I was sketching out a piece on Orwell in the 1930s, and how he had to get along with the Commies to preserve his literary viability. So he posed as a man of the Left without quite being a full Fellow Traveler to the Reds. This took some ruses and finesse. When he went to fight in Spain he joined one of most obscure, ill-equipped factions fighting for the “Republican” side. That was the POUM, an affiliate of the Independent Labour Party in Britain (and another low-efficacy operation, although one of its founders had been Keir Hardie, and such luminaries as Aneurin Bevan had belonged). POUM and ILP were known in those as “anarcho-syndicalist” in orientation. That is, eccentrically leftist. They provided a refuge for people like Orwell who didn’t like the Stalinists but didn’t wish to be in open opposition to them.

While batting these ideas around, I recalled a piece that I read in The New Yorker years ago, a very funny memoir by the (now late) poet Elizabeth Bishop. After Vassar, in the early 30s, she worked for some low-rent “literary” operation (actually a writing school) near Columbus Circle. A co-worker was a brash obnoxious Jewess who was always trying to get her to join the Party. Elizabeth begged off, saying she was an anarchist, actually. So they had political arguments, and Elizabeth found herself going down to the NYPL main branch in the evening, reading up on anarchism so as to preserve her cover.

This was a story very much in parallel with Orwell’s experience, at least to my way of thinking. But I wasn’t sure when I’d read this piece, and I certainly didn’t remember its name. All I could remember were the broad outlines of the story, that it was in The New Yorker, and it was more than ten years ago. I had a distinct image of myself reading the story at the kitchen counter in the apartment I shared at 53rd and 8th, probably in 1983. But my memories are sometimes jumbled and unreliable, and 1983 seems impossibly distant now.

Mildly curious, I went to The New Yorker online archive today and found the piece. July 18, 1983 issue, “The U.S.A. School of Writing.” It’s extremely funny, better than I remembered, especially the first half.

First I had an interview at the school with its head, or president, as he described himself, Mr. Black. His opening remark was that the U.S.A. School of Writing stood for “The United States of America School of Writing,” and my pleasure in that explanation trapped me immediately.

This is a proposed draft for the foreword of the regurgitated Teentime book.

A Note to the Reader

This is a memoir, and therefore somewhat fictionalized, like most memoirs. The action takes place more than forty years ago, but as most of the players were pretty young them, most of them are still alive. They will give me no end of trouble if don’t disguise them. And they would be absolutely right, because my recollections are pretty nasty.*

So I’ve changed everyone’s name—with the obvious exception of a few public figures—and invented new backgrounds for some people. Some trifling characters are made into “composites.” The major alteration to the story is the time-scheme. Events that played out over four or five years are squeezed into the year or so of the book’s action (1973-1974). This compression gives the story a semblance of narrative drive and, I hope, a kind of plot.

Place names and businesses are real, for the most part. The unnamed “educational TV” stations in New York and Boston are WNET and WGBH. I don’t name them because they like to call themselves Public Television, which in the context of this story would be confusing. Forty to fifty years ago people said Educational Television. A few kiddy shows (Zoom, Sesame Street, The Electric Company) are given their real names. Otherwise most of the television programs in this book are renamed or completely made up.

The subplot about Sal Mineo and his lurid screenplay, Sacred Bubblegum, is almost entirely true. It was a real script, and I lugged a bound copy around for a while in the summer of ’73. His agent wanted a treatment (i.e., synopsis) of it, and somehow that task got passed on to me. I did write something, but I wasn’t in Nantucket when I did it.

The business about the Jackson Whites, on the other hand, is pure invention. Putting a segment about Jackson Whites on an “educational” kiddy show is exactly the kind of daff’y, unbalanced idea that Mr. Hornblower liked to come up with. But he didn’t really visit the Jackson Whites.

