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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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
The author as photographed by Hollister Lowe at the Polo Ralph Lauren store, circa 1990.