I had never seen anything like it before, it felt as though the Ringling Bros. had invaded the atrium. My boss Miles had tipped me off to the event, and even though I wasn’t due to be in at work until 2 p.m., I trekked in early with my coffee to see if this would live up to the hype.
Miles had voice mailed us producers about this new promotional campaign that Marketing VP Johnny Wake was kicking off on Friday at noon. We all loved Johnny Wake. I remember chatting with Buke one time about Johnny’s antics.
Buke said to me, “Dottie, that Johnny Wake is crazy.”
I replied, “Yeah, but you know what? He is a good kind of crazy.”
Buke just nodded and laughed at the truth of it. Some VPs at the United Shopping Network were evil, and others were dopes. They couldn’t draw up a business plan to sell their way out of a paper bag. Sorry, I digress.
Anyway, in this voice mail on Wednesday, Miles explained the whole God Bless America hoopla, and how Johnny Wake wanted to “kick it up a notch” with our on-air presentations. Miles asked a rhetorical question, “How do we represent America during the live show?”
Well, to me it felt like we were trying to be Eagle Scout wannabes, sucking up to big government, but whatever. As I deleted the voice mail, it struck me that we were launching an all-American product on Friday night at 6 p.m.. Coney Island Hot Dogs. That’s pretty damn American, am I right? So I voice mailed Miles back with one of my hair-brained ideas, and of course he ate it up.
This is how I found myself standing in the atrium on Friday morning, waiting for the hoopla to begin. Office workers had emerged from their cloistered cubicles and stood in small clusters. The atrium at our world headquarters was shaped like a giant egg, with a skywalk splicing across the second level. Two barbershop chairs had been set up by the wall, and an American flag had been draped over the skywalk. As folks streamed in from the four corners of the building, the atrium filled and anticipation grew. A sets and props guy checked the rope pull, which led up to a black billowing curtain. The sun streamed in from the skylights as if God himself was watching over our efforts.
Precisely at 11:55 a.m., we heard a rumble from the cafeteria hallway that grew persistently intense, until four denim and leather clad goateed bikers riding Harley Davidson motorcycles emerged slowly. An American flag wavered on the back of each bike. A shout of cheers erupted, and the bikers responded by revving their engines.
Just as they cut their engines, Johnny Wake appeared at the microphone, which stood at the base of the stairs. The crowd swiveled from the bikers to our illustrious Marketing VP and roared with delight. Johnny wore a pure white leather Evel Knievel style jumpsuit, complete with red and blue stars down his sleeves and pants legs. Aviator sun glasses sat perched on his face, his grin so broad that we were all instantly captivated. Johnny raised his arms in the air as if trying to calm the thunderous hooting crowd, and then he slowly took his glasses off and leaned towards the mic.
“Today, we are launching a new campaign. We are the United Shopping Network. We are the only shopping network wholly owned by Americans, so when the President of our United States spoke about the need to reignite the economy, we listened closely. When the President explained that it is America’s duty to shop, we realized the United Shopping Network needed to show our stripes. Our stars and stripes that is.” Johnny held out his arms again and admired his own suit. The crowd laughed and applauded. “Now I know what some of you are saying, we don’t want to get all political about this, and I hear you. I hear you. But no matter what party we are in – Republican, Democrat, Green Party, or…” Johnny smiled down at the bikers, “even anarchists, we all know we need to do our part to bring this great country out of this rut. Are you ready to do it?”
The crowd cheered loudly. During my occasional trips to cubicle land, I often wondered if the office staff had their water laced with Ambien, but on this day, they had exploded with patriotic fervor. Everyone had smiles, laughs, giggles. Someone in the crowd began chanting, USA! USA! USA!
Watching this, the whole absurdity of it, I couldn’t help but laugh, and that appeared to be the consensus. Johnny raised his arms again to calm the crowd. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more captivating, Johnny asked everyone to hush, and as the atrium quieted, he continued.
