Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Ralph Factor

Thirty-two years ago this January, I met Ralph—a salesman and bona fide peddler who represented a small pet accessories company that sold assorted wares to mom-and-pop retailers in the environs of New York City. Still in high school at the time, and working in one such store in Queens, Ralph fascinated me.

When he strolled through our shop’s back door—called Pet Nosh, by the way—for the first time on that cold winter’s morning when Jimmy Carter was the president; Ed Koch, the mayor; and Hugh Carey, the governor, Ralph wasn’t exactly dressed to the nines. Rather, he looked like a real nerd—the genuine article—when I first laid eyes on him festooned in earmuffs and an old Muscovite man’s winter hat. As something of a nerd myself, perhaps I’m being quick to judge here, I recall thinking as I watched Ralph remove his multiple layers of winter garments, including galoshes, which seemed to me like overkill considering the day was sunny, dry as dust, and the grounds snow free.

No, Ralph was a full-blooded nerd all right with his completely buttoned up white dress shirt and 1960s—maybe even 1950s—old tweed sports jacket. Yet, there was something mesmerizing about Ralph—special—as I eyed him lifting up his suitcase full of wares onto our front counter. Actually, it was more of a chest than a suitcase. Ralph was a happy-faced, upbeat version of Willy Loman. While his kind still plied their trade in 1980, their days were definitely numbered. Ralph, however, was as enthusiastic as ever—the eternal optimist—and viewed the impending pet care trade’s boon as a godsend.

In 1980, the industry was on the cusp of becoming a really big deal, and Ralph and his employer were right in the thick of this awakening, peddling a hodgepodge of merchandise that we all thought was pretty unique and quite cool for its time: attention-grabbing cat and dog toys, every imaginable kind of treat, and state-of-the-art accessory items like the Step ‘N’ Dine. Incredible, but this thing could actually keep pet foods fresh with its plastic covering—one that would only open up when a cat or a small dog approached it and stepped onto its welcome mat mechanism that, in turn, raised the plastic cover. The only problem—and it was a considerable one in retrospect—was that the plastic cover slammed shut every time the cat or dog stepped back off the welcome mat, which was often, to chew and digest their dinners. Suffice it to say, not a very pleasant dining experience. The consensus: Step ‘N’ Dine scared the dickens out of felines and canines alike who would—so pet parents complained—starve themselves before ever again approaching this invention from hell.

Fortunately, though, Ralph had a treasure trove of goodies in his suitcase-chest that pets of all stripes could appreciate. He wrote his orders by hand on scrap paper. I actually gave him scrap paper on more than one occasion, which he greatly appreciated. It was like gold to him because he used so much of it due to a Korean War injury that affected his handwriting. (Ralph wrote in very big strokes. A single order sometimes took up twenty or more pages.) There were no modern-style computers back then and the Ralph Way of doing business was not unusual. “The catch is you gotta buy a dozen,” Ralph often said. In his eighties now, the man is still at it. He has somehow survived all the growth and changes in the business. It can be explained only by the Ralph Factor.

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