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Remember the whole Magnolia cupcake thing?
At some point in the waning years of the 20th century, a little bakery opened in the West Village, and apparently they made some freaking epic cupcakes. In fact, if you’ve currently got any sort of “upscale” cupcake concept littering crumbs on the floor of the food court at your local shopping mall, you owe a debt of gratitude to Magnolia Bakery.
Of course, as with all Great New York Things, by the time Magnolia cupcakes made cameos on Sex in the City, Saturday Night Live, and in the pages of Us Weekly, its cool had already chilled. As the Mainstream queued up to gobble their little pastel-frosted baked goods, those who arrived first to Magnolia’s party had already backed away from the table.
Be that as it may, my wife still wanted her some o’ them fancy New York City cupcakes, dammit! And I was tasked with securing them.
We were living in Miami at the time. Julie was seven months pregnant with our first daughter. I’d uprooted our little family from Boston just two short months earlier so I could take a job at what was then arguably the most acclaimed and innovative advertising agency in the whole wide world—Crispin Porter + Bogusky.
It was a dream opportunity—a potential career maker, for sure, but more than that, it was an identity. It was like being selected for the U.S. Advertising Olympic Team. Or maybe more like being initiated into the Advertising Hell’s Angels.
CP+B was not the sort of place that hired established ad-industry rock stars. It was the sort of place that made them. Lots and lots of them. My friend Rob Strasberg, one of the most talented and awarded creative directors in the business, took great pride in the fact that CP+B was populated with creative mutts like him—people who couldn’t get hired at the more storied, “elite” creative agencies, but who had found a special home with this scrappy upstart in South Florida.
Alex Bogusky, the creative heart, soul, brains and dreamy hair of the agency, had a tremendous talent for recognizing these mutts, and was forever optimizing and streamlining the structure and culture of his agency to remove every single obstacle standing in the way of the work we did.
And work we would. Harder than we’d ever worked in our lives. Harder than we ever thought we could. In return, the work we did would be some of the best of our careers.
Critics inside and outside the agency would decry CP+B as a “sweatshop,” but then, it wouldn’t be the first time a great creative culture had to bear that cross. And besides, dismissing these cultures as “sweatshops” just means you don’t get it (not to mention, you definitely don’t get the dynamics of an actual sweatshop).
By the way, I’m not insane. I completely get why you wouldn’t get it. Especially if you aren’t in advertising or some other business like it.
Those who do get it will understand. CP+B was an opportunity factory. One colleague summed it up nicely when he told me, “You could build yourself a whole career just picking up the little assignments people drop on the floor here.” He was right. There were no piddly jobs. No dogs. Everything had the potential to be great. Everything was expected to be great. Those who do get it will understand how rare that is. Those who do get it will understand the weekends, the all-nighters, the double-all-nighters—they will understand that no sacrifice is too great to be part of something so great.
I got it. My wife, however, did not.
She did not get, for example, that child birthing classes at 4 p.m. on a Thursday were simply not gonna happen for me. Newborn care classes? Baby CPR? Prenatal yoga? “Yeah, kind of a pain in the ass, babe. I’m super slammed at work. Do I really need to be there for all that stuff?”
She didn’t get my point. Not one bit.
She didn’t get that when you go to the West Coast for production, there are sometimes down weekends with nothing to do. She didn’t get why I couldn’t come home for those weekends, even though it would mean a red-eye on Friday night, a completely delirious Saturday, and a return trip on Sunday that would positively wreck me.
She needed my support. She needed me home. And so no, she didn’t get my point.
And she didn’t get that when I traveled to New York for business, it was a business trip, not a cupcake-getting opportunity. She didn’t get that I could not commit to stealing away, even for a single hour, in the service of a cupcake errand. She also didn’t get it because it was our wedding anniversary. Our fourth. Our first we’d spend without each other. And those cupcakes were all she had asked for.
“It’s work, honey. I’ll try, but seriously, I can’t promise.”
Nope, she didn’t get that. Not at all.
