Prince of Polyester

Ludovico Immoglio was pimped out from an early age for work. His family needed the money, and he, being an able-bodied ten-year-old, was thrown as grist into the mill in order to secure that cash. His father, Ignazio, was a well-connected man in their small town of Ortona. He knew enough people to ask around for favors. Or rather, people whose favors he wanted to “collect” on, so that he might get something in return. Through the conduit of his son. His only son, as a matter of fact—therefore, the child with the most pressure to bear compared to his five younger sisters. Sure, they “helped out” around the house all before reaching double-digit ages, but they would never know the humiliation and pain of what Ludovico endured in an adult workplace, an open-for-all-to-see setting where his so-called employer (though the more appropriate word would have been “slave driver”) daily berated him in ways both verbal and physical, privately and publicly. His name was Benedetto, a cruelly ironic moniker when taking into account his total lack of benediction. Or beneficence, for that matter. 

Worst of all, Ignazio was well-aware of the lion’s den he was tossing his own son into. Had all the foreknowledge of just what a strunzo Benedetto could be. But that anticipation of cruelty was no match for the anticipation of money in his pocket. Ludovico himself, of course, would never see a single lira of his earnings, with Ignazio not even bothering to play it off like Ludovico was profiting by sheer virtue of continuing to have a roof over his head and clothing on his back. And, speaking of clothing, the one thing that Ludovico could say about working in Benedetto’s shop was that he learned all about the finer materials in life. Even though, in this postwar era of Italy, there was nothing “fine” about them, so much as expected. It wasn’t special for a customer to possess what Americans would presently see as the most deluxe of fabrics—hand-crafted leather, silk, lambswool, linen, fur, cashmere. None of these were spared in Benedetteo’s shop, where his customers brought in the entire gamut of sumptuous materials despite their own rather humble economic standing. But rural Italy was not poor in quality even if incomes were not high. This is perhaps why Ludovico was eventually so shocked to find the way Americans—the supposed “richest” people in the world—lived their lives. That is to say, the fabrics they so freely chose to drape over their skin. 

In 1975, after eight solid years of abuse from Benedetto (and so, de facto Ignazio), Ludovico had managed to squirrel away enough money to escape from Italy. It was no easy feat with his father constantly monitoring his wages, suspicious of every little perceived “absence” of part of the payment. But Ludovico found the hustle within himself to get another secret job that Iganzio couldn’t meddle in. Although he claimed to be going off to study to earn his GED during these “free” hours, he was acutally working in a butcher shop. It was a wonder to Ludovico every day that he didn’t get caught, and by the time he did, it was already too late: he had bought the ticket to go to America. 

When Ludovico arrived in Los Angeles, bypassing New York unlike most Italians who can’t be bothered to make the extra journey all the way “out West,” he was immediately shocked to find that the biggest fashion trend—leisure suits—entailed polyester at best, and other nondescript synthetic materials at worst. Wasn’t this the country that was supposed to know all about the finer things? Or so the lie went overseas as part of a perpetuated myth to keep the United States in the spotlight as a “leader of the world” to aspire being like. What they didn’t include in the bold print about being the “greatest” and the “richest” country was that you had to have money in order to partake of that greatness and richness. Rather ironic, of course, regarding that latter characteristic, but yes, the fact of the matter was, you usually had to be born rich in order to “get rich” “on your own merit.” It didn’t take long for Ludovico to learn this the hard way, as he seemed to be turned away from job after job as a result of 1) not knowing anyone at the establishment in question and 2) not being anyone influential’s spawn. 

Destitute and increasingly desperate, Ludovico did something he never would’ve dreamed of doing back in Ortona: he went to a bar in the middle of the day. If his father could see him now, he would call him a fannullone, a scroccone. No better than a derelict. Well, maybe slightly better—for not all derelicts had cash for beer. Beer, Ludovico thought in disgust as he guzzled it down. He hated beer. It was the swill of peasants. Or, in his current circumstance, the swill of Americans. And as he drank it, he felt truly as one of them. The real them. Not the fake version peddled to people who didn’t know better. People living in Europe forced to swallow the idealized myth on a daily basis in some way or another. Made to feel as though their “primitive” way of life could never be as sophisticated. Yet here he was in one of the numerous concrete jungles of the country, barely getting by despite his skills and determination. And all because he didn’t know “the right” person. Worse still, wasn’t born to the right person. 

As he did something he never thought he would do in his lifetime—get drunk—he began to talk to the bartender, who empathized with the poor, lost soul perhaps because he, too, was Italian. Not “Italian-Italian,” but a third generation Italian-American, still fresh enough in the lineage to have been told stories of hardship and struggle by his grandfather. And to therefore understand what Ludovico must be going through. His first and foremost instruction on “how to succeed” for “Lou” was that he needed to Americanize his name at once. The newly-knighted Lou agreed to the suggestion, saying he would do anything if it meant being given a job in exchange. After witnessing the extent of his eagerness, Jonathan said he could not only give Lou a few shifts a week as a barback until he got on his feet, but that he also happened know someone who knew someone with a tailoring business in North Hollywood that might be in need of an experienced professional. In that moment, Lou could have kissed the ground that Jonathan walked on, or perhaps even Jonathan himself. Hey, this was L.A., right? Anything went. 

