“Help Wanted!” A brand new A&P was going to open within walking distance of our house in New Windsor. When”my mother saw that “Help Wanted” sign hanging in the store window, she was determined that I get my working papers as soon as I turned sixteen so I could contribute to the family income and not be a “lazy bum lying around the house”. Part of the process of acquiring your working papers was going for a perfunctory physical to prove you were in good health. You would think I was going to work in a coal mine and be subjugated to Dickensian child labor. Mamma Rose drove me into Newburgh to see an old Jewish doctor who had been contracted by the city. Herr Doktor’s dark, musty and creepy office was located across from beautiful Downing Park nestled like the witch’s hut in Hansel und Gretel. Dr. Mengele’’s high-pitched nasal voice and bedside manner would later remind of Laurence Olivier playing the mad Nazi dentist in Marathon Man. He asked some very basic health questions with an accent I could hardly understand. He gruffly listened to my heart with a stethoscope, so cold that I jumped off the soiled paper on the exam table. Since I was now standing and shuddering, he asked me drop my pants and cough for him. Like a hawk swooping down to pluck a little furry bunny in his sharp claws, he grabbed my coglione so hard, cracking them like the Nutcracker. I so quickly zipped up that I got my weenie caught in the zipper – Ouch! My mother unclipped her red leather coin purse and gave him two dollars. Herr Mengele stamped the papers with all the diligence and brio of an SS Officer. The A&P Supermarket would be the anchor store in the mall next to newly built condo complex called Squire Village. It was built on the open field where I once sledded in the winter and took hay rides in the fall. The architecture was vaguely colonial in style with the condos sited around a town square building with clock tower overshadowing an in-ground swimming pool for residents only (on hot summer days I would sneak in past the oiled, tan lifeguard and pretend I lived there). I submitted my application at the Newburgh A&P located on upper Broadway where training would be held till the new store would open within a month. Mr. Smith, the soon-to-be Squire Village A&P manager called to say I got the job at the minimum wage of $1.25 per hour and could I start on Saturday from ten to seven? I was so nervous for my first day at work that I got up at 5am. My Dad drove into Newburgh but I got at the store a bit early at 6:30am. Some of the overhead harsh florescent lights were on but the front door was locked. I could see two men ripping open cardboard boxes with single edge razors, stamping the contents and stocking the shelves. I waited till “ten to seven” as asked and knocked and knocked on the front door to no avail since they were so far in the back of the store. So I used a trick the principal of Sacred Heart would use. Sister Margeretta would rap the inset window pane on the classroom door with her wedding ring, symbol of her marriage to Christ, and startle us and the teacher out of our seats. So using my class ring I began rapping rapping on the window store. Finally one of the guys came to front and tried to chase me away. I started to widely gesticulate like Ruta Lee on the TV charades show, Stump the Stars, acting out why I was there. After three attempts to give him the clue, the man finally let me in. “What da ya want?” he crankily shouted. I could hardly get the words out now, my stutter being so bad. “Mr. S-S-Smith s-s-said that I sh-sh-should s-s-start today and be-be-be here at ten to seven.” The man must have thought I was an idiot. And I am sure he did when he started to laugh and say “Oh silly boy, oh silly boy, he meant you are to work from ten am to seven pm not start 10 to 7 am! “Oh”, I managed to get out, “Thank-Thank you sir.” The automatic door hit me in the ass as I shuffled out. By now my father had driven home and I didn’t have a dime to call him to pick me back up. It was too early to go for breakfast at Commodore’s, the German soda fountain a few blocks up on Broadway. So I walked over to Sacred Heart Church, sunk down in the back pew and sat through the 7:30 and 8:00 am