Monday, October 16, 2017

Fiction #75: Tonya Walker

The Creative Planner

There are really no male editors in women’s magazines. People will tell you it’s because a man cannot truly understand a woman’s perspective. Bullshit to that say I. No man would stand for being paid in glamour and sample sizes they had to Atkins to fit. Actually, there is one man, but he did fashion and beauty for a prominent newspaper, so he doesn’t really count. The papers pay better. Still David is a character. That’s what we all say with an indulgent insider smile, ‘David is a character.’ What we mean is David is a rotund, gay drunk channeling Truman Capote - the bitter years. Mean as a 43 year old ex-wife kicked to the curb after 20 years of marriage. I actively dislike him. I applied for his position when he made his leap to FashionGate, Canada’s newest magazine at the time. I would have gotten it too, had he not chimed loudly about my lack of style - this from a man who sports denim pregnancy overalls and a Gap T everywhere.

I do lack style. It’s true. I love it, but lack it. I wear black from head to toe all the time. My feet are shod in black Bass Weejuns and my backpack is a sturdy black leather Roots bag. Black is the new Black, Again. This is not original, everybody’s done it, it requires no information or preparation, it never feels wrong and it never feels right. It is the absence of style and it pleases me.

My style epiphany happened over two decades years ago, I was still working for Maclean-Hunter as associate editor, and had been offered the job of managing editor for Vida. It was to involve relocating to the city of Angels. Vida really wanted me which was flattering, and the idea of really shooting real women rather than models and  not just giving lip service to the idea was exciting. Still I viewed myself as far too caustic, fat and Canadian to be Californian. So before accepting the position I went on a job interview as a copywriter for an Ad boutique at St. Clair and Young. That’s advertising-speak for a very, very small ad agency with three or fewer accounts. The ‘boutique’ part is supposed to make civilians think that the agency is tiny by choice. They supposedly have too much integrity to prostitute themselves by growing to an unwieldy, overpriced size. This is all very impressive until you realize that advertising by its very nature is corporate prostitution at it's purest. Big or small, a 'ho is a 'ho. Not that I'm judging.

Anyway, in ‘98 I enter the building on Young Street to interview for this ad-writer job. The boutique shared space with a behemoth ad agency it supposedly hoped never to emulate. The boutique rented a floor. I press number four in a thoroughly ordinary faux wood-finish elevator. I dressed carefully for the interview. I avoided the whole black thing because at that point in my life I still viewed it as tired and cliché. It was summer in Toronto which is my favorite fashion season because one can dress well cheaply, no coats, blazers or cashmere cardigans required. I was wearing a sleeveless ivory cotton knit top and high-waisted wide-leg ivory trousers and feeling utterly Hepburn a la “High Society”  - well Hepburn after she’d eaten a huge lunch anyway - and some really fabulous next-season shoes I’d scored from the fashion closet at work. They were pointy-toed and kitten-healed, very new - remember this was years ago. People were still adjusting to the square-toed flat when fashion dictators somersaulted and proclaimed pointy for next season. The elevator stopped at the agency’s floor, the door jerked open and I entered into the rarified atmosphere of the ‘boutique.’ The air had that sucked clean scent distinct to ad boutiques and designer shops on Bloor.  Fragrances, cleaning supplies and pedestrian sweat were all ionized neatly away. I looked around for a receptionist or even a place where one might sit. Neither was to be found.

In the center of the deserted space was a large oval boardroom table lodged in a glass bubble. A video camera pointed directly at the table. The whole set-up looked rather Jetson-like. The bubble was attached to a black wall at the back. At first it wasn’t apparent where one entered the glass bubble. I rolled my eyes in exasperation. It is just possible that ad folks were more self-consciously hip than fashion editors. Mid-roll I caught sight of another video cam to the side of the elevator.

