In 2012, the first day of summer in fact, I was forced into retirement. Thing is (or was), I got laid off from my big fat advertising job, the tail end of an even bigger and fatter advertising career. A copywriter. A creative director, if you please. Two totally expendable and fireable occupations. I always got fired. I always made too much money according to the higher ups, the people who often fired me, those who choose, those who make the decisions, and generally always made more money than me.
(They eventually get fired, too. By still even higher-ups. Etc.)
I was 64 years old. I had worked that fun but vulnerable business for 44 years. As Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer summed it up well: “Enough Is Enough”. And it truly was.
You don’t really expect the day, the actual day you’re done. I had a suspicion it was coming; the account I worked on was not doing so well—worse and worse since the 2008 – 2009 recession, but it took three further years for it all to implode and for me to be sucked into being sacked.
It was a good time to be unemployed—for me, anyway. First day of summer! I can spend it in my cool with a pool Amagansett beach house! I got more than half a year’s severance, unemployment insurance, too. And Social Security was about to kick in. Money, luckily, not an issue. I had it from earning good advertising dough over decades, and from real estate ventures, bought and sold at good profits. It also helps that I'm gay and childless, my expenses have all to do with me and my hard-at-work partner, now husband, who shares everything and provides me with great health insurance, as well.
Didn’t expect the day, but when it did happen, it happened to six of us on the dwindling account. All creative people (natch), to be precise. We went to the nearby Ear Inn, blocks from the agency that tossed us out and told us to be out by end of the day. Can you imagine? After 14 years, fired in the morning, out in the afternoon.
We all got smashed.
Ah-h-h-h. Summer in Amagansett! I set up a website just because I felt it was necessary and gave me something immediate to do. I thought about freelance work in the ad biz come fall—freelance bigger than ever as agencies more and more don’t want to commit to expensive talent full time. When you freelance, you could be gone in a day, with no severance, no hint of health insurance, no possibility of a lawsuit. Freelance is nothing but a day rate, diminishing by the year.
I had plenty of time to set up my bios and profiles on LinkedIn and with my own site that featured my columns and my advertising and my two books. I was completely free—I could go to the gym any hour of any day. I could drown myself in liquid lunches. Go to the beach for hours, for days, for months. I could write about what happened in my occasional column in the East Hampton Star. It felt carefree for awhile, that summer, until late August, as the days grew shorter and the realization that I no longer had a job with fall approaching sinking in, as everyone was back to school, back to work, back to something and me, back to nothing. No structure. No office. (No calls back from headhunters about freelance, by the way.) No place to work in, and hide out in, and be involved politically in. No more business travel. No more making money.
End of August, 2012: HELP!
I had a history with clinical depression and anti-depressants some 25 years prior as I turned 40. One morning, at the gym where I worked out in Amagansett, it hit me.. OK, no question, I believed I needed to go back on the anti-depressants. It helped before, and I felt, quite suddenly, that I was back to that very dark place I knew. And dreaded.
Early September, I scheduled an appointment with a doctor a doctor friend recommended. As I told him my tale and my history, he prescribed the same medication, amitriptyline, that got me through the 1988 episode.
No dice. Not working. Me or the pills. You have to give these pills six weeks to be effective. I did. It didn’t. I wasn’t getting better. In fact, I was getting a lot worse, barely eating. Sadder and sadder and slightly suicidal. How would I do myself in? Could I really do it?
October comes and different pills are prescribed. Nope. Not those working neither.
November was the worst of it all. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me why I was suffering so. My entire identity, even long before I came out, even while I was still living with my parents, I was building a significant advertising career. I started as a writer at 20, was revered at 30, fired at 40, and resurrected and rewarded at 50. And fired. And viable at 60! My entire identity for 44 long years, was wrapped around my advertising career, suddenly over.
I was so forlorn, so fucked-up, interested in nothing, with more and more recurring thoughts of suicide. I would look down from my terrace on the 11th floor of my building and felt that if I leapt, I wouldn’t kill anyone else but myself as there was scaffolding and flat boards that came up to the second floor all around the building. Splaat! A thud, a drop, and no one on the street would be inconvenienced. Or would even notice.
