Pushing Nicotine in NYC

Tobacconist to The World

Nat Sherman’s is “The Tobacconist to The World.”  Their smokes are world-famous.  It’s a public relations disaster that their cigarettes are the prefered platform for PCP, and that getting “Shermed” is synonymous with walking through plate-glass while being tasered, but sales are sales.  I have to admit that if I were to decide to smoke a dangerous animal tranquilizer, one that will make me go stark raving mad, I’d probably want to do it with one of Nat Sherman’s Turkish Ovals, made with a smooth. rich, and satisfying tobacco blend.

Nat Sherman’s retail store in Manhattan features their fine tobacco products, as well as the high-priced corresponding paraphernalia that delights any addict.  The employment company sent my girlfriend and me to them for an interview with the explicit instructions that we were to pretend we didn’t know each other. We wouldn’t get hired as a couple so we had to play it cool, at least at first.  We were starving then and down to picking up cans and bottles for grocery money.  When we both got the jobs, I celebrated with three quarts of Schlitz Malt Liquor on an empty stomach. “We made it, baby!” I told her, “We’re going midtown!”

It wound up being one of the worst jobs I ever had, and that’s saying a lot for a job that didn’t get shit under my fingernails.  Working retail, serving the clientele of 5th Avenue, exposed me to more human sewage than digging up broken sewer pipe ever did.

It was intimidating to work at such a fancy place.  I had to wear a suit, which I had, but I didn’t have any dress shoes.  I went to Macy’s on Queens Blvd. and looked around.  I wound up getting a pair at Payless that looked okay.  When I came in to work that next day, it was as if I walked in wearing snow-shoes made out of birch bark and fur.  All eyes went to my man-made uppers.  “Are those leather?” my manager asked, before even introducing herself.  “They’re leather-like,” I explained.  She raised her plucked eyebrow.  So this is how it’s going to be.

There were two managers.  The Ice Queen, who I had just been humiliated by, and a guy named Don.  Don was gay.  He was a less than Rip Taylor but more than Andy Warhol kind of obvious about it.  He wore a lot of masculine jewelry and a lot of masculine make-up.  He could be snotty, sneering, and bitchy, but in the context of that environment, he was actually an okay guy.  It was the Ice Queen that made life hard for us.  She always needed to have someone to wipe her shoes off on, and my girlfriend and I were stooping at just the right height.  If we didn’t get it from the customers, we could always count on her to shank us with a snide one.  My shoes, my watch, my tie, my haircut, the cut of my coat, the cut of my jib, all failed the test of her refined scrutiny.  She let me know this in a very helpful and well-meaning way.  My girlfriend got it worse.

In this hyper-critical reality, there was a tonic, besides the shots I started having for lunch.  It was a guy named Richie.  He had been working there for a few months by then.  He was another dud sent by the same employment company, but unlike us, Richie just didn’t give a fuck.  A lot of people say that they don’t, or try to act like they don’t, but you know they still do.  Not Richie.  He really, really, didn’t give a fuck.  He proved it.  All the time.

He was the iconic New Yorker.  He was brash, crass, and streetwise.  He wore loud, ill-fitting sports coats with mismatched slacks and big, ugly ties.  He had real leather shoes, but they were suede running shoes that were polka-dotted with souvlaki grease.  He constantly had one our pricey cigars hanging from his mouth.  He would let one dangle for a while, then mash it into an ashtray, only to reach into the case and get another one to cram in his mouth.  He’d go through eight or nine 12 dollar cigars in a shift.  He was constantly on the company phone to his bookie.  I’m serious.  I know it might sound like I’m trying to create a  Runyonesque character, but he would really spend most of his shift betting on sports.

He was probably the worst employee Nat Sherman’s has ever had.  He’d be sitting on a stool, looking at either the sports page or racing form, while customers cleared their throats trying to get his attention.  He’d turn his shoulder away from them, pick up the phone and dial.  He’d turn back to the customer and hold up a finger and turn away again. “Hey it’s Richie, fuck the Jets, give me Miami and the points.”   He’d cover the receiver and tell the customer to look around some more, then back into the phone, “I lost my balls with Buffalo, I need to get it up again. Double me. Yeah…fuck it.”

