CRASHES NEXT TO ROOM 31

Today, on tap for you is a repeat, my number one post from last year.  Please do continue to look under those motel mattresses, if you are a road warrior.

Crashes were not always relegated to software programs. Sometimes I experienced other kinds.  And they often happened close to the office.  Or next to scary places nearby.

In late spring 1994, Dad and I made a marketing call to a potential client without Bob. It was a major telecom company based in northern New Jersey, about an hour’s drive from Weehawken. The prospect was already running one of our competitor’s patent management systems, and wasn’t looking for a change. Rather, this was going to be a straight-up discussion about annuity payment services, right down Dad’s alley.

After some preparation, we plunked down inside my Dad’s lobotomized Mercedes Benz and traced our way to the company via the Garden State’s ribbon of expressways as guided by a crusty folded highway map.  As mentioned in my post “HIS NAME WAS BOB GERHARDT,” Dad had a method of increasing gasoline efficiency in automobile engines. It involved disabling multiple cylinders within the engine based on the simple premise that each cylinder is a source of fuel consumption and combustion. If you can shut them off, you will consume less fuel.

What could be simpler?

CRASHES NEXT TO ROOM 31

Crashes were not always relegated to software programs. Sometimes I experienced other kinds.  And they often happened close to the office.  Or next to scary places nearby.

In late spring 1994, Dad and I made a marketing call to a potential client without Bob. It was a major telecom company based in northern New Jersey, about an hour’s drive from Weehawken. The prospect was already running one of our competitor’s patent management systems, and wasn’t looking for a change. Rather, this was going to be a straight-up discussion about annuity payment services, right down Dad’s alley.

After some preparation, we plunked down inside my Dad’s lobotomized Mercedes Benz and traced our way to the company via the Garden State’s ribbon of expressways as guided by a crusty folded highway map.  As mentioned in my post “HIS NAME WAS BOB GERHARDT,” Dad had a method of increasing gasoline efficiency in automobile engines. It involved disabling multiple cylinders within the engine based on the simple premise that each cylinder is a source of fuel consumption and combustion. If you can shut them off, you will consume less fuel.

What could be simpler?

YES DEPOSIT, YES RETURN

While I am busy writing my next story “PAIR OF DEUCES,” I offer up my very first post, written 3 years ago.  In fact, you can find it if you scroll all the way to the bottom.  I’m not sure if many readers do, so here it is.  It’s an amusing story about my Dad and some business he needed to conduct at Shop Rite one day in the 1980s.  I never saw this coming.  Not in a million years.  Hope you enjoy it!

No matter the routine, things could get crazy.  Fast.

Lunch with Bernard Olcott at Olcott International in 1983 followed a familiar routine.  At around maybe 11:45 AM, after a few hunger pangs had already hit me pretty hard, I would head up to the top floor, the level that actually connected to the street, and ask if he was ready to grab some lunch.  He would typically wave me off for another 10 to 15 minutes while he finished up some correspondence.  Finally, he would call me back upstairs.   We would then spend another 10 to 15 minutes looking for a pack-of-cards sized contraption holding perhaps 50 keys for the car, the house, the office, the boat, and God knew what else.  Oddly they were never in the same place twice.  And if not retrieved, well, that would have been the end of the world, as we knew it.

The next part of the routine would be to drive over to the Shop Rite supermarket on JFK Boulevard in Union City, New Jersey.  This was located in a bustling area with a huge parking lot in front.  However, it was only sensibly approachable from the southbound lane.  This presented an engineering problem to Dad, the kind he loved to solve.

MR. SWAGGER’S PUMP AND DUMP

Although my office was on the lowest of three levels, during that first year on the job, I would occasionally hear strange noises filtering down from the top floor. Often these indistinct sounds would mimic fanciful imagery like, I kid you not, cattle rustling with an occasional hoof stomp. Other times, the herd would be in full stampede. A cowboy could be heard running after them, shouting and hacking from a bad cough.

