Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Drunk and disorderly at fourteen.

Drunk and disorderly at fourteen.  ©Joel Baumwoll

I recall becoming interested in beer and booze at thirteen, not long after I learned to enjoy masturbation.   The “forbidden fruit” aspect of drinking in 1953 was probably as appealing as the buzzed feeling.  

The problem was how to get my hands on the stuff.

My early ingenuity revealed itself in the scheme I hatched to get the local liquor store to deliver bottles to my home when my parents were safely absent.  It occurred to me that a deliveryman would never hand over a box full of beer and whiskey bottles to a teenager, but he might to a nine year old.  So I drafted the services of my kid brother.

The plot called for me to be upstairs with the electric razor humming when the doorbell rang.  My brother called out, “Dad, there is a delivery guy here.”  I answered in the lowest register voice I could muster “the money’s on the table and there’s a tip for him.”  Bingo!

Thus my career as a kid boozer was launched.  My friend Bob Logan and I liked to get mildly buzzed on Saturday nights and go to the dance at Montclair High School.  The Dutch courage helped me overcome my feelings of inadequacy with the older girls I liked to pursue.

For some reason that now escapes me, if there was a reason, we decided to really tie one on this particular Saturday night.  Another strategy to get our hands on the stuff was to tell Mr. Larry, the gay antiques dealer, that we would have some drinks with him if he bought the booze.  

He was always holding out promises of fun and games if we came up to his apartment over the store and hoisted a few.  Our subtle plan was to wait for Larry to buy the bottle and then run like hell, a quart of PM rye whiskey stuffed into my coat.

Logan’s parents were going out that night, so we waited, hidden in a pigeon coop in his backyard, alternating slugs from the whiskey bottle and a jug of ginger ale.  

Ah, that was real class drinking.  The cooing of pigeons and the acrid smell of dung did not deter us from our high life adventure.  By the time his parents pulled out of the driveway, we had nearly polished off the whiskey and the mixer.

It was time to go to the dance.

Now, my recollections of a lot of things that night are very acute, but how we got from Logan’s house to a puddle of rainwater in the parking lot of the Acme supermarket is a mystery.  I remember standing in front of the large building that was Montclair High and being surprised that the building was completely dark and locked.  We’d missed the dance!  What to do now, but to go to my house, which was about fifteen minutes away.

The two of us must have stumbled and staggered through the dark streets, past houses in the poor black section of town along Central Avenue, when Bob fell on flat his face.  In the dim light of the streetlight, I saw a stream of blood running down his face from a gash over his right eye.  His eyeglass frame had opened a neat slice on his forehead that bled profusely.  Terrified that he was mortally wounded, I banged on the doors of the darkened houses asking for help.  None came.  

My next move, done with all the clarity of a completely drunk fourteen year old, was to lift Logan onto my shoulders and carry him the remaining three blocks to my house.  My brother, who was home alone, reports being traumatized by the sight of two bloody, dirty, wet and reeking figures rolling in the door like some bizarre circus act.  

Recovering my senses long enough to realize that I had a life to save (little did I know how close that was to the truth), I picked up the phone over Logan’s protests, and told the operator (we had “number please” operator service in 1954) that she needed to get an ambulance over to Three Vincent Place because “my friend was bleeding to death.”

The sharp, penetrating vapors of ammoniated salts woke me from a stupor, to a room full of white-coated men and women and a couple of blue uniformed cops, all looking at Logan and me.  

“What were you drinking?” one asked.  “Nuthin,” I protested, fearing that drinking was a serious offense.  “We wuz smoking.”  “Uh oh” the cop said, “smoking what?” “Chesserfield regulars” I shouted back, tossing a crumpled pack in the air.  It was the first time I had copped to smoking, but I figured, in my alcohol-fuzzed logic, that it was a lesser offense than whiskey.

One cop, with a particularly keen nose for the hard stuff, said "They were drinking Canadian Club.  I can smell it from here." 

I replied indignantly "Nah, we wasn't drinkin' any of that cheap stuff.  We wuz drinkin' PM.  $4.99 a quart."  Apparently, even at the tender age of fourteen, I had developed an appreciation for quality in liquor.

The next question was inevitable.  “Where’dya get it?”  Logan and I told six different and equally improbable stories (found it, took it off a drunk, masqueraded as an older guy), among which was Mr. Larry’s part in this drama. 

Poor Mr. Larry.  His goose was cooked.

The docs gave me as shot which caused me to spend the next seven hours with my face in the toilet, heaving up every thing I had eaten for the past six months.  We had come seriously close to alcohol poisoning, but I didn’t realize that until several years later.

Some months later, Logan and I were hauled before a judge, who told us two boys with IQs as high as ours (I was very impressed with this information) were off on a very wrong track, and forbade us to see each other again.

