We don’t mind.”

He slides the jug of scotch to Roberto. It stops alongside of his Big Book.

“I…I… can’t drink this!”

Undeterred, the man in black counters. “Sure you can, amigo. Isn’t that what got you hear – drinking this?

Roberto pleads. “But it’s been over eleven years!”

“Then you must be awful thirsty!”

Roberto stares at the bottle. He shuts his eyes. Prays? He reaches for the scotch but instead of picking it up he pushes it away, slowly, until it is just past his fingertips.

“I see,” says the man in black. “Well, how about we start you off with a shot?”

He pulls the trigger blowing a whole through Roberto’s chest. He’s dead before the blood exits his body, which it does suddenly and profusely.

“Any other requests?”

The man in black places the smoking gun on the table. He picks up one of the Dixie cups. “Cheers,” he says and downs it. “Who’s next?”

You have been sitting quietly, just a couple chairs down. You reach over and take one of the full cups of scotch. From the corner of your eye you see the man in black grinning, nodding.

“That’s right, son. If rape is inevitable you might as well enjoy it!”

He may have said that. Or you think he did. It doesn’t matter. A centimeter from your lips is alcohol! For years you’ve wondered if there was a backdoor, a way that would allow you to drink without regret. And here it is. Gunpoint! You lift the cup.

Your eyes they open. You are on your back. Breathing hard. You can smell blood and taste whiskey. But it’s so dark. And why are you in bed? Rainstorm and crickets from your iPhone. Oh. Okay. You’ve had a drinking dream. In the rooms they talk about these nightmares. They say upon awakening you are relieved none of it was real, that you are still sober. Yet “nightmare” isn’t the right word. Being able to drink with impunity. That part you liked.

 

The above is an excerpt from a book I’m writing, The Chaos Merchant.

Gods of Advertising is on hiatus so I may devote my full energy to personal writing as well as for clients. My services include copy writing, brand manifestos and creative business ideas: My portfolio

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Cage’s mugshot

The Letter from the Editor which heads up the May issue of GQ has little to do with advertising but certainly qualifies as a nasty morsel of popular culture. It’s also quite sad. The magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Jim Nelson was dining at the famed New Orleans’ restaurant, Stella this past Mardi Gras and happened to be in “wine spitting” distance of Nicolas Cage while he was in the midst of a notorious alcohol-induced blackout. Most of us are familiar with Cage’s meltdown, having heard the story here there and everywhere. Likely, we all attributed it to another “moment” in the controversial and bizarre star’s repertoire. Known for playing myriad odd, terrible and often wonderful characters (Raising Arizona, Vampire’s Kiss, Ghost Rider, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, among many others), here he seemed to be channeling Charlie Sheen and then some.


“Leaving Las Vegas” no longer an act.

In any event, the GQ editor witnessed the entire debacle and elected to make it the subject of his forward to the magazine. Wise choice. As I said, it’s a scintillating piece.

But as I also said, it’s a sad one. But sadness is not the tone Nelson reported. Like most observers of popular culture, he took aim at the falling star and gave us a blow by blow. I don’t begrudge the writer for doing so. That’s his job. Sort of.

But there’s a crucial piece missing from the tawdry tale that might have actually provided real learning to the reader. In describing Cage’s condition, I intended the word “blackout” as noun more than adjective. Nicolas Cage was having an alcoholic blackout. In this condition the man no longer is cognizant, let alone in control. The symptoms were textbook. Yet, I’ll bet many of you are only aware of the obvious ones: lewdness, lechery and violence. Those lovely defects are what got Mr. Cage arrested, no small feat during Mardi Gras.

But what I found eerily fascinating were some of the other defects Cage manifested during his downward spiral. Nelson reports that the actor had befriended a couple at the bar and had insisted on buying them drinks. And not just any drinks but some of the most expensive wines on Stella’s impressive list. In recovery programs, they call this “grandiosity.” You say Cage is a millionaire movie star (actually, he’s bankrupt) but I’m telling you even garden variety drunks can and do display this defect. All of the time. It’s a marker for alcoholism.

