Sunday, January 15, 2017

The day Lawrence forgot the pizza bag

Thirty-six years ago this week, on a bitterly cold New York morning, I arrived at the office of the Madison Avenue advertising agency where I was employed as a writer.

Living just a few blocks away, I was almost always one of the first employees to arrive. Most of my co-workers had to take subways or commute in from the suburbs and the trains were notoriously unreliable, not to mention creative people tend to be leisurely when it comes to getting to work on time.

“Thank Gawd you’re here!” Alice, the receptionist, shouted, jumping up from her desk in front of the hideous copper mural that spanned the width of the lobby. “Lawrence fuhgot the pizza bag. You’re taking it to him.”

I immediately realized the gravity of the situation. Not even Alice with her wicked sense of humor – “huma” in her native Staten Islandese  – would have dared to joke about something that important to the agency’s future.

For weeks, my fellow copywriters, artists, media buyers and researchers had been working 18 hours a day on a year’s worth of layouts, storyboards and media plans for the agency’s biggest client, an account that represented roughly forty percent of our billings. All those materials had been carefully packed at the close of business the day before into what we ad folks referred to as a “pizza bag,” a thin leather bag roughly 40” x 50” resembling the insulated bags delivery boys used to keep pies warm. Pizza bags were the standard means of transporting the hand-sketched layouts and storyboards mounted to oversized foam core boards advertising professionals used for presentation.

Lawrence, the agency’s president, was scheduled to present our work at 1 p.m. to the client’s board of directors during the company’s annual meeting that was underway at a golf resort in a Miami suburb. All of us knew that Lawrence, an impeccably dressed empty suit in his sixties, had his job only because his fourth and current wife was the daughter of the legendary ad man who had founded the agency in the 1930s.

A neurotic Nellie in the best of times, Lawrence was off-the-walls crazed about this particular presentation because the client’s marketing VP had just told Advertising Age he was thinking about placing the account into review. It was the worst possible news for an agency that, in its glory years, had been one of the largest in the country but had coasted for the last two decades on its reputation and was struggling to hold on to the few national accounts it still had.

For the past week, those of us on the team assigned to the account had spent endless hours sitting around the conference room table listening to Lawrence rehearse his presentation. Sometimes he ordered us to make picayune changes. Other times he made us trash the work and start over. The agency’s research department had cautioned Lawrence his ads and storyboards didn’t test as well as our original work but he insisted he was right and everyone else was wrong. By that point none of us gave a shit. Whatever Lawrence wanted.

Lawrence had left the night before on the last flight for Miami so he couldn’t possibly be late for his presentation. About the time his plane lifted off, I later learned, Lawrence realized he had left the pizza bag containing the work he was counting on to save the business on his desk. When he landed, he called Alice at home, telling her to give it to the first person through the door the next morning and to put him or her on a flight to Florida.

“There’s an 8:45 that’ll get you there by noon,” Alice said. “Get your ass in a cab to LaGwadiah. I’ll call Eastern and book you a ticket. Call me when you get to the airport.”

“But Alice, I don’t have …”

"Here, take fifty dollahs,” she said, thrusting bills from the petty cash box into my face. "Don’t ahgue, you gotta leave now.”

I figured there was no way I’d make it through New York’s rush hour traffic but – pure luck – it took only half an hour to get to LaGuardia.

Picking my ticket up at the gate, I called Alice from a pay phone.

“You’re in first class so you’ll be the first one off the plane,” she said. “You’ll be met by a guy holding up a piece of pap-uh witch your name. Hand him the bag. You’re on a 1:30 flight back.”

I had never flown first class before and was mightily impressed by the lavish breakfast served on real china –  a cheese omelet, sausage links, a slice of cantaloupe and a couple of strawberries for decoration.

My luck continued. The L1011 arrived at the gate ten minutes early.

As promised, a man was waiting just outside the jetway holding a sheet of paper with my name on it. I handed him the pizza bag. He didn’t even say thank you. He turned and ran up the concourse like he was being pursued by a pack of wild dogs.

At the bar opposite the gate I ordered a screwdriver, which seemed apropos since I was in Florida, and watched the TV as Ronald Reagan took the oath of office. Moments later the newscaster interrupted the ceremony to announce that the hostages held for 444 days in the U.S. embassy in Tehran had just cleared Iranian airspace and were on their way home.

Finishing my drink, I made my way up the concourse into the terminal and stepped outside, inhaling my first-ever gulp of warm Florida air. I took off my overcoat and, for a few minutes, held my pasty-white New York face up to the sun.

I was stretched out on the sofa with our dachshunds watching a newscast recapping the day’s events when my wife got home from work.

“So, how was your day?” she asked.