Another scenario: the thought of throwing myself out of my passenger seat while we were driving along the L.I.E. as I watched cars whiz by in the lane to my right. I looked at the cars. A Bentley was approaching—I thought that would royally do the trick. But I didn’t have the guts, ultimately. And where’s the guarantee of death versus quadriplegic-ness?
I composed a suicide note one Saturday in mid-November. Six pages—I was still a writer even if I had lost my mind. I left the note behind, visible for David to see on the following Monday, also left behind my cell phone and wallet, and walked to the subway stop down the block. I stood on the platform and watched the oncoming trains. On one side, a train would slide in slowly. On the other side, a train would barrel in after a sharp turn and I felt: that’s the one. I stayed watching half a dozen A trains pass and thought again: what if I just get slammed into a pillar? careened onto the opposing downtown platform, crashing into people? What if I just turned out not dead but severely injured?
I trudged back home and David was on the phone with my original September shrink and it was suggested I be taken to New York Hospital, which he did, David did, nudging me on a subway and a bus as I kept whimpering: I don’t want to go! I’ll never get out!
But I did go and, in fact, the admission became voluntary—David thought somehow, once there, I would talk myself out of it. But after consulting with four admitting doctors, I was admitted into the psych ward at Cornell Weill Medical Center at New York Hospital.
I felt no shame or remorse for the time spent in the hospital; deep-down I believed I was clearly not a long-term patient like some were, in wheelchairs and catatonic and delusional. I was docile. I was in some sort of silent awe of where I had found myself and I was released in two days primarily because I did have somebody to pick me up—David, not my husband then, but my partner of more than 25 years who would visit me during those two days, bring me food, talk to the doctors…
I was released and promised to see, under out-patient care, one Dr. Michael S______, the head of the ward, who insisted I show up three times a week at $500 per visit. I agreed to the arrangement as I felt it would also speed up my release. But less than two weeks later, under his care, I found him to be totally disinterested and distracted. Forgetful, from one session to the next, even, at 500 per. I didn’t like him and so I dropped him after less than a month, but he did, finally, at the beginning of December, after three anti-depressant failures, hit upon the right combination of the two drugs that did help: Pristiq and Ativan, to get me through.
And they did get me through. And by early 2013, I was feeling very much better. Not all there, but well enough. I had also gained close to 30 pounds from all the meds from my very low weight when admitted to the psych ward, in just two months time.
I sold my gorgeous, sexy beach house as summer came back months later. I actually sold it for close to fifteen times what I paid for it 31 years earlier. No need now for that added expense, also good bye to the dreaded traffic, and the changing scene out East. To say nothing that the house needed a new roof. Or that small cracks were popping up in the gunite pool. Unemployment insurance was also about to end and the severance was now gone, too. But Social Security (yes!) and the windfall of the house sale would keep me solvent for quite a long time.
Happy to say, I did not need the money anymore. I had a great cushion for RETIREMENT!
Just to be square, I did garner a few freelance gigs before my hospital stay, but I couldn’t hack it. I couldn’t concentrate on concepts and cleverly-worded headlines. My head was toast. I didn’t want to disappoint the last art director I had worked with—she helped us get these part-time jobs, but I just couldn’t concentrate on what was needed. Couldn’t focus; all conversations were beyond me as I wondered--and this is the dark places your mind can take you: how did I concentrate or write or even understand all those years in the past? Was that a fluke?
No more advertising! I actually walked off a freelance job after a few days explaining to the woman that hired me that I was having mental issues. I will always remember the look on that woman’s face. The pity. And that I had the guts, as I looked down at my feet to admit: My mind is gone. Sorry. No need to pay me.
No more advertising! No reason anymore. But I so wanted to be well. To recognize myself.
Anyway and anyhow, and not surprisingly, at 64 years old, a copywriter charging a hefty day rate is toast, too. Even with the sharpest of minds.
Summer, 2013. Thank God for my husband and his adventurous spirit. We go to the South of France (Eze, Monaco) and the South of Italy (Portofino, picture perfect) and I feel…I feel…I can get used to this. Travel! No thoughts of crappy conference calls and presentations to clients who just want to change everything. No trips to Cincinnati for the awful meetings at Procter & Gamble (my Olay client) who really wanted to change everything.
Yes. I can get used to this.
