Wish I'd known that...

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;

- Pope

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Story of a Smelly Old Man

When I was 32 I got a job in an advertising agency art studio. Old Timers called it the Bullpen. There were a lot of old timers at that agency. People in the industry considered it a kind of retirement home for old art directors. These guys came up in the 60’s and 70’s. Some still wore their thinning hair long over the collar, had mutton chop side burns and hit on all the young chick interns and assistants. These were the days before computers changed everything.

I’d secured a permanent position in the bullpen because I’d had a portfolio of solid samples – samples I’d swiped from my wife’s job and lied about being my own. Also, I came dirt-cheap.

My station was a drawing table in a cubicle. The cubicle, in the back row, had 4 walls solid on the bottom, glass on the top with an opening where my ‘clients’, young assistant art directors, would hang out busting balls. The fellow who sat in the cubicle adjacent to mine was an old man, possibly in his 60’s but it was hard to tell because his face was badly weathered. He wore the same outfit regardless of the season – light colored dungarees and up top a plaid flannel shirt under which was always a long sleeved T-shirt. I said his face was weathered, like he’d been living on the street – which it was rumored he had in fact done for a time. His voice was a faint rasp that emitted from the back of his throat, toned by too many Camel no-filters. He resembled the old cartoon character Popeye the Sailor only more swollen in the face. Whereas Popeye had been a bald man this fellow had a generous, full head of hair worn in the style popular with 50’s greasers – the D.A or Duck’s Ass which was coiffed with the hair swept back and piled high in a pompadour which flowed back to a flip at the collar. He was an old man and it was old hair, gray but once blond and so the gray was stained with a yellow tint like fingers stained from too much nicotine.

Joe K was his name. The letter K not Kaye like Danny Kaye, the last name being some unpronounceable Eastern European garble of consonants and so he was simply Joe K. Joe K was clearly a charity case who got his in from some other old timer who must have known him in better days. It was not unlike our studio manager, a devout born-again Christian to engage in this kind of rehab work. This sometimes made me question my own fortune in getting the gig.

Joe K (pronounced jokay) didn’t perform much work. He often called out sick and had used up his yearly allotment of vacation and sick days by April. He spent his time carving objects from wood he would scavenge around the dumpsters of mid-town Manhattan. He worked with single-edged razor blades crafting miniature tugboats, railroad cars and other models to order for some of the old art directors. His hands were shaky and he’d often curse as he'd slice open a finger. He colored the wood with Magic Markers and then coat them with an aerosol lacquer that didn’t help his emphysema. He smoked at his desk all day long.

Joe K was a smelly old man. This was not a light whiff of body odor that you might expect on a co-worker after a day’s work. Joe K was epically stinky. The proper language to employ to describe the effect of his smell would need to be that used to describe the titanic struggles of history. It would take a Homer to do it justice. The stench was dense and invariable in its pungency. It had tang. It reminded me of chicken soup and freshly sharpened pencils. It changed the molecular composition of other air it came into contact with and had the power to linger suspended in place a full ten minutes after Joe had passed down a hallway. It was a stink with presence, a physicality that could be experienced like cutting across the wake left by a passing container ship.

Many of those who worked in or frequented the bullpen urged the studio manager to have a word with Joe K. We’d watch from across the room as the hygiene conference unfolded. Joe protesting that he showered regularly. It was recommended he wash his clothing with greater frequency and vigor. If he did, it didn’t help. We surreptitiously placed a half dozen stick-up deodorizers under his drawing table. Joe didn’t notice them. Neither did the stink.

One of our stock art materials in those days was rubber cement that had Benzene as a main ingredient. Benzene was a known carcinogen productive of irreversible central nervous system damage and testicular atrophy – it was listed on the side of the container. I would leave a large open can of it on my drawing table to scent the air. New Jersey Potpourri. I considered it a fair trade-off to be able to make it through the day. Maybe it was my karma payback for having lied to get in the door.

It was hard not to like Joe K. He had an innocence and exuded an innate positivity along with his wretched stench. When he did work he was good and knew his stuff. Old School. He would never learn to use a computer but he was accurate as hell with a ruling pen. On those rare occasions that he did shower he’d arrive at work, late, but with his head uplifted and his D.A. light and fluffy. It was heartening to see that old bastard in a good mood. It never lasted long.

Joe wasn’t aware that he had an aroma. He explained to me that he had lost his sense of smell when he was young after falling asleep in a bathtub full of beer. That’s hard living. With all that, Joe had a lady friend, a Miss L. who he referred to as ‘my angel’. I’m guessing this heavenly creature had no sense of smell.

Joe K. had an incredible knack for finding money. Change in a pay phone, bills on the sidewalk or in an old pair of pants. This latter must have been infrequent if it coincided with laundry day. For Joe, good fortune always traveled with bad for whenever Joe found money he was soon thereafter visited by some calamity usually in proportion to the sum found. A quarter on the sidewalk, a spilled cup of coffee; a fiver on the sidewalk, a thumb slice in the paper cutter that would take five stitches to close. One afternoon Joe returned from lunch, late, with a great find – an envelope stuffed with cash, probably drug money dropped in mid flight. We all urged Joe to look both ways when crossing the street. A few days later the black butterfly of Karma laid him low. While helping ‘my angel’ to move some suitcases from her attic to her basement, Joe missed a step and took a tumble. The suitcase hit the concrete floor of the basement first and sprang open. It was an old-fashioned Samsonite job with metal bands around its belly. These, of course, came free and Joe landed on one, tearing his rectum. Ouch.

A few weeks later Joe returned from convalescing. It was the beginning of the end. He’d also hurt his leg and since he couldn’t afford a doctor, he treated it by wrapping it tightly with an ACE bandage. That first day back Joe was tortured with a horrible itch from his crotch to his ankle. He bade me stand in front of him to block him from view of the ‘lady artists’ as he furiously scratched himself seeking relief. Was this itch a result of the fall? Joe recalled to me a similar itch about a year prior from a bad case of poison sumac. The sumac had responded to some ointment liberally applied and held in place by an ACE bandage, this same ACE bandage Joe had pressed into service after the tumble.

Joe was not good at laundry.

Soon after this Joe was diagnosed with throat cancer. It was rough but after a few weeks Joe was back at his drawing table. His voice box had been removed and he wore a thick muffler around his neck to hide the hole. It was disturbing to watch and hear him clean his blowhole at the sink in the bullpen. Once, he was in a really bad way with some sort of blockage of the blowhole. Studio Manager recommended he go to the emergency room. We learned later that the blockage had been a fly that had managed to somehow crawl under and up the muffler to the blowhole.

Joe still had his sense of humor and was a great kidder. He had this small vibrating device he’d hold to his neck which would amplify the air as it passed up his throat allowing him with some difficulty to form words and sort of be understood. He’d come upon you unawares and ‘goose’ you with the little vibrator. He always had a big grin on his face, which would twist in soundless laughter as you jumped.

Joe was a dumpster diver and would often visit a landfill down by the Brooklyn docks searching for discarded treasures he could refurbish to earn a buck. On one trip he was mauled by a pack of wild dogs. When returning home from the hospital he was mugged on the subway. He was targeted because he couldn’t cry out for help.

I lost track of Joe K after that.


  1. Seriously, this story is some sort of demented Mad Men episode. I never heard of someone having such bad luck. I feel bad for Joe K and wonder what ever happened to him. If he was really a dumpster diver couldn't that be why he smelled? Some people just never get a break. I hope Joe K finally did.

  2. Business as usual in the advertising industry...