Mr. Geist wasn't a film producer who could get Warren Beatty on speed dial. He was the head of a women's sportswear company in New York's garment center. The only one he could get on speed dial was the Missy buyer at Gimbels.
Me? I was a 29-year-old fashion designer between gigs, looking for freelance work. Normally, this meant lugging my oversized, black portfolio in and out of showrooms on Broadway between 39th and 40th Street. Garmentos in tight polyester shirts that were unbuttoned to the waist and even tighter jeans would flip through my sketches and, if something caught their eye, they'd pull out a wad of cash and peel off twenties. It felt illicit, walking out of a showroom with hundreds of dollars in exchange for sketches that had taken only minutes to produce. I loved it.
That was my plan when I walked into Boston Togs' showroom which specialized in sweater sets and pleated plaid shirts for women who still wore headbands in the 1980s. No shiny, tight shirts or jeans for Mr. Geist. In his crisp Brooks Brothers suit and tie, with closely trimmed white hair, he looked like a bank loan officer. From his flushed complexion, one whose Happy Hour starts at noon. I figured him to be my father's age. Maybe older.
"Let see what you've got," he barked.
I was prepared for rejection. My designs were soft, romantic and whimsical. The clothes in the showroom were tailored and conservative. As they say in the biz, I didn't understand his customer. To my astonishment, Mr. Geist expressed interest in my work.
"I'm looking for a designer," he said. "Are you available for full-time work?"
My head spun. Yes, I was available. But I couldn't imagine designing clothing that was considered passé when I was in junior high. Geist read my mind but didn't give up.
"Have you ever been to Joe's Steak House?"
Of course, I hadn't. Joe's was a pricey expense account restaurant. My idea of a splurge was getting fries with my burger. That night, as I sat across from Geist in the dimly lit restaurant, I felt I had crossed a line. Sure, I had accepted cash from manufacturers. But shrimp cocktail, lamb chops and strawberry cheesecake? It felt like a date. A date with an older, married man whom I found as unattractive as a floor mop. Geist didn't make a pass. Instead, he made an offer I couldn't refuse.
"I'm going to Paris, Frankfurt and Milan in two weeks. My former designer can't come. She's pregnant. I'd like you to go with me."
I was struggling to pay rent on my studio apartment. Geist's offer wasn't just enticing, it solved my cashflow problem. I had already made several work-related trips to Hong Kong. Why not Paris, Frankfurt and Milan? I didn't question my lack of experience in designing staid sportswear for the Daughters of the American Revolution. Neither did Geist. It never entered my mind that he wanted services that had nothing to do with pleated skirts.
The next day, Geist showed me the design studio where I'd be working and introduced me to his former designer. She wore a full-length fur coat and had that special glow that comes with pregnancy, a rich husband and a Park Avenue apartment. Nothing fishy there.
Two weeks later, I am in Paris with Geist at Café Lipp. He orders raw oysters and insists that I taste them. I decline. I had never eaten an oyster and had no desire to start. Geist stabbed a gelatinous morsel with his fork and held it to my mouth.
"Eat it," he said. "You're in Paris."
It felt obscene but I ate the oyster. That's what you do when you're on the other side of the world with your employer. You do what he says. Geist didn't make a pass at me during our two days in Paris. Perhaps because we were at separate hotels. He was at the 5-star Plaza Athenee. I was at 2-star hotel. But it did not go unnoticed when his hand rested too long on my back, arm or knee.
By the time we were at the textile show in Frankfurt, I was sorry I had taken the job, as Geist's manner had become increasingly gruff. As we walked through the cavernous convention center, he removed his camel hair coat and flung it at me as if I was his valet. Why was I there? I found out in Milan. When we arrived at our hotel, Geist made a point of telling me that his room was right next to mine.
"If you get lonely … I'm right here," he said with a meaningful leer.
Right. If I was lonely in Milan, I'd pick up a guy my own age before I'd crawl into bed with a 60-year-old who resembled Frank Perdue. The next morning, Geist was clearly peeved.
"You know, everyone has a price. What's yours?" he said as we sped across Milan in a taxi.
There it was. A blatant proposition. I gazed out the window and spotted a billboard for Piaget watches.
"I've always wanted a Piaget," I said blithely.
I was bluffing. I didn't want a $5,000 timepiece and had no idea what I would do if Geist placed one on my wrist. Fortunately, it worked. The innuendos and roving hands stopped. I had placed a higher value on myself than my employer had placed on me.