Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What Ever Happened To...?: the first in a sometimes series

You've done it, too. You know you have. Sittin' around, listening to the ice tinkle in your glass. Maybe you even inhaled. And then your mind jumped down the rabbit hole and you started wondering what happened to a certain somebody. Most times it's an X (bet he watches Internet porn while wearing socks with his sandals) but other times not. This is where Google comes in handy.

Whatever happened to Hal Duchin? He seems to have disappeared after 1983, according to my search engines. Here I was bracing for an obituary. But he did exist. He was my boss at Travel & Leisure in 1986, Director of Sales Development. Somehow, THAT didn't make it to Google.

Hal seemed to have been parachuted into American Express by a Mischievous Jewish God wanting to make a point. We were a publishing division staffed by tall, blond, beautiful people in expensive suits. Hal, by contrast, was a troll. Short. Fat. Bald. Lisp. Crooked teeth. Sweaty handshake. Sprayed food when he ate. He wore his belt so tight, his nickname was "Sausage."

But Hal was indispensable because he was, well...brilliant. He could take reams of marketing data and turn them into a story, a narrative so compelling, so believable that Delta, Absolut and Marriott just pulled out their checkbooks and asked, "How much?" But you had to catch him in the morning, because at noon he always got sloshed. Scotch before lunch, wine with the meal, topped off by a couple of Sambucas for dessert. Remember, this was New York in the mid-80s. (Ranger was still struggling with that whole potty training thing.)

Maybe because I was the only other "ethnic" in the joint, Hal took me under his wing, demanded that I (a 22-year-old smarty pants in a Gap skirt) be taken seriously and taught me how to spin stories out of numbers, too. Only once did he grab my breast. We were in a cab returning from a client outing. I smacked his hand away and we never made mention of it. For some reason, I've never held this against him. It's my natural hotness, I suppose.

People used to make fun of him behind his back because his lisp (before lunch) and his slur (after lunch) made him an easy target. And of course, there were those sausage pants which really accentuated his "package." Sad to say, I used to join in on the jeering. (Hey, I was just trying to fit in.)

When I gave my notice and told him I was moving over to The New York Times, I expected him to yell (He had a famous temper and once threw a shoe at a sales person) and call me ungrateful and foolish, not yet ready for prime time. But instead he smiled like he'd just delivered a baby single-handedly, opened his arms for a hug and said, "You're on your way now. Never look back." After I left the building, we hardly ever saw each other. Maybe twice.

This morning, Hal Duchin popped into my head. He often tried to instill some humility into my "I'll take Manhattan" attitude and used to often tell me, "The beginning of wisdom is knowing what it is you don't know."

And now, at this juncture, I realize...that is so very much.


Mich said...

You were at least 24 when you went to NYC, and I don't think the Gap existed in 1987. But....other than that, nice read :-)

Anonymous said...

Hal is alive and well and living in New York state. Hal worked for me as a consultant for a few years at Amex in the mid 90's. Your description of "the rabbi" was right on the mark. All these years later he didn't change that much, just mellowed out...wasn't throwing shoes anymore. But always had interesting comments and stories and always had a few gems of wisdom to share in between it all. Life sure was interesting with Hal in it, especially in the politically correct world of Amex.