 

________

*I’ve been at the receiving end of this procedure. About ten years ago a bumptious, lame-brained acquaintance of my youth wrote a kinky sex memoir that got a lot of media play. He wanted to put me in it, and sent me few pages of draft. It was really bad. His expository style had become thoroughly corrupted by years of writing juvenile paperbacks full of indistinguishable 14-year-olds. As a result of this, his delineation of “me” was inept and malformed (“Whoa!” she said, “Cut me some slack!”). So I told him to kill the whole section. That peeved him greatly. He took revenge on me by rewriting the section with a repellent new character. She was presented as a composite of me and some other girls and women he had known, though she was pure fiction, and badly done fiction at that. Suffice it to say we haven’t spoken since. If this shallow scribbler had simply disguised the memoir’s characters and not begged for approval from the putative originals, this whole kerfuffle could have been avoided.

Margot Best-Chetwynd

Somehow I kept reading or hearing about Heidegger, and when I hear the name Heidegger I always think of Heisenberg. And that started the ball rolling:

There is a high-school philosophy teacher who is given to cyclical mood swings. The condition is one of those affective disorders in the bipolar family. Except instead of having only two or three bad episodes in his life, he gets these wild, lurching manias and crashes every year or two. One of these days he’s going to kill himself. He just knows it. A parent and an uncle committed suicide. It runs in the family, as with the Hemingways.

But he’s got a couple kids and wants to provide for his family. He watches Breaking Bad and sees a parallel, but since he’s not a chemist he can’t make a fortune manufacturing blue meth. What can he do? He decides that the only get-rich-quick scheme he can come up is to create a quasi-religious cult, something that specifically preys on the rich and wayward, like Scientology. Except because he’s a philosopher he can spin his cult as a New School of Philosophy rather than a religion.

He remains in the background, very private. Almost no one’s ever met him. That’s part of the attraction. Nobody knows his real name, they just know he travels under the handle, Heidegger.

This is a shaggy-dog story, I’ll grant you, but the basic premise could be the skeletal plot set-up for a nice satire or farce. Something like Nightmare Alley, except the guy’s afraid of his next mood-swing instead of fearing that he’ll end up as a circus geek.

(Cannibalized by Popular Request. This appears in one of my older blogs, and is dated April 22nd, 2007. Still makes me laugh. Oboy oboy!)

 

How many chillun you got?

That’s the important thing. That’s what all primitive people really want to know about you.

savagesThey get to the point where they’ve figured out that you’re either male or female (even though they can’t see either a penis gourd or pendulous dugs), and they know your approximate age (somewhere between adolescence and total decrepitude). Now they’re happily puffing away on your Philip Morris Commanders (king-size, unfiltered, good for jungle bugs) and they’re ready to move into the small-talk stage of your acquaintanceship.

And here it is. “Hey you! You got chillun? How many chillun?”

Go ahead and tell them. Anything you like. One kid, six kids, sixteen kids. It’s not like the little savages are going to write down your children’s birthdays so they can send them something nice (just imagine!). No, they’re just being innocently nosy. It’s something they ask of all strangers, and no one’s ever smacked them down for this rudeness so they keep on asking.

1961-philip-morris-cigarettes-ad-tasty-newcomerSometimes the questions get detailed—”You have a boy? How old? Is he warrior? You have girl—how much you sell her for?” It is always best to be prepared for this. Along with the Philip Morris Commanders in the left side pocket of your photo-vest, bring a fact sheet about your kids. Maybe even some fuzzy snapshots.

My own prepared script goes basically like this. “Oh yes I have four children. Two girls, two boys. Between five and fifteen. Evenly spaced. Their names are Mary, Joan, John, and Robert. They live with their other parent, as I am usually away on business. The boys play baseball [a game formerly very popular in America] and the girls do ballet [this is a kind of theater-dance some people do in my country]. Who is oldest? Oh, that would be John. Then Mary. Then…”

Even a savage has limited attention for this sort of thing, and by this point my new friend is probably waving and nodding and inviting me into his hut to look at the shrunken heads.

Is Sacre-Coeur really ugly? I always used to think so, coming into town on the Roissy Bus from CDG. Then I found out this is a common reaction. Adolf Hitler thought it hideous, a “mosque.” (Der Führer was of course an architect manqué.)

