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The Whole Catastrophe



Reprinted from THE WHOLE CATASTROPHE, available from AMAZON

It was 1955 or so, and I was working at a large Chicago agency, Needham, Louis, and Brorby, when my boss transferred me to New York where I was the chief copywriter on the most famous campaign of my career, the groundbreaking “Le Car Hot” ads for Renault.

In New York, I met a man at the office named Bill Bager, who was the copy chief. He was an old-time employee at Needham and had been transferred to New York when the office opened. Bill must have been in his fifties or sixties when I was there. He was a senior employee, but, unfortunately, he was also an alcoholic.

Bill didn’t drink during the day. In fact, he was a workaholic and was very serious to a fault. But then, at five or six o’clock, he’d go out and get sauced. He was a bachelor, so he didn’t have to go home at any particular time, and when he drank, he always liked to have someone with him.

Since I was alone in New York – my wife, Effie, and son, Nick, had not yet moved there from Chicago – he’d say to me in the morning, “How about dinner tonight?” He was my superior, so I’d say, “Okay.” His favorite place was an Italian restaurant on 53rd Street called Mercurio’s. His favorite meal was linguini with clam sauce.

I didn’t drink much – I would have a Scotch, maybe – but he would drink about three or four martinis before dinner. As a result, by the time the food came, he was inarticulate. The evening would then be very painful because there was no conversation, it was just sort of blubbery, slobbery talk about nothing.

The first three or four weeks I was in New York, I spent much of my free time looking for a place for Effie, Nicky, and me to live, and Bill Bager’s drunken dinners became a nightmare for me. After the meal, he could hardly walk, and he’d usually say, “Well, let’s go have a stinger or something someplace else.” And half the time I’d say no, but under the circumstances, I couldn’t be absolutely rude, and I would end up having another drink and taking him to his home in a taxi.

It got to the point where I dreaded seeing him in the morning. Two or three times a week he’d come in and say, “How about dinner?” He was very dependent on somebody because he was lonely. He didn’t know many people in New York. God, it was terrible.

A few years later, he had moved back to Chicago. But then, once a year, he and his twin brother would come to New York to attend the theater and go to restaurants. They would have a “New York week.” When they would arrive, he’d call and say, “Let’s have dinner with you one night.” We would alternate: one year, they’d come to our house for dinner and the following year, he’d ask me to pick out the newest, best restaurant and he would take us out. One year when he arrived in New York, Lutece had just opened and  received rave reviews. It was widely considered the ultimate in New York dining.

I told Bill, and he quickly agreed, saying, “Let’s go there. You are my guests.” So I called the restaurant and, without giving it a thought, made the reservation in my name. The four of us went and we were given the menus. Now, in some very fancy restaurants at that time, only the host would be given a menu with prices on it; the rest of the party would be given menus without prices because otherwise that would be considered gauche. Of course, the host would pay. Because I had made the reservation, the maître d’ assumed I was the host, so I was given the menu with the prices. Not realizing that only I knew the costs, I made a little joke at the time that fell flat. I said, “Hey, this is a menu you have to read from right to left,” meaning you should check out the price first. They looked at me blankly.

Effie looked at the menu and she said, “Well I’ll have the so-and-so soup, and then I’ll have the such-and-such appetizer, and then I’ll have this, and I’ll have that.” She ran through the whole thing. Bill and his brother each said, in effect, “Well, that looks good. I’ll have the so and so as well.” I was looking at the prices, adding them up to myself, and it looked like $100 per person – an unusually costly dinner at the time.

But I didn’t say anything, and I eventually said to myself, “What the hell!” and, regardless of the price, ordered an equally pricey meal: soup, an appetizer, a main course, and salad – the whole thing. And then we all had dessert and coffee.

When the check came – and this was before the era of credit cards – Bill turned pale. He didn’t have enough money. He and his brother were whispering to each other anxiously, looking in their wallets and their pockets, frantically counting dollar bills.

After sitting politely – and rather awkwardly – for a few minutes, I said, “Do you need some money?” They had to borrow from me to take us to this fancy restaurant. It must have been a $400 or $500 meal for the four of us. For the 1950s, that was huge. I don’t think we ever went to a restaurant with them again.