"Hold on, I just took my pants off--it's kinda hot in here!"
This is what Les Payne yells from inside the camper that rides piggyback in the bed of his '83 Chevy Custom Deluxe pickup that sits on the sloping edge of a dirt parking lot in Nothing, Arizona. According to Les, the truck is called the Red Devil--"That's the name I give it!"
Actually, the parking lot pretty much is Nothing, Arizona; besides the Chevrolet home of Payne, it holds a small store, a garage, three mobile homes that look anything but mobile, a few long-dead vehicles, a stray cat with no name and two dogs that are almost always asleep. That is where Nothing ends and nothing begins in earnest, for beyond this are only miles of desert and Highway 93 stretching to Wickenburg in one direction and Wikieup in the other.
The camper door swings open and Les Payne, pants belted in place, emerges. He makes his way across the lot, a thin, grizzled, bent 78-year-old imp of a man who moves with a jaunty step over to a decrepit picnic table. He sits. He reaches up with a hand holding an unlighted Camel and rubs the dozens of white hairs living on his cheeks. He speaks:
"Sorry I haven't shaved. I usually shave every three days, but I'm getting bad out here. Coyotes [pronounced ky-oats] don't care! Well, what's up?"
Here is what's up:
The name "Les Payne" and this almost nonexistent place called Nothing are soon to be known nationwide, at least to those who watch television, have access to the Web, or read Time, People or Entertainment Weekly magazines. A company called Health o meter, in conjunction with Culligan water, has launched an ad campaign selling Nothing as a metaphor for good-tasting water. A taste, or lack of it, that can allegedly be achieved by using the Health o meter water pitcher.
According to the print ad, the device "reduces a lot of the stuff that makes tap water taste funny. And once that's gone, water tastes the way it should. Like nothing."
The photograph in the ad shows a thin, grizzled man lifting a pitcher. He is standing in a dirt lot with a sign in the background that says "HEY! Nothing Pop. 4," and is identified as "Les Payne, Mayor of Nothing, Arizona."
"I know nothing," the copy reads. "Must be why they asked me to talk about this water pitcher."
Except this is not Les Payne.
And the photograph of this pseudo Payne is strikingly similar to one of the real Les Payne--same pose, same place, sans pitcher--that ran in a New Times story I wrote about a year and a half ago. I was thumbing through People the other day, and this ad with the faux Payne caught my eye.
So I went back to Nothing to find out everything.
Betty Kenworthy is killing the afternoon by sweeping the desert back out the door of the Nothing store with a dry mop. This seems to be a pointless and herculean task, but there is apparently little else to do here.
Betty, one of the four residents of Nothing, is Texas-friendly--"I come up here from San Antone and got stuck"--and leans against the mop to answer questions as the sun sets behind her head, blinking through her yellow curlers. Betty has the habit of dropping first names of people you've never heard of with complete familiarity, the way you might say "Madonna" or "O.J."
"Les musta told 'em he was mayor; Buddy figures that's what happened, but we don't know. They'd already paid him before they found out he wasn't the mayor. Scott paid him $100 to use his name. You know, we don't even have a mayor. And if we did, it'd be the Big Cheese," she says with a conspiratorial nod. (Buddy = Betty's husband and owner of Nothing. Scott = someone from the ad agency. The Big Cheese = also Buddy--"He's the one that's got the say, but he don't talk much.")
So how did this thing come about?
Betty lights up a smoke and puts down the mop.
"Scott called from Massachusetts [pronounced Massa-two-chits] on the radio phone, and wanted to know if we still had the horse trailer. Now, Buddy didn't even know what the heck they was talking about. Well, what they was talking about was the Hey Nothing sign. He had seen a picture somewhere. So then they sent Lonnie out here from San Francisco, she flew out here to do the scout locations." (Lonnie = someone else from the ad agency.)
