In late September 1976, SLW juiced me into a part-time job at, MURDOCK DESIGNER LACE (MDL). Located a half block from the iconic Flatiron Building, my new "assistant to the warehouse utility man" job was in a 100+ year-old, ten-story factory/warehouse, on East 23rd Street (off Broadway, facing picturesque Madison Square Park).
|ORIGINALLY CALLED THE FULLER BUILDING, THE TRIANGULAR, RENAISSANCE-STYLED FLATIRON BUILDING WAS COMPLETED IN 1902. IT WAS ONE OF THE FIRST SKYSCRAPERS IN MANHATTAN AND IS NOW A HISTORICAL LANDMARK.|
Pearl made it clear that this near-minimum wage position was labor intensive, (which meant it was nothing more than a "bimmie" job). She also said that of the thirty-two employees in my non-union section, I was the absolute bottom man on the totem pole...and answerable to ANYONE who needed me. Despite her directness, Pearl was especially sensitive to my needs and let me mold a Monday, Wednesday, Friday work schedule that fit perfectly into my Tuesday, Thursday college schedule. Plus her motherly warmth combined with a charming, perky and friendly manner, made me want the job even more.
I was led out of the remodeled Victorian office and into a short, dark paneled corridor that was punctuated by a fire door. The buzz of machinery was getting louder as we passed one other door, (adjacent to the office). Through its opaque window with black, block lettering that read, EDGAR N. MURDOCK, I glimpsed the cloudy silhouette of a man, standing against the outer window (overlooking the park) as he angrily waved his arms and ranted obscenities into the telephone.
I was thinking the big boss was an asshole as diminutive Pearl pushed through the fire door. On the other side, we encountered SLW at his shipping clerk's nook. Before Pearl released me into his custody she pointed to a lacy, custom-framed sign with Victorian lettering that read, "NO SMOKING, FOOD OR DRINK OUTSIDE THE BREAK ROOM," and said, "Please respect that one rule. Other than that, remember, you have no specific supervisor. Be ready to help anyone here who needs you. SLW will give you the fifty-cent tour, show you ropes and get you started. If you have any questions or problems that he can't handle...please never hesitate to come see me."
I looked around. The second floor of the factory/warehouse was such a huge space that it was hard to believe that this floor was a small portion of the operation. To my right, twenty, long aisles of twelve-foot high shelves packed with cardboard boxes extended to the back wall. Each row had a sturdy, sliding ladder on runners that could be pushed into position to reach the highest box. SLW pointed out that each carton had a magic marker code (a letter followed by a number that represented the pattern and width of the lace) plus a ribbon stapled to the outside that identified the color of the spools.
|LACE HAS A GREAT MANY USES AND IS MANUFACTURED IN COUNTLESS STYLES, SIZES AND COLORS.|
Unlike everyone else who was dressed casual, Leo looked sharp in a contemporary, medium gray suit with his jacket (complete with a satin, orange handkerchief in the breast pocket) draped over a chair. He also was wearing a white shirt, matching gray vest and an orange bow-tie.
Leo squinted as he stared me down with his steely blue eyes as he mumbled in a heavy Eastern European accent, "What, what did you say?"
|I SMIRKED AT SLW BECAUSE I WAS REMINDED OF COMEDIAN TIM CONWAY (1933-PRESENT) AS HIS SLOW MOVING "OLDEST MAN" CHARACTER FROM THE "CAROL BURNETT SHOW."|
When SLW repeated himself, I extended my hand. Leo's liver-spotted hand was a fragile, frozen dead fish. In my awkwardness, all I could manage was, "Geez, what a coincidence...the orange lace you're working on matches your tie and handkerchief." Mr. Bugner looked at me strangely and coughed, "The lace is...persimmon and the tie...is apricot." I was wincing from his medicinal, old man breath when it occurred to me that I was only ten minutes on the clock and that my color blindness was going to be a major obstacle.
SLW said, "As long as we're here, do you need anything?" Bugner said, "Yes." What he said after that was hard to decipher. Luckily SLW interpreted, "Two spools of 'T', 59 ecru...coming right up." We turned onto the "T" aisle and I said to SLW, "Ecru? What the hell is ecru? When Leo said it, I couldn't tell if it was an actual word or another cough." SLW said, "The color ecru, is a light tan, like a creamy beige...and be nice to Leo, he's ninety-one."
