Unemployed and broke, a disgraced former necktie mogul found solace in dozens of odd pets. Here’s how his new ‘family’ helped him turn his life around.
Marc Shapiro first gained prominence as the Tie King of Atlanta when he ran a retail tie store in the Perimeter Shopping Center, across from the designer women’s shoe boutique at Rich’s. The idea was that after a woman spent $350 on a pair of Bruno Magli spikes, the least she could do for the poor sap paying for them was buy him a tie. By and large, the strategy worked. For a while, the Tie King was the place in Atlanta to go for one-of-a-kind cravats.
Truth be told, Marc hated neckties. If he had his druthers, he wouldn’t wear another one for the rest of his life, but being the Tie King carried with it certain responsibilities, and one of them was that he could never go anywhere without a cool new tie girding his 18-inch neck. You couldn’t be the Tie King of Atlanta and show up for a Braves game wearing an open-collar shirt. Marc boasted a personal inventory of hundreds, possibly thousands, of neckties. He was, after all, the go-to guy for ties.
On Saturday afternoons, he offered seminars in his store on four-in-hand, Windsor, and half-Windsor knot tying. If there were requests (and there usually were), he’d tack on lessons in bow-tie and ascot tying. Without much prodding from customers, Marc would expound on the subtle differences of high-quality cravats—hand-rolling, hand-slip stitching, hand-sewn bar tacks. That usually led to an equally animated discussion on the mechanics and nomenclature of tie-making—tipping, interlining, aprons, shells, hemming, and loop labels. Then, he’d detail tie care: always hang your tie on a wooden peg (never a metal bar), never wear a tie two days in a row, and—the cardinal sin—never knot your tie too tightly. If you ever get a stain on a tie, Marc’s advice was harsh but probably true: cut your losses and use the tie as a belt for your bathrobe. Forget about dry-cleaning; it’ll shrink, curl and ruin the interlining.
So impressive was Marc’s knowledge of ties that the Journal-Constitution ran a lengthy feature story on him under the headline “Tie King Knots Atlanta’s Well-Dressed.” One could only imagine the newspaper’s headline if and when the 31-year-old bachelor ever got married.
The irony of neckties, of course, is that no one’s supposed to notice them. Ties are meant to just be there, two strips of fabric, one slightly longer than the other, both lying flat against your chest and abdomen, a function of convention, no more. If anyone notices the tie you’re wearing, then it’s probably the wrong pattern, width, length, or color. That, or you have a stain on it. In the world of men’s fashions, ties are neutral; fashion statements are best left to four-point folded handkerchiefs, braces, or Australian dingo boots.
Of course, all that went out the window with fish ties in the 1980s. Fish ties were a rebellious assertion, a thumb in the tie-wearing establishment’s eye. If you had to wear a tie, why not make fun of it at the same time? That, in sum, was the anti-tie marketing genius behind fish ties.
Fish ties were the breakthrough Marc needed to kick his business to the next level. He first spotted them in an out-of-the-way booth at a second-tier men’s fashion trade show in Las Vegas. On the spot, Marc placed an order for 35 gross of trout, salmon, mackerel, snapper, catfish, flounder, barracuda, and shark ties (the last two became especially popular with stock brokers and divorce attorneys; the flounders were sort of an inside joke). Marc knew a winner when he saw one. The fish-tie rep, a schlepper from L.A., couldn’t believe his eyes when Marc ordered more fish ties than the number of ties Tie King had in its entire inventory.
Whether it was luck or prescience, Marc’s gamble paid off. Virtually overnight Marc went from being so-so successful to the worthy progenitor of his store’s regal moniker. Before other Atlanta haberdashers could load up on fish ties, the Tie King reigned supreme. For three straight weeks, a line of customers would be waiting when Marc opened the doors at 10 a.m. In his private moments, Marc had to admit that fish ties were a silly permutation on an already silly convention. But who was he to argue with success?
