“What did you say to Mr. Segal?” My boss grabbed my arm and pulled me aside.
“Who’s Mr. Segal?” I asked.
Through some fudging about my education on my resumé, I landed a job as a market representative in the corporate buying office in Macy’s department store on 34th Street in Manhattan. I was a senior executive. This came with one distinct perk. I was given a key to the senior executive washroom, allowing me to pee alongside the big shots in the store. What a thrill.
My job was to do market research in furniture. Before entering the hi-fi business, I had worked in various furniture stores in the UK and Israel, so I had a fairly good knowledge of the field. The job was really bullshit. We did all this so-called research for the corporation, and the buyers usually ignored us and did their own thing. My boss’s boss was Kenneth Straus. He was the great-great grandson of one of the original owners, Lazarus Straus, who partnered with Roland Macy, the founder of the store, thus the name. Kenny was an honorary member of the New York City Fire Department, and was an avid collector of fire-engine memorabilia. His office was resplendent in fire-engine red. His carpet was red, as was his secretary’s typewriter; his filing cabinets and desk were also red. Interestingly he had a framed letter mounted on the back of his office door. His great grandmother, Ida, wrote it. The postmark was the Titanic, and it had been mailed from Queenstown in the south of Ireland, near Cork. This was the ship’s last stop before the ill-fated cruise. In it she expressed concern over the voyage, and Mr. Straus thought this was a premonition. Even though there was a place for her in the lifeboats, she refused to leave her husband Isidor, and they both died when the ship sank after it struck the iceberg.
He was not a very demonstrative person but he always got excited when the sound of a fire engine siren wafted into the hubbub of the offices on the thirteenth floor. When this happened (as it did frequently on 34th Street) he would stand up, run to the window, and look out. This occurred no matter what he was doing, and frankly, we were glad when it happened, as he never seemed to contribute anything positive to the conversation. (I attended his funeral many years later out of sheer curiosity. Among the speakers were Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York, the fire commissioner, and the police chief. When the service was over, his coffin was hoisted onto a fire truck and slowly driven away. The traffic on Madison Ave was stopped as the cortege moved downtown on this uptown avenue).
My boss, let’s call her Kathy, was a large woman, over six feet tall, with shoulders like a football player. She was loud but really charming and smart. We hit it off right away. She had worked at Bloomingdales and really knew her stuff. One of my jobs was to organize meetings for the five or six different divisions around the country. Before they were consolidated into the name Macy’s, there was Bamberger’s in New Jersey, Burdine’s in Florida, Bullock’s in California, and a few others. To teach me how to arrange these meetings, Kathy suggested that I monitor a meeting that was happening that weekend for the Domestics division (the exciting world of sheets and pillowcases). There were about 20 people in the conference room. On the table were samples of sheets, comforters, and towels. For about two hours, executives in suits droned on about the electrifying universe of shmattes. This was my first introduction to corporate speech: the ability to talk authoritatively about a subject without actually saying anything. When they finally finished, a short, elderly man stood up, and in a few words dismissed the previous speakers, and said in a clear and concise manner what action should be taken. At this point we broke for lunch. I noticed that the old man was eating alone and went over to join him.
“I really liked what you said,” I remarked.
“Really?” he replied.
“Yes, the others were talking nonsense and you were the only one who made sense.”
“Thank you. Was there anything else you didn’t like?”
I said that the whole meeting seemed like a waste of time, and could have been made much shorter if people hadn’t blathered so much. He nodded and sensing that the conversation was over, I left. That’s when my boss grabbed my arm and said, “What did you say to Mr. Segal?”
I told her what I had said, then asked, “Who’s Mr. Segal?”
She looked at me in horror. “Mr. Segal is the chairman of Macy’s!”
A few months later a buying trip was arranged for my boss, a senior vice president, and a couple of executives. They were travelling to Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. I was jealous, but as I was low on the totem pole, I didn’t expect to be asked, and I wasn’t… until one day, a week before the trip, Kathy asked me to come into her office. She told me that Pan Am, to celebrate the inauguration of non-stop flights between New York and Tokyo, had given Macy’s a free ticket, and as their trip had already been booked and paid for, they decided that I should join them. I was thrilled; I had never traveled to the Far East. I sought out a co-worker who had just returned from Hong Kong and asked him about the food.
He said, “The food in Hong Kong is great. When you leave the Macy’s office in Connaught Road, you make a right and at the next corner, there’s a McDonald’s.”
This is not what I wanted to hear.
I flew to Tokyo on this seemingly endless flight. Not so amusingly, they only had one movie on the plane, which they played three times. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot. Not his best. On arrival I was high as a kite, and dashed around the city like the mad tourist I was. To my great delight, I loved Tokyo. My job was to visit the department stores, and look at the furniture displays. At that time, Danish modern was very popular and the simple aesthetic of Danish design blended perfectly with Japanese sensibility. I had arrived a day before the others, so I had ample time to explore. When my boss and the others arrived I was super enthusiastic, and was greeted by scowls and grumpiness. Apparently not everyone enjoys traveling. The next morning my boss asked me if I had brought a measuring tape with inches on it. I had forgotten to bring one, and this caused her to scream and yell at me. She also threatened to send me home for my lack of professionalism. I shut my mouth after that.
After Tokyo, we flew to Manila in the Philippines. There were many factories in that country making rattan furniture, which was popular in the US in the mid-seventies. On arrival, army personnel sporting automatic rifles surrounded the plane. We were told to stay in our seats while some soldiers entered and escorted a young man off the plane. I heard later that he was wanted for anti-government activities, and had been extradited from Japan. This was during the Marcos era and martial law was in effect. A curfew was imposed from 10pm until 6am every night. This didn’t really affect us but had a profound effect on the locals. One evening while taking some air outside the hotel, a man appeared out of the bushes and offered me a woman. Not only was she beautiful, he said, but because of the curfew, I could keep her all night. It turns out that even a curfew can be an advantage for some people. I demurred.
From Manila we traveled to Taipei in Taiwan, then over to Hong Kong. One evening my boss said, “Get dressed up, we’re going on a date.”
A car picked us up and took us to a ferry terminal where we boarded a luxurious boat and were seated at a table next to the window. The boat took off and slowly cruised around Victoria Harbor, which is spectacular. This was in 1976 before the building boom that has completely crowded out the green hills that overlook the waterfront. It was a truly romantic setting. At one point we began to dance, and Kathy started to come on to me. I was unused to this and a bit surprised. I stepped back a little, and again, she pressed herself against my body. This happened a third time and I sidestepped her advances. The next morning, I left for Tokyo and the flight home to New York. A week or so after this, Kathy returned and made my life a living hell. Everything I did was wrong. I was put on warning and fired a month later. I knew this was sexual harassment, but to prove it was beyond my ken.
Her parting words really stung. “This is the best thing for you. You may not think it now but you don’t belong in corporate America, and will do much better on your own.”
She was right, but it still hurt.