Google the question and complaints are all over. Go ahead.

carte-basilique-sacre-coeur-02Here is a good whingey tourist page: http://theotherparis.net/hotspots/sacre.htm

The second or third time I went to Sacre-Coeur was in May 2002. I was with a couple of friends from Oxfordshire, Alma and Julia. Alma was baffled by the place. She knew it was a stop on the tourist itinerary, but didn’t understand its purpose.

I started to explain the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, and the popular belief that France had degraded itself since 1789 and needed to atone for its sins and reconsecrate itself, and Léon Bloy, and Therese Martin of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus… But I held my tongue, more or less.

I held my tongue and listened for the nugget of Alma’s confusion.

“I mean, why do they have this?” she asked. Why do they need this, in addition to Notre Dame?”

Alma was born in Manchester, but her parents were refugees from Poland (Catholic) and the Ukraine (Orthodox) and she had no significant religious upbringing. She also has lactase deficiency. I decided she probably couldn’t digest my Bellocian explanations of this or that.

So I just said, very smoothly, “Oh well you see, this one is a basilica.” And left it at that.

If you don’t know who Felicia Day is, you are probably over twenty years in age, and/or spend fewer than ten hours per day on the Inter-Webs.

So, for you underprivileged minds: Felicia Day is a minor actress in her early 30s who has appeared in a couple of TV shows and feature films, as well as some internet-based video dramas that supposedly were very popular with people who like that sort of thing. She is originally from Huntsville, Alabama (which doesn’t mean anything at all, as we all know), went to University of Texas in Austin (ditto) and now lives in or around Los Angeles. She has dark red hair, helped along with various artificial colorings. Six months ago she cut it from waist-length to pixie-bob, which deeply distressed some of her male fans (because what’s the point of being a girl if you’re going to have boy-length hair?).  But her current claim to fame is that she does a lot of self-produced, professional-looking videos, and they’re all over YouTube.

felicia-chainsawWhen you get to see her, you’ll notice that her persona is highly artificial. I suspect Felicia does not fully realize this. She is a late-model chirper, too young to remember the pre-chirper era, and as no one has yet written a book about chirpers and chirper-culture, she has no reference text to consult. Even Wikipedia lacks an article on chirpers. Therefore she is left with the vague presumption that youngish women have always spoken in chirpy voices and ended every statement on a rising tone, as though it were an inquiry.

Felicia doesn’t remember the early chirpers from the 70s and early 80s, mainly lower-middle-class frails who went around saying things like “ehhww” and “grody to the max,” generally uttered in a register one or two levels higher than their natural speaking voices. The first persons to notice the chirper phenomenon (without giving it a name) were male homosexuals of the ribbon-clerk caste, e.g., retail associates at Bullock’s or Bonwit’s. They took note because half their coworkers were women of the chirper class, and these young gals were so unlike those distaff titans of the silver screen whom these boys always professed to adore. (Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Lizabeth Scott …they never chirped!)

Then Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit made a novelty record about this vocal style in 1982 (Valley Girl), and thereafter the weird locutions were widely acknowledged, although they became known as “Valley Speak,” despite the fact that they were not unique to the San Fernando Valley and they probably didn’t even originate there.

Girls grew up hearing a lot of chirper-speak in the 80s and 90s, so by 2000 you actually had young women in the aspiring professional class talking like this. I remember being astonished in 1998 when I met a new 22-year-old analyst at Salomon Smith Barney. Tiffany, let’s call her, had just emerged from Penn, and yet her speech was extreme chirperese. It was hard not to think it was all a put-on.

Perhaps Tiffany had Bad Companions during her adolescent years, I considered. Or it could just be that she was Jewish; Jews have a noticeable predilection toward the most extreme versions of accents—e.g., Chicago, Brooklyn, London. They affect accents as camouflage, but often overdo it. It’s like you’re wearing cammie fatigues but they’re printed in day-glo colors.

I could think up a dozen other reasons, but a few years later I wouldn’t have have bothered. Tiffany the Chirper may have been a rara avis in the investment banking set in 1998, but by 2005 her locutions were the going thing.

greta-brawner
Greta Brawner: no chirper she.