Marc found himself floating around with more cash than he knew what to do with. Three nights a week, he dined on New York strips (medium-rare) and twice-baked loaded potatoes, washed down with half bottles of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, at his favorite table at his favorite restaurant, Ruth’s Chris. He traded in his rear-dented Dodge Charger for a leased metallic-blue Corvette convertible with tinted windows and a personalized license plate that read—no surprise—TIEKING. Marc would be speeding along I-285 with the top down, his hair tousled, trout tie in flight, twitching and jumping over his left shoulder, his chin thrust confidently toward the future. Marc had become such a local celebrity that drivers would speed up next to him and, just as their cars were side by side, shout, “Hey, Tie King!”
All good things must come to an end. Marc had always known that the tie market would someday correct itself. He just never thought the fish-tie phenomenon would, or could, tank so fast. He figured the go-go months would level off to relative stability for a couple of years during which he’d gradually shift his inventory to the next tie novelty.
As we all know, this did not happen. Fish ties went belly up seemingly overnight, leaving Marc drowning in them. He had even stocked extra longs and shorts—a sure indicator of his confidence and optimism in the strength of the product.
Chalk it up to a return to convention. Who can make heads or tails of fashion? You need to get in and out quickly, and Marc had gotten himself in way too deep to get out without scars. If there was any solace in Marc’s predicament, others had lost money when fish ties fell off their perch, but none, I believe, as much as Marc. Realizing the crisis at hand, the manufacturer came up with several alternative creations, including a rainbow-colored butterfly bowtie (an initial success with out-of-the-closet gay men, but the initial flurry soon died) and a redo of the mackerel tie (this one had tiny perforations in the fabric, but the holes caused to tie to rip when wearers tightened it). For good reasons, neither caught on.
For Marc, the volatility of the tie business came crashing down one October afternoon. He was inventory-rich and very cash-poor. On a too-cold, late afternoon, Marc made his last retail sale (adding insult to injury, it was a red-striped silk foulard), and quietly closed down the Tie King, having amassed a debt that would shock anyone outside the novelty tie trade.
Marc sold his remaining inventory of 2,600 ties to a jobber for 23 cents on the dollar, making sure to keep a gross of the pink, black- and gray-dotted salmon originals. Should fish ties ever make a comeback, Marc would have a jump on the market. You couldn’t say he wasn’t an optimist.
Marc returned the Corvette to Corvette City and was able to get back his rear-dented Dodge Charger. Marc’s twice-weekly Ruth’s Chris dinners stopped. On his last night there, his favorite waitress, Iris, put on the gift Marc had brought with him, a special-issue snapper tie. She offered Marc a last supper on the house, but even a toppled king has to maintain some semblance of dignity. Marc graciously refused Iris’ offer and increased her tip to 25 percent.
Marc went from New York strip to Top Ramen in a matter of weeks. For six months, he moped around his thousand-dollar-a-month townhouse, not knowing exactly to do next.
As luck would have it, during his high-flying days, Marc had had the good sense to barter a three-year membership with the owner of a trendy fitness club, the Concourse, for an assortment of six dozen fish ties. The manager wanted to give them away as Chanukah and Christmas gifts to employees. Marc’s membership at the Concourse still had a year left on it. No one could say Marc couldn’t use the exercise.
Marc started frequenting the Concourse three to five times a week. Everyone agreed this was a step in the right direction. In a couple of weeks, in fact, the fitness club had become Marc’s new office. He’d fool around with free weights, then walk for 20 minutes on the treadmill. Over the course of the next two months, Marc went from doing a mile in twenty minutes to 16 minutes. He found his passion in racquetball, which he played with two day-trader friends, Harry and Peter (in the glory days, they had split an order for a dozen barracuda ties). After three games of cutthroat, Marc would take up residence in the steam room, gabbing with anyone he found there. Marc’s health, not to mention his blood pressure and cholesterol, improved markedly. He dropped to 225 pounds, and while no one would call him slender, Marc looked and felt better than he had in years. Marc wasn’t unattractive, but no one would confuse him with Robert Redford.
