This installment of my articles about life as we knew it in Frankford as I grew up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s contains some somewhat “racy” material. Names have been left out, “to protect the guilty,” and adult readers may want to refrain from encouraging the kids to read this one.
There were nine of us kids, in our Wakeling Street house across from Frankford Stadium. If we wanted spending money, we had to work.
THE HARRISON QUICK SHOP
So, beginning in 1965, when I was 12, I worked after school and on Saturdays at the Harrison Quick Shop, a Unity Frankford grocery store at 1100 Harrison Street on the southeast corner of Harrison and Large Street. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Matus, were a German-speaking couple from Czechoslovakia. They taught me to do everything at the store. By the age of 16, I was filling in the Unity Frankford wholesale order sheet, unloading the truck, “doing the count” to square the invoice with what was delivered, stocking shelves, filling customer orders, delivering groceries, cutting lunch meats, cutting steaks and chickens, and manning the cash register.
Mr. Matus’ English was about 80%, with a heavy German accent. He would sound like this: “Peee-TAIR, get ten dozen ahx from duh vall-kin bahx” — “Peter, get 10 dozen eggs from the walk-in box,” the big walk-in refrigerator. He knew that sometimes he was hard to understand, and he would have fun with that.
THE SPECIAL IRISH LADY
The people were generous with their tips. We delivery boys all shared the big tippers. There was one house the older guys never shared with me, though, until one day one of them said, “Do you think that Pete’s old enough for the Irish lady’s house.” “Yeah,” said the other, “I think he’ll survive.” I was about 14 at the time. I thought, “What are they talking about?”
The Irish lady’s house was a home in the middle of the block of Harrison Street opposite Frankford High School. I carefully lifted the large box of groceries off the bike, walked up the steps, knocked on the door, and an Irish lady in her thirties, completely au naturel from the waist up, answered the door. And, sheesh, was there ever a lot there for a young man to see and be concerned about!
Inside the house there were all of these little kids running around in their underwear or naked as jay birds. The woman’s state of dress left no doubts about how there came to be so many.
I carried the groceries into the kitchen, pretending that there was nothing about the lady to gape at, received the money for the groceries and my tip, and left. There was another residence like that. The girl, a pretty lady about 10 years older than me, was always fully dressed when I delivered groceries, but she knew when I would be passing her home at night, while walking the dog, and she would often stand in window “in the buff.” I was just too naïve to do anything about it, to tell the truth — a good thing, correct?
I was injured a few times at the store. Once the biggest frozen food fixtures in the store developed a problem which caused it to malfunction. I was ordered to transfer the frozen food to other freezers, defrost the broken one, and wipe it down. No one knew that the problem causing the freezer to break down was a short circuit in the basement compressor and heat exchanger which transferred 440 volts up a copper coolant line into the body of the freezer in the store. When I finally touched the electrified metal surface, there was a loud flash and bang at my left hand, and 440 volts ran up my arm and through my body, and fired me across the aisle, crashing me into a shelf of stacked cans. My hand was still smoking when Mr. Matus and other employees turned the corner at the end of the aisle to investigate the explosion sound, and saw me laying in a pile of canned vegetables.
Though those deli slicers really are designed to be as safe as they possibly can be, dealing with the customers while you are slicing cheese and lunch meat made the occasional accident with them an inevitable thing. When those slicers took off a fingertip, sometimes the cut was so clean you didn’t even realize it at first. On one very busy Saturday, as I was cutting lunch meat, one of the customers noticed, before I did, that the lunch meat wrapping was becoming covered in blood. I looked at the other guys cutting lunch meat. No cuts. Finally one of the others said, “Pete, your right index finger.” And it was gushing blood. I had cut off my fingertip, and I was so busy that I did not realize that I was squirting blood everywhere. The thing which worried me was that I could not find my fingertip. After we carefully bandaged-up my right index finger, a grim but sympathetic customer came in with her lunch meat and said, “Pete, you sold me your fingertip.”
Losing your fingertip in a slicer was the most terrifying, and terrifyingly painful, accident at the store. Electrocution by 440 volts was a “walk in the park” compared to the week of screaming pain which followed loss of a fingertip in the slicer. Every beat of the heart sent a shocking throb into the brain, which made sleep impossible.
Sometimes Mr. Matus became caught-up in “work fevers.” He would push himself, and us, the employees, with eleven hours of focused hard work. Once, just before the holidays, a giant order came into the rear store room from Unity Frankford. I could tell from the thoughtless, high-energy way Mr. Matus was working and pushing his employees to work that an accident was inevitable. So, I became angry, and I yelled, “Mr. Matus, slow down! Someone is going to get hurt!” Mr. Matus responded with an angry, “Peee-TAIR, keep vorkink hart!” Just then, a ten foot high stack of boxes collapsed and fell, knocking me to the floored and covering me with a pile of 25 pound boxes! Mr. Matus was shocked and ashamed. He quickly uncovered me. He told the other guys to continue working, and he and his wife quietly took me upstairs to their dining room and fixed me dinner and waited on me hand and foot. It was a strange experience.