masses. I then read every piece of literature put out by The Blue Army and the Society of St Jude, patron saint of the hopeless cases which surely was me. Suddenly the church bell rang out: 1-2-3-4-5-5-7-8-9 then 10 big gongs. I sprang up, hitting my knee on the brass clip on the back of the pew that used to hold men’s hats. I had fallen asleep from being so distraught and waking up so early. I ran up Ann Street, almost got run over crossing busy Lake Street and took the shortcut through the back parking lot separating the A&P and Grand Union. The store was now bright and bustling as I slammed into a shopper, almost knocking the two shopping bags out of her arms. I hurried past her, mumbling my apologies, right up to the office in a booth that overlooked the store like a watchtower at a concentration camp. Taking off my cap, I sheepishly looked up at Mr. Smith, who was pouring over yesterday’s receipts. At last he glared down at me through his half glasses which slipped off his nose and bounced on his chest being caught by the attached gold link eyeglass chain. “Young man, I hope you are not going to make a habit of being late. Punctuality is the politeness of kings.” I froze there still, daren’t to look up. “Master Anthony, just don’t stand there, go and clock in.” He tossed me a punch card from his aerie that I managed to catch as it floated down from Valhalla. It took me till 10:30 am to figure out how to manage the contraption. I worked till 7:30 pm on the dot that night putting in a full 8 hours. During the day, Mr. Smith, the commandant sternly warned me not to work a minute past 7:30 pm; I would not be paid overtime. As bagger and shopping cart boy, I worked diligently and was never late again the entire month I was at the Broadway store. At the checkout counter I would neatly fill the paper bags making sure to put the heavy cans on the bottom, distributing the weight and gently placing fragile items on the top especially the eggs or a loaf of white bread. I would occasionally carry bags out to the car for some elderly lady and received 25 cents as a tip. I would then on my return, push any empty carts in the parking lot up the hill in a gleaming aluminum train back to the front of the store. Mr. Smith, looking less like Otto Preminger in Stalag 17 but more like Odin since he had a glass eye, was so impressed with my work that he said in the new store I would be assigned to the produce department. Over the next three years I sort of became Mr. Smith’s pet and I became the apple of his eye so to speak. The new store opened and I could now walk to and from work from my house through the Squire Village complex. I was very lucky to have Mr. Dominic D’Auito as the produce manager. He was an Italian sly gentleman, a little younger than my father with a wicked sense of humor. He was always making jokes about the Jewish women who would squeeze the tomatoes, haggle over the prices or complain about the quality or freshness of the produce. Not terribly politically correct, he would make me laugh when he crooked his finger up to his nose to signal the approach of one of the Jewish ladies. We would then run behind the two-way mirror behind the produce case and watch the unsuspecting customer and make very acerbic comments on what she wore as she sniffed a melon for ripeness! He taught me all about the different kinds of fruits and vegetables – how to unpack them, keep the fresh, inspect them and prolong their shelf life. He took great care on how to display the produce with attention to their colors alternating them so they looked like a Busby Berkley arrangement in Technicolor. He instructed me how to use the beautifully white enamel Hobart scale; sliding the calibration bar back in forth to get the correct accurate honest price. To this day I can estimate the weight of an item just by holding it in my hand which came in handy on dates! After weighing an item, I would mark down the prices with a green crayon on a brown paper bag making sure to put a line under the price so the checkout girls could legibly read the price and know it was 69 cents and not 96 cents. Stapling the bag shut and placing it in the cart for the customer, I would always offer a polite, “Thank You Ma’am.”
