The Turks Versus the Armenians"When you flip the top rug off a pile," Sam said to me, "you've got to make it fly. Like it had wings. Like it's soaring into the blue. You have to show at least half of the rug under it."
By William Eisner
That summer I was working at The Broadway, assigned to the rug department, part of Home Furnishings, earning money to cover my tuition at UCLA. My job was to flip over a pile of rugs one by one while the rug salesman made his pitch. The work didn't require the use of either side of my brain but it paid reasonably well, and I liked the lemony furniture polish smell of the place, and I liked my boss, Sam Gregerian. The department didn't sell carpeting but oriental rugs, imported from India, Iran, Turkey, western China, though many-which my boss looked on with contempt and made little effort to sell-were American machine-made rip-offs of oriental models.
Sam loved oriental rugs, talked about them as if they had magical properties, as if he actually believed in flying carpets. In his patter to customers you could see that love shine thorough. As I flipped in response to a barely perceptible nod from Sam, he would pause at certain models and go into his pattern spiel. "Patterns in oriental carpets are never quite what you'd expect. A surprise here, a flourish there, a change of color, the rotation of a design where you don't expect it. The more you look, the more variation you'll find." Then he would point out subtle symmetries in the pattern: translations, reflections, rotations, and their combinations, then would go on to grids and tessellations and how these filled the plane of the rug without gaps or overlaps. He would lose himself in the play of design, form, color, the endless variety of borders, the whole, he would point out to customers now growing glassy-eyed, comparable to a musical fugue with multiple themes and variations.
During breaks Sam would tutor me on the arcana of oriental rugs. "What do viruses, nuclear particles and oriental rugs have in common?" he once asked, adopting the Socratic method. When I answered that I didn't have a clue, he gave me a two word answer: "symmetry breaking."
"What's that?" I, a liberal arts major, asked.
"As a college man you will appreciate this," he said. "Symmetry breaking is when you expect symmetry but it's not quite there. It's their playfulness with symmetry that makes those rug patterns interesting, that keeps them from being predictable, boring." He regarded me carefully, to be sure I was paying attention.
"Is there symmetry in nature?" he asked.
I thought of leaves, flowers, the human body. "Yes," I said, but tentatively, sensing a trap.
"Yes is about right but not quite," Sam said, his voice taking on a missionary's enthusiasm. "In nature, if you look closely, you'll see the symmetry is imperfect. It's that 'almost' that teases you, that pleases your eye. And that's what the great oriental rug makers have caught."
As I flipped rugs for Sam, watched him in action day after day, noticed potential customers glancing at their watch, it dawned on me that Sam, for all his knowledge of rugs, was a lousy salesman. He was so taken with the artistry of his products that he seemed to have forgotten his purpose. Sam, I concluded, did not know how to close a sale. This was not only noticed by me but by Sam's boss, an avuncular type who I learned had been with The Broadway forever and was in charge of Home Furnishings. He occasionally chastised Sam on his weak sales but by the way the boss held Sam's elbow when they talked, his half smile when he spoke to him, their occasional friendly chats, made me conclude that he liked the rug salesman and was tolerant of the low sales in Sam's department. It was also clear that everyone liked the boss: when he walked through the department he left behind a contrail of satisfaction that lingered in the air like a pleasant scent.
One day Sam's family visited the department. His wife was a teacher of renaissance art at Santa Monica Community College and bore a remarkable resemblance to Sam himself. She was a diminutive woman with guileless eye that I imagined saw only good. They had twin daughters, somewhere in their mid-teens, Mona and Lisa, as alike as two drops of water. Sam gave the family a lecture on rugs while I flipped. The girls' eyes wandered but Mrs. Gregerian listened attentively, then they all went off to lunch together, Sam and his wife holding hands.
In mid-summer it was announced that The Broadway had been acquired by Macy's. In the space of a week all Broadway signs and logos disappeared throughout the store, replaced by their Macy's counterparts. But more than the just the Broadway signage was replaced. In the second week after the acquisition there was a shakeup at the top that rattled down to the bottom. Sam's boss of fifteen years took early retirement, replaced by a woman from Macy's headquarters. Not only did Sam's old boss disappear, but his solid mahogany desk, leather-covered chairs, potted plants and beige rug spotted with Coke stains disappeared as well, replaced in days by wall coverings of French blue, cobalt-colored wall-to-wall carpeting and sleek Danish modern furniture.
The woman's name was Kyan Baydur. "That's a Turkish last name," Sam said ominously.
