The Last Hat Salesman
In 1956, my dad moved our family to Dallas to make my mother happy and find his fortune. He failed on both counts. And then came the miracle.
Last summer my father died in a nursing home adjacent to Central Expressway, the road that, some 57 years ago, he, my mother, my two sisters, and I took to Dallas for the first time, strangers in a strange land. Like thousands of others, we were East Coast expatriates, Jews in a city of gentiles. We were filled with hope and fear. As our leader, my father exuded the most hope and the most fear. He had come here to reinvent himself in a place ripe for reinvention.
For the next six decades—from age 38 to his death at 95—my dad was a born-again Dallasite, not to be confused with a born-again Christian. His atheism would evolve into what he called “secular humanism.” Yet even he would not deny that this thoroughly Christian metropolis we adopted as our own caused us to redefine ourselves in ways that were unexpected. You could say that my father simply adjusted or adapted to Dallas, but those words are too weak. His makeover was more than superficial; it was profound. Looking back, it’s clear that just as this ambitious city was searching for a new identity in the ’50s and ’60s, so was my ambitious father. Looking back, I also see that in many ways both the city and my father succeeded. But in just as many ways they also failed. The distance between that success and failure, like the distance between heaven and earth, can be measured only in uncertainty and pain—the two feelings that have overwhelmed me since my father’s death.
“Of course you have to struggle in the aftermath of his demise,” a friend told me shortly after my father’s memorial service. “His legacy is all about struggle. You can call it a noble struggle, but it’s struggle all the same.”
When my father left the East Coast, his goal was to stop struggling. He was part of a band of traveling salesmen, many of them Jewish, who came to Texas selling clothing of one kind or another. My father sold men’s hats. When the home office in New York gave him the choice of territories, my mother took an exploratory trip to several cities. She chose Dallas because it seemed the absolute opposite of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she had spent her unhappy childhood in crowded tenements.
“You don’t see any garbage on the street,” she said.
“Neither do you see any people on the street,” my father added.
“That’s good, Milton,” she said. “That makes me feel safe.”
Milton Ritz was born in 1916 in Newark, New Jersey, where neither his father nor mother made him feel safe. They were Yiddish-speaking, Yiddish-reading refugees who had fled the Cossacks. They never completely adapted to the language and lifestyle of 20th-century America. They saw the Russian Revolution as a kind of Jewish liberation. They became lifelong Leninists and, later, apologists for Stalin. As a teen, my father rebelled against what he considered his parents’ narrow-minded provincialism. Like many young intellectuals in the ’30s, his hero was Leon Trotsky, an imposing intellectual who saw the revolution in worldwide terms.
By working in the mailroom of a hat factory on lower Broadway, where he met my mother, Pearl, a seamstress, he saved enough money to attend night college for a few terms but never earned a degree. He dreamt of becoming a philosopher. He read voraciously, loved music, and haunted New York’s great art museums. His most consuming passion, though, was ideas. His joy was to explore them, critique them, refute them, and, in rare cases, embrace them. He was an iconoclast and a natural-born critic. His close friends, several of whom became famous writers and public figures, were certain that he, too, would enjoy a brilliant career in the liberal arts. That never happened.
His generation relished verbal warfare, and, as a combatant, my dad was formidable. When I was a young boy, I felt his love and concern for me. But I also experienced him as an intellectual bully. He needed to be more than right; he needed to humiliate his opponent, even if the opponent was a child.
The more frustrating his work life, the more important it became for him to win all arguments in his personal life. The first glimmer of light came when his former boss at the factory suggested he had the verbal skills to sell hats rather than pack them. At the time, he was a truck driver delivering pretzels and potato chips to restaurants and bars. He accepted this new position, which put him on the road that eventually led to Dallas. The road was rough, though, because the business was dying. Men’s hats, staples in the ’30s and ’40s, began losing their market in the less formal ’50s.
Though my mother was drawn to Dallas, my father was reluctant.
“Pearl,” he said, “the hat business is better in Los Angeles.”
“Los Angeles is crowded,” Mom replied. “Dallas has space. It’s roomier. It’s comfortable. I want us to be comfortable.”
