My first job; I never knew what was in store.
One day, when I was very young, my dad could’t find his keys. He looked everywhere. I took on the task and finally came up with them. He gave me a nickel. From time to time thereafter he’d lose them again. Yup, I was hiding them and the nickels flowed like a slot in Vegas. You can see already, this boy had potential to earn.
Of course I did real work, carting groceries in my wagon from the supermarket to people’s homes, receiving payment of whatever they thought the task was worth or more realistically, what they could afford. It was usually a dime.
But it was the mid 1950s, when I was a teenager that I got my first job. It was working for the A&P supermarket as a stock boy. I was still in John Adams High School and because of my age, by law was limited to only 29 hours a week.
I was paid 95 cents an hour. We received raises of five cents an hour over my time there. When I told my girlfriend, Maureen, “I got another raise, I’m making $1.05 an hour now.” she laughed hysterically at my announcement, “A nickel?”
It all started one day when I went to see my best friend, Tom, who had just started working at the A&P. Tom and I had a history of best friendship. He and I went to St. Clement’s Catholic School as kids, I’d meet him at his house and we’d walk the rest of the way together.
Whenever I got to Tom’s house his mom often had the smell of bacon or sausage piercing the morning air. We didn’t have much of that aroma going at our house but his house often smelled really, really, great. My dad had a good job as a NYC Transit cop but there were seven kids, so not so many pork-product-breakfasts in the Winters’ household. Tom’s mom always offered me some, I always declined.
Off we’d march to St. Clement’s to learn Catechism, Arithmetic and especially not to flinch at the whack of the wooden ruler when we held out our palms. The nuns of St. Clement’s prepared me for later similar disciplinary measures at Parris Island, SC, the Marine Corps boot camp. The nuns actually could have taught the Drill Instructors a bit about enhanced techniques of discipline.
Tom and I later continued our schooling at John Adams High in Ozone Park. After compulsories at gym class and released to free field activities we’d often hang together out in left field with other “cool kids”. There we’d smoke Luckies while the square jocks ran around the track.
But this day, at the A&P, Tom had on his white store apron. It was half folded down, the bib of the apron tucked under. I noticed that because it looked much cooler than the bib up.
I can actually remember him that day, crouched in front of the corner shelf as he spoke. He had only been working there a short time himself but he was talking like a vet, telling me all the details as he packed bags of Carolina rice into the shelf, one row this way, one row that, interlocking, so they wouldn’t fall down. Yeah, I thought I could learn that skill.
So, I went down to the A&P corporate headquarters on Stewart Ave in Garden City. The long, low building had proudly lettered across its length: “The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company”, just as Tom described. I went in and landed my first real job.
My first day’s enthusiasm is etched forever in my mind’s catalogue of special moments. There is nothing like the innocence of youthful first-time adventure. This was a first date with working life. I recall sitting on our couch after school, just sitting there…looking at the clock.
I was waiting impatiently for the time to pass so I could walk up to my job, the A&P on Sutphin Blvd in South Ozone Park, Queens. The same one I carted wagons full of groceries not too many years past. I was so eager to begin my work career and the clock hands were ever so slow. I’d never again have such earnest enthusiasm, waiting to go to work.
But the time would finally come and I’d walk, with the zeal of Christmas morning, wanting to run really, up 119th Ave to my JOB.
I put on my white store apron, bib-tucked-down-and-ties-wrapped-around, professional style. It designated me as someone with real authority, not just another shopper but someone who could steer a customer to the jelly and vinegar aisle or check a price or even weigh vegetables. I was someone who counted.
The A&P of yore was not like supermarkets today, we had a wooden hardwood floor that had to be oiled from time to time to preserve it and we stock boys had to do that job.
Once every couple of months or so, after closing, we’d don paper grocery bags, no plastic then, over our shoes to “protect” shoes and pants. Then we’d mop the linseed oil onto the floor. When we finished, the wood’s light grayish tone turned to dark, rich, durable hardwood again.
Stock boy work entailed, yeah, stocking shelves, but also bagging groceries, and listening to customer’s instructions on packing them. I’d bag with the background sounds of the cash register keys clunk and the draw Ka-ching when it opened.
When I worked at the produce section people would bring the vegetables to my scale station. I’d put the veggies in a small paper bag, weigh them, tape the bag closed and write the price on the bag.
But I really couldn’t tell the difference between a yam and a sweet potato if they were separated. I’ve learned since that both are actually sweet potatoes but the ones with darker skins are labeled yams by the USDA. Anyway, I’d keep a yam at the scale station to compare the color when someone brought one of these tubers to my station. Yes you can see again, this boy was poised to climb the career ladder. Well…at least he found the ladder.
Stock boy also involved stamping prices onto cans, the purple ink staining my fingers and even clothes at times…especially if the bib on the apron is tucked down, cool, but useless.
It also involved unloading trucks which would be parked at the curb. A shiny metal chute ran from the sidewalk down to the basement. Sometimes the chute would get a light coat of, yup, linseed oil, to enhance the speed of decent.
At the bottom, a cardboard case of canned food would hit the roller skids and zoom down the bright metal rollers with a roar. It would travel down the winding path of whirring roller-skate-wheels where it would then be snatched and stacked.
