Chapter Six. A new couple walks into the coffee shop. I recognize the girl as Elise Snow, a girl who probably doesn’t know me from Adam but who I have noticed on occasion playing the shrinking violet at some poetry readings and half-hearted political rallies. As I try to recall if I know for sure whether Elise is over 21 (she doesn’t look like it), I realize that I have never seen the man before. He is dressed in all black, fedora tipped to the side, and walks with a slight limp.
Elise obviously doesn’t know him very well. At this date, October 20th, most people have already paired off, and apparently Elise is one of the few remaining ones. Perhaps the man has just moved here; he doesn’t seem to have the same air of desperation that I read off of Elise. Elise is a marketeer’s dream; she really just wants to fit in, and ends up doing a lot of things that she regrets in that vein. If we were to offer her a place in life where she felt comfortable being herself, we would gain her utmost loyalty. I make a mental note to attack this demographic at work: an ad campaign around being yourself, but phrased in such a way that you can have a support group doing it.
Elise seems unsure whether she wants to be seen with the man. She has her usual game face on, the mixture of undeveloped coquettishness and her endemic bashful nature, but she is leaning away from him. A sign of ambivalence: usually a sign of irritated dislike, but given Elise’s personality as well as the fact that she is plainly not on her first date with this man, I feel comfortable reading only indecision into it. Elise quickly scans the room for acquaintances. As I watch her eyes, I get the sense that she is calculating, that things might happen tonight which she wants to have the option to annul, and that she is trying to figure out whether it will get back to the culture which she probably considers herself a part of.
She misses me. Elise and the gentleman sit down at a side table, with the gentleman having three tables behind him before the corner and Elise having one. I am at the corner across from their wall and behind Elise. I feel like either a rat or a spy. It is evident that I cannot get up and leave, for in doing so I will offend and mortify Elise. My hot chocolate is slowly disappearing. I inconspicuously huddle in the corner.
Elise and the gentleman are talking about people I do not know, which is unusual. She is trying to get into the conversation, trying to be animated. I hear bits and pieces of their shared background. Apparently they have a common friend, possibly the gentleman’s roommate, who has started to date Elise’s sister. Elise is impassioned about this; as the conversation develops, I realize that the animation is not pretend, and I lean forward listening before I realize I am doing so. Elise feels very strongly that this common friend, Charlie, should not be dating her sister. It is not classic date material. There are no lines of laughter on her face.
The man nods and replies in a deep, unsettling voice that I cannot pick all the words out of. I think he is saying that Charlie is a good guy and that he isn’t going to do anything to hurt Elise’s sister, who I have gathered is named Johanna or possibly its homophone doppelganger Joanna. But his diction is so strange. He is obviously not from around here. He pauses at all the wrong times. Elise is trying to keep up with this stilted diction. There is no pretense of romantic interest in her face anymore.
The man is getting frustrated by Elise’s religious conviction regarding the inappropriateness of Charlie for Johanna. Elise is not citing reasons so much as she is pleading. Why is she talking to him about this? Why is she not talking to Charlie, who she obviously knows? Why are they in a coffeehouse reserved mostly for the fireflies flashing to each other before the dark cloud of winter prevents lucid communication? As I am pondering these questions, the man in the fedora throws his hands up in the air in an expression of powerlessness, and walks out. I have never known Elise to inspire such emotion in anyone.
Elise doesn’t leave. She is obviously lost in thought, sitting back in her chair staring at the ceiling. I am obviously not the only one who has noticed the conversation. I can see a gay couple in the corner thinking about whether or not to go over and ask if she’s okay. They’re allowed to do things like that; they’re gay.
I have no intention of hitting on Elise. This winter I am going to spend by myself. I am going to write, and I am going to enjoy life at Villa, and I am going to spend time discovering myself. It is not a mid-life crisis so much as it is making up for lost time. The past two winters, I have done very little thinking and a lot of going with the flow. It’s not that I mind the Midwestern lifestyle, not really; it’s just not really time for a third straight winter. I need some time off.
