Chicago, April 1995: I’m sitting in my office on the 26th floor of the Leo Burnett building watching the sailboats go by when the telephone rings; it’s Michael Conrad, our Worldwide Creative Director, and he has a question: “What do you know about Korea?”, he asks. “Nothing”, I said – and that’s how I got the job.
The things that happen after a conversation like that are as unpredictable as the conversation itself. Michael had never called me before. Consider a life in the corporate cornfields of Illinois and contrast that with any image of Korea you might have. If you can say Kimchi and Hyundai you’re better off than most. To this day Korea remains a strange and isolated land – in 1995 even more so. Efforts to explain and unmask the country by foreigners have been largely rebuffed by the Koreans themselves. Of all the Asian countries outside of Japan, Korea is the only one not to have been a direct subject of European colonization. That dubious honor, more popularly known as Imperialism, was accomplished by the Japanese themselves in 1910 and lasted until end of WWII – thus cementing Korea’s timidity with foreign culture and rendering it psychologically understandable. Referred to by mariners in the 1800s as the Hermit Kingdom, Korea has come a long way in the last hundred years or so, but what I was about to find in 1995 would not have been so much different than what any explorer or missionary might have found in 1895: A Hermit Kingdom – a peninsular culture, devoid of surrounding countries on three sides, content to be on their own without foreign intervention – and maybe one reason not a single member of our company’s senior management had ever been there. I was about to become an argonaut – an advertising argonaut.
A mix of Midwestern mysticism and surreality pervaded the floor reserved for senior management at Leo Burnett. Imagine the rows of big, stuffy old portraits of founders you might find in a brokerage or legal firm replaced by small black and white triptics of our chubby, bald and decidedly unattractive founder, smoking a cigarette – ash dropping to his lapels, carrying an overstuffed presentation bag or working in his garden on a farm in rural Illinois . The personality cult, formed around this funny looking little man named Leo Burnett, is legendary to staff, branded by the company as Burnetters – but to actually have been in the belly of the beast on a mission of global importance, 25 years after the old boy’s death, was well, bizarre. Oh sure, the Burnett agency was a 12 billion dollar global corporation with 85 offices around the globe, but Leo himself had been a simple man, not given to the trappings of wealth, privilege or global travel – so the spare environs in this shrine to the founder stood in stark contrast to the offices of the new kings of commerce who had come to inherit Leo’s empire on this particular floor. Sure, I knew many of the people there but as a mere Vice President in a company of 2300, I was a peon – and this was big stuff. There were at least two levels of management between my level and theirs. Me and the big boys didn’t exactly stand around the water cooler and chew the fat on Monday mornings.
I had been on the corporate floor only a few times, once for my initial interview and a few other times for major presentations in the board room, but on this particular day I was left to find my own way to Michael Conrad’s office, a man I had met maybe once in my six years at the company. It was certainly not my morning run to the pisser.
To say that Michael was smooth would be an understatement. Michael was a charming meticulous working class German who, having sold a majority stake in his agency in Berlin, had arrived in Chicago to a position of corporate nobility that had probably eluded most of his contemporaries in the old country. Before there was a dot-com bubble there was an advertising agency bubble, growing bigger and bigger, and Michael had sold out to a global behemoth, my global behemoth, in the 80s – just before industry bubble popping had become a routine form of American business life. And Michael was global – something none of the ham-fisted Chicago boys, not even the Northwestern grads, could ever approximate – and something the company desperately needed. Michael knew this implicitly.
In his lilting German accent, he showed me clever samples of his personal work from Germany and played on my creative consciousness and love of a simple idea, eloquently executed. I had, in fact, been one of the most awarded creative directors at the company and my work for Nintendo, Sony and Miller Beer had contributed to the company being named Agency of the Year along with other similarly prestigious honors in the early 90s – so Michael’s making “creativity” the meat of the package was no miscalculation. He told me that my “job” was to raise the creative standards of the local branch, to make the product better – and I took the bait like a lamb to the slaughter. That Korea would be my canvas just made it all that much more interesting.
To research Korea at the Chicago Institute of Art you get pottery – little bits of Koryo Dynasty Celadon that simply tell you how beautiful it was for royals to pour water or more inspiring spirits, but historically worthless in terms of cultural communication. As an art history student, the art museum had always been my home. What one couldn’t learn in text, I believed you could learn in pictures – but no pictures presented themselves. Whilst the Institute in Chicago may still be the leading museum in the world outside of Paris for French Impressionism, it runs painfully shy of oriental exhibits, as many American collections do. But the lack of paintings seems to be more of a Korean phenomena. Even today, Leeum, the Samsung museum of fine art in Seoul, boasts a startling lack of painted historical works – despite an entire building filled with exquisitely lit pottery – mostly post 18th century paper work from the Jeosun dynasty and little in the way that one has become accustomed to seeing the Europeans and even Japanese and Chinese depict their cultures. Whether this is due to destruction from the war, pillaging under the Japanese occupation, or simple lack of preference on behalf of the Koreans themselves is a matter for art historians to ponder. I was a man on a business mission and I needed more than pottery shards to begin to get a handle on what I would be up against.
The Business Bookstore in Chicago was a slightly better find but ever so slightly better – remember, that Amazon.com did not publicly open it’s website until July of that year. Dealing strictly in business it was full of some of the world’s finest tomes on the subject, including global and business psychology. My search for Korea turned up just two books that day: Introduction to Korean History and Culture, still available and regarded at the time as an acceptable primer, and A Guide to Doing Business In Korea, written by an insurance man with many outdated stories and cultural mis-leadings – not so helpful then – useless now and well out of print.
To this day, despite a plethora of titles on Amazon, there remain a very small number of good and accurate books on Korea. Troubled Tiger by Mark Clifford remains the definitive volume on Korea’s business culture and rise to economic prominence, and Michael Breen’s The Koreans gives a balanced and warmly reflected account of a society in transition. Should you desire an objective perspective on Korea’s social and economic advances, both of these books come highly recommended and are published both in English and Korean.
There were also a few travel books but no installment by one of my favorite travel guides, the Let’s Go series, authored by Harvard University students on holiday. In 1995, Korea was not a prime destination for Harvard students and apparently has not yet become one. Despite the society’s remarkable and singular advances as a nation over the last 60 years, the country is conspicuously absent from the Let’s Go series’ otherwise comprehensive coverage of Asia. (Click on image to enlarge) Note to Harvard Business School students: Korea, the 10th wealthiest nation on earth, is now a member of the WTO and the OECD, has seen their president, Kim Dae Jung, win the Nobel Peace Prize and currently presents Ban Ki Moon as Secretary General to the United Nations – that’s South Korea, by the way, if you need directions.
Dropping dramatically below skyscraper height and guiding itself along the harbor, just meters above the fleeting junks that routinely crossed the harbor, our flight was one of the last to land at Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport. From the opening credits of a James Bond film with Roger Moore in the role, this was one of the most famous and exhilarating approaches in the world – a Hong Kong no one sees today landing at stylish Chep Lap Kok airport, courtesy of architect Norman Foster, and being shuttled to the city on a quiet high-speed train.
Our Hong Kong was one of expat exotica and oriental mystique. We were being sent there on our way to Korea to meet the regional managing director of Burnett. Nancy, my wife of ten years, and I were booked into the Regent Hotel, voted “Best Hotel in the World” in 1995, on Causeway bay in Kowloon looking towards the architectural mélange that was and continues to be Hong Kong – but 18 hours in flight, even in first class, can take the luxury out of almost anywhere. We dutifully settled into our suite, overlooking the harbor, only to fall asleep moments later – comforted by the fact that there were English speaking people at the helm should the opium wars crank up again.
Upon waking we had the lure of HK at our beck and call. I went out for a run along the winding streets of Lan Qui Fong while my wife found that particular lure to be completely and totally resistible. Leaving the grounds of the world’s finest hotel one was immediately confronted by as close to the antipode as one could get – a labyrinth of small winding streets packed with vegetable vendors and I didn’t know what for sale – everything – God knows, everything. Trash piled up on curbs and ladies throwing wastewater from third storey windows to the surprise of only American joggers and absolutely no one else – a million misunderstood odors seeping through my pores and a cacophony of exotic language that spoke clearly, audibly and without translation.
“You have no fucking idea where you are or what you are doing”, they said.
“Amazing”, I could understand Chinese perfectly!
Returning to the hotel I comforted Nancy by arranging a late-day massage for the two of us in the hotel club. Then it was off to the waterfront to see what two people who had never been to this city before could see.
Boarding one of the ubiquitous Star Ferries that routinely cross the bay, we were about to experience what National Geographic Traveler magazine picks today as one of the top 50 travel experiences of a lifetime. The ferries, along with the city’s cable car system, are two of the only surviving relics of Hong Kong’s gloriously international past, not unlike the cable cars of San Francisco. Built originally in 1917, each ferry featured an open-air double-decker design with wooden chairs and sliding-open wooden windows. They creak, they smoke and chug along at a decidedly non-modern pace, as you become a part of the past for the 10 minutes they take to bring you back to the future. The quaint old terminals were demolished in 2006 to make way for a new architectural masterpiece, a highway, and the upper decks of the ferries are now air-conditioned. Better to have seen Hong Kong like Bond. James Bond.
Downtown HK was a mere blueprint of what it has become today, a modern pleasant walking city with overhead pedestrian crossings, bustling city parks and a stellar collection of architecture. The HSBC headquarters, the Hong Kong Financial Center, I.M. Pei’s shimmering Bank of Hong Kong, the multifaceted Lupo buildings and hundreds of other architectural experiments testify to the British tendency to assert their empirical style along with the HK local’s continuing process of delineation from the Mainland. A visit to the Hong Kong museum indicates that the city was not always the international gem it has become. Prior to the People’s Revolution in 1949, Hong Kong was considered a low-class backwater and Shanghai had been the International trading post of choice, hosting banks and trading headquarters of most European countries including Germany, France, The Netherlands and England, but as Communist control of Shanghai took away foreign company’s real estate rights and living areas, Hong Kong became increasingly important to the maintenance and growth of European trade and commerce. Today, even in post-hand over times, the “One Country-Two Systems” approach allows Hong Kong to maintain the British systems that worked: public transportation, waste removal, water supply, electric and education whilst integrating Chinese police, fire and increasing government control of political operations. A quick look at Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing today will show even the casual tourist that the Chinese government sees it’s fortunes on the mainland and wishes Hong Kong’s dominance as an International Finance and business center to become a relic of the past as Beijing prepares for the 2008 Olympics and Shanghai lays claim to two of the tallest buildings in the world.
But our Hong Kong of 1995 was still two years away from handover. As we left the Ferry terminal and proceeded across the overhead walkways past the designer boutiques to the city center we dropped down and quickly found a street of food sellers with ladies skinning live chickens and vendors hawking smiling pig’s heads mounted on sticks. Now this was the Hong Kong I had come to see. Reasonably less enthused was my wife. She refused a trip down the food street and exhibited a strong dislike for smells and visuals not to her liking or understanding. “Boy was she gonna love Korea”, I think now.
Back at the Regent hotel a trip to the masseuse would prove more sensually pleasing for us both and a dip in the harbor view pool provided the necessary distance from city life unpleasant and the vagaries of unfamiliar locales.
My remembrance of the massage remains one of the most pleasant of my entire time in Asia. Shoes removed at the door we were ushered in soft slippers individually to our 5- star nirvanas for the following 90 minutes. Soothing music, aromatic smells and bubbling Japanese style hot tubs beckoned and somewhere during the facial massage I found my place in the world of jet-lagged complacency – and fell asleep.
Awakened gently by the staff and pointed in the direction of the door, I met a much happier wife at the exit as we proceeded, trancelike, to our room.
Our next stop was the planned dinner with our regional director, Jeff Fergus and his wife. Jeff was a mid-forties British executive having worked with Burnett, or as the British say, Burnett’s, for over ten years. It was immediately obvious that we were on his turf and he spared no expense explaining this to us. His Hong-Kong-nesse was overbearing and rather than trying to make us feel any sense of comfort proceeded to revel in how much he knew about things – embarrassingly exposing how little we didn’t. His wife, a mid-thirties former secretary of his, seemed positively enthralled with the idea of how cheaply one could procure Paloma Picasso designer handbag copies in Asia and reiterated this advantage to my wife throughout the dinner – It would turn out to be the strongest selling point of the entire evening. Imagine that – Picasso copies in Hong Kong. Who knew?
I do remember eating a crustacean of some sort but taste and preparation I couldn’t tell you a thing about. I can say it was not one of the better dinners I have had, owing to the handicap of being prepared on one of the word’s most impressive vistas – a towering two storeys of glass over a glistening harbor of quant junk lights, shimmering modern architecture and well-healed patrons can have a sobering effect on the culinary sensibilities of any chef. We marveled at the scenery anyway and knew that any restaurant in Korea would be hard-pressed to hold a candle to this one under any circumstance.
As I recall Fergus knew precious little about Korea as a country, despite his wife being a handbag encyclopedia . What he did know was that the Korean operation had been problematic from the start in 1992 and that relations with our joint venture partner were strained at best. But I wouldn’t know that for another few months. Certainly, he knew a lot more about Korea than he ventured to expose at that point but preferred to focus on the good things and use the meeting as a recruiting exercise. His job was to maintain and grow the revenues of our largest clients: McDonald’s, Kellogg’s, Procter and Gamble and Philip Morris, and that’s all he was paid to care about.
