Home > In the Black > In the Black: 1968 – Arthur Needleman

In the Black: 1968 – Arthur Needleman

ITB140213 - In the Black 1968 w180

Y.T., Sr. knew exactly where to find Arthur Needleman: at the shoe shine stand. It was where he had first met his West Coast sales manager seven years earlier, clear across the country at the St. Francis Hotel on Union Square in San Francisco. Arthur Needleman was drawn to hot dog carts, coffee shops, news stands, bakeries, barber shops and, of course, shoe shine stands, like bees are drawn to nectar, craving the human interaction and banter with proprietors and personal service providers and feeding off of those interactions, absorbing energy like a psychological flywheel to propel his manic pace through the day.

Arthur Needleman was the son of one of the most respected and revered men in the cloistered world of Madison Avenue. His father was the man who single-handedly doubled Proctor and Gamble shampoo sales with a solitary word: Lather, Rinse, Repeat. Wilfred Gustave Needleman was an avid student of the human herd and the most effective methodologies for corralling their disposable income into the coffers of corporations who paid handsomely for his propaganda wrangling. Throughout his career, “W.G.” prided himself on taking a strict scientific approach to the understanding of human behavior, but despaired at the disdainful whispers, both real and imagined, for his profession — in spite of the millions upon millions of dollars of tangible results his “pseudo-science” produced. The overt lack of respect from all but his peers and his clients pierced the adman’s pride deeply, the wounds of which he sought to heal by sending his son to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to become a “real” scientist.

Arthur Needleman was enrolled in the Aeronautical Engineering program with a minor in Astronomy, which interested him immensely more than his major. Although he excelled in his studies, his heart was not in becoming a scientist or an engineer. He saw the undergraduate program through, though, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree magnum cum laude only for his father’s sake. While W.G.’s approach to his fellow human beings, including his family, was coldly clinical and remotely statistical, his son preferred to deal with folks belly-to-belly, on an equal footing, learning from them and enjoying their company, rather than analyzing how to make them jump through hoops or chase through mazes towards some dubious reward, like a B.F. Skinner experiment. After graduation, Arthur Needleman sought to get as far away as possible from the laboratory-like sterility of the Needleman household in New York City as soon as possible. His escape path led to a drafting board at the Lockheed Advanced Development Division in Burbank, California, where he spend long days drawing excruciatingly intricate details of the landing gears of top secret aircraft. The unbroken hours in the company of templates, t-squares and mechanical pencils quickly began killing his spirit. He literally felt his soul slowly drowning in the increasing quantities of alcohol he was consuming after work in the company of fellow “Skunk Works” worker bees, until one Tuesday afternoon he walked over to his supervisor’s desk under the watchful eye of forty disbelieving engineers in his section and tendered his resignation. Due to the classified nature of the work done there for Kelly Johnson, Arthur Needleman was escorted out of the Lockheed facility immediately by security and collected his last paycheck that Friday.

On the way home from his last day at work, Arthur Needleman stopped at a bookstore and stocked up on fiction, verse, history and philosophy tomes, which he consumed voraciously on Venice Beach, until the day he finished Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, after which he impulsively jumped into the gift he received from his father upon graduating from M.I.T., a Porsche Spyder, and headed north up California Highway 1, stopping at every coffee shop, diner, bowling alley, driving range and tavern between Los Angeles and San Francisco, until he crossed paths with Y.T., Sr. at the St. Francis Hotel. After a wide ranging conversation, ricocheting from sports cars to the “Buttoned-Down Mind” of Bob Newhart to the validity of Roger Maris breaking Babe Ruth’s record of sixty home runs in a 162 game season to Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night to Fred McMurray’s invention of Flubber in The Absent Minded Professor to Eisenhower’s dire warnings about the “Military-Industrial Complex” to Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human to journey into outer space, Y.T., Sr. told Arthur Needleman to call him after he got home from his Pacific coastal odyssey to go to work for Erp Industries, Inc.

Y.T., Sr. climbed up on the shoe shine stand in the lobby of the Parker House Hotel in downtown Boston. Arthur Needleman was already sitting there, scanning The Boston Globe obituaries and analyzing the upcoming World Series pitching matchup between Tiger Denny McClain and the Cardinal Bob Gibson with Aldo as he buffed Arthur Needleman’s Florsheims to a high gloss. Without looking, he handed Y.T., Sr. the Lifestyle section of the paper.

“I have to go with St. Louis, of course,” said Y.T., Sr., pulling out his pen to work the crossword puzzle.

“I hate to break this to you, but it’s going to be Detroit,” answered Arthur Needleman. “I hope you don’t have a lot riding on the Series.”

“Hmmm.” Y.T., Sr. filled in six down. “Aldo, your thoughts?”

“This is Boston,” said the shoe shine man as he dabbed polish on Y.T., Sr.’s Oxfords. “I gotta go American League, so I agree with Artie on this.”