I decided to face it head on and say, “Really?” and then I smiled brightly and added, “A button, a password, a hidden key, a broken stone tablet that fits perfectly with another hidden in the wall? Even Frodo had a clue,” I intone brightly keeping my mouth corners up like my Buddhist buddies tell me to do in a crisis of confidence. “Shall I simply stand here while you watch?” I tried to keep the irritation out of my voice, my tones light. A few moments passed as I stared down the video cam, then the black wall at the back of the bubble slides open like department store doors and a girl dressed completely in black scurries out, a big apologetic smile pasted across her face. She waves and says something I can not hear. She presses a button on the table and the bubble cracks open, literally, like an egg, each jagged side pulled back three feet, revealing a six-foot wide entrance. She begins again, this time with sound.

“I’m sorry I can’t believe . . . someone was supposed to be out here to meet you, uh, Leslie Gulch right?” She is quite pretty but visibly flustered. Her hands flutter to smooth her already smooth waist-length braid. Her bangs are cut in a precise dark line straight across her forehead an inch and a half about her brows I estimate. Her exceptionally lovely eyes save her face from looking like a Bedlam inmate with such a severe hairstyle. I wonder idly if she has any head shots I could take back to the magazine. We haven't done a feature on bangs in a long time.

I hold out my hand to her. “Yes I'm Leslie” She takes it and forgets to introduce herself.

“And uh, we, uh, I mean, we weren’t really watching you, the guys, the creatives,” she shrugs conspiratorially. “You know, how creatives can be,” she caught herself and laughed awkwardly,

“Well, sure you do, you want to be a writer, right?”

“Well, I …” I blush for her stupidity and paused, “I am a writer, I’m Associate editor at Femina.”

Her smile became even wider, till her eyes scrunched completely closed. “Of course, I didn’t mean, well, you know, you want to be a copywriter.”

I smile politely and nod. Informing her that a magazine writer writes copy too would’ve seemed pedantic and only encouraged further stretched smiles that I feared may land her in the next Batman movie as the updated Joker.

Instead I offer, “Cool bubble.”

She nodded, a slight apologetic smile returned to her face, “Maximillian designed it himself. In fact, this whole non-receiving reception area was his idea.”

I looked at her expectantly, wondering if she was as aware as I that we were being watched.

She motioned for me to follow her through the egg, as she continued, “He felt the idea would be more democratic, this way no one in the company is more subservient than anyone else, we all have important jobs to do and really anyone can show you into the agen…I mean boutique.”

I was puzzled. This ‘boutique’ seemed more prankish frat house than potential workplace. “Shouldn’t you have a buzzer then so a visitor can let you know that they are here, surely that would be easier than having someone waiting or not waiting for someone to arrive, 'cause wouldn’t the waiting person be, well, waiting, and therefore subservient to someone?”

She frowned non-committally, “That’s a perspective.” I looked at her sharply, searching for sarcasm, or at least irony to accompany her comment. Nothing. We walked through the hole in the wall into an entire black and white workspace. Black circles of all sizes graced the walls. The ceilings were black with white inspirational quotations punched through, signed and dated by Maximillian. The carpeting was an ironic zebra stripe. Again I thought, ‘Really?’

I decided to make a joke, “Let me guess, the people provide the color.”

She swung around and looked at me as if I’d just won the spelling bee and an Emmy: “Yes! Exactly! That’s what Maximillian says all the time!” Her eyes were wild with enthusiasm; as far as she was concerned I was finally getting it. I sighed, trying very hard not to despise Maximillian pre-introduction and failing. White ¾ dividers curved around the space housing desks and computers. No one seemed to be working; toasters flew across every screen – the original funky screen-saver now 12 year olds consider old school.

“Is it lunchtime?” I asked, looking over the vacant spaces.

“Oh we don’t have a lunch time, people come and go as they need to. Maximilian doesn’t want to be responsible for people’s gastro-intestinal issues.”

“Is that code for hunger pangs?” I joked, trying to detect any evidence of a sense of humor.