A NEW BOSS
In 1969 or 1970, the Matus’ sold the store to a new couple, whom I shall not name. The husband believed that cleverness, and slick personal behavior, made money, not hard work. The wife, always at the cash register in the front, was hard-working, but very, very naïve. The husband, in the meat-cutting area in the rear of the store, always had his hands on the pretty girls and women coming into the store, “slobbering all over them.” He had amazing “radar” for the pretty ones who would also cooperate. His wife’s naiveté about this behavior just shocked me out of my shoes. I tried to get her off the register and back into the accounting area next to the meat case, so that she could keep an eye on him; I did this because tattle-taling would have ended my job. The wife refused, I think because she felt that I wanted to steal out of the cash register! One day, I walked back there as the boss was standing behind a striking, very ample, very willing brunette, about 19 years of age, and fondling her through her shirt. I thought, “How can he do that, with his wife 20 feet away in the front of the store???!!!” I pretended to be unconcerned. I think that to involve me as much as possible, he said, “Peter, just look at those eyes! What do they look like to you?” Struggling to stay uninvolved, I responded dispassionately, in a technically accurate fashion, “They look like deer’s eyes.” The girl appeared deeply struck by my accidentally-complimentary words, and ignored the new boss from then on and always waited for me to wait on her, which upset the boss.
I could tell that my days at that store were numbered. I asked to be the store circular deliverer, to get me out of the store a few days a week.
The thing which caused me to be let go, finally, was a bet. One day, I was in the back, cleaning the large band saw used to cut hind-quarters of beef into smaller pieces. Though the inward camber — the tilt — of the blade-riding-surfaces on the drive wheels of the band saw is what kept the band saw blade in place, every band saw features a “blade guide” which doubles as a safety mechanism to grip the blade and hopefully keep it from decapitating or cutting off the arm of a saw user in the event of a malfunction.
The new boss came back and said, “Pete, reinstall the blade guide so that I can cut some meat.”
I responded, “It’s in the back, soaking in hot, soapy water right now. I just put on a brand new blade. It will work fine without it,”
“NO IT WON’T!” he yelled with impatience, mostly generated, I think, by his perception that I was a “Goody Two Shoes” who might tattle to his wife about his bad behavior with female customers someday, “IT WON’T EVEN TURN ON WITHOUT THE BLADE GUIDE IN PLACE.”
Surprised that he did not know this, I calmly responded, “Mr. Matus has run this for years without the blade guide being in place. It will work!”
Gustav Wear, the assistant butcher, and the two other employees attracted by the ruckus in the rear of the store, both sided with the new boss, saying, “The boss is correct, Pete. It won’t even turn on.”
The new boss went into the walk-in box and brought out a large piece of beef and said, “Okay, cut that! I’ll bet you $1,000 cash that it does not even turn on!”
Everyone fell quiet. I thought to myself, “If I take the bet, and win, he’ll never pay me, and laugh it off, and look for a reason to fire me. If I back down, I’ll just look like a fool, and last here a while longer while I search for another job.” And then I thought to myself, “Suppose, while he is here in the store by himself at night, he installed some kind of safety switch that I don’t know about?” THAT was the deciding factor, for me.
So, I backed down.
About one half hour later, after I had completely cleaned and reconstructed the band saw, but just before I brought the cleaned blade guide forward from the utility room and re-installed it, the new owner and Mr. Wear came back and threw a piece of beef on the saw and sawed it through. I held-out the blade guide in front of them. They both stared at me, the new owner with a deceptive smile. At the end of work that day he told me that he was giving me my two weeks’ notice.
A NEW JOB
Within one week I had a new job, at the Unity Frankford Store, on the corner of Sanger and Saul Streets. The owner was an easy-going man of Dutch descent. A remarkable array of strange customers made working there very interesting. There was “Mick the Orangeman,” who greeted the grocery delivery boys with anti-Catholic epithets spoken with an Irish brogue. We were all church-going Catholics, but we loved him anyway. Then there was “The Fanatic,” who always came to the store equipped with literature “demonstrating” that Jews, Communists and Freemasons were engaged in a conspiracy to do-in the world. It was from him that I first heard about the ridiculous anti-Semitic document, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which readers can look up on Wikipedia. And then there was the lady we called “The Smoker.” She was a small woman, about 75 years of age, who had lost her vocal cords to throat cancer, and also had a tracheostomy — a permanent hole in her throat held open by a plastic ring to assist her breathing. Astonishingly, she would entertain us at the store by coming in and placing a cigarette into the hole and lighting-up and smoking the cigarette in the hole — a deeply, deeply bizarre sight!
THE HOT ICE CREAM PROBLEM
As I approached the store for the first time, I saw a big sign in the window, “HOT ICE CREAM SALE!” I thought, “What?” And, low and behold, every single neighbor who shopped at the store bought Dolly Madison ice cream at greatly reduced prices that weekend. I knew from experience that this store’s retail price was lower than what Mr. Matus’ wholesale price had been at the other store, and I was puzzled, but initially I said nothing.