He touted the 4 seasons as a major benefit and resorted to telling us that Korea had American TV, courtesy of the American Forces Korea Network. But, in truth Korea was a business backwater at that time, and he had very, very little to sell. Tales of failed venture partnerships were rampant and efforts by multinational companies to permeate the market holds of Korean family businesses called chaebols had fallen on detrimental results. In 1995 sales of foreign cigarettes in Korea stood at less than 2% of the market, RJ Reynolds had pulled out, and foreign investment as a concept was viewed by Koreans with contempt – and our main client, my main client-to-be, was Philip Morris. They make Marboros.
Honestly, the best thing the company could do at that time was keep the truth as far away as possible if they had any hopes of landing this new recruit and his lovely wife.
Korea was, from my corporation’s viewpoint, a prickly thorn in the side of an otherwise healthy corporate culture – or healthy as far as I could have seen.
Why couldn’t these Koreans manage their business like so many others around the world? Why did every daily step of corporate grindstone work have to turn into a battle for the motherland? Why was the quality of their commercial product so far below that of even less fortunate countries?
“And why in any stretch of nonsensical corporate imagination would they appoint a guy with absolutely no international experience to the number 2 post in a 28 million dollar local organization?”, I found myself, asking myself.
The answer to the last question was not so difficult. Given a country where the only previous American experience had been a three year blood-fest and that American business experience had been less than pleasant over the following 40 years, a good manager looking to fill this position might not want someone with Korean experience at all. In fact, he would want quite the opposite. The more one knew about Korea, the less willing one would be to take the job.
I, one the other hand, had no previous bad experience with the country and could view it as a stepping stone to more responsibility should I have even a modicum of success. I wasn’t on this junket for the money, I was on it just like another rung on a long corporate ladder, somewhere around the middle.
My only real concern at the time was my wife. A difficult career decision awaited her upon my appointment to my new post. Should she leave the comfort and professional growth she had come to experience in the world of Chicago public relations to become an expat wife in Seoul? Should she leave a country more and more accustomed to treating women in a fair professional manner to live in a country where women were expected to serve tea and provide eye candy to all the male employees? My two books and conversations with people about the business environment in Korea had given me at least enough information to know that the big challenge in this plan would be my wife. Should she follow her husband to places unknown with no certain guarantee that she would ever work professionally again? Plenty of women did but would this be the right decision for her? And would she be compelled to make this decision at a time when her professional standing in Chicago was just becoming secure?
These questions would answer themselves over the next few months. But for me, this was a no-brainer – there would be nothing for her in Korea, except me, and I was about to be an extremely busy man. What went on in that girl’s head over the next few months I cannot tell you. Her husband was being given a big promotion and that would spell the end of her career. What a person does with information like that is purely personal – that I can tell you with absolute certainty.
Our dinner in Hong Kong ended unceremoniously. We bid the Ferguses goodbye and were never to see them as a couple again. Jeff Fergus had fulfilled his duty to recruit me and keep his mouth shut about the tsunami we were about to enter. Paloma was just the kicker.
The Guild of the Infant Saviour on East 86th Street in New York in 1956 was approximately 6885 miles and exactly thirty-nine years away from Seoul, Korea in 1995. Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis would play their last comedy show together at the Copacabana just a few blocks away that year and Elvis, singing Hound Dog, would electrify the Ed Sullivan show in the same city just a few months later. But things were reasonably less grand at the Guild of the Infant Saviour, a home for unwed Catholic mothers just a few blocks south of Gracie Mansion on the East River and adjacent to what was then Misericordia Hospital at 531 East 86th.
“He cried immediately, was cyanotic, resuscitated, then cried repeatedly”, said the medical report. The practice of slapping a baby’s butt after birth, was originally a device to kick-start heart valves and breathing apparatus as the infant made the transition from the fluid to the (Click on image to enlarge) airborne world (translation: resuscitated). Cyanotic babies, or blue babies as they were called, are blue in skin colour because blood is not yet circulating to the lungs which will produce oxygen – so a little slap on the ass not only makes them gasp but gives them an early taste of what life has to offer even before it begins to offer much at all – like finding out there is no Santa Claus before you even know who Santa Claus is.
The relatives in New Jersey had been told that Doris Mae had gone off to New York to secretarial college but probably everyone knew the real story. The preponderance of Catholics keeping up a good face would be mirrored for me by peoples in the far east many years later, but what an interesting precursor to a life of continually wondering where reality met the fantasy this new young man was about to live. Doris Mae Everitt gave birth to Shawn Michael Everitt on June 22nd , 1956 and immediately surrendered him for adoption. She would marry the father, Carl Henry Olson, just six weeks later and bear him another child but would never see her son Shawn again. For Catholics, image was everything. For little Shawn this would be just the beginning of a life of continual reinventions – for he was not about to stay little Shawn for much longer.
The diagnosis stated the child had no trouble eating but did not gain weight in accordance with his caloric intake. Tests were performed and it was decided that an adrenal insufficiency was the culprit. The kid simply needed more juice.
After 7 weeks in New York, he was transferred to St. Francis Hospital in Trenton, New Jersey and put on medication to correct the deficiency. Babies with a better shot at making sizable collection plate drops later in life probably got to stay on the Upper East Side – but this kid’s chances were less than average.
Over the course of the next seven months the same tests and procedures were replicated three times until a suitably fat and happy child could be properly offered up for adoption.
One must wonder how many passing doctors, nuns, nurses and night watchmen, the child came into contact with over his many months at St. Frank’s. What were the procedures for dispensing hugs and kisses? Tablet or capsule form? Did the teddy bears wear little black leather jackets? And what about communication training? Was he being trained to only speak Joisey or were the Queen’s English, and other accents being given appropriate instruction time? Brass knuckles or plastic rattles? This kid was coming into a tough world. Better get him ready.
As we mature into adults our childhood memories remain but become stored in our brains in a way that we are unable to consciously access them. Sometimes a motion, a shape or even a smell can trigger emotions and feelings from very early on. This was the case with the New York Store, located oddly, on 5th Avenue in Moline, Illinois in the early 1960s. Around the ages of 7 and 8 I began to have a series of dreams that focused specifically on architectural and physical environments. Striving to put reality to these fantastic images I came upon the New York Store in downtown, Moline. The New York Store occupied a fading, foreboding black façade that was a microcosm of everything implied by it’s namesake. In one dream I stare, childlike up through the European style windows to spy a chandelier and a grand winding staircase towering over a Steinway, atop a checkerboard, marble floor. In another I am transported behind the store to an alley where I see plainly that the grandeur of the New York Store is more like that of a Hollywood set, with paint-chipped concrete blocks and a rusty fire escape hanging over decidedly New York-like smelling piles of garbage. Ahh, the New York of old. I visited New York last in 2002 and, save for Ground Zero, it was a lot more like Disneyland – all spit-shined and polished to the nth degree – a tourist paradise but a real New Yorker’s nightmare. Damn Bloomberg and Guliani. They’ve screwed up a perfectly good dream.
But the New York Store in my dreams was not the New York Store of 5th Avenue in Moline, Illinois. Primarily the windows were wrong. The windows in my dream were ornate in the sense that they were large and undulating and full of panes amongst the wood framing that refracted light ever so differently depending on their angles. The windows on the actual department store were just flat panes of glass suitable for the mannequin dioramas that lived behind them. No, these windows were special, like the windows on the stern of a Spanish galleon at the captain’s quarters. I had certainly never seen windows like these – not in Moline, Illinois anyway.
My first trip to New York as an adult came in 1984 when I was 28. Working for an advertising agency in Dallas, Texas, I was asked to accompany my immediate supervisor to a recording session on a sort of training mission. As I remember, the supervisor had little use for me on the trip and I was allowed to leave the session early. That meant I had the whole of an afternoon to be a tourist and took to it as voraciously as one far ago displaced New Yorker could have. I saw the Statue of Liberty, from Battery Park only, the Empire State Building, the façade and lobby only, and Central Park, the zoo and Wolman Rink only – and the Guggenheim, the whole damn thing – quickly. At the end of the day, on the way down Broadway the taxi hung a right on West 44th (yes, you could do that in those days) on the way to the Lincoln Tunnel for my flight out of Newark when my jaw dropped and I slammed into near paralysis. I had just seen a ghost. “Stop, stop, stop”, I screamed at the driver. Gathering my bags and pushing $20s through the pay-slot, I tumbled out onto the sidewalk in front of 37 West 44th.
It was the building from my dream – exactly the building from my dream as a child. I hadn't thought about it in many, many years.
There could be no mistaking this one. The ornate design. The nautical galleon windows. The sheer grace and individuality of the thing. Bags over my shoulder I strode towards the building to read the brass plaque next to the entrance.
The “New York Yacht Club” it proclaimed – The New York Yacht Club. Fuck all.
Born on June 22nd and transferred to Trenton, New Jersey just weeks later, did Shawn Michael Everitt, a functional orphan at the time, have a chance to glimpse this building from the window of a passing vehicle on his way to the Lincoln Tunnel? For just a second or for a longer time? How fanciful it might have compared to the institutional/medical surroundings of Catholic child care in the 1950s. It’s doubtful that Shawn had even seen the inside of a church at that point.
It’s common practice for adoptive parents to tell their adopted children that maybe they were the offspring of wealthy or famous families. And it’s a fantasy not without merit, because in those days no one was allowed to know the truth – so why not make the kid a prince instead of a pauper? The fantasy offered more hope than reality.
On April 7th, 1957 a healthy and repaired Shawn Michael Everitt passed under the waters of Baptism in a Catholic ceremony and emerged as David Edward Carlson, the son of Raymond & Doris Carlson (yes, another Doris), who would later move him far away, to the land of the Illini Indians, Moline Illinois.
As it turns out, my birth father, Carl Olson had been an avid sailor and even owned a marina at one time in his life – Doris Mae, my birth mother, went on to marry a US champion water-skier, Bruce Parker, divorcing Carl after four years. My adoptive father, Ray, had just finished a Korean War tour on the US Destroyer Dashiel and at least understood sailing from a military perspective. But at no time, to my knowledge, did any of them ever take me to the New York Yacht Club. That part was only in a dream – “Where’s my sextant? Where’s my compass?” – wasn't it?
In other news from 1956, a Joint Resolution of the U.S. Congress was signed by President Eisenhower, authorizing "In God We Trust" as the U.S. national motto, and the first television airing of the film, The Wizard of Oz, garnered a then staggering 46 million viewers.
Martin & Lewis were dead. Elvis was born and the Man Behind The Curtain and the U.S. Congress were headed for the perfect storm. David now had a new name and a steerage-class ticket for the fantasy/reality voyage of the century.
As our 747 rumbled into Korean airspace and descended on the night city of Seoul what I saw were crosses. Hundred and hundreds of neon crosses – and bowling pins – giant bowling pins lit from the inside and perched atop buildings dotting the skyline. This odd marriage of crosses and bowling pins led me to just one conclusion: Seoul, Korea was God’s bowling alley and anyone who ever loved to hurl three-fingered heavy spherical plastic down a wooden corridor whilst chanting the Lord’s Prayer would be right at home here. This was bowling heaven – a whole lot more Elvis than James Bond.
Otherwise, the flight to Seoul was anticlimactic. Any study of Asian capitals wouldn’t put Seoul, Korea on a top tourist list. There are no natural monuments to speak of, no mountains, rivers or beautiful things of note and the Koreans had done little to embellish what God gave them as a country. I had done my research and did not expect anything as exotic as Hong Kong, Tokyo or Singapore but this was worse than landing in Moscow, except for the bowling.
Kimpo airport in Seoul had all the charm of a Soviet fashion show in January. Olive drab guards and dilapidated customs booths proved that this was certainly no Hong Kong and our passage into the third world would be accompanied by a psychological strip-search, grey face painting and a couple of babushkas just to help us blend. This was dour stuff. Surly service glowered in abundance as we passed through grey over grey over grey grimality. Fucking horrible is a much better description. But wait, Korea was a Democracy! Forget that. I branded it a socialist democracy from this point forward and was not to be proven wrong for quite some time – more about Confucianism, collectivism and Korean government later.
Take a pampered housecat out of her warm and cozy environs, fly her halfway around the globe, and then watch the hair stand up on her back when faced with this shit. This was my wife and her visions of continuing life in a gorgeous pre-war Franco-rococo Chicago apartment on Lincoln Park West, with top-hatted doorman ready every hour, going up in smoke. She hated smoking.
Seoul turned out to be every bit so predictably pedestrian and worse. The trip from the airport offered little in terms of cultural understanding or wonderment, save for the long trip down “Wedding Street”, a street with hundreds of wedding boutiques lining both sides and going seemingly for miles. Visions of Sun Young Moon’s Unitarian church mass weddings, held in Seoul stadiums, took the place of peaceful unions of western theatrical perfection. Downtown Seoul offered nothing more than mid-rise glass office buildings clustered around a diminutive mountain named “Nam San”, (South Mountain) boasting one of the world’s less impressive tourist “towers”, a spiky needle sort of affair with an observation deck and a cheesy revolving restaurant. If there were cliché and old cliché, this was decrepit cliché. The temples and national monuments, today crisply and cleanly lit for all to see, were not to be discovered through the night of 1995.