“Okay now, so let’s kick this party off with one very special guest – a true American hero. A man who is the living embodiment of our country’s resiliency and a man with a big heart. Ladies and gentleman, let’s hear it for Mr. T!”
And in he strolled, the Mr. T, looking smaller than expected, but dripping in more gold than we had featured in the 4-hour hour Gold Rush Special. The legend’s mohawk glistened as he passed through the sun’s rays and hopped up on-stage. He hugged Johnny as if they were long lost brothers. Mr. T raised Johnny’s hand in the air, and together they struck a championship pose. Two photographers stepped in and snapped a stream of photos, and then Mr. T stepped to the mic.
“Hello great Americans! I don’t have a speech prepared, except you should all be watching the one o’clock show, because I have some great hair clippers for sale. Pity the fool who passes up this great bargain!” He ran his fingers along his mohawk. The crowd chuckled. “I just want you all to get behind this campaign. America needs you. I just want to say that all of you,” and he raised his hands and pointed both index fingers all around the atrium as the place grew silent, “all of you are the real A-team!”
The whole space swelled with laughter and applause. Chants of “USA! USA! USA!” echoed throughout the arena. After a few moments, the noise abated and Mr. T humbly concluded, “God Bless America,” and stepped back, making a motion for the hero in white to take the mic again.
Johnny smiled as he looked over the crowd. “If I could ask you to turn your attention to the monitor above.” Heads tilted up. “Ladies and gentlemen, here is the new United Shopping Network logo.” The screen went white, and a few squiggly blue and red lines inched across and formed a United States flag. After a moment, two strings sprouted out to form handles, transforming the flag into a pocketbook. Underneath, a phrase faded on screen, United We Shop.
Immediately, Johnny Wake called out, “Drop the tarp!”
Heads swiveled again as the black drape fell. The new logo hung from the rafters like a basketball team championship banner.
“We are the United Shopping Network, and starting today, on the air and behind the scenes, we are showing our pride. Wait until you see some of the things we have planned, like in tonight’s 6 p.m. show. Is Dottie here?”
A warm rush ran through my chest when he called my name, and I meekly raised my hand. Fingers pointed my way. Voices shouted, “here she is.”
Johnny finally spotted me, grinned and pointed, acknowledging he was putting me on the spot. “Dottie is one of our coordinating producers and she has some plans for tonight’s 6 p.m. show. If you are near a TV, you want to check it out, it is sure to be an All-American moment!”
Everyone stared at me and started applauding. It was kind of embarrassing, but thank God Johnny diverted them quickly. “Warren, step up here. Show us your guns.”
A manager stepped up to the mic and rolled up the sleeve of his polo shirt. “If you look closely at Warren’s arm here, you might have seen he has been inked. He is wearing our new logo proudly.” Johnny pointed over towards the two barbershop chairs. “We have tattooing stations over there so you can get inked yourself. So step up and secure your own United We Shop tattoos!”
A murmur of confusion shot through the crowd. For a brief second, Johnny look dismayed, but then his lips parted.
“Don’t worry, everyone,” he announced. “These are Cracker Jack style tattoos. We’re not asking you to get permanently branded. Though if you would like a permanent tattoo, if you are that committed, come see me. And, that’s not all! We have free t-shirts for you, and you, and you!” Models emerged from the four hallways and strutted through the crowd, taking the stage next to the daredevil VP. It was all too much.
After watching this spectacle, I have to admit I was a bit stunned. I’d never seen so many employees of the company laugh so much, enjoying the moment. I felt quite privileged to be working at this place, at this specific time. When I checked voice mail, Johnny had even left me a quick message. “Miles told me your plan. There’s nothing that represents America like little leaguers eating hot dogs. Excellent idea, Dottie. Good luck!”
