As in most supermarkets, customers entered through the Produce Department to help generate sales. This was not unlike the major department stores having the jewelry and perfume on the main floor so the ladies hit that area first. Since the wives bought their husband’s clothes the men’s department was always on the upper less trafficked floors; unconsciously being drawn up the escalators through two or three floors of enticing women’s wear. In our store, the Produce Department led right to the Deli Department. So as you pushed your cart casually picking up some lettuce and tomatoes, you soon found yourself facing the appetizing display of the Delicatessen Department.
Harry Burns was the gruff manager of the Deli who reminded me of the character actor, Harry Morgan, the cigar chomping colonel on M*A*S*H. Nobody got along with Harry and he could never keep his help. Exacerbated, Mr. Smith, our store manager, would have to sometime relieve Mr. Burns for his mandatory union breaks and lunch hours. So after the latest clerk walkout, Mr. Smith asked me if I would do him a favor and transfer over to the Deli Department. It meant I had to join the Local Butchers Union, and pay dues but I would get a higher salary. It also meant not working with Dominic but the Produce Department was right next door, sharing the same swinging doors to the back area and I could relieve him for his breaks. I would do anything for Mr. Smith so I said yes.
The A&P delicatessen (from the German for delicacies) featured traditional items found in the old German, Jewish and Italian Delicatessens and Appetizing stores in the immigrant neighborhoods of New York City. The modern design was inspired by the old storefronts which all had a certain look. They were immaculately clean with black mirrored panels with mosaic tiles giving it a pristine antiseptic spa feel. The refrigerator cases were the most important; long gleaming polished aluminum cases looking like windows on the art deco ocean liner, SS Normandie.
From the German came all the classic cold cuts of hams, liverwurst and bologna; chains of bratwurst; white and yellow American cheese; cardboard tasting Swiss and drywall Muenster; golden skinned roasted turkeys, lustrously glazed baked hams, Neolithic Fred Flintstone sized roast beef rounds, toasted salmon croquettes, La Brea tar pits of baked beans and baked macaroni in foil cups; crab cakes with homemade tartar sauce only on Fridays. In long shiny trays were mounded two versions of potato salad – mayonnaise or German style; macaroni, tuna, chicken, egg, health, carrot &r raisin salads, Cole Slaw and for dessert creamy rice pudding, Nesselrode pie, tapioca and Jell-O mold filled with canned fruit.
From the Italian came baked spaghetti in a thick Franco-American style sauce; Spaldine sized meatballs; sweet and hot Italian sausages with glistening green peppers with onions in olive oil; peppery red capicola; leathery Mortadella with inset diamonds of green pistachios; white moldy skinned tubes of Genoa salami and sopresatta; hot and sweet pepperoni; onyx black and briny emerald green olives; – cracked, pitted or whole; marinated mushrooms buttons and dynamite proof nougat Torrone.
From the classic Jewish Deli came almost rust colored slabs of lox both belly and Nova Scotia, saffron chunks of Sable, whole golden white fish with Eddie Cantor eyes; cold smoked chubs, kippers, sturgeon and herring roll mops either pickled or creamy sauce; hockey puck sized potato or kasha knishes; sour and half sour green flecked pickles, bursting redolent of garlic; flakey corned beef and black spice encrusted, pastrami; kosher franks – cocktail and foot long; cream cheese with pimento and chives; pot cheese aka farmers cheese; iconic tawny chopped liver; boxes of Joya chocolate covered jelly rings and Turkish halvah, dried fruits & nuts and slabs of Jewish cheesecake – plain or pineapple.
On the back wall hung bins holding Kaiser Rolls flecked with poppy seeds that got all over you when you picked one up; obdurate bagels – plain, sesame seed, onion, poppy and salted; sad little bialys; small Italian subs and long slender French; sour rye bread with seeds or plain and egg laden challah on Fridays for the Sabbath.
Below the Deli case was a ledge of densely pre-packaged breads from Germany; six packs of Anne Page frankfurter and hamburger rolls; bags of pistachio nuts; Polish Chrusciki dusted in powdered sugar; assorted Stella Dora cookies baked in the Bronx; cans filled with international foods – sour cherries, hearts of palm and anchovies; and varieties of mustards and horseradish.