The Seoul Hilton reinforced the city’s general feel of urban sameness with a lobby of generic hotel furniture and paintings hung only to match the carpets and sofas. Inside, rooms with sliding egg-crate style doors tried in vane to infuse some Korean-esse to the décor but the whole place in general owed more to the planning of untalented hotel designers than any local influence. It was Moscow all right. They just didn’t speak Russian.
A crack at using the telephone proved that not much was going to be done in any language outside Korean and my brief jog the next morning down the street told me that international newspapers, cigarettes or breakfast snacks would just not be available once outside the hotel proper. “Welcome to Korea. Please spend your money and leave quickly”, was the message.
Monday morning the agency sent a car to pick us up at the hotel. It was the agency President’s car and an aging model of uncertain Korean variety, painted black and sporting a well-worn leather interior. It did however have electric windows. What we didn’t know was that this was nice. The driver spoke impeccable English and inquired immediately about whether he would need to escort us everywhere all week. We responded we didn’t know and trundled off to our morning appointment.
Leo Burnett died in 1971, but in Chicago extreme efforts had been made to embalm his legacy in expensive woods, wall coverings and cult-like devotion, almost to the point of preserving Lennin, Kim Il Sung or Ho Chi Minh. No, there was no actual body anywhere but every small vestige of his persona had been enshrined in some way. His photo, his signature as a company logo, and his internally famous retirement speech, “When to take my name off the door” framed like an epitaph and posted in every lobby on every floor of the 50 storey headquarters.
Korea had quite a different way of eulogizing the man. Having ascended to what we expected to be a lobby on the eigth floor of an ageing office tower we were greeted by two cheap, plastic signs in a hollow hole hosting both elevator and toilet doors – one, pointing left for a bank and the other, pointing right for our company – but no one sat in attendance and the poor abandoned government style desk, accompanied only by a four spindled rolling-swivel chair, missing a wheel, told us that dust had been the only recently welcomed guest.
Oblivious to all of this, people passed us at lightening speed traveling to what seemed to be incredibly important appointments. The speed of these people amazed us – their efficiency yet to be determined. No one and I mean no one, made any attempt to find out who we were or what we might be doing there. We made our way to the right, in the direction of the office that seemed to be ours. Once inside we were greeted with more blank stares. People darted about from computer to computer in a world of flurry we were obviously not allowed to disturb.
A few uncomfortable minutes later we were finally greeted by a friendly Scottish gent named David Miller, the outgoing Managing Director. David ushered us into his office with extreme graciousness, considering the grimness of most of the surroundings. He offered us coffee and, after what seemed an interminable bit of time, it arrived in little paper Solo cups, as he began his introduction of the agency.
The agency, as it were, was not much of an agency at all, at least not the Leo Burnett agency. It was more the property of the Korean Joint Venture partner, a Mr. Sen Yon Kim and a sideline to his core business, an entity called SenYon Communications. As Chairman he controlled 50% of this branch office but held all voting rights as his younger, trophy-wife and other members of his organization strongly outnumbered the Leo Burnett side of the equation – but the tide was turning, David asserted. With my addition and the addition of a British Account Service Director, control of day-to-day operations would be handled primarily under the guidance of a Korean President who had been moved from SenYon’s payroll to that of Leo Burnett Chicago, the parent company, arguably. Now a triumvirate of foreign-controlled and paid managers would see the operations through, guided by Fergus, the regional director in Hong Kong, whom my wife and I had just met. Maybe not so oddly, Fergus had forgotten to mention what a shithole this place was – not to mention a political quagmire.
David then introduced us to key members of the staff, providing healthy stories of everyday company life to illustrate our new surroundings. A forty-ish, older than I, woman named Mrs. Woo was introduced as my chief of staff and another younger lady named Nakhee put forward as my best English-speaking employee. The proliferation of battered computing equipment was nothing short of astounding and everyone seemed to be beating their particular machine into a capitalistic pulp – but there was no mistaking the equipment, however loved, was of antique pedigree and would soon need to be replaced. I queried about the origin of some of the Macintosh computers and had been told that they had been shipped from the Singapore office – one could not buy a new Macintosh computer in Korea in 1995. Of all 15 employees in my department only two could operate computers and of the two computers available one was definitely a candidate for inclusion in a museum of computing science – and here we were just three years before the start of the Korean Internet revolution.
The Leo Burnett company had become famous for distributing free apples at every reception desk in every branch around the world – 85 offices. It was once said that the Leo Burnett Company was the world’s largest consumer of apples next to McDonald’s on a daily basis. Based on this bit of company folklore, the IT Director proudly exclaimed, in frustration to an employee demanding computer support, that “The only apples that belonged at Burnett were the ones given away at reception!” And so went the slog of technology at Leo Burnett.
During my time in Korea it was relayed to me that Burnett Chicago had a shot at the Microsoft advertising account. Having created icons for some of the most prominent brands in history, Marlborough, Kellogg’s, McDonald’s and the Keebler Brands to name a few, it seemed only natural that Burnett would desire the Microsoft name in their stables, not to mention the billings. As the story goes, Bill Gates visited the agency and was treated to a pitch owing to the spirit of P.T. Barnum. Creative teams showed storyboards, sang songs and put on a show extraordinaire, in keeping with the finest Burnett traditions. After the pitch Mr. Gates was reportedly treated to the customary agency tour, replete with aisle upon aisle of pristine offices looking more like those of a Japanese bank than an American creative powerhouse. At the end of his tour I was told he exclaimed, “Excellent presentation gentlemen, but as I see it, you don’t use computers and that would make it impossible for you to understand my business.”
Burnett would struggle in the years after that, loosing client upon client, all for different reasons, but the message was clear: this was a company tied to the images of the Marlboro Man and the Keebler Elves struggling to come to grips with a vision and technology that was much more Mario and Pokemon.
But computers would be the least of my problems at Leo Burnett Korea. The week proceeded with fabulous lunches and dinners at top-notch restaurants, all under the careful guidance of David Miller and our newly appointed Korean President, Hugh Kwon.
Mr. Kwon was an American executive’s dream – conservatively dressed and well spoken, he was quick with a smile and a master at delivering the light-hearted quip when necessary. The boys in Chicago loved him. What was less evident was what he actually knew about the advertising business – and that tuned out to be not much at all. Mr. Kwon, for all of his personal charm, was a well-placed puppet president by the local JV partner. His job was to be Sen Yon Kim’s eyes and ears on this beady-eyed foreign corporation.
Interestingly Sen Yon had been one of Korea’s most vocal opponents to the opening of the advertising business to foreign participation in the late 1980s, but the first to sign on as a JV partner (required by law until 1996) once the floodgates opened. This dichotomy would prove to be the tip of a corporate iceberg in the early stages of global warming.
Our dinner with David Miller and his wife would stand in stark contrast to the dinner a few days later with Mr. Kwon and his wife. Approaching the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Seoul, one was not immediately aware of the commanding presence it holds over the Han River and Seoul’s Gangnam district. Only once inside were you able to be enveloped by a lobby of impressive visual dominance over the sprawling skyline to the south. A sheet of glass not unlike the one at the Regent in Hong Kong presided over a dazzling array of lights, bridges, twinkle-light festooned tour boats, and Jumbo-tron TVs hung from nearly every tall building. The only thing missing in Seoul was spectacular architecture. Governed for years by landing approach height restrictions from the old Kimpo airport, Seoul’s southern skyline owed more to unimaginative mid-rise apartment blocks than anything else, but at night, with the building forms obscured, the mélange of lighting was enough to impress. It said, “This place just might become something.”
The Paris Grill at the Grand Hyatt is the hotel’s signature restaurant, a continental affair with steaks, lobsters and the Korean influenced house special, garlic mashed potatoes. For all the crap we had seen so far this was at least making my wife happy. David and Janet were nice, friendly but most of all, honest. David was very straight up about the developing status of the country and the company and related probably the most important management lesson of my entire career in Asia.
He said to me, “The thing you’ve got to remember is that your best English speakers are not necessarily your best employees.”
This turned out to be not just be an oriental pearl of wisdom but a guiding principal of my business life in Asia – don’t let language get in the way of business – but it’s not something very easy for Americans to understand. For all the carping we seem to do about Mexican immigrants not speaking English few realize or understand that, save for The UK and Australia, most countries are multi-lingual to a great extent and reasonably permissive of more than one language to guide their business, social and political aspirations. Even the Koreans are coming around to this – with the English language teaching business being a wildly lucrative industry. The Hermit Kingdom has at least come to realize that being a hermit is not particularly profitable when 70% of your GDP is derived from selling stuff to foreign countries.
Dinner with Mr. Kwon and his wife was a diametrically solemn affair. Paraded into a small collection of Korean out-buildings with mud walls and thatched roofs, we settled down, on the floor of course, to a meal of exquisite oddity and theatrical quaintness. For me, sitting on the floor was no big deal, having grown up spending plenty of floor time watching TV, but for ladies, accustomed to wearing skirts and crossing their legs demurely on sofas, the question of exactly how to place oneself down gracefully and comfortably becomes quite a quandary – and I must admit, damn funny to watch. For her part, Nancy carried herself astonishingly well and even seemed to enjoy the meal. Mrs. Kwon was a whole other story. For a 55 year old man of Mr. Kwon’s generation, bringing his wife to a business dinner was just something not done by Korean tradition – the preferred alternative being a bunch of old men sitting on the floor, smoking cigarettes, drinking soju, and munching on the cornucopia of Korean side dishes served before plunging their faces into heated stone bowls of soup and schlurping themselves to kimchi chigae heaven. Poor Mrs. Kwon was just woefully out of her element and to make matters worse spoke no English at all. All she could do was occupy the place designated for her by culture thousands of years ago and follow her husband’s lead. This may well have been the point at which my wife started to consider her own position in life and begin to define who she was and what she really wanted to do with the whole thing.
The parts of marriage that require the maintenance of joint checking accounts, sharing bathroom privileges and buying mutually acceptable real estate pale in comparison to handling chopsticks whilst sitting on the floor before a mute representation of what she would be expected to become in this new, to us at least, and respectively arcane culture. Women’s liberation was years away from Korea and that fact only highlighted by the ladies hovering over our table, snipping the freshly barbequed meat with scissors and discretely refilling our glasses after every sip or two.
The evening ended with a traditional show of fan dancing and Korean folk opera called Pansori in a larger building of the complex. To say the place was but a Disney-esque representation of Korean culture would be kind. Even I, with my limited knowledge of the country, could tell that this was just a place where Koreans took foreigners for a cursory and terribly inaccurate sampling of the country’s cuisine and entertainment preferences. In retrospect it was pandering, but in all fairness to Mr. Kwan, all he was trained to do in situations like this. He certainly would have never taken a Korean to dinner as a recruitment exercise. This was plainly more uncomfortable for he and his wife than it was for us.
When a husband and his wife go on a tour like this, the company calls it a “look-see” tour. You look and you see, supposedly, but essentially it’s a working week and there is business to be done. No company wants to pay for your vacation and they make sure you are busy with appointments most of the time. My responsibility was to sit in various meetings regarding aspects of our business – Nancy’s job was to accompany Mr. Kwan’s secretary on real estate hunting junkets.
If there was one thing the two of us had mastered in terms of marriage it was real estate management. At precisely this time we were also involved in the purchase of a summer home, opposite Chicago on the eastern coast of Lake Michigan. It was a lovely old cottage of 100 years and a certified money-pit, owing to years of neglect on an eroding hillside, but the benefits of buying at the right price in 95 far outweighed the work it would take to bring it up to acceptable second-home status in the future. The home stood on a small peninsula between Lake Michigan and a small inland sailing lake called White Lake in Whitehall Michigan. A gated community of 75 or so, century old cottages, the Sylvan Beach Resort was about to become our home away from home, at least in America. We had considered buying a condo in Chicago but with prices on the rise had concluded that paying a few hundred grand for the lake house in Michigan and keeping our small one-bedroom apartment on Lincoln Park West was a much better deal than paying near half a mil for an econo-box – both financially and charismatically. This way at least all our hard earned mortgage money would be going towards a form of enjoyment and weekend pleasure, as opposed to a nondescript hamster habitat in the city. Having yet another residence in Seoul was not exactly in the original plan.
But Nancy, having been my partner in one previous home purchase in Texas, knew her way around the housing market and was a trusted surveyor and negotiator. No one was going to get around her. She was my wolf in sheep’s clothing – my secret weapon.
Stalag 13? 14? 15? The characters in the TV show Hogan’s Heroes would have been more than at home in the apartments shown to my wife in that week but trying to convince a woman that she should give up doormen, a grand piano in the lobby and a park across the street in Chicago was a virtually impossible sell when all the buildings she was shown were adorned with 10 foot high painted numbers on the side as address markers.
