Get all the latest news on coronavirus and more delivered daily to your inbox. Sign up here.
Landing my job at Lord & Taylor in New York was something of a dream come true.
Beginning in grade school, I had done all kinds of things for pay – ran errands for Howie, the owner of a local candy store, mowed lawns, shoveled snow, delivered newspapers and been a receptionist and janitor at our local church. But it felt different to put on a suit and step into the grandeur of American retail.
I had shopped the store all my life with my parents, gazed admiringly at its windows at Christmas, and had always enjoyed the gentle, calm atmosphere. Pinning on my name tag that first day, I felt like I was joining part of a long and storied history.
At first selling men’s suits and then shoes, the role was a good fit for me. I enjoyed talking with people and helping them, and the company’s motto made for a happy and satisfied clientele – the customer was always right.
Bosses can make or break a job wherever you work. I went through a lot of them at Lord & Taylor, but there’s one, in particular, I’ll never forget.
Sidney Rosenthal was short and stocky, a big shock of graying hair combed across his head. He was in his late 60s, had deep jowls and a gravelly voice. Even though he was diminutive in size, he used to take long strides as he hustled from the floor to the stock room to retrieve shoes.
I liked Sidney immediately. He was kind and courtly and made me laugh. Told me all kinds of crazy and funny stories. He could be grumpy and used to complain when folks wouldn’t buy, especially if he thought they had a lot of money. Truth be told, he thought everybody was rich. “Look at the rock on that lady’s finger,” he would say.
A lifetime bachelor, Sidney lived alone in a small apartment. He mentioned a brother, but no other family member. I remember he had a thing for Elizabeth Taylor, used to talk about her all the time, but never seemed to be dating anyone. He joked that the men’s shoe department was a bad place to meet rich widows.
The attorney told me I had been named in his will and invited me to his office for a public reading of it.
One day I found Sidney sitting alone and unresponsive in the shoe department before the store opened. Most of the lights were off, and his stoic posture startled me. His eyes were open, but there he sat just staring off into the distance. I quickly dialed 911.
It turned out Sidney had tuberculosis. When I went to visit him in the hospital, I had to put on a gown and mask. He said very little, fading in and out of consciousness. Within a week he was gone.
I received a call from his lawyer a few weeks later. The attorney told me I had been named in his will and invited me to his office for a public reading of it.
At the time, I was still in college and scraping by like every other 20-something. Honestly, though I grieved my boss’ passing, the news that I was named in his will kind of intrigued me.
With no wife or much family and a spartan lifestyle, was he worth big bucks? After all, we’ve all read the stories about the millionaire next door.
Sitting in a small office with a few other individuals, including Sidney’s brother, who was a crossing guard, the attorney read the following:
“To my good friend and colleague, Paul Batura, I leave my valuable record collection, including my all-time favorite album, ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ I have wonderful memories of our long conversations about our mutual love of music.”
Sidney’s entire “collection” consisted of 12 records. And I had absolutely no recollection of us ever talking about a “mutual” love of music.
As it was, Sidney liked to talk, and I liked to listen and ask him questions. I guess he simply interpreted my inquisitiveness for an appreciation of music.
It’s been many years since my friend passed away, and whenever I see the albums on my shelf, I think of him and smile. It was greedy and selfish of me to think about receiving some financial windfall. I’m not proud to admit it.
It turns out, I received something even more valuable than money, though, and I’m not talking about disco music and John Travolta. Instead, I received a reminder that sometimes the best thing you can give to people is your attention and your interest.
As we head into this strange COVID summer of 2020, adjusting to a new normal as we go, “Stayin’ Alive” – one of the hits of the famed “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack – remains the top priority of everyone.
Along the way, though, don’t forget that the best way to thrive while “Stayin’ Alive” is to show interest in other people. Don’t think less of yourself – just think of yourself less and more of those around you. In the end, that approach will leave you the richest man in town.