Black Like Her

Posted 07/15/2016

         I am not a racist. I’m a Jew and a homosexual and am even more sympathetic to all outsiders, all minorities, all diversity of all humanity. Except for some people. I don’t care for dumb people or manipulative people or glaring opportunists, as this story will reveal. Those types come in all colors and genders and races.

         What follows is what happened to me while I was still employed in the advertising business; I couldn’t write this story then, while it was happening, I can only write it now, retired with my column and my blog where I can pretty much write what I damn well please.

         I am pleased to finally get this episode off  my chest and on 'paper'.

        

         I had a friend, a casual co-worker who shall remain nameless—and for good reason. She has a Nigerian name that’s very difficult to pronounce. She went by Ozi.

         Our relationship, as I said, was casual. She was young, very exotic-looking, and black. Lupita Nyong’o black. As dark and seductive as Nigerian women can be. And this woman was bright and diligent and ambitious. Yes. Ambitious.

         Turns out, she was other things, too.

         As a creative director who wrote commercials, I would go to  various locales to oversee commercials I wrote. Far-flung places, but mostly Los Angeles. In fact, one shoot for a line of women’s moisturizers that I oversaw found me with Ozi in LA for a couple of weeks. She was the agency producer on the project.

         She didn’t have a driver’s license—imagine! in LA with no driver’s license?!--so I became her “designated” driver, taking her (and me) to and from sound stages every day for ten days or so. And, after a long day shoot, we would regroup and unwind over glasses of wine at the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel. One would think we would have grown a bit closer, but I found her rather shy, or reluctant, or just grateful to use me as her “driver” and felt she had to sit with me for a drink. (She wasn’t much of a drinker.)

         But, as I said, we were no more than casual co-workers, often far away from the home office in New York. We gabbed abut the job and the people we worked with and, in this case, the job we were currently shooting together.

         Back home, back in the office, the commercial edited and released to the networks, I didn’t really see all that much of her. She was busy on another shoot; I was involved with new ideas and scripts and client meetings.

         But a couple of months later, I decided to throw a small lunch party for the art director I worked closely with as he was turning 40.

         The guest list, ten people or so, included Ozi as she was closer to Tom, the birthday boy. I was clever enough to invite two people who often edit our commercials and they were quick enough to insist on paying. And the venue was the pretty, pricey Gramercy Tavern.

         Ozi arrived, surprisingly done up for the event, in traditional Nigerian garb—a look I had not seen on her before (after all, work is work, but this was a par-tay!)—complete with a silk head scarf, multi-colored and connected to her dress, which ran to the floor. It was very elegant and dramatic. It was a conversation piece and a hit!

         I took pictures with my Leica. Pictures of the entire group. The waiter also took charge to include all of us, smiling, a bit glassy-eyed and tipsy, and just having a good time on a Wednesday, during a workday. It was a welcome break from the pressures, mounting monthly through the fall of 2008 and the mess that was created suddenly for budgets and canceled productions. Good way to blow off some steam, I think we all thought. I know I did.

         “Another bottle of Pouilly Fume, s’il vous plait,” the Brooklyn-born editor held up a finger to the waiter. We all laughed; it was approaching 3 PM and it was clear that most of us were in no shape to go back to the office.

         I kept snapping pictures. Twosome pictures: The editor and his assistant, Tom and everyone, as chairs shifted. Tom and Ozi

         If there are any two people at opposite ends of the color spectrum, it is Tom and Ozi. Tom: a ginger-haired chap, close cropped, and as white-complexioned  as a sheet of paper, and Ozi: as dark as midnight.

         I took a bunch of those two and as I passed the camera around the table, I said, and said more than once: “Wow, Ozi, you’re so BLACK!”

         And she was.

         And she, unless she’s now dead, still is.

         An innocent remark, a spontaneous observaton, in awe of the utter contrast of Ozi from darkest Africa and Tom from the milquetoast Midwest—“Ebony and Ivory”.

         As a writer, I observe. And so, I observed the dichotomy of the two of them.

         “Wow! You’re so black, Ozi!”

         “Tom, you’re so white!”

         (And I was so fucked.)

         The lunch ended. Ozi left early; all the rest of us wandered back to Saatchi & Saatchi, the agency we all worked for, or home, in my case. Tom called me on my cell, reluctant to admit because Tom was a person who wants to be liked by everyone, he called to tell me that Ozi was quite upset by my “black” comments.

         “What?” I responded. “What did she say, exactly?” I asked.

         “Well, you’ll have to just speak to her about it,” Tom, not controversial, or contrary, or anything but basically cute, left it at that.

         “Do I have to call her?" I asked as the phone went dead. I guess I would have had to all her, as I did have her cell number as a result of being her driver.

         So I called.

         And was she ever pissed!  She was yelling and cursing and saying the cruelest things: “I didn’t know you were such a racist! I trusted you. You were my friend and all the while…"

         You get the message. I said nothing more. She hung quickly up.

         But before she did, she said she consulted with a higher-up African American in the firm and he insisted she go to HR with the complaint. Or, as he said, that 'horrendous slur'. HR needed to know about people like him.

         That him would be me.

         I slept fitfully that night after the haranguing. Next morning, I stopped at a florist and spent $60 on a nice arrangement in a glass vase, with a note—"I’m so sorry you were so hurt by my careless, thoughtless comments."

         As it was early, her office door was closed. I left the peace offering feeling fearful, frankly, but I didn’t think I was in the wrong but who knows? other people always have an opposing point of view.

