As a marketing copywriter, my greatest talent is my ability to uncover my client’s story and communicate it in a compelling manner, no matter how boring. For my most recent assignment, I profiled attorneys at a small law firm: interesting, I guess. To make matters worse, the initial meeting had been scheduled to coincide with that time of day when I’d rather be taking a nap than sitting in a conference room overlooking the manicured lawn of a suburban office park.
Face to face with one of the attorneys, I tried to uncover something compelling about his past, more for my own amusement than for the profile. Anyway, everyone likes talking about themselves.
“Start from the beginning,” I said.
“Well, I didn’t always want to be a lawyer. In fact, I majored in food science,” he said. “And I have a pretty interesting story about food science that will lead us back to what’s relevant. If you care to hear it.”
“Food science,” I repeated. “Do explain.”
“Well, one summer I interned at Kraft, more specifically in the Tombstone pizza division, which Kraft still owned at the time. For the purposes of research and development, I had 900 frozen pizzas at my disposal.”
You would know Tombstone if you saw it in the freezer aisle: a frozen, shrink-wrapped pie presented on a cardboard base and with a cactus in its logo. It was available in varieties like extra cheese, pepperoni, and sausage.
“My goodness,” I said.
“By the end of the summer, I still had a couple hundred pizzas left, and Kraft offered to airlift them to the front yard of my fraternity house.”
I have to admit that I don’t remember much of our interview after that. Of course, I asked the questions I had prepared and said “right” and “very interesting” about a dozen times at the appropriate moments. Luckily, I was using my voice memo app to record the exchange because my mind was stuck on one particular detail. I’m not even sure I had ever eaten Tombstone, but I suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to devour a slice or perhaps an entire pie.
I no longer sensed the stained mahogany table surface beneath my fingers, the oversized leather swivel chairs cradling my bottom, and the generic office art hanging on the walls. All I could see was what I remembered from those Tombstone pizza television commercials, circa 1995. They were always set in the Wild West, and a cowboy executioner would always walk up to a man with a noose around his neck.
Executioner: Any last words? What do you want on your tombstone?
Noosed man: Pepperoni and cheese.
Of course, the noosed man would be presented with his pepperoni and cheese Tombstone pizza before being executed (not shown).
More recently, I learned that the campaign had been created in the early 1990s by the advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding, and it must have been effective because it definitely made an impression. Though I was just a kid, lacking disposable income or the ability to transport myself to a suburban supermarket without a ride from my mom or dad, I still imagined myself enjoying the pizza, which my parents would never buy for me. Could you blame them? Who in their right mind would buy frozen pizza with millions of pizza parlors in the New York City metro area at their disposal?
Still, my younger brother and I would reenact the commercials in our basement. Who do you think played the role of the man in the noose? Exactly. I’d chase my brother around the basement with a full, pink plastic water gun (don’t tell my parents I was squirting a water gun indoors). My brother would be the prime suspect in a bank robbery, murder, or simply for the crime of looking at me the wrong way. Finally, I’d catch up to him and, as the older sister, demand him to surrender. I’d stomp over to him with my rubber cowboy boots (really just galoshes) and tie a “noose” around his neck with a piece of yarn or lanyard.
Before posing the final, most important question, I’d ask him for his last words and a few supplemental questions: (1) Do you promise never to tell mom and dad when I sneak out with my friends?; (2) Will you do my chores this week?; and (3) Can you make me a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich? For the most part, I’d get answers I desired. But he never answered the tombstone question the right way.
“Haven’t you seen the commercial?” I would ask. “Tell me a pizza topping.”
“But I want mom and dad to know how much I love them,” he would say.
At that point in my daydream, the attorney was starting to tell me about his kids, and I realized that the interview had officially spent too much time in the oven, if you know what I mean.
“Anything else that would help you?” He asked. I sat there clicking my pen against my hollowed cheek.
“This has nothing to do with our project, but your story about the Tombstone pizza… It reminded me of me and my brother when we were kids and used to play cowgirls and cowboys.”
“Like in the commercial,” he smiled.
“Exactly. So maybe, if I do have one more question, it’s more to satisfy my own curiosity than anything else. If you don’t mind.”
“What would you like on your Tombstone?” I asked.
“I think the real question is, ‘What did I like on my Tombstone?’ You know, back when I didn’t have so many responsibilities,” he said. “With two kids and this demanding
career, who has time for that?”
I paused for a moment to consider his comment, which was more profound than he probably realized. I was standing in the presence of a true cowboy, someone who had perished but had somehow found the chance to ask himself the question again.