Life After Death
In the summer of 2001, I’d been looking at locations, one more unsuitable than the next; a months-long, increasingly hopeless quest for a space to open a retail clothing store in Princeton. In the spring, my friend and business partner, Roberto Ruberto, and I had decided it would be smarter, wouldn’t it, to cut up all of the remaining fabric styles we’d bought for each season, have them all made into garments and sold – rather than leave the cloth and all the trimming materials in the manufacturers’ storerooms to rot. Or be stolen.
We had been looking for a little manufacturers’ outlet store somewhere, out of the way. Cheap rent, no frills. But instead, like so many things that just sort of happen, a casual dinner conversation with an almost total stranger had inspired me to open a “boutique,” as he called it. “There’s no one doing that, but there’s an outlet store in every town.” He was right.
Since that dinner the idea had taken hold and I’d looked at empty super markets, dark cellar rooms, ex-Tae Kwon Do studios, dirty warehouse spaces. On this, a cloudy, humid morning in July 2001, I was looking in the door of a shop, empty for decades, feeling that familiar: Nope; this isn’t it; a total run-down wreck, with no place to park. I looked away, then, and across the street, for some reason. Saw a sign, Scotch-taped to one pane of a mullioned window beneath the awning of a two-story brick building. Barely visible from where I stood, on a yellow sheet:
OFFICE FOR RENT
I crossed the street, went in the front door. The door to the space where the yellow sheet hung was locked; across the hall a glass door with an Apple logo; "Repairs." A little beep. A guy came to the counter.
“There’s a space for rent? Across the way?”
“Ask Tony,” he said.
I knocked on the door he pointed to, looked in. Big, friendly guy behind a desk. I asked about the sign. “Well!” He smiled. "Sure! Absolutely." He got the keys and took me across the hall. “This is it.” Ushered me in to a bright, clean space; about 1000 square feet in all, divided up into a maze of offices. Had been a construction company; now defunct; a momentary pessimistic sensation. What happened to them? Yes. I knew right away. A storefront; two floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Witherspoon Street.
“Where do people park?” I asked.
“Back here,” Tony said, leading me to the back windows, looking out on a big parking lot. “Comes with five spaces.”
“I’ll take it,” I said, took the little yellow paper from the window, saying something like, “Where do I sign?”
A little store in front, in back the office space I’d make a kind of warehouse for the new deliveries of pants, sport jackets, shirts and ties, the stuff that was then hanging amid gardening tools and bicycles in the shed in our backyard, or on the overhead door railings of the garage we were using as our office. There was a big place in Philadelphia that sold used warehouse stuff. I took a ride down there and bought some funky metal shelving for the back rooms. Went to an unpainted furniture store and ordered three big armoires for the front, to hang jackets, to a U-Haul place, then to the storage facility In Hillsborough, where we’d put the furniture from our big house when we’d moved to the tiny one and got tables and chairs. Bought some paint.
On September 11 I was painting the back wall when Ellie Fox called to talk about the sketches I’d asked her to do for me to illustrate the little brochure — my Grand Opening announcement — I was going to mail to everyone I’d ever met and some I hadn’t.
“Did you hear?” she asked. “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center.”
I hadn’t heard. I turned on a radio. Islamic terrorists had hijacked planes and flown them into buildings. The news left me trying to conceive the inconceivable, that we were now at war, not with a country, but with an idea; not against armies, but against a few religious nuts: an enemy that didn’t want more territory or more stuff, just wanted to kill us to make a point. A “religious” point. I did not understand this; it was a theoretical anomaly. How to retaliate? How to stop them? I went back to painting. I didn’t consider that a terrorist attack might change everything; the last couple of years had been so full of changes anyway. What more could happen?
A couple of weeks later Jennifer and I went to the memorial service of a friend, Andrew King, who had been at work that morning at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 101st floor of One World Trade Center. Afterwards, on the steps outside St. Paul’s, all of us standing, waiting to decide how to go about the rest of our days, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while.
Then the inevitable, “So. What are you up to these days?” Was it in their eyes or in their tone, the unsaid, “Since your company went under?”
“I’m opening a men’s shop.” A courageous face.
“Oh? Where?” Smiles.
“Here. In Princeton,” I said, smiling back.
It was no secret that the men’s tailored clothing business was in a tailspin, that the four big men’s clothing stores that had once thrived on Nassau Street were all, all, closed in the last few years; six million dollars in annual turnover – just disappeared. No secret that every major corporation had gone from Casual Friday to everyday Dockers, Nikes, Izod shirts. Front page news: Suits Are Dead. Everybody knew that I, once upon a time cover-story darling, the scion of America’s premier clothing family, had fallen. Far and hard. Gone bankrupt. Moved from lovely golf-course-view colonial to Levittown-style two bedroom in a funky neighborhood on a busy street. And now I was going to open a men’s clothing store. Their reaction to this plan was…
“Oh.” Kind smiles. You know how folks do. Unintentionally condescending. Pity. Like I’d said I was going to fly a hot air balloon across the Atlantic.