My wife and I have met plenty of advertising couples in our travels. Something about the demands, the pressure, the hours, the passion, the battle fatigue and the abundance of young hotties, both male and female, in our business seems to make people more prone to making out with, and eventually marrying, their colleagues.
If one spouse later bails on the business, maybe they get it. At least they were in it.
My wife wasn’t. And no, she doesn’t.
We met long before either of us had a career of any sort. I was an aimless college dropout and a (masterful) tender of bar who partied entirely too hard. She was an aimless hippy chick, smoking lots of weed and clerking at a little shop that sold silver jewelry.
When we finally got engaged, we had only slightly more direction in life. I was back in school, still tending bar at night, and working as a secretary. (Full disclosure: I was secretary to the aforementioned Mr. Bogusky, but that’s another story.) When we got married, I was taking an ill-fated stab at law school (I quit after four months). In short, we’d struggled through plenty of challenges in our relationship. The advertising business was only the latest of them.
After all we’d been through together, my wife wasn’t about to let me off the hook now. She wasn’t about to let us, and the family we were building, take a pass. She wasn’t about to simply lay back and “get it.”
Yet here I was, my last day in New York. My flight back to Miami was that afternoon. And I still had no cupcakes.
I was working with some friends at an edit facility up on West 25th St. near Broadway. I was a very, very important person. I was a very important client, in fact, working at a big-time editorial facility on a very important project on behalf of (lest you forget) perhaps the most acclaimed and innovative ad agency in the whole, wide world.
But when I phoned Magnolia Bakery, they didn’t get it, either.
They didn’t deliver. I figured as much. No matter. Could they pop a half-dozen of their finest cupcakes into a pastry box? I would send a courier down. That is how playaz roll.
“No, sorry, we can’t.”
“We can’t put our cupcakes in a box.”
“You don’t have boxes?”
“We do, we just can’t do that.”
“Still not following. You’ve got cupcakes. You’ve got boxes. Can you put six of one into one of the other?”
“You could send a courier, and he could do that himself.”
I didn’t understand what was going on.
“I don’t want sweaty, greasy courier hands on my wife’s cupcakes. Wait, did I mention these are for my wife? It’s our anniversary? She’s pregnant? First child? We live in Miami, but I’m here on business, and all she asked for were your Magnolia cupcakes?”
“That’s nice, sir, but we still can’t box them for you.”
“Can’t? You mean you’re physically unable to place cupcakes into boxes?”
At this point, negotiations deteriorated rapidly. F-bombs were hurled. My favorite part was when I spat furiously that I would tell every living organism I knew, or would ever meet, about my abysmal Magnolia Bakery cupcake service experience!
The man scoffed. “OK, you be sure to do that.” And just like that, he hung up on me. Magnolia Bakery Guy called my bluff.
I realized I’d been shouting. So did all the other people in the edit facility. I was still shaking with the remnants of my impotent rage when some of the folks who worked there approached me cautiously. Magnolia is overrated, they assured me, and gave me the name of another bakery that produced a superior cupcake product minus all the Magnolia hype.
Heartened, but still quaking with indignation (and somehow still completely oblivious to how ridiculous I was being), I called Julie.
I told her what had happened. Who did these cupcake people think they were?! How dare they treat their customers like that?! My voice was getting shrill again, and I was working up a sweat.
“Can you believe that?!” I said. “I’ll be damned if I’m buying their fucking cupcakes!”
I suddenly realized I’d been going on for some time with no response from the other end of the line.
“I don’t care,” she said calmly.
“What?! Seriously?! I mean, you wouldn’t believe…”
“It’s not my problem, Mike.” Perfectly calm.
“Are you saying you still want me to go there and give our money to these assholes?!”
“I’m saying that it’s all I asked for. For my anniversary.”
“But the guys who work here—who live here in New York—say there’s this other place that makes much better…”
“I didn’t ask for cupcakes, Mike. I asked for Magnolia cupcakes.”
So calm. So … disappointed.
I spluttered something else, then stood there, mouth agape.
