STARTUPS: BREAKING THROUGH THREE CULTURES, BY ALEXANDER KAUFMAN

Part Three

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From AMERICA

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July 13, 1954 was a sizzling, humid, hot boiling day when I walked down the gangplank off the Queen Elizabeth and onto the West Side highway where Tom Friedman welcomed me to New York. Tom had acted as my agent in Israel selling my cartoons to newspapers and magazines, and I hoped he might do the same for me in the US. For starters he suggested that I walk around town for a couple of days to collect impressions and start a presentation portfolio. Tom was about to embark on his summer vacation and left me his apartment 75th Street and 3rd Avenue.

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New York felt familiar, as if I’d been there before. I liked the  hustle and bustle and the fact that there never seemed to be a quiet moment. Things moved, and I expected to move with them; the sooner the better. I was 26 years old and at the height of my impatience. I needed work and income not merely to keep my head above water but to send money monthly to my. The US was engaged in the Korean War at the time, and as a candidate citizen, I had to register for Selective Service. Fortunately, the war went on without me and I was never called.

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I tried looking for jobs, but July was a bad month for job hunting. Everywhere I went, I was told to “come after Labor Day,” in September, and I wondered how I would survive until then.  Fortunately, as I just explained, in 1954, one could eat very cheaply in New York.  There was, as already mentioned, Fried Rice, Roast Pork.  There also were bananas with sour cream which, for less than a dollar, would fill a person nicely. Or one could get a beer in the Czech bar on the corner with free nuts and pretzels. The highlight for me was Vasata, whose fiercely anti-Communist owner ran it as if he had never left Prague. It was a long, dining space, near the corner of First Avenue. Adjacent to it, the Vasata owner operated laundromat, so you could have your laundry done while filling up your stomach with spaetzle, red cabbage, schnitzel, palacsinta and other Czech-style delicacies. As Tom had an account there and I was allowed to use it, I did well with food.

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Any free time I had, day or night, I explored the city. I thought amazing that the city really never does sleep and you can do things 24 hours a day. Also impressive was how many things were inexpensive or even free (something that is no longer true today). If you wanted to go on a moonlight cruise with a date, the Staten Island Ferry only required a few nickels, and if you were hungry for a bite, the seemingly endless numbers of Chinese restaurants would sell you a heap of Fried Rice Roast Pork for less than a dollar. Life was both cheap and beautiful.

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I needed a place to live. Tom was returning by Labor Day, so I was under a hard deadline. As I strolled up Broadway, I noticed a figure walking on the opposite side. To my complete surprise – and utter disbelief – it was Aryeh Waksenbaum, with whom I had shared the same desk in the first grade; the first kid I had met when I started school in Israel. We used to live next door to one another.

The apartment turned out to have what is called a “railroad” layout, which means it was simply a single long space carved up into consecutive blocks. First came my room, then the kitchen, and finally, Aryeh’s room. Tucked in between were the bathroom. There was no need for a radio, as one could simply open the window and hear the music of the Caribbean 24 hours a day. Indeed, the music was so loud, that you could hear it in the shower. All one had to do was listen and the tunes of the Caribbean generously wafted over, 24 hours a day, at decibels high enough, so that one could hear it while in the shower and even with the windows closed.

Winter was better than summer. During hot summer evenings, especially on Saturday nights, one could hear the many – and very loud – arguments going on in the apartments around us.  Occasionally couches and other bits of furniture would fly out of a window here and there. We started to fit in. The people there had their own way of living, and we loved the constant smell of Spanish cooking, the constant music and the evident appreciation of life. What’s a little noise? A trumpet blasting at three in the morning? Someone yelling, “Do you know what time it is?!” and the trumpeter answering, “Three o’clock in the morning!” It was just fine. We were young.

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Aryeh had bought a new, shiny black Plymouth which he needed for his work photographing babies for Walker Studio in the Bronx. This was during the period when I was looking for design work, to no avail. The studio would send Aryeh to take a dozen pictures of a baby every year, thereby recording the child’s growth. The parents would receive a free picture every year. The whole thing was a promotion for diapers. Three categories of jobs were available in this business: you could be a salesman, whose job it was to sell the program to people; you could be a photographer taking the pictures; and you could be a salesman, whose job was to deliver the free photo and convince the family to buy the rest. I needed money, so I jumped in. I began as a photographer, and began driving around with a roll-up screen, lights, cameras, and film. If the baby cried while being photographed, you were not paid.

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A former member of the Tel Aviv window trimmer’s group recommended me to McCrory’s, a “Five and Ten” chain that hired me to do their windows at $ 11.00 a day. It was steady income, at $55.00 a week. The routine was easy: I was given a schedule of merchandise to be featured and displayed during the week in the windows, and coordinated with the salesgirls from the various departments to provide me with the sample items for the displays.

I carried a dictionary with me in order to ensure that I was on the same wavelength as those was speaking with and could follow conversations. Abbreviations were not my favorites. I always regarded them with suspicion, as I was never sure what lurked behind them. One day, on my schedule for the McCrory window trim assignment, in their large store on Queens Boulevard, one window square was labeled “Bras.” I searched my dictionary to no avail. Finally, I went to one of the salesgirls to find out what the word meant. Somewhat of a ruckus ensued as I received an explanation.

