A Garment Center Remnant

by

01/05/2002

W 34th St & 7th Ave, New York, NY 10001

Neighborhood: Clinton

He was walking along Broadway passing in front of Macy’s without lifting his head to glance at the windows. I was a few steps behind, slowing my usual frenetic pace so as not to catch up to him. I didn’t feel like schmoozing, something that was tough to avoid when you ran into Jack.

Jack. After twenty years, I still didn’t know his last name. I always used the name of the fabric company he was working for at the time as a substitute for his surname. So he was Jack of Renrob, until he switched companies; then he was Jack from Loomtex, until they went out of business; and now he was Jack from Weidman–a sales rep for an embroidery company.

When I first met Jack, I was a newcomer to the garment industry. A year out of college, I took a job working as an assistant to a fabric buyer for a children’s dress manufacturer. I’d call him occasionally to place an order for goods. Back then, Jack was always accompanied by Howie, a fellow salesperson, on his route through the clamor and commotion of the streets on the west side that made up the garment center. They were like an old Vaudeville team. Even though they worked for different companies, traveling together had become part of their routine.

It was always the same. I’d go out to the reception area to place an order with Jack on a poly/cotton floral print they were running. He and Howie would be seated comfortably in the upholstered chairs, chatting with the receptionist. “Hi, Jack. How are you? Oh, hi Howie. Nice to see you,” I would say.

“There she is!” Jack would always say as if our meeting was somehow unexpected. “Tell me, how do you keep yourself looking so great? Doesn’t she look great, Howie?” Always with the flattery, that Jack.

“She always looks great,” Howie would respond without missing a beat. I waved them off self-consciously and sat down with Jack at a table in the showroom to place my order.

“How’s business,” he asked one day. A standard question.

“Oh, really good. We’re very busy right now,” I told him.

“Oh that’s good, that’s good. You can’t complain about that. You know, I hear that Ruth Scharff isn’t doing so good,” he said lowering his voice as he divulged this distressing news about another manufacturer.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “But maybe things will turn around.”

“I hope you’re right,” he said. “This is some crazy business we’re in.”

Jack was one of those men who looked older than he actually was. I always thought he looked like a caricature of himself. His stooped posture made him appear shorter than his 5’8″. Blue eyes peered out over a nose that dominated his narrow face, and a ring of almost undetectable fuzz circled around the back of his head. But those ears! Had he been in show biz, these definitely would have been his trademark. They stood away from his head as if a strong wind had caught him from behind. Or maybe they were straining to hear the latest gossip on the street. His ears made him likeable. How could you not like a guy with funny ears?

But these days when I saw Jack, the twenty years that elapsed since our first meeting were beginning to show. His walk had slowed to a labored gait as he schlepped his suitcase filled with the latest embroidered fabrics his present company was running. He must have been as tired as he appeared because I sometimes caught him in the Hospitality Suite on the 11th floor of the Children’s Wear Building, snoring softly catching a snooze in between appointments. With fewer manufacturers left, there weren’t as many customers to call on. The business had changed. Overseas production of fabric had put many domestic plants out of business. With buyers looking for sharper prices than the previous year, manufacturers were forced to use contractors overseas to reduce the labor cost. Customers could look for that union label, but in many cases weren’t going to find it. Over the past few years, I had seen our company close down 3 of its 5 domestic union shops. And although we took pride in remaining one of the few children’s wear companies that employed domestic union labor, it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain that status. Those companies that didn’t change along with the times had gone under. We were survivors. Even now, Jack would often drop in on our company, hoping one of the designers was available so he could show his face and see if there was an order in the works somewhere down the road.

As I watched him walk along Broadway, an incredible sadness enveloped me. Why was he still working? Could he not afford to stop or was he simply not ready to hang it all up? Howie had long since retired and was probably seated at some Canasta table somewhere in Florida. The younger salesmen were efficient, but most weren’t nearly as knowledgeable–ask them if a fabric was printed wet or pigment, and they had to get back to you. Not Jack. Old timers like him taught me what the difference was when I was supposed to know but didn’t.

I caught up with him at the corner of 34th street. “Hi Jack. How’s it going?”

“Fran!” I watched his expression change as if the sun had shone through a break in the clouds. He looked me over, leaned in towards me and said, “You’re looking great. Look at you, getting younger every day. How do you keep that girlish figure?”

I shook my head and laughed. Always with the flattery, that Jack.

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