         An hour passed. I heard nothing from her. I went down to her floor and her office. The door was open, the flowers on her desk and she was there, laughing with someone over the phone. She saw me and slammed the door in my face. Clearly, she was not in a forgiving mood. And, just as clearly, I thought I did nothing wrong. But it takes two to tango, but only one to lodge a complaint with HR and set up a meeting.

         To the uninitiated, HR stands for Human Resources, a department that all companies have now—a group of people, or even just one person, whose sole function is to fire people. Or hire people.  But in the advertising world, more people get fired than hired. Like, I would venture to say, a ratio of ten fires for every one hire.

         Growing up in advertising, there was no HR. There was something called  “Personnel” and it dealt with people, employees, with issues, but I don’t ever remember if Personnel, at the time, dealing with sexual harassment or untoward office behavior of any type. Early on in my career, I witnessed a (male) art director toss a director’s chair at a (female) account executive. No one said a peep. No meetings were called. Temperament was allowed—almost  encouraged! We are creative people. We are emotional. But this day, this flowers, slammed office door day, this day of my encroaching dread, a meeting was called.

         Ozi, me, a woman named Beverly—my joyless, political boss (a creative director in title, but really more of a facilitater: toe the line, please the clients, BE the client in a way)--we were all called to meet in the new head of HR’s office, a larger office than mine (and I was responsible for a big income-driven Procter and Gamble soap and face cream brand. Whatever.)

         11AM. Thursday. Nine or so years ago. Like it was yesterday.

         Beverly was stone-faced and totally dismissive of me. The HR woman kept calling Ozi Ozzie. She knew none of us, but she had this crazy power.

         “So, Ozzie, would you like to see Hy fired?” She asked, Her name was Sally or Susan.

         Ozi hesitated, looked down at the carpeting “No, I don’t. Just a formal apology.”  I sensed at that moment that she was manipulating the event. "And a written document of his treatment of me on the record." She was staunch and she was hurt.  I wondered--did the flowers and the note mean nothing? And just like that—if she would have said yes, fire him, I would have been instant history at Saatchi & Saatchi.

        

         I suddenly got it. She did it and stuck with it to secure her job, plain and simple.

         Not fired, there was hell to pay anyway. Beverly had no defense for me whatsoever. She alluded to the fact that I was generally aggressive and made young female account executives cry, and that last part is true but that is only due to my passion for the work whereas young and inexpensive and inexperienced employees feel I am taking something out on them. I am not. They are 22 years old and working in a tough business. I had, at the time, over 40 years of high-end experience.

         Anyway, hell to pay.

         I was forced to sign that document, hastily composed and printed from Susan or Sally's computer, in less than a minute, claiming I was also on some sort of warning and my aggressive behavior will be closely monitored and if any similar such episode should occur again I would, indeed, be fired.

         I signed. I felt I had to.

        

         I have a love/hate relationship with advertising. I have made multiple millions over many, many years writing advertising. I have won awards and been moderately admired and sought after at times. The business of advertising had turned, somewhere around the late 80s into a business that turned more and more obnoxious and annoying and less creative and less supportive up until 2012 when I was officially bounced out of it.

         But back to Ozi/Ozie and that awful meeting. I sat there like a lamb to slaughter. Or a bull. Or a bully. Three women, one Asian, one African American and Ms. HR herself, new to the job, and trying to do it accurately/politically in front of my boss who held the title of executive vice president/creative director to the tune of roughly $400K a year plus bonuses. Worthless. Trust me.

         It went on for an eternity, HR saying it’s hard to predict how drinking will affect people—how many glasses, how long the lunch. I thought she meant Ozi and how too many glasses for her caused an overreaction, but in reality she meant me: that the booze turned me into a monster, a mad man, a racist.

         Beverly was very annoyed by my behavior. She had to be. She in no way wanted to be associated with “me and my antics”. Her favorite phrase to me each and every time I asked for a raise (none were give in 12 years, while the business I worked on soared to unbelievable heights) “I can’t reward you for bad behavior.” The fact that I helped grow the Olay business threefold from one billion dollars a year to three, meant nothing. I was a troublemaker, a tyrant, even. Yet I was a dedicated copywriter, focused, determined to turn around dowdy Oil of Olay into a moisturizer star. Which I did.

         Like it ever really mattered. I kept my job, tenuously I felt, for four or so remaining years. Beverly knew, deep down, how valuable I was to the business until the business softened and weakened and then tanked during 2009 with the messy economy. Suddenly, after much success, Olay products became not quite the bargain, bad timing as they introduced their “Professional” line at the Duane Reades and the CVSes for $60!  With no one to ask, like at a Saks counter, how to use the products and when.

         Meantime, Ozi quits for a better job; they beg her to stay, there are so very few blacks in advertising versus women and Asians. No. She leaves. Then comes back months later in a higher position—no longer an associate producer, now a planner, more like a strategist to help us "helpless" creatives to produce concepts and storyboards and headlines. And now, the digital component crashes in on all of us.

         I do get fired. “Laid off” the term they use, but I prefer “canned” and “axed” and fired. Olay just ouldn’t afford me and seven other people on the account anymore.

         The HR woman,  yes Susan, it was, Sue Something, is gone. Beverly gets fired six months after me as the Olay business limps along on life support. Even the clients jump ship.

         That was then.

         All of that was then.

         Saatchi & Saatchi has shrunk from seven floors to one. Account losses pile up. 

         Ozzie? God knows where she is. 

         Olay remains.