At the "59's", SLW slid the ladder into place and pointed up to a box that read "'T', 59." A whitish, sample ribbon was stapled next to the code. I climbed up MDL's Everest and said, "This?" When he said, "Yeah," I removed two spools and came back to earth. I said, "That ribbon looked off-white to me." SLW said, "Here's your first Murdock Designer Lace fun factoid...those so-called ribbons are called swatches."
I had just delivered my ecru spools to Leo as the freight elevator doors opened. SLW introduced me to Ernesto the elevator operator and said, "If you ever need to know sophisticated Spanish profanity, Ernesto is your man." Ernesto showed me that although the building was ten stories, that there were only six lettered elevator buttons (G, B, M, F, L, and P). The G button was the loading dock at ground level, B for business office was this floor, M for mezzanine, the main warehouse, F was the actual factory, L was the loft which housed the gallery for entertaining buyers as well as apartments and storage areas and P was the penthouse where the executive office was. The rest of the space up there was a glass enclosed atrium that had an indoor pool, work-out room and sauna, surrounded by a hot house and garden.
Ernesto said he was also the MDL night watchman twice a week and he had just started a third job, on two other nights, as an elevator operator, at Lenox Hill Hospital. During his explanation, a bespectacled man around my age (looking like a cool version of Boris Karloff) walked by sipping a can of Coca-Cola through a straw. SLW whispered to me, "Bacardi and coke breakfast." Then he said out loud, "This is Don Bertrand...but he likes to be called Bert." Bert looked stoned as he said to SLW and Ernesto, "What are you two jerk-offs doing...teaching a NFG (new fucking guy) the tricks of your trade?"
Suddenly, a stern looking man in his late forties called out to Bert, "Hey, no comestibles in the warehouse!" Bert scurried away and the man comically followed with dogged determination. SLW said, "I guess I should amend what I said about everyone being nice. Bert is a royal screw-up. He's related to the Murdock's, that means they can't fire him. He's the utility man, so, because he doesn't do anything, they hired you to be his assistant. More importantly, whether he's a drunk, an addict, a heavy user or what...I don't know...but here's another MDL fun factoid, never turn your back on your wallet when he's around."
Ernesto was smiling as SLW added, "And don't turn your back on that the other nimrod. That's Lew Fredricks. Don't be intoxicated by the jingle-jangle of his thousand keys, the lab coat or his lovely, plastic pocket saver. You'll soon see, he has an inflated perception of his self-worth. He's so delusional that he thinks he's indispensable and he'll blindside his own mother to get ahead here. Luckily, he's a cutter and all-around trouble-shooter. That means, Lewie-Boy spends most of the time upstairs torturing the union guys in the factory. Just be prepared, he'll try to dazzle you with his fancy vocabulary and intense work ethic but you'll see, he's just a schmuck. And to prove he doesn't really know his ass from a hole in the ground, he's been bucking for a promotion for twenty years. He's so stupid that he can't see that this is a family business and no outsiders get into the inner sanctum."
Ernesto interrupted, "That's right, Eddie Murder doesn't let anyone get too close." I sighed, "Okay, whose Eddie Murder?" SLW whispered, "Mini-Pearl's husband...Edgar N. Murdock, the Grand High Mystic Ruler of MDL." I was thinking that it was funny that little Pearl the office manager was nicknamed Mini-Pearl as Ernesto said, "Eddie Murder's like the all powerful Wizard of Oz because nobody ever sees him. In eight years, other than Christmas parties when he dresses like Santa...and cuts out as soon as he hands out the bonuses, I bet I only saw him five other times." SLW laughed, "You're right, if I was standing next to him in the subway, I might not recognize him."
At twelve, SLW and I went to Madison Square Park for lunch. At a bench, SLW opened his brown bag and was disappointed to see a meatloaf sandwich. "Damn," he said, "All I want out of life is a mustard sandwich with a little ham and a slice of cheese. Instead I get this or tuna with so much mayonnaise that the bread gets saturated and the whole mess disintegrates before I take a..." SLW bit into his sandwich and writhed in pain, "This meatloaf is friggin' fossilized!" He was holding his jaw as he added, "I'll have to gum it to death."
Seconds later, Celestine appeared from the other side of the fountain. She came by and asked SLW in her cute French accent, "Did you ever call Christine?" Christine I soon learned had worked full-time in fine sewing during the summer and had resigned to enter her freshman year at nearby Baruch College. SLW coyly said, "I never got her number." Celestine grinned, "I know. I got it here. I also know she likes you and that she has her lunch in Baruch's third floor cafeteria every day at noon...call her, meet her there...you never know."
