30 Sep Cheers
He had on a white dress shirt and a bright red vest and his demeanor matched the color scheme. The old man jauntily floated around the concierge room of the hotel like he owned the place.
What a character, I thought to myself.
It was mid-morning and I had slipped away from a meeting to wander upstairs and grab a final cup of coffee before I went on stage to address a large group in another half hour.
It was only my red vested friend and me in the room at this hour. He was rearranging cups on a table and taste testing the coffee.
I think I genuinely liked him even before I said hello. I introduced myself and he did the same.
I poured my own cup of coffee and a conversation unfolded. I listened as he began to elaborate on the virtues of his home town of Memphis and my hotel choice.
He had that southern twang to his voice – and the way he said “Meuuumphuss” reminded me so much of that city’s most famous citizen that at some point I had to ask, “So….since you’ve lived here so much of your life….did you ever actually see Elvis Presley?”
My new friend paused and then broke into a hearty laugh before he responded – almost indignantly, “Why, I was Elvis’ tailor….put him in his first suit..and I put him in his last suit.”
I didn’t say anything. It seemed such a nonsensical statement that I guessed the old gentlemen must make a living regaling hotel guests with tall tales.
He didn’t seem to notice my skepticism. “The first time I ever saw Elvis Presley he was standing outside my clothing store – had his face pasted against the showroom window looking in. He was a shy kid…I had noticed him walk by before. I walked out there and told him to come inside and look around.”
I added some creamer to my coffee and pulled up a chair at the small table he stood beside.
For at least a short while I figured my meeting prep could wait.
“He was working down at the movie theater…he was an usher at the Loew’s. Didn’t make any money…said he couldn’t afford any of our shirts. We catered to the cool crowd, you know.” And then he mentioned patrons like B.B. King, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.
I nodded. If nothing else, Bernard told a great story.
“So I told him to come in anyway. Eventually he bought a shirt or two.”
He almost seemed believable so I asked him, “Did you know he was a singer, Bernard?”
He seemed to gaze into the distant past before he answered.
“Naw, not at first….but I remember when Elvis started to hit – walked into my store one day. We knew he was a singer by then…said he was going to be on the television that Sunday night. Said he needed some threads.”
Bernard smiled at the memory. “I told him to pick em out…he looked at me and said, ‘I ain’t got no bread.'”
I took another long sip of my coffee.
Bernard went on, “I said don’t worry about it. You can pay me when you can.”
The old man looked at me and his smile grew wider. “That Sunday night I was watching on television when they introduced Elvis Presley to the whole damn world. And I said to myself, we are on our way!”
“You…dressed Elvis for his first television appearance?” I asked – trying not to let my doubts show.
“Dressed him for all of them….but not those damn white jump suits he got into later. Not them.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
“Wasn’t six months later when he strolled in and asked me to walk outside. He had a brand new Cadillac parked out there. He was rolling in the dough by then. And paying cash for his clothes too.”
He went on, “Drove me around the block. Proud. When we got back I told him, ‘Elvis, when you get tired of this car I’ll take it off your hands.’ ”
“So…he was big time then?”
“Man, what you talking about? He was bigger than big time. A couple of months later he came in to the store…this wide grin on his face.” Bernard looked out a large pane window and added, “Tossed me the keys. Said the car is yours. Gave it to me.”
“He…he…GAVE …you… the… car?”
“You know it, man. Wouldn’t let me pay….nothing. What a man…”
At this point I had decided that Bernard might just be the best B***S****** I had ever met. And I couldn’t get enough of it.
Bernard put his cup down and announced it was time to get back to work. I assumed that meant bussing the tables but instead he walked to the door. It was clear his business was elsewhere – he apparently didn’t even work in this Peabody Hotel concierge room.
His eyes grew soft for a minute. “I remember when his daddy Vernon called me and told me Elvis had passed. I was out on the west coast. I flew back. I dressed him one last time.”
I wished my old friend well – guessed that somewhere in the laundry or in housekeeping or in the restaurant downstairs there was a job waiting for him. If in fact he even worked in the building – he could just as easily been a nursing home resident who had found a way to get a good cup of coffee every day.
My presentation later that morning went well. The Peabody is a wonderful venue – a step back into a bygone era.
I joined a few of the meeting attendees for lunch later – and of course shared my Bernard story with them.
Two of the locals studied me carefully as I related the saga of The Tailor to Elvis.
“This old man…what was his LAST name?” one asked.
I paused. He had mentioned it but it kind of went by the boards. “Hmmm…..Lanning maybe?” I answered.
“Could it have been Lansky?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Bernard Lansky...how did you know?”
The two locals looked at one another and the first said, “You just brushed up against rock and roll history. Bernard Lansky was Elvis’ tailor…and everybody in this town knows it…and him.”
“You’re…kidding…me. That story is true?” I marveled.
“Lansky’s was an institution in this town – take a walk through the lobby of The Peabody after lunch.”
I did just that – it was the first store I came across. And there, darting between customers and sight seers was an old man with a brilliant red vest – telling stories and laughing the whole time.
I smiled as I watched him – and it reminded me of all the countless conversations I’ve found myself in over the course of a long career and a million plus miles of travel – from CEOs to scientists – from authors to entrepreneurs – from philanthropists to convicted felons – from special operations officers to polymaths.
All part of the fabric of life – so many stories waiting to be told – to be heard.
Someone somewhere taught me something about the power of connecting with others – occasionally I am reasonably proficient in stumbling around my own agenda enough to actually learn a little bit about the people around me.
But only sometimes.
Today I invest a lot of my time talking about what I consider the accelerators in our professional lives -but the truth is each are catalysts that touch our personal world just as much.
The Three Keys ultimately became both a series of workshops and a fundamental part of many of our Executive Coaching sessions.
One of those keys – The Art of Communication – is a cornerstone, if for no other reason than it emphasizes an important dimension too often either overlooked or simply ignored by a majority who have long since decided that it’s only the oratory that distinguishe the great ones.
The majority are dead wrong.
The greatest skill set for every Great Communicator in human history remains unchanged.
The capacity to LISTEN.
I have a goal I continue to aspire to – to become a world class practitioner of the art. I have a long way to go….but whenever I find myself launching into full talk mode (which is pretty often) I remind myself of Bernard….and an amazing story on a wintry Thursday morning that was just waiting for an audience.
As regards my Memphis trip, I flew out later that day – but before I did I made a visit to Lansky’s. The tumbler I purchased sits to this day on the credenza behind my desk – a silent reminder that each of us carries with us a cup of wonder.
Only sometimes it’s never shared.
I’ve come to appreciate the irony of the fact that the word “listen” and the word “silent” contain the very same letters – and even more that the answers to so much of life are already there – if we ask the questions that free them.
Here’s to Bernard – and a short conversation that has traveled with me many miles.