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.

For example, if anyone of us on the sales floor was working a customer and had a stack of shirts to hold while the customer browsed the other floors, the typical procedure was to put the merchandise on a back counter with a sheet on top giving the customer’s name, like “Smith” written in clear block letters. Nothing fancy or high security. As soon as you drifted out of sight, however, Hollister would swoop down to replace the stack with completely different articles and mark it with another name, like “Bergermeister” for example.

Everyone else would be on the gag and wait in anticipation for the salesman’s (or saleswoman’s) return. Giggles would erupt as the salesman would break out in a panic, wondering where his goods (and sale) had gone. After a moment of uncertainty, Hollister would magnamously point out the true stack, asking pointedly if you frequently forgot where you put your things.  (Making the swirling ‘loco’ motion by his right ear, of course).

New salesmen and women would constantly flow in and out of the store. One day, a guy named Shawn turned up on the first floor. He hailed from some coon-dog accent state like Kentucky, and when I greeted him one morning with a “good morning,” he returned mine with a “’z up?” Hollister happened to be within earshot of this and shot back with a loud “’z up?” of his own, as if to question the legitimacy of the greeting for the First floor of the Polo Ralph Lauren flagship store. For the rest of the day, we all greeted each other with a “’z up?!” in an overly loud voice, mainly just to rip Shawn a new one. As a matter of fact, we greeted each other for years afterward with “’z up?!” It was a gift that kept on giving.

Hollister’s real gift, however, was with words, made up words that held variable meanings. He was so brilliant at neologisms that if I ever become the leader of a Principality or Grand-Duchy somewhere, I will rename the national currency “Fasalaam” in his honor. And put his face on the Fs 100 note! Naturally, I would peg the Fasalaam to the Azerbaijani manat in a bald-faced attempt to get upgrades at the luxurious Trump Palace in Baku, facing the beautiful but dried up waters of the Caspian Sea.

GOP 2016 Trump Diligence
FILE – In this Feb. 19, 2016, file photo, The Trump International Hotel, the highest building, is seen in Baku, Azerbaijan. Just six months before he launched his presidential campaign, Donald Trump announced a new real estate project in Baku. The partner: the 35-year-old son of an Azerbaijani minister suspected by U.S. diplomats of corruption and laundering money for Iran’s military and described by them as “notoriously corrupt.” Now, only weeks after Ivanka Trump released a publicity video of the nearly finished project, references to the Baku project have disappeared from Trump’s website. (AP Photo/Aida Sultanova, File)

For example, if you spent a long time with a customer who didn’t buy anything, all the other salesmen and women would come over and say “Fasalaam,” meaning “I saw you had your time wasted!”

Hollister was a blast to work with. Together with Shawn, my wife, and a few other coworkers, we went to go see the Stones play at Shea Stadium that summer. Hollister didn’t actually join our group, because as an A-lister, he got a ride in someone’s limo. But it was a “kelly mousse-alay,” which was another Hollisterism meaning, in this case, “everyone had a great time.”

Speaking of the Stones, this leads me to the second part of the real story of working at Polo: the customers. It attracted a celebrity clientele. One day that summer of 1989, I spied Charlie Watts discretely admiring the goods across the floor. Charlie is famous for being the shyest Stone; if you want to share any time with him you’ve got to play it very cool. I manned my station on the First floor with my best air of nonchalance, psychically beckoning him to come over and admire the shirts. He sniffed me out, however, and kept his distance.

Since the Stones were in town for the shows at Shea, I surmised that he might come back and so I brought my copy of the Steel Wheels album to work the next day for him to sign. I knew that this lacked a certain degree of sang-froid but as they say, “don’t take chances, don’t make advances.”

Charlie

Man of wealth and taste.

But my instincts were correct! He did come back to the store the next day. I manned my station again with silent pleas of “oh please, oh please…” But to no avail. He kept his distance. He’s very sensitive and figured me as a fan.

chirac

Leader of Franconia.

On Bastille Day, I helped French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac buy some socks. We typically had lots of French customers and I even rented my apartment to one of his subjects.  This blog gets lots of click-love from France!