The state of the Korean housing market in those years owed much to their urban planning of the late 60s and 70s. Faced with an unforeseen migration of farmers to the city in the decades after the war, the government actually performed near miracles by encouraging and subsidizing the building of block upon block of tenement style buildings to house the workers. One could drive for miles down the Han river in Seoul and see nothing but mid-rise housing blocks of poured concrete with ever escalating numbers on the building sides – so what represented itself to Koreans as being upscale, safe and secure seemed a reprehensible communication to Americans who have only seen this building style used in public housing projects. There was no way my wife was going to be moved from the Belden Stratford on North Lincoln Park West to what she perceived to be the Korean equivalent of Cabrini Green . Not in a million years and certainly not in one.
But for her part she was uniformly polite, graceful and friendly with the staff. She attended her rounds with professionalism and reported to me in the evening the results of her surveys. In not so cryptic a language she summarized the weeks viewings:
“You’re not going to like them”, she reported, which was really her way of saying that she didn’t like them.
I visited a couple just to do a double check and it was obvious that the company was not considering this seriously enough. I had taken the time to find out where other expats were living and visited those neighborhoods. It was like night and day. The Koreans would need some education into what, at least these Americans, would deem to be acceptable housing.
We busied about our week and by the end were able to get in some sightseeing time. The highlights on one day would be a climb up little Nam San, the mountain with the soviet-style space needle, and Kyung Buk Palace, the ancient residence of Korean Kings. Not a particularly ambitious day but enough of a run at an otherwise impenetrable city.
The hike up Nam San raised an interesting question. What were everyday Koreans really like? One of the books I had read on Korea had said that white women, blonds especially, would be subject to stares and catcalls from the men should they venture about publicly. Additionally it cautioned against these women wearing sunglasses, the idea being that women such as this – movie icons like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell – would be regarded as loose women and devoid of moral stature – whores by cultural definition. And that just makes the whole remembrance all the more bizarre because my wife decided to wear her sunglasses anyway – to protect her eyes from of course, the sun.
But Koreans at the time were a culturally sheltered lot and not particularly interested in the truth or social exploration of any kind. Better to take the stereotype as it presented itself. That way they could have something dicey to discuss with their friends later in the day.
“Wow, we saw a blond, white woman with sunglasses!”, they could say.
And that’s exactly what happened. Not two feet inside the public park that was Nam San we were bombarded with stares and attentions of the disengaged variety. No one would look at us directly but the action behind our backs was nothing short of the locals witnessing a foreign invasion – and wondering what to do about it. They just couldn’t take their eyes off her with me in tow. Were we rock stars or criminals? Movie stars or gangsters? “Didn’t that woman know what wearing sunglasses meant?”, they seemed to say. It was just fucking odd.
I have often come to describe my many forays into Korean culture to have been like that. Whenever I would walk into a small shop, whether in the country or a non-foreign part of the city, the staff would do one of two things: either freeze or run. But I never knew which. I guess it all depends on whether they thought I was a rock star or a criminal.
I guess my wife was a rock star – or a porn star in their eyes at least.
After Nam San and a trip to the horrible space needle thing we took a cable car back down to the base. I ate some stewed bugs, served in another Solo cup by a street vendor and was later told that only children ate those. I didn’t care. It was at least my attempt at cultural immersion. The wife wouldn’t touch them.
We spent the afternoon at the palace and it was charming. A similar architectural style to what you might see at the Forbidden City in Beijing but on a much smaller scale. In the museum there was a 4000 year-old woman complete with mummified skin and vestiges of clothing still intact. She had been unearthed in Mongolia but bore tattoos that suggested to the Koreans that she was an early, early ancestor of the Han people. Over the years Koreans never failed to impress upon me that they were a 4000 year old culture – but this is an arguable historical claim at best. For thousands of years it may have been true that a finite number of tribes lived on the peninsula, but they were by no means united as a culture much less a country until the last few hundred years – more like a bunch of cats in a bag fighting over limited amounts of arable land. Successions of dynasties left not insignificant innovations in terms of literature, ceramics, the celestial sciences, architecture and even movable typography, but there is little to suggest these tribes ever acted as a single body in any form of national defense, offence or unity for 4000 years. Rather today, watching Korean politicians throw chairs and punches at each other in the National Assembly can most likely be traced back to old provincial lines and rivalries that have yet to die over these thousands of years.
By the week's end I was beginning to feel that we were only getting the “tour of the Soviet Union” view of the city. Shuttled everywhere in a company car and guided by someone at all times, things had become claustrophobic. I needed to get out on my own and ply the city from the only sensible vantage point a new visitor can: I needed to get to a bar.
Interestingly, bars are places in cities all over the world where walls come down. A conversation, even with a stranger, in a bar reveals more about a place than reams of considered research and professional presentation. In a bar people have much less to hide than they do in a boardroom.
I called the agency and made an appointment with Chang. Chang was a Kyopo, an overseas Korean from L.A., and possibly the only guy I had been able to identify as someone who would know what was hip and cool and give me a straight story to boot. We agreed to meet after six in the disco in the basement of my hotel. Tired from a week of meetings in a strange land, my wife was more than happy to stay in the room and have a sleep.
Pharaoh’s discothèque was million dollars of more phantasy than any Korean had ever seen up to that point and was celebrating it’s inaugural week in the Hilton Hotel. It was a gaudily garish affair of Sphinx heads and Egyptian motifs that could only bring memories of Steve Martin singing King Tut on Saturday Night Live in the late 70s. Hilarious. What it wasn’t was Studio 54 or any of the Limelight clubs that dotted the US in the 90s and had become the epitome of cool. I had no idea what to make of the place. Although married and not exactly a kid at the time, I had kept a keen on eye on youth culture, as was part of my job, and could tell you that this sort of thing would have only been laughed at in America or Europe – but there in Asia it worked and that was just one more thing I would have to understand.
When Chang arrived we carved ourselves a few seats at the bar and began to get down to the nitty-gritty as only boys can do. As a Kyopo, Chang was not exactly loved by the Korean nationals who ran the agency and was regarded much more as a necessary evil. North American, native English speaking, employees were necessary for international accounts. But things weren’t all bad for him either. He was the head of our Philip Morris business, well paid and had a car allowance. Additionally, as Koreans were expected to provide their clients a fair amount of entertainment, he had a healthy expense account. He told me about previous managerial shifts at the agency and indicated his happiness with the new arrangement. Chang and I were going to get along fine.
As the night wore on we collected more and more new friends around us – both foreigners and Koreans who were interested in speaking English, but all men. As opposed to a bar in a western country, women did not sit at the bar but rather preferred to congregate in groups at various tables and booths situated around the club. And when it came to dancing one must remember that this was the first western style disco in Seoul – the girls simply didn’t know what to do. Oh, they had probably been watching MTV for a year or so but in 1995 Koreans had only been allowed to travel outside their own country for ten years so most probably not a one of these ladies had ever seen a disco, let alone danced in one. They were timid and shy dancers – not trained at all for the cutting of rugs, let alone pulsating underlit plexiglass.
Chang, being the thirtysomething single he was, proceeded to strike up conversations with some of the girls and went off on his regular Friday night routine. I stayed at the bar and conversed with a young Korean man who told me he was a business owner. Involved in the fashion industry in some capacity he said his factory was nearby and offered me a tour. This to me was very interesting. I very much wanted to see what a regular guy did for a living. Here I was ensconced in a very protected corporate environment all week and was now getting to meet and interact with someone of true local variety. We exited Pharaoh’s disco and headed for the parking garage.
All Korean cars were nondescript to me in a way that foreshadowed the relative sameness of much of the country. The same cars, the same colours, the same suits, the same apartments – these were the hallmarks of a collectivist society. There is an old Korean proverb that says, “The nail that sticks up, gets hammered down”. This philosophy would be ingrained over and over in any great number of ways over time. And I was not quite yet out of the primer course.
Imagine a factory in any way you can and what you might come up with is a steel building on the outskirts of anywhere USA. Imagine one in Seoul, Korea in 1995 and what you’ll come up with is nothing – because your idea of a factory and theirs are completely different. In Seoul, Korea a man on the street with a foot-pedaled sewing machine can be a factory. And what I was about to find was not so out of line with that. Climbing the wobbly wooden stairs of a falling-apart old structure in Seoul’s famous Nam Dae Mun market district we were more and more enveloped by the sound of sewing machines as we approached a sliding steel door. Once inside the din was deafening. Ten older women were busy making Prada, Channel and Gucci handbags of all shapes and sizes. No actual leather to be found here, the air was pungent with the smell of freshly cut and stamped vinyl in the cacophony that was this factory of sorts. I could only imagine if Paloma Picasso were made in a slightly nicer facility. What sense would that have made?
I don’t recall if I made the inquiry or if the gentlemen suggested that we make our way to the Oh-Pal-Pal district of Seoul. Oh-Pal-Pal is Korean language for the numbers 588, with “Oh” translating as the number five and “Pal” meaning eight. 588 is the bus number one takes to arrive at Korea’s most famous red-light district and maybe, not surprisingly, it really is decorated with red lights, or red neon as it were.
Although the concept and nature of the business were not new to me, the presentation certainly was. A u-shaped street with police guards on both entrance and exit, this held almost equal amounts of curiosity and trepidation. It was explained to me that the function of the police was to make sure the patrons were not overly inebriated or in a fighting mood, like a sign at an amusement park that says, “You must be this tall to get on this ride”.
We were judged to be tall enough, although there was a fair amount of questioning in Korean from the police over my presence. While areas like this were common in Seoul what was less common were foreigners. It was explained to me that foreigners were not always welcome, not because of any discrimination per se but because of the threat of AIDS. Whether AIDS entered the country through the American military or through other means will forever be a mystery but it is known that the disease did not have its beginnings in Korea, so the idea of guarding against it through foreign import is well founded.
Driving down the small city block is how one’s selection is made. No one walks. This was a drive through sex mart with all its wares on display behind plate glass windows, presented on tall stools, and decorated with all the charm of a vintage video game. We circled the block twice assessing the shops that were non-foreigner friendly and marveling at the seemingly endless selection of attractive ladies. For a man with his wife napping back at a five-star hotel, this might seem to have been kid-in-a-candy-shop stuff but I don’t recall feeling that way at all. More like fish-in-a barrel stuff – much too easy. To me the surreality of it all was the reality of it all – the kind of thing that throws one’s moral compass into a tailspin. Drive-by fucking – marshaled by police and brightly lit for all to see, yet still technically illegal. This was the Korea I had come to see – my little handful of dirt under the rock my ship had been cast upon.
The price explained was $60 and I had taken care to have removed that amount from my wallet and stashed the wallet under the seat of the car before entering our chosen shop. I had no idea what to expect inside but there was no need to take chances.
My girl was just cute as a button and tiny as well. As she glided off her stool to escort me behind the staged display area, I gave my money to a substantially sized Korean man in fatigues crouched next to an automatic rifle propped up against the wall in the anteroom. This communication could not have been more clear or less titillating. There was to be no bullshit.
We arrived at a very small room with only room for a sink and a small single bed. The room was decorated in Mickey Mouse and all manner of stuffed animals, not unlike that of a teenage girl. I was instructed to remove my clothing, all of it, and wash myself, my private self, in the small sink with soap and water. The light remained bright as she removed her clothing and propped herself up, spread eagle, with some cartoon themed pillows against the headboard and motioned me to come to her. A deftly applied condom proved she was no stranger to the business and I was immediately encouraged to get down to business. I had never had sex with a girl this tiny. Her ovations of , “big, big”, were the only English words I recall. And no I'm not kidding. If this were just a business, she had perfected the art of customer satisfaction to a “T”, even if what she said was overstating. All customers want to be kings.
As the process is scripted to take exactly twenty minutes, I was deposited back to the front of the shop afterward where I met my Korean friend. A quick smile between the two of us and we were off. To decide whether the world’s oldest profession is prostitution or advertising may well be a chicken and egg scenario. Avoiding making that distinction, I prefer an old quote from Bill Cosby – “Advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on”.
To be in the world’s second oldest profession in a country that had perfected its oldest to shopping mall efficiency was not going to be an issue for me. It was my wife who would have the issue.
A meeting the following day with David Miller back at the agency wrapped up our look-see tour. We were shown a floor plan of a new office in a new building that promised to clean the place up a bit and I was given assurances that a proper budget for computers would be arrived at before my return. We bid the Koreans farewell and boarded our plane from Seoul to Chicago. The only thing the two cities seem to have had in common was the bowling – it certainly wasn’t the sex.
Doris Morris and Vivian Caputo were the best of friends – two giddy and gregarious girls graduating from St. Mary’s High School in Jersey City, they had their whole lives ahead of them. What a better way to spend that time in the early 50s than searching for the perfect men – and on a train trestle somewhere on the way to Bayone, they could find hundreds of perfect men in white suits – hundreds of handsome sailors on their way out to sea.
This was Doris and Vivian's nirvana. Doris Morris, the daughter of a Jersey City bus driver would flirt with the sailor boys hanging out the windows of their train as it inched its way toward the base but only gave her address and number to one: one Raymond Carlson from Duluth, Minnesota – a tall and quiet man with a future in electronics yet to be found.
Over the next few years they would send a shoe box worth of letters to each other, go roller-skating during his time ashore and build a romance that would lead to marriage as the Korean war came to a close.
