My Calderon Years

By on Sep 24, 2010 in Essays

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NYC skyline

What did I expect? An endless champagne cocktail reception at Cipriani with fashion models and Italian industrial magnates inviting me to pass a few months sailing the Mediterranean on their yachts? I don’t know that I expected that, but I felt as though that was what I deserved, and not these stunted freaks. In the meantime, I now had a crack at being broken in as a qualified industry designer, if I could get past this freakin’ scarecrow of a salesman.

Dornbusch finally got tired of trembling in rage and left the room. I went out for lunch but there was absolutely nothing open around there. Nothing. That part of town resembled the set of Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Finally I found a hole-in-the-wall bodega and bought a can of beer, which I drank on the street while I smoked some cigarettes.

That afternoon, Bill Daniels came to see me. “It’s all arranged,” he said. “I’ll take you to meet the man you’ll be working with.” He led me to the belt department on the third floor and introduced me to my two bosses, Louie Janz, the production designer, and Morris Schwartzwald, the floor supervisor. Both these jokers were in their seventies. Schwartzwald had a German accent and a skeletal, funereal face like a Mexican Day of the Dead illustration. He would not have been out of place in a shadowy walk-on role in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - that’s how scary he was. He was plug ugly, and he knew it. Nevertheless, he had a framed diploma from a German technical institute hanging over his desk, and you had to respect that. I was to be trained according to the very exacting standards that he knew before he passed on to that big wienerschnitzel in the sky.

Louie Janz was the main guy. He had the hands. I would have a work table adjacent to his in the cutting section, where he would train me in the patterns and prototypes, and in setting up the production runs as the orders came in. He was a stout little fireplug, real old school right down to the Depression-era poorboy cap, like Leo Gorcey in the Bowery Bums comedy films. Louis was Olde New York, with a thick Brooklyn accent. “My bruddah,” “my faddah,” etc. Louie had never married. He shared an apartment with his bruddah in Sheepshead Bay, and he had a boat docked in a marina. Fishing was his passion. Louie was the old-timer you saw on the subway with a folded copy of the Daily News opened to the center page that showed the crime photos.

If I could stick it out long enough to learn what these old-timers knew, I could go to work anywhere — belts, handbags, shoes — and I could eventually weasel myself into the executive suite. Only, instead of all the frauds who had gotten there through bluff and nepotism, I would know everything from the ground up. I would be invincible. That is what I saw for myself, and freakin’ Ernie Dornbusch probably recognized that. They probably all did, because I didn’t try very hard to conceal my ambition.

Many years I had lain back in Montreal and plotted my conquest of New York City. Every time I produced a nice item for a customer in my boutique, Dean’s Boutique de Cuir, I had taken photos of it to add to my portfolio, for eventual use in breaking in to the New York market. I had photos of fantastic theatrical outfits that I had designed for my Halloween fashion show at Yuk Yuk’s Komedy Kabaret. When I finally determined that I had absolutely wrung everything I could get out of Montreal and had nothing left to gain from sticking around, I closed shop, put everything I owned in storage and caught the next train for New York.

As luck would have it, my timing was dead on. The last generation of true maestros was on its last legs and getting ready to retire, as illustrated by Louis and Morris. These old boys did not want to give it up, but the sands of time were running out. They were in their seventies and singing their last hurrah as a freakin’ barbershop quartet of antique relics of ancient ghouls. A couple of years sooner would have been too early and a couple of years later would have been too late, both for them and for the high end of the industry, as we shall see.

There were few qualified men to pass the baton to. I say men, and I mean it. The exacting rigors and the rough-and-tumble nature of industrial production were too nasty for modern female sensibilities. FIT was graduating a lot of design students, but you needed a hands-on leather background to be trained as an industry accessories designer, and there were very few of these around. And, sorry to say, most of the styling in the market was extremely pedestrian. There was nobody around who was suitable to be trained for this function. It was like I had hit gold.

This fact was not lost on Dornbusch, Louie Janz and Morris. They were dismayed to see that I was sitting in the catbird seat. They all realized that new blood had to be brought into the industry, but not somebody as voracious as I was. As Morris once told me, barely containing his rage, “You, you are different!”  They would have preferred to pass their knowledge on to somebody a little less, shall we say, comprehensive. In addition, I looked even younger than I was, and they couldn’t accept all that styling talent and combatitiveness coming from somebody who, from their perspective of ancient relics, looked to be a contemporary of freakin’ Harry Potter!