We were running late getting back to MDL. SLW said, "Let's take the stairs next to the freight elevator, it's the shortcut." Ernesto and Bert were sitting on the edge of the platform, drinking Colt 45 Malt Liquor out of paper bags and whistling at the female office workers going by. I cracked, "Hey, it's Bert and Ernie all grown up." I guess SLW was preoccupied with Christine because all he said was, "Bert and Ernesto. Yeah, yeah very funny."
By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, SLW was spending all his lunch hours with Christine. Which meant that he was sneaking out early and coming back late. So he was already gone when Leo Bugner needed three spools of "I" 37 heliotrope. I needed the poor Leo repeat the color three times before I could piece together what he said. Then, I vanished into the "I" aisle on my impossible mission to find heliotrope. In the past, SLW was there to help me differentiate between toughies like forest, kelly, army and olive green. So I knew it was a waste of time even trying to find a particular shade when I didn't even know what family the color came from.
That's when I got my million dollar idea. To avoid putting SLW in jeopardy for slipping away early, I waited to rationalize not asking him. At 12:05, I approached Mini-Pearl in the office. "Leo Bugner needs some 'I' 37's but I couldn't find it, in heliotrope." She looked at her watch and sweetly said, "Dedicated, working into your lunchtime, very admirable. And asking me for help instead of running the risk of using the wrong lace is important to our overall efficiency. Plus that heliotrope is a nasty customer. We're on the verge of designated it an '86' (the code for getting discontinued) because even Mr. Bugner, depending on dye lots, has trouble distinguishing it from lilac and lavender."
Mini-Pearl showed me the heliotrope and I gave it to Leo. Then I realized it was drizzly and cold outside. I decided to gobble up my sandwich and really work during my lunch period. My mission was to alleviate the problem of my own color blindness. I got a marker and began spelling out the color on each lace box.
After that first day, I did it on company time. I was frequently taken away from this self-imposed task, so it took weeks to finish.
By early December, anyone who needed me, knew they could find me in the lace aisles. A lot of times people mistook my self-serving enterprise as a special project. So without questioning my motives, they assumed that one of the Murdock's assigned me there...therefore, they did the task they had in mind for me, them self.
Early one morning Mini-Pearl sought me out. She didn't ask what I was doing up in the 86's (the unusable junk section) but out of nervousness I said, "These shelves haven't been dusted in years." She said, "At 2:30, take the cart, up to the loft. There will be two big boxes in the hallway outside Suite-942. Tie them with twine and I'll meet you at my car, in the loading dock." I said, "Okay." She added, "And it's great that you are so ambitious to clean those shelves. But don't kill yourself now. Tomorrow, I'll get you something better to use on it."
At ten that same morning, Lew Fredricks questioned why I spent so much time in the lace aisles. As per SLW's suggestion, instead of addressing Lew's concern I said, "Mr. Murdock wants me to finish this top row before I go to the post office." His response was, "Why do they mollycoddle everyone here?" I looked down at him both literally and figuratively. He snapped, "Look who I'm asking, you probably don't even know what mollycoddle means." He was satisfied that he got the last word in and was muttering about discipline and how things would be different if he ran the show, as he trudged off.
A half hour later, SLW had prepared forty, small, sample boxes as Christmas gifts for MDL's elite customers. He had loaded them on the Victorian, rolling cart, (the one I needed for Mini-Pearl's request at 2:30). SLW said, "I need you to take these to the post office and send them out by standard mail."
SLW was putting the finishing touch on the last shipping label when Celestine came by and said, "I need Steve for an hour, to sweep out my section and replace the air filters." Just then Bert came out of the break room with a soda and chips. I was thinking a Bacardi and coke lunch as SLW said, "Bert, take the cart to the post office." He said, "Umm, uh, I gotta get Leo Bugner sixteen spools of "F" 69, pink." Celestine barked, "There ain't no 'pink' lace in the whole damned building." Just then Mini-Pearl and Brownie-Brown pushed through the fire door from the corridor near Eddie Murder's office and into the warehouse. Bert who still owed Brownie-Brown money, grabbed the wooden cart and pushed it towards the freight elevator.
