I owe Styx an apology. A few posts back I was talking about Kanye West hating on the Jews. I said being hated by Kanye West is like being hated by Styx—implying that they were both equally insignificant to me. And that’s not fair nor is it entirely true.
I maybe know two or three Kanye West songs and that’s being generous. But I know a bunch of Styx songs and I consider Dennis DeYoung’s scream on “Renegade” to be the second-best scream in all of rock n’ roll. Roger Daltrey is number one, of course, with his epic wail on “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.
I got my first professional writing job in a Kinko’s. It was the end of my second semester in the Texas Creative program at UT. I was getting ready for the end-of-year portfolio review and finishing up one last campaign for a brand of bagged lettuce. This was in the days before Photoshop, so to get the image I really wanted my plan was to cover the screen of a color copy machine with real lettuce, close the lid and hit the copy button.
I was friends with the guy who worked there and when I told him my idea, he said I would need to come in late after the manager left. Evidently, putting food onto the color copy machine was frowned upon by the Kinko’s management team.
It was around 11 PM. I had gotten the prints I needed for the lettuce campaign and had moved on to making color copies of the rest of my portfolio. I had everything spread out on the table behind me and when I turned around a woman was checking them out.
She complimented me on the work and then introduced herself as the marketing director for a Mexican restaurant in Austin called Chuy’s.
Chuy’s is an Austin institution. They make damn good Tex-Mex but the restaurant itself is also part of the experience. It’s decorated with a funky and eclectic mix of hand carved wooden fish hanging from the ceiling, hubcaps dangling above the booths and an entire gallery of velvet Elvis paintings placed prominently through-out the bar.
The people who worked there were fairly funky and eclectic too. They sort of completed the vibe with a bit of attitude, a bevy of mohawks and a handsome assortment of facial piercings. It was a fun place to get a good burrito.
She said that she was in the process of writing a new employee handbook for the restaurant. She wanted it to be fun and reflect the unconventional spirit of Chuy’s and the people who worked there. She offered me $250 to take a stab at it.
After the handbook, we came up with an idea to market the t-shirts they sold by doing a fashion show featuring the restaurant employees. We created a little runway for them to do their thing and I wrote a script for each model. As they strutted their stuff and showed off the shirts, the emcee would be saying things like, “Damian is a Sagittarius by day but after dark he’s all Capricorn.”
I don’t even know what that means. But it was fun to write the scripts and even more fun to get paid for it. After we did the fashion shows she didn’t have another assignment for me. I had been hanging around the restaurant pretty steady for the last couple of months and it had sort of become part of my routine. So I asked her for a job and she made me a busboy.
I spent the last year of college finishing up my portfolio, completing my degree and living off charro beans and flour tortillas.
Most people have never had a freshly made flour tortilla. I’ve eaten at Mexican restaurants all over the country and the only place I can find them is in Texas. The difference between a freshly made flour tortilla and the horrible thing your local Chipotle wraps their crud in is like the difference between a French baguette hot out of the oven and a slice of Wonder bread that’s been sitting on a counter for two days. It’s night and day. My kingdom for a freshly made flour tortilla.
The difference comes in the way they are made. The freshly made flour tortillas that I grew up on are made one at a time on a griddle by a couple of abuelas who happily gossip away the day as they paddy cake the little balls of dough back and forth between their hands over and over again.
The best piece of advice I got when I started as a busboy was to make friends with the women who made the tortillas. It was good advice. They were very kind to me and made sure I got fed at the beginning of each shift.
I was not a spectacular busboy. A spectacular busboy at Chuy’s can do the triple chip. Every table gets a basket of chips and two salsas. If you had a big table, you’d need at least three baskets of chips and six salsas just to get them started. A spectacular busboy can carry all three baskets of chips plus the six salsas in one trip. I could never get the hang of it, so I’d say I was no better than an average busboy at best.
Based on nomenclature, the job title of busboy is pretty demeaning and fairly greasy in terms of gender signaling. I have no idea if the term still exists in the restaurant industry today. I imagine they’re just called bussers now. Sadly, I’ve not stayed in touch with any of my fellow busboys so I can neither confirm nor deny if that’s correct.
Working in a restaurant is hard work. Going back and forth through the hot kitchen, past the steamy dishwasher’s station, out front to the tables again and again wears you down. You get dirty taking out the trash and stuffing it into the already overfilled and putrid dumpsters. Lugging the 5-gallon pails of lime juice from the walk-in out to the margarita machines in the bar leaves you unbearably sticky fingered. And wiping down tables, especially ones that were sat at by people with little kids, is an unpleasant and time-consuming task in which the only benefit is that it prepares you for wiping down your own table, later in life, when you have your own little kids.
Since I’ve had the unique privilege to experience both, I can confidently say that working in advertising is easier than working at Chuy’s. You don’t have to carry anything heavy. They don’t make you take out the trash. And someone else handles the margarita mix.
I am grateful to be a copywriter instead of a busboy. I don’t have to be on my feet all day and all I need to do is come up with good ideas. The rub is that even though working in a restaurant is a much harder job than working in an advertising agency we do our best to make up the difference. We get a ton of pressure put on us that doesn’t need to be there. We invent processes that bog down other processes. We create meetings that are more painful than productive. And instead of hubcaps dangling playfully over our heads it’s an axe that’s dangerously close to our necks.
Now we’ve got AI and Chat GPT to contend with. Which will make advertising even easier compared to being a busboy. In fact, it’ll make it so easy that there will soon come a day when I’m not really needed at all. Perhaps a few of us human copywriters will still be kept around to add a bit of nuance here and there to our robot overlord’s work but the majority of us will be phased out.
It's probably for the best. The value of creativity in advertising has dropped to an all-time low as evidenced not only by the work but more so in the unwillingness of agencies to retain their most experienced creatives.
In advertising, there is no easy metric with which to achieve spectacular. There is no “triple chip” in advertising. The nuances of success are much harder to pin down. And there are no abuelas to make sure you get fed.
We are store bought tortillas. We are Mister Robotos.
Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto For doing the jobs nobody wants to And thank you very much, Mr. Roboto For helping me escape to where I needed to Thank you, thank you, thank you I want to thank you, please, thank you
Domo arigato for reading. I’ll see you again real soon.