I know that it sounds like I wasn’t making a lot of progress, but you should not feel sorry for me. There was a big difference between 1967 and today. In those days jobs were abundant; and despite setbacks, you knew you would end up with something. It was a time of optimism and hope. Entering the job market, my generation was confident and self assured, bordering on cocky; and getting fired from a job or thrown out of a prestigious school like the International School of Bar Tending was a mere bump in the road.
That is why when someone suggested I should try for a job at Macy’s, I jumped at the opportunity. It was already November, and Macy’s was gearing up for the big Christmas rush. I went in for an interview and was hired on the spot for a job as one of the sales managers in the toy department. I could not think of a more exciting place to be. All kind of happy images ran through my mind: Santa waving to the crowd as he floated along Broadway in the big Thanksgiving Day parade; smiling, hopeful children sitting on his knee as beaming parent’s looked on; Salvation Army bell ringers at every entrance; masses of happy, frantic people; and the sounds of Christmas carols everywhere. How could you not get into the Christmas spirit? After a two-day orientation period where I learned the lore of Macy’s and how to operate a cash register, I was ready to go.
I reported on my first day of real work to my new boss, Finochel. I do not know whether Finochel had a first name or not. He introduced himself simply as Finochel, and everyone called him that. He was probably in his mid thirties, pudgy, somewhat disheveled and always seemed distracted and in a rush. He showed me where my station was and abruptly left without giving me any more instructions—except that sales this year had to exceed last year’s sales, or else.
I would more or less be winging it—assisting sales clerks sell toys, books and games, dealing with returns and refunds, reporting on sales and income and closing out the cash registers every day, and making sure nobody walked off with the toys.
I was right about the Christmas music. “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” filled the air along with the constant ringing of phones. My first inclination was naturally to pick up the phone at my station, which I did the first time, only to hear Finochel’s voice bellowing at the other end about some games that had disappeared. After I hung up, one of the more seasoned sales managers walked over to me and said quietly, “Never, never pick up a call from Finochel. You will regret it. Just let the phone ring or better yet, pick it up and then hang up immediately.” I do not recall seeing another sales manager actually pick up a phone the entire time I was there, and the constant ringing drowned out the Christmas songs.
At 9:30 the doors opened and the stampede began. It was just as I had imagined it would be—a total feeding frenzy of anxious shoppers—people of all ages and colors and languages with the common bond of finding the perfect toy for Junior. I loved it.
Just as I was getting my feet wet dealing with my first toy return, I looked up and there was Finochel. “Oh yeah,” he said, “There is one thing I forgot to mention. You are doing to do the gold watch thing at noon today, and that is in exactly one hour. Don’t be late.”
Finochel went on to explain that the “gold watch thing” was a retirement luncheon to honor a lady who was retiring after a lifetime of service as a sales clerk at Macy’s, a “lifer,” as he called her. All I had to do was give her a gold watch and say a few words.
I was stunned. Here was an elderly lady who had worked for Macy’s for most of her life, and they expected me, a kid with exactly two hours of experience on the job, to make a speech honoring her? My immediate response was to ask why he or someone else who had been on the job for more than a couple of hours couldn’t say a few words. He paused for a moment and said that he would think about it, gave me a small, wrapped gift box and said that if he did not show up, he was sure it would be fine. When I asked him if there was anything he knew about the lady which I could mention in my speech, he gave me a funny look and replied with a touch of sarcasm, “Are you kidding me? And, oh yes, her name is Donovan, Marie Donovan.”
The luncheon was held in a small conference room, decorated with balloons and flowers . I immediately identified Marie Donovan, a short, plump lady with bright red hair and lots of makeup, which could not hide all the wrinkles. She was dressed like she was going to a wedding and had on lots of jewelry and a pink corsage. Surrounding her were several other women, close to her age, who were hugging her and congratulating her. When I introduced myself, she looked puzzled and asked, “Where is Mr. Finochel?” I fumbled through a response, which did not keep her from pouting and drying a tear from her eye.