Pay attention when you see a youngish female professor, writer, or lawyer being interviewed on television. If she’s between 25 and 40, there is a high likelihood she is a chirper. The main exceptions to this rule are women who are trained news presenters, for chirping cannot coexist with gravitas. One of the most attractive women on television is Greta Wodele Brawner of C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, and Greta is a thoroughgoing non-chirper. She talks the way most American women did thirty years ago.

Actresses, by and large, are also exceptions, because theatrical people are required to be hyper-aware of their speech and self-presentation. An actress who chirped would be doing so intentionally, trying to stay “in character.” This is what makes Felicia Day such a curiosity. Most of the time she plays a character called Felicia Day, a stripped-down, reconstituted caricature of her own self, and this character is a chirper. It’s a character similar to dramatic roles she’s had on TV (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and internet comedies, but considering that she’s playing a character with her own name, this chirrupy chirper is just a little too much. It’s annoyingly unclear where the character ends and the real Felicia Day begins. It’s as though Larry David were to play the Larry David character in Curb Your Enthusiasm as a broad impersonation of his earlier avatar, George Costanza on the Seinfeld program.

felicia-leatherWhich brings me back to my earlier intuition. Felicia Day doesn’t really know she’s chirping. She has typecast herself, locked herself into a comic turn. It’s been suitable for internet videos aimed at millennials, but it’s about to become a liability. The chirper act is on the way out; fads of mannerism have a half-life of about twenty years. You don’t encounter “wild and crazy guys” anymore, or “peace-and-love” hippies; not without a heavy helping of irony or nostalgia, anyway. Females in their teens and early twenties do not chirp anymore, not the ones I meet, anyway. Very soon, anyone who talks and acts like Felicia Day will be presumed to be doing a teenage-girl riff from 1993.

It’s been easy for her to hold onto the chirper persona because those vocal memes became so commonplace that many people ceased to notice them. You could be a chirper and still be respectable (though perhaps too lightweight to anchor the nightly news). Chirpers are no longer confused with Valley Girls, they don’t say “gag me with a spoon.” Their mannerisms are not regarded as hopelessly low-class and ugly. But as the fad fades away, people will forget there were respectable chirpers. The legacy of movies and TV shows will inform us all that chirping was mainly characteristic of ditzy, not-too-bright teenage girls in the closing decades of the 20th century. 

modelTcoupeIt’s like the Model T. Say “Model T” to most people, and they think of a rattletrap flivver from about 1910. But T’s were produced until 1927 and the last few designs, particularly the two-seater coupes, were cute and stylish. Nice to be seen in and fun to tool around the campus in. People in the 1920s and 30s knew this, remembered this. But then the first-hand memories faded and we were fed endless media images of the early flivvers and old Henry Ford driving his first production model around Dearborn. The nice Model T’s were forgotten, and we only have the silly ones in our mental slideshow.

pretty girl

I was happy to go to work for Wine & Dine a few years ago, because I had a long history with its parent company, and it seemed to be a cheerful place. Pretty girls in pretty dresses with cute shoes and nice pedicures. Just what I wanted to be a few years back (before I got old and bitter).

Best of all, it was only twelve blocks from my back door. Theoretically I could travel door-to-door in ten minutes without breaking a sweat, so long as there was no traffic and the sidewalks were empty. Theoretically, I say; as my neighborhood is perennially clogged with taxis, tourists, and worker-bees, the march often took a long and painful twenty minutes.

Eventually I detested this walk—with its crowds and crosswalks and the amputee beggars who congregated on 6th Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets—and deeply regretted having chosen this job over the one that paid 25% more but was out of town. I hated the job too, as the months went by and I faced up to the fact that I was overworked, underpaid, chronically ill with stress-related health problems. There was also the dawning realization that my coworkers were very very stupid. But this took a while to hit me.

storch poster
Bobbysoxers’ delight! Larry at the Paramount.

Ignorance Is Bliss. One day I was waiting for the light to change near Radio City Music Hall, and took note of the ancient, frail man beside me. He was 80 years old or beyond, and carrying a saxophone in a bag. The bag had a tag: LARRY STORCH, with Mr. Storch’s phone number. I struck up a conversation. I told him how much I loved his role as Corporal Agarn in F Troop and his cameo as a crazy guru in some Blake Edwards comedy. He was charmed—amazed, really—that anyone even remembered any of that stuff. Faz-baz, quoth I; when I was growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, everyone knew who Larry Storch was.

