Alvin was a nephew of the boss. He worked down the hall from me. About ten times a day, he would set out from his office, walking in my direction. His walk was a slow and firm stamp, stamp, stamp, his big feet spread wide, toes turned out; knees apart. If my door was open, as it usually was, I could hear him coming. He would continue for about twenty paces, stop, hesitate in place, mumble to himself something about, “What was it I wanted?” turn around and go back. He was in his thirties, too young for such memory lapses.
Alvin had charge of the sample library. We designed fashion accessories—handbags, belts, scarves, etc. Product samples were kept in storage rooms in the warehouse below the offices where we worked. Alvin’s office was full of fabric swatches. He was supposed to catalog and keep track of them. It was the wrong job for Alvin.
“I have asked you for swatches of taupe canvas for summer bags for two days, Alvin.” This was the boss shouting over the PA system. The boss loved the PA system. He switched it on countless times a day to communicate, harass, give orders, and (one of his favorite terms) to “needle” his employees.
There would be a click and then the sound of breathing when he turned the PA on. This was when he was deciding what to say. Then the message began. The message varied from, “I want you all to know…” that someone had failed in some attempt to do something and he was convening a small meeting about it. Or he was on the edge of firing someone, and he was hinting at their identity. Or he was just bored and wanted us all to know he was there.
On this day, the day of the Taupe Swatch, the problem was Alvin. The boss could not fire Alvin. Alvin was a relative and needed the job. So he yelled at him.
Alvin sat in my office after the PA announcement about taupe. This was after being yelled at countless times over the past few days. “They always yell,” he said. “I worked for my father and my cousin and now my uncle and they all yell.” He didn’t seem particularly unhappy, just resigned. It was a fact of life to him—“They’re all yellers,” he said.
Usually I could ignore the fussing between Alvin and the boss but today was different. I was involved. I was responsible for designing the handbag line and the boss needed to see swatches to envision the finished project. It was afternoon and the battle over taupe had gone on since the opening bell.
I went to Alvin’s office to look around myself for taupe canvas swatches. His office was small and square, rather like Alvin. It was looked as if there had been colorful explosions and myriad bits of fabric attached to little cards had flown up, wafted down, and landed all over. More fabric swatches were tacked haphazardly on his corkboard walls. There was no obvious sequence, they mounded on his desk and spilled out of three file cabinets onto the floor. Wading was what you did when you entered Alan’s office.
The boss went to lunch and called from the golf course restaurant. They patched his voice in to the PA. “Someone get me swatches of taupe canvas by tomorrow morning,” he roared, “I am going to play golf all afternoon, I am too annoyed to stay in that disorganized place and work. Tomorrow morning, first thing, the word is, taupe.”
I’d had enough. “This is it, Alvin, I said, I am going to bear the brunt of this mess so I might as well be responsible all the way.” I grabbed an empty rolling file, marched up to his office, piled in the swatches, and marched back with them. There weren’t as many as there had seemed to be, but it took me all afternoon to sort and put some up on my cork walls and the rest in files.
The next morning the boss stopped in my office as he came in. He was not happy to see the swatches ranged in orderly rows on my walls. He’d been looking forward to his morning yell at Alvin. “Who appointed you to be swatch librarian?” he said as he glared at me. His cheeks pinked in anger and his mouth compressed into a line. I said nothing, the best course of action with this particular boss. I noticed he had on his spiffy two-toned golf shoes. He was ready to sail out of there on the wings of anger for a second day if he could pick a good enough fight.
“Humph,” he said, “Okay, Miss Smart Swatch-Keeper, find me some good taupe canvas samples and do it fast.” He stamped off to his office.
I chose six fabric swatches I liked, put in a couple more for him to reject, and three with printed patterns I knew would make him yell. Then I got my sketches together and walked the long hallway to his office. He was talking to a supplier and waved me away. I hid out of his view, I knew better than to go all the way back, and in a minute he was on the PA bellowing for me and for taupe. I waited three minutes by the clock and went in. He already had two secretaries, a bookkeeper, and Alvin in uncomfortable attendance.