Still, I dream in headlines—clever ones, too! And scripts. And also dream about my cold, dispassionate boss who fired me in a day, no thank you, no goodbye. (I had a nice moment when I heard, during my still difficult time that December, that she got fired too.)
Almost nightly I would dream these things, but a year passes and after a total of a year’s worth of time, I thought: I’m better. I’m OK!
I go back to my September shrink, a gentle soul, Dr. Gary L____ who only wants to see me as often as I care to go. No ties, no three times a week, no $500 either per session, the complete opposite of the awful New York Hospital doctor and life labors on.
We go to London and Paris for Thanksgiving that year, a Thanksgiving week tradition that remains through 2015, and I am…I am…spiritual again. During the worst of the worst of it, a couple of months that felt like a couple of centuries, I lost all sense of a higher power up there—my supportive stepfather who, in my case, was the somebody up there who likes me, who died just before the new millennium—I used to look up to the heavens and silently connect to him. But during the worst, the worst, I wondered and asked: “Where are you? Why am I going through all this hell?” No answer. I no longer felt there was anyone at all looking out for me. David was supportive and David was inordinately patient. But David didn’t quite get it. No one gets it who hasn’t gone through it.
It passed. Miraculously, it passed. Out of the woods, off the anti-depressants. Except I’m not entirely convinced. 25 years prior to this clinical depressive episode, I had an earlier one. Not as bad, but still somewhat suicidal. I wonder if now, 25 years from that fall of 2012’s disaster, that it could happen again! I would be 89. (I don’t see myself living to that age.)
But after the summer travel, after Europe and back home in New York, I still wonder about structure: what to do? I write and I draw, but I don’t do either of those things every day and the days are long when there’s no place to go to.
Somehow, I find bridge.
During the fall of 2014, with the help of Google, I discover a place in mid-town Manhattan that gives lessons and holds duplicate tournaments. I meet a sweet guy named Jess who works there and also gives private lessons in your home for a hundred bucks an hour. I’m in!
A bit of backstory: I played bridge in my early 20s with an established bridge player. I was terrible! I trumped my partner’s aces, couldn’t work a single convention and, the nerve of me, learning or trying to learn at the very serious duplicate tournaments, and was practically booed out of the rooms held in the old Beverly Hotel on 53rd and Lex.
Bye-bye bridge for at least 40 years. But suddenly back at it with a vengeance! Three times a week, I take the subway uptown (how I love the half-price for seniors MetroCard)! playing with two different partners. Yes, this works for me. A couple of afternoons, and a morning, for three-plus hours or more, in the company of also retirees (mostly women) I lose myself in the cards and the contracts and the play of the hand.
It takes forever to improve at bridge. I continued to take lessons but in more of a group setting, and two years later, though I’m far from Charles Goren or Omar Sharif, I’m pretty good!
Then, a friend who knows I write, sent me article by snail mail from a free downtown newspaper, about a place called The Writer’s Room less than three blocks from my apartment, and I sign up, for six months at a clip. It’s a room with a view, filled with cubicles and easy chairs, even a kitchen! No cell phones allowed and nobody speaks at all. All you hear is the soft click-clicking of computer keyboards. And a cough, or a sneeze, here and there.
Heaven. Solitude. An office! My last office was a shared office and cubicles lining the halls beyond. It felt like an office, my office, and every morning—mornings when I wasn’t playing bridge, I was writing.
I go there from 10 to noon generally, although the place is open 24/7. You can get up at three in the morning and pop in as an insomniac and write about…your insomnia! Or anything else, of course.
Which brings us to lunch as noon approaches. Yes, lunch. I have always been about lunch—lucky enough to have a job that (at one time, see “Mad Men”) meant three martinis and two hours, for me, continued. Wine vs. martinis. Still, two hours, I was quick as a writer of advertising. (Also, quick to get fired.)
But now, lunch is a whole new species of invigorating and inspiring of activities.
Imagine? Something as simple as lunch?
I live in the West Village, in the vicinity of the best restaurant choices in all of New York City. OK, I’m a little prejudiced, but regardless, it’s true.