“Well. That’s great. Good luck.” Then trying to spy someone else to talk to. See you. Bye. Leaving me with that phrase reverberating: Good luck. I may be cynical. What maybe; I am big-time cynical. That phrase always sounds to me like it should follow another: “What a dumb fucking idea!” Good luck.
Ernie Pyle, the World War II correspondent, said that the thing that was so heavy, so difficult for fighter pilots — whose chances of returning to base, or home, were slim — was the idea of giving up their future. That was what I saw in the eyes of the funeral-goers, the haunting feeling. The end of the world. I had been living in a state of dread so long it was a habit; defeat had become my default. I had given up on having a future.
It was true, though. I needed luck, or something like luck. People in that funereal afternoon, in the state of shock following 9/11, making small talk, maybe had suspicions: what the ride had been like, to have been in a business with a hundred-year legacy, a national brand, a fine, special product; seeing all that come to an end. They might have imagined the soap-operatic drama of being a “rising star;” the pain of having been one. Of just missing the brass ring. The thousands of “If only…” moments. Good luck.
I have come to see that there is no such thing as luck. There is fate, or destiny, which we create, each of us, every day; there are chance occurrences, or what seem to be chance occurrences, the intersections of preparedness and opportunity. And there’s… Well, let’s call it Grace. Let’s call it that because there are so many things we could call it. Karma. Answered prayers. Or just love. Love at work. That sounds right.
Late one warm afternoon in 2006 I was sitting on the lawn of the Sea Island Beach Club, looking out over the sparse dunes, the tops of green beach umbrellas and the flat grey expanse of ocean beyond, nothing particularly occupying my mind, when I saw my father, walking. He had a steady, almost determined gait over the sand, bent forward slightly, his once-white golf hat covering his sparse grey hair. Macular degeneration and Parkinson’s did not prevent him from taking these afternoon walks as he had been doing for years and years; it was not surprising to see him there, heading southward toward the broad expanse of firmer sand along the shore south of the club, beyond the villas and the sea wall, where his only company would be sprinting sandpipers and whirling, laughing gulls.
The effect of seeing him, on that particular afternoon, though, was inexplicable. I rose from my chair and followed, walking at first, then, remembering the natural speed at which he walked – a pace that would leave you behind on city sidewalks, in building lobbies, anywhere you’d be going together – I trotted a bit, then ran to catch up. Inexplicable because my relationship with my father was, well, fraught. To say the least. A better word would be terrible. And worse, since in the air between us always hung “the subject:” the ignominious demise of our one-hundred-twenty-year-old family business. On my watch. Had I given it any thought, pursuing him as I did over the sand, I should most likely have stopped. Let him go. I’d have turned around thinking, remembering, resenting that pace he kept, a metaphor for how he lived. Oblivious. Alone. But I didn’t stop to think, didn’t stop at all until I came up behind him and, just before I would have appeared at his side, heard a voice inside me say, “Don’t say anything!” You hear these kinds of things and don’t believe them, right? A voice? Come on. But that was how it seemed. I was not thinking Here’s a chance for peace-making. Rapprochement. I was not thinking at all. I’d been unsuccessfully attempting, it seemed, for my entire life, to make peace, and this spaghetti dish of unconscious complications did not, for once, intrude upon my sanity. “Don’t say anything!”
And I didn’t. I came up alongside him and he turned slightly to greet me, his neck stiffened by the Parkinson’s. Smiled. A good sign.
“Oh. Hey there,” he said.
We walked. He set the pace, but slower than I’d expected, and we walked. The sun was low, over the dunes and scrubby brush that lined the shore, illuminating my father’s eighty-seven-year-old face with a flattering, soft glow. And we walked. In silence for some time.
Until he asked, “How’s Kenny Bates doing? Do you still hear from him?” Ken Bates had been a Scottish cloth agent and my father’s early protégé when he came to New York in the 50s. I in turn had learned most of what I knew about menswear textiles from Kenny. He’d been a dear friend to both of us.
“He’s not so good,” I said, and related the news I’d heard of Kenny’s worsening dementia. Never one to dwell on misfortune, my father quickly asked, “What about Richard Grieco? What’s he up to?”
And we talked like this for a while. My father asking about things in the industry, current trends, the fate of other guys, competitors, customers, suppliers. Me responding. Wisecracking a little; that nasty, deprecating humor we shared. Then, more seriously, he told me what a great thing it was that my store was doing so well. How proud he was of me. We eventually turned back and climbed slowly over the sea wall and back along the villas and buildings of the Sea Island company. I returned to my chair and my book and my father continued on his solitary way, back up the beach toward his home on 31st Street. A long walk for an old man.
My father died in 2011. In the five years between this afternoon walk and the Halloween evening on which he died, we did not argue or even disagree about anything. We were friends. It looks strange to see it written like that: friends. Father and son. And I realize now that the first five decades of our lives together, my father and I had been trying to make each other into something neither of us could or would ever be. The agonizing stress and tumult of our lives together had been the result of our insistence on a different future. I wanted him to be a different kind of father; he would have me be a different kind of son. On that unexpected Sea Island afternoon we had given up trying to change one another. We had given up on changing the future.
We had changed our past.