“Yes. After all we’re all adults here.” As if on cue a noisy shower of orange Nerf bullets erupted from around a curved divider.

“Got ya!” whooped a bespectacled, pimply twenty-something to my guide.

“Not play-ing!”she responded in an exasperated voice. Trying to brush past him, he touched her shoulder lightly. As she shook him off he said,

“Is Kiko bitchy? Are you like on the rag, dude?”

My eyebrows must have shot up to my hairline. I looked at my guide, Kiko, in astonishment, her pale faced tinged pink. “Did he just say that?” I asked. Nerf-boy looked at me, shrugged and reloaded. I waited for an explanation.

“Maximillian doesn’t like to stymie impulses, the creatives are encouraged to be who they are and say what occurs to them. We can use it all; it’s all good.”

I turned to the creative nerf-dude, “Where is everyone?”

He gestured with his gun to an area over the dividers, “In the bullpen.”

“Why aren’t you there then?” I questioned.

“Don’t wanna be. Need to play.” He responded. I nodded as he wandered off, obviously bored with me.

“Kiko, how many women work here?”

“Five.”

“How many men?”

“Including Maximillian, twenty-one.”

“How many women are creative?”

“One, but I know what you’re thinking, Maximillian is always trying to hire more female creative, it’s just, well not many make it through the hiring process.”

“Why do you think that is?” I spoke slowly, feeling my way. This whole place felt like one big cult and I had this overwhelming urge to wrap my arm around Kiko’s bitty waist and save her from the Kool-Aid. She looked at me contemplatively, as if the question had never really occurred to her and answered with great seriousness.

“You know they’re not really sports, they um, well. . .”

“We,” I interrupted.

“Huh?” She looked confused.

“We, you and I are women too, we are not really good sports according to his Maxness. How many women are account executives?”

“Oh, none, I mean we don’t have account executives, we have creative planners, everyone is creative here. We’re a wholly creative shop.”

“Holy creative shop is right,” I muttered.

“Two of the women are planners and the other two are traffickers.”

“And you?”

“I’m a trafficker, I chaperone a piece from creative to Maximillian – you shouldn’t really shorten his name by the way, he prefers we all address him in the same manner, that way no one feels greater intimacy than anyone else - there have been jealousy concerns in the past – then I pass it back to a planner, then a client, back to a planner, then Maximillian, then creative again.” I was finally beginning to hear the rustle of people and paper One voice was speaking louder than the rest.
I lowered my voice, “Sounds like Maximillian’s a real hands on guy.”

Kiko nodded, “He personally approves every piece of work that flows through this agency.” She’d pasted her big eye-crinkly smile on again. We’d arrived at what I assumed was the ‘bullpen.’ It was a fairly large curved space surrounded by wide counters laden with papers, pens, and cutting boards.

While more art directors worked on Macintosh computers now, old-fashioned cut and paste directors could still be found in most ‘shops.’ And since Maximillian himself had been a cut and paster and was (shhh) computer illiterate, there would always be a place to play with crayons in his 'boutique.'

Several people perched on the countertops not covered in paper. Kiko and I waited quietly until Maximillian finished speaking and she caught his eye. I noticed two televisions on the top shelf of a side divider. One displayed the boardroom, the other, the place I’d been standing in: the non-reception area. I breathed deeply; glad I hadn’t picked my nose or adjusted my panties outside the bubble for all the bullpen to witness. Already a magazine for teenage girls seemed a far more professional pursuit than this Chuck E. Cheese for adults. Still, I shouldn’t judge, I hadn’t spoken to the great man himself.

He turned to us, “Well how did you like being on television, Ms. Gauche?”

“Gulch,” I replied, “As in riverbed. Television’s great, though I’d prefer to write for it rather that guest star.” I dusted off my prom smile, it didn’t fit properly anymore, it didn’t even reach my eyes.

“You seem to be a fan.”

