May 14th 1978 felt like a very strange day for me. In the past twenty-four hours,
college had ended for me and I was engaged to the woman I met at school on the third day and fell in love with over time. I realized just how far I had come in the four years that seemed to fly by. I entered college as man-child in a relatively structured environment and left school as young man in uncharted waters. But, navigating uncharted waters is what the college experience is supposed to have prepared me for. I was about to give my life “the good old college try” and see where the chips would fall.
My future mother-in-law worked for Bloomingdales in Manhattan. She headed their construction department and was highly respected by corporate management. Just prior to my graduation, she inquired what jobs might be available for an entry-level college grad. The store just happened to be hiring buyer trainees for the Bloomingdales executive training program. The program had earned praise from most of the major retailers in the department store industry over the years. It was among the finest of its kind in that industry and very selective in its hiring practices.
However, with a degree in Industrial Psychology this was not exactly the job I really wanted. As a courtesy and a show of appreciation for my future mother-in-law, I decided to interview for the position. To my surprise, I got the job on the spot. I reflected on the job offer over that weekend and decided to accept the offer. I looked at this as an opportunity to get a foot in the door and eventually move into personnel (it wasn’t called human resources, yet) where I really wanted to be. Bloomingdales had a reputation as an industry leader with an impressive employer standing. I felt privileged to be hired by such an industry giant and – frankly – I was excited to start working there in any capacity.
My first day on the job, I was awe-struck. I remember entering that famous store on 2nd Avenue and immediately smelling the overpowering fragrances coming from the perfumery and cosmetics departments. Looking around me, I viewed a massive selling space filled with expensiveand trendy garments neatly hung on racks; showcases filled with high-endaccessories; and walls covered in rich mahogany and deep cherry exteriors – so regal it all looked to a country boy like me. This is where the wealthy shop; the business leaders; the movie stars; and the cosmopolitans of New York City. “Do I really belong in here?” I thought to myself. After all, as a kid mom bought most of my clothes at schlocky Britt’s
Department store in Freehold, but never anything from Bloomingdales that I can
During my first day on the job, I met most of the other trainees that I would be working with. The group had some very impressive young people as its make-up. Among us was Art Strawbridge, an heir to the famous Philadelphia department store family, Strawbridge and Clothier. Art was a bit older than me. After graduating from Hobart College (NY), he became an elementary school teacher and taught for awhile. Apparently, he decided to get involved in his family’s business and somehow made his way to the Bloomingdale’s training program. Art was a really nice fellow and very well spoken. We became friendly and enjoyed many lunches together in Bloomingdales’ famed “Poison Palace,” aka the cafeteria.
Basically, the Bloomingdales’ buyer trainee program consisted of moving from one department to another and getting a feel for how each department operated. Generally, the trainees were assigned grunt work that included everything from receiving and unpacking product shipments to display setups; inventory; and yes, sales. In short, to become a buyer, a trainee was expected to pay his or her dues in the trenches.
One of the things I immediately learned about Bloomies, as it was affectionately called, was that the buyers and department managers were not nearly as sophisticated as the store’s clientele. In fact, some of the roughest and toughest
characters I have ever met were Bloomingdales buyers and store managers. They weren’t all pleasant to work with either and many of them came down very hard on the trainees as we tried to learn our jobs and produce results. Many lacked the patience for those of us with that familiar “deer in the headlights” look that most recent college grads exhibit when new on a job.
I often was intimidated by these gruff managers and lacked the experience and sophistication to handle them much of the time. It was difficult and sometimes very unpleasant. Many of the other trainees felt the same way. Perhaps, this was some sort of test – a kind of retail gauntlet – we were being asked to pass through; a swim or sink experiment, so to speak. That’s what some of us thought, anyway.
I remember one busy Saturday – in particular - when I was asked to sell in the fine jewelry department. The salespeople there were all on commission and here I was a salaried trainee asked to compete with them for sales. Let me just say that they were not happy to have me for the day.
One of the first customers that I remember working with was a nice looking couple from Texas, who were decked out in typical Dallas attire. Both wore fancy cowboy hats and cowboy boots – alligator boots, if I remember correctly. The woman was covered in gold and diamonds from head to toe. The man had a wristwatch with large diamonds all around its face. They were very friendly folks and seemed to take to me, immediately. The woman actually had a jewelry shopping list, much like the ones that mom and dad took to the supermarket. On their list were various gold, silver and diamond items and they shopped as if money were no object. They barely looked at the stuff that they were buying as they racked up an order in the tens of thousands of dollars.