In two more years Ray finished technical college as an electrical engineer and they would start a family. Would medical science have seen them to a different outcome in more modern times? That’s hard to say, but for Ray and Doris a natural born child was not to become a reality. After a series of foster children to adjust to the idea of kids, they were given custody of one Shawn Michael in 1957, just nine months after his birth in New York City. Judging from a building he saw in his dreams, it would have seemed he was destined to be a sailor too – or at the very least, the son of another one.
The new two-toned 57 Chevy Impala, still driving back and forth down a New Jersey suburban street in the 8mm film of Ray’s, must have cut quite a swath across Pennsylvania, through Ohio and Indiana and eventually Illinois – the goldfish bowl sloshing merrily on the floorboards, between Doris' feet, on the passenger side until the goldfish finally went belly-up. What an optimist Doris must have been to think both a goldfish and a Jersey City girl could get along in this Wild Midwest they were about to find. The three year old kid in the backseat was another question.
But Moline, Illinois was to turn out to be ever so slightly better than she expected, as a booming industrial manufacturer of farm equipment on the Mississippi River– the home of JI Case, International Harvester and the John Deere Company, as well as Ray’s new firm, the Montgomery Elevator Company: a maker of people elevators and not the grain variety. It certainly could have looked no worse than Jersey City in 1959, albeit quite a bit smaller.
1959 also saw the United States grow from 48 to 50 with the additions of Alaska and Hawaii, while the Marx Brothers aired their final episode on national TV. The music died when a plane carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed in Iowa, just a few hundred miles from Moline, Illinois but was born again as The Grammys gave their first awards and Motown Records inhaled to life in Detroit. Born also were the Barbie Doll, The Twilight Zone, the US recognized government of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Frank Lloyd Wright’s controversial Guggenheim museum in New York. Fantasy and reality were definitely going their separate ways.
– WWE –
Researching the word “stranger” brings up a more interesting set of descriptions:
1a: of, relating to, or characteristic of another country: FOREIGN b: not native to or naturally belonging in a place: of external origin, kind, or character
3a: discouraging familiarities: RESERVED, DISTANT b: ILL AT EASE
4: UNACCUSTOMED 2
5: having the quantum characteristic of strangeness
synonyms: SINGULAR, UNIQUE, PECULIAR, ECCENTRIC, ERRATIC, ODD, QUEER, QUAINT, OUTLANDISH, meaning departing from what is ordinary, usual, or to be expected.
The Korean dictionary defines foreigner as such:
1: 외국인, 외인, 이방인; [구어] 타관 사람, 침입자.
FOREIGNER 언어·풍속·습관 따위의 차이를 강조하는 말. ALIEN 거주하는 나라와는 다른 국적을 가지고 있으면서 모국에의 충성을 맹세함을 강조하는 말. STRANGER 언어·습관에 아직 익숙하지 않음을 강조하는 말.
2: 외국의 산물, 외국 제품, 외래품; 외래 동[식]물.
3: [해사] 외국선(船).
4: (~s) [증권] 외국 증권.
do a foreigner 《속어》 (취업자·실업 수당 수급자가) 멋대로 부업을 하다.
Many of my expatriate friends have experienced the initial shock of being labeled foreigner and they tend not to like it, but Koreans, being from a homogeneous country with a Confucian value system, where everyone has a place in the hierarchy of the group, don’t see anything wrong with it. To Koreans it simply means that that person is not part of the group.
And that is exactly the point. The first thing one needs to learn in moving from a western to an eastern culture is not who you are, but who you are not.
Understanding the basics of Confucian philosophy is a near requirement for getting anything done at all in Eastern environs. A reading of Riding the Waves of Culture by Fons Trompenars and Charles Hampden-Turner is a good start for anyone embarking on an expat career but focuses on the global and not specifically Asian cultural differences. For much of Asia, one need look no further than Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE). Confucius was a social philosopher whose teachings deeply influenced Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese thought throughout their respective histories. To be clear, Confucianism is a philosophy and not a religion or political delineation. It is a philosophy that is primarily concerned with social order and correctness. It is not, however, a caste system, since it does not lock people into an occupation at birth but more an idea of what occupations are important to society and how they should be regarded.
1. Shi were the first order of society. This classification includes scholars, government administrators and religious leaders. Their job is to coordinate projects, lead people, keep records and transmit knowledge, but more importantly to keep the three pillars of Confucian philosophy intact: Filial piety, respect for one’s parents and ancestors. Humaneness, care and concern for other humans and Ritual Consciousness, the art of doing things according to prescribed tradition in the deepest sense.
2. Nong were the farmers. Confucianism placed a great value on the production of food, because "mei you nongren, mei you chi de dongxi", "No one to farm? Nothing to eat." This can be seen today in Korea’s farm subsidies that pay up to eight times the market rate to rice farmers, even though the country has dramatically shifted to an economy based on ships, steel, cars and electronics, and imports more rice than they can grow themselves.
3. Gong translates as "work", although the meaning is closer to "craft". The gongren, the workers, produced all the tools and implements other people needed to do their jobs. But when it came down to it, a bowl of rice was more important than a hammer, so craftspeople were not as highly regarded as farmers.
4. Shang were business people and merchants. Merchants were considered to be only one step above the lowest of society because they didn’t actually make anything, but they had money, which gave them power and allowed their children to study to become scholars.
What’s even more interesting though, is who was left off the list: entertainers, creative people, even soldiers didn’t make the cut. In ancient China, soldiers were considered classless, an embarrassment, a sign of weakness – quite different from Western social orders – and of course Westerners. To understand this one must also understand that the cultures that aspired to Confucian ideals were homogeneous ones, almost 100% comprised of their own people. Oh, you will certainly find pockets of Chinese in Vietnam and Koreans in China and Japan and Japanese elsewhere in Asia, but these people could at least be counted upon to uphold Confucian ideals, yet not encouraged to inter-marry, even to this day.
A white man on a ship, horse or an airplane is not expected to be an apostle of these beliefs and therefore remains outside the group, dictated by ancient social order.
The other aspect of Confucian logic that confounds many newcomers is the concept of the five primary relationships. These relationships find themselves transpired into the powerful Asian conglomerates we see today such as Samsung, Sony and virtually all Asian companies. They can best be summed up under what we Westerners understand as The Golden Rule:
"Do unto others as you would have done unto you" – the concept of reciprocity.
Notice that three are family based and all but the last indicate a differentiated status, the second person is always bound to the first – and although employer/employee is not specifically spelled out, it commonly translates as parent/child in a business environment – yet another close familial association that a foreigner will rarely be invited to join.
Since the ancient Analects of Confucius, the concepts of Neo-Confucianism and New Confucianism have been bandied about by generations of academics and neo-philosophers but suffice to say that dissecting those derivations would be complete bullshit and a waste of time to a foreign businessperson.
What I was about to learn very quickly was that, short of marriage, and years of servitude to earn familial acceptance, the foreigner will forever remain a foreigner, and outside the social order, in all Confucian societies. This brings confusion to many, but the faster learned, the better.
Today the absence of what we call, knowledge industries or information technologies, leaves a huge gap in the old Confucian ideal. Obedience to tradition and collectivism had worked very well for countries to industrialize quickly, as Japan and South Korea did in the 60s and 70s, but the information and service industries that were beginning to drive these economies required skills very different from Confucian tradition: skills like flexibility, style, entrepreneurship and imagination.
I was going in at a pivotal point – the apex of the transition from industrialization to the information age – and it was my job to bring these new schools of thought into a quickly developing economy, but not a single person at my company, even in the US, knew that. They were still busy with hammers and chisels, cutting budgets.
To illustrate just how much the Internet has impacted our lives in just the past few years, understand that figures are not available on foreign immigration to Korea from 1995. (Click on image to enlarge) Oh, I’m sure they exist somewhere, but just not in any English accessible database. Rather, let’s take a look at figures from around 2002. Although the numbers may have changed since 95 I suspect the ratios are still the same and should give a good idea what I was getting into as far as culture.
According to the Korean Ministry of Justice statistics: “The number of foreigners in Korea surpassed 500,000 in fall 2000, including 154,000 Chinese; 87,000 US; 40,000 Japanese; and 25,000 Taiwanese. The Justice Ministry reported there were 172,501 illegal foreigners in Korea in 2000, up from 135,300 in 1999; half were Chinese, followed by eight percent Bangladeshi, seven percent Mongolian, and seven percent each Filipino and Thai.”
Unless you were an illegal, or Chinese or Japanese, chances are that you would have been an American, Canadian or European. In 2000, the Justice ministry didn’t report specific figures for Canadians or Europeans, but that is presumably because they didn’t reside in Korea in numbers significant enough to report.
I was once asked by a Korean how it felt to be living in “America’s backyard”? I found that as strange an expression then, as I do today, but there was a certain amount of truth to it. Compared to the rest of the world, where British and other multinationals held sway, and still do, over most international business, Korea was a bit of an American oasis – owing mostly to the presence of 45,000 soldiers and military contractors – like the green toy soldiers I played with in my own backyard as a child, only full-size.
That left 37,000 Americans in other businesses, legally allowed to work in Korea. If there were roughly 550,000 guest workers in Korea, that would have been 1.2% of the entire population of 47 million, but since 172,000 of those were considered illegal let’s just say that .93% of the foreign working population was legal. Of that, only .08% would be American, less than 1/10th of 1%.
If you were looking for someone that was “one in a million” in Korea, 47 Koreans would have fit that bill; however, to have been an American in the Korean population, one would have been “one in 370 billion” . A minority for sure.
A Brit, Canadian or other Westerner would have been even more rare.
In 2003 the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea listed just over 2000 members and the EU Chamber counted around 1000. These people were higher-level management sorts and diplomats, but that’s only 3000 out of more than half a million foreign nationals. An unofficial count, because nothing official was reported, of foreign business personnel in Korea estimated that fewer than 50,000 business people resided in Korea, not counting those involved in education, with the website EFL-LAW.com estimating that only 5000 – 8000 teachers were in the country at the time. All told, we were hovering at just less than 60 thousand total foreign residents in management or government. A very small number indeed but a powerful number as well. Because virtually all of these people held college degrees and if not already in the top ranks of an organization, were on the path to be there in the not so distant future. Even people who initially came to Korea to teach English often ended up in corporate positions due to their Korean experience.
In regard to the expatriates living in Korea, I was once asked by a Korean colleague, “We understand that the British send their best and brightest, who do the Americans send?”
Knowing that the British civil service had instilled a sense of pride and adventure in their citizens since colonial times and that America likes to keep its best and brightest at home, I replied, “Well, I suspect we send our misunderstood”.
A self-deprecating comment for sure, but not totally off the mark. I had no idea why I had been chosen for the job, and once in Asia was to find only one other American within our 18 offices in the region, and be the only US passport holder in the advertising business in Korea.
The phrase "The sun never sets on the British Empire" refers to the extent of Britain’s colonial land holdings during the Age of Imperialism. At its height in the 1930s, the British Empire spanned nearly a third of the world’s land including properties in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Australia and Africa. (Click on image to enlarge)
During this colonial period Britons sent civil servants to virtually every corner of the globe and gave them ample incentive to do so. To this day a British citizen does not pay any tax in England if he or she does not live in England – therefore, working in another country, especially one with a lower tax rate, can be financially very rewarding. Conversely, America now gleefully participates in double taxation – exactly what we revolted against the British for – with every dollar over $80,000 per year being taxed by both your host country and the good old US of A. Not exactly an incentive to work overseas.
Today there are over 60 million people living in Great Britain and nearly 47 million hold a valid passport , about 78% of the entire country.
Comparatively, only 21% of Americans hold a valid passport. Consider also that America has never been a colonial power and controls very little around the globe in terms of territories save for Guam, American Samoa, The Marrianas, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Now considering that there are more than 280 million people in America today, that still adds up to more than 60 million with a passport, but I use this great discrepancy in passport percentage numbers between the UK and the US to make a very clear point: Britons are much more inclined to globetrotting than are Americans and they do so with great success.
To see how much you know about Americans and their knowledge of foreign countries decide whether the following statement is true or false?
Short of nominating Ron Paul, the dark-horse populist candidate for president in 2008, it’s doubtful that America’s taste in candidates will ever veer towards people of my background – you know, red-light visiting, expatriate, advertising sorts, (Did I mention I’ve also smoked marijuana more than once?), but should I ever venture a run, there’s one plank I would insist on in my platform:
That every American of Selective Service age be required to spend at least two years abroad in either a military, or humanitarian capacity – or, at the very least, certainly those accepted to university – our future leaders.
I know, I hear a few million asses being laughed off right now. “What the hell is he thinking?”, you’re thinking. And I am required, not by any law, but by sheer sense of national duty, to tell you what I’m thinking. I’m thinking that America has spent far too much national capital on letting our military be our international face and not near enough letting our real faces be our face. It’s time to get out of the house and take a walk around the globe.
Right now we’re a terribly misunderstood super-power with virtually no national plan for growing good will in a world where the European Union has already surpassed us in market size and Asia looms as the world’s next greatest and most profitable middle class.
