Threats of a salesman: Dad dodged road’s temptations

By Ed Gold

With Father’s Day just around the corner, I’m reminded of a painful experience my father had which proved he was not your typical traveling salesman.

My father was always a salesman, no matter what he was selling. His real love was in the fashion business, selling a dress line to department and specialty store buyers up and down the East Coast. He never lost his interest in the dress business and long after he had moved into a very different product line he would select a group of dresses from one or more of the better Manhattan stores and have them shipped to my mother in the Bronx.

My mother, who cared little about dressing up, would almost always send the merchandise back to the stores.

When he was still selling dresses, he showed the first signs of not being your traveling salesman stereotype. He had a top customer in Pittsburgh, a dress buyer who had increased her orders over the years. My dad was then in his 30s, with an outgoing personality, lots of enthusiasm, a good fashion feel and a great sense of humor. The dress buyer really liked him. But on one visit she began asking some personal questions and my father whipped out his wallet and showed her pictures of his wonderful wife and his adorable son — me.

He later told me: “I don’t know what happened. That dress buyer and I had been friends. She loved my merchandise. She suddenly turned very cold. I could not believe it. She said goodbye and never gave me another order.”

The Great Depression killed the fashion business, and my father joined up with his younger brother in a very different line of work: rebuilding shock absorbers and carburetors. He would visit junkyards and auto repair shops and buy up used and damaged goods, and take them back to his factory where workers replaced bad parts and did a paint job on each item. There apparently was a growing market at that time for these rebuilt units.

Although he was part owner of this Manhattan-based business, he couldn’t stand staying in the office. He liked being on the road and remained a terrific salesman, although he really didn’t like the auto parts business.

The business picked up in the late ’30s so the brothers opened a second factory, in Kansas City, which my Uncle Lou ran. Uncle Lou had all the characteristics of the classic traveling salesman. He happened to be good looking, glib, loved party going, was a good spender and had an eye for nice figures, particularly in motion. Once, family friends spotted him on a plane in from Kansas City and heading for Miami. He was accompanied by two women. His wife, of course, was back in Brooklyn. I always remembered the incident as “Uncle Looie’s Flying Harem.”

As it turned out, one of his girlfriends wasn’t too bright. She sent a letter addressed to him at his Brooklyn home. His wife opened it. Not too long after, she filed for divorce.

Meanwhile, my father had hired several salesmen along the East Coast, including one in Atlanta. He decided to work the southern territory with his new salesman, who sounded very eager to make a good impression. My father thought he’d be away at least a week.

Only a few days into the southern trip, my father arrived back home, unexpectedly, early in the morning and looking like death warmed over. He woke up my mother and me and told us why he had cut short his trip:

The first two days on the road had been fine. He and his salesman had visited car dealers and other prospective customers in the Atlanta area. On the second day, they had gotten back to their hotel in the evening and had had a quick dinner. My father said he was very tired and decided to call it a night. He fell asleep quickly.

Sometime later he was awakened because he seemed to be bumping against something. It turned out to be a woman who had crawled into his bed.

He was very upset.

“It’s alright,” the woman said. “It’s all taken care of.”

My father, whom I knew to be conspicuously fastidious, continued his story:

“I told her there had been a big mistake and asked her to leave. Then I dashed into the bathroom and was sick. When I came out, I just wanted to go home. I threw my clothes into my bag and left a message for the salesman at the front desk.

“I got into a cab and headed for the airport, and I took the first plane back to New York.”

He was still not feeling well, so my mother made him some tea and toast.

He later called the salesman and told him he had suddenly gotten ill and had returned home. The salesman said he was sorry if he had done the wrong thing. He had made the arrangement with the elevator operator, which was standard practice at the hotel. My father said he’d just like to stick to selling in the future.

My mother and I never doubted his story.

When he got up the next morning, he took one of his favorite trips. Instead of going to his factory on Tenth Ave., he headed for Fifth Ave. and visited some of his favorite stores — B. Altman, Bonwit Teller, Lord & Taylor. He carefully picked out a larger than usual selection of dresses and sent them to the Bronx. This time my mother decided to keep most of them.

It made my father very happy.