One day—isn’t it always like that?—in the steam room while Peter, Harry, and Marc were dripping in sweat, Peter introduced Marc to Buddy, a guy from New Jersey who owned four Subway franchises in Atlanta, two in Marietta, and one in Kennesaw. As luck would have it, Buddy was a Development Agent for Subway—a D.A. for short. Sure, Buddy said, fast food required a couple of months to put good people in place, but once you had a manager trained, the corporate people did the rest. That was the franchise business—as long as you picked a product with a future. The way Buddy told it, Subways were as good as money in the bank. A guy like Marc could rake it in, Buddy said. Ties were OK, but had no future. People have to eat. And while they were busy chowing down Subway sandwiches served up by Marc’s employees, Marc would be sitting pretty.
“But where am I gonna get the money?” Marc asked.
“Let me worry about that,” Buddy said genially. In business, Marc had learned when to say something and when not. With a small towel, Buddy wiped sweat from his armpits, then threw the towel on the floor.
Buddy got up, nude except for flip-flops, and aimed the hose at the base of the steam room’s thermometer, which in another 30 seconds resulted in some cranking noises, then a cloud of steam that rendered Peter, Harry, Marc, and Buddy invisible to the naked eye.
Within three months, with a no-questions loan from Buddy, Marc was in business again. Buddy had pulled some strings so that Marc could matriculate at Subway College, a weeklong series of classes at the world headquarters in Connecticut. It was basic stuff, retail know-how Marc already knew, but the week had made Marc feel good. Everyone had to read Start Small, Finish Big, the apocryphal story of Fred DeLuca, who at 17 borrowed a thousand dollars and started Subway. Soon Marc was the proud owner of a Subway shop in an up-and-coming strip mall, a half-mile west of Buckhead, a trendy, high-traffic neighborhood.
He lived and breathed Subway. Business was not sensational, and this worked Marc. Being near a high-traffic location was a world of difference from being in a high-traffic location. Marc was forced to downsize from his initial hiring plan, and went from 12, to eight, to four, to just two employees. Marc was working 80 hours a week to go from Tie King to Subway King. He was the sandwich maker, cashier, baker, stock boy, supply manager, check-writer, and janitor all rolled into one. But no matter how much Marc worked, he couldn’t seem to pull ahead, certainly nowhere close to cutting more deals in the Concourse steam room while the shop made him rich.
When he raised that point that point to Buddy at the shop one morning, Buddy conceded that Marc’s location probably wasn’t the greatest. If Buddy had had reservations about the location, then why the hell hadn’t he said something when Marc could have done something about it? And there was something else. A new species of Atlanta young professionals was beginning to reach a critical mass, and the last place they wanted to eat lunch, for God’s sake, was a Subway. They were much more likely to spend 15 dollars for goat cheese and wilted spinach on a sourdough baguette than to slum it with a Subway No. 5 Special. But by then, Marc had locked himself into a three-year lease.
Marc had had the best of intentions. He had business savvy. He could sell snow to the Eskimos, at least that’s what his Aunt Elaine used to say. But selling subs was tanking as fast as fish ties had tanked, and seven months after he opened, Buddy came by the shop and demanded on no uncertain terms that Marc abide by the terms they had agreed to. Marc got the impression that if he didn’t honor their agreement, some of Buddy’s friends from New Jersey would pay him a visit. Marc complained to Harry and Peter, but they, too, were rolling in debt (considering the volatility in their line of work, this was not surprising), and when Marc pressed them, they confessed they actually couldn’t remember exactly how they had met Buddy, or that they knew much about him. All the stainless-steel kitchen supplies Marc had bought on time, the Formica tables, booths, the glass-front oven that got too hot anyway, all of it now was about to go back. For a fleeting moment, Marc had thought to partner with two mysterious men from Thailand who had approached him and were interested in opening a restaurant that would appeal to the upscale residents gentrifying the neighborhood. Marc realized it would be an opportunity, a chance to return to his previous success—he could name the new place Thai King!—but Marc thought of the risk, his already substantial exposure, not to mention his non-existent credit, and decided to lay low instead.
