Chapter Three: On the bus

It’s a warm Monday morning in June. 7:15 a.m. and I am waiting for the bus to take me to my first job. I just graduated high school and my father discouraged me working during school or even during the summer breaks. He took pride in supporting our little family on one paycheck (a paycheck thanks in great part to the Steelworkers union), so I had no experience seeking a job and, maybe as compensation for my inexperience, I developed an elaborate plan to secure one. Not just any job. I had no interest in stocking shelves, bagging groceries or sweeping floors – the usual summer jobs my peers sought.

I spent several weeks seeking a job with an advertising agency –  one located within a short walk from the bus stop downtown. It came as a pleasant surprise to me when I learned that all the top agencies where located minutes away from State Street, the main commercial street in Chicago.

Growing up in the 50s – as mass media viewers now know – ad agencies were the hippest places to work. I was attracted to the field, not because of its glamour, as much as to the imagination of its dissident characters, like maverick adman and comic Stan Freberg, who reached celebrity fame with his 1958 satiric Green Christmas record. Or, that popularizer of dissidence, Vance Packard whose best-seller book, The Hidden Persuaders, about subliminal advertising, intrigued me with the subtlety of mass manipulation – a commercialized form of thought control, really. Thought control in servitude to the market was more insidious than the version practiced by our “atheistic, communist enemies” in the Soviet Union, but that comparison was never stated.

I began to strategize for my summer advertizing job in the middle of winter. It took a while to research the biggest ad companies where I assumed some menial task awaited for me to perform during the summer. This entailed a bit of sleuthing to determine the size of their offices and the level of pomp they cultivated in their reception area. My list got whittled down to seven potential firms and I began to compose a form letter to be the template to each company. Since my typing skill was rudimentary, I had to purchase expensive erasable paper to rub out my numerous typos. White out opaque smeared across sections of the sheet would appear tacky, I reasoned, for a serious letter.

Composing these letters took a long time editing the template for each firm. I had to balance my need for work with a not too thick coating of fawning desire for a life in advertising, which was almost a complete lie. I say almost, because while I intended to enter the Illinois Institute of Technology’s architectural program in September, and not devote my life to creating spectacular advertising campaigns, I had some hesitancy regarding a career as an architect and, half-heartedly, sought a Plan B.

Of course, being a high school graduate with no job experience and not much in the way of extracurricular activities, I had a difficult time creating a resume with any depth. My major accomplishment in high school was to write an occasional humor column for the school paper. Well actually, that was also a kind of lie. Writing the humor column was correct, but my major achievement was difficult for me to promote since it caused me to be reprimanded and kicked out of the college prep program. This seemed inappropriate to brag about.

I was punished for producing a satirical magazine in my all-boys Christian Brothers high school in Chicago. As you can imagine it was a place a place that needed more than a little critiquing. I started to produce the magazine (or to use today’s vernacular – “zine”) when I was a freshman. I produced one issue towards the end of that school year and two in my sophomore year. These creations were modeled after MAD magazine and very rudimentary affairs. Each issue was two or three legal size sheets folded in half and containing more drawings than text. I remember especially how my biology teacher, Brother Anselm, was the spitting image of a regular MAD character. I took delight in drawing the Bro in bizarre scenes, for example, dissecting pigs brought to him from the Chicago Stock Yards a few miles from the school. One of my issues found its way into the hands of the ruling authorities and I was subjected to full-on censorship at the age of 15!

One of the admirers of my satirical efforts was the editor of the school paper and he invited me to focus my creative efforts along more legitimate avenues of expression – I accepted and sold-out for my name in print.

Anyway, I managed to bullshit enough about my interests in writing and specifically advertising to fill a typed page. I sent out seven of these letters and got only one response. I was invited to the advertising office of a rather smallish firm for a conversation with the owner, a small, grey-haired individual. We chatted for a few minutes and then he gave me a “tour” of the office, which was pretty empty. He said he would see what he could do for me and he bid me goodbye. I was elated, but also disappointed with the lack of dynamism in the office.

Some weeks later, I received a letter directing me to go to a “mailer” located on the west side of downtown where I seldom ventured and much farther from the bus stop than I had planned with my original letters. While I didn’t know what a “mailer” was, nonetheless, I was proud to have found a job with my modest letter writing campaign. My first job!

Finally, as a small crowd has now gathered at the bus stop, two buses arrived and there was a rush to board. Moments later I found myself wedge in by a solid mass of flesh being transported in a metal container to my fate. Before I reached my destination, I was thoroughly depressed by the commuter experience. My weekend excursions were a pleasure. I relished the sense of excitement and adventure that never completely evaporated even after dozens of trips. On the weekends the solitary rider was the exception as usually two friends or, occasionally, a small group would load onto the bus chattering away all the way to the last stop.

But here I was on this weekday bus enveloped among silent strangers. Those not reading newspapers stared glumly out the windows or at the advertizings in the bus – anything but someone else’s eyes. I was my first day going to a job and the thrill I felt before I arrived at the bus stop lingered, for a while, but wilted about half way to my destination. How many days I wondered have these people taken this bus to work? I began calculating in my head:

52 weeks x 5 days = 260 days per year; minus 7 holidays = 253 days; minus 5 sick days = 248 days; minus 10 days of vacation = 238 days; and commuting for 5 years = 1190 days, or 10 years = 2380 days, and for 20 years = 4760 days! One more month beyond the 20 years and 5,000 days would be accumulated!

This was too depressing, I had to find another way to pass time. I observed that those lucky enough to have seats were mostly reading the morning papers. A few people, usually women, were reading books. If I could access my book from my back pocket, I would be doing the same, but that was impossible given the crush of humanity and the need to hold a strap or pole, or for me both.

Another thing that I noticed was that many of the men sitting had white shirts and ties and, because of the morning heat, folded their suit jackets on the their laps. It dawned on me that those who had seats had gotten on the bus up-route in the richer part of town, while those standing were mainly wearing tieless shirts. There was a class system on this bus even though everyone paid the same fare.

I began to speculate about the jobs all these strangers were going to and had been going to for probably years! While I could only fantasize about the jobs of my early morning cohort, there was one person on the bus whose job I knew immediately – the bus driver. I imagined that he at least had some diversity in his job. While he couldn’t change his route, he did have to be alert to traffic, which was, at least, unpredictable in volume if not always a trap for an accident due to poor driving skills of the auto-bound commuters.

An increasingly miserable ride to the Loop finally ended after 30 minutes. I got off at the last stop to trudge up Randolph Street for more blocks than I wanted to count and realizing that I was early, I took a stroll around the block and finally found myself at the door to the building that housed the “mailing house” were I was to report.