In her first day on the job Ms. Baydur called a meeting of all Home Furnishings salespeople. The meeting was held in the rug department because of the large open space. I hung around the periphery and watched the proceedings. She stood on the stack of oriental rugs-towering heels digging into the pile-slender and trim in a no-nonsense blue-gray dress. Black hair pulled back and giving off a metallic gleam like anthracite, sharp-featured, oversized silver loops flashing at her ears, I found her an attractive woman. But I sensed that about her was an impenetrable carapace, that hugging her would be like hugging a rock, and doubted whether anyone could love her. I noticed she wore no wedding band. She lectured on the importance of inventory turns and sales per unit of floor space. She maintained eye contact throughout the talk, moved her gaze from one face to another. "Are there any questions?" she finished. There were no questions; everyone looked as if they were about to be hauled off to a Nazi medical experiment.
The morning of her second day Ms. Baydur called Sam Gregerian to her office. That noon Sam did something unusual: instead of brown bagging in his cubicle, he invited me to lunch in the store cafeteria. He ordered a glass of white wine and over a lobster salad bitterly recounted his meeting with the new boss.
"I must have sat in front of her for five minutes," Sam told me, "staring at the top of her head and her park-bench-green dress, before she raised her eyes from the papers on her desk. Psychology. She wanted to show me how unimportant I am. I could see that on the warmth and kindness scale she ranked right up there with reptiles. She was wearing big-framed eyeglasses, no doubt to make that emaciated face of hers look wider. Finally, she looked up at me and said, 'Sales in the rug department are twenty percent below average and sales per square foot thirty percent below average.' She stared at me through those giant glasses, looking like a cartoon owl." Sam did an imitation and at that moment did indeed resemble a pissed off owl. "She kept staring at me with eyes like prune pits as if I were guilty of some terrible crime." Sam gestured, the kind of broad gesture an innocent man might make when the police arrive to look for evidence of his guilt. Sam continued, quoting Ms. Baydur, "'We won't talk about profit. The rug department is always running a sale. You know what that means?' I thought she expected an answer so I started to say something but she barged right ahead, pointing her pen at me like some accusatory finger. 'I'll tell you what that means. The shit isn't moving. That's what it means. Items that move don't need sales. We're a full price house not a warehouse store.'"
Sam speared a piece of lobster, held it in front of him like a microphone. "'We need more salesmen in the department,' I told her. 'Oriental rugs are high priced art objects. They're sold slowly. It takes time for a customer to make up his mind. They have to come back a couple of times. You need more people to follow up with them.'"
"'Bullshit!' the woman said, waving her pen at me." And Sam waved a piece of lobster. "'Those rugs are terrific,' she yelled. 'They just shriek Buy Me! But nobody is buying. Why do you think that is, Mr. Gregerian?' She glared at me as if my life depended on the answer. I tried to answer in a calm voice, to speak soothingly. I mean, you could see the hysteria flickering in the woman's face. She's a crazy person pretending to be sane is what she is. 'We need more salesmen,' I repeated. 'There's no substitute for competent help on the floor.' But I don't think she even heard."
Sam took a slug of wine, continued in deepening gloom. "'Believe it or not, Mr. Gregerian,' she said to me, her pen wagging at me like a windshield wiper, 'the rug business has moved along. Artists like Picasso and Matisse had their work reproduced in rugs. Those are big time names that people recognize and maybe they recognize the paintings too. The Aubusson factory in France makes them. Tell our buyer to look into it. It'll give some punch to your department.' She squinted at me then said, sarcasm dripping from every word, 'Those rugs might just sell themselves.' I tried to tell her that those were only gimmicks, but she leaned back, touched her fingertips, and stared at me like I was a newly discovered stain on her executive carpet. Then in a deep freeze voice she said, 'Thank you Mr. Gregerian,' and went back to her papers." Sam finished his wine, stared at the remains of his lobster salad as if it were debris fallen from space. He seemed a man waiting for a firing squad. You could see impending disaster gathering around him like a fog, that he could never satisfy those prune pit eyes, that like his old boss's mahogany desk he had been targeted for destruction.
In the ensuing days Sam tried to speed up his pitch, had me flip rugs faster, but inevitably he'd get bogged down in detail. For example, he'd talk far too long and lovingly about the sequence of knots that made up the carpet, the Turkish versus the Persian knot and their relative merits. Once, with a particularly patient couple, he lost himself discoursing on the beauty of oriental rugs in the context of Islamic art and spirituality. Historically, he said, throughout the Islamic world, from Spain to Indonesia, you see patterns in architecture and interiors that organize space and beautify structure. "Those patterns reflect the pure beauty of numbers, considered by Islam to be divinely inspired." Here his voice grew distant, that of a poet not a salesman, as if the couple that he was trying to sell had disappeared and he was addressing a wider audience, of people of discrimination and taste who shared his poetic view of life. "All those patterns are actually expressions of unity. They're really statements about God and the universe. Patterns in oriental rugs reflect a view of the world: there are individual differences, sure, but only in relation to the unity of the whole." The couple was watching Sam, not looking at the carpet. "That was beautiful," the woman said. The man looked at his watch, took the woman's arm and they left.