***

It didn’t end up being a tailor shop in North Hollywood, but a used clothing store on Melrose. Which was perhaps worse, in terms of being exposed to the entire arsenal of just how disgusting “disgusting” could be, thread-wise. Of all jobs, Lou was assigned to the task of “buying” the garments. Also known as: sifting through them to determine just how foul they were. In other words, could they be repurposed and upsold? Often times, Lou found this type of work to be more challenging than anything he had ever done before because it was so meaningless. Sure, working for Benedetto had been degrading, but there was purpose to it. He was bringing style, therefore confidence, into the lives of the townspeople where he grew up. Here, he was, essentially, hawking shit. The only difference was, he did it inside instead of out. As though that was supposed to add some level of dignity to how low he had sunk in his bid to live the “American dream.” It did not. And what had he even really come here for, he had to question daily on the 10 Metro line to get to the store. Was it simply to get out from under the oppressive thumb of his father? Ignazio, who would always somehow find a way to triangulate him back into “taking care of” the family. A thinly veiled code for slipping them any extra cash he made even though he was no longer underage, therefore under obligation.

Well, Lou was sick and tired of constantly having to “share.” Because it was more than sharing, it was giving everything and getting nothing in return. There was “selflessness” and then there was slave labor. He was quite tired of falling into the trap of the latter category merely because he was the oldest son in a family. In America, he figured, that kind of injustice when it came to working hard for one’s money simply couldn’t happen. But he found that perhaps siphoning all of his earnings to the family was preferable to distributing it all to the government. He didn’t know anymore. He had been worked to the bone for so long that he was having trouble even discerning which end was up. Maybe that’s how he found himself falling asleep in the middle of fondling some polyester pile that another customer had just dropped off as though it was a pot of gold instead of a mound of malarkey.

His boss, Esther, who was never usually even in the shop, just so happened to walk in that day and drink in the sight of his “insolence.” That’s actually what she called it when she summoned him into the back room to scold him for his idleness. He was genuinely appalled by her assessment of him in this manner. Lou, the hardest-working man on Melrose, being accused of torpor. It was unthinkable. And yet, here she was, thinking it. “If I catch you asleep on the job again, you’re fired!” Esther shouted as she walked out of the office so that everyone on the floor could hear the extent of her vitriol toward him in that instant. It was as though she wanted to make a public mockery out of him. Which really made her no better than Benedetto. She, an American, supposedly open and free-spirited, was just as rigid and oppressive as anyone else he had worked for back in Italy. 

Slinking back out onto the floor with his proverbial tail between his legs, Lou felt the shame on him like a sheen. An aura that radiated his feelings of patheticness and inadequacy out to everyone. The only other time he had felt such mortification in his life was when one of Benedetto’s wealthiest customers reentered the shop one afternoon to inform him that the measurements of his brand-new Gucci suit were totally incorrect. The jacket and pants were entirely too tight. And it had all been at the hands of Lou, who had somehow incorrectly measured and written down the information. It was still early on in his “career” there, but that didn’t mean there was going to be any leniency toward his grave error. After Benedetto apologized profusely to the customer and promised to pay for another new suit and take it in for free next time, he locked the door to the shop, closed the blinds and commenced with the task of beating the shit out of Lou. That was the last time he ever made such a mistake. There was no “trial and error” in this store. Only a one-off “courtesy” beating. If another “faux pas” ensued, well, that meant you likely wouldn’t survive it to continue working for Benedetto anyway.

In some ways, it was the best crash course in the working world that Lou could have asked for. Because it did make everything after it seem relatively effortless. The problem was, Lou simply didn’t expect that any job after it would ever require so much effort. Both emotional and physical. And it all went back to that lore about America being the Promised Land. A place where gold flowed through the rivers for the taking. A place where getting rich quick was the name of the game. Yet if that were the case, Lou wouldn’t be sifting through half of L.A.’s cum-stained polyester pants to see what could be resold and possibly pass for getting a designer label sewn onto it so the store could charge more (a scam Lou wasn’t made privy to until three full months working there; being Italian, perhaps they thought he would be amenable to such shadiness—not so).

In the wake of Esther’s verbal flogging, Lou assumed that the worst of his day was over. Alas, that would not be true. For with only twenty-six minutes left in his shift, the worst possible kind of customer chose to come in: a celebrity. Perhaps even worse than an A-list one, it was a C-list one. And these are the kind that seem to genuinely believe they’re on the A-list. An unfortunate delusion for anyone caught in the wake of their occasional grappling with reality. It just so happened that Lou was doomed to be caught in that wake today. 