It was my responsibility to ring up all orders that I sold and the salespeople were going berserk that all of this potential commission was headed nowhere. I wasn’t getting any of it and neither were they. I can understand their anger and frustration at the store for creating such an unfair situation for them – with me at the center of it all. I couldn’t wait for that day to end and I am sure they couldn’t, either.
Most days after work, I would catch a bus across the Queensboro Bridge or take the 7 train to my future in-laws’ apartment in Jackson Heights. There, I would catch up with Betsy, who had also started a new job. She had gotten a job through a mid-town employment agency at National Administrators Inc, which was the mail handler’s benefit plan – insurance coverage for postal workers. There, Betsy was a claims specialist. She quoted benefits to the mail handlers that were calling in with health insurance claims questions. She liked her new job, mostly.
In the evening, we’d have dinner with Betsy’s parents and I would usually stay overnight, since it was easier to get to and from work on time during most mornings, especially on Saturdays. Each night, Betsy and I would discuss the past day and share our experiences on the job with her mom and dad. When we left the dinner table, we’d usually relax in front of the TV set or go out for a walk on Roosevelt Avenue.
True to form, Betsy would stop and buy some goodies at many of the delicious bakeries and appetizer stores along the local street. Some cheese danish and cookies here; some health salad and noodle kugel there. Nothing has really changed, to this day. Betsy was already a “foodie” when we met.
I might eat a full-course chicken dinner at night, while Betsy would finish off a pound of German potato salad as her main meal of the day. Her unusual eating habits had their roots way, way back to before we even met. My parents enjoyed a few laughs about Betsy’s unorthodox dinner choices. My mom would serve a well-balanced and hearty dinner to the family, but Betsy would just prefer to eat a half pound of sliced roast beef (cold cuts) with dipping ketchup. Too funny!
While Betsy seemed to enjoy her job at National Administrators, I began to realize that the job at Bloomies was just not for me. I didn’t think it would be for me from the beginning. My father ended up spending 35 years working for Macys-Bambergers and as children Desly and I often felt short-changed as
dad often worked late nights, holidays and weekends. We were deprived from
having him around most of the time, because on top of it all our parents had
their side businesses – also in retail. The final insult from the world of
retailing was delivered when Dad’s boss refused to give him off the day of
Desly’s college graduation from Monmouth College. Neither Desly nor I had a good taste in our mouths for department store retailing after those years of missing dad.
After a couple of months at Bloomingdales, I made up my mind and decided to resign from my job and seek other employment; preferably in personnel. I discussed it with Betsy, her parents and my parents and everyone seemed to understand that I wasn’t happy doing this kind of work and that I needed a change. They also all realized that the first few years after college is a time called “career floundering,” when many recent college grads try different jobs – each one, short-term – and few that will ever make it on to our eventual career resumes.
On a Friday afternoon in the late summer of 1978, I walked into the Bloomingdales training department and gave my notice. The head of the program seemed shocked and said to me, “no one ever quits the Bloomingdale’s training program.” I remember responding to her by saying that, “I guess I am,” and explained why. I later found out that more than half of my fellow trainees, including Art Strawbridge, also left the program. I also heard that they let the head of the trainee program go soon after I left and that she ended up taking a job as a college recruiter in upstate New York. I guess the program wasn’t for her, either.
As an idea, Betsy contacted the employment agency on 5th Avenue that got her the job at National Administrators and inquired about jobs for me. They recommended that I come in to meet with them. I was to meet with Sue Jacobs, the account rep that assisted Betsy. Sue was an older lady; very sharp and very nice. She was like a surrogate mother to all she met. She immediately loved Betsy when she met her. She referred to Betsy as “sweet and clean scrubbed.” I’ll never forget that.
Well, Sue and I spoke for awhile about jobs and she immediately noticed something about me that she liked. “You’re for this business,” she said. “Excuse me,” I answered. “You would do well as a recruiter here,” she went on to say. She then led me to her boss, Joe Morgan. Joe chatted with me for a few moments and then popped his famous question, “what motivates you?” Somehow, I knew where he was going with this and I answered, “I want to make money.” “You’ve got the job here, “he jumped from his chair and pumped my hand.
The pay was a $95 dollar a week draw against commission. It cost me more to commute than I earned the first several weeks. But, I immediately felt comfortable at Forrest Personnel. I liked the people and I Iiked interviewing
people for jobs. This is where I really belonged.
I began to do well at Forrest Personnel and the focus now centered on wedding planning and apartment searching. There were new challenges to be faced as two families tried to work together to get along as our plans were being made. To be continued…