I continue from last week’s post FLIGHTS OF FANCY, PART 1 with Bill’s very unexpected description of my Grandmother, Margaux Alain, at work in her salon. Notice the use of the Prussian Frau Landlady as a foil:
The French dressmaker was a constant revelation to Frau Landlady. In the coldest days of winter, the dressmaker would be bitching up a storm about the lack of heat when the landlady would come tramping down the stairs lit by a fifteen-watt bulb, her body covered with heavy wooly underwear and layers of sweaters, bearing a huge thermometer in her fist to prove to the French madame that there was ample heat. When the landlady would tap at the door, she always got the shock of her life to find the French madame running around on ten-degree-cold days with just a bra and panties. She couldn’t design fully clothed; she found inspiration only flowed to her fingers when she was almost naked. Of course, the landlady would hit the ceiling, wildly screaming, scaring my customers out of their wits.
I remember my Grandmother at her sewing machine, cigarette in mouth, wearing a bathrobe with, I guess, nothing else on but just a bra and panties. Now I know that she didn’t bother to wear that bathrobe when I wasn’t around.
Just because I was a schmo working at Polo Ralph Lauren who sold twenty fugly ties to Elton John (and pants to Carl Sagan) didn’t make me a fashion genius. Sure, I could match neckties to shirts, but look at what I was working with – Mr. Lauren made it easy!
No one in my family had any significant interactions with Ralph (my inconsequential meeting aside). But we did enjoy a relationship with someone at Ralph’s level. And by this I am referring to my maternal Grandmother Marguerite Alain and her lifetime friend, Bill Cunningham.
An iconic New Yorker through and through, Bill was a soft-spoken milliner who shared a commercial studio adjacent to my Grandmother’s Design Studio in the 1950s. They both loved flamboyant styles and clothing that made a statement. When hats went flat in 1960, Bill emerged as a fashion reporter for Women’s Wear Daily and then for the New York Times, where he was often seen riding his girl’s bike around midtown, stopping to take pictures of well-dressed women on the street. Up through 2016!
This is Ginger, a peppy, lively 1966 Ford Mustang.
Ginger was a present I bought myself in April 1992 for less than $7,000. A corn farmer in Minnesota had bought the car disassembled and completed a loving restoration, using the original color, navy blue metallic. He trailered the car from the Midwest to Weehawken and unloaded it in front of the office one Saturday morning.
She had a grippy 3 speed manual transmission and I drove her up and down Hackensack Plank Road with care. My Dad, who had a particular fondness for old cars himself (in his case, Mercedes Benzes), asked me if he could test drive it. Without hesitation, I jumped out of the car and watched him drive down the hill and back. He stepped out afterwards, and with a minimum of words, gave me his determination that Ginger was a solid car. That was his way of giving me an enthusiastic double thumbs’ up.
I actually used Ginger to drive to work for a week or two. She drew a lot of attention. Dave Murphy, my Dad’s handyman (and a loyal reader of this blog), loved Ginger and his brother ended up doing some work on her later that year. Dan or Yoshi, I forget who, hatched up a “For Sale” sign and placed it on Ginger’s windshield just to razz me. Truly, I worked with a bunch of comedians. Maybe some of my readers do, too.
As it turned out, she was a bit too fragile to use as a daily driver, so Ginger retired to the South Fork of eastern Long Island and became my beach car to sail along country roads.
Today, I present you with another guest post from my friend Ned McDonnell who sends this missive to me from his current residence in Tunis, Tunisia. Obviously, I am somewhat embarrassed by his praise of my writing. I mean, I am just a schnook on the internet with a blog.
But I did try to weave a number of connections into my stories of times past so that I was not just writing about my own family — hopefully, at times, I was leaning into yours as well.
I will post a brief update tomorrow about my upcoming post AFTERMATH.
People often ask me why I read the essays in James Olcott’s cultural blog, The Bernard Olcott Story, almost ‘talmudically’; examining each word, savoring each thought as if it were handed down to me from on high. Is it because I have known James – for better or for worse – for more than forty years? Yes, I have known him since 1975. But that is not it.