In the middle of the Saturday afternoon Dominic marked down prices on any highly perishable items since we were closed on Sundays. I closed down the department by taking all the perishables like lettuce, scallions, berries, and parsley etc. out of the cases, gently putting them in boxes and storing them in the walk-in refrigerated locker. I would then take all of the chipped ice out of the tables and drain them dry. One final Windex cleaning of all of the case windows and I was done. Sometime Mr. Smith let me take home any stuff that had been marked down since it would not last till Monday. After work I would usually meet my mom at the new Squire Village Cinema and catch the 8:00 o’clock movie. Or sometimes I would go over to my friend Ralph’s place. He lived in the condos right behind the fence behind the loading dock that separated our store from the Village townhouses. Ralph was the only kid I knew whose parents were divorced. He lived with his Mom who worked nights at a local diner so he was often alone. We would watch TV or play scrabble or wrestle. Ralph was a tow headed tuff loner who would make me do things that supposedly he thought I did not want to do. I worked every weekend and all summer from 1964 to 1967 and got to know the guys in the Meat Department especially Joseph the butcher who would give me special cuts of meat to bring home to Mom. I would sometimes have lunch at the coffee shop next door with Mr. Smith who would always treat me to grilled cheese with pickle and fries that I always ordered. All the full time adult staff loved me but curiously I was not liked by the part time staff that was mostly my age. I often went over to Mr. D’Aiuto’s house and got to know his daughter, Maria who was a older than me and yet looked younger in an autistic kind of way; shy, demure, and protected by her father reminding me of Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda or Susan Harrison, J.J Hunsecker’s sister in The Sweet Smell of Success. He would drive me after work to his house for dinner where his wife made a big Italian dinner, my favorite being spaghetti with braciaole. They became my surrogate family and he was always trying to get me to take Maria out since he thought I was a fine upstanding Italian boy. I never got the hint to take her out or so he thought. So on New Year’s Eve 1966 Dominic and his wife took me and Maria down to Nanuet to see the road show presentation of The Sound of Music presented in 70 millimeter. I was so excited by this since we would get to see the show as it was presented in New York City with intermission on a big screen with multi-channel stereophonic sound. It was a bitterly cold night as we drove the 30 miles to Rockland County, me sitting as far away as possible form Maria on our faux date. When we arrived I opened the car door for her and grabbed her arm as we hurried from the parking lot to the lobby. Dominic treated us all to buttered popcorn. Graciously or guiltily, I bought Maria the souvenir book as a present as well as one for myself of course! The overture finished and my heart leapt as the curtains parted to reveal the Austrian alps and the sound of wind coming from the back speakers, the birds coming from the side speakers as the camera swopped down to catch Julie Andrews spinning around on the high tor filling the front speakers with voice singing “the hills are alive with the sound of music.” I whispered to my Maria, “They left out the intro to the song!” Somewhere during the film I murmured they left out the songs of the Baroness and Max! (she should have known then). During the middle of “I am Sixteen going on Seventeen,” Maria reached over and held my hand. I limply held it back staring straight ahead, being engrossed in the scene and angry that I was being distracted. Little did she know I was fantasizing that Rolfe and I were holding hands, dancing from bench to bench in the gazebo. The audience clapped when Leisl yelled “Whee” in the rain at the end of the song, giving me an excuse to take my hand away from Maria.
It seemed like a long way back to New Windsor as I sat looking at the window pretending I was Maria on the bus staring out into the distance whispering “I have confidence in me.” I didn’t. We had a bottle of Cold Duck back at Dominic’s’ house to celebrate the New Year and I suspect to help grease the wheels at the supposed love match. Dominic and his wife went to bed and left us alone. We turned the TV on watched the final hour of Guy Lombardo playing at the Waldorf=Astoria – ‘Enjoy yourself; it’s later than you think.” It was late as the cloistered Maria drove me home. With my hand on the car door handle, I gave her a quick peck on the cheek as I dashed out and down my driveway. At 2am, my home was a silent cold, dark Neuschwanstein Castle with no handsome King Ludvig to meet me at the door but only a sleeping Hexe in the downstairs bedroom. I took my shoes off and slowly crept upstairs to my bedroom. My father was snoring away in his bed as I got into the other bed next to my brother Michael, pushing him up against the wall to make room. The frost on the window lit by the street lamp make interesting patterns on the ceiling as I drifted off to sleep dreaming of my little Nazi boy, Rolfe who somehow looked like my friend Ralph. I could sleep in late till 8am tomorrow; the A&P was closed for the holiday. I had January 2nd off too but Mr. Smith asked me if I could work from 10 to 7… You wait, little girl, on an empty stage For fate to turn the light on Your life, little girl, is an empty page That men will want to write on You are sixteen going on seventeen Fellows will fall in line Eager young lads and rogues and cads Will offer you food and wine Totally unprepared am I To face a world of men Timid and shy and scared am I Of things beyond my ken I need someone older and wiser Telling me what to do You are seventeen going on eighteenI’ll depend on you Finaletto: As fate would have it, 30 years later in Austria, Gary and I would have a private moonlight dance in that very gazebo from The Sound of Music, invited by a business colleague of ours who had access to a private estate where it had been transferred. On that very same trip I did get to meet a Mad King Ludvig look-alike at a cocktail party who I shamlessy flirted with to no avail..