Friday, June 01, 2012

Alexander King: Guest Blogger

This story comes from Alexander King's 1958 memoir Mine Enemy Grows Older, and I am sharing it here with the kind permission of Margie King Barab. You will notice some anachronistic terms here and there, but I have chosen to forgive this singular man for his prejudices, and the choice terms he used to articulate them.
There was one curious aspect to my life during all those years, from 1917 to 1948, which I have somehow or other forgotten to mention to you before--that for more than thirty years I wore only pink neckties. Not ever any other color, under any circumstances. It finally got to be an identifying trademark for me, although, heaven is my witness, I never intended anything of the sort when I first started wearing them. In fact, I got into this pink-tie addiction when I was only seventeen years old, and believe me, any boy or man who was willing to wear such an unorthodox color back in those dark days of somber men’s attire had to have plenty of guts or plenty of stupidity, or plenty of both, to get away with it.

Of course I stumbled into it all, as I fell into most things, by strictly minding my own business, and by just carefully putting one foot in front of the other.

I was working on the New York Sunday World when I was seventeen, and I was also doing some cartooning jobs for the Big Stick, a Jewish joke paper that I already told you about. My salary on the World was twenty-five dollars a week, and I generally took long, leisurely walks every Friday afternoon, just to give myself, and those twenty-five bucks, a luxurious airing. These walks often included window-shopping tours ranging from Nassau Street and lower Broadway to Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue up as far as the Plaza.

Well, then, loaded as I was, one of those Friday afternoons I happened to stop in front of Sulka’s window, somewhere in the Forties or Fifties, and I noticed that they were having a sale of neckties. Six dollars a tie. I wondered what in hell they could possibly have charged for them before the sale. I felt myself getting even a little indignant about the whole thing. However, in spit of my simmering annoyance I found that I was deliberately walking into their cool, expensive-smelling store.

I stands to reason, doesn’t it, that I wasn’t planning to buy anything, and the clerk, whose face looked just like a shinbone with eyebrows, knew this as well as I did. But, like two idle dogs of the same gender who can’t resist their pointless browsing, this clerk and I forthwith proceeded to give the stock a judicious fingering; which means that I sneered disparagingly at the tie-racks, while he kept on constructing smart four-in-hand knots in mid-air, just to show off his really stupendous manual dexterity, and also to make me feel like a cheap piker.

This went on for about twenty minutes or so, and I was just about to call off the whole silly ballet by making my exit, when the clerk, who was obviously a pansy, suddenly said to me, “You know, we have some colors that are much less popular, and those ties cost only one dollar apiece. Would you care to see any of them?”

“Why not?” I said. “As long as I’m here, anyway. What sort of colors are they?”

I’ll show them to you. To tell you the truth,” he said with a confidential smirk, “I’m saving some of them especially for my friends.”

This, of course, instantly alarmed me, because I was quite sure that any friend of his was bound to be a leaping faggot, but just the same I decided to take a look. He pulled a box of the shelf, removed the lid, and exposed about two dozen crepe-de-Chine ties, all of then pink.

“Not a very great selection,” I said. “How much are they, did you say?”

“A dollar apiece,” he said. “They cost us more than that wholesale.”

Now, then, who really knows what dark and sinister impulses are crouched and coiled in the recesses of man’s unconscious? Who can guess what terrible unfulfilled longings in a man’s heart are just waiting for the right word, or the right moment, to spring into instant, demoniacal action, for the sake of a long-deferred secret appeasement?

In short I bought six of those pink crepe-de-Chine neckties, and, believe it or not, I even had a certain feeling hot high accomplishment out of this demented proceeding. It was as if I’d pulled a particularly cute caper, not just on Sulka and Company, but on all the goddamned expensive shops up and down Fifth Avenue.

And that’s how it happened that I came to wear a pink tie to work the next day. I labored, a the time, in the tower of the old Pulitzer Building, down on Park Row, and, when I first took off my coat, the screams, the whistles, the yowls and the yodelings all around me stopped all human activity on that floor for the next ten minutes.

But, since I was seventeen years old and a man of my convictions, I ignored this racket and quietly went about my business. My business was to make some black-and-white line sketches for the Sunday magazine section, and so I was able, for a while at least, to ben zealously over my drawing board, without having to meet anybody’s eye. This was certainly a help, but even so it was hard for me to ignore the mad cavortings of the office boys and the various younger staff members, who made it their pleasure to pass my desk forty times and hour in that special mincing gait which has even been the immemorial hallmark of the camping fairy.

