A Night Out

“I can’t do it,” an old friend told me. We had both received an invitation to a reunion, if that is the word, of a long defunct public relations agency. We both worked there for several years in the 1980s, both got our careers going there. But although these words are accurate enough, they do not do the situation justice. For someone half paralyzed and already into the second half of his 30s, this was an extraordinary opportunity. Injured at age 21 and without full-time work until age 32, I knew something like this was unlikely to recur. Working at Silicon Valley’s largest PR firm, with clients that included Apple and Intel, could mean survival. I had to make up for many years without work. Whatever it was, this was it.

And yet last night’s PR reunion gala proved daunting. Jane was working. So I found myself working the crowd alone. And it was work. First, there were the sheer logistics. A crowded room of people standing, talking loudly…with me literally on another level, wheelchair height, trying to fight my way through the madding crowd. Something in me quickly grew heartsick and half collapsed. Why was I here? Wasn’t this more like a high school reunion nightmare? A return to the formative place, only to discover that everyone is more fully formed but you?

One reverts, of course. In my four years at the PR firm, I was the only visibly disabled person. And the “visibly” is also a descriptor of the present, not the past. At the time, everyone else seemed intact in all the ways that counted. I was not among the beautiful people, let us say. What was I? Well, a source of needed words in print. Of ideas. And, around the office, a certain amount of humor. Otherwise, a PR agency is for PR people. It is the account executives, the real flacks, who play the leading roles. And so what? Well, it’s the secondary role, coupled with the writerly attitude, that easily, in fact necessarily, sets one apart.

It was an uneasy mix, the PR world. To pitch a story to the media, that is to say, to sit down with reporters and build a convincing case for some company’s superiority, requires conviction. In fact, it requires a lot. The reporters, if they are any good, are hardened skeptics. They may politely endure bullshit, but they are unlikely to report it. The PR writer’s job is to think like the reporter, anticipating weak arguments and unsubstantiated positions.

The problem lies in dealing with the PR agency person, the account executive, who by nature is credulous, almost has to be. With an apostolic client, such as Apple, utterly convinced of its own uniqueness, it’s particularly tough being a writer. The PR people think you’re too cynical. You think they’re too gullible. And the bottom line…you are afraid your writing will get laughed into the editorial wastebaskets of the nation’s best media.

In short, it takes a supreme level of maturity to handle such a role – and I confess to having failed. Some writers were more accepted, team players. I wasn’t. And what does this have to do with last night’s reunion? Well, still being the attitudinally odd man out, and now more physically odd than ever, plus the feeling of being old and no longer productive…it can all coalesce most unpleasantly. As it did last night.

There were several people I was most happy to see. But they were standing. It was hard to make myself heard. And no one seemed to want to talk to me…for reasons that are unclear but probably impersonal. One of my fellow writers, someone I hadn’t seen in about 30 years, chatted briefly, but kept scurrying away. I think she simply wanted to talk to other people. And probably she was networking. Unlike me, she was still in the game.

And my game now? A daily improvisation. That’s not much of a definition. But it’s where I am. The other place I am is Menlo Park, and that’s not going to be my place much longer.

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