“We’ll see. We’ll see,” said Y.T., Sr. “So, anyone we know kick off?”

“Looks like Patrick O’Hurley crossed the bar.”

“We know him?”

“No, but he’ll do.”

“How’s our buddy, Peckerfelt, making out these days?”

“He’s dealing with it. That Leon Debs guy is a real piece of work, though.”

“Anyone listening to him?”

“Oh, there are always a few malcontents who are just looking for any excuse to make trouble and stir the pot.”

“I don’t need any union problems in the shop.”

“Nothing to fear, my good man, but fear itself. Orley’s pitching in, too. Boy, he sure hates Debs’s guts.”

“We’re at a critical juncture with negotiations right now. Let me know what I can do to help.”

“Oh, I think everything is good-to-go right now. You won’t need to worry about manufacturing.”

“Okay.” Y.T., Sr. filled in twenty-three across. “And how are he and Prunella getting on?”

“Never seen him happier.”

“Good. Good for him.”

“Front desk,” Arthur Needleman whispered as he nudged Y.T., Sr.’s arm with his elbow. Without lifting their heads from their newspapers, both men caught a glimpse of Vasili Ivanovich pacing near the front desk, alternating between checking his wrist watch, then furtively glancing in their direction, then contemplating the scuffed condition of his cheap brown shoes, then rubbing the center of his forehead, then repeating the ritual again and again.

They would be late if they didn’t get going, Vasili Ivanovich fretted to himself, Y.T., Sr.’s long ago lesson in tardiness ever fresh in his mind. What was taking so long?

“You gentlemen are all set,” said Aldo.

“I shall retrieve our carriage,” said Arthur Needleman hopping down from the stand and heading toward the front entrance under the watchful eye of Vasili Ivanovich.

Y.T., Sr. paid Aldo and tipped him generously. “Tigers, huh? You Red Sox fans are all alike.”

Aldo shrugged. “Thank you, sir.”

Vasili Ivanovich met Y.T., Sr. halfway and walked with him to the hotel entrance. “I’ve checked and double checked everything — absolutely everything and — and the design is good. It is good. I swear it.”

“I’m sure it is,” said Y.T., Sr.

“But you’ve read the memos. They are all blaming us — Grumman, Raytheon, Bell, Marquardt, Rocketdyne, the government, Von Braun.” Delays in getting the Lunar Excursion Module flight ready had forced NASA to completely change the mission profile for Apollo 8, which was originally planned as a second Lunar Module/Command Module test in an elliptical medium Earth orbit in early 1969. “And this Raytheon fellow, Mc-Mc-Mc–“


Vasili Ivanovich shuddered at the mere mention of the surname of the Senator from Wisconsin whose subcommittee hearings had precipitated his relocation from Washington D.C. to Kansas City so many years ago.

A porter held the door for them. They stepped to the curb to wait for Arthur Needleman.

“Everything is going to be just fine,” Y.T., Sr. said, putting his hand on Vasili Ivanovich’s shoulder. “Trust me.”

Vasili Ivanovich bowed his head and shook it slowly. He had seen it all before: the finger pointing, the accusations, the burying of facts and the inevitable purging of the innocents.

Arthur Needleman pulled up in a red four-door Ford Torino from Hertz and rolled down the window. “Need a lift?”

Y.T., Sr. read the question in Vasili Ivanovich’s painfully pinched expression at the sight of Arthur Needleman. “You know, he went to school here in Boston.”

Vasili Ivanovich just shook his head dejectedly and acquiesced to Y.T., Sr.’s gestures to get in the front seat, wondering if he might have the Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol with him and what it would feel like against the back of his head.

“A clean windshield. Powerful gasoline. And a shoe shine,” said Arthur Needleman as he squealed the tires pulling away from the Parker House Hotel and raced his way out of downtown Boston in a way that only compounded Vasili Ivanovich’s anxiety and terror.

In the back seat, Y.T., Sr. worked on the Boston Globe crossword puzzle.

“So, I hear old “Fuzzy” McCarthy has done pretty good for himself at Raytheon,” said Arthur Needleman.

“Assistant Chief Engineer,” said Y.T., Sr., from the back seat.

“You know, Vasya,” Arthur Needleman said, winking at Vasili Ivanovich, “Fuzzy and I were classmates back at M.I.T.”

Vasili Ivanovich’s worry-furrowed brow suddenly smoothed out. He looked back at Y.T., Sr. who was filling in the answer for forty-six down and finally understood.

Arthur Needleman arrived at St. Anthony Catholic Church just as Patrick O’Hurley’s funeral procession was departing for Westview Cemetery. He turned on the Torino’s headlights and fell in at the end of the long line of cars. Y.T., Sr. finished the crossword puzzle as they drove non-stop to Raytheon headquarters in Lexington, arriving on time for their meeting, after which the rabid hounds of bureaucratic reprisal turned their hunt to find others to blame besides Erp Industries, Inc.

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