Sunday, March 1, 2009

In the late 1970s I worked as advertising director for the four Byck's Department Stores in the Louisville area, and reported to work each day to that grand 19th century glass-columned edifice--the original Byck's building on Fourth Street.

It wasn't until many years had passed--the winter of 1999--that I returned to Louisville for a visit, driving through a ghostly empty downtown and walking through untrod snow to the old Byck's. Although I knew the building was vacant it was still a shock to see that iconic structure boarded up--depressing, really, because I remembered it as a vital, on-going part of people's lives back in the mid to late '70's.

I walked around the back of the building. I wanted to look up and peek in the window of my mezzanine office that overlooked the parking lot. That window was boarded up but the large window next to it wasn't and I could see into it.

This was Dann Byck's office; his father--Dann Sr--had occupied the same office a generation before. But now the curtains had rotted and stained and slipped off their rods. Framed pictures hung at odd angles. Paneling peeled from the walls.

Then I knew for certain downtown's days were done because I could so clearly recall the thick paneling in that office, varnished a distinctive greenish-beige, and the opulent, densely-opaque drapes that Dann always kept drawn. (Byck was a private man who played out his days folded inside this plush sanctum, office door closed and drapes drawn to the outside world).

I could picture that office so clearly and I could recall how proud Dann seemed of it. Inside sat that immense oval conference table, impressively carved and imported from I-forget-where; it was large enough that twenty of us--Dann's buyers and division heads--sat around it each Monday morning, Dann rocking back impassively in his chair, his fingers jammed under his belt in that detached, ultra-cool manner of his.

I could so clearly recall that office and that table and what it seemed to represent: one last family-owned Louisville enterprise being passed down from a father to his son--with an expectation that Dann Jr's son would one day join the firm as well.

As it turned out, Dann Jr had other ideas and left for Hollywood (to produce the film 'Night Mother, scripted by then-wife playwright Marsha Norman) just before downtown's decline sent the Byck's name into just another of the countless obscure archive files at the Louisville library.

Dann was a master of timing, I'll give him that. Before Dann left he turned Byck's reins over to Steve Goodman, an extremely nice gentleman with a Cornell law degree and a fairly convincing comb-over, but not a whitt of retail sense--the archatypal brother-in-law/business partner (Goodman was married to Dann's sister).

As sharp as Dann was, he had to have been aware of Goodman's lack of...well, let's call it yiddish a cupf; Dann had it in spades. (If you need to consult an English-Yiddish dictionary then you didn't know either Dann or Steve).

In any case, I'd bet a dollar to a doily Dann sold his Byck's stock before turning things over to Goodman...

Um--let's see, I was making a point here.

Oh, right...In our lives there are moments that seem to crystallize for us the definite passing of an era; this trip to downtown Louisville in the winter of '99 was one of mine.


Gene Schuster was Bycks in-store display advertising manager back in the mid to late '70s. Gene had never married and lived with his greyhound Pharoh in a home on Ellerbe Avenue just around the corner from my apartment on Woodbourne Avenue in the Highlands.

Not that we ever saw much of each other outside work, other than the ocassional chance passing on Bardstown Road, me on my ten-speed and Gene walking Pharoh. Then we'd chat a few seconds.

That was about the most amount of time anyone could really stand around Gene, I'm afraid.

Gene was the absolute gloomiest human being I've ever met. The line on Gene at Byck's was how he could brighten a room by leaving it. Nothing personal, really. That was just Gene.

On a Sunday afternoon in late November, 1977, Byck's held a company-wide get-together at an auditorium in town somewhere--I forget the location. Dann Byck spoke to the group of the accomplishments of various employees, getting his troops charged for the holiday season.

In front of hundreds, Dann said, "I know Gene's going to do a fantastic job with our displays this Christmas..." Gene's eyes darted to his shoes.

Later, those who were close enough to see his expression described it as a wan half-smile, as if to say, "Oh, really? Well, we'll see about that, Dann..."

You see, Gene carried secrets; private thoughts he shared with few. One of those secrets was this: He detested Dann Byck. Not the man, really, but what Dann had come to represent to Gene: his own failure to achieve any status beyond Dann Byck's gopher and mannequin dresser.

I know this because I became friendly with Gene's assistant, a middle-aged African-American woman whose name escapes me. She and Gene would be riding to Oxmoor or St. Matthews or Bashford Manor. Gene would be at the wheel and begin to rant about some off-hand remark Dann had made to him. (Gene had started working at Byck's about the same time Dann had, Gene as display manager, Dann as an assistant buyer. So Gene was actually above Dann on the corporate ladder and relations between the two were good. Of course, Dann was being groomed to take over the business. Gene was being groomed for...groomed? Hell, just keep those mannequins dressed, Gene, and while you're downstairs bring us up some coffee).

As Dann's role and influence at work increased, so did Gene's resentment. In the car with his assistant, Gene's rants became increasing belligerent. It's difficult for me to picture the anger building in Gene, so passive was he at work. But alone with his assistant in the confines of his car Gene cut loose, working himself up to full scream, arms a-flail, until his assistant insisted Gene pull over, so frightened was she that Gene would lose control at the wheel and plow them both into a pole.

After that she took her own car and met Gene at whatever branch they were visiting.

Back at work the Friday after the store-wide meeting I rode the elevator to the fourth floor office where Tina Gipson worked. Tina was nineteen and extremely attractive. She had a boyfriend--Billy, whom she eventually married--but she and I enjoyed flirting with one another and spent breaks together alone in the spare room off the fourth floor.

This day, alone in this makeshift breakroom, I asked her about Gene: "What's this guy's problem? Sometimes I want to smack him upside the head and say, Gene--get with it! Stop hound-dogging...I can't take it anymore!"

I thought I was being funny. Tina didn't laugh. "Don't you know Gene's story?" she asked.

No, of course I didn't.

"Several years ago," Tina told me, "Gene's father shot and killed his wife--Gene's mother. Then he turned the gun on himself and blew his head off. It happened at the house on Ellerbe."

No way, I thought. No freakin' way.

"Do you mean Gene still lives in the house where his father killed his mother and then shot himself? Are you sure?"

Tina was sure.The following afternoon the phone rang at my apartment. It was Tina. "Have you heard?" she asked. "Gene hung himself."

Schuster had fastened a rope to a cross-beam in the breezeway at the house on Ellerbe, climbed a ladder, and slipped the rope around his neck. I would find out later that Gene had first methodically sorted and arranged his papers and documents--the sad, trifling ephemera of a man's life--then locked Pharoh in the basement to spare him the trauma.

And there in the breezeway of the house on Ellerbe, Gene's body swung until his last speck of disappointment and resentment and consciousness slipped into ether. I hope he found the peace he sought.

What Gene didn't find, even in death, was dignity; the Louisville Times robbed him of that.

Monday's death notice contained this phrase: "Gene Schuster, 53, was found Saturday, hanging in the breezeway of his home." Except that the newspaper hyphenated breezeway, so that the line of type read thusly:

"Gene Shuster, 53, was found Saturday, hanging in the breeze-"

Even in death, I thought. Even in death.