“Okay, Miss Swatch Queen, what’ve you got?” He was smiling. He liked me, as much as he liked anyone. As it happened, I had on a taupe sweater over a striped taupe and black shirt. I wondered if he would comment on this and suggest we cut swatches, but he didn’t. He just looked at my offerings. I spread them out in a fan on his large dark wood desktop. He didn’t really look, he barely glanced. Now I could see he was up to something and he was ready for me.
He began immediately to yell, “What do you call all this? Not one of these is taupe.” He stood up (a bad sign) and howled, his voice rising higher with each word, picking up swatches as he ranted, “Taupe is not light brown, it is not tan, it is not dark off-white, it is not warm gray, it is not beige, it is not buff, it is TAUPE! Now, pack up this stuff and find me a duplicate of this swatch.”
With that, he pulled a card from his pocket. It had a frayed piece of fabric less than an inch across stapled onto it. “By the way, this is one I found all by myself, and I don’t have a fancy library of thousands of swatches.” He grinned, all calmed down and pleased with himself. “It’s too small to cut up and send to factories, so you need to get me more.”
Well, I sure got set up, I thought, picked up my collection and left quickly. Alvin ran after me and said, breathlessly, “He made me look for two days, you know…” Usually the boss’s manner didn’t bother me, mainly because it wasn’t directed at me, but this time, it was. I glared at Alvin. I should have let him suffer and stayed out of it, I thought. Stupid me. By the time I got back to my office I was sniffling into a tissue with anger and frustration. I looked over all the taupe canvas samples I had taken from Alvin, trying to find a match for swatch the boss had magically produced. Not one was exact, but there was a close one in color and texture. I was sitting at my desk when Barry walked in. He had heard some of the commotion and, as usual, he found it funny.
“So, you’re now the Taupe Maven?” he said, smiling. He sat down, leaned his chair back, and put his feet on my work table. Barry was a product manager, like me, except he had been in the business all his life. He knew the game. His family owned one of the original twelve or thirteen New York handbag companies. He was a comfortable, good-natured guy. He had on his usual tan outfit—tan chinos, rather baggy, tan canvas work shirt and soft tan suede shoes. Too bad that shirt’s not taupe, I thought.
“It’s not the time to joke, Barry, I can’t deal with this,” I said, dumping the swatches in front of him. “Look at these fabrics I’ve found, not one is an exact match and there’s no time to go to the fabric store and I doubt I’d find what he wants if I could,” I was beginning to babble. “Look here, this one is a very nice taupe,” (waving a swatch under his nose), “but it doesn’t match the one the boss found.” I had never felt so frustrated and angry. I was close to a real cry.
Barry grinned, “Relax, we’ll fix it,” he said. “Hand me the scissors and a blank sample card and the stapler.” Barry looked carefully at the boss’s little swatch, ripped it off the card, and threw it in the wastebasket. I was horrified. “Barry…”
“Just watch,” he said. I’ll bet you can guess what he did. He cut a tiny piece from my close-to-it fabric sample, frayed the edges a bit, and carefully stapled it in place of the boss’s original. Then he cut a bigger piece, attached it to the blank card, and filled in some information. “What are you writing?” I asked. “Bogus stuff, nonsense,” he said, looking up with a grin. “Who cares where it came from? Or the thread count? Just makes it look authentic, like a fake provenance on an antique.”
Alvin was still in the office with the boss when I walked in with my bogus swatch. The boss was suspicious. “How did you find this so fast?” he asked after twisting and turning the tiny stand-in and comparing it in daylight with the larger swatch and reading the baloney on the card that Barry had conjured up. He finally said, “Well, it’s not as good as I thought it was, but it’ll have to do,” pushing it back to me across his desk. “Hope you learned today what taupe looks like?” I nodded.
Alvin was amazed. He said at lunch, “I didn’t know I had that big swatch in all those swatches you took from my office, where was it?” I smiled and said it was misfiled. I heard a laugh badly disguised as a cough from the next table. I knew who it was, I didn’t look at Barry.
Copyright © 2015 Mary Wallis Gutmann