Beyond being classmates, is my avid reading due to James’s wit rivaling that of his distant cousin, James Thurber? Yes, I like to laugh. But that is not it, either. Perhaps, it is James’s nuanced analyses of human pitfalls and downfalls that cause me to stop and think about contemporary life’s latest version of the human condition. My own meditations are noteworthy in this regard that does not quite explain my continuing interest.
Yup, this is a repeat. But it sets the stage for my new story THE FINEST ESCAPE, PART 2 due next week.
The Bernard Olcott Story started off 2016 with a rewrite of my post “THE LOST WEEKEND” focusing on the Academy Award (and Cannes!) winning movie of the same name from 1946. That post promised the following stories to come:
• the biggest movie of 1946 (THE LOST WEEKEND),
• the 3rd Avenue El (including an art house film),
• old style New Yorkers interacting in flavorful accents,
• a valuable lesson at Cooper Union
• a mysterious death in 1943 with what little facts are available, and
• a color-filled present with a shared activity across time.
All have been delivered, except for the last topic. I did leave the 1940s to take you, the dear reader, on a color-filled ride 40 years later to Lithuania in 1985. I framed my trip in terms of a Boomerang where I realized that my journey, as an effort to strengthen family ties, may have inadvertently reminded my Dad of his disadvantaged youth. Both in terms of society – his immigrant household subject to prejudice – and family – where his brother was favored in the household.
But wait! There’s more to that technicolor present! Today’s post will wrap up both the Boomerang and 1940s themes with the following conclusion: my Dad escaped his unhappy situation 4 ways:
1. Becoming a sailor on the Merchant Marines and shipping off to Europe
2. Flying the coop to Cooper Union
3. Becoming a Technology Consultant
4. By engaging in a mystery activity (identified below), one that he and I both share.
The third of the PANOPLY series. Actually, it continues from my post “PAIR OF DEUCES, PART 4“
So, I zeroed in for the kill. This was gonna be a drop kick in my local Kangaroo Court. There was no way I was gonna lose this case. My first victory. Imagine that!
“Dad, that’s a Drop-Down button,” I corrected him sternly. Precision was more than past due in our software efforts.
“Pop-Up button,” he countered.
“Drop-Down!” I said again, loudly and more stridently. I pointed to the button on the screen, next to the Prior Art field (see my post last week for a discussion of screen elements — if you’re really interested). “We need to be more precise about our language if we are going sell this product,” I added. My turn to give the retribution: he was wrong and had it coming.
“James,” Dad shouted as he pushed back on his chair, standing, “again you show no common sense!”
‘What?!’ I asked myself. Is he going to try to humiliate me again, this time in front of Steve and Peggy? No way, I said to myself.
Life goes on. Several months later, on May 18th, 1995, I was in my Ford Escort wagon with Peter Fennel, Chief Patent Counsel of Robinson Proprietary Limited, a new potential client based in Sydney, Australia. He was one of the many leads I had developed from the annual International Trade Mark Association (“INTA”) meeting held every Spring.
Robinson had a medium-sized portfolio of patents to renew in some 35 countries every year. We had sprung up a conversation during the INTA meeting a few weeks earlier and, as it turned out, he was actively looking for an outside service such as Olcott International to outsource his renewal hassles. A couple of e-mails back and forth made clear that he was soon be in New York; he asked “would my Dad and I be available for a meeting?”
Of course! I invited him across the Hudson River for a meeting and then lunch. Peter even brought us a copy of his patent inventory which allowed us to provide a precise quote for all Robinson renewals starting the next year, in 1996.
Dad was his usual uneven self, asking many questions that struck me as needless. Much time was spent on revising the quote simply because, as I surmised, I was the one who had prepared it (which meant it had to be suspect in his eyes). The changes provided zero value added, from our point of view as well as Peter’s.