OI HQ

OF GIANTS AND DWARFS

Special note: Today is Dad’s 98th birthday!

As related in my last two posts, “THE NIGHT IS DARK AND FULL OF TERRORS,” and “FIRST TEST,” my full-time entry into the family business was marked by both gloom and doom on one hand, and affirmation on the other.

You could say it was a study of extremes. Like my Dad.

The location of the office was, well, anything but standard.  It was close to my home in Manhattan — five miles as the crow flies.  Just across the river, the first stop.

Yet, it was hideous from the point of view of public transportation.  Two subway lines to Times Square; a bus from the New Jersey Embassy (otherwise known as the Port Authority Bus Terminal); and then a quarter mile uphill slog.  This was a tough commute of one hour’s duration, each way.  It was the Goddamn bus that took the longest, inching its way through hellacious traffic to and from the Lincoln Tunnel.  If I could have walked on water, I could have hoofed the whole thing in just about the same amount of time.

Test

FIRST TEST

As I took my seat behind that wooden desk on the lower level in 1982, I began my training at Olcott International.

As discussed in numerous posts, Olcott International operates in a highly specialized field, one that most people do not understand.  My Dad had started his business in 1961 on the back of an advanced (for its time) computer program that could sort patent renewal data.

He offered this service to corporate patent owners that had live dockets of hundreds or thousands of registrations. Most of these required annual payments to maintain their validity. (Patents in the USA follow an extremely odd payment schedule, however).  After the 20th year, the patent would come to term and fall into the public domain, meaning that anyone could read the patent, make the thing (whatever it was), and sell it for a buck.

Generally, whenever I met people socially, and the conversation turned to work, describing this computer and legal-driven business quickly became a problem.  Most people have professions that can be easily pigeon-holed in simple terms, like “banker,” “teacher,” or “forklift driver.” Not I. In fact, it got so tedious for me to explain what I did for a living, I would typically bail and offer up that I was simply the hostess’ psychiatrist. Sometimes, I would even be asked if I was taking on new patients. I always made sure that I was available only on the most unsuitable night.

There are patents for all kinds of things. Some vital, like certain AIDS medications. Many are frivolous, like weird ribbing patterns on a condom. Most are a waste of money, patented by individuals for products with no commercial potential.

On the other hand, successful corporations, eg. Apple Computer, have dockets comprising thousands of valuable, revenue generating patents. Every one of them worth the $2,000 annual cost of renewal (thereabouts) annually in over 100 countries across this beautiful planet.

So what was the essence of my first job with Olcott International? Patents? No!

Night is full of terrors

THE NIGHT IS DARK AND FULL OF TERRORS

“What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was already nada y pues nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”

-Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

In 1982, Dad was suing Gloria for divorce.  Or more accurately, he forced her to sue him.  As the defendant, he and his lawyers threatened her with an illegal prior divorce and effectively slaughtered her (see my post last week “IS YOUR MEXICAN DIVORCE LEGAL?”).

During that Fall, I started working at Olcott International part-time, one day a week, on Fridays, when I had no classes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of International Affairs (SIA).  It was the last in a string of temporary or part-time jobs held down since my last year of college in 1980.

As a college senior, I created a job for myself as an organizer for Teddy Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1979 and 1980.  Teddy didn’t win, as you recall.  Then, I worked as the New York State College Coordinator for John Anderson’s Presidential campaign in the Fall of 1980.  John didn’t win either.  Later on, at SIA, I had summer jobs at Société Générale and the United Nations.  Great experiences all.

John Anderson

The highlight of my experience in John’s campaign was when he took the time to call me one day to thank me for my efforts.

But now Dad had offered me full-time employment at Olcott International starting January 1983.  This was to be my first time working in a job for a paycheck.  To be supporting myself like a real person.

As mentioned in previous posts, I had my reasons to be nervous.  The puffed-up title of Assistant Vice President did little to assuage my concerns.

El Paso

IS YOUR MEXICAN DIVORCE LEGAL?

Above: A beautiful view of Cuidad Juárez from El Paso earlier this week.  Photo by DLynne Morin.

By mid-1982, Dad’s marriage with Gloria had devolved into crass posturing for litigation in a divorce action.  After all, he had plenty of experience as he had been through this experience three times already.