Sam once again invited me to lunch, again treated himself to a glass of wine, and for the first time talked about the Armenia of his and his wife's parents and grandparents. He recounted how awful life had been for their parents in the old country and how both sets of grandparents had been slaughtered by the Turks. He paused after he said this as if recollecting those grandparents, offering a silent prayer for them, people now enclosed in earth and would remain so forever. Then he leaped back to the present. "Do you have any idea how many Armenians have been murdered by the Turks?" he asked, now staring at me ferociously. I told him that I had no idea. "Millions," he said, "going way back to the 11th century. In the late eighteen hundreds maybe a quarter of a million were murdered. And in the years after the first world war more than a million Armenians were massacred by the Turks. And this killing went on for years afterward." He finished his wine, face rock-hard. "That's what the Turks have done to the Armenians… But we fought back. In guerilla actions we fought back. Now Armenia is independent and there's peace. You get nowhere by taking shit. You fight back, maybe subtly, but you fight back." In a glimmer of understanding I saw that the struggle between Sam Gregerian and Kyan Baydur was far larger than low rug sales. It had taken on geopolitical dimensions.
Then an odd thing began to happen in the home furnishings department. Customers discovered nicks in the wood pieces, small tears in the lamp shades, a scratch across the glass of a dining room credenza. And Sam Gregerian complained heatedly that someone had spilled coffee on one of his most expensive rugs. Sales in Home Furnishings fell. Complaints were lodged with the manufacturers. These claimed that they rigorously inspect their products and they are always pristine when they leave the factory. The carriers, warehouse people, and everyone else who handled the furniture proclaimed their innocence as well.
Ms. Baydur now walked through the department with the suspicious eye of a house detective. Sam tracked her movements, watchful as a cat. I noticed new men hanging around, eyes panning the environment, and decided that she had hired plainclothes men to patrol the area. She held private meetings with everyone in the department: what had they seen? had this ever happened before? The salesmen were as unhappy as Ms. Baydur for the loss of customer confidence was costing them sales and putting their jobs at risk. Yet despite all the precautions, blemishes of the most bizarre kind continued to appear: a cigarette burn on a mahogany coffee table, the mirror-like surface of a teak dining room table mottled overnight as if the wood had developed a skin disease, glue that puckered and ruined the fabric of a sofa, a dog turd on a Louis XVI chair, a mysterious and unremoveable stain on a Persian rug. Sales continued to drop.
At lunch I asked Sam about the problem that was bedeviling the department. "It's a shame, isn't it," he said philosophically. Then, over a second glass of wine, he again talked about the home of his ancestors. Did I know that Armenia was one of the earliest sites of human civilization? that Armenia was the first Christian nation in the history of the world? Then he once more discoursed on the battles between the Turks and the Armenians and how the Armenians through subterfuge and persistence had won out in the end. I refrained from confronting Sam, clearly a believer in a higher type of justice; there was no point to it, and I sensed that I was better off not knowing. But for the first time, watching Sam, listening to his animated recounting of the successful struggle of the Armenians, I concluded that Sam was more than a rug salesman with a poet's sensibility. He projected a quality no doubt bred into his people through centuries of oppression: a survivor's shrewdness.
The fall semester started and I returned to school but still worked at Macy's on weekends, the time of highest customer traffic in Home Furnishings. Sam told me that sales were way down and that Ms. Baydur had been called to account by upper management. Then one weekend I learned that Ms. Baydur had abruptly departed and a new man, hired away from Robinsons-May, had replaced her. I felt sorry for the poor woman but Sam wore a look of quiet satisfaction: in war one did not feel sorry for the enemy. The vandalism in Home Furnishings abruptly ceased.
I continued to flip rugs for Sam on weekends. His spiel had taken on renewed vigor and confidence. And, remarkably, his sales figures improved. "Persistence and ingenuity," he told me, "that's how the Armenian people survive." And I solemnly nodded agreement: he was surely right.
One weekend, I was chatting with a salesman. "No one was sorry to see Miss Turkey leave," I said conversationally. He looked at me blankly. "Ms. Baydur," I prompted, "the Turkish lady."
"She wasn't Turkish," he said. "That was her ex-husband's name and she just kept it. I knew her at headquarters when she was Kyan Maywood. She's no more Turkish than I am."
I reported this bit of information to Sam. He shrugged. "She had a simplistic view of things," he said, "regardless where she came from. She should have put an oriental rug in her office instead of that wall-to-wall junk. It would have improved her outlook on life, made her understand that things are more complicated than they appear." He thought a moment then continued, "But I think her real problem was that she was just a sad unloved child." A note of melancholy had crept into Sam's voice, as if Ms. Baydur had died.
© Copyright 2004, William Eisner, All Rights Reserved.