Despite our moving into a comfortable home in a comfortable neighborhood, our first years were decidedly uncomfortable. Our house, near Northwest Highway and Midway Road, cost $15,000, the price of a 5-year-old three-bedroom dwelling in 1956. Though the majority of the Jewish population lived in more affluent Preston Hollow, where their kids attended Hillcrest High, I went to Thomas Jefferson, where Jews were far fewer.
Aside from one or two friends with backgrounds similar to his own, Dad was isolated. He was also afraid that his steadily declining income could not support our modest lifestyle. With three children at home, my mother nonetheless decided to go to work. She found a job on the night shift assembly line at Texas Instruments.
With my dad on the road and my mom working nights, I sought comfort in music, especially the jazz and rhythm and blues I discovered in far South Dallas. I rode three buses some 15 miles. With the waiting and transferring, the trip took nearly two hours. It was worth it. The center of action was the American Woodman Hall on the corner of Oakland and Carpenter. The cavernous space, with a capacity of 300, once held a fraternal organization. Tony Davis, a local promoter who worked for Schepps liquor distributorship and published In Sepia, a local newspaper serving the black community, had partnered with Billy Burke, a sales executive for American Tobacco Company, and rented the hall for Sunday jazz sessions that began in the late afternoon.
Admission was a dollar. You sat at one of the dozens of long tables covered with white paper tablecloths. It had the feeling of a nighttime picnic. It was smoky and crowded and irresistibly upbeat. The patrons were almost exclusively black, an after-church congregation of serious party people dressed to kill—men in super-sharp suits of lime green and banana yellow, women in form-fitting maxi skirts and miniskirts and earrings dangling with hoops and beads and exotic stones. You brought your own bottles of booze and bought setups of buckets of ice and soft drinks. A basket of chicken and fries cost 75 cents.
The music was a mix of the Miles Davis-informed modern jazz and soul-heavy sounds of Ray Charles. The house band was the Red Tops, and some of the players, including David “Fathead” Newman and James Clay, already had national reputations. The music was good enough to please my critical father, whom I convinced to accompany me one wintry Sunday afternoon. He was fascinated by the place and said he felt at home. He approached master of ceremonies Tony Davis—a grizzly bear of a man who wore a black patch over one eye—to compliment him on his green felt fedora.
“I think you’d like a new stingy-brim model that just came out,” Dad said.
During the next break in the music, the two men walked to the parking lot, where Dad opened the sample case that he carried in the trunk of his car. Tony wound up buying a half-dozen hats.
When I went to visit black churches, where the seeds of my conversion were first sown, my father did not accompany me, but he had no objection. He saw it as culturally uplifting. He wanted detailed reports about what I had heard and seen. He sensed that I was seeking some kind of truth. A jazz fan himself, he saw the complex relationship between secular and sacred music. He respected that mystery and urged me to explore the phenomenon with what he called “passionate scrutiny.” By encouraging me, he changed my life and allowed me to understand the core methodology—improvisation—that would guide me as a writer.
My father’s fear about money and the lack thereof also informed my career. I knew then what I still know now, that I have to make money. To assuage that fear, art must marry commerce. My parents’ marriage was weakened by my father’s inability to make good money. My mother, always willing to work, insisted that Dad find a way to increase his earnings. So when the hat business bottomed out, he got a job managing a Levine’s, a low-end retail store on Jefferson Avenue in Oak Cliff. I worked there myself on weekends, taking inventory and sweeping up.
The hours were grueling and the chores demanding. In those days, Jefferson Avenue was strictly working-class white. There wasn’t a hint of the hipness that characterizes Oak Cliff today. House painters came in to shop for denim bib overalls. Farmers parked their pickups in front of the store and bought thigh-high boots on sale for $3.99. This was not Dad’s milieu. It was tough for me to watch the Levine’s regional supervisor publicly castigate him for not pushing the sales force harder. When Dad talked back, I knew his Levine’s days were numbered. He was desperately unhappy. The only cheerful moment came on an otherwise listless Thursday night when Tony Davis walked in. Surprised and delighted to see Dad, he bought the most expensive suit in the store—$69.99 with a free second pair of pants.
