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.
As I recounted in my post last week “ANALYZE THIS,” it was already October 1988 and the shadows of my despair were growing longer by the day. I had watched the Summer Olympic Games from Seoul on the boob tube for the last 2½ weeks. After they were over, I was left with a void.
It was time to hustle. Time to get a job, any job. Something to keep me occupied earning a couple of dimes while engaged in my real job search. Hopefully, I would catch a break.
I walked into the Scully & Scully store on Park Avenue and 60th Street and asked for a job. It was something I had not done since I got a holiday position at Bloomingdale’s eight years before. If this had been a 1940s film noir movie, it would have featured me walking in with my hat in my hand, sweating uncomfortably, while the owner looked me over, mysteriously wiping the remnants of a tuna salad sandwich from his lips.
The real scene wasn’t quite this bad.
Scully & Scully is a carriage trade gift shop, chock full of English style furnishings, Herend china, and whimsical objects such as distressed leather footstools in the form of farm animals. Like a boar, for example. My coworker, Richard, was extremely taken with it and frequently regaled me with his fantasy that the beast could, with a twist of the tail, suddenly become a “fire-breathing pig!” At Scully’s, I learned that dragons were not always reptilian, but could also be porcine.
The workflow was invariably to assist Park Avenue dowagers with their Christmas shopping. So I spent my days providing service to many women who could have been my Grandmother’s sister.
Of course, I continued my job search on Wall Street but there was nothing. While I enjoyed my hospitality job, it was still nevertheless very far from my goal. Sometimes I walked to work with tears in my eyes, wondering if I would ever achieve my dreams of an intriguing international career.
During this period, a new store opened in the neighborhood, the flagship store for Polo Ralph Lauren. Like Scully’s, it was a store selling anglophile dreams, but complete with a full line of men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing.
Well, Wall Street wasn’t happening. But it was time nevertheless to refine my skills hopping shops regardless. If it wasn’t gonna be from Goldman Sachs to Salomon Brothers, well then it was to be from Scully’s to Ralph Lauren. No shame in starting small, yo! Polo was located in the landmark Rhinelander Mansion on 72nd Street and Madison. Fully triple mint renovated and adorned with Persian rugs with old world wooden display cases, it was a fanciful period movie set in the Edwardian age.
About 5 miles from Weehawken.
The man with the well-groomed long blond hair on the first floor asked me to call the manager’s secretary, Sam, and when I did, she readily set up an appointment for me to come in for an interview. So far, so good.
On the appointed day, I was ushered to the private offices up on the gabled Fifth floor. After completing a job application on fancy schmancy paper, the store manager, Charles Fagan, called me into his office. I regaled him on my relevant job experience at Bloomingdale’s and Scully’s, conveniently omitting any irrelevant mention of global patent requirements or Black-Scholes options pricing models. Charles seemed to bite at it and he excused himself briefly. On walking back in, he announced that John Mains, the store President, would like to meet me. Being passed around in interviews is a good sign!
Whereas Charles was and is a style and fashion mastermind — that’s why he is Ralph’s right hand man today — John was all about the business. I could ape style like any fashion monkey, but bidness was my language! After exchanging pleasantries for a few moments, John got down to it. After so many interviews on Wall Street, I sensed the change-up right away and the air became a little tenser.
“James,” he said to me with concern, “everything looks good, you have the relevant experience, you use the right words, but I have to tell you,” he pointed at me, “I’ve interviewed many people like you sitting in that same exact chair. When we ask our employees to stay a little later to help out with an unexpected shipment of merchandise, all of a sudden, people disappear; they become less cooperative. And things become heavy. What can you tell me about yourself to reassure me that you can make the extra effort?”
It was a bullet type of question, meant to put me on the spot. Unfortunately for John, I had way too much experience with this. But still, here I was, asking for a simple retail job, and I had to come up with a sermon.
Well, I reached inside myself to thump my psychic hymnal. To Let John Hear The Word. Make him Believe.
“Well, John,” I said, getting my thoughts together. It was important to address him in turn by name, as he had done with me.
“The fact is, if you enjoy what you are doing, if you are inspired by the product, if you are part of a great team that is fun to work with, if you’re working in an environment with pride of place and history,” I was winding myself up, “when they ask you to work a little later, it’s,” I paused for effect, “e f f o r t l e s s.” I stroked the word “effortless” in the air in front of me to let it hang heavy in the ether.
I thought it was a preachy-keen answer.
John stared at me as my words bounced off the walls. Suddenly, he stood up and threw open his door. He went into Charles’ office across the hall. “Charles” he said as I turned in my chair to listen, “I want you to hire this gentleman,” he was wagging his finger again in my direction. “I want him to start right away!”
I was floored. I thought I had given a decent answer. I didn’t know it was that good.
And as I walked out of the store like a champ with an offer in hand, I was shaking my head. “Why,” I asked myself, “the fuck couldn’t that have happened at Goldman Brothers?”