Marc was up to his eyeballs in unpaid loans ($25,000 from Buddy, $30,000 from Aunt Elaine, and $22,000 from Wachovia Bank), he still rented his townhouse, and had zero in the bank. Marc did the only thing he could do. He closed down the Subway before it closed him down. Marc retreated to his townhouse. About the only positive aspect of his Subway days was that he stocked his townhouse to the gills with leftover rolls of salami, prosciutto, turkey, chicken breast, roast beef, and bologna, as well as blocks of American, cheddar, Parmesan, and Swiss. He hung the salami and prosciutto from ceiling hooks that a previous tenant had used to hang plants.
Amid this den of edible stalactites, when Marc couldn’t stand the solitude (and smell), he started hanging out again at the Concourse, where he still had two more months remaining on his membership. This time, though, the last thing he felt like doing was racquetball, due, in part, to the 40 pounds he had put back on behind the Subway counter. He’d lift a dumbbell or two, but what he really was doing was thinking business again. Where Marc shined was when it came to math. He was a total whiz. He could add 10-, 15-, 24-digit numbers in his head in seconds. He even thought of going pro. Get someone, maybe a crowd of people in a bar, to choose 10 numbers, any numbers. Marc would bet he could add them in his head faster than they could on paper.
Fortunately, before he tried that parlor trick and got the shit beaten out of him, Marc had another idea. One of the women’s classes at the Concourse required participants to use Suzanne Sommers’ Thigh Master. Women grunted at the same time they squeezed their thighs together around a spring-loaded device that looked like a large purple paperclip. Now, that was a novelty item, and it went for close to 30 dollars retail! The factory cost was maybe 12 cents per unit, probably less. Imagine the profit? It boggled his mind. The larger question, of course, was when the Thigh Master would go bust. Sooner or later, it would go the way of fish ties. Marc gave it a year, max. Better stay away.
Other similar thoughts occupied Marc’s mind as he returned to his favorite spot at the Concourse, the steam room. Buddy had moved back to Jersey, and while Marc still owned him plenty, Marc had arranged to send small monthly payments to a P.O. box in Hoboken, which kept Buddy off his back (for the time being). By now, Harry and Peter had gotten out of day trading. Harry had rebounded as Regional Manager for all the Color Tile & Carpets outlets in Georgia and Tennessee. People were cocooning, doing home improvements, and that translated to buying floor covering. At least, that’s what Harry told Marc. Peter had gone into his father’s shoe business in Savannah, opening a store there in the Oglethorpe Shopping Mall. By then, Marc was at that dangerous point of applying for credit cards to pay off debts on credit cards he had already maxed out on.
It was in the Concourse steam room that the seeds of his next retail endeavor were sowed. Howard, a beefy guy with Brillo patches on his back, had a parrot he wanted to unload. Marc, being the kind of guy he was, said no problem, he’d take care of the bird, whose name was Wolfie. Why not? Wolfie had a vocabulary of 75 words, and Howard said that you could almost carry on a conversation with him. Besides, adult parrots went for upwards to a thousand dollars, and Howard was giving Wolfie to Marc.
That weekend, Marc and Wolfie got to know each other. Wolfie was total eye candy. He was neon red, green and orange. But he also had one hell of a mouth on him. Sure, Wolfie knew all the jingles parrots were supposed to know, the Polly-wants-a-cracker demeaning bullshit, but he also had a running repertoire about shaving, shitting, and eating. “You aren’t gonna eat that, I hope!” came out of Wolfie’s mouth on Saturday morning when Marc poured milk into a bowl of shredded wheat. Howard had estimated that Wolfie was about 50, handed down from Howard’s grandmother to his mother, to Howard, now to Marc. Wolfie was an heirloom that the family, under duress, had to part with.
With some diligence, Marc was able to expand Wolfie’s vocabulary to at least a hundred words. Although a grateful student, Wolfie had attitude. After Marc slowly enunciated “Tie King” 10 times, Wolfie cocked his head, paused, and then responded, “Hey, Mister, talk faster. Whaddaya think I am, some schlemiel?” Whether it had been Howard, his mother, or Howard’s grandmother, or a Jewish sailor in between, someone had done a masterful job with Wolfie.
