Updated: Apr 15
After Carnation, I went to work on the Lever Brothers account. Lever was an extremely important account to the agency. Unilever, Lever’s international network, single-handedly made it possible for SSC&B to become a major global advertising powerhouse, with business operations in 30+ countries. In fact, our agency’s name, SSC&B:LINTAS, came from “Lever International Advertising Services.” Being assigned to a Lever account was an overt signal that you were important to the agency. You were being groomed for bigger things. I was going to work on the All Detergent account for Lever, and it was just about as exciting as it sounds. At least I learned how and why laundry detergent works, even if that was the only thing that I learned from the experience.
And at least I could be grateful for the fact that Lever no longer manufactured or sold Gold Dust Soap Powder, discontinued sometime in the 1950s, as pickaninny brand mascots began to fall out of favor.
My new boss was a woman named Claire. She had been at the agency less than a year and had not been someone that I had any opportunity to get to know before we began working together. I had no idea what she was told about me before she met me, but apparently – whatever it was – it did not please her. The negative energy during our first encounter broadcast off of her like steam off hot, wet pavement. Our initial conversation was filled with things she said that I would “need to learn” in order to keep up on the business. And if I did not keep up, no one was going to carry me.
My impression of Claire was rather blank. She was not remarkable either in any positive or negative way. Just plain. She had an impressive business school pedigree, (although I can’t recall from where), and wielded it like a truncheon against anyone who was not sufficiently impressed by her. My boss on Carnation was a terrific person and a valuable mentor. I quickly realized – and accepted – that my new boss on Lever would be none of those things.
After our first meeting, Claire said, “Let’s go out to lunch tomorrow and get to know each other better.”
“That would be great.” I smiled. “I look forward to it.”
The next day, I met her in the lobby of our office building, Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, and we strolled together up 48th Street toward Fifth Avenue. After a few blocks, we arrived at Hatsuhana, a Japanese restaurant just in the block from Madison Avenue, and stopped at the front door.
“Is this alright? I felt like having sushi.” She looked at me with an oddly curved smile. I’m not sure what response or reaction she was expecting. Perhaps she thought I might recoil at the idea of such an exotic cuisine. Perhaps she thought I might prefer a barbecue rib joint or something from the Colonel.
“Whatever you like, I’m fine with.”
In the early 1980s, Japanese culture in America was ascendant. Japanese car companies had begun to dominate the American automobile market. Japanese electronics products in cameras, televisions, and audio were over-taking and, in many cases, literally wiping out their American competition. Japanese real estate investors had actually purchased Rockefeller Center. In August of 1982, the New York Times ran a front-page story entitled, “Culture of Japan Blossoming in America.” If you were in business in America, especially in New York City, you were probably captivated by the World of the Rising Sun. And there was no better way to show that you were ultra-sophisticated and genuinely worldly, than to show that you liked sushi.
At best, Claire was attempting to make our lunch a “teachable moment” where I would learn how to be a big boy and do what real business-people did. At worst, and perhaps more likely, Claire was attempting to make our lunch a power-play, where I would recognize just how far beneath her I truly was, and that I would find this revelation permanently intimidating. And that would define our relationship from that point forward. This certainly was not the first time that a boss or co-worker tried to make me feel both subordinate and inferior. It probably would not be the last. These types of maneuvers were usually based on assumptions about Black people, and those assumptions were usually based on ignorance.
I had just completed three and a half years on the Carnation account. I practically lived in Los Angeles. And California is light years ahead of the east coast when it comes to embracing Japanese culture. Yamashiro, in the Hollywood Hills overlooking Los Angeles, was one of my all-time favorite restaurants. Hatsuhana, where we were eating that day, was also a place I had been many times before.
And by the way, the very first American pop star to record an album in a foreign language was Nat King Cole, who recorded in Japanese. When it came to cultural trends, Black people were almost always doing it first.
I ordered the sushi/sashimi combination, along with an order of Ikura, which was my favorite. Claire asked me questions about my background while we ate. I picked up a piece of sushi with my fingers (the proper way to eat sushi), and Claire paused mid-sentence to watch me. She shot a glance over at my chopsticks, which were beside my plate. Again, I saw that oddly curved smile. A few more minutes passed as we continued talking. I picked up my chopsticks to retrieve a piece of yellowfin tuna, waited a moment for another pause in our conversation before popping it into my mouth.
“You’ve used chopsticks before,” Claire said the words as both a statement and a question.
I was not going to answer while still chewing my yellowfin, so I took my time to respond. And then, I looked at Claire and waited a few moments longer.
“Lots of Chinese take-out.” I smiled.
And Claire made that oddly curved smile.