But to a degree Finochel was right. The luncheon went fine. About a dozen of her fellow workers were present. I said a few words to the effect that although I had been at Macy’s only a short time—I did not say it was my first day—I was aware of Mrs. Donovan’s hard work and fine reputation and that she was loved by many. She opened the gift box and proudly displayed the gold watch, acting very surprised though she knew full well what was in it since all lifers got the same thing. She gave me a big hug and wiped more tears from her eyes, everyone applauded, and then it was over. Back to work for everyone except Mrs. Donovan, who returned to her one room flat in Brooklyn.
So that’s the way it works, I thought. A whole life of service and you get a gold watch and management does not bother to show up. They send a kid.
But I did not have time to think much more about it because we were in the middle of the Christmas rush. There was so much going on, so many people, so much energy and anxiety; and the stakes seemed so high for so many customers looking for the right gift, you did not have a minute to think. While frantic, my job was actually not all that hard because the sales clerks did most of the heavy lifting and knew much more about the business than I did. They were for the most part very good at what they did and very patient with their green sales manager. If they could last another 15 or 20 years, they too could expect to get a gold watch.
The only glitch during the first few weeks happened one evening when I could not get my numbers to balance before taking the cash to the accounting office. I did not realize how late it was getting until I heard the barking and snarling of dogs and remembered that in the orientation period we were alerted that in order to reduce shoplifting, Macy’s had recently decided after the store had closed to unleash a pack of Dobermans trained to attack people. They proudly announced that afterhours shop lifting had been reduced to practically zero though there had been a few unfortunate “incidents.” During one of the breaks one of my fellow sales managers said rumors were that two employees had mysteriously disappeared and were presumed to have been torn to shreds by the Dobermans. Just then all the lights in the store went out, and the barking and snarling got closer. Panicking, I grabbed all the cash I could from the cash register, stuffed it into an envelope and raced to where I thought the exit was. Since it was pitch black, I kept stumbling into counters and knocking things over. All the while the barking and snarling got louder. By some miracle, I stumbled to the exit just as the security guard was locking it. “Close call. “ he observed. I took the cash home with me and straightened everything out with accounting the next day.
As Christmas got closer, the action intensified; and the entire toy department sales and management staff was getting pretty worn out. During breaks we would all stumble into the huge break room and slouch into an easy chair or a couch with our feet up. There were few words spoken by anyone—just one, huge, collective state of exhaustion. Perhaps it was because of exhaustion that I did not pay much attention when a well dressed, bald headed, middle aged man with a stern look, approached me later in the day and with authority said, “You there, sales manager, I want the storeroom cleaned and I want it done now! It is filthy and a disgrace.” He disappeared just as suddenly as he had arrived at my station; and when I asked a fellow worker who he was, he said, “You don’t know? That is Blackman– Finochel’s boss’s boss and one of the big vice presidents, probably the number two or three guy in the entire company. Everyone is terrified of him.” When I asked what was involved in getting the storeroom cleaned, he said I had to approach one of the stock boys. The guy who worked our floor was named Buck.
Well, that should be easy enough. I had seen Buck around, and he was well named. He was an African American with an Afro haircut, probably around twenty and had the build of a professional boxer. He always wore jeans and tight white tee shirts, which showed his bulging biceps. All I needed to do was to get Buck to clean the storeroom.
It took a day or so to finally track him down; and when I casually mentioned to him that I would like for him to clean the store room, he shot back, “No way, motherfucker.”
“You deaf? I said, ‘No way, motherfucker.’”
I paused in disbelief and rephrased my question so that there could be no misunderstanding.
“Look, you don’t get it? I am not cleaning no goddamn store room and I sure as hell ain’t taking no orders from no white cracker.” He immediately turned his back and defiantly walked away.
While I was pondering what to do next, Blackman suddenly reappeared, asking if the store room had been cleaned. When I told him I was working on it, he frowned and said, “I want it done and I want it done now. Now!” He stormed back to his office.