Having a few extra hours before my shift turned out to be a blessing, since my production plans for the Coney Island Hot Dogs were not quite finalized, and I had six other shows to prepare for. Back in the kitchen, our chef assured me he had more than enough frankfurters, buns and mustard, and that the grill on the patio had been cleaned, tested, and confirmed to be in operational order.
The food buyer, a surly, overbearing, dimwitted nobbin I’ll only refer to as G, was a bit of a nag during food shows. Hired only three months ago, G’s previous job as the buyer for a chain of auto goods retailers throughout Arkansas had not trained him well for the lightning speed of our digital business. G continually marveled at our sales tools, scratching his head at this feedback loop we had established with customers. This was a man who had to wait for quarterly reports to learn that five mufflers sold in Birdsong and seven brake pads sold in Pine Grove, now he watched sales of the Sirloin and Crab Cake combo click upwards at clips of 200 boxes a minute. Our technology, our pace, and our direct connection with the customer, overwhelmed G like an Amish man dropped in Times Square on New Year’s eve.
At precisely 5:30, our esteemed guests arrived. The ten-year old boys poured out of mini-vans and giant SUVs, looking resplendent in their red and white baseball uniforms with the logo of their sponsor, American Trust Co., emblazoned in blue on their chests. I rounded the young ballplayers up and lined them along the wall. My son Zach was tickled at the commotion. As a kid who only played the mandated minimum three innings each game–stuck in right field and only getting one at bat–this night gave him a type of street cred among his peers.
Standing next to my Zach was Sammy, a kid with an all-American smile who was nearly as wide as he was tall, providing the requisite girth to stop any pitch, a backstop more than a catcher, though this kid possessed an eagle’s eye and such muscle that he continually stroked the ball like a bull. Alongside Sammy, Mitchell looked like he needed a sandwich, a lanky kid with bright red hair and freckles, who hurled pitches three quarter arm, and continually chewed wads of bubble gum, blowing out pink bubbles until they burst across his face. The boys watched the production scene intently for about ten seconds, before their behavior degenerated into fart noises and tapping the ear of the player next to them. I left them in the capable hands of our floor manager and ran inside to check in at the producer’s desk and escort the official spokesman for Coney Island Hot Dogs out to the set.
Stan the Man Russell had played in the major leagues for fourteen years, mostly with the New York Yankees during their dry spell in the later sixties, before being bumped around the league for the final five lackluster years of his career. He had played ball in the era before free agency, before the big money, so he and his peers were left to squeeze a living out of their semi-celebrity status–signing autographs at card shows and pitching local car dealerships and law firms during late night commercials which aired during re-runs of B movies.
I happened to be at the producer’s desk when Stan hobbled in on arthritic knees with the jumpy food buyer known as G. Stan had a white mop of hair and a red bubbling nose from which protruded a few flecks of white hair that were overdue for a snip with a razor. The old-timer had just autographed a baseball and handed it back to Dylan, who thanked him. Stan studied my face as he shook my hand with a strong grip, and he held it just long enough to give me a lingering case of the heebie jeebies. When he asked, “do you serve beer in the green room?” I smelled bourbon on his breath.
“No Stan, we don’t.”
Stan twisted around and asked nobody in particular, “So who decides how much airtime I get?”
Dylan replied, “That would be me.”
“Do you have anything else you want me to sign?”
It was my job to march Stan into place on the outdoor set. The chef stood over the grill, tending to his craft, the smell of hot dogs wafted through the air.
Through headsets, I overheard Dylan chatting with G, who nervously noted that only a few dozen boxes of the hot dogs had sold from the promotion.
As the presentation began, our host Henry held up the package of forty hot dogs. “These will last you the entire summer,” he said admiringly. “Just think, you will always have some in the freezer ready for your grill when you get home from the pool. Just pop ‘em on the grill and dinner is ready ten minutes later. You can also get this 40-pack on auto-renewal, meaning 40 hot dogs are shipped to your house every month. Mmmmmm…..”
A voice from the control room asked, “who the hell eats forty hot dogs a month?”
