In April 1992, I had one foot in two worlds.
One foot was planted in the familiar lush flagship Polo Ralph Lauren store on Madison Avenue, a marvel of seductive, dazzling, stylish, and pricey eye-candy. The other was a run-down office precariously hugging a cliff on the anus-side¹ of the Lincoln Tunnel, overlooking the double helix resounding with the roar of vehicular traffic. I dubbed that sound in my post “THE NIGHT IS DARK AND FULL OF TERRORS,” as the ‘soul grinder.’
The first was glamorous, but offered me little future career growth. The second was pretty much its antithesis on both counts (except, sometimes, for the travel).
To aspire to my greatest future potential, I had to risk the crushing of my essence.
Over time, as I worked at Polo Ralph Lauren, my involvement with Olcott International had gradually trended upwards. It started by working a day a week, my one weekday off from Ralph’s. With such a reduced level of activity, it was low stress and pressure. Dad was happy to have me back and, in October 1990, despite my part-time involvement, he had even promoted me to “Vice President.”
For my part, I was older now and more experienced, including being completely computer-literate. On the management front, I had seen, first-hand, good bosses and bad at Polo Ralph Lauren. However awful the worst boss I had had the misfortune of serving under, no one was remotely comparable with my Dad when he was raging.
You see, for me, he wasn’t just my Father. He was the one who had taken me to the PSI Computing Center some twenty years earlier to marvel at the promise of the future. Or had walked with me as a toddler throwing snowballs at the walls of Central Park. Or who had comically sung “Who Owns New York” to me. The man who had navigated the Paris Metro by clever use of charades to bring me to the Eiffel Tower, with our successful arrival symbolizing world domination by the Olcotts, young and old alike.
Now, he was also my erratic boss and weekend landlord. And when he went off the rails, it was more than disturbing. It was like my guiding compass had suddenly stopped working, with the dial spinning furiously and denying me the direction to true north.
A workload of one day a week, however, greatly diminished the risks of broken compasses. But, from time to time, things could still get weird.
For example, it was in the July of 1989, when I was “disinherited” (see my post “HEARTBREAKER”) for not moving stacks of heavy house tiles around the house.
Episodes like this made me very wary of my Father. I mean, if he had truly disinherited me, why would he even want to talk to me, much less employ me? We didn’t speak again until the following October.
By April 1992, this incident had been sort-of swept under a rug. After all, I was back on-site and had now been promoted!
The following week in the office, he pulled me aside and initiated a discussion. “James, what do you want to do?” Fair enough question, although a bit open-ended.
I replied, “Dad, I want to pursue my best interests. Of course, I am interested in Olcott International.” For the love of Pete, I had only grown up in this esoteric business.
“Well, why don’t you start at Olcott International full-time?” he offered.
“I think I need an equity stake in the company to protect myself economically from being fired.” You see, I could not forget about being disinherited over the house tiles. Not completely, anyway.
“James, you won’t be fired! You have nothing to worry about,” he answered plaintively.
And thus played out the first of our “Green Eggs and Ham”¹ discussions over the years.
Think of Sam-I-Am as my Dad and me as the narrator. The Green Eggs and Ham? A smorgasbord of working for below average pay without equity and at risk of being disinherited, fired or generally abused for no good reason. That meant even the possibility of being left for dead.
Want to try some Green Eggs and Ham, dear reader?
“I am worried about this. It’s my life. I can’t get fired by you for stupid stuff, like the house tiles 2 years ago.” I needed to hold my ground.
My father didn’t want to make an iron-clad assurance but couched it in a “maybe we can talk about that later” kind of mumble. Time, of course, was something I had plenty of, now the door had ostensibly been opened. Maybe I could turn the tables on him later, assuming the role of Sam-I-am, and ask Dad “can I earn some equity here?” or “can I earn some equity there?” until he relented. I could revisit this endlessly. And I intended to.
Would you like to eat them in a box with a fox?
