GREEN EGGS AND HAM

In April 1992, I had one foot in two worlds.

One foot was planted in the familiar lush flagship Polo Ralph Lauren store on Madison Avenue, a marvel of seductive, dazzling, stylish, and pricey eye-candy.  The other was a run-down office precariously hugging a cliff in on the anus-side¹ of the Lincoln Tunnel, overlooking the double helix resounding with the roar of vehicular traffic.  I dubbed that sound in my post “THE NIGHT IS DARK AND FULL OF TERRORS,” as the ‘soul grinder.’

The first was glamorous, but offered me little future career growth.  The second was pretty much its antithesis on both counts (except, sometimes, for the travel).

To aspire to my greatest future potential, I had to risk the crushing of my essence.

A TALE TO EMBARASS EVEN THE FISH

Reader’s note: I was very flattered by Ned’s guest post last week.  I mean, who wouldn’t be?  I was compared to some of the greatest minds in human history like Carl Jung and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin! 

One bad hangover later, I am not sure I measure up to such greatness.  So in the interest of balance, I present to you another guest post, this one by Peter Cammann.  Peter’s articles about fishing have appeared in magazines like Field & Stream, Fly Fisherman Magazine, On the Water, Outdoor Life, and Vermont Life Magazine.  He is the author of several books, one of which, a fictional work called Slipnot!, also deals with one of my favorite topics, the vagaries of workplace environments.

Peter’s post is a work of nonfiction.

James and I have been friends for about 40 years and we’ve spent (or wasted, depending on how you view it) many fruitless hours together, fishing. One unusually warm day in November, we set out in my canoe on Apponagansett Bay in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in search of fish, any fish – given how late in the year it was. The tide was coming in and even though there was almost no wind, it took us a while to paddle out beyond the breakwater of the harbor. We found a marker buoy in the middle of the channel and I tied up to it, using the stern line to anchor us.

We’d packed along some small live crabs and our plan was to do a little lazy bottom fishing for tatoug, which are also known as blackfish. These bottom feeding fish are a lot of fun to catch, particularly in the early spring or late fall, when nothing else is really all that active. We rigged our lines with large, galvanized treble hooks, attached the crabs and lowered away.

WHEN A CULTURAL BLOGGER TAKES US ON A FANTASTIC VOYAGE

Today I feature a guest essay by Ned McDonnell while I spend more time writing and editing.  Enjoy along with my photo essay of the Chicago L!

My old friend and prep school chum, James Olcott, has honoured me by inviting me to remark on his engaging and insightful series of essays on the life of his extraordinary father, Bernard Olcott (1918-2006).

First and foremost, The Bernard Olcott Story is a cultural blog. The over-riding theme of these essays is the search for authenticity initiated by a son growing up under the long and often dark shadow cast by an extraordinarily successful, mid-twentieth century Horatio Alger type.

Bernard Olcott was not a public figure, but he amassed a significant fortune in his life-time by disrupting the sleepy global patent renewal industry in the can-do era of the 1960s. As Larry Ellison would do twenty years later in coding various operating functions, the elder Olcott computerized the seemingly mundane task of monitoring and renewing intellectual property protections around the world.

ALL MY ROADS LEAD TO ROME

Ahhh! April flowers. The trees are budding. Boids are choiping psychotically.

Springtime, it’s often said, brings together hopes and promises. Well, why not? April’s the month of my birthday. Sometimes, when the weather is right, the trees bud and bloom in the latter part of the month, right around when I appeared at Mount Sinai Hospital, 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue some 50 (or so) years ago.

Spring in 1992 was an exceptionally golden era for me, especially at Polo Ralph Lauren, a company I never expected to end up in after leaving the family business and graduating from Business School. It was survival by wit, guile, charm, and, to speak plainly, a shitload of style. Ralph made sure of that!  And it was often a lot of effortless fun as well!

In addition to my triumph at Polo, several other things were going very well in my life in early 1992.

CUSTOMER SIZES, PART 2

When I wrote my last story, “CUSTOMER SIZES, PART 1” my first inclination was to regard my encounter with Carl as a curiosity, much in the same way as the one I had had earlier with Elton John (as featured in my story “ARRIVAL”).  Carl’s book, Cosmos, was a favorite nighttime read of mine. Pondering other places (and times) in the universe had always sent my imagination soaring.

But halfway in writing this post, I came to realize that Carl’s brief and sudden appearance in my life was much more significant. His was an unexpected voice from the outside, the beyond, on an otherwise dull and dreary night at work. An incoming message far from random chatter that nevertheless pointed the way out of my predicament.

I don’t believe that I am extraordinary or special in this way. I think messages like this bounce around us all endlessly. The trick is in recognizing and decoding the signal. It makes no difference if you do this consciously or unconsciously.  For me, I acted on it unconsciously. And only now, 27 years later, I can see the link.

And it all had to do with my flippant comment about running a regression to determine my favorite author’s true waist size. You see: the size of the customer. This is part two.

CUSTOMER SIZES, PART 1

In my post last week, “ARRIVAL,” I cherry-picked some highlights from my career as a Men’s Furnishing salesman at Polo Ralph Lauren. And I will do so again today, with a bit more gravitas.  As well as a big surprise.

First, I should set the reader’s expectations correctly. I did not have Elton John walking in everyday to buy 20 neckties. You could grow old waiting for such a celebrity to walk on by. Generally, the most common occurrence on the sales floor would be the arrival of the Japanese. They would typically stroll in, in small groups, and were looking to buy 5-10 small keepsakes for the office mates back home. So everyone learned the greeting “konichi-wa!” and, to be honest, we the salesmen and saleswomen of PRL could get, well,  excessively “Japanese” with each other.

Meaning we would “konichi-wa!” the HELL out of each other.  In place of ‘z up!  Had to mix it up, ya know?

ARRIVAL

So in a sense, my second job out of Business School was selling Men’s shirts and ties at Polo Ralph Lauren. As employee no. 6 (just kidding).  Nonetheless, I certainly wasn’t limited to Men’s Furnishings. If I had customers who wanted to go upstairs, I could sell them Men’s suits, Ladies’ dresses, even a couch in the home furnishings section on the Fourth floor. In my first week at Polo, I had sold Ladies’ socks and had washed dishes on the Fifth floor, cleaning up after some VIP customers.

But the real story of my life at Polo is in two parts: first, my coworkers. The ones who made the job “effortless.” So today’s and next week’s posts take a complete diversion from my Dad, with whom things had markedly improved, anyway. These reminiscences are truly about paths less travelled.

Remember the long haired gentleman in my post last week “DESCENT INTO RETAIL,” who directed me to Sam when I walked in the store to make my initial inquiry? Turns out he was the First floor manager of Men’s Furnishings, a curiosity named Mr. Hollister Lowe. When I arrived on the First floor to take up my assignment, he looked me up and down and said that he knew “I would be good” for the store.

A few years older than me, Hollister volunteered that if he hadn’t been working for Polo, he would have been a photographer for a Men’s magazine. He was one of the funniest snarks I ever met. We soon got into the habit of goofing on each other, incessantly.