A few months later the boss asked me to stay late with the other employees and help unload a full truckload of Dolly Madison ice cream. I innocently asked, “Why doesn’t the Dolly Madison delivery guy come in the daylight hours, like all of the other jobbers?”
“Oh,” he answered mysteriously, “He can’t drop off a load like this when it is light out!”
Still too naïve to comprehend what was occurring, I helped to unload a full truckload of Dolly Madison ice cream into the store — much, much more than the freezers could hold. My boss then paid the Dolly Madison driver with cash instead of the usual check, and the driver left. The boss then carefully covered the freezers, overflowing with Dolly Madison half gallons, with blankets, and got out his “HOT ICE CREAM SALE” sign and taped it to the front of the store for the next day, and the truth finally sank in through my teenage naiveté — the ice cream was being stolen from the warehouse and off the loading docks at Dolly Madison Ice Cream Company, and the words “HOT ICE CREAM SALE” on the sign were alerting the entire neighborhood, “HEY, NEIGHBORS! I’VE GOT ANOTHER LOAD OF ULTRA-CHEAP ICE CREAM FOR YOU, STOLEN FROM THE LOADING DOCK!” The Dolly Madison delivery guy, the store owner, and the whole neighborhood were in on the theft!
Oh, I felt so guilty! I had just helped to unload thousands of dollars of stolen ice cream! Over the following weekend, watching the stolen ice cream go out the door in the bags of smiling customer after smiling customer made me sick! I thought to myself, “From a womanizer’s store to a thief’s store! Always a problem! Is it possible to get away from such difficulties?”
I felt deeply, deeply conflicted. The Dolly Madison delivery man was supporting several children. The owner of this new store was otherwise very kind and gentle. If I tried to stop the crime, both would probably go to jail. What could I do?
I was 17 at the time. I confess that I finally “snapped” from guilt and called Security at the Dolly Madison Ice Cream Company. The guy from Security sounded disinterested. When, after a few weeks, nothing happened, the boss pulled me aside and said, “Pete, don’t make a call like that again. Security in Dolly Madison is in on it. They watch it go off the loading dock at night. So is the policeman who patrols this area. How else could I put a sign like that in the window? They all get ‘a piece of the action,’ too!”
At that time in my life, I didn’t have the “moxie,” or even the maturity, to know how to compete with such a criminal structure. Also, I smelled danger. So, to be perfectly honest, I did nothing else to stop the shenanigans. At age 17, it was simply too much for me, in all ways.
THE MIRACLE OF THE RE-APPEARING LOAF OF BREAD
The store was otherwise wonderful. We worked hard, and we shared good tips from deliveries to customers. Shortly after the boss trained me to work at the new cash register, a kind of a miracle occurred.
The single most profitable customer of the store was an old lady who lived in a home we all nicknamed “The Hospital.” She had some kind of frightening allergy condition with the consequence that the air in her house was specially filtered, at enormous expense, and she walked around in her home wearing an oxygen mask, towing a tank of oxygen behind her in a wheeled cart, and eating extremely expensive, scientifically-formulated food, specially delivered to the store for re-delivery to the old lady at enormous profit.
The single most expensive food item, per unit of weight, was a loaf of bread that even back then cost $17. We called it “The Hospital’s bread.” The customer loved it, and insisted that the special bread be delivered with every order.
On the first day I began working alone on the new cash register the boss placed “The Hospital’s bread” on the counter in front of me and said, “Now, Pete, set this aside and don’t let any other customer buy it. You know who it’s for!”
I put it on the counter beside me to keep an eye on it, and I began doing check-out work.
After a while, the boss came up to see how I was doing with the new cash register, and as he stood there one of the ladies came in and said, “You gave me $20 too much in change,” right in front of the boss, who eyed me suspiciously.
I was very flustered, for the next little while — so flustered that I sold “The Hospital’s bread” to another customer, without thinking twice! And, for a mere 45 cents (because it resembled another bread)!
A little while later, I was in the back, working behind the meat counter. The owner said, “Pete, where’s ‘The Hospital’s’ bread? I don’t see it up here. It’s time to deliver it with the rest of the order!”
At this point in my life, I absolutely, positively had to have my job. I had begun to pay for college, then. So, my heart jumped into my throat at these words, as I remembered that I had blithely sold the special bread to another customer while I was flustered from the $20 business. I said a brief prayer in my mind, “Oh, God, help me out of this!” and just to buy a few more seconds I yelled a lie, in response, “It’s in that nook to the right of the cash register, boss!”
Then, as I waited to be fired, he yelled, “I got it, Pete! Thanks!”
I thought, “Wha-a-a-a-at???!!!” I ran to the front of the store — and there was the bread, in the nook to the right of the cash register!
Apparently the customer I had sold it to looked at the label when she got home, saw that it was an unusual scientific formulation, brought it back to the store, and placed the loaf in the nook and traded it for another loaf of the same price! It was pure coincidence that I had named the right location for it!
I surely would have lost my job, at that point, after the “hot ice cream” business and the giving away of the $20! So, how’s that for an answer to prayer???!!!