When a call came in for a taxi from Trattoria Delia to the Inn at the Essex — both classy establishments — it was a safe bet I wouldn’t be driving a peasant. And, on the ride over to the restaurant, that thought got me reflecting on the thousands of people I’ve transported over the years.
The array of customers passing through the backseat of my taxi is mind boggling. I drove the late Sen. Stafford and his wife to Montréal, discovering on the way that Helen Stafford was at least as politically astute as her husband. I’ve driven Wynton Marsalis (classy and gracious), Chubby Checker (a delight) and Jerry Lee Lewis (insufferable). I’ve driven the CEO of LensCrafters as well as actor William H. Macy and playwright David Mamet. I’ve driven meteorologist Tom Messner, who was as friendly as he appears in front of the weather map every night on WPTZ.
I’ve also driven drug dealers, strippers, roofers, waitresses, newly arrived Tibetan immigrants and homeless teenagers. What other job so completely submerges you in the ocean of humanity? Every day I take my position behind the wheel, prepared to take the plunge. It never gets old for me. Like the Little Feat songwriter Lowell George, I been from Tucson to Tucumcari, and I’m still willin’.
“So, what brings you through B-town?” I asked my customer in the backseat once we were under way. The man looked to be in his thirties, casually but well dressed.
He replied, “My company’s doing some work for Ben & Jerry’s, and it was time to pay a visit. We’re a marketing agency.”
“Well, how cool it that?” I said. “Marketing is what used to be called advertising, do I got that right?”
I could see the man smile in the rear-view mirror. I’m such a layman when it comes to the world of big business. “Yeah, that’s right, more or less,” he said. “We’re working on their new campaign, which is called ‘It’s what’s inside that counts.’ We didn’t come up with the tag line, and, frankly, I thought it was kind of hackneyed, but it seems to be working well. We’re getting a great response.”
“Yeah, it does seem a little corny. What are the ads like?”
“It’s a series of dioramas depicting various aspects of the company’s social mission, like supporting family farms, fair trade, BGH-free milk, stuff like that. Each diorama sort of emerges from a container of ice cream. It’s beautifully crafted, really meticulous. So then photo shots are taken and the finished product is used mostly for magazine spots.”
“Sounds great,” I said, as we headed north on the highway. Some precipitation began to appear. I couldn’t say if it was snow, sleet or hail, but, whatever it was, it didn’t exactly evoke dioramas of Easter bunnies and crocuses. Spring has been quite the coquette this April — all flirtation and cold showers. “You know,” I continued, “I’m somewhat of a frustrated ad man myself. I think I’ve watched too much ‘Mad Men,’ probably.”
My customer chuckled and said, “I get that a lot. I know the show is set in the ’60s, but much of what they portray still holds true. Well, I don’t know about Don Draper’s moments of epiphany, where an entire campaign comes to him in an instant. In my experience, it’s a bit more complicated and time consuming than that.”
I said, “I would imagine that the marketing challenge for Ben & Jerry’s is to maintain their appeal to the younger generation. I mean, us baby boomers — they got us in their pocket.”
“There’s something to that,” he said.
“Man, I got such great memories of the early years of Ben & Jerry’s — when they had the one store downtown, the converted gas station.”
“I love hearing those old stories,” said the ad man. “Could you give me a favorite?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “They used to hold celebrations in front of the store, which had a fair amount of empty paved space. The culmination of one of these yearly shindigs — I couldn’t tell you what it was for, not that they needed much of an excuse for a party — well, Jerry would come out dressed in safari clothes and a pith helmet to announce, all serious-like, that ‘We have the great honor of presenting a famous mystic from the East who is going to demonstrate his amazing yogic powers.’ He’d go on and on with this introduction.
“Just when the small children were beginning to get antsy, he would call out for the great ‘Habeeni ben Coheeni.’ As the sound system blasted ‘Rubberband Man’ by the Spinners, Ben — sitting in lotus position and swathed in bedsheets and wearing a turban, if I’m remembering this right — would be carried out on a platform, all the while chanting incoherently. Eventually, after more inspired nonsense, he would lie down on his back and Jerry would place a cinder block on his exposed stomach, announcing something like ‘Feel the vibrations — his ever-increasing consciousness only exceeded by his ever-expanding girth.’ It was friggin’ hilarious. Finally, the coup de grâce — Jerry would dramatically swing a sledgehammer and smash the cinder block to bits, and the crowd would go nuts. Habeeni ben Coheeni would then solemnly rise and take his leave, tossing rose petals to his acolytes.”
“I love it!” my customer said. “Those old stories are priceless.”
I said, “Hey, at some point, doncha think they could be worked into an ad campaign? You know — the history, the nostalgia? Wouldn’t that be, like, compelling?”
The ad man laughed. “Very Don Draper-like of you, I must say. I shall take the suggestion under advisement.”
Another memory came flooding back to me. “Ooh, I got another one,” I said. “The first or second summer of the business, they sponsored a volleyball team in the parks-and-rec league, which I got on somehow. Anyway, we made it to the championship game and won. I remember the team showing up at the ice cream shop and triumphantly presenting the trophy to Ben. Beaming, he said, ‘Boys — anything you want, it’s on me!’ I guess we were all in our twenties or thirties, but, in that moment, we were 11 again. I’d never eaten so much ice cream before, nor have I since.”
“That’s a great memory,” my customer said.
“Yes, it is,” I agreed, feeling all wistful and dreamy. “Yes, it is.”
For the remainder of the ride to the inn, and throughout the rest of the shift, the sweet taste of Chunky Monkey lingered in my mouth.
“Hackie” is a biweekly column. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email email@example.com.