"It cost 'em quite a bit, they catered us out here, even. Won't never happen again, I can tell you that, probably. As a matter of fact, the catering company come out of Tempe. It was quite the ordeal."
Betty digs out a handful of Polaroids to verify the catering incident. Sure enough, off in the bleak desert distance there are six or seven people crowded around a truck eating something. It looks like whoever snapped the pictures was standing about 60 feet away.
"They didn't realize until after they made the commercial that Les was a dropper-inner."
"Ol' Les broke down up here one time about four years ago to fix his vehicle; he'd drive from Houston to Laughlin to gamble, and he'd always stop in after that. He got to lookin' at John's situation, I guess, and thought, 'Boy, I'll just move here.' And that's what he did." (John = someone who lives in Nothing. With a situation.)
Les Payne--the $100 one--is still out at the picnic bench. Now he has lighted his Camel. I get out a copy of People and show him the ad, which he hasn't seen yet.
He squints at it.
"No, that's not me. I look as bad as he does, though, don't I?" bellows Les. "Ah, ha, ha, ha." He spits. "They just asked me if they could use my name, they give me $100 and I said, 'Use it all you want, I don't give a dang!' I don't know how they do things; they just used him in my place. That's my name, all right."
The Health o meter ad offers a Nothing Web site that has yet to be fully up and running, and a telephone number for more information. When you call that number, this is what you hear:
"Thanks for calling about the Health o meter water pitcher. I'm Les Payne, Mayor of Nothing, Arizona. Of course, you probably knew that from reading the ad. Everyone here in Nothing really likes our water pitcher . . ."
This phone deal is news to Les.
"They didn't say nothing about that. They did say they might be back later, though, and do some interviewing with me and Miner Jim. You know him? Wears a gun and a beard and lives out in the hills out here. Kind of a hermit, more or less."
Let's just skip over this Miner Jim thing.
The ad continues: "If your tap water tastes funny, as ours does in Nothing, Arizona, the Health o meter water pitcher will come as a welcome surprise."
Look. By his own admission, Les has never taken sip one from a Health o meter water pitcher, and perhaps a greater surprise is Les' take on the tap of Nothing.
"We've got a well that's 220 feet deep," he says, somewhat puzzled. "If you want a taste of it, it's tap water, but it's good. It isn't cold, but it tastes dang good cold. You can get one of these coffee cups and drink it if you want."
But get this: Les doesn't even drink the tap water. Not that he doesn't like it, it's just that he's a Safeway water man.
"It comes from a spring in the Sierras," he offers, spitting with the confidence of final truth revealed. Then, just to prove it, he ambles in to the camper and returns with a half-full plastic Safeway jug. He studies the label, but there is no mention of a spring, in the Sierras or anywhere else.
"Well, it says it's from a municipal source," he admits, pointing at the words. But this does not sway his passion for the Safeway water. "That's a well-established, guaranteed, municipally good water. And Safeway wouldn't put out some crap."
The advertising company responsible for this $5 million ad campaign that will be running "for the foreseeable future"--the one that coughed up $100 for Les Payne's name--is called Meldrum and Fewsmith. It is out of Cleveland, Ohio, a long way from Nothing, Arizona. The senior vice president of the firm is one Dan Dahlen. I called the guy. He talked like the senior vice president of an ad firm.
"We were looking for that one idea, that one nugget to kind of develop the advertising around, and one of the operative words in our strategy was the word 'nothing,' and the fact that nothing tastes better ended up being our theme . . . in developing that, our creative department looked for a number of different ideas, and Nothing, Arizona, was discovered on a map. As soon as we discovered Nothing, we made the contacts, called some people, had some scouting done. We were informed that the mayor's name was Les Payne, and we thought, 'What an interesting spokesperson that would be.'"
So why didn't they just use our man Les?
I will give you Dan's answer in full, just because it is so wonderful:
"We have a lot of ways we plan to execute this advertising and this communication, evolving it into a lot of different areas, and to that end we felt that we needed a professional that had some range and could work with us. We considered using the real Les Payne, and in the final analysis we thought it would be better communication if we, in fact, used an actor."
