The quintessential moment for me in Mad Men -- the AMC series on the verge of a season three finale -- arrived when Don Draper, determined to end his downward spiral, emerges from the New York Athletic Club (NYAC) after a swim and stars to smoke like a chimney.
Were Don Draper a real and not a fictional character, he no doubt would have known my father, who belonged to the NYAC at precisely that point in time and considered a workout to be an hour spent in the steam room after a three-martini lunch. They would have bumped into each other at "Toots Shor's" and "21" and, of course, on the commuter train home to the suburbs.
Mad Men c'est moi -- from the start this series has been my autobiography as a child growing up in New Rochelle, New York, in the early 1960s, with a father who wore Brylcreem and rode the train slavishly to work, with a mother who sat at home with too many kids and drank and smoked and ate way too many valium.
My father famously bragged that he never bought a round-trip ticket because he hoped something would come up in the city and he wouldn't have to go home. I thought this was funny until I became a father and learned that it was irrevocably sad. But his real-world sentiment is certainly in the spirit of Mad Men, a world where "everybody lies," in the words of series creator Matthew Weiner.
The thing to remember about Mad Men is the world is about to come apart the seams. In this moment in the story Don Draper's advertising agency faces Armageddon: the loss of the Lucky Strike account and hence half the firm's billings. The time is 1965 and John F. Kennedy is dead, but Robert F. Kennedy is the Senator from New York and Martin Luther King Jr. has yet to have his dream. In a heartbeat will come drugs and black power and the Vietnam War protests and the free love still confined to the netherworld of Greenwich Village.
Within three years the country becomes a train wreck, and neither Don Draper nor my father sees/saw it coming. Within three years my father would be dead from three strokes and the finale of a fatal heart attack, and my mother would have begun her permanent journey into rehabilitation, never to emerge intact. In fact, for me, a man now my father's age then, it is no stretch to say the disintegration of my parents coincided precisely with the end of the world as we knew it in the 1960s.
My father, dying in a nursing home in 1967 at the age of 57, said to a friend: "I'm going home." He never made it. In the twin worlds of Mad Men and my family, life was a roundtrip ticket that never got punched.