The big break came—again, at my mother’s urging—when my father switched tracks entirely. The high moment of his reinvention was his decision to study economics and become a stockbroker. For a former Trotskyite, this might appear a difficult choice, but not for my father. By then he had long disabused himself of Marxism. He had been deconstructing that philosophy for years and had concluded, even before his decision to embrace the market, that it was bankrupt. For eight months he studied diligently and easily passed all certification tests. In the early ’60s, at a time when my older sister, Esther, and I were at UT Austin and my younger sister, Elizabeth, was finishing high school, Dad changed careers.
His enthusiasm for his new—and first—profession was intense. He found work at a downtown brokerage firm and went at it with a vengeance. I was impressed with his accomplishment, especially since economics has always baffled me. Establishing his expertise as a financial advisor, he fought his nagging insecurities by half-jokingly referring to himself as “the smartest man in the world.” Just as every little boy wants to believe that his daddy is Superman, I wanted to believe that this new persona he created for himself—the account executive—was authentic. In many ways it was. But in other ways it was not.
Because my dad had preached the importance of critical acumen in all areas, I couldn’t help but apply that principle to him. I studied his sales techniques and concluded that, although he seemed to have mastered complex economic matters, he had major limitations. I was not surprised that in the course of his 25-year career he did only moderately well. At a time when many of his colleagues became wealthy, wealth eluded him. He earned little more than a middle-class income and at times barely that. When he and my mother fought, which was often, she would ask the question that I believe haunted him until the end of his life. “If you’re so smart, Milton,” she’d say, “why aren’t you making more money?”
The answer had to do with his style and the imperfect nature of his reinvention. My father was amiable. He was also charismatic. He bristled with energy and had his own distinct charm. He was gregarious and curious about people. He expressed interest in their stories and was sympathetic with their problems. He also believed in his own vision of the world. These are the qualities of a great salesman, and yet, by large measure, he missed that mark. The reason was obvious: in selling others, he was also attempting to sell himself. Because his self-doubts cut so deep, that process was exhausting. As a result, he overexplained and oversold.
At the same time, he had clients who liked him, respected him, and financially benefitted from his expertise. Certain people took to his lectures on the nuanced behavior of the stock market. Certain people appreciated his mental showmanship.
In the ’60s he made enough to buy a new house farther up Midway Road, in what was considered Far North Dallas, on Forest Lane. That $55,000 four-bedroom home was the pinnacle of his success. In the ’70s, though, when my father entered middle age, business stalled. The dream of big money never materialized.
“The problem with your father,” my mother explained, “is that he doesn’t know how to close. Most people don’t want all that information. He winds up talking to himself or boring the hell out of his clients. Sure, he’s brilliant, but brilliant isn’t the point. Closing is.”
My mother, a strong and streetwise lady with tremendous insight into people, was a master closer. When my dad’s income lagged, as it often did, she took up the slack. She found a job selling women’s clothing at the Orchid Shop on Oak Lawn, a high-end boutique frequented by fashionable call girls. Later she worked for Sears, where she sold custom drapes. She drove a van filled with samples everywhere from McKinney to South Oak Cliff and, in any given month, earned more than my father. I liked to watch my mother sell. She scrutinized the customer with calm detachment. She asked direct questions. Mainly, though, she listened. Her mantra was, “You sell by listening, not talking.” Her suggestions were minimal and understated. Her ego was never in play. Her focus was on closing one sale and moving to the next. Unlike Dad, she was not there to prove anything, only to score.
In the ’80s, Milton Ritz became a Reagan-voting neoconservative. He persevered. He avoided financial catastrophes and, with Mom’s strong help, began to save some money. In the course of his lifetime, he was able to move himself and his family from working class to middle class. I came to admire that achievement. I came to appreciate how his conservative approach—“The point of investment is not to gamble money but to protect money”—finally afforded him the comfort that he and my mom had long sought. Their money fears, excited by the Depression that they had experienced as children, were finally assuaged.
“Do you know what it means to be rich?” asked my father, who had modest tastes.
“Being able to buy what you want. That’s why I consider myself rich.”
When Mom died in 1991, Dad retired. He was 75. His resources and robust health allowed him to live independently. Until the final two years of his life, he remained in the unpretentious duplex that he and my mother had bought a few miles north of NorthPark. In the last two decades of his life, we became exceedingly close.
“Old men ought to be explorers,” T.S. Eliot wrote in “East Coker.” “Here and there does not matter/We must be still and still moving/Into another intensity.”