14 December 2019

For Charlie...

Written in FALL/WINTER 2012

I ask Julie Hertling about Charlie Davidson.   Julie's been making clothing under his own name in Brooklyn for over 60 years. Something of a secret to the consumer but well known to the trade for quality and value. Julie tells me an upper east side retailer sells his $65 corduroys for $400.  I mention something about paying rent and Julie laughs.  We cross the street from his Williamsburg factory to a parking lot -- Julie nods at his car and laughs, "Charlie's full of shit -- Don't get me wrong -- I love the man.  We've known each other forever.  But he's a retailer and all retailers are bullshitters." 

Julie pilots his car through rush hour traffic and at 87 you can't help but be impressed with his city-driving skills as much as his crew cut; High and Tight was the parlance of the army. We talk about our time in OD Green and I remember it's Veteran's Day. Julie asks what my father did.  I tell him career Army. He asks what my grandfather did. "Career Army," I repeat.  "No money in that." Julie laughs,  "If I were your age...and had a little money.  You got money?"  "No," I say.  "Well," Julie says, "If I had money and I was your age, I'd buy the Andover Shop from Charlie. Open 'em across the country... and Japan!  You'd make a fortune."

I take an Acela to Cambridge and in a couple hours Charlie and I are walking  arm-in-arm across Holyoke Street to a Harvard gift shop.  "They're flying in circles over me." Charlie's voice reverberates  through an artificial larynx from years of cigars. The longer you're with Charlie, the easier he is to understand, but you're always afraid you're gonna miss something. "Jesus, they act like I'm already dead.  Polo calls once a week.  I don't hate Ralph Lauren.  I'm more envious than anything.  I wonder, why didn't that happen to me?" We walk into a gift shop full of Harvard crested beer mugs, t shirts, decals and what we're looking for, a newborn infant's t-shirt.  Back in Charlie's shop, I explained I needed a gift for an Harvard alumnus’ newborn son. 

 "Who?" Charlie asks.  Larry, Charlie's assistant for 35 years says, "The congressman, Charlie.  He just had a son.” Larry names the baby.  I arch an eyebrow at Larry's knowledge of current events.  Charlie squints, "I'm confused."  "I need something from The Andover Shop." I tell Charlie.  "It doesn't have to fit --  A tie. Pocket square.  Something with the Andover label. You know? The next generation." Charlie frowns,  "A tie won't work.  Pocket squares don't have tags."  Charlie lights up, "Are you a good liar?"  "A good what?" I ask.  "A liar." Charlie says.  "A buuuulll-shiittter." he adds.  "Probably," I say.  Charlie shoots me an angry look.  "God damn it, I'm a bullshitter," I say.  Charlie smiles, "Good. " 

Still, arm in arm with Charlie, I plop down four bucks for a Harvard t-shirt, size 3 months.  Charlie sticks the shirt in his coat pocket and we walk to lunch. A week later the t shirt will arrive in the mail,  it's collar label removed and replaced with an Andover Shop label.  White gift box. Blue ribbon. It's perfect....all bullshit aside.  We order lunch. Charlie pulls some bills out of his pocket. "I don't have enough." he says.  I hand the the kid behind the register a couple twenties.  Charlie looks at me and frowns, "Why'd you do that? I have a fucking account here."  "Lunch is on me, Charlie." Charlie shakes his head, "But I said I was buying lunch."  We grab a table. Charlie's still bitching about lunch or, he just stuck me with the tab.  I really don't know which. 

Charlie leans over and puts his hand on mine.  Parchment thin skin and indigo veined with knuckles pointing like pyramids. He pats my hand a couple times.  Then shakes it.  We talk about Brooks Brothers and Charlie thinks it looks like an Italian department store.  I share some BB gossip.  Charlie smiles, "No shit?"  I shrug, "That's what they tell me." Charlie shakes his head. "Doesn't matter. Brooks is dead. And it's a shame." I notice streaks of silver through Charlie's black hair.  At 87, he looks 20 years younger. I think about asking him for a picture in his 20s or 30s.  When he crewed on the Kennedy sail boat, 'Ventura,' with Teddy and Iowa Senator, John Culver in the 1953 Nantucket Regatta.  I wonder, with Charlie's hand on mine, about all the hands Charlie has shaken. Charlie looks at me, "Today, no one really knows how the whole Ivy thing got started. Where it came from." I know better to ask. Charlie hates talking clothes. He smiles, "It started in New Haven." 