Oblivious to the comments, Henry continued. “Now we are so fortunate to have the American Trust Co. baseball team here to show you how awesome these hot dogs are.” He turned to the team, the kids all lined up in their adorable uniforms. The boys looked as happy as if they were on the first base line at Shea Stadium, except Mitchell flipped Sammy’s hat off and Sammy responded by thwacking Mitchell in the crotch. Zach giggled and covered his mouth. Mitchell buckled over laughing, all on live television.
“The kids are up to their antics already, I think these boys are hungry. Boys, are you hungry?”
A shout of cheers emanated from behind and one kid threw his cap in the air, followed by two more.
“Okay,” Henry laughed. “As we serve up some hot dogs, let me introduce you to the legendary baseball player who once wore the Yankee pinstripes. He’s known as the Man with the plan, Stan Russell. Stan, as a ball player who spent his 14-year career in stadiums across this great land of ours, is there anything that complements baseball like a good Cony Island hot dog?”
“No, there isn’t Henry.” Stan the Man looked into the wrong camera and held up a hot dog. I had to point the drunkard to the right camera, you know, the one with the big frickin’ red light on it. Stan shuffled his feet as though he was in the batter’s box. “I’ve eaten hot dogs in every stadium from Boston to San Diego, and I have to tell you that Coney Island hot dogs are the best of the bunch.”
Dylan cracked into headsets, “Stan looks as though he has downed a few dogs since retiring, eh?”
“Yeah, and a few bottles of Bud too.”
After a few moments of listening to Stan drone on, Dylan sighed, “let’s tag him often when he is up. Nobody remembers this old-timer. We need to show the kids anyway. Are you ready with the kids?”
Each boy now nervously held a hot dog with both hands, waiting for their cue. I clicked my box on. “Kids are armed and ready.”
As Henry and Stan discussed the misconception that hot dogs are fattening, the cameraman slowly worked his way down the row of ball players, briefly stopping to watch each freckle face take a bite. Each kid closed their eyes after their bite, as if in some type of pork induced ecstasy. The melodrama was a bit much, but they were so damned cute I let it go. Stepping carefully behind the cameraman, I held my fingers up to my cheeks, miming a reminder for each kid to smile, and to just take one bite.
Through headsets, Dylan exclaimed customers were responding. “They’re eating this up,” he quipped. The sales screen jumped. These adorable faces were driving the presentation, causing a tremendous spike in sales. Apparently, America loves little leaguers chowing down.
“That was great. Dottie, let us know when you are ready for round two,” Dylan called out. “I think the less we see of Stan the better.”
When I stepped in to reload, half the kids had already eaten their whole hot dog and were now restless. I motioned to the chef who lovingly prodded another round onto fresh rolls and drizzled mustard on each one. I tapped our production assistant, Jake, on the shoulder.
“I have to chat with Dylan. Give the kids another round, but don’t let them eat unless they are on camera.”
Jake nodded. “No problem.” The chef handed him a full plate.
Inside at the producer’s desk, G had just approached Dylan and bent over the desk. I knew this must be riling Dylan, so I stopped over to run interference.
“How’s it looking?”
G stared intently at the monitor as the camera showed the kids gorging on another round of hot dogs. The sales had spiked and hundreds of customers were waiting to chat with a live operator.
“They are loving the kids, aren’t they?” G stated with the joy of a child who has just found cash in his birthday card.
“They seem to be.” The truth is, there were more orders coming in than the operators could handle. Customers were starting to experience a wait, and Dylan had to give folks time to place their orders. “We’ll ride the queue here, I don’t want folks waiting too long.”
“Can we just keep the camera on the kids the whole show?” G asked.
“Pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered,” Dylan replied.
“Dude, we’ve slaughtered everything on the farm for this inventory. Stuff it down their throats. Let’s pack the till, baby!”
