Night of The Living Deadbeats
Public Speaking and Media Training
By E.A. Cashill
Where do I commence this tale of unspeakable woe?
Do I recollect to the age of my nine and my first mugging, I the muggee. Or to the age of twelve, when first waylaid at gunpoint. Or perhaps to my arrival in Kansas City, whence began the relentless “urban tax”: a 12-speed here. A moped there. A car radio here. Porch furniture. Another bicycle. A VCR. All purloined, with perverse impunity, by roving bands of youthful brigands.
This disquieting recollection flashes again to my first “quarterly checks.” One inscribed to our fair federal government. A second to the state. Self-employed now was I, and I who made the money. But no compunction did they, the dread revenue masters, feel in seizing it, verily, by coercion and mostly to sate their ever mounting vigorish.
But indeed, in the larger scheme, all these acts are random, impersonal, of little cosmic consequence. To be sure, none has scarred my soul, nor has any sent an icy chill to my heart as has a hellish misadventure of recent vintage: yea, truly, for the first time ever--and please forebear my lapse to the colloquial--I got stiffed. Absolutely and unceremoniously. Read on, I caution you, with one hand on your heart.
MY UNDOING COMMENCED ON A NIGHT IN LONESOME OCTOBER.
The skies, they were ashen and sober. The leaves, they were crisped and sere. Inside, our mates found solace in sundry imbibements, as women at these occasions are wont to do. Outside, over a barbecue, my friend and I conversed serious and sober. The conversation drifted like the curling eddies of smoke, and lit, finally, on the unholy world of affairs, business to be sure.
My friend’s profession was that an accountant--or at least, we shall call him that. His firm prospered, indeed, but not enough to sate him. Competition encroached. He and his two colleagues hesitated to make their first small, self-conscious step into the maddening world of self-promotion. But they knew they must. Might I aid them?
The only words I spoke were the whispered words, “Of course.” More vivid marketing projects have I known indeed. And as to creative challenge, I perceived straight off that a modest, two-color, bi-fold announcement festooned with dreary portraits of middle-age men would likely merit few garlands at next year’s Omnis. But my friend was an honorable man, and I did not doubt his good intentions. “Half-price,” I insisted. “No mark-up.” And the deal, however humble, was sealed.
Ah distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak November, when we gathered all the members and plotted in their office fair. No ill wind did I sense, or do remember, and our project shot forward like an arrow in the air.
But, alas, the arrow proved to be the apocryphal one of Achilles: moving closer by half in the first bound, then half again, and half again after that, but destined thus to never quite reach the wall. The infinite permutations of language and image that three partners could evoke and disagree on thwarted its progress. Had Zeno, the creator of this paradox, worked in advertising, I wondered? He surely understood. My costs soared like a raven against the penumbral November sky. My margins narrowed like the walls of an inquisitorial chamber. And to the naked eye, at least, our humble flier seemed suspended in mid-air.
Came February, chill and foreboding, I submitted a partial accounting for $1200, $700 for hard encumberances out-of-pocket, already paid by me, and $500 for my time, a mere half of my half-price. Not a significant sum, I know, but enough to alarm my friend. Through broken and equivocal hints, I surmised that the senior partner was disinclined to honor accounts for a project not yet consummated. Would I kindly refrain from billing now? The project would move forward, my friend assured me. Yes, of course, I answered. I should not have doubted, but confess I must to an incipient disquietude.
Two months passed in silence. Rien. I sent a note of gracious tidings. “How advances the project?” wrote I. “It advances, if slowly,” my friend assured me. Two months later, I sent another note of comparable cheer. My friend called back. This time in lament. The project had defied Zeno and stopped fully in flight. He would talk to the senior partner about squaring our account and call me back within a week. “Whenever,” I said politely. But something in his tone afflicted me with an impalpable sense, half of anxiety, half of vague terror: “What,” I wondered, “was there was to talk about?”
The House of Cashill’s first rule of squaring accounts: “Endeavor to evoke guilt, not anger.” If my approach to collections seems amiable to the point of fecklessness, remember that it had always succeeded. No one had ever gainsaid my humble (and righteous) fees. An accomplishment of no small magnitude in a world seemingly gone mad.
But this time, my well-grounded expectations were to take wings and fly away. The partners did not call but sent instead a letter. This missive would snatch me unceremoniously from the womb of fiscal innocence and thrust me naked into the merciless world of sauve qui peut . Below, I repeat this startling document in full for your perusal, errant punctuation and all, changing only the names:
“Best regards?” BEST REGARDS. Zounds! Rarely does a pleasantry so defy the coldness in one’s heart. And what to make of the “far too promotional” claim? Could I infer that the brochure would have promoted the firm far too widely or far too well?
Ah, but the check proved the most unkindest cut of all! The indignity of it all. A quick calculation told me that I had squandered 20 hours of time and $450 cash on this ill-starred project, the most dubious investment of my recollection (If you don’t count selling all my shares of RJR Nabisco two weeks before the buyout , but that’s another story.)
I was thunderstruck, depressed in spirits. I felt a sinking, sickening of the heart, a maddening desire to shriek aloud. So feeble and futile now seemed my cherished “rule.” Like any mortal, I fell prey to the tumultuous virtues of stern passion. Aux ramparts! I fired back check and letter (rush delivery) to the junior partners. I quote from this correspondence:
“Tell me that you didn’t see this letter and didn’t approve it. Tell me that you don’t dishonor your commitments, that you don’t insult your friends, that you don’t knowingly offend a bill-paying client etc. etc. etc.”
On and on I went in righteous wrath, “This is the most dishonorable letter I have ever received . . . blah, blah, blah, blah, blah . . . pure and simple shabbiness.” Needless to say, the letter was not well received. To his credit, my friend called back a few days later, half apologetic, but half peeved. He could scarcely intercede for a person who would write as indelicately as I. A kind of moral equivalency had been established: why, after all, should the partners pay anything to a guy who hurt their feelings so?