I asked him why they'd only paid Les 100 bucks.
"Well, that's between Les and whoever he made the deal with."
I asked him if they had copped the whole idea from the New Times article.
"I can't answer that. I haven't seen it."
After I finished with Dan, I spoke with Emily Federici, account supervisor of Meldrum and Fewsmith. She talked more like an account supervisor than a senior vice president.
I asked her if the ad agency had copped the whole idea from New Times.
"It was in an article from California, in a newspaper out there. We don't remember what the paper was. It wasn't even about Nothing. Somebody was driving to Las Vegas from Phoenix."
Hmmm. My article wasn't even about Nothing. It was about driving to Laughlin from Phoenix. Plus it had that suggestive, seminal picture of Les Payne . . .
Emily admitted that she had personally never seen the article, so I asked if I could speak with the person who had. She got a bit hinkie.
"No, I don't think so . . . they're not here anymore."
I asked why they hadn't just used our man Les.
I will give you Emily's answer in full, just because it is so wonderful: "I don't think that he could have done the role, he couldn't have delivered the message. He's not real focused. I don't think he could have concentrated long enough to do it. And, ummm . . ."
He's a crusty old guy?
Les is still at the picnic table.
He's about to spit.
Then he does.
Not focused? I'll tell you this, the man has no trouble focusing on the imitation Les Payne on the page in front of him.
"In other words, he's the double!" declares Les, hell-bent on taking this focus into hyperclarity. "That sure ain't me, but that's my name, all right. Leslie W. Payne. Evidently they used this guy as a double. There's no more to it. But that sure as hell ain't me!"
There are probably very good reasons I am writing for New Times in Phoenix and not making $5 million in Cleveland choosing supposedly earthy actors for ad campaigns. But, having said that, it's hard to believe that this sincere, charismatic man who lives in Nothing because he "got sick of fighting them cities, and I wanted to get a place that's halfway decent" wouldn't have been able to sell a water-purifying pitcher to an America that loves humble characters.
In the name of Capra, in the name of Steinbeck, in the name of Springsteen, listen to Les about Les:
"I can talk with anybody, even in spite of the way I look.
"I'm a topnotch sheet-metal man, and I drove an 18-wheeler 17 years, and I was in 14 foreign countries. I was on a carrier during the war, and I spent 11 months in Africa. In other words, I enjoy people, but I hate smart alecks.
"I know the Bible from cover to cover; I know the major stories, every one of 'em.
"That's my camper over there, and I can go anywhere I want to, far as that's concerned. I got plenty of clothes, dress clothes and everything.
"I've got lots of experience in general living."
And Les also has experience in front of the cameras.
"I lived all around Los Angeles and Hollywood for years," he reveals. "I belonged to the National Guard, and I was in war pictures. There was one with Franchot Tone, Gladys George--They Gave Him a Gun. They had a deal back then, they called it the Film Actors Guild--probably still have it now. It was very little to join it, but I was young, I met the first wife, I was in love, you know, and I didn't join it. But you get in the Guild, then you get bit parts. A lot of 'em start out in bit parts, and then they like who it is, you catch on, and you go from there right to the top.
"But I was in mob scenes. I wasn't no actor."
So maybe Les isn't an actor, maybe a little New Times story wasn't the catalyst for a multimillion-dollar ad campaign about water without taste.
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But this is true: Les Payne knows things, and that ad has a picture of a guy named Les Payne followed by these words in bold print stating "I know nothing."
I point this out to Les.
"Ha, ha, I see what you're saying. I'll be darned. That never caught my eye there. They never told me they were doing that, but I don't give a darn what they say. People that really know me know that isn't me, anyway. But I see what you mean, 'I know nothing.' That makes me sound like an idiot, sorta like! A dummy, anyway. Well, my heart is right."
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