Too much politics? Well, that can wait. All I can tell you right now is that the world I was about to find in Korea was like a good cold slap in the face to this American and I couldn’t wait to get back to Chicago to tell the big boys about it.
The signs of spring in Chicago are like spirits waking from the dead. Defiant little blades of grass poking up from patches of snow still left under trees and behind northern walls. The dump trucks and backhoes replacing the sandy beaches on Lake Michigan that every winter washes away, ivy growing green again on the brick outfield walls of Wrigley Field. There’s nothing subtle about it.
One of the joys of landing at O’Hare was the sweep over the Gold Coast skyline as we circled back for the landing approach. Nancy and I could see our apartment building from that vantage point – not exactly Hong Kong, but after a week of way too curious exotica, a real tonic for chopstick weary hands, language twisted tongues and pollution burned eyes. Say what you want about smog in America – you haven’t seen shit until you’ve been to Asia.
Silence rode home in the cab with us from the airport, followed us past the doorman, up the elevator and into apartment 802 at the Belden Stratford, a small but charmingly appointed one bedroom on the west side of the building. One of the ways that we were able to afford living on one of the tone-iest streets in the city was to have had the good sense to have rented on the back of a building facing Lake Michigan. As I remember a real estate agent saying to me upon my arrival in 1989, “The lake looks great during the day but it’s a black hole at night, so since you’re always working in the daytime, why pay for a lake view?” Damn good advice, I thought.
Things were now a bona-fide fucking mess. The real issues far dwarfed a night in Oh Pal Pal. The real issues were deep, complicated and dividing on a multiplicity of fronts – mine, ours, Nancy’s, the Company’s and the Korean’s. These issues joined silence and climbed into bed with my wife and I that night for a cold summer’s nap.
Although married ten years, Nancy and I had known each other for almost eighteen by then. We had both graduated from Southern Illinois University in the same program with the same degree in Graphic Design and started our professional careers in that same year – 1979.
I had moved to Dallas, Texas and she had gone to work for a small television station in Missouri, but we kept in touch through a Christmas card annually. After three years our careers had taken on very different trajectories. I had worked through two entry level positions at inconsequential companies and found myself at what ADWEEK Magazine had named as “One of the Top Ten Creative Agencies in the United States”, The Richards Group, in Dallas. People used to wonder how I was able to have done that and all I can tell you is that I was driven – driven to do the best work I possibly could and I worked my ass off at it. I received my first award from the New York Art Directors Club that year and had sent a copy to my mom to show her that her son had finally made it in New York – from Dallas of all places.
Nancy was on a different track. She had taken a job not far from our university town at a country TV station and was their graphic designer, the person who decides what graphic to use when you’re reporting cow epidemics or tornado damage. Her work was as good as it could have been expected to be, considering what she had to work with. Very different worlds we had.
One day I was called by the head of our university design department and asked if I could make it back to Southern Illinois to teach for a few weeks. A professor had taken ill and the school needed to finish a spring course with substitute instructors. I arranged a leave of absence from Richards and was soon on my way back to my alma mater, but this time as the most accomplished graduate of our class – a budding rock star in the world of advertising and design. What this meant of course, aside from the obvious buzz of being a prof instead of a student at a very young age, was that I would be able to see my college sweetheart once again, and I had become more single than I wanted to be. It was high time to get hitched, as they say in Texas.
The two of us had begun as lovers in our Junior year but the vagaries of college dating had taken us in different directions with different people through graduation. My return was much more of a professional statement than it was a romantic reunion but, truth be told, I was still smitten with her. Through a couple of girlfriends, after our romance, I had always held onto her image as “the one” and this trip would help me answer the question of whether or not that was to become the case. Nancy was and remains in my memory as quietly striking, unselfconsciously beautiful, graceful, honest and yet, conflicted. Conflicted with the conservative manor she had adopted and her attraction to rogues and rock stars like I was in the day. And I knew I was a rock star, going back to impress my old college love with the fact that I was now successful and on my way to a sterling career. Who knows what she saw coming. That cute little fraternity boy was now a pro.
I finished my short stint at the University, courted her throughout, and ended the trip with an invitation for her to visit Dallas and consider moving. She took me up on that and arrived in Dallas a few months later. She had one interview at ten o’clock in the morning on a Monday at Channel 8 in Dallas and called me before noon to say that she had been offered the job. And that was it. From the 82nd market in the United States to the 8th , all in the course of a few hours. She moved a month later into her own apartment, not far from mine, and the romance was on again. Big-time.
I proposed in six months and we were married the following year. Over the next ten years we would move from Dallas to Washington DC and from there to Chicago, not all without incident, but by 95 we seemed a well seasoned couple who had handled a variety of “DINK” (Double Income No Kids) transitions and fashioned a good working and romantic partnership. What the Leo Burnett Company was about to throw us was certainly complicated, but not something I didn’t think we could handle. We were still in love and love would conquer all. That’s the kind of belief one needs when things get complicated.
A workday arrived too soon and I kissed Nancy goodbye on my way to the office. I promised her I would get all the details down on the transfer and that her needs would be attended to as well as mine. If these people wanted to get us to Korea they were going to have to make it very attractive both financially and professionally for the two of us. The company was not in the best negotiating position and I suspect they knew that. What seems comical now, in terms of their negotiating strategy was just positively baffling at the time. At any number of junctures throughout meetings with disassociated people about my new position I had to pinch myself and ask, “Did that person just say what I thought they said?” Trouble was, they had said exactly what I had thought they said. You ask yourself, “What were they thinking?”, and the answer was that, they weren’t thinking.
Michael Conrad was not in the office when I returned. He was off on another world junket to prod the fortunes of the agency, which, as it turned out, would be his MO throughout my tenure in Korea. I was to see Michael again only once or twice but never for a conversation of any magnitude or substance. It had been explained to me that he was not part of the management chain for me, but only a source of guidance and inspiration.
I would start my search for the management chain in the office of one Bud Ujhelyi, the business manager for Creative employees. Fair or not, Bud was commonly known as the hatchet man. He was the assistant to the CEO and never seen in meetings of any sort until there were heads to be chopped. People routinely ran from ringing telephones when the keypad display featured his extension. Everyone knew Bud’s extension. It was like “666”, although I’m sure it was not that exactly. But on that day, I already knew the reason for the call and it was clear that I was not on the chopping block, so a visit to Bud’s office was more like a chance to impress the grim reaper and stay off death row for awhile longer.
Death row, unfortunately, had become a common term at Burnett in the early/mid nineties – starting in 1993 with an unprecedented layoff of more than 2% of its US employees in the mid-staff ranks. The company followed that performance in 94 with other purgings, bringing the total to more than 10% over two years. Hell, we were Agency of the Year just a few years previous. What was happening? This was gut-wrenching stuff for a company that had prided itself on providing lifetime employment to loyal staffers and had earned a perennial spot on the “100 Best Companies to Work For in America” list for as long as the list had existed. For two years gallows humour had become the water cooler talk of the day.
Lunchtimes would pass and I would return to my floor to see yet another pile of boxes outside the offices of people I only knew in passing. One day, while on a trip around the floor for a conversation, I passed an abandoned office with a darkly rendered sample of then contemporary corporate graffiti. An art director, I assume, had taken the liberty of white taping, police style, the outline of a dead body on a desktop amidst the open cabinets and ransacked remains of the room. The sun-setting elongated shadows just made it all that more poignant.
Another spring day saw me crossing one of the mechanical bridges that span the winding Chicago river in front of the Burnett building. I stopped midway to witness the Chicago Fire Department retrieving something from the river. As I looked over the railing, what I thought I saw was a statue in a plastic bag, being hauled onto the deck of the fire tug. “A statue in a bag?”, I thought. Fuck, statues don’t come in bags. Jeezuz, this was a body. “Yeah, they come popping up in the springtime”, said a fellow staffer next to me. “Maybe it’s one of ours”, he added.
I was one of the lucky ones. I had work that was winning awards and was generally regarded as one of the edgier thinkers on staff. My stuff got the agency positive press and was good for new business. One of my campaigns was used as a case study at Northwestern’s Kellogg school of management for marketing MBAs.
Bud Ujhelyi greeted me with a warm smile and a handshake. “Siddown, David” , he said, “Whadja think of Korea?”
“Interesting”, I responded. We proceeded to talk about the job and covered a wide breadth. Michael Conrad had told me that the contract was only a two year duration but that he felt the job would take much longer – three or four by his estimation. Bud concurred. The television product from the Seoul office was about a notch above your average wedding video but not much better. This wasn’t a fine-tuning job. It was a complete overhaul.
Bud then proceeded to close all the other available doors I thought might be open. He basically said there was no work for me in Chicago. Lay-offs restructuring and the like had disbanded some of my former groups and things had been smelling like fish at 35 West Wacker for quite some time. At mid-management level it’s virtually impossible to see what the problems really are in a large privately held corporation. You don’t get to see any comprehensive reports or big numbers. There is no annual report. You’re at the mercy of whatever you are told by whoever is directly above you – and you can’t believe any of the shit they feed you at the annual meeting. That’s a corporate cheerleading exercise. But one number from the annual meeting stuck in my head: with global billings of around 12 billion, more than half of that was now being sourced from our overseas affiliates. And that number had been growing steadily for years. If things in the states were waning and overseas markets were growing, this could be a win/win for both of us.
One of my big questions of course was my management reporting structure. It was explained that three people would be in charge of my evaluation and task delivery. A guy named Rob Nolan in Chicago, Jeff Fergus in Hong Kong and Hugh Kwon in Korea – a tripod of superiors spread halfway around the globe. Rob was a good guy and had been a bit of a godfather to me at the company but he had absolutely no part in international management. Confounding. Fergus was an unknown and Hugh Kwon in Korea was about to be out of his league. Also explained was the fact that I would remain an employee of the Chicago office with an “assignment” to Korea. I would be paid by the home office to a Chicago bank account, twice a month, but the Seoul office would reimburse my monthly salary back to Chicago with yearly bonus, profit sharing and insurance remaining in Chicago’s hands. Structurally it was a good deal aside from the management triangle. It guaranteed that I would still have a job with corporate after Korea was finished.
Having made it abundantly clear that my future lay in Korea, Bud gave me another warm handshake and directed me to others involved in the process – a man named Don Richards, who I had no idea what his job was, and the in-house attorney who would give me the contract.
Don Richards was an abundantly nice man – a handsome 50ish black man, well educated, and odd as hell in what continues to be white man’s business. The advertising business as a whole is not particularly known for being an equal opportunity employer and while maybe more diversified now, certainly was not yet in 1995. At Burnett the mailroom was full of black guys but you could die of thirst looking for people of colour on the way up the corporate ladder. But Don was on the floor with all the board members and that spoke volumes. His job, as I recall, was just to spin the ball a bit. He knew nothing of the Korea office and stuck to selling the “concept” of our international division. His pitch was well received. Here, I thought was an opportunity to add “international” to my resume, a term that was receiving increasing importance in an ever-shrinking US market and have a clear and supported role in the turnaround of one of our company’s true ugly ducklings.
The attorney was a whole other story. A primpish North-side Chicago gal she had all the charm of a sorority girl on spring break. I honestly don’t recall her name but her pitch was nothing short of glowing – glowing in the manor of stinking shit about things she didn’t know fuck all about. Oh, the expat life as she recounted it. Sunsets on the Champs-Élysées. Wines at quaint corner cafes and an exotic circle of European friends pervaded her life in Paris with her husband, also an attorney with an international law firm. I can still smell the champagne soaked carpet of her description as it was being rolled up after the American Chamber of Commerce Ball on the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower. I had been to Paris in 1990 and while much more of a backpacker than an executive at the time, certainly knew a few of the finer moments of that great city. I had stayed in the shadows of Tour Eiffel and busied my trip with cooking school, trips to the Louvre, Musée Rodin and Musée d'Orsay. My father used to say that I had “champagne taste” on a “beer budget” but my budget had come a long way from college and I had the wife to prove it.
“Have you ever been to Korea?”, I asked the attorney. “Hong Kong?”, “Anywhere in Asia at all?” Her “no’s” were just sheepish in an unknowledgeable sort of way.
“Honey”, I recall thinking, “Seoul, Korea ain’t no fucking Parée!”
Hell, she wouldn’t have understood it if I had said it in exactly that way so I tried my best to describe to her just how different from Paris it really was, but I knew all my counter-claims were falling on deaf ears. Her memory of Paris truly was blinding.
Her first point on presentation of the “contract” was that it was not to be considered a contract at all. Rather it was entitled a “work agreement”, the legal parlance being that it could not be held to the same legal standards as an actual contract – meaning that they could fuck around at will with doing certain things and not doing others as specified, and that I couldn’t hold them to any of it, including duration. It was merely a spelling out of the specifics of pay and anticipated timings of things. Pay was subject to equalization of currencies between the two countries and that was beneficial to me, to the tune of about 30% on at least the money we elected to keep in the United States. Tax equalization was another perceived benefit, but I was about to learn that that particular “benefit” was much more beneficial to them that it was to me. The fuzziest part of the whole thing came in the form of housing and transportation being communicated and compensated as “comparable” to our current standard of living in the United States. No figures were mentioned nor projected, and I didn’t have any idea what that stuff should cost – not yet anyway.