She didn’t get it. She wasn’t going to get it. I didn’t get it.
Cut to me, at Magnolia, saturated with sweat. (It was the middle of August, and well north of 90 degrees.) It was much tinier than I’d imagined. Modest. Cute, even. And even in the midday heat, the queue was formidable. I took my place in line and waited, just like everybody else. My self-inflicted 11th hour ticking away.
At the time, I recall actually cursing my wife for being such a diva about all this. I recall cursing myself for indulging it. And yet somehow, I don’t recall recognizing an ounce of irony in that.
All told, I spent a little more than three years working for arguably the most acclaimed and innovative ad agency in the whole wide world. Then my wife decided she’d had enough. She didn’t lay down any ultimatum. She didn’t force me to do anything. She simply told me how she felt.
I’d just returned home from a long trip. We were at the beach, watching our little girl try to fly a kite, when my wife told me she wasn’t sure, given the state of things, whether she and our daughter would be better off with me or without me. But she no longer felt she could count on me to be the kind of partner she wanted and needed in her life.
As it turns out, this had nothing to do with where I worked. It was a problem she had with me. In hindsight, she made that abundantly clear, but at the time, I was still convinced she just didn’t get it, and never would.
So, I made the decision I believed I needed to. I quit. And for a long time, I resented it.
As a couple, we would continue to struggle with our divergent sense of priorities and duties for years to come. We still do.
Only now, almost 10 years after the Magnolia Cupcake Incident, am I able to say with genuine pride that my wife still steadfastly refuses to get it. I continue to do what I can to accommodate that fact. And I continue to become a better and happier person as a result.
I’ve learned to be more efficient with my time. I’ve learned to pay closer attention to my patterns of productivity and spend less time banging my head against fruitless walls. I’m learning to put my worries in a box and lock them up at quitting time. I’m learning how to walk away.
As a result, I’ve attended lots more dance recitals, parent-teacher conferences, school events, sports practices and holiday dinners. I’ve come to understand that I have very real obligations on a number of fronts, each of which needs to find its appropriate priority.
As a result I have a much clearer sense of what is important and the relative, realistic importance of the role I play within it all.
Could I have been more successful in my career if my wife hadn’t refused to get it? Could I have become one of those advertising rock stars? Fuck that. Obsess over the what-ifs and they either become part of the set of lame excuses you make for yourself, or they fester into resentment. Probably both. There is no way to answer those questions that isn’t some form of cop-out.
A good friend once shared a very simple piece of advice with me—her own personal key to happiness: Mind your own business. We’ve all got our own circumstances. Some you’ve chosen. Some you’ve been dealt. But none of them will stand up to the scrutiny of hypotheticals or comparisons. However you find success and happiness, given your circumstances—that’s your own business. Mind it well.
When I finally made it inside the doors of Magnolia, I had to admit, I could kinda understand what the jerk I’d spoken to on the phone had been trying to tell me.
This was not some premeditated concept store designed for volume, calculated growth and nationwide franchise. It was just a little shop.
They worked hard, they made great stuff, and they got really popular. They baked their cupcakes one pan at a time, the way we all do it at home. Then they set them on their window sill across from the counter, in an honest-to-goodness vintage Tupperware® cupcake container. The opacity of the plastic covers had been dulled yellow with age.
People standing in line grabbed a pastry box and snatched them up buffet-style, much faster then they could be replenished—hence the line outside. So, no, they couldn’t accommodate deliveries or phone calls from self-important fucks like me.
Suddenly I got it.
When my turn came, I collected my cupcakes and paid for them discretely, wondering which of these people I’d traded barbs with, and desperately hoping he wouldn’t recognize my voice.
The cupcakes did not survive the trek back to West 25th. The cake part was relatively intact. The pretty pastel frosting, however, fell victim to the heat of summer in Manhattan.
—Mike Howard recently quit a perfectly good job at Arnold to pursue his own ill-defined “thing.” Find his work at daughtersandhoward.com. This article first appeared, in a slightly different form, at Medium.com.