“An excellent medium, especially when people are caught unaware. Would you like something to drink? Kiko please bring us some blue water.  Annie will be joining us; she is one of our planners. Do you understand about planners?”

I nodded, “Creative planners instead of ad executives because everyone is creative here.” I saw Kiko smile as she scurried away to fetch blue water whatever the hell that was.

Maximillian looked pleased: “We do not hide our creative people from the clients; rather we show them off in all their brilliance. Annie, let’s go to the boardroom.”

Annie led us back to the bubble. I guessed his Maxness liked to play to the camera. Annie was a skinny 27 year old and with short white Madonna hair (circa 1992) and very pale, pillowy lips. She was dressed all in white with a very square-toed white Gucci loafer gracing her foot. I guess she let the other creatives add the color. I glanced down at my outfit and felt stuffy, even my fabulous shoes did not seem right anymore. In this arena where these folk seemed so smug in their hipness my next-season pointy-toes didn’t count, you can only get credit for what people are aware of it.

I couldn’t think of a graceful way to work into the job interview: “I just want you to know that I’m so fashionable that my shoes are next season.” Or better yet, “Square toes are sooo over, oops I didn’t mean yours.”

Chic Annie indicated with a sweep of her elegant melanin-free arm that I take the chair across from hers. His Maxness sat at the head of the table. I placed my portfolio on the table and began unzipping it. My zipper jammed at one corner, as I was tugging Chic Annie coughed. I looked up automatically to notice Maximillian holding his hand up in the air in a ‘Halt who goes there” manner. I raised an enquiring eyebrow at Chic Annie.

“Why don’t we get to know each other first?” She suggested smiling apologetically at both Maximillian and I. What she was apologizing for I’m not sure, his bizarre inability to vocalize his desire, or my bizarre inability to both open my case and read his mind. I sank down into the black-clothed chair. Maximillian stared into space, his eyes narrowed as if his second sight had just kicked in and he didn’t want to miss a thing and Annie looked at me pleasantly – half smile, benign eyes, and expectant cock to her eyebrows. My instincts were to wait it out, but I felt too nervous so I waded in. Bad idea. Bad, bad idea. When I get nervous I either use too many words to describe mundane thoughts or forget how grammar works in the English language. I decide to address my comments to Chic Annie and leave her boss to continue exploring Planet Max.

“So Annie, how long have you worked here?” I aped her pleasant expression, imitation being the highest form of flattery.

Annie looked at Maximillian before answering, and then answered carefully, “One year. Working with Max has been such an honor.”

Oh Lord, I thought, slit my wrists now. It is exactly because of this type of ass-sucking that I avoid church. Random genuflecting irritates me. I am no longer nervous. I give Chic Annie in her hideously outré square-toes a piteous look and reply, “How fascinating.” It sounded sarcastic, bitchy. I didn’t intend it to, but there it was, hanging.

Rebuke was swift. His Maxness tuned in and turned on me. “Why would a fashion editor be so horribly unfashionable? You rather resemble a potato with two pointy eyes at the end.” I blushed hotly.

Chic Annie had closed her eyes the moment His Maxness spoke his first syllable – a sixth sense I suppose. My brain reverberated with loud white noise. No witty rejoinder coming from this end. I snatched my portfolio from the table, pressed the door button I’d seen Kiko press before, looked Max in the eye and whispered, “Fuck you asshole.” I marched to the elevator, looking wildly for a door to the stairs, anyway to get out of there as quickly as possible. There was no escape. Humiliated I pressed the elevator button and stood waiting, my back-end to the bubble until the door slid open and I could get on and out to the Pacific Ocean as quickly as my unfashionable luggage could be packed.

*

Tonya Walker is a Canadian living in New York with her husband and teaching on the Upper East Side in New York at an all-girls' private school she adores. After 20 years in Virginia raising a poet and an engineer and writing four unpublished novels, she rediscovered the joy of the short story. She is now crafting a collection of short stories about Toronto's media scene in the 90s. 

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