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
A body in motion tends to stay in motion. (Reebok,
just do it. (Nike, Weiden and Kennedy.)
Damn it, something isn't right. (Me, to my bathroom mirror at
four-thirty in the morning, when I'm really, really
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 howthe-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
"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 Faberg6 is creating a new perfume and they
want the ad agency to join them tomorrow morning and see the
Faberg6 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
Faberg6 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. 1, 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
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
"What?" he says, grinning. He has a thin plastic drink straw behind
each ear. The straws are red, the ends chewed. 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
Excerpted from DRY: A Memoir © Copyright 2003 by Augusten
Burroughs. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All
Dry: A Memoir