But I am curious about her, and about this Johanna and this Charlie and the man in the fedora. So I walk out while she is lost in thought and come back in the other entrance. The gay couple notices this ploy and smirks as I pretend to be unable to recall how I know her. The problem, of course, is that neither of us is really in a mood to flirt, and that’s the only thing this coffeehouse lends itself to. I don’t really feel comfortable talking about the situation which I am pretending not to have witnessed, and she has put her face of indifference back on, mostly successfully except for the shine on her neck where the sweat or tears ran down a few minutes ago.
I ask Elise what she is doing here alone, because no one comes to these places alone. The gay couple’s smirk intensifies into a titter, since they saw me leave alone and come back alone. I shoot them a murderous glance while Elise is busy composing herself.
Elise flat-out lies. She says that she felt trapped inside the house and was looking for something to do before the winter sets in. She mentions, as if to divert me, that she is spending next weekend in Wisconsin installing drywall in a friend’s cabin. She is on her third sentence about drywall before I can stop her. I am now even more curious, but I am overmatched; there is no way to get from drywall to Johanna and Charlie via the rules of conversation in our environment.
So I slip back into conversation mode, freestyling around the space of conversational topics, making no attempt to clumsily steer things towards this strange situation. Elise treats me with the same arm’s length unsureness she seems to treat everyone. In the course of the conversation, I realize that I am greatly enjoying talking to this girl, but for all the wrong reasons. My curiosity has given me the first impression of Elise as interesting and worthwhile, and I am looking for this in her everywhere. She is a shadowy, mysterious figure in my mind, the type I have been lacking for some time, and I am trying to do everything to intensify this illusion, objectively astonishingly inconsistent with the mousy girl who sits before me talking about drywall and a brother who is in the Army. No mention of Johanna.
And just like that, the conversation is over, Elise walking out the door with some excuse about having to get up tomorrow. I scrutinize her as she leaves, watching her gait quicken. She is going to deal with this Johanna situation. A series of incongruous images pop into my mind. Elise in jail, arrested for the murder of Charlie Somebody. Elise shouting at a man without a face. Johanna, a younger version of Elise, being yelled at by the man in the fedora. Judith at dinner with Jared Lumpkin. Julie Kenner in San Francisco. I snap back into reality and quickly leave the coffeehouse, but a glance left and a glance right reveals no Elise, who has apparently left in a cloud of dust.
I try to remember whom I know that I’ve seen Elise with. After a few minutes I come up with Jeremy Bonner, a perfectly inoffensive, average-looking man from Duluth who follows the Vikings from a mathematician’s perspective, his casual life filled with numbers. Jeremy Bonner is the opposite of me. I am in a quantitative profession, and have delusions about becoming an artist; Jeremy, by day, works at an art gallery, and to balances this aesthetic vocation out, by night he pores through football statistics to figure out how the game works on paper. I don’t think he even particularly enjoys watching football.
Jeremy does not work at the art gallery because of any deep-rooted love of art, but rather because of a deep-rooted love of girls who like art. He’s in Minneapolis because the art museum in Duluth gets around ten visitors per day, most of whom are elderly couples. Apparently the scene in Duluth is a microcosm of the scene here; as the only city in Northern Minnesota, it attracts anyone who lives within 200 miles and possesses anything resembling an eclectic street. But unlike Minnesota, the scene is not sufficiently small to be self-sustaining even during the summer, resulting in a lot of downtime. The mating game there starts earlier, both in years and in seasons, as people clamber to find mates in June, with higher failure rate and consequently a higher proportion of people getting married each year.
So Jeremy, a philanderer at heart, moved to Minneapolis, finding a job at one of the city’s edgier galleries, frequented by attractive if crazy and often lesbian young women. He has been here for two years, and as I recall is two-for-two in finding people to spend the winter with.