The first thing Louis Janz told me was, “Here we work centers.” That meant that patterns had to be balanced and symmetrical. Handbag and belt patterns are styled with a small, curved knife on heavy paper that is scored by a patternmaking pin along a straight edge and then folded along the score, sort of like a Japanese origami. That way, once you have your curved line you cut along the curve with your knife, and when you open it up you have a perfectly symmetrical curve. Naturally, all rules are made to be broken, depending how advanced you are, but this rule of symmetry is the natural law of the universe and the cardinal rule of patternmaking.

We were not in the handbag business. That was another universe on the fifth floor, with its own set of natural laws and its own elements of design. But some of the principles were mutual. We made constructed items, which meant that a lot more component parts went into our pieces than in a less elegant item. Louis would go down to the design room and receive a sketch and instructions from the Nathans or one of their assistants, along with the buckles and ornaments, which were specially designed for us by Barry Kieselstein-Corde, and then he would give me a piece of the job to work on while he structured the overall piece. A lot of our time was spent worrying over the small ornaments with our little rulers and calculating by what means they would be fit into the overall item. Louis taught me to construct small cardboard “jigs,” as they were called, to fit the ornament flush so that it could be swedged onto the belt by means of a drill-press. A lot of belts had ornamental chains, and we would build jigs to measure lengths of chain so that they would drape from the belts precisely as we wanted them. He taught me to keep detailed records for later use in setting up the production runs. He taught me the detailed, intricate tricks of the trade as they had been passed down through the ages, the way a Renaissance Florentine artisan would initiate his apprentice.

He showed me how to cut a piece of leather content filler, which is compressed fiber like drywall, into a shape, rivet a double hook into it, pare the edges thin, cover the top with a piece of 10-point paper to cover the bump of the rivet, turn a piece of snakeskin over it, fit a lining neatly over the hook using heat-seal cement and a heat press. And voilà! You have a custom snakeskin belt closing with a hidden hook, cut to any shape you want!

He showed me how to make a pattern for a covered buckle, which we would submit to the machinist, who would cut us a metal frame. I would cut the buckle covering, split its thickness down to one ounce, spray it and the metal frame with rubber cement, wait for the cement to turn to a tacky state, carefully place the frame behind the covering and turn the cover over the frame with a piece of shaped bone, cut a lining, spray the lining, lay it precisely over the back of the covered buckle and press it on the heat seal press, clean it with benzine, put a prong on it. Voilà! an elegant covered buckle appropriate for the belt rack in Bloomingdale’s.

Sometimes Louie didn’t have enough work for me, or he didn’t feel like sharing the work. There were plenty of times that he would hold back from showing me things that he couldn’t bear to reveal to me, so closely held are the secrets of the métier. In those circumstances I did regular production functions for Morris. This old man was the kiss of death. An uglier, nastier, more ornery old coot never existed. Sometimes freakin’ Dornbusch would come onto the floor and confer with Morris. This imbecile salesman had no business in the production end of things, but he was like a god to the Nathans, and he had the run of the place. The two of them would confer and glare at me, and then Morris would walk over to me and start screaming like a Coney Island funhouse banshee, blood-curdling, about why my cutting board wasn’t oiled and scraped, or whatever. One time he told me that he had received complaints about my body odor. Real sophisticated stuff like that. Hey, when you’re at his stage of the game, the options for entertainment are greatly reduced. What was he going to do, pick up a girl? Go play rollerblade hockey?

One time, just to piss him off, I made a phone call from the pay phone next to his desk and made a date with a beautiful girl to meet me at an outdoor café on Broadway. When I got off the phone he told me, “No more phone calls.” Ha-ha!

But freakin’ Morris did me a lot of good. He made me an expert turner of edges by making me do the same job as the workers who were given large trays of tabs and belts to turn, using the bone tool, which resembles a letter opener on one side and a crocheting tool on the other. You raise the edge of the material using the flat side and then use the hook side to expertly flatten the leather over the filler material.

For his naturalistic novels of the nineteenth century, French writer Emile Zola would go into the workplace with a notebook and take notes about how the job was done. He described the workings inside coal mines, factories and artisan’s workshops for his readers. But Zola wore kid gloves. He was never able to describe the job from the standpoint of a worker who actually put his hands on the work. The whole time I was doing these jobs, I would dream of one day being able to recount my experiences for literature. So today the time has come, and I thank God for giving me the opportunity to fulfill my dream.

Look for part two in the next issue.

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Dean Borok, a nephew of Saul Bellow, is the winner of the 2009 New York Magazine political fictions literary competition with his award winning short story "A Wall Street Christmas Carol". He operates an experimental comedy web site at