A year ago Michael Gates Gill told me we’re going to be okay eventually. He meant all of us. Here’s a look at that conversation a year later, to see if we’re okay yet, and how media is reflecting it. Or not. For more from the mavens of media, see television comedy writer Larry Gelbart, television icon Barbara Feldon, NPR’s Kurt Andersen, journalist Elvis Mitchell, NY Times columnist/blogger Lisa Belkin, neuroscientist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks, music industry mogul Russell Simmons, and independent filmmaker Conrad Fink. Here’s Michael Gates Gill on the road not taken and how it turned into the fast lane on the information highway all the same …
“A corporation doesn’t have a soul. It isn’t a person,” Michael Gates Gill reminded me kindly, so kindly, the other day when chatting about jobs, the economy, and various other technical difficulties with the world as we know it. According to Gill’s book, How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else, we’re going to be okay eventually — and he’s not just talking through his top hat.
The only child of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, Gill grew up in an East 70’s brownstone so exquisite and complete it had four floors including a gymnasium with a basketball court. His 25-room summer home in Bronxville was the place where his family spent time with everyone from New Yorker editor William Shawn, affectionately known to staffers as the Iron Mouse, who rarely left the city and was made to believe Bronxville was the countryside, as well as writers Dorothy Parker and James Thurber, no country mice themselves, and standout luminous presences including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Like many well-born men attending Yale decades back he did not pass Go when proceeding directly to J. Walter Thompson. He quickly rose from copy writer to creative director for major accounts all over the world and stayed for 26 years. He was good; he was fun; he was dedicated. He routinely ignored the needs of wife, children, friends, and self, once grabbing a taxi to the airport on Christmas morning, in the snow, when Ford called with an urgent request for a campaign idea. Fair game for treatment on an upcoming Mad Men should they ever run short of ideas, Gill once explained the concept of targeted advertising to a bunch of Pentagon officials by shooting an arrow across the expansive conference room and hitting a bull’s eye meant to represent the concept of “targeted.” It worked, and Gill became lead on the team behind that memorable phrase, “The Marines are looking for a few good men.”
Then, after a lifetime of “company first,” Gill was invited to breakfast “off site,” always a danger, and fired by the woman he’d helped and trained. According to Gill, “Management,” that Wizard of Oh No’s, decided they were looking for a few good youngsters.
Here’s the part where you come in. He got fired. He went through a divorce. He got diagnosed with a brain tumor. And then he became — happier. And this even before the big contract to make his book into a film starring Tom Hanks and directed by Gus Van Sant. I repeat, he’s happier now than he’s ever been and he’s not giving up the day job. Why, you ask? So did I …
What is it you hope people will see when reading — or going to see the upcoming film version of How Starbucks Saved My life?
Gill: A corporation doesn’t have a soul. It isn’t a person. And if you think of it that way, you’re nuts. Brand identity is not identity. There’s such a relief in losing all that stuff. It’s like running through the airport with eighteen bags to have all the stuff. Stuff will never love you like your children. When Tom Hanks called me he said “It’s so great in America to hear about someone who had everything and lost it and found this new level of happiness.
How did you wind up at Starbucks?
Gill: When I was about 55, I was fired, got divorced, and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Never go for a routine physical after 60. There’s no such thing as routine after 60. My life was spiralling down. One day after getting the diagnosis, I walked into a Starbucks on the Upper East Side, on East 78th Street where a flower shop used to be, feeling sorry for myself. I said, at least I’m going to have one last latte. They were having what they call a hiring event. I was all dressed up with my briefcase pretending I was still a successful ad guy. A woman named Crystal walked over to me and said would you like a job? If I thought about it I would have said no, but I instantly said yes. She said fill out this job application, and I said, “I need your help. I’ve never filled out a job application.” She said, how many kids do you have? And I said five. She said, “You’ve been busy. You know, they’ll all be covered by health benefits even if you’re part time. And then I realized I really needed the job. I was broke and no longer had health insurance. I thought to myself, it took 26 years for Thompson to fire me, but it could happen here in 26 minutes. First of all, I was the minority for the first time in my life. They were calling out frappuccinos and lattes — foreign languages have never been my forte. Three cash machines were ringing like crazy. I was never very good with money. My first day, I just stood there. But at that interview with Crystal, she brought me an espresso and sat down to conduct the formal interview. She asked me if I had any retail experience. Like what? I asked her. You know, a Walmart’s or some such. Nothing. Then I remembered I once had a Burger King account. I worked for Burger King, I told her excitedly. Good, she said, and wrote that down. I love coffee. It was delicious. Just being served that coffee by a woman who was about to become my boss, and that loving kindness, I thought I would genuinely like to be here. In 26 years of advertising, I never thought of bringing coffee for anyone who worked for me. I don’t mean I was cruel or vicious. It just wasn’t part of the routine. In advertising, fear is the great motivator. We treated making tv commercials as if we were finding the cure for cancer.