The next day, after having gotten a mediocre night’s worth of sleep due to futile attempts to deduce the particulars of Elise’s situation, I took a half-day at Villa (compensating by doing more work in that half-day than in a usual full day) and go to the art gallery where Jeremy works, in a surprisingly commercial district on the fringes of downtown. The bright colors of its front stand out even more against the drab stoic backdrop; the locals avoid it like a pink elephant, walking on the other side of the street or at least curving away from its sharp red door when they pass it, their pace quickening so they can get past it without having to breathe in.
Jeremy was on a break when I got there, so I walked around the gallery for a few minutes surveying the paintings of the collective Minnesotan creative mind. The paintings looked lost and random to me, as if people had thrown a bunch of ideas into the paint, mixed thoroughly, and then put together the first few that came out with the reds and baby blues, brightened pastel colors that embody what passes for brightened creative spirit here. One painting struck me; the left side had a young man looking at the camera, dressed in a caricature of the flannel once favored by teenagers and surrounded by attractive girls. On the right-hand side was an old man, alone, and I gathered that he was supposed to bear enough resemblance to the young man to represent an aged version of him. He was withered, still staring at the camera, and wearing the same flannel to keep himself warm. The painting was a critique of the throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude of youth, a critique of a critique of conventional values, and looked like the last work of an artist before he or she hung up the paintbrush to start a family. It was also awful.
Jeremy walked in as I was looking at this picture, and as I turned I saw the woman at the counter motioning to me. Jeremy raised his hand in greeting as I walked towards him. “Hey, Harold,” he intoned, his level work voice conveying to me that this was not really the time for socialization and that I should also adopt my business persona. “Hi, Jeremy,” I replied precisely. “Can I talk to you outside for a minute?” “Well, you can see how crowded it is,” he cracked smoothly, waving his hand at the deserted gallery. Pausing half a second for effect, he continued with a “Let’s go” and strode confidently out the door, me following.
After a bit of the obligatory small-talk, I started. “Hey, you know Elise Snow, right?”
“Yeah,” Jeremy replied.
“I saw her in Warm Seasonings the other day. She seemed pretty flustered, I was wondering what was going on with her. She said something about her sister.”
“She doesn’t have a sister,” Jeremy said. “Are you sure it was her?”
“Yeah, definitely. Her sister is named, maybe, Johanna or something?”
“Johanna is her … roommate,” Jeremy temporized.
“You mean girlfriend?”
“Yeah. I wasn’t sure if she was out to everyone.”
This was good. I promised not to tell Jeremy that he had divulged Elise’s lesbian nature to me, and I knew that he wouldn’t say anything to her about my visit for the same reason. So Elise was a lesbian. No real news there; it explained a lot of her equivocating behavior regarding guys. She flirted to fit in, because the mood in the underground was generally flirty, but she didn’t get to the point of having actual relationships with them. But if she and Johanna were dating, where did Charlie come in? Was this the polyamorous trend I had heard so much about? If so, why was Elise worried about Charlie hurting Johanna? And why was she talking to the man in the fedora about it? I replayed the snippets of the conversation that I had overheard, looking for inconsistencies, but the recording had, as all memories do, lost something, having become more faded with each passing hour. I tried to remember when I had concluded that Johanna was Elise’s sister. Perhaps she had never said that.
I didn’t have much time to think about it. The next day, at work, I was given my first project as a research coordinator. For the first two weeks at this new level, I had been supervising the continuing projects of my predecessor, getting to know my AC team and generally trying to be hands-on and talk about ideas with them, Calhoun’s approach having been a spectacular failure; he had been unceremoniously dumped in the height of summer, a rarity with the generally large demand. I was promoted in October, which was usual: a learning period for a month, followed by some downtime to get up to speed on the lifestyle of the new job. But here it was, October 22nd, and I was taking on a new case.
