Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Meet Carmine and Millie

As a kid I realized things at home were tight, so I always tried to hustle a buck. For an eighth grader with no experience, jobs were hard to come by. I would shovel snow or run errands for people in the neighborhood for nickels and dimes. My Aunt Mary and Uncle Nick had a small dressmaking business on Jamaica Avenue in Brooklyn. Diagonally across the street on the corner of Miller Avenue stood a store that sold fruit, cold cuts, bread, beer and soda, and a few household necessities. I guess it would be called a deli today, but in the Fifties we just referred to it by the name of the owner, as in "Go to Carmine's and get me a container of milk."

Thanks to a recommendation from Aunt Mary, I started working at Carmine's after school and on weekends. Carmine was an older man who never wore anything but pizza-man undershirts and dirty khakis covered by an equally dirty apron. He had a perpetually sad, basset hound expression on his face, but the gentlest disposition of anyone I ever met. Carmine's wife had passed away in childbirth, and the child she delivered, Millie, helped her father run the store. I guess as Carmine got older, lugging heavy beer and soda cases up and down the stairs became too much for him. Also, he wanted to compete with another neighborhood store who began delivering groceries to homes in the area.

I rode my bike to work since it was too far to walk from my house. I used a big wagon to deliver the orders that Carmine would pack into brown bags. The amount of the order was written on the side of one of the bags, and Carmine would give me some singles and loose coins in case I had to make change. The area I delivered in was a cut above where I lived, and most people would throw me a quarter for the delivery. Once I pushed a loaded wagon up the steep hill that was Miller Avenue and delivered to an older woman living on one of the poshest streets in Brooklyn, Highland Avenue. She gave me what I thought was a dollar tip and I shoved it into my pocket. When I got back to the store, I pulled it out and it was a ten! I thought about going back to ask her if she made a mistake, but then I thought about where she lived and where I lived, and the ten stayed in my pocket.

When Millie got to know me, she would sit me down on the bench outside the store and just talk. She was a large, rather homely looking girl of maybe 25, and she seemed lonely. She would ask about my family and friends, what I liked to do, did I date girls, and who my favorite movie stars were. I didn't think much of it at the time, after all, chatting with Millie was a lot easier on a hot day than shlepping cases of beer and soda down to the cellar. Carmine rarely bothered us during these little chats. I sensed he knew Millie was lonely, and that somehow these talks with me eased things a bit. Carmine even softened up and let me work the cash register, something I could tell he was loath to do. It infringed on his status somehow as the store's owner and proprietor.

One thing I always wanted to do, but could never convince Carmine to give me the nod on, was to work the cold cut slicing machine. In the deli business the guy who slices the cold cuts is the top dog. Knowing how to adjust the slicer for different thicknesses of baloney, and to have those slices fall gently into your free hand while you pushed the slicer with the other is like a choreographed ballet. Carmine was a smart man and probably saw a trip to the emergency room in my future if I ever got anywhere near that machine. I would console myself with a trip to the basement where I would drink warm beer from the bottle. Carmine never let on that he missed the bottles, but I figure he just included them in my employee benefits package.

While at work I was free to eat and drink as much as I wanted. I probably ate the equivalent of my weekly salary, since I could really put it away when I was a skinny kid. Every Saturday that sweet old man would pay me in cash, and fill a bag with cold cuts and fruit for my mother. I'm sure those little extras helped us out a lot in the weeks when my father had a bad run at the race track. The Boy Scouts teach the concept of "giving back" to the community in recognition of those who may have helped us along in life. There were so many people in my life like Carmine who had faith in me or showed me a kindness...I have tried my best to pass it forward.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

All I'll say is: "What a nice blog!"

Jim Pantaleno said...

Thanks Joe, high praise from the master.