I don’t know how I lived through that first morning. At any rate, right before lunch I took off my tie and hung it in a metal closet where I usually kept only a pair of torn rubbers. When I got ready to quit work that evening, I had a shocking surprise waiting for me. Somebody on that floor and dipped my tie in a large glue vat that was permanently stationed near the fire exit. That glue had completely dried up and left the tie with a texture like a smoked kipper; but since I knew that a lot of furtive eyes were certainly watching me at that moment, I just dropped my violated neckpiece casually into the garbage can and went home.

Fools! I thought. Just a pack of crude, conventional fools. Ah, well, they believed I was routed, did they? They thought they had me down for the count, eh? Well, they’d soon learn different. Damned soon, too! I’d show those mush heads a thing of two--or even five, if it came to that, because, as you perfectly well know, I still had five more of those ties hanging at home in my closet, ready and waiting to be launched whenever the spirit moved me.

I was determined to teach all those dopes a lesson, to teach them to respect a man’s right to wear whatever the hell he gooddamned well pleased. And so the battle lines were drawn, and no mercy was given or expected.

I wore my pink ties every day from then on, and, do you know, as the tense weeks went by a very funny thing happened. In about a month or so, I couldn’t help but notice that slowly, ever so slowly, the fury and the clamor were beginning to die down. In fact, by the time I’d gotten around to wearing the third of my ties, somebody from the business office, who had never before seen my colorful haberdashery and was just about to launch himself into the gibbering state of epilepsy that the occasion seemed to call for, was stupefied into silence when a few of my nearby colleagues told him to shut his trap and to mind his own goddamned business.

You see, the young journalists on my floor had not only become used to my pink ties, they had developed a certain comradely state of tolerance toward my special eccentricity. They had come to consider it their peculiar privilege to razz me for acting out of line, but they all stood defensively by me if any unlicensed outsider ever decided to put me down.

In short, after six months of nothing but pink ties, nobody around me seemed any longer to notice that I was wearing anything out of the ordinary at all.

And then came a real crisis. I gave five of my ties away to be cleaned, in a store on West Eighth Street, and when I came back a few days later to reclaim them, I found to my error that the place had been completely gutted by fire.

It was a real calamity for me, as you can plainly understand. Those pink ties were the symbols of my individuality, weren’t they? And, to a certain extend, they had even become the tangible pennants that I had tremblingly fluttered before a hostile world, to announce my freedom of choice. I just couldn’t let myself down now. I simply couldn’t make my appearance at the office wearing some dark, practical colors, not after all I’d already been through, could I? If I did, all would be lost again.

Oh, yes, I could just see all those blubber heads on the paper saying, “Well, you’ve finally got yourself straightened out! Decided to rejoin the human race again, eh? Good for you, boy!”

No, no, no! It was out of the question. Eternal vigilance was the price of freedom! that was the basic rule of the game, and I damn well knew it.

And so, in this frightening emergency, I quickly hustled up to B Altman’s on Thirty-fourth Street, and bought myself three years of candy-pink crepe-de-Chine material. Afterward I consulted a classified phone directory and found that the Acme Tie Company, right nearby, on Thirty-sixth Street, was prepared to make neckties in small quantities to private order.

I had myself quite a time finding that goddamned tie place, too, because it was located in one of those depressing blocks between Eighth and Ninth avenues, where there weren’t’ even any drugstores or lunchrooms to break up the solid facade of grim wholesale manufacturing. Id did find it at last, and it was, literally, just a very small hole in a very thick and forbidding wall.

Mr. Aron Buxbaum, the owner, turned out to be a neat little bearded elderly Jew who wore a black skullcap and satin sleeve garters, and who showed no surprise whatever at the unusual color of my material.

“I’m in a terrible hurry about these ties,” I told him as I unwrapped the stuff. “How soon can I possibly have them?”

“Day after tomorrow,” said Mr. Buxbaum. “We generally like to have more time, but, if it’s an emergency, we’ll just do the best we can.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll pick them up around lunchtime on Friday.”

When I returned, two days later, Mr. Buxbaum handed me a pretty good sized package, and a bill for fifteen dollars.

I nearly fainted. “How come, fifteen dollars?” I said.

“You’re charging me a fortune. After all, I supplied the material, didn’t I?”

Mr. Buxbaum looked hurt. “We do very fine work here,” he said. “You just take a look at those ties, and you’ll see what you’re getting for your money. You’re getting a big bargain.”

“Never mind,” I said. “I haven’t got time now, I have to get back to work. I don’t get through until four o’clock.”

Luckily, because it was payday, I had a twenty-dollar bill on me, and I was able to square myself.

“Wear them in good health!” said Mr. Buxbaum, when I finally stood in the open doorway.

