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  • Miriam Budner (bio)

Sam Zigelman grew up in poor immigrant Milwaukee in the 1920s. He left Milwaukee and moved to New York, where he got in on the early days of advertising research. This section is from one-third of the way through the book. It's 1944 and Sam's wife Selma is in labor with their first child. One other thing to know: Sam has a sister Bella, the family radical, who volunteered as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War.

Sam sat in the maternity ward waiting room, shifting in his hard blue chair, which offered only a tease of a cushion, worn down by a thousand expectant fathers before him. A man in a forest green jacket leaned over the empty chair between Sam and him, and started talking. It was the man's second time. His first time was fifty-one hours.

Sam wanted to believe that because this was Selma, she would not stay fifty-one hours. He did not want to ask what could require fifty-one hours. The movie screen in his head showed floods of blood and unnamable fluids soaking piles of ragged towels, accompanied by waves of desperate, animal screams. He wanted to change Selma's towels for her, and he did not want to go near her room. He looked at his watch, then asked the man what time he had. The man suggested that Sam put away his watch because he was on a new planet where his experience of time would have no relation to any watch on Earth. Sam forced a smile and stood up. It had been only forty-seven minutes that he'd been sitting in the awful chair.

He went to use the phone to ask the hospital operator to put a call through to his office. His secretary said that everything was under [End Page 139] control; she was rescheduling his afternoon's appointments. She asked about Selma and then she said that if he didn't mind, she'd like to get back to work.

Sam found a seat in a corner of the room opposite from the time talker, who was now theorizing with someone else. Sam clamped his hands over his ears and rested his elbows on his knees, but he could still hear them a little. If he had been doing research on waiting, he told himself, he would have been delighted to eavesdrop or casually join the conversation; however, he had work to do, on margarine. The Margarine Manufacturers' Association had hired his agency to investigate the real reasons why consumers bought their product, and to suggest schemes for convincing others to join them. When Sam was assigned the design of the initial research, he had to swallow his disgust. For three years he'd had no butter on his toast. Selma used margarine on toast, but he could not. The one time he tasted Selma's toast, she laughed at his face. He was still a Wisconsin boy, in this matter, and the state of Wisconsin, of course, was where margarine was least popular. That faded artificial mildness. And those names that reeked of imitation: Farmbelle, Churngold, Sunnyland, Cloverbloom. He scolded himself for letting his personal taste interfere with his mission. He could not recall a product that he'd had such trouble approaching professionally. He quizzed himself about the attraction of margarine. The manufacturers' association crowed to doctors that its vegetable fats were much healthier than butter's animal fats. Also its purchase represented a sacrifice for the war effort. That was more impressive, more compelling a reason than one that would remind consumers of what they were actually eating.

At the sounds of a baby crying, Sam jumped. And then the sounds receded down a hallway.

Sam was surprised at himself when he understood that he'd turned the margarine job into one where he had to sell to himself rather than elicit feedback from others. His approach didn't have to be any different than it was with other products, with soap or sewing needles: ask a few good questions, let the group members talk and talk enough, and they'd let...


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pp. 139-147
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2012
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