Dylan looked up at the buyer with dismay. G was sweating and his hand kept tapping the desktop, like an addict just about to score. Dylan’s stare finally sunk in and G realized he had outworn his welcome. He patted Dylan on the back and hightailed it back to the green room.
When Dylan was on his game, nobody surfed the queue like he did. He was like a baseball pitcher in the middle of a shutout or a cello player performing a solo at Radio City Music Hall. He showed the kids and the calls spiked, he’d return to Stan and give the operators time to catch up, before returning to the kids. At one point, Dylan stood, twisted around and peered out over the operators. For a second, I thought he might take a bow. All heads were down though, intently taking orders. As he worked through the inventory, Dylan threw up a quantity counter, 1807 orders taken. He wanted to go for the sell out, and I could see he was going to be close.
“I’m heading back out there,” I told him.
Halfway down the hall towards the outdoor set, I heard Dylan say, “I want another pass at the kids.”
“Dylan. I don’t know about this.”
“I’m gonna try. Come on Dottie, one more pass. We’re going to sell enough hot dogs tonight to feed a poor third world country.”
Out on the set, the kids ate their hot dogs more slowly. A few faces seemed pained. As the camera passed down the row, Zach cringed and held his stomach. The camera passed to Sammy, who had proven to be a beast. “If anyone can pack it in, this kid can,” A voice from the control room declared.
Henry smiled, turned and asked Sammy, “How many hot dogs is that for you, son?”
Sammy stuffed the final few inches of a hot dog into his pie hole with his right hand, and he wasn’t stopping to audibly answer this dumb man’s question. Instead, he raised his left hand and lifted one finger, then two, three, four. He slowly flexed out his thumb. At the same time, Sammy’s right hand finished inserting a nub of a casing into his mouth, his cheeks puffed out like a foraging squirrel. The boy’s jaws hinged with the torque of a trash truck crusher and he stuck his index finger in the air to signal this was indeed his sixth foot long hot dog.
Henry marveled at the thought. “Six hot dogs, do you see how good these are?”
At that moment, Sammy’s mouth locked shut and his face colored into a tint of eggshell green, and then Sammy spewed on live television. It was a tremendous sight. A fountain of muddy brick colored beef chunks swirled with a yellow tempura and soggy chunks of white dough. The ensuing splatter on the flagstone echoed like the stream of an opened fire hydrant on a hot summer day. Years later, the clip of Sammy’s projectile vomiting would be studied by Hollywood special effects experts to improve their craft in the making of the Exorcist 7.
“Get off him!”
“Oh the poor kid!”
Dylan just declared, “Oh, shit.”
As I cleaned Sammy’s face off with a wet paper towel, Dylan exclaimed, “those t-calls dropped faster than a mobster in cement shoes.”
“Is that poor kid okay?”
“I think we just killed the goose.”
The presentation wrapped quickly after that fiasco, our floor manager escorted Henry inside, leaving me and the crew to clean up. Jake squirted the slate flagstones clean with the hose. The sun set behind our colossal building. As I lifted the cardboard lid off of a box of brand new baseballs, the boys closed in. Once each fresh, young face had a baseball in hand, we approached Stan. “The boys here would like to get autographs.”
Stan stared blankly, first at me, and then at the kids scattered around. Sammy stood in their midst, a giant wet spot across the front of his chest from being blotted with paper towels. Despite his public purging, the boy appeared to be resilient, laughing with his friends as they patted him on the back, as though his act was a badge of courage or an American rite of passage.
“I’d like to get to a TV,” Stan replied. “Do you know who’s winning the Yankees game? I have some money riding on that game, and I’m ready for a beer.”
Much to his dismay, the ball players closed in on the old timer. Some boys smiled in anticipation, their eyes sparkling with wonder, while others looked skeptical, unsure whether they believed this old man had really ever worn the pinstripes.
There wasn’t much nice to be said at that moment, so I bit my tongue, uncapped the Sharpie and held it out until he had no choice but to take it.