Marc was having so much fun with Wolfie that soon there was no need to go to the Concourse any longer. Marc had Wolfie. Why’d he need more?
Marc decided to stiff the orthodontists who owned his townhouse (they’d never evict him; it would cost them too much). His monthly nut thus was paying back the loans to Buddy, Wachovia, and Aunt Elaine (in that order), gas (and repairs) for the Charger, and buying food for Wolfie and himself. By now, he had exhausted his inventory of Subway cold cuts.
After a month with Wolfie, during which Marc had taught the bird several complete sentences, including, “Hey, make yourself comfortable,” and “Relax, sit down, take your blouse off,” Marc got a phone call from a guy who knew Howard. This guy on the other end of the line was getting married Saturday. He owned a piranha, but his fiancée said the fish gave her the willies with all those teeth, and this fish, well, it looked like it was smiling whenever the guy’s fiancée looked at it. Would Marc be interested in taking the piranha off his hands?
Absolutely, Marc said. He vaguely knew piranhas were illegal in Georgia, and that in itself made them valuable. When Marc told Wolfie about the new addition, Wolfie whistled and said, “Smokin’!” (a word Marc had taught him recently). Not a speck of sibling rivalry in this household.
The guy came over to Marc’s townhouse with the piranha angrily swimming in a small glass bowl, two glass and chrome aquariums, a box full of filters, a heater, plastic bags of multi-colored pebbles, clear plastic tubing, and underwater sea ornaments that included a small treasure chest and a miniature deep-sea diver in a pressurized suit. This must be some fiancée.
The piranha was shiny and silvery with subtle flashes of gold. Marc bent down and got close to the bowl and made eye contact.
“Be careful! This guy’s been known to bite.”
“Cool!” Marc said. “Does he have a name?”
“Pepe. Pepe the Piranha is what I call him, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you called him something else.”
Marc respected Pepe, so the name stayed. As soon as Pepe’s former owner left, Wolfie started cawing, then fluffed his feathers out so he looked twice his normal size. Marc had never seen Wolfie like this. Wolfie settled down in a couple of minutes, just as Marc was filling up the tanks. “Hey, make yourself comfortable,” Wolfie chirped. “Relax, sit down, take your blouse off.”
Families are what you make of them. Surely, Marc’s family of Wolfie and Pepe was nontraditional, but the thing about families is you know when they work. Oh, it took some time, everyone getting used to everyone else. But in a matter of two or three weeks, everyone seemed to like everyone else. But it was more than just that. They all, it seemed, relied on each other, and their lives were better than they had been singly. For the first time in his life, Marc realized he had achieved a rare degree of peace and tranquility.
Whenever he saw Howard, Peter, or Harry at the Concourse, Marc bragged about Wolfie and Pepe. By now, Marc’s membership had lapsed, but he knew Audrey, one of the membership czarinas, who still occasionally wore a trout tie to work, and she had slipped him a punch card of free passes. Money still was a problem, but Marc didn’t seem to care. Wolfie and Pepe had transformed him.
Soon Marc got a reputation as the go-to guy, this time, for exotic animals. Over the next year, Marc accumulated 30 snakes, including a Colombian rainbow boa, a Peruvian boa, a spotted python, a rare Dumeril’s boa, and load of geckos.
Word of mouth is a powerful thing, especially when it comes to reptiles and amphibians. Soon Marc’s townhouse became a zoo of sorts. People got exotic animals as presents or bought them as pets, but as in Pepe’s case, found they had to unload them for a variety of reasons. If the reptile didn’t make a wife or girlfriend squeamish, then feeding it a live mouse did. This caused little consternation for Marc, and soon, the former Tie and Subway King boasted a Nigerian uromastyx, five bearded dragons, two blue-tongued skinks, and one sand monitor (better known as a goanna).