Poignantly, prior to his arrest (just after breaking an interior window), Cage bellows to the embarrassed crowd: “You love me!” I say poignantly because now his grandiosity has degraded into self-pity and self-destruction. As Nelson pointed out in his article, chances are many of the patrons did, in fact, once love him, or at least got a kick out of him. But not anymore. Now they merely wanted him gone. Nicolas cage had hit a “bottom,” another recovery term that requires no defining. For Cage, that meant oblivion and a jail cell, not necessarily in that order.


Call it what it is: Alcoholism

Look, I don’t pretend to really care about Nicolas Cage or his personal demons. However, I do feel that every once in a while, when we’re given these all-too-similar stories about falling stars (Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, Courtney Love, etc…), that we are given the full story. It justifies none of their behavior but it might help someone else understand what’s going on or maybe even get better (themselves), if they’re sick, like Nicolas Cage clearly was and is. By not doing so, I feel the media (and society as a whole) is in as much denial about alcoholism and addiction at the pour souls they are covering.


“I am the shark!”

Last week popular culture jumped the shark. Yes, I know popular culture is always jumping the shark. But not like last week. This was something else. Last week popular culture catapulted the shark.

Thank you, Charlie Sheen. I can’t recall such fanfare for one man –especially such a ridiculous man- in my entire goddamn life. Can you? In 2008, the buzz over Barack Obama came close. But Obama was about to become the first black president of the United States of America. Merely by speaking, Sheen single-handedly knocked rogue-psycho dictator, Kadafi off our front pages and, if we’re being honest, all of our radars. “Rivers of blood?” Yawn. Charlie gave us “Tiger’s blood & Adonis DNA!” By offering the Full-Monty of his Super Ego, Charlie Sheen turned on, turned off and transfixed the world.

Even Mel Gibson’s vile tirades of last year seem small by comparison. Whereas Mel came off sad and pathetic Charlie is…well… glad and pathetic. That’s it, then, isn’t it? His unmitigated glee. The TV shrinks claim we’re seeing mania, the chronic upside to a bi-polar disorder. So, where’s the crash? When does Adonis come whimpering onto Oprah begging for forgiveness? I don’t see it, either. Why should he? In between rants, Sheen jumped on Twitter and in 24 hours amassed over 1,000,000 followers. Now he’s doubled that, and counting. Usually hitting bottom requires the opposite to happen: people abandon you. Not hang on your every word.

Up until a few days ago, Sheen was known primarily for starring in a stupid but popular sitcom and for his relentless obsession with contraband, hookers and porn stars. Like his dad, he’d been in a few movies. Even a good one. But unlike most actors, Sheen stayed popular (and got paid tons of money) despite being a major-league douche bag. His bad boy rep actually seemed to help him.

And now it has catapulted him into the stratosphere. Already, he could make millions just on twitter sponsorships alone. Writing a book, he wants and will get $10,000,000 in advance for it. Of course he’ll do SN&L. Then maybe tour like Conan. And when he returns to Hollywood he’ll be treated like the “winner” he says he is.

Or maybe not. Sheen did a live webcast that by all accounts sunk his battleship.


Thinker or stinker?

I went to a cocktail party the other night. Given I don’t cocktail anymore I’m pretty much there for chips and the occasional conversation. That means most every social gathering is, for me, a chore. Especially without the social lubricant. But, honestly, I wasn’t socially adept even when I was drinking. Neither a good time Charlie nor a brawler, I tended to hop from person to person nervously trying to make a connection. Failing that I would drink until it was time to go home and pass out, hopefully in that order.

Thing is I’m in an introvert. For myriad reasons –good and bad- I’m more comfortable living in my own head than most anyplace else. Consider my passions: reading, writing, running, cinema, working out, fishing; things I can and do all by myself.

Maybe “comfortable” is the wrong word. Frankly, my head can be a bad neighborhood. It gets pretty scary in there. Yet, I’m used to it. And it’s been my M.O. since I was a boy.

