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.
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?
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.
The Fall of 1988 was a troubling, uncertain time for me. Sure, I resented Dad’s fantastic and intriguing family business not being my safe haven. For reasons that well transcended any sense of fairness, I was now nevertheless physically apart from it. It was a brutally hard decision. And now, after the herculean effort of getting an MBA, the stock market crashed on me and the recruitment season at Columbia was a bust. The demand for Wall Street jobs among my classmates and me well outstripped the supply. I was on the wrong side. End of story.
However, my relationship with my Dad was much improved since I had left the company on that infamous “DATE OF RECORD” of August 18th, 1986. My Dad was just one of those people who needed to tie people up to a whipping post so he could lash the poor slobs constantly. It’s kinda like our President; he is almost lost if he doesn’t have Hillary as a constant target. (Incidentally, I am struck by how she has disappeared from public view. Maybe former President Obama can pitch in?) Over the years, I have known a few people like this. Do they realize what they do? I am not sure. In my case, leaving Olcott International effectively removed me from the line of fire. That sure worked for me as I had long come to tire of spitting out lead.
So this is the tale of my descent into the retail wilderness. I became a “Polocaust” survivor. Let me explain.
On October 19, 1987, the stock market crashed hard. Together with my Columbia Business School classmates, we watched the market news that day with both awe and no small measure of trepidation.
That Fall, I had taken the trouble to enroll in a class very heavy in demand – “Securities Analysis” taught by one very notable professor (among several) named Jimmy Rogers. I have mentioned him numerous times in this blog because he shares an interesting commonality with my Dad, Bernard Olcott.
Jimmy hailed from Demopolis, Alabama (some stop-light out towards Mississippi) and was one of the few faculty members who didn’t speak in a flat Manhattan accent. No Sirree, he spoke with what could almost be called a southern “coon-dawg” accent. The opposite of a very different accent spoken by Professor Elliot Zupnick, whose cadence was marked by the thickest Bronx-ese, complete with “dese, dems, and doses.”
Jimmy’s solitary affectation was wearing bow-ties, a habit he had picked up as an Oxford student. (Leaving aside his penchant for asking of the birth years of attractive female students in order to send his servant to the wine cellar of his home in search of that very vintage).