Regal plum and violet are not colors normally associated with mens’ underwear.  But my father’s store was in a Puerto Rican neighborhood and, in the 1970’s, those were popular shades.

I hated working at Lou Sanders’ Mens’ Shop.  I did anything I could to avoid it.  Yet, thirty-five years later, I can still sense it like it was yesterday:  the stale smell of cigarettes, the taste of cold coffee, the sight of piles of unsold merchandise.  Did I neglect to mention sound and touch?  Well, I also hated the Muzak playing in the background and the hard, uncomfortable feel of the stool that I perched on between customers.

I knew that the store was my family’s source of income.  But I did not feel personally invested in it because, fortunately (I rationalized, and still do), my father loved everything about the store and ceded no responsibility.  He did not really need my stilted and uninspired assistance.  My presence was only required when my parents took a rare vacation or when it was particularly busy, right before Father’s Day and Christmas.  My father chose to keep the store open seven days a week for over fifty years.  It was his all-consuming passion.

Perhaps I was jealous of the store.  My father loved his children and bragged about us to an embarrassing extent, but he was only truly comfortable at the store.  It was his kingdom, his domain.  He folded clothing with love.  He shared cigarettes and coffee with salesmen with a degree of good cheer that I never witnessed anywhere else.  He professed to enjoy the piped-in music that he would have turned off immediately in the car or at home.

I did learn some valuable insights from watching my father in action.  He could sell an eighty-year-old German immigrant a short-sleeved white shirt for $3.95 and make the man feel like he had invested in a work of art.  As soon as the man would leave, with a handshake and a hearty pat on the back, my father would whisper, with venom:  “Old Nazi.”

My father could converse in fluent Spanish with a Puerto Rican customer as though they were best friends for life and then mutter, as soon as the man left:  “Good for nothing.”

Is this duplicity?  Or is this simply how one has to get along in the world?  In my career, I certainly had to glad-hand a lot of clients and real estate agents and lawyers whom I really could not stand.  Yet, with my father’s example, I knew how to proceed.

I have grudgingly come to accept that early experience, as miserable as it was, as a positive thing. I admit that I eventually applied much of what I witnessed at the store in one context or another.  I do, however,  draw a line:  I will never be in favor of regal plum underwear on a man.

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