Dry

A Memoir

Augusten Burroughs

St. Martin's Press

JUST DO IT
 

Sometimes when you work in advertising you’ll get a product that’s really garbage and you have to make it seem fantastic, something that is essential to the continued quality of life. Like once, I had to do an ad for hair conditioner. The strategy was: Adds softness you can feel, body you can see. But the thing is, this was a lousy product. It made your hair sticky and in focus groups, women hated it. Also, it reeked. It made your hair smell like a combination of bubble gum and Lysol. But somehow, I had to make people feel that it was the best hair conditioner ever created. I had to give it an image that was both beautiful and sexy. Approachable and yet aspirational.
Advertising makes everything seem better than it actually is. And that’s why it’s such a perfect career for me. It’s an industry based on giving people false expectations. Few people know how to do that as well as I do, because I’ve been applying those basic advertising principles to my life for years.
When I was thirteen, my crazy mother gave me away to her lunatic psychiatrist, who adopted me. I then lived a life of squalor, pedophiles, no school and free pills. When I finally escaped, I presented myself to advertising agencies as a self-educated, slightly eccentric youth, filled with passion, bursting with ideas. I left out the fact that I didn’t know how to spell or that I had been giving blowjobs since I was thirteen.
Not many people get into advertising when they’re nineteen, with no education beyond elementary school and no connections. Not just anybody can walk in off the street and become a copywriter and get to sit around the glossy black table saying things like, “Maybe we can get Molly Ringwald to do the voice-over,” and “It’ll be really hip and MTV-ish.” But when I was nineteen, that’s exactly what I wanted. And exactly what I got, which made me feel that I could control the world with my mind.
I could not believe that I had landed a job as a junior copywriter on the National Potato Board account at the age of nineteen. For seventeen thousand dollars a year, which was an astonishing fortune compared to the nine thousand I had made two years before as a waiter at a Ground Round.
That’s the great thing about advertising. Ad people don’t care where you came from, who your parents were. It doesn’t matter. You could have a crawl space under your kitchen floor filled with little girls’ bones and as long as you can dream up a better Chuck Wagon commercial, you’re in.
And now I’m twenty-four years old, and I try not to think about my past. It seems important to think only of my job and my future. Especially since advertising dictates that you’re only as good as your last ad. This theme of forward momentum runs through many ad campaigns.
A body in motion tends to stay in motion. (Reebok, Chiat/Day.)
Just do it. (Nike, Wieden and Kennedy.)
Damn it, something isn’t right. (Me, to my bathroom mirror at four-thirty in the morning, when I’m really, really plastered.)
*   *   *
It’s Tuesday evening and I’m home. I’ve been home for twenty minutes and am going through the mail. When I open a bill, it freaks me out. For some reason, I have trouble writing checks. I postpone this act until the last possible moment, usually once my account has gone into collection. It’s not that I can’t afford the bills—I can—it’s that I panic when faced with responsibility. I am not used to rules and structure and so I have a hard time keeping the phone connected and the electricity turned on. I place all my bills in a box, which I keep next to the stove. Personal letters and cards get slipped into the space between the computer on my desk and the printer.
My phone rings. I let the machine pick up.
“Hey, it’s Jim … just wanted to know if you wanna go out for a quick drink. Gimme a call, but try and get back—”
As I pick up the machine screeches like a strangled cat. “Yes, definitely,” I tell him. “My blood alcohol level is dangerously low.”
“Cedar Tavern at nine,” he says.
Cedar Tavern is on University and Twelfth and I’m on Tenth and Third, just a few blocks away. Jim’s over on Twelfth and Second. So it’s a fulcrum between us. That’s one reason I like it. The other reason is because their martinis are enormous; great bowls of vodka soup. “See you there,” I say and hang up.
Jim is great. He’s an undertaker. Actually, I suppose he’s technically not an undertaker anymore. He’s graduated to coffin salesman, or as he puts it, “pre-arrangements.” The funeral business is rife with euphemisms. In the funeral business, nobody actually “dies.” They simply “move on,” as if traveling to a different time zone.
He wears vintage Hawaiian shirts, even in winter. Looking at him, you’d think he was just a normal, blue-collar Italian guy. Like maybe he’s a cop or owns a pizza place. But he’s an undertaker, through and through. Last year for my birthday, he gave me two bottles. One was filled with pretty pink lotion, the other with an amber fluid. Permaglow and Restorative: embalming fluids. This is the sort of conversation piece you simply can’t find at Pottery Barn. I’m not so shallow as to pick my friends based on what they do for a living, but in this case I have to say it was a major selling point.
A few hours later, I walk into Cedar Tavern and feel immediately at ease. There’s a huge old bar to my right, carved by hand a century ago from several ancient oak trees. It’s like this great big middle finger aimed at nature conservationists. Behind the bar, the wall is paneled in this same wood, inlaid with tall etched mirrors. Next to the mirrors are dull brass light fixtures with stained-glass shades. No bulb in the place is above twenty-five watts. In the rear, there are nice tall wooden booths and oil paintings of English bird dogs and anonymous grandfathers posed in burgundy leather wing chairs. They serve a kind of food here: chicken-fried steak, fish and chips, cheeseburgers and a very lame salad that features iceberg lettuce and croutons from a box. I could live here. As if I didn’t already.
Even though I’m five minutes early, Jim’s sitting at the bar and already halfway through a martini.
“What a fucking lush,” I say. “How long have you been here?”
“I was thirsty. About a minute.”