I asked some of my fellow sales managers what to do, and they all said pretty much the same thing, that I had to persuade Buck to get the job done. So I tracked him down again and realizing the gravity of the situation pleaded with him, begged him, to help me, even offering him $25 of my own money. He just threw back his head and laughed, saying I could pay him $100 and he still would not answer to a white cracker. I suppose it must have been my Southern accent. I figured explaining to him that I had worked in the civil rights movement would fall on deaf ears and let it pass.
So, okay, I had a problem. The big boss had issued an ultimatum for the storeroom to be cleaned, and the stock boy was not going to do it. What the hell, I thought, I’ll do it. I took off my jacket, rolled up my sleeves, got a co-worker to cover for me in the toy department and went to work on the storeroom, boxing up the trash, moving boxes and sweeping the filthy floor. I had been working diligently for about an hour and making real progress when suddenly I felt the presence of someone behind me in the room. I turned around and saw a short, stocky white guy probably in his forties wearing a white apron. He was scowling and had his arms crossed on his chest. “One more sweep of that broom, asshole, and we shut down Macy’s, not just this store, but every store in New York City. You are management. You are doing a Union job. We are closing the place down.”
That got my attention. I immediately dropped the broom.
He went on to say he was the Union boss for Macy’s and that he had the authority to call a company-wide strike and would do so if I so much as touched anything in the stock room. I explained that I had asked Buck to do the work and he had refused and pleaded with him to help me find someone, anyone, to help me. He said it was my problem, not his.
So what is worse, having a half clean storeroom or being responsible for shutting down Macy’s during the peak of the Christmas rush? Sounded pretty much like a no brainer to me. I made one more feeble effort to persuade Buck to do the work, and he just laughed me off. In my own mind I had given it a good try, did not feel that the storeroom was in all that bad shape anyway; and most of all, I had diverted a store wide strike which would have cost Macy’s millions. I had a clean conscience.
The next day a young women I had never seen before approached me and said that her boss, Mr. Blackman, wanted to see me in his office immediately. I dropped everything and followed her. She knocked on his door and ushered me in. Blackman was sitting behind his desk in what seemed to me to be a pretty modest office for a vice president, smoking a cigar, which he immediately extinguished, and motioned me to sit down. He did not appear to be in a good mood.
“Howell, is that your name, Howell? Okay, Howell, have you ever served in the Army?” He was speaking very slowly and softly as if trying to maintain self control.
I admitted that I had not.
“Air Force? Marines? US Coast Guard?
The answer to all these questions was, of course, no.
“I didn’t think so. I did. I served in the US Marines and I fought in Korea. Proud of it. Do you know what happens in the US armed forces when a subordinate deliberately disobeys an order from a commanding officer? Do you know what happens? Well, what happens is that there is a court martial and immediate punishment. I went to the storeroom today, and it is still filthy and you have deliberately disobeyed my order…”
I interrupted him to try to explain that I had tried and furthermore I had averted a storewide strike.
Before I was able to finish, he slammed his fist on the table and shouted so loudly that I suspected that everyone on the floor could hear his booming voice above the “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmases.”
“I don’t want excuses! You have disobeyed an order! An order! But you are damn lucky, I might add, because all I can do is fire you. If you were in the military I would have you before a firing squad. Now get out of my office!”
“You mean I am fired? Not again?”
“What do you mean, ‘not again’?”
It turned out that there was still a week left before Christmas so they could not let me go without affecting operations in the toy department, but the day after Christmas I was a free man again, back on the streets of the Big Apple eagerly awaiting my next job.
About three months later, long after I had landed my next job, I ventured back to Macy’s and secretly made my way up to the toy department and to the storeroom, trying very hard not to be noticed. The door to the storeroom was unlocked. I opened it slowly and peered in. It was a dirty and filthy mess.
I chuckled as I left the store.