My saxophone is broken, Larry said. He was taking it to Sam Ash. So he peeled off a block or two later, while I said goodbye (after memorizing his telephone number from the tag).

Then I went around bragging—harrumph, harrumph—that I had just met Larry Storch. At least I bragged for a little while, until I discovered what Larry Storch himself already knew full well: almost no one remembers Larry Storch.

larry for sx-70
Larry Olivier for Polaroid

No one at my workplace, anyway. At first this was a real shocker. But I soon discovered that no one at Wine & Dine had ever heard of Ida Lupino or Laurence Harvey either. Briefly I considered enlightening them—Surely you remember this movie or that television program?—but I censored that idea as a bridge to nowhere. There’s a scene in Saturday Night Fever where Karen Lynn Gorney tries to impress John Travolta by saying Sir Laurence Olivier came into the office where she works. Hilarity ensues. Travolta doesn’t know who Laurence Olivier is. The girl makes a bad situation worse by explaining that Laurence Olivier is the old guy in the Polaroid commercial on TV. And so Travolta says something like, “Oh, great, maybe he can get you a free camera.”

ariane and michael batterberry
Fun couple.

The real capper came when I read in the newspaper that Michael Batterberry had died. I’d known Michael Batterberry and his wife Ariane back when I worked in restaurant marketing at American Express, but what I did not know was that Michael was the founder of Wine & Dine magazine. It’s a fantastic story, actually. Michael didn’t just conceive it, he began it as an insert in Playboy magazine called, “The International Review” of such-and-such. This was back in the days when there were very few gourmet magazines or foodie TV shows. (Julia Child was such a curiosity she got on the cover of TIME magazine.) Michael nurtured this venture for a year or two, shortened the title, and finally sold it to this big publisher.

I related this history during our morning “scrum” at Wine & Dine, and got blank stares. Even our online-publishing vice president at Midtown Magazines had never heard of Michael Batterberry.

I faced up to reality. Nobody at Wine & Dine knew anything about the business they worked for. Or much of anything else. Or cared.

nancy kwanIgnorance and apathy were hardly unique to this magazine, of course. Anyway my mind had plenty of other oddities to idle upon.

There were a lot of Oriental girls about. About half of them had distinctly un-Oriental names. Instead of Suzy Wong, you had Suzanne Blanchard. Instead of Annie Cheung, you had Annemarie Jensen. It was most peculiar. And while some of these were married surnames, most were not. Neither were they adoptive; these women were too old to have been part of the Red Chinese Baby Fad and too young to be Korean War Orphans. Clearly they had picked names that were common, Western and easy to spell. (Incidentally, it wasn’t enough for a name to be classic and old-American. Those fine old Virginia names Urquhart and Taliaferro would never make the cut. Too weird and foreign-looking! Lee wouldn’t work either…for somewhat different reasons.) I had a good guess why these ladies had taken on their simple “American” monikers. It was so their racial background would not scream from the top of the résumé whenever they applied for a job. They weren’t ashamed of their origin or family names; they just wanted the hiring manager’s first reaction to be, Oh look, Catherine Charlton went to Duke, instead of: Oh wow, another Cathy Ching.

There’s a lot of silliness and whimsy in this situation. Everyone noticed the incongruous names, but it seemed verboten to talk about them. Taboos are catnip for me. Humorously, obliquely, I’d  say, “Annemarie Jensen! Gosh, my grandmother was a Jensen. I wonder if Annemarie and I are related?”  And then I’d smile blandly while everyone else in the room visibly stiffened.

