Encounter with the UNDERWORLD.
This first story is from way back in the day when we first opened our store on New York City’s Mott Street.
At that time, the neighborhood was only just embracing its real estate marketing persona of “NoLita” (a fashionable way of saying North Little Italy) despite the fact that most of Mott Street fell under the category of Chinatown, but north from Kenmare up to Bleeker was Italian and had been quite the center of organized crime back in the day.
Mott Street ran parallel with Mulberry, which was the street that the notorious Dapper Don, John Gotti, ran his famed operations from, but by the time we moved in there wasn’t a lot of “activity” still going on in the neighborhood, but a few of the guys were still around and they made their presence known, especially at their “Social Club” at the Houston end of Mott.
They seemed nice enough and most of their respect seemed to come from a handful of the older local male residents, who now took great pride in parking their cars for them and talking about how “De Niro was going to have a word with Scorsese about getting them some acting work”.
Any conversations with the local hangers-on were to be handled cautiously, as any over familiarity usually ended with a request to borrow money. Non-returnable, of course.
In the first couple of weeks, we had store visits from several of the guys, offering to “try us out on a couple of suits”. It felt more like they were just feeling us out to see if there was any room for a little-old school protection, but being English served us well and we played dumb to the whole process. It seemed to do the trick and I heard one say under his breath on his way out, “They ain’t gonna last long.”.
However, there was one guy that seemed to carry himself a little differently than the rest of them and it didn’t take much to realize that he was the main guy.
Unlike the others in the crew, who all cultivated coiffed hair in some form or other and wore “Sopranos-esque” velour track suits and sneakers, his head was cleanly shaven and he always wore tailored slacks, leather jacket over his 70’s style knitwear and crocodile shoes. This was all accompanied by gold rimmed tinted glasses, way more jewelry than required, a year round tan and a lot of aftershave.
One morning he appeared at our doorway accompanied by two rather assuming, leather-clad, guys that I hadn’t seen before.
Foregoing the usual doorbell, he choose to bang loudly on the glass door.
We were a little caught off guard, but Betty opened the door and welcomed him inside. He made his entrance with a fair amount of showmanship whilst the two goons waited outside.
There were no pleasantries, he immediately cut to the chase and announced, “You do custom drawers?”. Betty and I looked at each other wondering what on earth he was talking about, “Drawers??” Betty asked, almost jokingly, before she luckily remembered that “drawers” was actually an old fashioned term for underwear, “Oh, you mean underwear?” She replied, “No, I’m afraid we don’t.”.
His frustration was beginning to show and it didn’t help that not only did we not seem to understand what he was talking about, when we did, we didn’t offer the service either.
Two things immediately ran through my mind. Firstly, who on earth needs custom underwear? Was it because of some “unusual apparatus” that needs to be navigated? And secondly, who the hell wants to be in charge of measuring the undercarriage of a Mafia boss with special needs.
Sensing the atmosphere changing at an uncomfortable pace, I thought quickly and remembered an old-school British tailors in midtown called Turnbull and Asser. They were owned by the billionaire that bought Harrods, Mohamed Al Fayed and they claimed they could make anything. They probably could, but it would cost a fortune and probably take about six months, but that would be their problem and I wanted our problem gone.
I told him of the place and that seemed to talk him off the ledge. He told me to write down the name, address and telephone number, which I then had to go and Google, with him waiting impatiently.
I handed him the details like a nervous schoolboy handing in my homework. He begrudgingly thanked me and headed the front door which goon number one opened for him and they left.
I’d all but forgotten about the encounter until one morning a few months later. Being a small business, we had to wear many hats and one of mine was window dressing.
I’d always found the task creatively rewarding but also slightly sad. People look at you differently when you are in a store window. It was almost like I could hear them saying “Awwww, look at that little old man, still dressing windows at his age.”.
I was in my mid-forties by this stage and I thought that anyone who’d been doing it for 25 years should have at least been Creative Director of Visual Display at Barney’s or something, not still dressing a small store in NoLIta.
I wanted to explain to onlookers, “It’s alright, it’s my store, I’m the owner!”, but unfortunately I always seemed to be dressed more like a middle-aged theater set designer on the days I needed to change the window. So I decided it was just easier to give myself an alter ego, Gavin the Window Dresser. Not to be confused with Nigel the Photographer, another imaginary staff member.
On this occasion, Gavin was just adding the finishing touches to the display, which usually featured some form of headless mannequin in shirt, tie, blazer and boxer shorts. No trousers. It was a deliberate attempt to mimic our logo (a man holding and umbrella wearing no trousers), when there was an almighty banging on the glass door.
Poor old Gavin nearly jumped out of his skin, ever the consummate professional, he had been accustomed to keeping his eyes on the job and not paying any attention to the outside world just a pane of glass away.
He was back and this time he was visibly fuming.
Gavin climbed unceremoniously out of the window and nervously opened the door.
“I thought you said you don't do underwear!” He balked as he pointed to the new display. “We don’t,” replied Gavin, “these are ready to wear.” unnecessarily adding, “They come with a matching shirt and pocket square.”.
“Huh” he replied and surprisingly, this time he seemed to calm down, but he was obviously not a man that you lied to under any circumstances. “I gave you the name of that company in midtown, did you try them?” Gavin quickly added. “Give it to me again.” he demanded.
Gavin scurried to the back office and began to frantically Google “Turnbull”. Once found, the address and number was again written down and handed to him.
I don’t know if Gavin had had some sort of ‘calming’ effect on him, but this time he looked at me/him a little more affectionately, his eyes softening behind the tinted shades and a veil of uncharacteristic sincerity came over him. “You’re a good kid, if you ever need anything, we have the Social Club just up the road.” he said nodding to the North. He shook our hand, gave us a knowing nod and left.
Thankfully, I never did find the occasion to use the 'free pass' I had been offered, although I did get rather cocky with a shoplifter one time and warned him he was “in the wrong neighborhood" and should probably not come back if he knew what was best for him, but it was strangely nice to know that both Gavin and I had been accepted.