Beyond the pines
My first job was as a sales assistant at one of New York's
Doubleday bookshops, the one adjacent to Lord & Taylor's on Fifth
Though a notoriously underpaid occupation, I enjoyed selling
books and would eventually become a proper bookseller, first in Hamburg
and later London.
"I see you worked at Doubleday's in New York,"
she said, "when do you want to start?"
However, after four weeks at my first job, I quit. Not because
I didn't like it, but because I'd been offered something better. They
were sorry to lose me. The branch manager said he'd give me a recommendation
anytime. Ten years later, at a critical time in my life, I was to take
him up on the offer. Keep tuning in so as not to miss this episode.
My second job was with A.K. Peters Company, an export/tmport
firm owned by a friend of Harry's named Arthur K. Peters. A one-man business,
it was operated with only the help of a secretary from a small office
on the 12th floor of a building on the corner of 42nd and Fifth, just
across from the Public Library.
Standing at the open window one day in the fall of '58,
we watched Fidel Castro riding by down below in an open car. He was on
his way from the United Nations to his hotel in Harlem, where the leader
of the Cuban Revolution and his entourage allegedly left chicken bones
behind strewn all over the carpet.
On another occasion, happening to stand at the curb on 42nd
Street, I saw Nikita Krushchev speeding past in a bullet-proof limousine.
The Soviet leader was attending a plenary session of the UN General Assembly,
during which he famously took off his shoe to pound the desk in protest
of critical remarks made about the Soviet Union.
The secretary at A.K. Peters Company, called Jane Prull,
wouldn't have tolerated such shenanigans. A no-nonsense type with authoritarian
manner, though nice enough if she wanted to be, A.K. and I, behind Jane's
back, called her 'Sergeant Prull'.
The 'Sarge' was to be good training for me considering developments
yet to come.
A.K. Peters imported fertilizer from South America plus
- perhaps to make up for the smell -aromatic essences from Grasse, Provence.
For the latter, A.K. held the exclusive franchise for the United States.
One of my first jobs in the office was to sort out dozens
of tiny sample bottles kept in a dusty cupboard. Later however, making
better use of someone with a BA in English, AK had me draft business letters
that he would correct and sign before being sent off by 'Sergeant Prull'.
Being a native speaker of German came in handy in helping
promote a new product line imported from Germany. It was a chemical foam
used in fighting fires caused by explosions or inairplane emergency landings,
and was sold to oil refineries and airport authorities.
To make ours sound different from domestic brands we had
to give it a distinctive name. After much deliberation and a number of
suggestions laughingly dismissed, we came up with Schaumgeist, 'the champagne
of fire-fighting foams.'
A.K. had such confidence in this product, and apparently
also me, that he sent me out on a sales tour on behalf of Schaumgeist
on this tour. I visited oil refineries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania,
a week's trip by hired car with all expenses paid. Without telling him,
I took Ronnie along.
Not surprisingly, being a novice salesman with somewhat
diffident manner and slight accent, I didn't notch up a single sale. Still,
A.K. seemed pleased that our new product had been introduced to a lot
of potential customers, and orders eventually did come in.
Married with three children my boss lived in Bronxville.
Art's wife Sally was working on a master's degree in Art History, and
he, in his spare time, on a Ph.D. in French literature. Quite an amazing
couple. When not vacationing at their ranch in Jackson Hole, they'd be
off to London, Paris, or Rome to 'do research'.
Though a dropout from academia, I continued to be interested
in literature. Among books I read at the time, strangely enough for someone
supposedly gay, were those of Henry Miller. And I went to the theatre,
Ron's great love too, that and the movies.
Among the plays we saw, appropriately on a sticky summer's
evening, was O'Neill's 'The Iceman Cometh,' an off-Broadway production.
Standing outside the theatre during intermission, I happened
to see a familiar figure, my Bowdoin English teacher Herby Brown, walking
up and down by himself, but didn't have the nerve to go up to him. College
already seemed a long time ago.
Ron, on such occasions, would accuse me of being 'ashamed'
Unfortunately Ron also had an inherited spinal defect eventually
necessitating major surgery, life-threatening the doctors told him, but,
thank God, a success.
The Army would 'make a man' out of me, my paternal friend the English Colonel somewhat optimistically thought.