In the middle of the working counter were two magnificent slicers with one dedicated just for slicing the Kosher-style items. At the far end stood a noisy rattling bread slicing machine while the other end held a rack of variously sized sharp knives. Underneath the ledge were racks holding different sized white bags to put the purchases in after wrapping them in brown butcher paper hanging on huge rolls. And a flip-up wooden counter shelf ran the length of the case. A swinging nautical portal door separated the public area from the back kitchen where food preparation and cleaning took place out of the customers view.
Well it didn’t take me long to figure out Harry Burns was as sweet as lobster meat with a hard shell exterior like Captain Von Trapp as played by Christopher Plummer. He had the attitude of a curmudgeon not suffering fools lightly including customers. Once he figured out that I knew what I was doing and was doing it well, he let his guard down and would trust me and made me his protégé. He would tell me ribald dirty jokes like a Borscht Belt comic.
Mr. Burns taught me how to roast 2/3 lb. chickens on the rotisserie, baking just enough to last through the day with no left-overs. I would take the birds out of the packaging and wash them in the prep sink in the back room. I gaily tossed kosher salt over them after patting down the wrinkly old lady like skins with paper towels. I pierced the gaping cavities through on a long black rod and fastened them in place like a Spanish Inquisition torturer with big iron medieval looking clips. I set the rods containing 4 or 5 chickens each in position in the oven and they revolved and revolved dripping on each other to a golden baste. When done I set them in white paper cardboard boats kept warm by an amber heat lamp so they resembled some alte cocker tanning on Miami Beach. When purchased they were put in aluminum lined bags to keep them warm like marathon runner finishers.
I had to bake huge galleons of roast beef. First I would take the 15 lb piece of meat out of its vacuum pack and wipe all the congealed blood off with my hands massaging the meat with kosher and onion salts; my palms stinging from any cuts I may have had. Sticking a thermometer in just right was an art so it would come out a perfect medium rare. It took constant watching. Once I was waiting so long on a trying customer that it came out well done. The store employees got to enjoy free dry roast beef sandwiches slathered with mayonnaise and horseradish to keep it moist!
Hams were easy. Well the hardest part was opening the tins of Krakus Polish Hams with a key that was affixed on the bottom of the can. You inserted the eye of the key on one end and carefully rolled all the way around the lid. They often broke and I used to cut my hand on the long thin strip of sharp tin that I now had to pull off with my fingers. Harry smartly invested in pliers which did the trick as I now could cleanly lift the ham out of the sharp edged tin and take it out of its plastic condom like encasing. I scored the surface with a paring knife in a nice diamond pattern putting a clove in each intersection, sprinkled on powered cloves, covered the entire masterwork in dark brown sugar, swirls of Gulden’s mustard and a jar of Hawaiian glaze oozing over all; crowned with beautifully decorated canned Dole pineapple rings and garnished with toxic maraschino cherries – done in about 45 minutes to an hour.
Slicing the meat was tricky. As Harry’s apprentice he instructed me very seriously and sternly on the use and safety procedures of the slicing machines. You flicked a little toggle switch to turn on the whirring blade as you adjusted it for the proper slicing thickness. Harry warned me dramatically like the Sorcerer in Disney’s Fantasia to always, always use the safety guard plate to hold the top of the meat in place with one hand as you pressed down on it as you caught escaping slices with the other; ladling them in a neat pile on white waxen paper. Concentrate on the task or the consequences may be a slice of thumb in Mrs. Schwartz’s chicken roll. Of course as the wicked young apprentice, I didn’t always listen as I waited on Andrew, one of Ralph’s roguishly handsome but arrogant friends. I kept looking over my shoulder to stare at his pecs under his NFA Tee shirt and engage him in foolish flirtatious conversation as I was slicing roast beef for his sandwich when – WHISH! – the top of my thumb caught the blade quickly. More blood than harm, Mr. Burns magically stopped the bleeding and helped me bandage it up. Andrew’s roast beef sandwich was moist that day!
