If you were in town last Spring, you may have seen one of the flyers announcing the unveiling of a recently discovered Madonna and child. The unveiling was to take place on April 1st at high noon on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And sure enough, in front of a huge crowd, a large oil painting of Madonna and Child was unveiled. The crowd gasped, and then quickly broke into great cheers. There were the two of them in radiant color – the singer, Madonna, and the cooking diva, Julia Child.
The mastermind of this historical event was my friend, Arnie Goldbar, perhaps the city’s greatest punster. It was he who thought up the pun, convinced an artist friend to paint it, and then managed to lure thousands of onlookers to the unveiling. “And,” he pointed out, “I got them there on April Fool’s day!”
Arnie’s day job was actually in public relations. While he was truly a PR genius, he was also extraordinarily lazy. Indeed, despite his great originality and creativity, he was invariably dismissed from every job he ever held.
When he was hired by the New York State Department of Labor, I predicted not only why he would get fired, but when. “How can you possibly make that prediction?” he asked. “The job doesn’t even start till Monday.”
“Arnie! I know you! Guaranteed, you will be late on Monday morning.”
On Monday evening, Arnie called me. “I just wanted to let you know that you were wrong. Remember what you predicted?”
“Yeah, that you would be late on your first day.”
“Do you remember your exact prediction?”
“Of course! “ I said, “You will be late on Monday morning.”
“I don’t believe it!”
“Well, you were wrong! I didn’t get there till after lunch.”
Within a couple of weeks he was getting almost daily warnings from his boss about his chronic lateness. But Arnie was quite confident that he had solved the problem by constructing a colorful bar graph. Anyone could spot the trend: His daily lateness over the two-week period had declined almost steadily, and was now barely over two hours.
“So Arnie,“ I asked, “how did your boss respond to your chart?”
“He loved it!”
“Yeah, he liked the colors.”
“What about all your latenesses?”
“Now those he didn’t like so much.”
Arnie, of course, continued to come in late, and he kept making charts for his boss. Finally, one day his boss warned him that if he was late one more time, he would be fired.
The next morning, he was an hour late.
“What did your boss say to you?”
“Luckily I had just made another chart for him. And even though I was late that day, I still got to the office 15 minutes earlier than the day before.”
“So what did he say?”
“I told you, Steve. He liked my chart.”
“What were his exact words?”
“Well, his exact words were, ‘Coming in late right after I gave you that warning was like spitting in my face!’”
That afternoon Arnie was fired. But he never saw it coming. After all, his average daily lateness had fallen to a record low. And whatever anyone else might say, the average daily lateness charts don’t lie.
Did Arnie have a favorite PR pun? Yes! It’s the one he did for one of the Liberal Party’s annual fundraising dinners. He and his wife, both officials of the party, had been separated for many years. And yet, they would be sitting together at the dinner.
Before we go any further, do you remember the old aphorism, “Politics makes strange bedfellows”? Well here’s the headline Arnie came up with for the press release he wrote for the dinner: “Politics mates estranged bedfellows.”
The best PR job Arnie had ever had was working in the Mayor’s Office for the Handicapped. Years later, when he was being interviewed on a public access TV show, he fondly recalled those days.
Interviewer: Tell us, Arnie, what was the greatest PR coup you ever pulled off?
Arnie: There is no question that it was the time when the Mayor’s Office for the Handicapped fired this poor woman who happened to be a quadriplegic. They gave her virtually no notice.
Interviewer: That’s awful! So what did you do?
Arnie: Well, they claimed it was because of budget cuts, but in those years, with all the federal grants pouring in, the city had more money than it knew what to do with. The bottom line was that the poor woman was out of work.
Interviewer: OK, so you were doing PR for that agency. Firing that woman sounds like pretty bad public relations.
Arnie: It was!
Interviewer: So wasn’t your job to make the Mayor’s Office for the Handicapped look good?
Arnie: Of course. But there was no way the agency could look good firing a handicapped woman.
Interviewer: So how did you handle it?
Arnie: Well, I decided to run with the story. I mean, wasn’t this the greatest human interest story of all time? So I called every radio and TV station in the city. And when the access-a-ride van brought her home at 6 pm, there were reporters and cameras set up on her front lawn, on the sidewalk, and all up and down her block
Interviewer: So she must have been on the evening news.
Arnie: Would you believe that she was on every channel that night and the next day?
Interviewer: That’s wonderful, Arnie. So did she end up getting her job back?
Arnie: No, but she got some great publicity.
For a while Arnie had a very beautiful girlfriend named Marla, who had just finished chiropractic school. They lived in a studio apartment in Brooklyn Heights with a great view of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. While thinking about how he could help Marla start up her practice, Arnie had one of his greatest PR inspirations. “Let’s set up the ‘Bad Back Hotline!’”
They would use the phone number 223-2225. Check it out on your phone by matching the letters B-A-D-B-A-C-K with each of these numbers. And what have you got? You’ve got the BAD BACK hotline!