There are two celebrity customers, however, who remain my most memorable. So like the ghosts of Dicken’s Christmas Carol, here they are…

The first was an unusually quiet non-descript man who walked in and wanted to see neckties. I took him to the big oval table and started showing him my preferred selection. Amazingly, he paid them no mind whatsoever and instead reached over and pulled the ugliest tie off the table. “I’ll take this one,” he said in a way that indicated he was buying several.

The man looked familiar and so I was racking my brain trying to figure out who he was. He seemed to be English, but as he was so soft spoken with so few words, it was impossible to pick up any accent. The thing about celebrities in a store-setting like this is that they are out of context. Determining his identity was gonna be like solving a crossword puzzle. He reached over and selected the second ugliest tie off the table. He handed it to me and kept perusing the tie swirl.

I looked at the two ties in my hand, like dead fish. He reached over and grabbed a third necktie. Another rotter.

Grabbing a clue, I reached under the counter where I knew some other ugly ties nested. I fished one out and showed it to him. “Yeah” he said nodding. I pulled out another. He lit up with reserved delight. I was up to 5 ties now. As I knelt down to pull the whole collection of ugly ties out of the cupboard, he was right there behind me, inspecting the catch as a North Sea fisherman looks over the trawl net’s haul.

mixed-species-fish-catch-in-trawl-net-cod-end-emptied-onto-the-deck-B9MFJP

Wanna reach in and grab a necktie?

As I untangled the ties like a clutch of snakes, I found many that hadn’t sold for months. “How about this one?” I asked as I held up a real slitherer. Yes, he nodded.

It was then that I recognized him as Elton John. Not exactly one of my favorite artists, but this offbeat customer was, well, very different.  (As one wag, Tony Rzepela, wrote on the Undercover Rolling Stones mailing list years later, “Going to see Elton John? Bring a book!”)

My coworkers had long ago figured out the man’s identity and Mark Fleisher, one of the other floor managers, pulled me aside discreetly, while Elton was digging through piles of fugly ties. “That’s Elton John!” he said to me as if he were telling me a big secret. I gave Mark the thumbs up to let him know that “I got this.”

Elton

Elton bought more than 20 ties. Without so much as saying 5 words to me! I gained a new found appreciation for some of the ties he bought – they were actually cutting edge and I bought a few later on.

One sale and I had hit my quota for the day. Easy work if you can get it.

NEXT WEEK: CUSTOMER NUMBER TWO, MY FAVORITE AUTHOR

Claude Mousselay - CopyThe author as photographed by Hollister Lowe at the Polo Ralph Lauren store, circa 1990. 

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26 comments

  1. Riveting story on living well being the best revenge. I have known a number of people from ‘Titan’ dads or signature families. Most struggle their whole lives to de-reference themselves. The Titan analogy is a good one. Your dad was as much a tech disruptor as any; he happened to emerge in the zenith of corporate America and so he did not get the same press. By the nature of his Horatio Alger story, however, like the ancient Titans, he would have tended to devour his young. Not because he wanted to; but that is the nature of fame. That is where this charting a happy, temporary and unlikely destiny in a haberdasher makes your narrative stand apart from the story-line of your Dad’s breath-taking (as in suffocating) success.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Like I mentioned, I never went to any of his concerts so I never caught up on my reading.

        There’s a great scene in the Mick Jagger TV special 10 years ago where Mick is talking to Elton on the phone. Mick asks him about his garden party preparations, “what are you doing to get ready? Erecting a tent in your backyard? Pounding pegs?” Mick giggled insanely.

        In terms of flamboyance, I was more a fan of David Bowie, but I got lost during his “Philadelphia” phase.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Bowie was definitely eccentric like Elton (aka Reggie). Back in the 70’s, who didn’t love “Crocodile Rock” and “Daniel” or my fav “Someone Saved My Life Tonight!?”