At Thompson, did you ever see a cleaning person?
Gill: When I’d stay late, I’d see ladies pushing carts. Now, I’m a great cleaner. Crystal said “Mike, I’ve never seen anyone clean like you.” I was avoiding the cash registers. Four and a half years later, I’m still challenged by the cash registers. One day one of my guests said “Mike, this latte doesn’t taste right. I think you forgot to put in the coffee.” I remember one day after I got really good at cleaning a homeless guy came in — it’s hard to find a public bathroom in New York City — and I told him the bathroom was out of order because I couldn’t bear the fact that he was going to mess it up. He just turned around and left. He was used to being rejected. Crystal came over to me and said “Mike, please don’t ever do that again. The last thing that gentleman needed today was to be disrespected by you.” Everyone’s treated with respect. In advertising, we categorize everybody. That’s not fair in life, and it’s actually not good for us. My partners come from different backgrounds and every different class. I had to leave my safe cocoon to have it brought home to me in such a dramatic way.
What was the reaction from your family?
Gill: I think my children like the fact that I was humbled. They were so forgiving and understanding of their pompous parent. In the old days, I’d lecture my five kids to do this and this to be great like me. When it all fell apart, my daughter said to me, one day at the store, “Dad, you’re finally getting it.” I learned that any time you’re serving someone else, you’re in a good place. The only thing kids really want from you is time.
Did your friends drop you?
Gill: Depends on the friend. One who had been compared to me all his life was completely unsettled by it. Another who came into the store one day to find me behind the counter just said “This is so great. You’re in my neighborhood. Now I can see more of you.” When I was 60, I was still asking people where they went to school and what they do. Now, I make eye contact. They tell you never to do that in New York but it’s really rewarding. I talk to people I never would have met.
How does your path dovetail with Yale and all that remarkable education now?
Gill: You know, when I went to Yale, 70% of us were called “legacies.” At my interviews for admission, we talked about my father and grandfather. My grades were mediocre. An amazing thing has happened in recent years. It started at Harvard but it’s true at Yale, too, I believe. They realized, as Calvin Trillin has written, that they weren’t getting the brightest and the best the way things were done and needed to open up the ranks. And they made an amazing decision, which was to eliminate the financial challenge for anyone who truly qualified to get in — which is to say in addition to doing the right thing for the right reasons, they made a conscious decision to uphold a policy that could result in rejecting some of their own kids. I don’t know what will happen now with the drastic contractions of the economy, but what a step.
How’d the book come about?
Gill: My daughter, Annie, said keep a journal. You know, I was only able to write this book because the part-time job gave me a full-time life.
Are you looking forward to seeing yourself on screen? Has Crystal been cast yet?
Gill: Well, it’s unbelievable. One minute you say your life is over and the next minute Tom Hanks calls to say he wants to play you. Crystal hasn’t been cast yet. She said she’s hoping to be played by Hallie Berry.
Will you give up the job and go back to your old life?
Gill: No. I love the job. And I don’t want to leave my little attic apartment. I’m not going to change that. I really feel God gave me a chance after a stupid life. What I want to share with people is that if you focus all your efforts exclusively on the external points of the American Dream, you may wind up a tragic figure. One day, after scrubbing the bathroom until it gleamed and leaving at midnight with my Starbucks learning coach after closing, I stood under the moonlight, in the cold. It was March. And I put my hand over my heart and asked myself for the first time, are you happy? I’d never asked myself that before. And to my astonishment I said to myself “I am happier than I’ve ever been.”
Why? People who haven’t had your advantages will be furious to hear it.
Gill: Look, I don’t think it’s great for anyone to be fired, divorced, or have a brain tumor. But if none of it happened to me, I couldn’t have discovered any of this. I wouldn’t have left that life voluntarily. There is almost a narcotic rush to it. I must have spent several years just in meetings — and in meetings about meetings. You get sucked into it. It doesn’t make any sense in retrospect. The office becomes a sort of family, but it’s not the nature of the organism. It took me years to make that transition from defining myself by my job to the ability to just sit down or enjoy an unscheduled hour. I think that’s why the Buddha is sitting. I also like him because he’s a little chubby. What I’ve learned is this — we’re not particularly great at taking care of the universe, but we can savor it.