An Appalling Place. I started out in the editorial department of Wine & Dine but since I worked for the online edition, I regularly met with the “developers,” who inhabited a filthy, ill-lit warren two floors above me. It really was a sty, an extreme caricature of a crowded, ugly developers’ space. The techies sat cheek-by-jowl along white melamine countertops about 20″ deep, their noses up close to their monitor and laptop screens. Paper plates, sauce bottles, and other detritus of past lunches littered the window sills and tables. The worn, torn, shredded grey carpeting hadn’t been vacuumed in years. Dead flies and mouse turds occasionally tumbled out of the HVAC vents and ceiling panels. The developers were mostly slobs, dressed in hoodies and sneakers that should have gone to Goodwill ten years ago. Six Caucasian and two Chinese developers huddled together (side-by-side, back-to-back) between the first pair of counters. Farther back, behind a partition, was Stinky-winky Land. You had East Indians, Pakistanis, and one very raffish, Jewish concert musician and composer who did contractual dev work so he could tour with symphonies when he wanted to, and not have to struggle for gigs at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

sabuThe South Asians were mostly there on contract, through an Indian company called Cognizant. Two or three years before I arrived, someone in management was sold on the idea of  “offshoring” and “outsourcing” most of our development work, with the result that we had some Indians on site who were there merely to coordinate with the Indians in India, and other Indians on site who did nothing at all but useless make-work projects that were conjured up because our contract with Cognizant had another two years to run and we had to give them something to do.

snooth1Devland was an appalling place. I thanked my lucky stars that I worked down in Editorial, among normal, hygienic people in ample offices and wide cubicles; where the carpets were clean and plants got watered and mouse turds didn’t tumble from the ceiling. My daily nightmare was that someday, somehow, I might be exiled to the 11th floor, to work amongst this crowd. The likelihood of this seemed remote, up until the very day that I was exiled there.

The Culture Wars. In the meantime I took in the cultural conflict between the two groups. Down in Online Editorial, the devs were regarded as stubborn, difficult, lazy, and usually out of the office. If you go to the corporate-gossip websites, e.g. Glassdoor.com, you’ll find complaints that the devs need to improve their “work ethic.” Nearly all the devs took Wednesday off. Officially they were “working at home,” but no one in Editorial was fooled. You could e-mail or telephone one of the devs about some emergency on Wednesday, but whatever your problem, it was never going to get fixed till Thursday. Ha ha ha!

kitchen-insiderDevs made fixes and updates to the Wine & Dine site as seldom as they could. The devs called the updates “sprints,” and initially made them every two weeks. If you wanted to change something on the Wine & Date site, it had to be finished and approved by the Tuesday of the “sprint,” so that it would be “live” on Friday. Editorial complained about this for years, and finally the devs changed to a policy of “continuous enhancement” and “Agile development,” whereby the Wine & Dine website could be updated any day of any week, provided Editorial screamed loudly enough.

When I got kicked upstairs to Devland, I quickly sank into the lazy, slobby mode of the developers, and saw the other side of the argument. The editors and designers were fickle; they always wanted something done right away, and whatever you did for them, it wasn’t enough. You took Wednesday off because by Tuesday evening you needed a goddamned break, for crying out loud. When we declared that no new deployments, no “sprints” could be added on Monday or Friday, it wasn’t to be arbitrary, but to reserve some quiet time for work and testing. We said there could be no discussion meetings between Development and Editorial on Monday, Wednesday, or after 3 on Friday. We laid down these rules out of practicality and principle. Editorial were ditzy and undisciplined. Editorial didn’t like us, said we were lazy and unhelpful. When the Truth was that Editorial had this nutty notion that all we had to do was Push a Button to work our magic. They didn’t  realize how much trouble it was to write new code, and test it, and throw it out, and write it again…

From our filthy perch in Devland we gazed down and judged harshly. The Editorial people were stupid stupid stupid. They knew how to type and go to lunch, and that was about it. They were capricious. Irresponsible.

gollyYour Obedient Servant, the Project Manager. Irresponsible because they couldn’t or wouldn’t take ownership of their own actions. They had these things called “project managers” carry their desires to us. Now, these project managers were nothing like old-fashioned project managers from engineering or construction, with their timelines and Gantt charts. Our project managers were typical of most modern project managers. They were basically clerical, administrative employees who filled many of the same functions that used to be served by low-level supervisors and secretaries (remember secretaries?)  Supposedly they communicated the desires of one end of the business (editorial or marketing) with another end (the developers), but their real purpose was to keep the two ends peacefully separated. Relations between the two departments were marked by petulance and mutual suspicion. Editorial felt scorned by Development, and scorned back in return.