        Liked by 2 people

  2. What fun memories of the greatest job ever (as long as you only work there for a maximum of 6 months). Hollister was indeed one of the most memorable characters I have ever met and he always kept it fun with the fassalams. Whatever happened to him??
    Waiting on famous people was another job highlight for sure. I must have been off the day Sir Elton came in (and also when Charlie Watt was there😡)… but there were plenty of other celeb sightings 😎!
    I loved reading this blog entry and cannot believe you didn’t change any names to protect the innocent 😳
    Two thumbs up! 👍 👍

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hey I thought the two twins from Tulsa Oklahoma were the most unusual customers as they always
    spent well earned oil money,
    The 72 and Madison store was part of our lives in the 80’s never missing a visit on over a 100 trips always bringing back stuff that no one had in the re wardrobe. Collections. If we were not the best customers I kindly would like a full refund.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. This is the “story” of my great friend James Olcott​ during the tumultuous days of a likely hot day in the summer of 1990 or later that year into 1991. We were under the purview of assistant manager Mark Flesher that day. Mark sadly died of I believe a heart problem; but Mark had climbed the ladder of Polo Ralph Lauren.

    Words were created and fabricated from thin air that had multiple meanings such as “Fasalaam” and “kelly mousse-alay” pronounced in proficient French as IF it was truly a French word or 2 or 3 words in French. James quoted Hollister Lowe often.

    Of course, neither of the two word “Fasalaam” and “kelly mousse-alay” existed in any language. What was the true meaning of the two words? Nothing in truth; however, it was a reference to the fact that that a load of bs / inane events had just occurred or was about to occur or was presently occurring, with mindless people not necessarily into this fabricated fun drama that had taken a form its own life over time so that there were 3 or 4 of us who understood the meaning, significance or prominent insignificance of the moment or three.

    The “Lunch book” was our sign-out methind for lunch. You would find phrases such as “Hey Mark, I Patrick am bolting to Central Park for lunch at 12:30 at the Boat Pond. Later.” What truly was in the “Lunch book” were drawings of owls from the television show of 1990 “Twin Peaks” created by David Lynch and Mark Frost (though largely the genius of David Lynch). The show towards the end of its run on ABC as I recall always ended with this mysterious owl hooting. What was the meaning of the Owl? We had our own fabricated notions to fit our wants to laughter. After many repeated statements of the words “Fasalaam” and “kelly mousse-alay” in order or singularly, either James, myself or Thomas Fitzpatrick would start hooting like an owl. “Hoooooo. Hooooo.”

    So as William F. Buckley lurked feet from me (Bill Buckley had a penchant for Scotch throughout the day) or Henry Kravis the multi-billionaire from KKR of the late 1980s corporate leverage buyout raiders, I was hooting and hungover. I doodled in the lunch book pictures of owls with a picturing of Mark yelling “hoooo hoooo.” He was furious. “Now, WHO drew this caricature of me hooting????” I had a blank stare on my face not acknowledging Mark who hated me for no good reason.

    “HEY, THERE IS ELTON JOHN.” Me: “Yes, he is standing next to me.” I was nauseous as I was still hungover due to Fitz’s 2 AM binge with me at some random Upper East Side Bar with some Irish name. It is only 10:30 AM. I had no breakfast either; but, I was late walking into Ralph Lauren.

    Now, James Olcott has a way with words, sarcasm, humor, Twin Peaks and Owls. It all fits together if you truly know or lives in Manhattan where James still resides and our stints working for Ralph Lauren. Did any of us care that “celebrities and billionaires were before us at all times? No.

    It was more of the game.

    Somehow, folks were fired from Polo Ralph Lauren. It may or may not have included me.

    James Olcott is a serial genius and a very witty man and a tremendous friend of 27 years!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. James, no. That ended the day I left Manhattan on February 2nd, 1992! Maybe, I have a Guinness a year for posterity’s sake or some other fabricated excuse to have one single Guinness with Nitrogen, not carbon dioxide for that single Guinness taste. Though, I do still hear owls hooting in my head and my memory bolts to the singular word “Fasalaam” then I start to look around the room with shifty eyes in suspicion of a “Fasalaam.”

        Liked by 1 person

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