I’m Richard the Ad Exec, I’ll Be Your Waiter Today

Published: June 22, 2008


Susan Farley for The New York Times

LABORING Richard Ginsberg tries to get by waiting tables.

ONCE he was riding high, working for advertising titans like McCann-Erickson and handling clients like MGM. For a time, he was even part-owner of his own agency. He lived in a four-bedroom center-hall Colonial in Ardsley, tooled around in an Audi A6, took vacations in the Bahamas and Italy.

Now it’s not quite time for the Depression-era refrain “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” But some days the resemblance can seem awfully imminent. Richard Ginsberg, in a uniform of black shirt, burgundy tie and apron, is waiting tables here — at Zanaro’s, a cavernous Italian restaurant in a downtown neighborhood that exudes an aura of rising opulence, while his personal arc is tumbling downward.

He lost a $200,000-a-year advertising job about 18 months ago and, after some sporadic consulting, is trying to stitch together 50 minimum-wage waiter hours a week with tips so he can pay the bills that seem to choke him daily. He lives in an apartment here whose rent may soon outstrip his savings, can barely scrape together money to buy gas, has to rely on his ex-wife for most of his two children’s support, and a decent vacation looms like a mirage.

“I used to build agencies, used to increase market share for my clients, and now I’m bringing veal parmigiana to people,” he tells a visitor. “I used to live to work. Now I’m working to live.”

Mr. Ginsberg, who could not afford to travel anywhere to observe his 50th birthday a week ago, may be hurting, but he’s not alone. Federal labor statistics show that the economy lost 49,000 jobs in May as the unemployment rate surged to 5.5 percent from 5 percent — the sharpest spike in 22 years. Hardest hit, with 39,000 jobs lost, were professional and business services, which include lawyers, architects and advertising people like him. In other words, there are lots of other professionals taking jobs they once might have scorned so they can put food on the table — their own.

Mr. Ginsberg tells his story with a gravel-voiced accent that reveals his Long Island roots and a jaunty demeanor that tries — though it doesn’t always succeed — to shrug off his travails. For him, probably the most painful moment came when his daughter, Erica, a 21-year-old college student, took a vacation job as a waiter at Legal Sea Foods, a few yards from where he works.

“It was embarrassing for a long time to have my daughter on a college job earning the same money as me,” he said, his voice halting. “But I’m looking in the mirror and I’ve proven I’ve been able to support myself and gotten to the point when I can reconcile myself to this.”

His “This Is Your Life” album has snapshots of a comfortable 1960s childhood in communities like Roslyn. There was a father who distributed the “Felix the Cat” and “Speed Racer” TV shows. There was Syracuse University, where he graduated in 1980 with a public-relations degree. There was his first job as an account executive handling New York area advertising for “Rocky” and some of the James Bond movies. There were later jobs commanding staffs of 15 people. From 1992 to ’98, there was a firm on West 19th Street in Manhattan, HBG Advertising, that he owned with two partners and that one year chalked up $10 million in billings.

The firm was taken over by the advertising legend George Lois, but a year later, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “I sat at home on the couch feeling sorry for myself,” Mr. Ginsberg recalled, but he got a job at the Coastal Group, a catalog company, handling clients like Nordstrom.

“I built a $10 million division for them,” he said of his work for Coastal.

But everything fell apart in early 2007 when Coastal was sold and he lost his job. The consulting work that followed did not pay the bills. In October, he swallowed his pride and asked Zanaro’s manager if he needed a waiter.

While he slings plates of pasta, he has been calling old friends, checking Monster and Craigslist, to no avail. Adam Lorber, who worked for Mr. Ginsberg at Coastal, said agencies are “not hiring middle-aged people, especially with his qualifications, when they’re not sure what’s going to happen next.”

Mr. Ginsberg does not fault old friends for not rescuing him. “Nobody’s going to hire a senior executive to do less than a senior executive would, because they know your heart wouldn’t be in it,” he said.

Meantime, he cuts back on movies, rarely eats out and decides that rent is more important than a 50th birthday lark, though he did cobble together $300 so his daughter could have some spending money on a trip to Israel during the winter break.

“There are times,” Mr. Ginsberg said, his eyes at the edge of tears, “that I sit here and wonder how the hell it happened. It’s been tough, very tough.”

The downturn, though, has gained him a nugget or two of wisdom.

“You have to count your blessings,” he said. “When you’re doing well and your career is going great, appreciate it! Don’t take it for granted, because it can dry up in the blink of an eye.”

E-mail: joeberg@nytimes.com


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