Steve Kogan and I were classmates who liked to play pool, when we were 12 years old. His father was a rich man who picked me up in his big Cadillac to spend the day with Steve. Some people who lived near me liked to call it a “Jew Canoe.” It was of course a derogatory term. On the way to the hotel he said something like, “You like the car, Joe?”
I said, “Yes it is pretty amazing. I have never been in a car that felt like my mom’s living room.” We were never allowed in the living room unless it was a special occasion; after all the furniture was only for company. The furniture was covered with clear plastic to protect it from the inevitable accidents kids cause. It was good furniture, the kind that took you years to pay off, as I understood.
Mr. Kogan said, “Life is all about making money! That’s how you get a nice car like this and build a successful department store, as I have done.” My dad had a different opinion so I was a bit shocked but I kept quiet. My dad had taught me that millionaires like Mr Kogan, had stress, heart attacks and misery. The love of money was the root of this evil, he said, and the helping people was much more important. I was proud of my dad, he had been a medic in WWII and had gone out unarmed in the battle field to help those who were critically wounded. He was a community leader who started businesses and when they made money, left to start another. We were not wealthy like Mr. Kogan.
Mr.Kogan said, “We are going to stop at my Department store on the way over to the hotel where you can spend the day. I always am there just as we open to make sure all my workers are there and everything is running well. In Puerto Rico, running a great business was a magical trick as siestas and a laid back style of life were the common routine. After all, the midday sun was scorching and it put me to sleep as I sat at my student desk studying for my classes. The fan helped but only the very wealthy had the newfangled device called air conditioning. So getting people to work all day was not very easy.
Mr. Kogan pulled the car to the curb in front of a impressive glass window filled with fashionably dressed manikins. Big letters that appeared to be sculpted of stone floated above the chrome and glass doors. There they formed the words, “New York Department Stores.” We had arrived. Mr. Kogan opened the doors for me and Steve and carefully led us across the street to avoid the hazards of the cars and horse drawn wagons full of tropical fruits and vegetables. As we entered the store, which did have the magical thing called air conditioning, the sounds of the wagon drivers calling out “Mangos, Avacados, Canepes,”… faded in the distance.
It was 1956 and we were surrounded by man made weather. It was magical! My whole body breathed a sigh of relief as the early morning heat and humidity vanished like steam from a shower.
In front of us was a vast room with counters that seemed made of the finest decorative materials, which at that age I could not name, but could appreciate. On each counter was glass display cases filled with beautiful watches, jewelry and cosmetics. Further in the distance you could see hanging signs alerting you to new fashionable clothing and shoes. Behind each counter as far as the eye could see, stood an employee looking up at Mr. Kogan as we entered. For a moment it was almost like looking at an army standing at attention as the general entered for inspection. I was a little awestruck and a bit uncomfortable, not knowing what do do.
Mr. Kogan looked down at me, noting my discomfort and grabbed my hand with his left hand leading me forward down the long and seemingly threatening isle. He then looked up and smiled at all his employees and began to walk slowly down the long isle calling out good morning to each and every one of them by name. They all smiled and greeted him and some of the women reached over to hug him. The long isle was no longer threatening. It was transformed into a sea of friendly faces at a party that was just about to start. I my heart felt funny and my eyes moist but I was not quite sure why.
After a long slow walk with lots of brief and warm conversations, some in Spanish and some in English (both of which I spoke) we ended up in the back. We entered a small simply furnished room with desks, fling cabinets and a few people talking on phones. Through the open back door we could see the loading dock where workers were unloading a truck. Mr. Kogan showed us to some well worn leather chairs and went out back to greet the delivery men.
He came back in a few minutes and sat down across from me and Steve and said, “So Joe, how do you like my department store?”
I thought for a moment as my head was swimming with new experiences. I said, “I think it is very impressive! My dad has a few optical stores and I am very proud of him, but this is huge and awesome.”
Thinking about my dad’s concern for the stress and misery that can come with money, I want to ask him a question too.
I said, “Mr. Kogan, what is it that you like best about your business?” He looked at me and his eyes seemed to mist over as he smiled and he said, “I would never miss a day of walking into the store as it opens! I love all my employees and the greetings that we share every morning. There is nothing in the world worth more. On the other hand, it is a great responsibility and at times it raises my blood pressure and keeps me from sleeping. You see, the store not only takes care of me and my family but it clothes, houses and feeds my hundreds of workers. I am in many ways responsible for the lives of all my workers. If I fail, they fail, and they may lose their homes and everything they have worked so hard to achieve. It is a great responsibly. As you get older you will discover that most things in life are dual edged swords. One side helps you cut down sugar cane to sell and prosper but the other side can cut off you hand if you are not careful. ”
He smiled and again seemed to be looking a thousand miles away. Then he looked back at us and said, “Okay kids lets go! You are going to have a great day at the El San Juan!”