“Thanks,” I said. “By the way, how many ties did you manage to get out of that material, anyway?”

“Exactly sixty two,” he said. “If you had bought just a quarter of a yard more, you could have had sixty five.”

And that’s how it was.

Ties, I later learned, are cut on the bias and really require very little material. And so, at one stroke, I had added to my wardrobe a matter of more than five dozen pink ties.

They lasted for quite a while, too, and when the finally wore out I just bought some more material and had a new batch made up for myself over at Buxbaum’s. And that’s how it happened that I came to march through the ages as a peculiarly necked man.

And then, sometime in 1947, all of my luggage was lost by one of the airlines, and I arrived in New York with only one pink necktie to my name, and one that I was wearing. Well, I naturally went straight up to Altman’s to get myself three and a quarter yards of fresh pink crepe de Chine. I’d made these trips and these purchases quite often during the past thirty years, and I no longer had the slights difficulty in locating the Acme Tie Company on West Thirty-sixth Street.

But when I finally got there, old man Buxbaum wasn’t anywhere in sight. Instead, a sort of young and beardless caricature of him was sitting agains the back wall and making entries in a huge ledger.

“You’re Mr. Buxbaum’s son, aren’t you? I said.

“Yes,” he said, “I’m George Buxbaum. And you, I believe, must be Mr. King.”

“I am,” I said. “But how in the world did you know that?”

“Because,” said George Buxbaum, “my father is now dead, and you used to be his only customer.”

“What?” I said. “You mean that I alone have kept his whole enterprise going?”

“If you want to put it that way,” he said. “Actually, the matter is a little more complicated than that. You see, my brothers and I are probably the largest wholesale tie manufacturers in America. In fact, we own this building, which houses one of our four factories.”

“And what about this store?” I said.

“Ah, well, that was all my father’s wish,” he said. “You see, he came to this country as an immigrant and started to feel ties out of a cigar box, on Orchard Street. My mother used to make those ties on a foot-pedal sewing machine at home. Later on he got a pushcart, and by the time my brothers and I were going to high school he’d managed to get himself a nice little store on Second Avenue near Twelfth Street. Well, to make a long story short, we all of us somehow or other got into the necktie business, and we did so well in it that after a while the whole family kept pleading with my father to retire, or to take it easy, or at least to take some kind of an executive position in one of our plants. but, for some reason or another, he just never had any real confidence in our success. It was all too big and much to vague for him. Everything was done by bank drafts and checks, and in our places of business he never saw any real money changing hands; and so, every time we expanded, or opened a new factory, he just got more worried about us.

“Finally, one day he pleaded with us to fix him up this little retail place right here, where he at least could go on making a real visible dollar across the counter. I think he felt that he was prepared to save the family from absolute ruin, when we had all smashed up with our grand and highfalutin notions. So we built this store for him, and for a while he even had a couple of dozen customers that used to trade here steadily. But for the last eight or ten years, the only jobs that came his way were your pink ties.

“And that brings me to still another point,” he said. “You see, Mr. King, the whole family always gets together for dinner in my mother’s house on Friday nights, and my father and my brothers and I , we would spend hours and hours, wondering and speculating what could possibly be the meaning of all those pink ties. Some of us thought it must be the emblem of some secret society. Others had the idea that maybe it had a certain religious significance, or something. bu my father--you must excuse me of telling you this--my father was convinced that you were an artist, and that you painted naked girls on those ties, and that you sold them at stag parties.”

“You father overestimated my talents,” I said. “No. I had those ties made for other good and sufficient reasons.” And then I told young Buxbaum, briefly, the gist of my story.

“Well,” he said, “I’m very glad you’ve explained it at last, because if my father’s sporty is anywhere at all, it certainly must be hovering around this little store where he spent so many years of his life.”

He opened a small desk file, and I could see that it contained only one single card. George Buxbaum showed me what his father had written on it. It was in Yiddish.

KING, ALEXANDER
PINK TIES.
ONLY PINK TIES.
WHY?

The children think he is some kind of a bolshevik, but I’m sure he only makes a few harmless dirty pictures. He is a good and steady customer. May God preserve him from mischief. And from the police.

On the bottom of this card young Buxbaum now wrote Account Closed.

“So you are finally giving up the store,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “By the end of next week the door and window will be walled up, and premises will have been absorbed by the rest of the building. But don’t worry, for old time’s sake we’ll make you this last batch of ties from the material you just brought. You’ll just have to call for them on the seventh floor.”

And that was the end of the Acme Tie Company, and that was the last of my pink ties, too, because I never had the heart to take my business to anybody else.


© Margie King Barab

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