The more she explained the specifics of the agreement the more confused I became. Initially I thought it was machine-gunned full of holes but needed to talk with my attorney before I could get a real grip on what I was sitting on.
Tell people you’re being transferred to Korea and “Cool!” or “Congratulations!” aren’t exactly the first words out of their mouths. My most balanced and knowledgeable confidant on the negotiation would turn out to be my financial planner and stockbroker, Dominick. Dominick and I had worked together since 1990 and he had made us a lot of money. His advice was always sound and conservative but with a clear understanding of my profession and goals and passions. We bought AOL on its IPO and he was open to many of the small tech and odd penny stocks I learned of through my work with Nintendo and Sony. The rest of the day would be spent with my attorney and on the phone with Dominick to deliver sketches of the giant squid we were dealing with. So far, from Michael Conrad in the beginning, through the trip and back to the goofy attorney girl, there had been eight people involved in the recruitment exercise. Was this an elaborate “divide and conquer” strategy or were they just truly fucked up?
Nancy would be my most trusted and involved confidant of the whole deal. It was now time to go home and tell her what we had. Christ – I was about to become the ninth person in a selling deal that made a car dealer’s triple-team strategy look positively tame.
What was in the agreement, not contract, was a tangled mess for a simply raised middle-class girl from Southern Illinois, but she was no dummy. Nancy had grown up the second daughter of a university professor and his wife, the head nurse at the university health service, but that simplicity and grounding in academia wouldn’t help mask what was obviously not in the agreement. There was nothing in it for her. Not a goddamn thing. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Period.
So I didn’t even try to pitch it to her. After dinner our pastime in Chicago was to take a few mile walk along the lake. Lincoln Park was positively charming from the formal gardens outside the arboretum to the little lake above Fullerton and on through the pedestrian underpass of Lakeshore Drive towards the public golf course on the banks of Lake Michigan above Diversey. It was a healthy walk and picturesque to boot.
This was our table for discussion. One of the things Nancy had seen to on our look-see tour was to look and see if there was any work for her. She had met with representatives of both Hill & Knowlton and Burson Marsteller, the world’s two largest public relations firms. The answer to her question was unquestionably “no”. Females were not in any sort of demand in Korea, especially white, blond, sunglass wearing, graphic designers with no language skills at all. She had been told this in no uncertain terms by those with whom she had met.
And so the question of what she would do raised its ugly head. “Boo!”
In all fairness to her, she had already followed me around the United States and I can’t say that her career was always the benefactor of that. By this point in our respective positions, I was making nearly four times her salary and was always the stable job in the family. After the TV station in Dallas she worked at a series of less than satisfying studios and freelance gigs. The kind of success I was enjoying was certainly eluding her, but then again, she never really wanted to do what I was doing – jetting all over making TV commercials and dealing with almost always high-pressure situations. She was more than comfortable staying on the purely two-dimensional visual side of things and staying out of anything that smelled even remotely political. But somewhere, and I believe this as a fact, there was something inside of her that said, “This just isn’t fair”. Part professional, part personal and probably part latent 70s feminist, she had an older sister, who enjoyed almost a diametrically opposite relationship with her husband – her sister being a publicly successful and awarded state teacher of the year – and a mind that questioned why Nancy put in the same kind of hours as David but got different results.
Being Mrs. Me could not have been as easy job but it wasn’t an altogether bad one either. My efforts were paying for a very nice apartment in Chicago, a lake house to come in Michigan and now an outpost in Korea. Our domestic financial agreement was that we split the rent in Chicago but the Michigan house, car and all furnishings, insurances, utilities, meals and investments came out of my paycheck. Her paycheck was then left for Bloomingdale’s trips and investments of her own. Basically, financially, she could have whatever she wanted. It really was not a bad gig – but that was when she could work as she pleased.
The house and car parts of the agreement for Korea were just going to need to wait until I got back over there and began to work in earnest, but Nancy’s part of the deal needed to be solved right there in Chicago. She and I agreed that we would make that the crux of our counter-offer to the company and if we couldn’t work out a mutually acceptable deal, that I wouldn’t be interested. The gamble there was that I could have soon been out of a job.
But it was a well-placed bet. The company didn’t have a back-up plan. I had at least taken the trip, no one else had. I was their man.
The jogging path along Lake Michigan had a series of exercise stations for sit-ups, shin-ups and stretches of many varieties. I worked each one doubly hard on that particular day. I needed to be in fighting form for my next round with the eight blocking dummies that awaited my return to the Leo Burnett Company the next day. What fun I was having. While bodies were being thrown from the 50 storey headquarters down on West Wacker Drive I was in the catbird seat. Honestly, in the advertising business, it just didn’t get any better, or more surreal than this. I was, to use a McDonald’s slogan yet to be written, “Lovin it!”. Or, to quote Hunter S. Thompson, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
The second meeting with Bud Ujhelyi was reasonably cooler than the first.
“So all’s good with the contract, Dave?”, he asked.
“Well, not exactly Bud”, I responded. “There’s quite a few things – ”
“Nah, generally Dave, generally – ”
“Generally Bud? Generally, I don’t think you want to hire a guy who would sign a contract like this – I mean – ”
“ – Bud, if I brought a contract like this back from a client for us to sign, you’d shoot me. We’d all get screwed.”
“Ok, point taken. So what’s the biggest issue?”, he asks.
“My wife. The big issue is my wife. There’s nothing for her. She can’t work in Korea and you’re asking that she give up her job here. I mean, it’s gonna cost us forty grand a year and I end up with a very unhappy wife in a very strange land with no friends, Bud – it’s a huge issue. Huge.”
Silence. He looks at his desk for a moment, thinking.
“David, I suppose we could work out something where she works for us”, he offers.
“Bud. Do you want your wife workin’ right there”, I said as I pointed out the door to his secretary’s station. Nancy working for us meant that I would be her boss.
“No.” A quick moment. “No, I don’t suppose I do”, he responded.
A few papers shuffled and Bud regained his footing. “David”, he says. “This is a common issue in international assignments, so the company has put together a program. It’s called the Spousal Career Readjustment Program.”
I listened as Bud explained the details of the “program” talking about her options to go back to school, or have children and well – there actually were no other options after that. Korea was higher than the Great Wall of China of China when it came to women working and even higher still when one considered her career.
“How much”. I asked. “How much will the company give her?”
“25 grand, Dave – That’s what we can do.”
“25 grand, Bud?” – “You want me to go home and tell my wife we’re buying her career out” – 15 years of work – “for twenty five grand?”
“Shit, Bud. You go home and sell that deal. Go ahead.” I hung my head and rocked it back and forth a few times.
We tabled that point for then and went on to the other points to be covered. Neither of us could do a number on house and car and it seemed the only reasonable thing that they needed to wait until I was on the ground. A few other points covered and a bit of ground gained until I arrived at “working hours”. In Korea it was the custom for the company to maintain office hours for half a day on Saturdays. This was actually better than most Korean companies at the time, that worked a full six-day week, but still, more required time from me.
During this entire process I had been very careful not to ask for more money – wary of that turf and not wanting to be perceived as a profiteer over a company that was obviously trimming back in harder times. But the deal was verging on being well un-sellable to Nancy and I needed to go home with something/anything that would soften a bunch of potential bad news. I broached the extra work and no extra pay issue and was told, quite quickly, that any salary issues would have to go through the Regional President, a Mr. Jim Oates. That was interesting. Bud had the authority to negotiate all these other things, but not salary. The meeting ended with perfunctory smiles but not particularly comfortable ones.
My walk home from the Loop everyday to our home was one of my treasured fringe benefits from my time at Burnett. Averaging roughly four miles, starting on Wacker Drive and proceeding past the Sun Times, the Wrigley building, The Tribune Tower and proceeding up Michigan Avenue for one of the world’s classic window shopping tours, the walk gave me the time to wash the business out of my system and prepare for a nice time at home with minimal shoptalk. But that day would be different. We were having shoptalk for dinner. The towers of Michigan Avenue wound down past the Hancock building, starting with the classic Drake Hotel and reducing themselves a century or so in storeys and time, through the brownstones of the Gold Coast where Lincoln Park abruptly breaks the architectural mélange just north of the Cardinal’s mansion. I relished this walk, even in times of snow and cold.
I always took a slightly different route, varying my return so that I might see a different tree or paint on someone’s house. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion was on the way and I imagined a hundred stories about the people who lived in the other structures before I hit the park. Spring season starts here on a few dusty public diamonds every year and the walkways and statues to city forefathers guide one towards the zoo, with elephant noises, and eventually to the formal gardens, the Arboretum and the Belden Stratford, directly across the street.
On this way home and on this day, I decided to give my wife the gift of one more pleasant dinner, candles and such, and the opportunity to choose the best thing to do, for both of us. Not, that I couldn’t decide, but I needed to let her know that she had the power. I already had an idea of how to make it work.
“Bud. Here’s the deal. We’ll take the twenty five grand, and the company gives us six roundtrip plane tickets to commute this thing over the next six months. Once we sort out the market, we’ll find her a job”, I said the next day.
“Fine, now go see Jimmy Oates and get this thing wrapped up”, he chirped.
Jim Oates was a big old block of a man. A veteran of the Philip Morris business he was then President of our Asia Pacific division, 18 offices representing 20% of our global network. Did Jim have any idea who I was at all? Well, he certainly did on this day because he behaved like nobody had ever given them this much shit over a posting. But the shit was well deserved. They hadn’t offered me any compensation for what was then considered a “hardship posting”, a term meaning that expatriate employees would have a hard time in a difficult environment. As the Koreas were and still are technically in a state of war, it was considered a war zone as well.
But Jim was the closer, he just wanted this deal done – small potatoes for him. A mid-year raise of 5% was offered and I didn’t push it. At least it was something. And it’s generally good to see the other guy squirm a bit. That tells you you’re not leaving money on the table.
And I had seemingly made all parties happy. Nancy kept her job, the agency got what they wanted and the Koreans got something they didn’t want, but didn’t have any choice over either. Me.
And my happiness? I can’t imagine that anyone was even considering that at the time.
Nancy made one final plea that night – that I reconsider and go back to the company to see if there was anything – anything else that I could do to stay in Chicago.
“Dear”, I told her, “When the company says they ‘want you to take a look at our Korea operation’ , they don’t mean ‘take a look’”, referring to our look-see trip, “They mean you’re going to fucking Korea.”
Plan “B” had been made abundantly clear as a job washing windows in a shrinking 50- storey corporation or selling Leo’s beloved apples on the street. There was no plan “B”.
“We made the deal, honey – now we gotta’ do the deal. Let’s go to bed.”
Parked before the clunky Buicks and Fords on a gravel suburban Illinois street, the shiny black 61 Corvair Monza was like a little spoon of caviar atop your standard deli lox & bagel – quite the garnish for this Mid-western party. The Chevy Corvair, made famous firstly by Ralph Nader’s exposition of its safety issues, and secondly by its “sub sandwich” design, had made its way from New Jersey at the hands of Chelsi Moretti, Doris’ former boss and mentor at the Lenox China factory. Chelsi was also her son’s Godfather and had made his way cross-country for this special family event.
Deposited by the Buicks and Fords, a stream of fashionable young housewives in June Cleaver dresses paraded into the Carlson’s new ranch home, each carrying a ribbon bound box of congratulatory content as David watched in anticipation. Dressed in his Sunday best of navy blue shorts, jacket and tie with Catholic-black shoes and ankle socks, he stared at the pebbles of the front doorstep, head in hands. Each patting him on the head and saying “Hi David!”, one by one the ladies let the aluminum screen door slam behind them as they entered the house. Inside a near carnival was underway. Curly coloured streamers loping from ceiling corners to the center of the room, Ferrante & Teicher on the stereo, cakes, tea and swishy dresses spiraled around the event of the day – David’s new baby sister, Bonnie.
He didn’t get it. Five years as the number-one son and all of a sudden this monkey-looking crying bundle was stealing all the attention. The world was going to be a very different place from now on.
Chelsi came out to the porch and sat down next to David. “Hey buddy, you’re a big brother now”, he said, “cheer up”. But “cheery” wasn’t exactly in David’s lexicon yet. He still didn’t get.
One day, a few weeks before, he had gone to the kitchen with a very important question for his mother. “Mom”, he asked, “Mrs. Adams is getting very fat. Why is she getting so fat?
Mom, understood the question immediately. She turned around, wiped her hands and took David out to the living room. As they sat on the sofa she explained that Mrs. Adams, the neighbor next door, was going to have a baby, and that’s why she was getting so big. “It’s not fat”, she explained, “Mrs. Adams has a little baby inside her and that takes up a lot of space – she just looks fat”.
“But we’re going to have a baby, and you’re not getting fat”, he retorted.
The concept of adoption is a hard one to grasp for a five year old and as much as Doris had explained the idea of where David’s new baby sister was coming from, this was her realization that it was going to be even more of a challenge.
David had remembered the trip to Catholic Social Services in Peoria, a classic old sandstone hospital with high ceilings, marble floors and heavy wooden benches in the lobby. He was asked to sit on one of the benches while his mother and father went into the office to sign the papers with Mrs. Davies, the social worker who paid regular visits to their home to check on their first adoption.