"Early in the 20th Century, Jewish tailors in New Haven were getting fat off the gentiles at Yale.  The pitch was to offer a suit at cost.  They'd approach a kid. Tell him they'd make him a suit for what it cost in fabric and they'd get business when his friends saw how good he looked.  They did this to every fucking kid in town." Charlie laughs. "All of New Haven was getting a suit -at cost- with those guys.Most were at J. Press before they left to strike out out on their own.  Chipp, Tripler or Finchley in NYC.  Kresge and Jacob Reed's Sons in Philadelphia.  Rapoport & Tucker and Arthur Rosenberg in New Haven. Joseph B. Hottell and Little & Golze in Princeton.  Competition was intense.  "If they heard you went to another tailor, they'd come knocking on your door.  'What? Did I do something wrong?  What are you doing seeing someone else?'"  Charlie places his hand on his cheek and sighs, "They were amazing. And they did pretty damned well."

We return to the shop.  A college professor is ordering three pair of flannel trousers from Larry. A lawyer buys a pre-tied bow and a German couple, long time customers, are besides themselves when they finally meet Charlie.  "From Germany, ve come once every two years to your store for 15 years, Mr Davidson, and we finally meet you!"  Charlie blushes and I remember his reluctance for an interview. "I don't want people to think I'm a pretentious asshole."  "That won't happen, Charlie. Besides, you could never come off like a pretentious asshole...Maybe a cranky asshole but never pretentious.  Charlie nods, "It could happen --  Like that JFK question you asked."

Charlie tells me it's the best question he's ever been asked. "He asked me for help.  He was a senator then and had a suite in a Boston hotel.  I walk in and he's standing in front of a mirror with some local Ivy haberdasher.  He throws a sack coat on and frowns at the mirror.  'I'm not wearing this shit." He takes the coat off and throws it on the bathroom floor.  JFK dressed himself. I made what he told me to make."  After the assassination, Jackie shared JFK's clothes with the family.  "They'd bring me a JFK suit or a tweed jacket and ask that I alter it to fit their size." Charlie nods to cardboard boxes filled with files under a rack of alterations. "It's in there. In those boxes.  The measurements. Weight. Height. Bumps. Sloped shoulders.  You name it. They had it."

I look at the boxes crammed with customer files.  I want to dig in but before I can ask Charlie steers me in another direction and asks,  "You're a fan of Anita O'Day?"  Charlie knows I am. I nod... looking at the cardboard boxes. "I knew her well," Charlie says, "Very well."  Charlie's 'very well' isn't so much to imply -- it's said as fact.  "She was at the Algonquin and begged me to come down.  I grabbed a flight from Logan to JFK, took a cab through a hurricane and made it a few minutes before her performance.  She was at the bar and I said, 'Baby, I made it. Lemme buy you a drink."  She looked at me and smiled, 'Charlie, don't you know. I don't drink anymore.' I was shocked until she said, 'Or less.'"

I tell Charlie I'd read O'Day performed with her idol, Billie Holliday, and when she told Holliday what a fan she was, Holliday ignored her."  "They all hated each other, " Charlie laughs. "All of 'em!  Miles Davis hated Ahmad Jamal.  Brubeck couldn't stand Bill Evans...I mean, they were all each others competition."  I'm about to ask to ask for Miles' file when Charlie nudges me, "I wanna show you something."

I follow Charlie down the narrow flight of stairs from alterations to the selling floor.  We step into a small dressing room with a three way mirror and I think about who has been measured  here.  I want to ask but I think, he'll think, it would be pretentious. So I don't and the urge passes when Charlie points to a midnight blue tuxedo with peak lapel hanging on the mirror.  Charlie opens the jacket and the most elegant trousers hang off a wooden hanger -- Black silk knifes down the out seam and  I'm thinking it's perfect when Charlie, very business like says, "It's perfect."  "Jesus," I say. "Who made it?" "Samuelsohn," Charlie says. They're a pain the ass to deal with but then, that's my job. There's three makers out there doing today what they did 50 years ago -- Samuelsohn, Hickey and Southwick." "No difference?" I ask.  Charlie shakes his head, "None." 

Later that afternoon, Charlie will complain about a customer...while he's still in the store.  The customer will leave in a huff. Charlie leans against a counter stacked with grey flannels and sighs, "That's my only problem -- There's some customers I just can't stand."  There's a gloom that comes over Charlie. A sadness that's too painful to watch. "Charlie," I say.  Charlie, his chin on his fist, turns to me, "Yeah?" "Will you make me a pair of trousers?" Charlie smiles, stands erect and calls for Larry.