Quick reality check: the office was in Weehawken, New Jersey with a glorious view of the Manhattan skyline and the giant double helix of the Lincoln Tunnel. The latter emitted the roar of machinery, the giant soul crusher as featured in my post “THE NIGHT IS DARK AND FULL OF TERRORS.” It was very far from Marlboro country, campfires, and cowboys yodeling ah-hee-ho!”

The bumps, shouts, and herd noises were discordant and weird.  What the fuck was going on up there? Sometimes, I would climb the stairs to snoop around. At first, doors would be closed as soon as I reached the top. Sometimes, I could see out of the corner of my eye,  through a partially open door, something resembling a nose, or maybe some wrinkled skin. It was as if the stable master had asked the illegal stallion to settle down in his stall so as to hide from a passerby.

Nose and wrinkled skin? Was Dad hiding an elephant from me? Wouldn’t it fall through the floor of our ramshackle building?

OF GIANTS AND DWARFS

Special note: Today is Dad’s 98th birthday!

As related in my last two posts, “THE NIGHT IS DARK AND FULL OF TERRORS,” and “FIRST TEST,” my full-time entry into the family business was marked by both gloom and doom on one hand, and affirmation on the other.

You could say it was a study of extremes. Like my Dad.

The location of the office was, well, anything but standard.  It was close to my home in Manhattan — five miles as the crow flies.  Just across the river, the first stop.

Yet, it was hideous from the point of view of public transportation.  Two subway lines to Times Square; a bus from the New Jersey Embassy (otherwise known as the Port Authority Bus Terminal); and then a quarter mile uphill slog.  This was a tough commute of one hour’s duration, each way.  It was the Goddamn bus that took the longest, inching its way through hellacious traffic to and from the Lincoln Tunnel.  If I could have walked on water, I could have hoofed the whole thing in just about the same amount of time.

THE NIGHT IS DARK AND FULL OF TERRORS

“What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was already nada y pues nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”

-Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

In 1982, Dad was suing Gloria for divorce.  Or more accurately, he forced her to sue him.  As the defendant, he and his lawyers threatened her with an illegal prior divorce and effectively slaughtered her (see my post last week “IS YOUR MEXICAN DIVORCE LEGAL?”).

During that Fall, I started working at Olcott International part-time, one day a week, on Fridays, when I had no classes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of International Affairs (SIA).  It was the last in a string of temporary or part-time jobs held down since my last year of college in 1980.

As a college senior, I created a job for myself as an organizer for Teddy Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1979 and 1980.  Teddy didn’t win, as you recall.  Then, I worked as the New York State College Coordinator for John Anderson’s Presidential campaign in the Fall of 1980.  John didn’t win either.  Later on, at SIA, I had summer jobs at Société Générale and the United Nations.  Great experiences all.

John Anderson

The highlight of my experience in John’s campaign was when he took the time to call me one day to thank me for my efforts.

But now Dad had offered me full-time employment at Olcott International starting January 1983.  This was to be my first time working in a job for a paycheck.  To be supporting myself like a real person.

As mentioned in previous posts, I had my reasons to be nervous.  The puffed-up title of Assistant Vice President did little to assuage my concerns.

PAYING THE COST

A reader commented last week “James, you had a very difficult childhood/teenage. Your father obviously had some issues.”

I disagree with the first statement.  Leaving aside the fact that my Dad had divorced and remarried twice by the time I reached my 18th birthday, I think my childhood was often charmed, even privileged.  As you can see from my picture in last week’s post “WHEN A CHORE IS NOT A CHORE PART 2,” Dad and I had a lot of fun together.

The Father who took that picture is the man I miss terribly today.

It was only in my later adolescence that ominous signs about Dad became known to me from the new vibrant presence in our lives, Gloria.  Like any child, I refused to believe at first that my Dad could have had issues.

WHEN A CHORE IS NOT A CHORE PART 1

After a few months at 974 Boulevard East in 1970, Dad found a new location for both his residence and the offices of Olcott International.  It was in a triple decker, similar to the millions that form the housing stock of Boston and environs.  But unlike the wooden ones in Massachusetts, this was constructed out of gold brick.  According to Dad, there were three layers of outer walls.  No wolf was ever gonna blow that house down!

