09 June 2023

My father had the goods!


Via Depositphotos.com (under license).

I thought I’d follow up my Mother’s Day post with one about my Dad, since it’s coming up on Father’s Day as well. I’ve written about him here before, and about the hilarious connection he had to my first-ever meeting with a book editor.

First the bad news. Dad—aka Big Frank—left us forever last July, not long after his 91st birthday, while still of sound mind and creaky body. Though his own father died young, his mother’s side of the family was unusually long lived. His Mom died at 95, his aunt 100, his uncle at 103.

His was a groovy existence while it lasted. Dad was always a raconteur, a cutup, a card. I knew him to devour only two types of books—ones on psychic phenomena, and ones about woodworking. I can’t say that he ever read a single thing I wrote; it just wasn’t his thing. Upon retirement, he took to prowling garage sales, and would often brag about his finds. When I’d visit the house, he’d lure me out to the garage and show off one tool after another.

“Lookit this,” he said, showing off a plane, or a saw, or a chisel. “How much you think I paid for this?”

“No clue,” I would say.

“Fifty cents!”

I know I was supposed to be impressed, but often I thought, “You paid fifty cents for that?”

I could wax on but most of my memories would not be germane to this blog. Instead, I thought I’d focus on Dad’s connection to the first short story I ever sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (AHMM). “Button Man,” which appeared in the March 2013 issue, was set primarily in New York during the 1950s. The protagonist named—surprise! surprise!—Frank is an Italian American from Brooklyn who has recently left the Army after serving during the era of the Korean War. Though he once dreamed of pursuing a career in music, our narrator ends up working as a pattern maker in New York’s Garment District.

Well, that’s pretty much my father’s resume to a T. He claimed that he never made it to Korea because the general at Fort Benning preferred him to stay put and play his saxophone. “Your papers are in my desk,” he often quoted the general as saying. “Let ‘em stay there.”

Goofing around at the barracks in the 1950s.

My dad played sax, clarinet, and flute equally well. A marching band in the Army, and a string of big bands in New York when he got back home. When one of the bandleaders he played with heard that Frank was thinking of settling down, the pal told him that music was no career for a family man. Dad took a six-week class at some technical school and ended up on glamorous Fashion Avenue. That’s one of the things you did back then if you were Jewish or Italian and didn’t have deep pockets. The making of clothing for the masses was your ticket to gainful, unionized employment.

Growing up, my brothers and I were steeped in the world of the district. We’d ride the bus from New Jersey with him from time to time, and spend a half day with Dad, especially if it was close to the holidays. Come lunchtime, if we were lucky, we’d eat with him and his buddies at a series of Jewish delis or hole-in-the-wall Italian red-sauce dives. 

I can close my eyes and instantly conjure the smell of the sweatshops he worked in. The gurgle and hiss of the steam presses, the irritating tickle of airborne fabric dust, the oppressive goddamn heat. 

We were reared in the lingo. Fashion designers were stylists. Scissors were shears. Fabric and textiles were goods, as in, “This here is a nice piece of goods.” (Often uttered while one was feeling up said goods.) Mannequins were forms. By second grade I knew words like baste-stitch, stayflex, bust dart, shearling, and pleats.

These are the largest of his shears.

To make extra money, Dad often took work home and freelanced from our garage or a series of studios he rented in our small town. I may be the only SleuthSayer who grew up in a household with two sewing machines, a leather machine, and a garage full of headless female shapes in a battery of sizes from petite to zaftig.

My brothers and I, eager to earn some pocket money, learned to wield gigantic shears and bizarre tools like notchers. God help us if we used the fabric shears to cut paper!

The notchers are above the shears.
 I have no idea what the spiky rolling tool was called,
but I loved using it to put holes in paper.

From time to time a truck from a mill in Paterson, New Jersey, appeared in our driveway to unload rolls of green-and-white cardstock paper or brown packing paper. These rolls were so massive my father used a hand truck to lift them slightly when he needed to unwind and sever a piece from the roll. A kid could be crushed by such an object.

Why paper? Dad’s specific role in the vast machinery of the district was to convert the stylist’s elegant sketch into a pattern—i.e. template—for the upcoming manufacturing process. Sometimes he worked from a sketch, other times from a sample garment that had to be reverse-engineered. Mostly he worked in women’s fashions. Overcoats, trench coats, spring jackets. He once did jodhpurs for the horsey set, and occasionally ventured further afield.

“Dear,” he told my wife when he first met her, “you know, I pioneered fake fur for the children’s market!”

Like me when presented with a 50-cent chisel, my wife was speechless.

His other claim to fame: a faux-leather Fonzie-style jacket for kids.

Notice that I did not say the official Fonzie jacket, because that would mean that the manufacturer had actually bothered to license the garment from the producers of the hit TV show, Happy Days. But there was a time in the mid-1970s when Fonzie jacket knockoffs were everywhere.