I made myself tasty sandwiches at a discount for my lunch break experimenting with exotic combinations like ham and lox on a bialy or tuna and chive cream cheese on challah. I particularly liked the Braunschweiger liverwurst, very soft and was almost spreadable on bread with a soupcon of Dijon mustard. I sometimes had my break in the tiny lunch room behind the Produce case with Joe the Butcher but sometimes I would make an extra sandwich and bring it over to Ralphs’ who lived behind the store. I only took a half hour for lunch which gave me plenty of time to wolf down a sandwich and enjoy some of Ralph’s appetizing non-Kosher frank. Of course, lunch was only an excuse to visit him and sometimes I would wrap up my lunch and take it back for my afternoon break if I hadn’t had time to eat it and had already had my fill. Ralph enjoyed our tryst in a sadistic way; always threatening to tell his friend Andrew that I was a queer. I used to live in fear till I figured out that if he told him; he would have to own up to our being “pigs in the blanket.”
Waiting on customers was fun, engaging and also challenging. There were the regulars who came in every day and bought their bagel with smear or knish sliced in half with mustard. Then there was the pain in the asses who watched every move you made so you sliced everything to their precise order or to ensure I was not cheating them on weight or giving them the first slice before cutting their order. Even thought they protested that the first slice was dry and stale; they made me give it to them to taste. As I put the package on the scale to weigh they would peer up like Talmudic Scholars making sure the weight matched the price. “God Forbid!’ I made a mistake.
Slicing lox is a craft. I used a special knife that was long and thin that I dipped in hot water before I started my exquisite carvings. With voices sounding like Eve Arden or Molly Picon, I was always commanded to slice the lox on the bias as thin, thin, thin as possible. I think they thought they got more if I sliced it thinner! “Slice it thin!” shouted out Our Miss Brooks. I used to save the lox skins and wings for my favorite old Jewish lady, Mrs. Finkelstein who did Yahweh knows what with them. She carried off the little white bag holding it close as it if contained s the jewels of King Solomon’s Mines. Mrs. Gold always gave me a hard time, making me open up new pieces since she didn’t want the “stumps! or asking for the biggest rye which was sold by the piece, or making me go through the whole pile of sable for the perfect jewel. I was always polite to her as I packed the cold cuts, pressing down on them, mushing them a bit in passive aggressive glee. This was very successful with the braunschweiger!
Once again on Saturday night I had to clean the cases. This meant wrapping all the meats tightly in cellophane then putting all the now stale bread in big brown paper bags for the bakery return pickup on Monday. I ladled all the salads back into their big rotund metal tubs and stored them in the locker. Finally I would hose the case down with hot water so it was sparking clean for Monday. Cleanliness is next to godliness in a Deli. On Monday mornings, if Harry had off, I would take inventory having to weigh all the items, checking them off a huge master sheet. Then I had to tally it all up against last week’s totals, ask Mr. Smith for the gross Deli sales for the week and figure out the profit made. Good training for an unsuspecting future entrepreneur.
Within a month, the brand new Squire Village Cinema opened with the area exclusive premiere of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. For the gala opening, they had old-fashioned aeroplane up on the marquee which only lasted a week when a snow storm crushed it paper wings. I could now go to the movies right after work and walk home sometimes stopping for a “nightcap” at Ralph’s. When The Sound of Music finally came to Squire Cinema, I took Ralph to see it and share it with him. In the darkened theatre, taking a cue from Maria D’Auito at the gazebo scene where the Baron and Maria sang and kissed, I tried to sidle my leg next to his. I kept it hovering at such a humming bird hair breath width away he never felt it as I held my coat over my lap. Ralph fidgeted in his seat whenever a song came on (which only moved his leg closer to mine) and only became interested at the last scene when the Nazis arrived at the cemetary. I ingeniously grabbed his arm when Rolf blew the whistle on the escaping Trapp family. The following month, I tried to get him to go see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by lying to him telling him there was nudity and lots of cursing, condemned by the Legion of Decency, but I ended up going alone. Most of it was over my head, but sitting in the empty matinee day theatre, I laughed out loud at some of acerbic lines tossed out by Elizabeth Taylor in a fright wig: “What a dump!’ What’s it from, for Christ’s sake?…some damn Bette Davis picture, some god-damned Warner Bros epic.” – “You make me puke!” and “You married me for it!”
