The manager of the Gristedes supermarket told me that he loved his work. This was after I told him that he did a fantastic job setting up the Thanksgiving food and decorative display at the bottom of the escalator. He grew up in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. It was a tough neighborhood but his parents were strict and made all the kids get jobs. They taught them that the only way to get ahead was through hard work. Now his own kids are grown, and he is proud of them: a pharmacist, a chef and a nurse.
For 40 years, he and his wife have worked for Gristedes. He remembers when the owner, now a billionaire, had just four stores and used to pitch in and help him bag groceries when it got extra-busy.
Once, when he was a kid and he needed new sneakers, his parents could only afford to get him the ones with plastic soles that they sold at Pathmark for $2.99. He wanted the name-brand ones for $7.99 with genuine rubber soles, which let you jump higher and run faster, but they simply couldn’t afford it. He took all the back alleys to and from school so none of the other boys in Hunts Point would see him wearing those supermarket sneakers.
The next day he got a job bagging groceries to be able to buy himself the $7.99 sneakers; once he had them, he left the $2.99 plastic sole ones in his gym locker and never put them on his feet again. He never left the Gristedes Market chain for 40 more years.
“I put in a minimum 60 to 70 hours per week, but I never work the weekends,” he proudly told me. As a result of his hard work, he was able to buy a weekend getaway place in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He bought it when his kids were still young, to escape the city, and that’s where he was headed Friday night.
He was looking forward to his 16-year-old grandson visiting him up there on Saturday. He loves that kid and, if needed, he will take out a second mortgage on his house, as he did once before, if that’s what it takes to make sure the boy also goes to college just like his children did.
In three years, he and his wife will retire from Gristedes. Over the years, he had many other job offers but turned them all down because his boss is a fair man.
He’s thinking Clearwater and she’s got her heart set on Orlando. They’ll work it out.
As the escalator took me up, I looked back and there he was, busily stringing orange garlands around the holiday food display. As I reached the top, I heard a young cashier say, “Hey boss, can you please come over here, I need some help?” Off he went in her direction.
This whole experience reminds me how all of us, busily running around from this to that, usually miss the human beings behind everything. In any case, I’m glad I got to show him some appreciation. It made us both feel good. We are all on our separate journeys that sometimes intercept – often in the most unexpected places!