So, I’m at this party and I notice one of the children shying away from the pack. One of the other kids asks the little girl to play. She shakes her head no. Then the child’s mother intervenes. “Go on, sweetie, you’ll have fun.” Her daughter is having none of it. As I was nowhere near the adult party (see above explanation), I walked over and ask what’s the matter.

The mom says what moms always say when her child’s behavior is called into question: “She’s just tired.”

“I wonder if she’s an introvert,” I offer.

Aghast, the mother ruefully denies the possibility. It’s as if I accused her daughter of being abnormal.

Feeling guilty for exacerbating things, I tell the woman that I’m an introvert too, and that, after all, the world needs introverts. “Who would write all the books,” I joked, “if everyone were outside playing?” Not the best argument but it seems to make the mom feel better. Which makes me feel better, especially given how infrequently I add value to a conversation. I also think most art requires looking inward.

Driving home I thought about the incident and introversion in general. Tough being wired the way I am and having a large family. Moody and introspective, I am often seen by them as the bad guy: anti-social and self-centered. I’m working on it but isolating is a hard habit to break –even with loved ones, especially with loved ones.

At work, I make it a point to walk the halls even though my every instinct would have me in front of my laptop with the office door shut. Thankfully, I trained myself long ago to be more than capable presenting work, to the point where I genuinely adore this facet of the job. But it wasn’t easy.

No surprise I love email. With it, I can communicate without actually socializing. I’ve taken to social networks for much the same reason. My guess is the creators of many social media platforms are introverted, perhaps trying to get out! Certainly Mark Zuckerberg is.

While at times I rail against it, clamoring to be socially awesome, I am and always will be an introvert. And if that little girl’s fate is to be one too here’s hoping her mother cuts her some slack. After all, the little one might have some very big ideas cooped up inside.

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Thumbs up, one day at a time

Well-known, Pulitzer-Prize winning film critic, Roger Ebert recently published a lengthy column on his 30-year membership in Alcoholics Anonymous. You ought to read it, if for no other reason than it provides a rare glimpse into how the AA program actually works. It’s a fascinating and brave piece.

I say brave for two reasons. First, not many people as famous as Roger Ebert own up to the disease of alcoholism unless, of course, they have gotten into trouble or were called out by someone else. That happens all the time. Those people must ignore, deny or fess up. Ebert could have taken this fact to his grave. Ebert’s admission and column is brave for a less obvious reason as well. AA is about “attraction not promotion.” One of its traditions is to stay clear of publicity. By breaking from tradition, the author is publicly discoursing about what is usually kept private. Hence the term “anonymous.”

Ebert addresses both of these issues at length in his story, which is why I also find it fascinating.

Without going into it, I can relate. Not only am I a writer but in college I also aspired to film & music criticism. I also aspired to get drunk and high. I graduated with great credentials in both.

For decades advertising has been known as a drinking man’s business. The justifiably acclaimed show, Mad Men makes drinking about as important to making ads as Magic Markers. Martini lunches no longer existed when I came into the business, but we still drank in droves, often from happy hour to bar time. Coming into work hung over was like a badge of honor. I assumed everybody –save for a few squares- drank to excess. I would learn the hard way to speak for myself.

But I wonder if the advertising industry (particularly the creative department) is still considered the Amsterdam of white-collar professions. Are drinking and drugs still a big part of ad land? If so, how many of us are addicted? In my novel, The Happy Soul Industry one of the main characters is both a creative director and addicted to opiates. He not only uses drugs for recreation but as a source of inspiration.

What about you, Gentle Reader? Are you happily immersed or desperately struggling with alcohol and/or drugs? Let us know. Obviously, you can (and probably should) remain anonymous. In my 5 years at Euro RSCG, I am aware of only one person working for me who also was an addict. A painful story, that person eventually had to be let go. But one individual does not make for an epidemic. Maybe the problem has diminished. Or, perhaps, folks are quietly taking the necessary steps to recover and have been able to do so while remaining employed…and anonymous.

Roger Ebert\'s column on AA

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