Once in a while Ralph and Andrew would come to the store and stand behind my customers, sniggle and make lewd gestures. When it was Ralph’s turn to order, he leaned over the counter and slyly intimated that if I didn’t mark the price down he was going to tell his buddy Andrew – EVERYTHING. I made him two dry roast beef sandwiches at a good discount and threw in a container of stale potato salad from the back room at no cost just to get rid of them both.
One afternoon Ralph asked me over for “lunch.” I brought over some liverwurst sandwiches for us. I carefully opened up the sandwiches on his bedroom dresser and set out napkins and two bottles of Stewart’s Root Beer. He silently gestured me like the Gestapo to his bed. Jeopardy was playing on his black and white TV set as I unzipped his metallic fly on his dungarees. He pretended to watch the game show as he put his hands behind his head, flexing his muscles, sniggling as was his wont but now interspersed with stifled moans. Among his moans I thought I heard another snicker, I paused but was gruffly put back in place. I continued our luncheon until I heard a thither again. At that moment, the white slatted wooden closet doors whipped open and Andrew sprang out yelling, “Surprise! You’re on Candid Camera!” He had been watching all along through the interstices. Like a front runner he leapt onto the bed and gestured to me that I was to sit between the two boys. We were silent. “Today’s Jeopardy’s Final Question is in the category Theatre. He wrote The Importance of Being Earnest…” before I could open my mouth to answer Rolfe pushed my down on Andrew. They both grunted in tandem during the seven minutes of commercials. When Jeopardy’s MC, Art Fleming came back on, I took it as my cue to get the hell out of there since I completed my duties quickly. I jumped over Ralph, tripping on the rug, grabbing the dresser for balance as my hand smashed down the braunschweiger sandwich. I took a swig of Root Beer to wash my lunches down. Slamming the door, I yelled out “Oscar Wilde” as I ran back through the loading dock to the A&P.
Harry gave me a glare since I was late returning from lunch. Still breathless, I waited on the next customer trying to cover up my excitement with my apron. “Slice it thin! Make sure you slice it thin!” I sliced it as thin as I could so you could read the NY Times through it. I calmed down during the afternoon but still felt used and exposed but strangely excited at the same time – feeling like a nun who had stolen a kiss like Julie Andrews looking up at Christopher Plummer in the gazebo except that it was not the Baron I who was kissing me but the Hitler Youth Rolf/Ralph.
Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth
But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth
For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good
Later on in the afternoon, feeling famished, I wolfed down a gall like mixture of Head Cheese dipped in white vinegar. I was angry at Ralph for putting me in that “position” and I am sure he thought he “got the guest” but who really got the guest?! I knew what I wanted and I went for it. Ralph never came into the store again or did we ever have lunch again but I did meet Andrew a few times in the woods up by Thomas’s Rock. I now spent my lunch time either perusing the Broadway Show Album bin at the drug store next to the A&P or withthe adults – Mr. Smith or Dominick or my new friend Joseph the butcher. That “Walpurgisnacht” and for a few more nights, I would jump when the phone rang at home hoping it wasn’t Ralph blowing the whistle on me. Shortly, the Seminary would take me out of Newbugh and harms way and bring me to the Toyland or should I say Boyland of New York City. It wouldn’t take long for this Martha to come into his own and learn how to play “hump the host.”
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
“I’m not, Ralph, I’m not.”
I eventually left the A&P when Mr. Smith joined Grand Union Supermarket and took me along with him. I became the Deli Manager during the summers between college semesters, roaming Orange, Ulster and Rockland Counties, relieving the regular mangers for their summer vacations. My sister Karen replaced me when I went to graduate school. Thirty years later, she is the successful manager of a very busy Stop & Shop in Wallkill, NY and will retire with pension before me!