The campaign was for an investment firm from New York, Calloway and Barton, two east-coast names that I knew from day one would be a tough sell to the xenophobic mindset of Minnesota. They were trying to break into the Minnesota market; their idea was to teach people how to fish, and then sell them fishing gear. Calloway and Barton had been very successful in New York holding seminars on how to use their proprietary research and tools, and then selling the data to their clients. This was very appealing to the elite former humanities majors in New York, who wanted to grow their money but didn’t know anything about the market; C&B’s lessons focused on some very basic principles of investment, dumbing things down to a couple of euphemized numbers, “momentum” for a certain function of the company’s balance sheet, and “value” for some function very similar to P/E ratio. There were others for those who wanted to go more in-depth, but basically C&B taught the consumer a simple method of growing their money.
C&B was basically a scam. They sold the data from the companies, as well as a spreadsheet that would compute things, and sure enough their customer’s money grew. The scam part was that C&B underperformed the market by a substantial margin. It worked because it gave the innumerate opera singers of New York the feeling that they were hooking into this technology thing, that they were using their underappreciated quantitative selves. These people had their money under their mattress; they weren’t making ten percent off an index fund. To them it was a success, bringing investing to the sphere of the common man in a language they could understand, taking it away from the finance sharks who were the natural enemy of these soft liberals.
I figured all this out by taking a C&B seminar. One of the things we always did with new clients was to ask them to give us a sample of their product, so we could appraise it better. The C&B seminar took five hours, and for quantitatively inclined me it was a ridiculous waste of time. But I saw how it could appear to Minnesotans. Minnesotans, like opera singers, tend to have their money under their mattress. Investing via C&B’s method would be better for them than leaving it there. One good thing about C&B’s method was that it was fairly low-risk; their algorithm tended to avoid stocks that might be on the verge of collapse. In reality, there was little correlation between their stated “collapse percentage” and the actual rate of collapse of stocks, but no one who would use their product could possibly notice that. Small sample size is a wonderful thing for a company; you can imply that something has a 60% chance of happening when it’s really 55%, and no one will ever notice unless they run hundreds of trials, which no one risks in the stock market. I doubt anyone ever noticed that the “collapse percentage” wasn’t really in line with the empirical rate of collapse of the stocks.
But this potential collapse was niftly avoided by other indicators. It was a horrible product for a quantitative thinker, but it performed relatively well for the very casual investor. As long as the market didn’t crash, but presumably if that happened, C&B would just close up shop, keeping the profits from the monthly subscriptions to data sources and the sale of their software. It was not a publicly traded company; its cash flow was fantastic, and it went right into the pockets of its owners.
My contact at C&B was a surprisingly young VP, Benjamin Stanton, who I later learned was 27 and Calloway’s nephew. Stanton was full of the energy that only a man who has never really known any hardship can have. He was the son of Calloway’s sister and a professional athlete who had made a comfortable living on a car dealership after his playing career was over; by the time Stanton was seven, he was set for life. Calloway and Burton was coming into its own about the time he graduated from college, and Stanton, like me, got a job there through a family connection. We were both Harvard grads, which I think is why I was assigned to the case. Unlike me, Stanton seemed to buy into the Harvard mystique, so I slipped into good-old-boy mode, knocking back a few beers with him after our talking was done, making a firm ally of Benjamin Stanton. We were in it together, after all.
Stanton was in charge of heading up this Midwest expansion project. C&B had picked Minneapolis as a place to expand because they wanted to try out their model in a test ground before hitting Chicago, where there was more at stake. Stanton and his Harvard-bred wife had always wanted to try the Midwest, so he volunteered for the assignment, exuberance and all.
Stanton was a good choice for the job. For one thing, he himself was a humanities major; he truly believed in the power of C&B to better the lives of ordinary citizens. He was good at delegating; he instinctively thought of people as his friends, and once I had gained his trust, he was perfectly willing to let me make all of the decisions regarding the advertising campaign. We were a good match; I would tell him the theories and possibilities that had filtered in from my AC’s, spinning the ones I thought would work positively, and he would gamely choose the card I was forcing on him like a magician with a rigged deck. This was Stanton’s test ground, but it was also mine; it was the first case where I really had autonomy, the first case that I could run how I wanted to.