Accordingly, I suggested, “why don’t we continue the present arrangement on a full-time basis?” I promised to lend every assistance. For his part, he said he didn’t mind “supporting me.” The sound of that grated heavily on my ears, like how green eggs would wreak havoc on my taste buds. I wasn’t there as a charity case, I was there to keep the business moving in a positive direction! At least as much as possible.
Although I didn’t want to, I had to try the Green Eggs and Ham and, at least, pretend to like them. In his early days, Dad, as Sam-I-am, could be both very clever and charming. Like when he was trying to persuade Gloria and me on how good Nelson Eddy really was. Or when we had giggled ourselves silly drafting an ambulance chaser logo for Olcott International one dark afternoon in 1983. By 1992, however, such episodic charm was in seemingly short supply.
Clever? Dad was undeniably brilliant. Look at what he had achieved over a lifetime! The pinnacle was his lordship over an enviable international enterprise.
My challenge was to manage him successfully. Like getting him to focus on closing new accounts or resolving tough operational problems. And for me to rein him in when he became misdirected.
So I ate the Green Eggs and Ham with a view that, gradually, over time, I could, using some form of family alchemy, convert the green yolks to yellow, egg greens to whites and green ham to, well, for the lack of better description, ham-colored. Unlike the narrator, though, the consumption of Green Eggs and Ham didn’t give me moments of serendipity but a continuing string of heartbreaks.
Remember, I had a lot of experience with Dad over the years. He was very prone to taking dangerous left turns just to return condoms because “they were made for midgets.” Or he could hire someone like Bob Gerhardt, one of the most knowledgeable men in this niche industry, only to engage him in a bizarre game of “I am the King Elephant.”
I had benefitted all my life by being behind the charging bull. But when that bull turned around, I was at serious risk of being gored.
It was readily apparent that there was something wrong with him. Rosemary – of “MY DAD’S BUDDHIST WEDDING!!” fame – offered up a theory that Dad had a brain tumor and suffered from some kind of cranial pressure. But without a checkup from the neck up³, it was all conjecture.
In any event, they were getting a divorce – Dad’s 5th! – and so Rosemary wasn’t around so much anymore, anyway.
Even though, hopefully, I was somewhat wiser and more worldly, still I had no background in recognizing or dealing with age-related mental illnesses. At the time, I had no idea such maladies of the mind were so common.⁴ Today, I know better.
Back to 1992: Dad insisted that I had nothing to worry about. On that cue, I swallowed the green eggs and took him at his word.
¹ – From the New Jersey point of view, I should point out that the New York side could therefore be considered the rectum.
² – Green Eggs and Ham, published in 1960 by Dr. Seuss, remains one of the best-selling children’s books of all time. The entertaining story-line features ‘Sam-I-Am’ offering green eggs and ham to the narrator, who refuses consistently over hill and vale, ocean and locomotion. Sam-I-Am’s perseverance pays off, however, when the narrator relents and discovers he loves green eggs and ham!
³ – I have to credit MTV’s Max Headroom for this expression.
⁴ – At least 18% of everyone in the USA apparently suffers from some form of mental illness.
Nicely written essay, James. People often think that choices in life are clear-cut. Clearly not so. One must balance out uncertain and difficult decisions with best bets. The challenge is knowing the difference between a 55%-45% proposition (modestly favorable expected value) versus 45-55 dilemma (potentially harmful outcome) trade-offs and how one prepares for looming contingencies — at least those that are perceived and correctly assessed.
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I would have loved to studied your father’s brain. At what age was he diagnosed with dementia?
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A splendid read, James, the trepidation growing inch by inch. How to live life on the edge of a razor?
This paragraph said so much…
“Now, he was also my erratic boss and weekend landlord. And when he went off the rails, it was more than disturbing. It was like my guiding compass had suddenly stopped working, with the dial spinning furiously and denying me the direction to true north.”
Bravo. Wonderful writing and a painfully honest and poignant reflection.
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