I would do lunch mostly alone. It’s when I also write. My favorite place for that is the consistently comfortable and comforting Otto, Mario Batali’s clever little pizza joint with a large, hospitable bar that serves mini-pizzas, sides of veggies, lots of al dente pastas and cheese plates and salumeri. And, cherry on top of the cake, the gelati and the over-the-top desserts. All wines are Italian, courtesy of Mario’s partner in crime and wine, Joe Bastianich, son of Lidia. Quite the heritage there.
Otto is across the street from where I live. In a blizzard, in 20 below, during a heat wave, or with pounding rain, without a down coat or an umbrella, I can pop out from my building to his restaurant in less than 30 seconds. I sit, when I can get it (and I go early enough--is 11:45 AM too early for a glass of red or a prosecco? No! I am retired, remember?) at my corner seat at the bar next to the window. Dennis, the very experienced and patient bartender calls my seat at the end of the bar my corner office with a window. I envision the day when I’m out of here (meaning life) there will, there should be a plaque behind that window seat: Here sat Hy Abady. He loved his marguerita D.O.C. pizzas. He loved a cheeky grappa during the afternoon, and went wild for a certain lemon meringue dessert with a blueberry cake base.
But the best of the best of Otto is the fact that when you sit alone and write, other people, alone and not, are intrigued. People always ask: what are you writing? (This piece, for one thing.) It’s perhaps interesting because I sit there, with a pad and a pen and most people comment on the old school nature of this, this long-hand version as people also show up at the bar writing on laptops.
I’m gregarious enough. I guess it comes from my long and varied advertising career where you meet tons of people—interesting, creative types, and you bond. Even if just temporarily (as I got fired often, as I've said) and often a new crowd of co-workers, the next job, pops up with more people to connect to.
So now, without that office (except the Otto office), and the idea that no one talks to anyone at the Writer’s Room, I find myself connecting to very interesting people at Otto.
With its proximity to NYU, there are professors aplenty. But more than that--intellectuals, actors, Village locals, retirees much like myself, done with interesting careers behind them.
F. Murray Abraham is there, as regular as me.
Jay McInerney, the same.
And Mr. Batali! Sits in the opposite corner of the bar, waves, approaches, offers an experimental new dessert gratis.
I feel full. Full in all senses of the word. And I feel grateful. Extremely grateful and also surprised that after the fear, the depression the ‘what will I do?’ not only for the rest of my life, but for the rest of the day, has dissipated.
To be further inclusive re lunch spots, there’s also the Knickerbocker, just a further block and a half away. Another bar/dining experience filled with people of substance—writers, Village bohemians, eccentrics, people at both Otto and Knickerbocker have become close friends. How hard is it to make these kinds of friends as one approaches 70? (Except in an assisted living facility, if one can remember them. Insert smiley face here.)
But I don’t really mean that 70 is the new whatever—I just want to include this aside for some reason. For this reason: a line I wrote for Olay once, to commemorate the comfortable beauty of women (love the skin you’re in), the fact that age doesn’t really matter, it is just a number. The line I refer to: 40 is the new 40. To feel good about who you are and use their age-defying products! (It never ran.) (Maybe I thought it was more interesting than it actually is.)
I remember the years 20 through 60, through all those years that I worked hard. I did work hard, no matter how easily advertising writing came to me. I think my difficulties with work was how often I got let go because I was a wise guy and an arrogant (read: insecure) copywriter. I was also expendable, I believed, because I was single and independent and, yes, good looking enough, to be always hirable in my 20s, 30s, into my 40s and even beyond.
But now, retirement is more than four years in the past.
And I couldn’t be happier.
I have to also include Provincetown, finally, in this piece. The last two summers, my husband and I have spent close to six weeks, from late July to Labor Day, at the tip of Cape Cod. That’s another story (written earlier on this blog site), but it is also part of this story in that how it really helps me write, makes me relax and is a break in the action! A real vacation from my real life of vacation.
Chapter Three, I finally think. Chapter One being my Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Brooklyn, Chapter Two my long, crazy, wonderful advertising career, and Three, now, this retirement. My retirement. With writing and hobbies that keep me stimulated, challenged, and busy.
I don’t wish on my clichéd worst enemies either of those depressive episodes I endured.
But I wish on my closest friends, some happily still working, others struggling to stay viable, still others working two jobs even if it is in one office, I wish them a retirement like mine.
But, their way.