For reasons we might want to explore at some other time, I spent over 30 years toiling in the corporate vineyards as an advertising copywriter – an occupation which enjoys a level of social prestige roughly equivalent to that of garbage collector, lawyer, and snake oil salesman – although to be sure – the latter group is begrudgingly afforded a modicum of respect since almost everyone abhors a squeaky snake. I know I do.
But I digress. Writers, as you know, are a disreputable lot. As a rule they live in culverts, subsist on scraps of food left by others in greasy spoon diners on the outskirts of town, frequently showing up for work with three days’ worth of stubble, pockets crammed with losing lottery tickets, reeking of bourbon and cheap cigars. The men are even worse!
As a bipolar dipsomaniac with a chronic attitude problem that includes contempt for authority, you can imagine I lost and found and lost employers the way others misplace car keys. Some jobs were submerged deep within the bowels of soulless corporations shamelessly exploiting the witless populace, while others resided in neurosis factories referred to as advertising agencies where paranoia, throat-slitting, and British wardrobes were passed off as creativity.
One commonality of all these dreadful coalmines was the professional category known as “artist” which, in this case, means “graphic designer” which then meant person in charge of taking words, setting them in type, and embedding the result in a breezy assemblage of photographs, colorful shapes, and visual irrelevance thought to aid the sales process we served; striving ever more valiantly to separate the unsuspecting from their treasure.
Artists – graphic designers – are almost the antithesis of writers. As a rule, they are cheerful women who bring an ideal suite of qualities to their task – wonderful sense of color, design, ebullience, responsibility, method, quiet productivity and an almost depressingly relentless optimism. Meet Charity Vanderbilt.
Charity Vanderbilt invariably looked as though she had been peeled from the pages of a clothing catalog. Her attire was not flashy, it was impeccable, precise, tight, ratcheted down with control as rigid as any painting by Piet Mondrian. Just five feet tall dripping wet, (why she insisted on having her height measured after showering I cannot tell you), she had a sing-song, high pitched voice that resembled a Warner Brothers cartoon character far more closely than a person.
Charity walked with quick, short steps as though a string between her ankles dictated the precise length of every stride.
One day, Charity revealed something I found completely stunning. She said that the gas gauge in her Volvo had broken and she left it that way on purpose because she “enjoyed the mystery and excitement of not knowing if she was about to run out of gas.”
I thought of my own life, a cavalcade of catastrophes including prison, mental hospitals, manic depression, alcoholism, divorce, lost jobs, small fortunes washed away with the dirty dishes – I thought of how I was trying to outrun my curse and find order, stability, responsibility – even some peace of mind.
Then I thought of Charity Vanderbilt, whimsically setting a little booby-trap for herself, to make her life a tiny bit disordered, a tiny bit surprising, a tiny bit interesting. In the oddest way, it made me feel sorry for her and grateful to be me; imperfectly awful.