Over the next couple of weeks, energized by the bright-eyed Stanton (who I always thought of as being younger than me, even though he was two years older), I started for the first time taking my work home with me. Elise Snow and her world took a back seat; I was more interested in how to formulate C&B’s seminar to appeal to Minnesotans. To New Yorkers, the difference between C&B and the harsh world was clear; C&B was friendly, was a breath of fresh air in an ambition-filled world. Minnesotans would value this, to be sure, but they might not even notice it.
In a sense, this was our fault. Villa’s friendly brand of advertising had become the norm in the area, and was starting to develop strains of friendly-resistant Minnesotans. Minnesotans did not see a friendly ad and pay attention to it for novelty value; they simply kept driving. It succeeded in aligning the company with them, but for a new company like C&B this wasn’t enough. Since C&B had no actual offices, there was no concrete image to put in the Minnesotan mind; selling the concept of investing would be trickier than selling a salon, or a public library, or a restaurant. The insidious implanting of brand recognition in the depths of the consumer’s mind was not going to work as well for C&B; there was nothing to bring it out of the depths, no storefront they might be walking by, no haircut it would occur to them to get. Unlike, say, Jethro, C&B also didn’t solve any problems that Minnesotans might have, nor did it integrate easily into their lives.
It would be a tough sell, but I relished it. One of my AC’s suggested that we position C&B as a company that helps you get ahead; not entirely coincidentally, he was fired soon afterwards. Life here is not about getting ahead; this is not a concept that Minnesota, as a rule, embraces. Life is about fulfilling modest dreams of driveways, garages, and winter snuggle partners. Even if a Minnesotan’s life would be helped by having more money from investment, they are not going to think of things that way.
I spent many days thinking about C&B, until I realized that the winter had set in. I recalled Elise Snow, but she was now presumably securely tucked away with Johanna (unless maybe Johanna had chosen Charlie, if that was what was going on?), inaccessible until the snow melted, like keys dropped in a field before the onset of the snow cover. C&B was a tough nut to crack.
My AC’s, except for the one who was dispatched, were a pretty game bunch, coming up with ideas pilfered from previous marketing campaigns, just as I had learned to do as an AC. But nothing quite fit with C&B. Stanton and I would meet with each of them in turn, and they would offer up sign designs or bus ads, but nothing really seemed quite right. It was tough for them; they didn’t really have the data for this sort of thing. The other cases, they did fine on; they were merely refinements of previous campaigns, or pretty straightforward applications of analogy and basic advertising tenets already proven in the field.
C&B was different. It was only one of four cases under my control, but it took 80% of my creative mind. It was a new possibility, a new opportunity for some really fun thought. Stanton and I stayed up late nights, his wife bringing us tea, chatting about Harvard, about Minneapolis, about life. It really did remind me of college, where I would have exceedingly pointless existential conversations with people I barely knew, occasionally waking up confused on somebody’s couch the next day.
Around mid-November I came up with an idea. Instead of selling C&B as a money-making operation, why not sell it as a game? C&B’s interface to their software was charmingly user-friendly; why not just enthrall Minnesotans’ artistic underbellies with pretty numbers? I tried the tagline “Look at all the big, pretty numbers!” on my AC’s, to mixed reviews. But I thought I had cracked the case. Stanton, by now a sycophant to my advertising ideas (not knowing any better himself), was all for it. So, with the blessing of my boss, who had the final say, we rolled out the campaign. Profit took a backseat to fun; more precisely, “Fun* for the whole family,” with the corresponding footnote “* and profit” hiding ashamed at the bottom of the sign. The C&B interface, in brilliant color, was the background.
My AC’s were not used to working so hard during the winter. With the ample resources of C&B, we blitzed the Minneapolis winter with these colorful ads, standing out against the snow falling steadily by now, gathering secondary data aggressively. Sales were slow, but we were getting an idea of how C&B’s brand was implanted in the consciousness of Americans.