Feet dangling above the floor he watched doctors and nurses in white as they carried out their business. But what was their business? This was where people came to get babies? Actually, he thought all people got their babies here until Mrs. Adams got fat.
The Carlsons came out of the office to await the arrival of their new daughter. As a nurse came down the marble stairs carrying a little bundle, she slipped and sent the baby flying. In slow motion David watched as the baby traveled to the hard marble floor – and then a second – and then “waaaaaaaahhhhhh!” She was okay. Interesting, he thought. You can drop a baby on it’s head and it’s still okay. Interesting indeed.
The idea that nobody gave the baby a shower during the baby shower didn’t make a great deal of sense but it was quite the party. Gifts were opened while the guest of honor seemed to sleep through most of the festivities.
Chelsi and David went back to the porch with their cake and punch. From this point on he realized that things were going to be very different – but different in a different way. Now he had responsibility. Now he was a big brother. The hand tinted black and white photograph, made at the local portrait studio, with his new baby sister on his lap wouldn’t tell the whole story but it was a good start.
Like a musket ball from a slingshot, the RX7 fired down Lakeshore Drive to the Dan Ryan connecting with Interstate 90 on the way to Gary Indiana. The trip to Michigan from Chicago was like going through hell and back and being born again on the other side.
From the urban paradise of the North Shore, through the loop, and elevated over the seedier south side, past Comisky Park, rows of public housing and then flattening out through a series of low water marsh ponds – silhouettes of men fishing with long poles in the cesspools of industrial waste – the highway provided a release not available through drugs, alcohol and rarely sex. The washing of city cares would soon be replaced by cool lake breezes and undulating sand dunes in the long shadows of a daylight savings time sunset.
Gary Indiana, however, on the furthest tip of Lake Michigan, was the armpit of America, marked only by billboards for a Trump riverboat casino and a brown state highway sign at the exit for Michael Jackson’s boyhood home, like a national monument – the last place on earth one wanted to have a flat tire. But the Mazda RX7 had been outfitted for the trip with Pirelli tires, a racing tuned suspension and 50% more horsepower than it had had out of the factory. It also sported a state of the art sound system and had become our home on the road for weekend trips to the tourist themed “Water Wonderland” state.
But the 20-minute surrounds that encompassed Gary always put Nancy a little bit on edge. Towering hulks of burnt-out steel mills, skeletal carcasses of vehicles on the roadside and not an exit for miles told a driver that this was God’s little bit of hell. But somewhere past Gary, around Michigan City, which is actually still in Indiana, Nancy would fall asleep for the few hours needed until we reached our traditional rest stop.
This was music time. The salesman at the audio shop had sold me on the idea that the car, and my car in particular, was the perfect concert hall environment and he and I together had spent over five thousand dollars to accomplish what I considered audio perfection. Each week, for over a month I would visit the shop and switch out a condenser or a speaker to improve the sound. The bass was my main obsession – that it be clean, fast and tight – so an added 100 watts and a subwoofer was crowded into the small luggage area behind the two seats in the car. This left quite a bit less space for luggage but god was the sound incredible. Note to car audio enthusiasts: Donald Fagen, of Steely Dan fame has probably two of the best test records for audio systems in his first two solo releases. Forget hip-hop and Timbaland mixed dance stuff – this is pure, exquisitely played, jazz pop rock with an emphasis on technical perfection, from the playing to recording, mixing and mastering. It tells a system what time it is.
With one rest and gas stop, the time from Chicago to Whitehall, Michigan was around three and a half hours, but I could cut that to under three with stealthy speeding and the right CDs around the known radar traps of the state police. Our weekend trips to Michigan had come at my insistence to realize a childhood dream.
As a kid, my father had taken us on a summer vacation to the FloraDale resort in Silver Lake Michigan. The dunes and peace at Silver Lake had lived in my memory for years and now that I was living within hours of these incredible natural wonders, I wanted to make them part of our future as well. There was also the idea that we were getting into our forties and would soon be facing the biological clock on the question of kids of our own. Now that I was in a position to afford it, I wanted to make the acquisition of a summer home a reality – for us both and for our children to come.
The notion to buy a lake house was mine entirely. For years I had dragged Nancy from her city apartment around the lake to the weekend haunts of Chicago’s second home crowd. From Michigan City to Grand Haven, Holland, Muskeegon and all the little hamlets in between, the lake was a treasure trove of hidden charms and architectural oddities. It was Chicago’s version of The Hamptons. Millionaires, billionaires, celebrities, personalities and local residents had all taken their slice of the lakefront and while we were none of the above, a quick survey of housing prices had told us that a couple of hundred thousand could get us a pretty cool old house on the lake instead of a hovel in the city – and we could certainly afford that. Probably against her better judgment, my wife accompanied me dutifully on all these weekend jaunts, staying at everything from posh B&Bs to Route 66 style resorts and rummaging through flea markets, eating at corner cafes and learning the lay of the land. In time we had met any great number of country real estate agents and seen all manner of lake property from toyishly miniature Victorian fantasies of the late 19th century to more Frank Lloyd Wright inspired 60s cottages of Prarie-style minimalism.
But White Lake was the gem for us. For all the ginger-breadish hamlets growing up the lake from Chicago, White Lake was just over the dreaded three hour driving limit where new development ceased and was like taking a trip back a hundred years. The oldest contiguous yacht club in the United States lived there, and does still, not far away from the world’s largest weathervane, and the lake was distinctly the province of sailors, as opposed to motor-boaters, owing to it’s channel out to the larger lake Michigan.
White Lake is a four mile long lake with the town of Whitehall to the east and the channel to the big lake on the west. Just south of the channel lies Sylvan Beach, a more than century-old community of private homes situated on a small dune that divides the two lakes.
The first time we visited Sylvan, Nancy looked out the window of the car with the smaller lake on the right, sailboats in the sunset, and a clubhouse, tennis courts and homey cottages nestled amidst the two hundred year old pines to the left. “These people are lucky”, she said. We drove to the end of the small road that goes through Sylvan to find the White Lake lighthouse on the channel to Lake Michigan. It was just charming and seemed way too expensive and exclusive for us. Indeed those people were lucky but as luck would have it we were about to become two of those people.
The area originally presented itself in a guidebook of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and I had cultivated a hobby of visiting a Wright building whenever one was near. White Lake had three – one wooden structure in the style of his famous Falling Water with a living room that spanned the road underneath and two smaller less innovative cottages – one, a carbon copy of the other. Wright had worked in Japan at the turn of the century and was greatly influenced by a linear design style, different from European vertical styles that would become the Prairie Style and his trademark in the United States.
But this trip would finish a negotiation, begun many months earlier, on our own little piece of this Michigan paradise. Before the winter had set in the previous year I had been informed by an attorney in the area that a property in Sylvan Beach area would be coming on the market. This was doubly unusual because homes in this private community rarely traded – many had been owned by the same families for over 100 years – and the bylaws of the community forbid public listings – but the seller was unusually motivated and we were intrigued.
One visit to the house sold us. It was a disaster, but Nancy loved it. A mansard roofed rambling two story, built in 1895 it had been through only three owners in a hundred years. The most recent, Phillip Arthurhultz, had bought it in the late 70s and apparently not touched it since. The question of course was, why? Or why not?
Arthurhultz was a character all to himself. The Republican Senate majority leader of the Michigan state Senate, an exotic car enthusiast and reportedly gay, he was a real anomaly and reputed to be an elusive negotiator as well – stories of his attempted sale of the property were littered with tales of jilted buyers, broken agreements and midnight price-hikes. Our deal had been at least that much fun.
Essentially abandoned for seventeen years, the house was like a musical jewelry box left in the attic for too many years. Tilted down the hill amidst the pine and beach trees it was covered in boughs and hosted raccoons in the attic. Inside was like a Hollywood set, Americana dripping from every corner – eagles painted on furniture, Betsy Ross table covers Tiffany imitation lamps and lace curtains – like a cover story from the 1922 debut of Better Homes and Gardens. Could a man really live here? Could anyone?
The answer lied in Phil’s need for a legal residence in Michigan. Of course he didn’t live there but it had served his need for a registered property and was a handy storage dump for his campaign yard-signs in the basement. But Phil was retiring and its usefulness was finished.
The price tag initially was somewhere in the three hundred thousand range but had you seen the place, that was laughable. Yet, what was being purchased was not particularly real estate or a building per se. What would be gained was eleven shares in the Sylvan Beach corporation and the right to occupy the property in question – for a lifetime. And Sylvan Beach was worth quite a bit – only seventy five cottages on a Department of Dunes and Natural Resources protected parcel with no new construction permitted. It was a bona-fide piece of history and guaranteed to stay that way for the next hundred years by state charter, not unlike the 100 year the lease the British had held on Hong Kong. And the neighbors were an interesting lot also; some relatives of Gerald Ford’s family, one of the President Roosevelt’s grandsons and some other very interesting sorts.
We were told by the real estate agent that Phil wouldn’t even entertain a number less than his asking price so our initial offer included all sorts of riders for roof repair, foundation support, plumbing fixes and the like. Only because the number was right, he accepted it – but then after months of trying to accomplish what amounted to an impossible task, threw the deal back at us and said, “You fix it. Come up with a new number.”
Our trip that weekend was to close the deal with Phil. Judging by what we had heard about him it was going to be a whole bunch of fun. Arriving at White Lake Realty, a small office in a strip shopping mall we noticed that Phil had arrived in a classic Cadillac Eldorado that dwarfed everything else in the parking lot. Much had been made of Phil’s car collection and I found it odd that he had chosen this one for the task, like Boss Hog from the Dukes of Hazard.
Seated at a table wearing a three-piece pin striped suite he began the meeting by stating that he owned two Cadillacs, a Ferrari and a few other collectables and that he didn’t need to sell the house for money. So knowing a bit about car lovers myself I responded in kind, “Well, you know Phil, the problem with that, is that the Ferrari you’ve got is not the Ferrari you want – sell the house.” That line worked like a charm and we finished the contract in less than an hour – a lot closer to two hundred thousand than three.
It rained later that day as we finished lunch and went out to sit on the porch of our soon to be new home. I can still see Nancy’s face looking out to the foggy lake to the East. Peaceful. Content. And probably wondering how we were going to fix the place up with me in Korea for the next two years. Now, we were the lucky ones.
Moline, Illinois sits on the Mississippi River at the only place where the famous North/South river flows East to West into Iowa. There must be something to that positioning that sets attitudes a little different from other places. Mother Goose Land in Davenport Iowa was a children’s park of the early 1960s variety with all manner of fairytale creatures done up as big concrete casts that kids could climb all over and go inside. The giant-sized shoe from the little old lady who lived in it was David’s favorite. But on the way home, after the small-gauge train ride, after the cotton candy, there was nirvana. On the way home there was his little bit of heaven. The child was oddly transfixed by the strangest of things.
Little Bit O’Heaven was the creation of B.J. Palmer of the Palmer school of Chiropractic and it was his idea that it be a contemplative garden for his students and public. B.J. was generally regarded as an eccentric, homeopathic healer and quack, but the school eventually gained acceptance and the discoveries of his father, D.D. Palmer would later be found closely linked to similar philosophies in Oriental medicine. But B.J.’s passion was his art collection and boy, what a collection it was – the finest cornucopia of Oriental sculpture, assorted bric-a-brac and weird bullshit the Midwest had to offer. What was just another roadside attraction to Ray and Doris would become a reoccurring haven for David throughout his growing years. Giant Buddhas and Bodhisattvas cavorted in an eclectic grotto of fantastically bizarre imagery, complete with a live alligator pond, snake sculptures, European marble nudes and a giant clamshell for kid’s photo ops. It was magical, stuck there in the middle of the cornfields. But it told another story, a story closer to the heart of a young boy. It told him that there were things, forces and manifestations that reached far beyond the somewhat simple iconography of a Catholic education – things that reached well beyond the Midwest and certainly the US. Things that reached beyond the physical and into the metaphysical, the transcendent and the unknown – for here was imagery that didn’t just appear in a dream. This was real. The real thoughts and expressions of peoples from very far away, collected by a man who was fascinated by what he did not yet know, transfixed, like David.
Doris told her son one day after church that the family priest, Father Tholl, had run away – run away from the parish to marry a woman who had been a nun in the convent next door. His name was Bernie Tholl now, not Father Tholl anymore and he lived in Chicago. The boy imagined him mowing his lawn or fixing a broken pipe under a sink, no longer wearing his collar and doing his “honey-do’s” in a soiled plaid shirt. Maybe he had found his own little bit of heaven – not far from the middle-class of the Middle West he had been preaching to.
Nancy would remark to me later, on news of Princess Diana’s death, that she understood the world was a very “complicated” place when Kennedy was shot in 63. That year would also mark the delivery of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the Beatles invasion of America. America would soon invade Vietnam and Tony Bennett’s recording of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” made him a star. Castro had become our enemy and Korea would elect Park Chun Hee, its fifth president in 10 years, after assassination of their fourth. Santa Claus was still alive all right but he was having a hard time breathing and needed the care of a good doctor, or maybe a good chiropractor.
The next month would be extremely busy with the house closing and my preparation for Korea.
To be continued...