Wolfie got some company when one evening a front-office type from the Atlanta Falcons came over to the townhouse. He represented a player whose name I’m not at liberty to reveal, and dropped off Max, a green-winged macaw. If this wasn’t enough, Buddy (remember him?) pawned off on Marc three African spur-thighed tortoises, each weighing 55 pounds. That was the sweetest deal Marc could have imagined. Buddy, who had moved back to Atlanta, forgave Marc the rest of his debt if Marc would take the tortoises, which a Columbian drug lord had shipped to Buddy in appreciation for setting his son up with a Subway franchise in Bogotá. Always handy, Marc built a pen in the back of the townhouse for the tortoises, which he named Uno, Dos, and Tres.
There was more to come. In a couple months, Marc took in three mixed-breed dogs. He named them Chow Li, Yossi, and Jazz, but I have no idea why. The whole menagerie stayed with Marc in his townhouse or in the backyard, and the weirdest thing was that no one in the complex minded at all. They’d bring friends over to Marc’s place to look at all the animals. Marc had created a veritable petting zoo, although he had to caution visitors not to pet the reptiles. The dogs, Yossi and Jazz, were safe, but sometimes Chow would nip at children. Feedings were the most popular times at the townhouse. The boas would not touch anything that didn’t move.
With each new pet, Marc asked for a donation from the former owner. He supplemented his income with house sitting, feeding reptiles and other exotics while their owners were out of town. He also put on shows at kids’ birthday parties, wrapping boas around the birthday kid’s neck, and also allowing 8-year-olds to pet his geckos. Marc charged a hundred dollars a party, which parents were only too glad to pay.
And then it dawned on him. It was so simple that Marc kicked himself for not coming up with the idea sooner. He’d open a reptile pet store and call it Reptile Rey. To supply customers with live mice to feed their pets, he’d start neighborhood kiosks in shopping-center parking lots, sort of like Fotomats, so customers could drive up, pick up a box of mice, and then be home in 15 minutes for feeding time.
Events at this point in Marc’s life began moving exceedingly fast, so fast that if you ask Marc now about them, he’d tell you his life was a blur at this point. He had learned from his mistakes, and was ready to try all over again. He signed a lease for a small warehouse and drive-through out front in an industrial park in Chamblee. On a clear, cloudless Saturday in March, he opened Reptile Rey to hundreds of well-wishers. Reptile Rey was a private joke, but also made sense since reptiles for some reason were a big hit with lots of Hispanics. It also made sense since reptiles liked the sun (ray), and, of course, because Rey translated to King. Iris was there. So were Harry, Howard, and Peter, who drove up from Savannah. Buddy even showed up. Marc brought Pepe, Wolfie, and Max to the gala opening, and Wolfie delighted everyone by cawing, “Get out your wallets. You need to do more than smile.” A reporter for the Journal-Constitution came and wrote a piece for the Sunday paper under the headline “One-Time Tie King Turns Into City’s Reptile King,” which ensured that business stayed brisk at Reptile Rey for months and months.
This really is the end of Marc’s story, and Marc probably would be satisfied with such an ending, except there is something else. Wolfie and Max formed the sort of close friendship that would have been the envy of many humans. When outsiders weren’t around, Marc caught them talking to each other, not just cawing, but actually talking.
This made Marc very happy, but, at times. he still felt incomplete. One night, after putting Wolfie and Max to bed, along with the snakes, geckos, lizards, tortoises, and dogs, he went online (which at this time, around 1995, was pretty new). His online sign-on was Herpguy, and while surfing in a reptile chat room, he struck up a conversation with a music teacher from Boston who had six geckos, two turtles, and one yellow-throated plated lizard.
Not many women would have anything to do with a guy whose sign-on name was Herpguy, but Gwen was different. She and Marc stayed online till three that morning, and two months later, Marc flew to Boston to meet her. Marc sneaked a Tokay gecko on the plane and offered it to Gwen when they met at Logan Airport.
After that, it was pretty much a done deal. They talked twice a day, and in six months, on Valentine’s Day, Marc asked Gwen to marry him. They were married in Atlanta under a chuppah adorned with rubber snakes and lizards. Marc had thought to bring Uno, Dos, and Tres to the wedding, but fortunately Gwen prevailed. He did, though, bring Wolfie and Max in a large cage. They seemed to approve of Marc’s choice in brides. At least, that’s what they said.