They managed to get that number from the phone company, but since the exchange, 223, was not in Brooklyn Heights, they would have to pay 50 cents for each forwarded call.
I can still recall the recording he made: “You’ve reached the Bad Back Hotline. You don’t need to suffer from back pain any longer. Just leave your name and number and one of our doctors will get right back to you.”
Now all that was needed was to publicize the Bad Back Hotline and a flood of people would be calling BADBACK. Since Arnie was the PR guru, he would handle the logistics. He drew up a plan, which called for designing a flyer with a picture of a person doubled over in pain, then get flyers printed up and distributed wherever people with bad backs congregated.
But it never happened. Arnie always had great ideas, but as a world class procrastinator, he almost always put off acting upon them. And so, one day, Marla moved out. The Bad Back Hotline never got a call, except, perhaps, the one from me.
Over the years Arnie found it increasingly difficult to find a job. Then he got lucky. His old friend, Sammy, along with a couple of partners, had managed to scrape together enough money to start what they planned to be a bagel bakery and restaurant. They took out a lease on a rather large store on 7th Avenue, the main shopping drag of Park Slope, a gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn. Arnie would do their PR.
It took him just one day to think up the name for their store-restaurant – We ain’t just bagels! He convinced the three partners that it was the perfect name for their enterprise. The name had attitude, it was edgy, and it let potential customers know that they could buy a whole lot more than just bagels. And best of all, the name was ungrammatical, just like most of Brooklyn once was.
As the store’s grand opening approached, Arnie had another great idea. Why not invite the press, the TV and radio stations, and all the local politicians? The lure would be a free sit-down meal and a big bag of bagels to take home. Just imagine all the free publicity this would generate!
Arnie knew that the idea of giving away free meals went all the way back to the early 1900s when a man named Nathan Handwerker opened a Coney Island hot dog eatery called Nathan’s. To create the impression that his hot dogs were made of top quality meat, he invited the interns at nearby Coney Island Hospital to have free meals – as long as they wore their hospital whites. And his ads, which anticipated Arnie’s own advertising copy, proclaimed that Nathan’s hot dogs were so wonderful that many doctors ate there.
The day of the grand opening finally arrived. It would be an invitation-only affair, and the inside and outside of the store were festooned with red, white, and blue ribbons, banners, and balloons, all of which proclaimed, We ain’t just bagels!
The invitations called for a noon opening, and because of the huge crowds expected for the free meals, the festivities would go on all day. Among the guests would be Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, a man who was rumored to be even fonder of speaking than of eating. Indeed, he had gone to great lengths to promote Brooklyn’s many promising new eateries. Who knew? He might even be induced to make a speech.
Surprisingly, no one had shown up before the stroke of 12. But, of course, who likes to be the first person to arrive?
Around 12:30 the owners began to get a little nervous. And by one o’clock, it had become very clear that something must have gone terribly wrong. Who had been in charge of sending out the invitations? Arnie!
“Where the hell is he?” demanded Sammy. “Somebody, call him!”
A minute later Sammy was told that Arnie’s answering machine had picked up.
“OK,” said Sammy. “I want two guys to go over to his apartment. And take along a sledge hammer. If he doesn’t answer, I want you to break down his door!”
“Are you serious!”
“You’re damn straight I’m serious! I want you to bring him back here. I need some answers, and I need them right away.”
An hour later the two guys returned with Arnie. As he stumbled into the store Sammy yelled, “What the hell happened!”
“I don’t give a shit about your sleep! What happened with the invitations?”
“Nothing. I mailed them.”
“You mailed them? When did you mail them?”
“Well I intended to send them out at the beginning of the week. But then things got delayed.”
“How long did they get delayed?”
“Well, till Friday. I did get to the Central Post Office just before they closed at 8 pm.”
“You schmuck! You mean to tell me that you didn’t mail out the invitations for a Sunday opening until Friday night?”
“Well, technically it was Friday evening.”
“I don’t give a technical shit if it was Friday night or Friday evening! You sent out the invitations the day before the event?”
“Well, technically it was two days before the event. From Friday to Sunday is actually two days.”
“Get out of here! And don’t ever come back!”
Arnie looks back fondly on his days with We ain’t just bagels! Deep down he felt that business really had had a great chance to succeed, especially with the creative ideas he’d supplied. It still saddens him that his old friend, Sammy, no longer talks to him. But long ago, Arnie had decided to forgive Sammy. Some people just couldn’t get past certain disappointments. And going bankrupt was a pretty big disappointment.
Still, to be completely honest, Arnie realized that there was certainly enough blame to go around. And that the fact that he and Sammy were no longer friends was not entirely Sammy’s fault. “You know,” he once told me in a moment of great candor, “there are times when I do realize that just maybe I played some small role in the demise of We ain’t just bagels!”
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books.