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.
The New Jersey Embassy, soon after its completion in 1950. Notice the flow of traffic heading downtown on Eighth Avenue. The building was significantly modified and expanded in 1979.
Being in New Jersey, of course, meant greater reliance on an automobile. The crazy thing about the Garden State is that if you miss your turn-off, you could be detoured thousands of miles to correct your mistake. I remember once a job applicant was driving to the office from Manhattan for her interview. Despite precise instructions, she dutifully missed the exit and ended up miles from anywhere. She turned around and drove back home, reasoning that if the office was that much of a pain in the ass to find, she didn’t really want to work there.
And then once I got to the world headquarters of Olcott International? Remember my descriptions of Dad’s office in the Pan Am building (see my post “DAD’S REAL WIFE“)? 33rd Floor? Park Avenue? The temple of modernity? The water faucets? Zum Zum? Aeroflot airlines in the lobby? Hustle and bustle of midtown?
Well, needless to say, the Weehawken office had none of that.
The office was a ramshackle three-level pre-fab structure held together with duct-tape. Dad had the house erected by Jim¹, his overworked handyman in the mid-1970s. Jim was incredibly resourceful, a talent that was deeply appreciated by Dad. He was capable of doing high quality work, provided he had the time and mandate. Unfortunately, Dad gave him neither, preferring to overwork him by giving him several jobs to do at once. Jim would typically be forced to jury-rig things quickly so he could hop to the next emergency.
The “Olcott International Building” itself was a Harvard Business School case study in using as little domestic currency as possible to erect a quasi-useable structure. It was located on a desolate part of a 19th century plank road going uphill from Hoboken on the waterfront to communities further inland. Coincidentally, the rear of the building fronted a road called Park Avenue. But unlike its namesake across this river, this one was populated by mismatched multifamily houses, open lots strewn with weeds, and cracked sidewalks.
The building’s faucets were of the cheesiest plastic single handle kind which you could never exactly turn off, leaving a slight stream that stained the sink over time. In the restroom, you could look through a hole in the floor and see the one below. No lunch places nearby. No airline offices, but there was my bus stop if you walked 10 minutes downhill on the deserted street. No nearby pedestrian walks of interest, except for decrepit stairways going up and down the garbage strewn cliffs. I once walked down on an employee shooting up heroin into the back of his hand.
I missed the glory of the Pan Am building to be sure. There’s something to be said about a sense and pride of place.
The stationery of Olcott International at the time had a column for “Associates” with important sounding names like Edward Brenner, Alexander Blair, Louis Wolk, and Steven Sites¹. I never had the pleasure of meeting any of these gentlemen – except for the last. Brenner was the former U.S. Commissioner of Patents in the 1960s. He was a frequent guest speaker at the New York Patent Law Association (for which Dad was the official photographer). Blair was a patent attorney resident in Alexandria, Virginia (and apparently lent his name to my youngest sister). Wolk’s resume was littered with past positions like chief patent counsel for Phillips Petroleum and Merck. Yooge.
These associates were apparently responsible for bringing tens of thousands of annuity payments to Olcott International on a commission basis. They were supremely important men to Olcott International. However, by the time I joined OI, apparently, the age of these giants was passing.
That was the thing about Dad – he associated himself with all kinds of people. From the crème de la crème in business and society to lowlifes who openly stole from him.
In 1982, I was but an apprentice and completely unprepared for this panoply of swagger and character. They came marching in. Relentlessly.
I should have been more prepared because I had actually met the first of the latter types in his Pan Am office back in 1966. Lenny¹ was a hairy skinny man who served as Dad’s odd office assistant. He used to smoke Pall Malls unfiltered, typically puffing smoke in my face. “Cigarette smoking is dangerous,” I would tell him authoritatively at the wise age of 8 years old, with a frown on my face and hands at my hips. He would look at me blankly and blow more smoke in my face.
Lenny’s favorite brand. “Wherever particular people congregate.”
The next year, when I came back to New York, there was a new office assistant. “What happened to Lenny?” I asked Dad.
“Lenny stole money from me,” Dad announced and he showed me some checks that he had written to himself. The signature “Bernard Olcott,” was stilted, too high and low. Even I could tell it was a bad forgery. Lenny was gone to the winds. Wherever he had ended up in New York City, he was probably smoking those damned Pall Malls unfiltered in some dusky office.
At the time, I put Lenny out of my mind, thinking he was an exception. I was to be proven wrong.
¹ – Jim, Steven, and Lenny are not their real names.