The customer never complained.  That was the thing.  Richie seemed to get away with murder.  Not so with us.  My girlfriend and I, desperate to keep the okay-paying gig, bowed and scraped before the customers and management.  Yet, it was our servile attitude that seemed to draw more heat.  We were chastised over nit-picky things, and constantly made to feel like the dirt-eating serfs that we were.

We had a meeting one afternoon, during which management pointed out problems in our performance.  One of the crimes against customer service was some of the guys loosening their ties.  I instinctively reached for my knot, but Richie just sat there, his tie at a slovenly half-mast.  If they had even tried to tell Richie that he was an offender, he would’ve just said “Fuck that, I never loosen my tie. I wear it like this!”  It was pointless, and they knew it, and just didn’t bother.

At one point, the complain-o-rama turned to personal phone calls.  This was in the days before cells, so any call had to come through the office.  The operator would announce who the phone call was for and from, over the intercom.  Taking any call that didn’t involve a life-threating emergency was frowned upon.  Well, Richie’s buddies and bimbos were constantly blowing up the phone with personal calls.  “Phone call for Richard, Vic on line one.”  “Phone call for Richard, Cha-Cha line two.”

Eddie, Tina, Sal, Sunny, Bunny, Mikey B, Wiz, Razz, Lana, Shauna, Monique, Dino and Dommy all checked in with Richie at some point during the day.  He’d insist that they were big-spending customers inquiring about inventory, but he never bothered to disguise his end of the conversation.

“We bailed from L’Amour at two…yeah…I left all those fuckers at Rockaway…I went in Gina’s car…Oh yeah, I banged it, banged it bug-eyed, baby!  Hey, tell Moony I still want that thing…yeah, fuck it…”

So while Don is bringing up the personal phone calls thing at the meeting, the intercom goes off.  “Phone call for Richard, Manny line two.”  By this point it was common knowledge that Manny was Richie’s bookie.  Oh boy, this is going to be good.  Richie just gets up and says, “Hang on, Donny, I gotta get this,” and leaves the room.  Don and the Ice Princess just looked at each other.  He came back in later, and nothing was ever said about it.  I’m not making this shit up.  Richie had balls.  They grew ’em big in Brooklyn.

One day, after watching me take an inordinate amount of abuse from some heiress who didn’t like the lighters I was showing her, he pulled me aside.

“Hey man, you need to get off your knees,” he said.

“But I made the sale.”

“Save the groveling for the parole board, these people are not better than you.”

I was embarrassed.  He was right.  I was selling out.  I was getting used to drinking Molsen and eating a hamburger cutlet every night.  I was letting the good life get to me.  In order to keep it, I just had to kiss some ass for eight hours a day, five days a week.  Boy,when you think about it that way, it adds up.  And who said these people are any better than me?  They just have more money, lots more.

I mean I understand that your family made a fortune manufacturing adult diapers, and that because of other people’s incontinence, you will never want for anything.  Great stroke of luck for you.  Your family is providing a valuable product to the buying public, and I’m sure a lot of well-needed jobs.  It’s a win-win.  I just don’t see where in the rule book it says you get to be a total ass-hole to other people.

I was starting to see things a little more clearly.  I loosened my tie.  I reached into the cigar case, took out a cigar, broke it in half, and threw it into the trash.  Then I got another one out and lit it.

Strangely, that week I made some freak high-priced sales.  Some tourist from Portugal came in and asked to see a cigar humidor.  He pointed to one.  I set it down on the counter.  He asked how much it was.  I told him it was $4,000 dollars.  “That’s a lot of money for a pretty box,” I said.  He said he’d take it.  Shit like that started to happen.  I became the top salesman that month.  Upper management took notice of me.

Two weeks after that, I was given a promotion.  I was to sell cases of cigars downstairs, to high-rollers and celebrities.  That day, they gave me a tour of the huge walk-in humidor down there.  There were cases of cigars with some impressive names taped on them.  Orally fixated captains of industry and finance, as well as tar-tongued stars of stage and screen, all had their favorite cigars stockpiled.  I was given a desk with a phone.  I just had to call these people and try to hustle them some more of their favorites.

It would still mean kissing ass, but now even more rich and more famous ass, and I would make more money doing it.  I looked at the desk and the phone.  I said I was going to lunch.  I went upstairs, paid Richie back the ten bucks I owed him.  I told him thanks, and walked out.  I never went back.  Fuck it.

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