He appears to be eyeing a woman who is sitting alone at a table near the jukebox. She wears khaki slacks, a pink-and-white striped oxford cloth shirt and white Reeboks. I instantly peg her as an off-duty nurse. “She’s not your type,” I say.
He gives me this how-the-hell-do-you-know look. “And why not?”
“Look at what she’s drinking. Coffee.”
He grimaces, looks away from her and takes another sip of his drink.
“Look, I can’t stay out late tonight because I have to be at the Met tomorrow morning at nine.”
“The Met?” he asks incredulously. “Why the Met?”
I roll my eyes, wag my finger in the air to get the bartender’s attention. “My client Fabergé is creating a new perfume and they want the ad agency to join them tomorrow morning and see the Fabergé egg exhibit as inspiration.” I order a Ketel One martini, straight up with an olive. They use the tiny green olives here; I like that. I despise the big fat olives. They take up too much space in the glass.
“So I have to be there in a suit and look at those fucking eggs all morning. Then we’re all going to get together the day after tomorrow at the agency and have a horrific meeting with their senior management. Some global vision thing. One of those awful meetings you dread for weeks in advance.” I take the first sip of my martini. It feels exactly right, like part of my own physiology. “God, I hate my job.”
“You should get a real job,” Jim tells me. “This advertising stuff is putrid. You spend your days waltzing around the Met looking at Fabergé eggs. You make wads of cash and all you do is complain. Jesus, and you’re not even twenty-five yet.” He sticks his thumb and index finger in the glass and pinches the olive, which he then pops in his mouth.
I watch him do this and can’t help but think, The places those fingers have been.
“Why don’t you try selling a seventy-eight-year-old widow in the Bronx her own coffin?”
We’ve had this conversation before, many times. The undertaker feels superior to me, and actually is. He is society’s Janitor in a Drum. He provides a service. I, on the other hand, try to trick and manipulate people into parting with their money, a disservice.
“Yeah, yeah, order us another round. I gotta take a leak.” I walk off to the men’s room, leaving him at the bar.
We have four more drinks at Cedar Tavern. Maybe five. Just enough so that I feel loose and comfortable in my own skin, like a gymnast. Jim suggests we hit another bar. I check my watch: almost ten-thirty. I should head home now and go to sleep so I’m fresh in the morning. But then I think, Okay, what’s the latest I can get to sleep and still be okay? If I have to be there at nine, I should be up by seven-thirty, so that means I should get to bed no later than—I begin to count on my fingers because I cannot do math, let alone in my head—twelve-thirty. “Where you wanna go?” I ask him.
“I don’t know, let’s just walk.”
I say, “Okay,” and we head outside. As soon as I step into the fresh air, something in my brain oxidizes and I feel just the slightest bit tipsy. Not drunk, not even close. Though I certainly wouldn’t attempt to operate a cotton gin.
*   *   *
We end up walking down the street for two blocks and heading into this place on the corner that sometimes plays live jazz. Jim’s telling me that the absolute worst thing you can encounter as an undertaker is “a jumper.”
“Two Ketel One martinis, straight up with olives,” I tell the bartender and then turn to Jim. “What’s so bad about jumpers? What?” I love this man.
“Because when you move their limbs, the bones are all broken and they slide around loose inside the skin and they make this sort of…” Our drinks arrive. He takes a sip and continues, “… this sort of rumbling sound.”
“That’s so fucking horrifying,” I say, delighted. “What else?”
He takes another sip, creases his forehead in thought. “Okay, I know—you’ll love this. If it’s a guy, we tie a string around the end of his dick so that it won’t leak piss.”
“Jesus,” I say. We both take a sip from our drinks. I notice that my sip is more of a gulp and I will need another drink soon. The martinis here are shamefully meager. “Okay, give me more horrible,” I tell him.
He tells me how once he had a female body with a decapitated head and the family insisted on an open casket service. “Can you imagine?” So he broke a broomstick in half and jammed it down through the neck and into the meat of the torso. Then he stuck the head on the other end of the stick and kind of pushed.
“Wow,” I say. He’s done things that only people on death row have done.
He smiles with what I think might be pride. “I put her in a white cashmere turtleneck and she actually ended up looking pretty good.” He winks at me and plucks the olive from my drink. I do not take another sip from this particular glass.
We have maybe five more drinks before I check my watch again. Now it’s a quarter of one. And I really need to go, I’ll already be a mess as it is. But that’s not what happens. What happens is, Jim orders us a nightcap.
“Just one shot of Cuervo … for luck.”
The very last thing I remember is standing on a stage at a karaoke bar somewhere in the West Village. The spotlights are shining in my face and I’m trying to read the video monitor in front of me, which is scrolling the words to the theme from The Brady Bunch. I see double unless I close one eye, but when I do this I lose my balance and stagger. Jim’s laughing like a madman in the front row, pounding the table with his hands.
The floor trips me and I fall. The bartender walks from behind the bar and escorts me offstage. His arm feels good around my shoulders and I want to give him a friendly nuzzle or perhaps a kiss on the mouth. Fortunately, I don’t do this.
Outside the bar, I look at my watch and slur, “This can’t be right.” I lean against Jim’s shoulder so I don’t fall over on the tricky sidewalk.
“What?” he says, grinning. He has a thin plastic drink straw behind each ear. The straws are red, the ends chewed.
I raise my arm up so my watch is almost pressed against his nose. “Look,” I say.
He pushes my arm back so he can read the dial. “Yikes! How’d that happen? You sure it’s right?”
The watch reads 4:15 A.M. Impossible. I wonder aloud why it is displaying the time in Europe instead of Manhattan.

 
Copyright © 2003 by Augusten Burroughs