At noon, I had finished Celestine's chores when I was approached by Ernesto, "I need the pushcart and can't find it." I said, "Before eleven, Bert took it to the post office." He cursed under his breath in Spanish and began searching for Bert.
By 2:00, Ernesto was disgusted that he had to lift damaged armature sprockets from the factory upstairs and bring them to the dumpster outside. I didn't care if Bert was AWOL because he was napping, shooting up between his toes or having his way with Rita the seamstress, I was more worried about lugging those two big boxes down from the loft.
At 2:30, without the cart, I found the two boxes outside Suite-942. I tied the first box and was starting the second when a handsome, well-built stranger in his late-thirties who resembled Clark Gable, came from an apartment towards me.
|IN HIS LATE-THIRTIES, CLARK GABLE (1901-1960) WAS THE ULTIMATE MOVIE STAR AND SEX SYMBOL.|
On the day of the company Christmas party, I was off. But because I was finished with my college finals, I came in for two reasons. One was to share in the festivities with my coworkers and the other was to give notice because in three weeks, my spring semester had me at Brooklyn College every day.
The area around SLW's work station was festive and the decorations included a Christmas tree surrounded with loads of professionally wrapped gifts. A boom box played 8-track tapes of Christmas music as we stuffed our faces on the international cuisine brought in by Celestine and other foreign workers plus catered trays provided by MDL.
|(1986 PHOTO) BOOM BOXES, (GHETTO BLASTERS) WERE AT THE HEIGHT OF THEIR POPULARITY IN 1976.|
Mini-Pearl lowered the volume to get our attention and then acted as emcee. She made a flowery speech about teamwork and thanked us for making the Murdock name tops in the lace industry. Then on cue, Ernesto pushed in another 8-track. The song, "HERE COMES SANTA CLAUS," came on and a man in a Santa suit burst through the fire door.
Old St. Nick circled our party area calling out, "Ho-ho-ho," and hugged and/or kissed most of the females and shook the men's hands. Then he started handling out identically wrapped gifts (Barricini chocolates) from the sack that was slung over his shoulder. When everybody got one, he made some naughty and nice jokes and took a gift from under the tree and called out names, one at a time.
The ceremony was made better as he whispered a humorous comment to just about everyone he handed a present to. I saw the chintzy stuff the others were getting and hoped that I'd just get cash. When my name was called, I looked through Santa's fake glasses and beard and thought he looked familiar. I muttered, "You're Clark Gable." He quietly laughed, "No...I'm Eddie Murder." Then he announced to the revelers, "Steve here, has revolutionized our warehouse organization system." After more yaddy yadda he whispered in my ear, "Are you taking any business courses in that college of yours." I didn't say anything and he added, "Come see me in my office on your way out."
After everyone got their gifts, "JOY TO THE WORLD" was pumped in and Santa and the secretarial staff left. SLW made a face when he showed me his bottle of Australian wine and said, "What did you get?" I held up a fancy stainless steel pocket watch by its chain. He was impressed and said, "Last year I got a box made out of five-thousand toothpicks glued together...and thought I scored." Lew Fredricks but in, "They gave you that! What could you have possibly done, to revolutionize this shit house?" SLW cut him off, pointed at the party-goers and said, "Look, Leo Bugner left comestibles next to Rita's sewing machine." When he looked away, we ran into the break room.
SLW knew I came to the party with the intention of giving notice. I told him I felt like an ingrate after they were so good to me by allowing me to work the hours I needed, rewarding me so well for such a common sense idea and that Mr. Edgar N. Murdock now wanted to know if I was taking any business courses.
SLW said, "It's because the Murdocks are so great that they'll appreciate your honesty. Trust me, they know its a bimmie job and the fact that they occasionally score with a guy like you can only be a plus."
Lew Fredricks flew into the room, interrupted and went off on us. SLW called him a weasel. Lew countered, "You idiots are just wisenheimers. You come up with one grandiose idea and Murdock makes a federal case out of it. Well let me tell you two street urchins something... you don't know squat! " He pointed at the Victorian-styled trash barrel and said, "You don't know anything important...I bet neither of you know what a barrel maker is called. SLW and I looked at each other. I was thinking, thanks dad, thanks Cooper Avenue as I winked at my buddy and said to Lew, "It's no big deal knowing such nonsense but if you must know, a barrel maker is a cooper."
PEACE ~ LOVE ~ AND HAPPINESS TO ALL