Monday, April 25, 2011

Meeting an American Icon and not knowing who he was.

Meeting an American icon and not knowing who he was.© Joel Baumwoll
Working as a part-time salesman behind the men's furnishings counter at Bamberger's and M. Epstein's department stores in Morristown, New Jersey was a lot more pleasant than my prior summer jobs cleaning up building scraps at newly constructed homes.  I wore a suit and tie, met lots of girls, and received a 25% employee discount.

I approached each customer as a challenge, figuring out how to sell him or her at least one item they hadn't asked for.  If they came in looking for a shirt, could I sell them two?  If they wanted six pair of socks, could I get them to spring for a scarf?  As I got more practiced, I took bigger risks.  Moving from a shirt to a tie was easy. Going from a sweater to a sports jacket and slacks was a big jump.  More often than not, I would succeed in upping the ante.

Every once in a while I would really connect with a customer. When this happened, it seemed like I could sell them anything.  The older salespeople would stand around and watch whenever someone was on a roll.  This was more than a spectator sport.  We earned a 3% commission on individual sales and a 1% commission on departmental sales over a preset target.
The summer of 1961, I was working in Bambergers, part of the Macy’s group. I found myself alone, close to closing time, when a man walked in to the department accompanied by a white-suited woman.  He walked erratically, with the herky-jerky motion of a person with cerebral palsy.  I watched from the corner of my eye as they approached the men's suits.  No one else was on duty that summer afternoon, so he was my responsibility. 

Hoping they were looking for another department, I asked, "Can I help you?"  "We need to buy a suit," the nurse answered, "for him."  She pointed to her companion who had difficulty standing still.  God, I thought, how am I ever going to measure his sleeves and inseam?  I sized up the man, who was slightly-built and very thin.  "38 regular, I think," I said to them as I steered him to the rack of suits.  "Do you have anything in particular in mind?  I asked.  The nurse answered, "A nice dark suit will do fine." 

I slipped one jacket on for size.  Good guess.  It fit perfectly, except for the sleeves, which would need three inches taken off.  I rolled up the pant legs and led him to a changing room.  He had a strong body odor, which made me uncomfortable.  
After a while he emerged with the pants and jacket on, and I marked legs and sleeves with chalk for the tailor.  Grabbing the pants at the back, I said, "these will need to be taken in," and pinned about two inches of slack at the waist.  The man returned to the changing room.

As we waited, the nurse came over and, in an almost conspiratorial whisper,  said, "Do you know who that is?" 
I hadn’t a clue.
"That's Woody Guthrie, and he's going to get a medal from the President Kennedy."

All at once, I was ashamed of myself. He was an American icon whose songs I knew well. 
He would wear the suit I had sold him when JFK saw him, but I had been reluctant to wait on him. 
He died 1967 of Huntington's chorea, a rare inherited disease of the nervous system.

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