Back in the Day 01: How it All Got Started
I heard the woman ask for New York State Cheddar.
Immediately, I was thrilled; in fact, I could barely contain my glee. This was the first moment of the first day on a new job. And it wasn’t just any new job. It was the summer of 1984, two years after I’d graduated college, intent on becoming a writer. My first post-collegiate job turned into a marathon nightmare of 100 hour workweeks that left no time whatsoever for writing (and little for sleeping or leisure). This was my first day on the sales floor at my new job as a cheesemonger in Bloomingdales Fresh Food area, a part time job that I figured would pay my share of the rent (which was barely $350 in a NoLita duplex; doesn’t 1984 seem like a long time ago?) and enable me to develop a journalism career.
I had done this kind of food service work in Texas when I was in high school and loved it; in fact, I loved being around food either for work or pleasure. But I was keenly aware that 59th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan was pretty far away both geographically and culturally from North Dallas. The selection of cheese looked mostly unfamiliar, and I expected exotic requests. But when my very first customer, a tall, stout Trinidadian woman, responded to my “welcome to Bloomingdales, how may I help you” with a request for New York State Cheddar, I immediately felt as if everything in my life was now going to work out just fine. I might have been new to the job and its environs, but I felt completely at home.
I reached into the case found a big brick of New York cheddar, pulled back the plastic wrap on the cheese and confidently placed my knife on the orange rectangle looked her in the eye, smiled, and said, “right about there?”
My request was met with stony silence; after a few seconds I began to think something was terribly wrong.
I don’t recall exactly what she said as it quickly mutated into one long warbly mush, kind of like the adults in Peanuts, but in a Trinidadian patois. I stood there confused and frozen. My tidy plans for the rest of my life and all my confidence in handling this brand new job were dissolving at an alarming speed. I felt I was on an island and not a Caribbean vacation destination but a deserted one where everything—even the sand--was on fire. Out of nowhere, one of my coworkers, Tony, whom I’d met the day before during a brief introduction to my sales area, stepped in. He smiled at the woman, an announced “New York State SHEV?”
Her rant stopped on a dime. She looked a bit piqued at being corrected on her pronunciation but meekly nodded. Tony then reached into small refrigerator behind the display case and pulled out a tray of small cylinders of fresh white cheeses. He plopped one into a small plastic cup, secured the lid, went to the register, rang her up and sent her silently on her way.
I was impressed.
“It sucks that they don’t give you new guys any training” he sighed.
To be continued.