Allen Klieg was a TV actor. Which was reason number one why Lou had no idea who he was. Not only was he never at home to watch TV, but even if he was, he certainly wouldn’t have been able to sit through a show called SFV PD. It was hard to imagine even the people who actually lived in San Fernando Valley being interested in a narrative about its police department, let alone anyone else. Regardless, Klieg felt he was God’s gift to Earth, and, more specifically, to this shop. Apparently, his costume designer had recommended it, and Klieg wanted her to accompany him so that he could buy something for an audition. He explained all of this very loudly to Lou, while also instructing him not tell anyone—that it was classified information. Lou nodded along, trying not to show his dismay as the clock ticked ever closer to the moment when he should have been able to leave. But no, Klieg kept dragging him through the store, insisting on “top-notch” service that somehow rendered Lou into a personal assistant. Without the according pay grade. 

After thirty minutes of extra time off the clock had gone by, Lou finally had to say something: “I’m sorry Mr. Klieg, but I must go. My shift ended a half hour ago.” 

Klieg stopped dead in his tracks in the midst of picking out a bright orange paisley-print blouse. All so he could stare daggers at Lou. “Oh? Your ‘shift’ ended? Is that right?”

Standing firm, Lou replied, “Yes sir.” 

Sneering, Klieg declared, “Well I’m so sorry to keep you from your dreary fuckin’ life. You goddamn wop. You sorry excuse for a fucking retail worker.” With that, he actually slapped Lou across the face and approached the cash register, where Lou’s co-worker/the assistant manager, Terri, had been observing the entire melodrama with stone-faced shock. Granted, Terri had seen plenty of shit in her day, especially when it came to celebrity behavior. She had been working on Melrose for the past ten years, and had become a pro when it came to managing attitudes. But even this was more than she could have ever imagined, in terms of “plebeian” treatment. 

As Klieg went on about how he would not only never shop in this store again, but also make sure that every L.A. news outlet was also aware of what a shithole the place was, that was when Terri had to pull out the big guns and placate, “You are absolutely right, Mr. Klieg. I will fire him immediately. I’m so sorry about your experience here today.” As she finished her sentence, she looked over sheepishly at Lou, who couldn’t believe how willing she was to stab him in the back. He actually thought they were becoming true friends. This wasn’t the first time he had to learn that people were quick to sell you down the river here (though not the L.A. River—‘cause that’s all dried up, and has no flow). Yet it was the first time he felt the sting of it so profoundly. The awareness that he was more alone than he ever had been back in Ortona. Where even if he was being taken advantage of, at least he knew his family would always be there for him. 

Walking out of the store that day, Lou knew he was done working for other people. Fucking finished, to be more precise. He was already shilling polyester on the regular and knew firsthand this was the fabric that sold. So he figured why not put a neon sign on how comfortable people were with being tacky? With a literal neon sign that said “Prince of Polyester” on it. That would be the name of his clothing store. Just as soon as he borrowed the necessary capital. And that’s when it occurred to him to ask his own father for the money. He was certain he had made far more for Ignazio that could ever be repaid, and what was really a paltry ten thousand dollars among father and son? 

To Ignazio, evidently, it was too much. Even ten dollars likely would have been. He then proceeded to tell Lou over the phone that his financial woes were worse than ever, markedly since Lou decided to “abandon” them to fend for themselves. Although he might have been especially susceptible to a guilt trip that evening, something about his father’s admitted defeat—his helplessness without his son there to bail him out—compelled him to arrange for the soonest flight out of the city. Out of the U.S. Where, clearly, he did not have the emotional wherewithal to continue trying to function and succeed in. 

To end up in Ortona once more was shameful in many regards, but Ludovico was quickly consoled by the feel of non-synthetic, truly luxe fabric running against his fingertips. This was richness, this was understanding of quality. In a way that Americans, he now knew, never could. He also knew Prince of Polyester was a “dream” that only could have lived in that country. It died a stillborn, but maybe that was for the best. The thought of becoming truly acclimated to cheapness as opposed to poverty was what made Ludovico shudder most of all when he reflected upon the erstwhile path he was going down. In that instant, his reverie was interrupted by a customer who walked into the store. “Ludovico? You’re back?”

He smiled triumphantly. “Yes. I’ve taken over for Benedetto.”

That’s right, Ludovico had vowed never to work for someone else again and Benedetto had let him take over… There wasn’t much he could say about it now that he was freshly killed in the back of the store, a wire hanger draped around his neck after being choked with it. Some might call such an act “very Italian” (if they weren’t calling it “very Joan Crawford”), but, in truth, it was a residual touch of the cold, cutthroat American way that had rubbed off on Ludovico long enough to snatch what he wanted by any means necessary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s