Six months later, my parents, convinced that Montclair would drive me to a ruined life, moved to an upper-middle class, mostly Jewish community, called White Meadow Lake, near Morristown.  There, they thought, I would meet college-bound kids and leave this life of indolence and drunken womanizing that I had adopted in tony Montclair.  

Little did they know.  But that's another story.

The first week we lived in the new house, I was jumped at night by four anti-Semitic seventeen year-olds (one, the son of the local Policeman, Tony George).  They were bored, beered up and decided it would be fun to drive up to White Meadow and beat up a Jew or two.  Another kid, not as able as I to get away from them, had a fractured skull for their efforts.  So much for upgrading my lifestyle.

But my parents were right about one thing.  I did go to college after graduating from Morris Hills Regional High.  And I never again was able to drink enough to get that sick.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

True stories of a real Mad Man: How a cold Bud helped to change V-8.

True stories of a real Mad Man:  how a cold Bud helped to change V-8 ©Joel Baumwoll

Gather ‘round kiddies, and you will hear a story from the ancient days of my Mad Man career.  Way back in nineteen and eighty-two, I was toiling away as President of a small New York agency, Needham Harper & Steers. 
This was in the days before the desktop computer, the cell phone and the internet.  The fax machine was high tech stuff.
Ideas were written on yellow pads, typed by secretaries on IBM Selectrics and drawn by artists with magic markers and charcoal.  Powerpoint did not exist.
Yes kiddies, it was in those primitive times when a call came in to the agency from an important client; Campbell Soup Company. 
We had been struggling mightily for years to increase our business with them, to no avail.  Spaghetti Os and V-8 juice were our only assignments.
Bill Williams, the general manger was fond of telling me (after three martinis) how crummy our creative was and how crappy our account people were.  I was told that he said that to BBD&O as well, but it was cold comfort to me.
So when Jim Emshaw, the brand manager, told our agency that he wanted a new campaign for V-8, we hopped to.  Campbell Soup Company was an important client, and I saw a chance to get more business from them.
Being the boss, I was not supposed to figure out what to do. Just give the charge, sit back, review the work and decide what to tell show the client.  That’s one thing that drove me crazy about being President.  What I was good at and loved to do wasn’t my job.  And what I was not that good at and didn’t much like, was.
Except, my brain didn’t turn off whenever there was a challenge like this one.  “The leetle grey cells,” as Hercule Poirot called them, were percolating day and night.
You never know when lightening will strike.  This time it did while I sat in the over-heated kitchen of our upper west side apartment.  I pulled open the cabinet where we kept cans of beans, bottles of ketchup, boxes of salt and the large tin of V-8.  There it sat, fat, ungainly, unattractive and warm.

Opening the refrigerator, I saw a partially opened tin, fat, ungainly and marred with a brown and red crust of dried juice around the triangular holes I had punched through the top.  Not only was it ugly, it took up a ton of space.

On the next shelf, three frosty bottles of Bud poked out above the gherkins and mysterious aluminum foil sculptures.  

I was suddenly, irresistibly thirsty.  I tilted my chair back and took a big  pull at the chilly long neck.   As the frothy stuff went down, an idea began to percolate.

Then, just like in the cartoons, a light bulb appeared over my head.
A single sentence formed in my mind
If they buy it cold, they will store it cold.
Then another:
If they store it cold, they will see it every time they open the refrigerator.
Then a third:
And they will drink it a lot more often.
So there was the answer.  Simple.  

Except making it happen was not simple at all.  Three big things had to happen. 
1.  V-8 had to be repackaged in smaller, soft drink-like containers instead of cans.
2.  Those containers had to be sold out of the refrigerated case in supermarkets and delis.
3.  Advertising had to get people to think of the product more like a refreshing soft drink than simply a “good for you, once-in-a-while vegetable juice.”
Campbell’s was an old and conservative company.  Getting them to agree to make changes as big and expensive as these was not going to be easy.
The first step was to convince Emshaw.  He was a brainy guy who seemed to be gutsy as well.  The idea was so strong, that he just might grab and run with it.
And so he did!  One of the few times in my Mad Man career that a client had the courage to challenge the status quo and fight to implement a big and risky change.
The results were stunning.
V-8 was transformed from an old and stodgy brand into a vigorous, exciting and youthful drink.
The brand was given new clothes to look more like a soft drink.


And it was sold cold.

Over time, the brand became more than one product.  

And it even extended into other fruit juices.

So as I reflect back on those ancient days, when Mad Men were roaming the range of PJ Clarks and the two-martini lunch was de rigueur, I remember the time I had a beer in the kitchen that transformed an American icon.  And I never owned stock in Campbell Soup Company.