It was on Weehawken’s eponymous Hamilton Avenue, the road atop the cliffs.  Across the street from the house, the cracked sidewalk and the rusting iron wrought fence gave way to an expansive view of the Hudson River and the west side of Manhattan.

Dad rented the first floor for the office and staked out the top floor, the third, as the residence.  The landlord lived in the apartment on the second, sandwiched, as it were, by Olcott rentals.

For years, Dad had rented bachelor style accommodations in New York and then in New Jersey when he moved to 974 Boulevard East.  No more.  The third floor was like the Taj Mahal in terms of spaciousness compared to the cramped quarters of times past.  There were multiple bedrooms, a central hall as well as separate living and dining rooms.  As this was the top floor, the ceiling everywhere was gabled into sharp points.

And yes, there was a kitchen!  A real one!

MY DAD’S BUDDHIST WEDDING!!

In 1983, Rosemary Egan was a nimble 32 year old brunette who worked the rigging (or the galley) as a crewmember of a 282 foot Windjammer sailing vessel that plied the aqua waters of the Bahamian outer banks.  This was not just any sailing vessel, but a real barkantine, a three-masted ship, square-rigged on the foremast and fore-and-aft-rigged on the other masts.  Up to 30 guests paid for the privilege of waking up in cabins to the sound of sea birds, feasting on lobster, hammocking in the rigging, cannonballing into the ocean and participating in the sailing.

When not hoisting a jib, Rosemary could be found singing and dancing in off-off-Broadway productions.  Show tunes were a specialty of hers.  And if not sailing, singing, or dancing, she had a steady part-time gig as a Medical Assistant.  It’s good to have multiple options.

You could say that she fit a certain profile.

One day after completing a cruise, she was waiting in line to check her luggage at Nassau International Airport for a return flight to Newark, New Jersey.  Born in New York City, she had moved with her folks to Plainview, New Jersey as a youngster during the exodus out of the city proper in the 1960s and 1970s.  Please see my posts “THE END OF AN ERA” and “WELCOME TO NEW JERSEY.”

As she struggled to move her luggage towards the check-in, a handsome stranger who resembled Jack Lord of Hawaii 5-O stepped in to help.  He was awfully chatty and his eyes lit up when he learned that she was part of the crew for Windjammer cruises.  He lifted her bag onto the check-in scale with utmost care and she watched her bag carted away into oblivion as it was promptly lost by the airline for days.  It was an omen of things to come.

LAST CALL FOR EDWARD

Sun.  Sea Spray.  Hull smashing through rows of swells.  The ship’s deck heaving from and dropping into an endless parade of oncoming waves.  Turn your face towards the sun and catch a million dancing reflections on the water glistening back at you.

If you’re on a sailboat, there is no engine noise, just the sound of wind blowing through your hair.

Both Olcott brothers were watermen, even though they were descendants of the landlocked Dzūkija region of Lithuania.  I am a waterman too, raised on many afternoons of sailing on Shinnecock Bay, Long Island during my young summers in the 1960s with my Dad.

However, by the age of twelve, I had discovered a simple way to elevate the pleasure and excitement of wind, sea, and waves.  Instead of being on a boat in the water, how about doing away with the boat?  Watch sets of giant waves roll in while at sea level, exactly.  Body surfing.  Maximum exposure.  If you could time and catch them right, you could slide down a crystal slope while the tube of water breaks above and behind you.  The payoff is maybe eight seconds of pure exhilaration that seems to last perhaps up to half an hour.  You’ll never forget the view of giant slopes of water marching towards you, with the last wave looming higher over the others.  That last one, with the face of the sun sparkling back at you, will be the wave you want.  And sometimes, it will take a fair amount of courage to try to pick off that last wave, the king of the set.

But this was me in the water, maybe 30-50 yards away from the shore.  Both my Dad and his Brother crossed the oceans – what about seeing rogue waves 3,000 miles offshore?  I shudder to think what they must have gone through.