Thus the project manager as referee. The devs habitually thought of the PMs as flunkies of Editorial, but actually the PMs answered to a different department entirely, a cluster of managers with vague responsibilities and even vaguer titles (e.g., Vice President, Digital Content Strategy). Whatever their personal attributes, project managers had  the stupidest, least effective roles of all. They weren’t “managers,” they weren’t decision-makers, and they had no real skills. Their job was merely to make noise and send e-mails, and that is how they spent most of their work days.

(Adapted from a Facebook comment. I have never eaten at one of these franchises, beyond testing out their minimal concession at the NYU snack shoppe.)

Chick-Fil-A must be the worst fast-food franchise name choice since Mahalia Jackson’s Dirty Rice. Unattractive, unmemorable, and a puzzle to pronounce. (Is it CHIK filla? Chick File-Uh? Chick File-Ay?)

chick-fil-a-spicy-chicken-sandwich

But I have very poor judgment in fast-food matters. Back in August 1968, when still in rompers (too hot for the dog days, to be sure) I liked to flip through the classified ad pages of the WSJ and marvel at all the preposterous new chains being floated. In case you don’t remember, fast-food chains were the dot-coms of the late 60s.

The sorriest proposition I saw was something called Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips, advertised with a 6-column-inch display ad in the classifieds, showing a portrait of Arthur Treacher himself.

treacherThis was the outer limit of weirdness. Here were people proposing to flog English fish and chips to the legions of Arthur Treacher fans. How many Arthur Treacher fans were there? Twelve? A hundred?

Arthur Treacher was scarcely a household name. He was mainly recalled (dimly) as a) Jeeves or some other cinematic butler or valet from the late 1930s; b) a supporting character actor in a couple of Shirley Temple films; or, most commonly, as c) Merv Griffin’s sidekick and announcer from the mid-1960s, when Merv has his afternoon talk show from the Little Theatre in Times Square.

There were no Treacher chippies in existence yet. The first few would open in 1969. You could obtain an Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips franchise for about $10,000, which I thought was awfully steep, given the marginal appeal of the offering.

jrhotshoppesThe joke was on me, of course. Of all those fast-food start-ups in 1968, Arthur Treacher’s was far and away the most successful. It’s still around—unlike Roy Rogers, Gino’s, Junior Hot Shoppes, Burger Chef, and a hundred other chains extant in the 1960s.

I think the key point to AT’s survival is that no one else was putting forth a fried-fish chain under the name of a 1930s actor who made his mark playing Jeeves and subalterns. The idea was so far out there that it had no rivals.

And they didn’t sell hamburgers.

Which brings us back to the Chick-Fil-A people. They have a chicken-sandwich chain with an unwieldly, unspellable, essentially unpronounceable name, and nobody else wants to compete. Chick-Fil-A doesn’t have to sell its weird self to everyone; if only 15% of the population knows that Chick-Fil-A is out there, that’s quite enough.

This partly explains Chick-Fil-A’s odd sense of public relations. Most fast-food chains try to steer clear of controversy, but this one likes to stir things up. The company is openly “Christian Conservative,” and they’re not nicey-nicey and hypocritical about it. They don’t open on Sundays, because of course that’s the Lord’s Day. They lose maybe 20% of their possible revenue by being closed on a weekend, but they undoubtedly make much of it back through loyal customers who like that idea, and make a point of going to Chick-Fil-A more often the other six days of the week. (This is speculation on my part; I haven’t seen the numbers.)

And then there are the media flare-ups whenever someone in the company speaks less-than-approvingly of the Homosexual Agenda or Atheistical Humanism or whatever. Inevitably this triggers public denunciations and proposed boycotts of Chick-Fil-A. But most of the boycotters aren’t regular customers anyway. And with the free publicity, Chick-Fil-A starts getting customers it never had before. Most are curiosity-seekers, some are making a political statement, but some are bound to convert into regular customers. Even if that’s only 5%, it’s 5% they didn’t have before, and Chick-Fil-A brought them in without spending a dime on advertising or new signage. All they had to do was keep being mildly eccentric.