That was the thing about the garment industry, then and now. It was absurdly, colorfully corrupt. Knockoffs were the name of the game. If Saks debuted a line of $233 car coats, you figured out how to knock it off and sell your retails-for-$43 version to Sears, Penney’s, and Montgomery Ward. When the wife of a colleague decided to embark on her own line of fashions, she asked my father for advice. Her business was tanking. She found the industry brutal and depressing. No matter what she did, she could not seem to interest any of the department store buyers in her wares.

“How much are you paying them off?” Dad said.

“Is that what people do?”

“The bosses do, yeah. How else you think you’re gonna get into the big stores?”

As you might imagine, that’s the sort of the direction my AHMM story went. Our protagonist befriends a young Irish American garment worker, the scion of a large button manufacturing concern, who becomes appalled by the graft he encounters every day, and decides to do something about it. Publication of that story is now 10 years in the past, so I don’t feel I need to cloak any spoilers. The naive gent ends up in witness protection.

My father claimed that’s how one of his young Irish friends from the district vanished into thin air, only to phone my father years later to say hello—and goodbye. It saddened Frank to recall the story. In my version of the tale, I made up the part about the guy working for his father’s button company. I have no idea what kind of job an Irish guy would have had in the Garment District back in the day.

To date, it’s the only short story I’ve written that stems from someone in my immediate family. No worries. In time I’ll follow through on my threat to steal something from them all.

A Happy Father’s Day to all.

* * * 

See you in three weeks!



  1. Joe, you wrote a nice slice-of-life piece for that time period.

    1. Thank you! Though, it didn't take as much conventional research to write as later stories.

  2. Elizabeth Dearborn09 June, 2023 13:22

    Hi Joe, thank you for the interesting blog post today! I don't know what that spiky rolling wheel is called, but I do know what it does. It's for making temporary markings on a piece of already-cut fabric, or goods. One also needs a piece of colored, thick, kind of waxy paper, which I also don't know the name of. A person puts a piece of this waxy paper down on the wrong side of the garment & rolls the spiky wheel to mark off where a seam or a dart will go. It's similar to carbon paper if you remember that stuff.

    My mother taught me how to sew when I was a child. I don't have a sewing machine these days but I could do some simple sewing if I had access to a machine.

    1. It's called a tracing wheel - I had one for years. And they used to sell the tracing paper cut up, in packages. It was great help to make darts.

    2. Thanks for this, Elizabeth. I myself never learned how to operate those machines, but I liked playing with the wheel and tracing designs on scrap paper.

  3. The waxy paper is dritzing paper, I believe, Elizabeth! I actually still have a dritzing wheel! I still have my machine - and Joseph, you've brought back great memories of my Italian grandmother. Loved reading this!

    1. Thanks for the name, Melodie, and I'm glad it sparked some memories. Grazie!

  4. shoot! That was me, Melodie, above!

  5. BTW, Joseph, my grandmother's family worked in the fur trade in the early 1900s in NYC. I still have my grandmother's nutria coat, which her sister Diana made for her from scraps of fur. I relined it about 10 years ago (the lining was rotten with age), and could not believe how narrow and short the strips of fur were.

    1. Ha! They probably are! They're not very large animals, nutria, though they certainly have big appetites.

  6. Happy Father's Day and sorry to hear about your own.

    My Aunt was a professor at FIT, so I had a small window into 7th Avenue where carts and hand trolleys clog the streets. I can confirm the knockoffs. Friends of hers had a small high fashion enterprise in which one of them would travel to Paris for the new season, sketch the designs, and roll out multi-thousand dollar designs for a new hundred dollars.

    The spikey spur device you mentioned has cousins with many names like sensation pinwheel, but one semi-official name is a Wartenberg wheel. I've seen my grandmother use one while hemming, but I have no clue what it actually did.

    1. For decades after, when anyone asked what school their son or daughter should attend for fashion, Dad always recommended FIT. It was the no-brainer if you were located near NYC. We knew of two individuals who ended up teaching there, albeit briefly, but they certainly held jobs in the garment center that were distinctly more high-profile (and glamorous) than any Dad ever held.

  7. Wonderful stuff. Joe and I became friends after I read "Button Man." As he knows, my wife had connections in the garment world (including the mills of Paterson). We have also bonded over "How's Business? Don't Ask!:" by Leonard S. Bernstein, the funniest book ever written about the garment district.

    1. Rob: I was thinking of you the whole time I was writing this. About a year after "Button Man" appeared in AHMM, Bernstein pubbed another wonderful book called Death by Pastrami. This one is fiction—17 short stories about the district. He wrote it when he was in his 80s. It kind of reminded me of early Woody Allen. There's also a fatalism about the business that he captures very well.

      You can read a review at NPR here: https://www.npr.org/2014/12/31/373992792/in-death-by-pastrami-charming-stories-of-new-yorks-garment-district


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>