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Throughout, I was trying to get design work, but as quickly became apparent, no one needed a designer. The exhibit firms were all well and fully staffed. Over the course of all the interviews I did, however, I managed to befriend some foremen, shop team-leaders, whom I would end up hiring when I finally struck out on my own. The plan was to start my own design firm and delegate the actual labor to these contractors. The lack of money didn’t really matter at the start: so long as we could get some initial credit – which we did – and maintain a steady stream of jobs, we could “bootstrap” our way along. Having outgrown Aryeh’s kitchen, I rented a 1500 square foot space, which soon had to be replaced by a 5,000 square foot space.

Needless to say, these early days were very tough. But we gained clients, our offerings were good, and at the end of the day, we grew steadily. We really started thriving as a dimensional advertising agency, with clients like Texaco, Westinghouse, ZIM Lines, a leader in maritime freight, pharmaceutical companies, and lots of airlines, from EL AL to American, to Eastern, Qantas, Air France, and Aero México. Eventually, we became travel industry leaders in design and advertising.

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I had long wanted to get into was museum exhibition and had a lot of ideas regarding how to improve the museum-going experience, particularly with regard to how collections were displayed. We hassled every museum in the country and overseas, joined the Museum Association, and eventually, became an industry leader in this area as well. And now that we had a real, physical infrastructure – offices, design-floors, construction facilities, paint shops, and woodworking, metal shop and plexiglass work areas – we could take on this kind of work. By the end of it all, I had designed over fifty museum exhibitions around the country and overseas. One of my last projects was the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv (now The Museum of the Jewish People), where Katz’s ideas and mine produced a massive exhibition involving custom-designed and crafted scale-models, which served as visual markers for the story of the Jewish people’s 2000-year diaspora.

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I felt that I was not adequately paid for my design work or for what I considered valuable contributions to projects and enterprises, so I established a consulting firm to offer such services. This involved me in a wide variety of fields, where I could use the knowledge and skills I had acquired in the intermodal business. I found that I easily found my center of gravity in international negotiations with foreign principals, and if one were to ask me for the reason, I would say it was because I had the benefit of having grown up, lived, and worked in three very different cultures and thus, acquired an unusually broad range of competencies.

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Our experience designing and building multi-story exhibitions that had to be installed and dismantled in hours and then packed and transported to the next venue led us, unexpectedly, to an entirely different venture: prefabricated housing. It started with a 4am phone call from Saud-Arabia: An American company needed housing for its expat engineering crews, who were there with their families for the duration of their projects. They needed showers, air conditioners and schools for their kids. Since we had mastered a technology and method for the rapid assembly of structures from pre-designed sections, using light, Swiss-made extrusions, they thought we might be able to help. We established a company devoted entirely to this endeavor, rented a large field on Long Island for building prototypes, and off we were.

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I got a call one morning to come to the Peacock Alley – a bar at the Waldorf Astoria – to meet with one Robert Anderson, who was an Eisenhower favorite: a former Treasury Secretary and retired from government. He was supposed to introduce me to the Nigerian Minster of Finance to see if we could fill a sizeable order of pre-designed housing systems. I arrived at 7:30 am and was met by Anderson. The minister was supposed to join us. Several hours went by, and at my urging, Anderson went up to his room to see what was going on, not long after which he asked me to come up with him. When we arrived we found the Minister dressed only in a towel. Anderson asked me if I might go and buy him a pair of pants. Surprised and caught somewhat aback, I told him that I was afraid I couldn’t do that, given that I had another appointment.  It turned out that the Minister had invited some prostitutes to have a party in his suite and that they had made off with his wallet, without bothering to remove it from his pants pockets. Mr. Anderson was a very upright person, straight as an arrow, and very gentlemanly. “So, no houses this time, eh?” he asked, to which I replied, “I’m afraid you need pants for that.”

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I began as an artist and designer and never ceased being one.  Even as my formal work moved in the direction of consulting, real estate, and finance, my artistic and design instincts never wavered. As much as I could, I brought this creative energy to my myriad business endeavors.  Of course, I never ceased going to museum and gallery exhibitions or taking in the glories of nature. Central Park in NY was as never-ceasing inspiration in this regard, as were the beautiful locales on the North Shore of Long Island, where I eventually came to live.

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But increasingly, I felt a need to work more directly in art and design in some capacity, as my business endeavors drifted farther away from these areas. Thus was born the artist XELA [my name spelled backwards]. I employed a workman’s method of applying graphics from a well-stocked color palate by way of acetate material applications, a technique employed by sign-makers and those who apply logos and other lettering to vans, trucks, and the like. I did cityscapes; purely abstract images; and landscapes that reflected my midwestern and other travels. XELA’s work was exhibited in Canada, Los Angeles, and New York, and filled two volumes of high-quality glossy images, which are sold on Amazon, among other places. Yet, I was always reluctant to sell the originals, most of which I have kept and some of which are displayed in my house, where they are a source of great pleasure.

*Startups can be purchased here.

5 comments

  1. Your father was an entrepreneur extraordinaire. He is a testament to free enterprise, personal ingenuity and what can be accomplished in a free society that does not fetter the creative spirit.

    You judge a person by how they lived, not by how they die. I hope you and your family find peace in this most taxing of times.

  2. The New York of the Korean War is the New York of my childhood. His account brings back memories of that.

    As with the other two parts, very well-written. No wasted words.

  3. You probably know the wonderful e e cumming’s poem ‘my father moved through dooms of love’, but if you don’t you might have a look at it. It speaks volumes, as does your dad’s writing.

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