One of the reasons advertising has been so successful at infiltrating our lives is that it applies statistics. It is amazing how few fields use a data-driven method; to pick one arbitrary example, clothing companies are awful at determining what the market wants and what it will pay for it, with often hilarious results which set the fashionistas back a generation in their quest to take over the world. Similarly, millions of dollars in professional sports contracts are handed out by owners with no real concept of statistical analysis. Anyone who runs the figures will immediately recognize that the best strategy for a professional sports franchise is to pay out the minimum possible salaries; the incentives in terms of fan loyalty to individual players, as well as in terms of more fans being drawn to a winning team, do not even begin to approach the savings gained by paying players absolutely nothing. And yet this is not done.
In advertising, we gather far more data than the consumer realizes. Think we don’t know how many people are looking at our street signs? Wrong – many signs have mini-cameras in them, monitoring if people and cars slow down as they are passing. A 30-second spot in the Super Bowl costs $300,000 because a good advertiser needs only 30 seconds, watched by 100 million people, to deliver a subtle message which, years later, will lead to one one-hundredth of those 100 million people choosing United Crematoria to dispose of their parents’ remains. One million people times $50 of profit equals 50 million, well worth the initial $300,000 investment. In today’s game of virtual money, where there is always capital willing to be invested as long as you have a slick pitch, advertising rules everything.
The ubiquity of advertising is due to technology as well as statistics. Those mini-cameras used to be expensive, but now they are down to $300 a pop – nothing compared to the amounts of money Villa gets for its work. The microphones that record the intonation of the customer ordering a particular product at Uncle Zapata’s Taqueria gather all of the feedback which is needed to design a perfect product name, and cost virtually nothing. While most fields are backwards in this respect, advertising has quickly assimilated new technology to give it an advantage wherever possible. After all, this continual search for market share has been going on for decades; the competition between advertisers mirrors the competition between car companies (for instance) that they control like a puppeteer with marionettes. In a field based on competition rather than any direct value, technology is not something to be suspicious of. If it were possible to genetically engineer ads, we would do it without hesitation.
So we put up these garish ads for C&B, measuring the reactions of the passers-by with cameras, generating countless statistics on reaction time that fed to the AC’s. Every now and then Stanton relayed data from the head office about people calling up from Minneapolis, but they were amateur data miners and didn’t really know what to look for in their brief sales-pitch conversation. We didn’t get much useful out of them.
Still, we were gathering data pretty well during the slow winter season, and I felt like the advertisements were telling us useful things about C&B, and that we could deploy them to great advantage in the spring. In mid-December, though, C&B pulled funding for the project. Apparently their attempts to expand to Europe were enjoying far greater success, and they preferred to invest their resources to that market rather than trying to conquer the Midwest. Stanton, whose enthusiasm for Minnesota was waning a bit as he and his wife were ambushed by blizzard after blizzard, was pulled out of the project, recalled to New York. He expressed regret and ambivalence about leaving, the regret and ambivalence only a man who knows he will be happy can have. I’m sure he will go on to do great things.
In mid-December, the freeze already well underway, I was alone, with no particular impetus. I had been counting on work and introspection to get me through this winter, and with the former drying up, I turned myself to the latter. But all I found in my mind was Elise Snow. It was like in those old scare films about the atomic bomb that they showed us in elementary school – a child on a swing, reaching the height of her pendulous arc, flash-framed as the atomic bomb went off, the afterimage lingering on the screen as the sinister mushroom cloud came closer and closer. Elise Snow was the last thing I had seen before the snowfall of winter, and the afterimage was what I kept coming back to as I tried to examine my soul.
Circumstance is a very strange creature. If the Elise thing had happened in June or July, it would probably have reached its no-doubt-uninteresting conclusion, but because it happened in October, it was on my mind. I tried to solve it like I would solve an advertising problem, but for some reason it would not go away; it had frozen in my brain, and it wasn’t thawing out.