The first had been 32 years earlier, in 1950.  His newly wed wife, Pat, returned home one evening to their Beekman Place neighborhood apartment.  As soon as she walked in, Bern hung up the phone.  “Who are you on the phone with, Dear?” she asked.  Oddly, Dad declined to say.  It took her a while to find out and it turned out to be her former best friend Connie Richards.   Pat had the marriage annulled within a few weeks via an expedited petition direct to the Vatican.

Dad never told me anything about his marriage with Pat.  Or Beekman Place, for that matter.  I had to find her 60 years later to ask her personally.  Remember, she was wife number one and my Mom was only the second.  Does that make Pat a stepmother?  The English language does not have a term to describe our relationship.

In any event, Pat was very annoyed with Bern (and went on to marry four more times herself).

BB King

PAYING THE COST

A reader commented last week “James, you had a very difficult childhood/teenage. Your father obviously had some issues.”

I disagree with the first statement.  Leaving aside the fact that my Dad had divorced and remarried twice by the time I reached my 18th birthday, I think my childhood was often charmed, even privileged.  As you can see from my picture in last week’s post “WHEN A CHORE IS NOT A CHORE PART 2,” Dad and I had a lot of fun together.

The Father who took that picture is the man I miss terribly today.

It was only in my later adolescence that ominous signs about Dad became known to me from the new vibrant presence in our lives, Gloria.  Like any child, I refused to believe at first that my Dad could have had issues.

Hard Task 2

WHEN A CHORE IS NOT A CHORE PART 2

Oddly, though, within a year or two of marriage to Gloria, Dad took on this disconcerting habit of assigning all kinds of imposing chores to me, typically without any advance notice.  Almost always when I was just about out the door to explore the world and to create my own life as a teenager.

Case in point.  Dad and Gloria built a summer house in Shinnecock Hills in 1973.  It was a prefab Lindal homemade of cedar planks looking more like a Hunter Mountain ski chalet than a tumbledown wood-shingled cottage with white shutters.  No Hamptons-style lawn either; the grounds were entangled with bittersweet vines, nasty and thorny.

On one of our very first weekends there, the lot was still somewhat of a construction site.  I had invited one of my friends over, Dee Dee, to celebrate the move-in by spending the night.  After breakfast the next morning, as we were both getting ready to go to the beach, Dad came over to ask — I mean, insist — that we take two shovels “as strong men” and plough down a huge pile of sand left behind by the excavation of the foundation from the past Spring, when the house was built.

“Huh, what?” I said, looking at the 15 foot high pile.  It was the first weekend of summer and Dee Dee and I were both anxious to go see our seasonal friends after a long school year of drudgery.

“Gloria wants you to do it!” he snapped.  Of course, Gloria and Rosemary never had anything to do with such spontaneous insanity.

Did I mention that Dee Dee and I thought we were on our way to the beach?

Dirty Dishes

WHEN A CHORE IS NOT A CHORE PART 1

After a few months at 974 Boulevard East in 1970, Dad found a new location for both his residence and the offices of Olcott International.  It was in a triple decker, similar to the millions that form the housing stock of Boston and environs.  But unlike the wooden ones in Massachusetts, this was constructed out of gold brick.  According to Dad, there were three layers of outer walls.  No wolf was ever gonna blow that house down!

It was on Weehawken’s eponymous Hamilton Avenue, the road atop the cliffs.  Across the street from the house, the cracked sidewalk and the rusting iron wrought fence gave way to an expansive view of the Hudson River and the west side of Manhattan.

Dad rented the first floor for the office and staked out the top floor, the third, as the residence.  The landlord lived in the apartment on the second, sandwiched, as it were, by Olcott rentals.

For years, Dad had rented bachelor style accommodations in New York and then in New Jersey when he moved to 974 Boulevard East.  No more.  The third floor was like the Taj Mahal in terms of spaciousness compared to the cramped quarters of times past.  There were multiple bedrooms, a central hall as well as separate living and dining rooms.  As this was the top floor, the ceiling everywhere was gabled into sharp points.

And yes, there was a kitchen!  A real one!