Photo above by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research – Creating Defensible Space, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=803832
To all creatures great and small, anything, and everything, the solution to all of mankind’s issues, questions, traumas, and broken sump pumps was simply “August the 18th (1986).” Up to that date, work had been a long, worrisome slog at Olcott International with CEO Bernard Olcott.
Not only CEO, but also inventor of an entire industry!
Not only CEO, but a real employer and engine of economic growth. A killer business! The embodiment of the great promise of small family owned enterprises in the USA!!
Yet an unparalleled brilliance without core beliefs — impossible to follow without getting whipsawed. Even in his personal life. Especially there! A lone eagle who had displayed lots of evidence that he was unwilling to work with anybody.
Someone increasingly distracted by side ventures to the detriment of that main engine of economic growth. A quick and impatient mind more content to re-shuffle the deck than to manage, guide, dispense real wisdom, and evolve.
A guy who even returned condoms to the Shop Rite Pharmacy because they were too small or “made for midgets.”
At least that last story was amusing. But the truth is that work had turned out to be neither a good nor safe place for me. I didn’t know it at the time (though I did suspect it, to no benefit), but Dad had started to show signs of illness for which help was unavailable.
The only thing I could do was to help myself, to protect my interests. If nobody else would do so, it was up to me and I owed that much to myself.
Groping in the dark thusly, in the absence of clarity, and feeling way beyond conflicted, I saw a way out. With as much grace and aplomb as I could muster, I bid farewell to Gloria, Anna, Annemarie, Lorraine, Louisa, Mujibhar (Mike), Art, Anthony, Mike, Paul, and Bob on August 15th.
Like an African-American gospel choir, I warned Paul to “resist, yea verily, RESIST!,” my arms outreaching, “the extreme temptation to bring cases to the Kangaroo Court. ‘Tis the devil’s work!’” Bob would have loved to hear me preaching!
As for Bob himself, on the other hand, leaving him to his fate was bittersweet as he deserved better. He was a fellow advocate for the business of Patent Annuities, after all! But we had both proven ourselves to be powerless in the face of gale-force adversity. Maybe he should have grabbed a clue from me voting with my feet?
Finally, I mounted the stairs to shake Dad’s hand. We were both somewhat relieved, as well as perplexed by how we had gotten there.
Dad had founded the business. He knew everything about it. He was going to do just fine without me. It’s just from then on, I would no longer be tied to the whipping post. “Hey, let me know how I can help in the future,” I promised him. I still cared. Even to this day I care.
How is it possible to feel so much in so many different directions?
Anyway, it was time to bounce. And bounce I did. After my goodbyes, I threw my papers, Filofax, personal notes, and, of course, “The Lizard” into a shopping bag. Dad even drove me to the bus stop for my hop back to Manhattan.
And thus I jumped from the cracked broken sidewalks of Weehawken to the cracked broken masonry of Morningside Heights, site of Columbia University. You could trip and fall on the uneven walkways, but the loose and dropping building decorative panels were clearly mortal. For some reason, the 1980s inspired many of the buildings of the Upper West Side to toss randomly selected projecting ornamentation onto the sidewalks below.
These were not simply bricks or small chucks of stone. Entire stone trellises held fast with old and crumbling mortar would suddenly detach and hurtle to the streets below.
Dad, of course, was very dismissive about the need for bas-relief or other kinds of architectural flourishes. The “gingerbread,” as he called it, should simply be removed. A regulation called Local Law 10 had been passed in 1979 to do exactly that. Vast swathes of it were cheaply lifted from building tops, leaving them scarred like mastectomies. Il n’y avait plus de monde aux balcons! It was a bitter absence.
If the crumbling facades didn’t get you, then the academics of the Business School would. This was a top notch academic center. The curriculum required hours of preparation per day. It ran me ragged; I never worked harder. At least it was difficult to get hit by falling masonry while reading in the library.
But getting to the library, you had more than the self-destructing infrastructure to worry about. Columbia was infamously located in a sketchy neighborhood at the time. The Classical Greek campus was and is truly an inspirational urban place, the buildings adorned with glorious facades and tons of the aforementioned dismissed gingerbread.
But it overlooked Morningside Park to the east.
Standing on the park benches, as I did from time to time, I looked out over the park walls, over the denuded trees, and into the boarded up or missing windows of the abandoned row houses across the park in the impoverished Harlem neighborhood on the other side. It was a sight right out of a Charles Bronson movie.
A dusky haze hovered over the park; the old stairs leading down into empty pathways looked as if they were lifted from a black and white gothic horror movie. Not much moved down there. No parents with children. No dog walkers. Just a few hooded solitary figures scurrying about here and there. It was understood that the park was a no-mans’ land, a real “no go” zone.
Photo courtesy of Jon Sobel.
Other colleges across the land are famous or infamous for crime-ridden slums adjacent to campuses, like Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, University of Alabama (Huntsville), Trinity, etc. But Columbia, due to its compact size and legendary fearsome neighborhoods, in 1980s seemed to take the cake in terms of “hey yo!, watch out!”
Fueling the fear, the University newspaper, The Columbia Spectator read like the New York Post on a bad crime day. On my first week on campus, there was a front page story about a mugging gone bad. The victim, a hapless student with only a few bucks to his name, was held up at gunpoint in the middle of campus. He surrendered his small wad as demanded, and as the mugger turned to walk away, he inadvertently dropped a bill. “Hey, yo!” the student yelled after him unwisely, “you dropped a bill,” pointing to the lifeless dollar fluttering on the ground. The mugger turned around, picked up the bill, and then shot the student.
There are always shortcomings to everything. In life, sometimes you need to go to the “no go” zone to find what you can’t get elsewhere. In my case, I felt that I had turned a page. Sure, there are hazards, different ones. So address them appropriately: either be the mugger (I’m being sarcastic here — of cours, NOT!) or, at appropriate times, don’t call attention to dropped money. All the same, I found that job perils can be more dangerous to your health.
But this was my way out. A path to a satisfying work experience without the traumas suffered previously.
Sometimes, it’s just better to bounce extremely quickly. Hazards will have to run that much faster to grab ya!
The back and forth of my stories about Olcott International might be disorienting to the reader.
I am not surprised. If the reader feels disoriented, then imagine how I felt, as the main observer of Bernard Olcott in real time.
I was completely Koyaanisqatsi.
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42753210
Despite the twists and turns of my Dad’s life — and by consequence in the lives of those around him — I want to reassure the reader that there is a successful result for me in those most trying of circumstances.
I hope to wrap up The Bernard Olcott Story by this coming summer. As a hint of where things are going and how it all went down for me — in a positive, balanced direction — please take a look at my professional article below published just this week by EURSAP Ltd., a leading software integrator based in London:
How I got to here is, of course, part of the story!