The cases would later be cut open with a razor knife and stamped with the correct A&P price obtained from their regularly updated A&P Price Book.There always was a copy on the pricing cart which held a wooden tray of cylindrical rubber-tipped price stamps, 15c, 2/27 etc.
A veteran full timer, Mr. Lee was in charge of the basement store of canned goods. He’d direct where each case would go. He was an elegant light-skinned black man, he had graying temples, and a cool unflappable demeanor.
He taught me valuable dexterity in price stamping by shuffling just two of the top cans of a case at a time, exposing the bottom cans. In this manner I’d be able to stamp a whole case top and bottom faster and faster. When Mr. Lee priced a case he was a blur of fingers and cans. With increasing proficiency with each case of beans or beets I’d gain a technique where I could do a case of 24 in about seven seconds. I was proud to have learned such a valuable life skill.
Paid work, earned skills, it was exhilarating
Payday would come on Saturday. The envelope was of the tiny 2 by 4 inch manila variety distributed by the store accountant and…it was in cash. My take home pay would be about twenty bucks. I was a paid professional!
I was also introduced to how the work-world “worked”
I was working one of my very rare opportunities in the butcher section. Packages of meat were prepared in that refrigerated section then placed out into the meat displays. But customers could order through the window by speaking directly to the butcher..
I recall one day a woman calling in, “Three pounds of chuck chopped, please.” Now the butcher had just told me that the meat in the grinder was “regular” meaning it had more fat in it than the chuck grind. But he said to her, “Coming right up.” and he took the regular meat from the grinder and packaged it for her. I asked him, “Didn’t you just tell me that it was regular?” He says, “Yeah, but it goes for both. Am I going to empty the grinder just to give her three pounds of chuck? She’ll never know the difference.”
We also had a serious shoplifting problem in the store. Meat was always popular for theft, especially bacon which would be tucked into a waistband. Cartons of cigarettes were the real target though, they were stacked on the shelves! No doubt a demand of the tobacco companies that wanted them enticingly reachable. The policy at the time was to stop shoplifters, maybe embarrass the thief, but never have them arrested. A&P it was said, considered it bad publicity. This only led to increased theft of course and the quarterly inventories would always show thousands of dollars in deficit.
To make up for the deficit the manager would hike the prices of selected fast items by a few cents each. In this store-markup the loss would be made up through overpaying by all of the customers. Items like A&P canned corn, priced 2/27 by the Price Book, would be marked 2/29 and so it went for about two dozen fast items.
Sometimes a regional manager would show up to inspect the store. We stock boys would get the high sign to change the prices of the fast items back to the Price Book price to keep the practice hidden from A&P higher ups. So we’d grab the alcohol from the price marking cart, rub off the purple ink and stamp on the right price. But I suspect they all knew the practice was going on.
Tom later worked regularly in the cardboard wrapping section in the back of the store. A lot of cardboard accumulates in a store, it would get dumped in the back and have to be flattened, bundled and stacked.
The manager, Mr. Docker, liked efficiency. He’d say, “Lee, go up and telescope those up-front cartons.” I’d never heard the term. He referred to the cartons left just forward of the check outs for customer use. He’d want them placed one inside the other to condense the bulk.
So he really liked Tom’s efficiency and speed. Tom liked working away from the public and he was valued as “Back Room Tom” for the speed with which he could bundle flattened cardboard with twine, tie and stack it for pick up. He kept the constant flow of cartons well under control. He kept the back room as neat and clean as a back room could be.
He was a wiry guy and worked like a coiled spring when he’d whip the cord around a stack of cardboard, tie, cut and hurl the bundle onto the stack with a triumphant whack. He liked his work, you could see it all over his face, you could tell he was proud to be of value.
Tom later joined the Army, I the Marine Corps. We both returned home sans flag draped casket, with nary a hole blasted in us nor a missing limb. Tom went to work at JFK airport in the Cargo Section, I became a NYC Transit cop. I got married, Tom was in my wedding party.
We basically went our own ways after that. I was more settled down, Tom, not so. He got arrested at one point for DWI, got fired for lying about the reason for the absence. Then, not long after that he was found on the landing of a Bronx tenement, dead of a heroin overdose…at 26.
Today, when I shop at the tile-floored Waldbaum’s on Park Ave. in Long Beach there’s not a hint of linseed oil anywhere. I see the gleaming checkouts and hear the pinging scan of bar codes. And there’s not a carton, telescoped or otherwise to be found anywhere nearby.
I see the Self Checkout with its talking machine, “One dollar sixty seven cents, 69 cents, Thank you for shopping at Walbaums.”. Everything seems so efficient, so robotic, so antiseptic, as cold as a meat freezer, even with the music in the background soft, slow, music to encourage you stay longer and maybe buy a little more. Yes, it was all very efficient, but I don’t think even Mr. Docker would have cared for it.
I remember the A&P of my eager youth and the smell of the purple ink and it’s price-changing alcohol. I remember the scent of linseed oil and the sounds of cases roaring their way down the roller-skids. I remember the Ka-ching of register draws and the bagging of bananas with instructions, “on the top, please!” And I remember the whack of a bundle of cardboard. I remember a big grin.
And I remember Tom.