Old Enough to Know Better

When Shop Boy was a young lad of, say, 20, he worked Sundays in a Glen Rock, N.J., delicatessen called Wilkes’ that catered to … every single person in New Jersey, it seemed sometimes. On football Sundays when either the Giants or the Jets were playing at the Meadowlands — the football teams rotated, as they do now in a new stadium built for both — the line was out the door all morning. Tailgater after tailgater after tailgater after tailgater needed morning egg and cheese sandwiches to hold them while they sat in game-day traffic. They needed it on rye, they needed it hot, they needed it, like, right now. It was already stop-and-go on the turnpike.¬†And gimme a large coffee, light and sweet. (Good call … we made really lousy coffee.)

And without fail, right in the middle of the endless line was someone who wanted a mere quarter-pound of deli roast beef, sliced thin, from the rarest part of the hunk, for lunches they’d bring from home to eat at their desks during their work week. Poor things … meaning Shop Boy and Robert, the other guy who worked the Sunday shift. Robert was the veteran. Taught Shop Boy the ropes. He was lightning on the eggs, whether frying them up on the stove or stirring them into a styrofoam cup and sticking them into the microwave. Robert, thus, handled the egg sandwiches; Shop Boy handled as much of the rest as he could. It was a great arrangement. You wanted me on that slicer. You needed me on that slicer. As quick as Robert was on the eggs … turn Shop Boy loose on the slicer.

Then the roast beef order brought down the whole house of cards.

Now, if you’ve ever worked in a delicatessen, you know that there are meats that were meant to be sliced. Salami, say. Hard salami … yeah. Shop Boy could absolutely fly through an order, handing you a beautifully sliced, beautifully stacked, beautifully wrapped paper package of that stuff, at exactly the weight count requested. Boiled ham … you bet. Turkey … no problem, boss. Head cheese — oh, man … yuck, I mean, Coming right up! But roast beef was, quite literally, a different animal.

Those other meats cut into a solid sheet, mostly. Roast beef didn’t want to do that. And the more moist and tender the section of the hunk, the less it wanted to conform into anything that could be easily stacked, wrapped and dropped into a paper bag.

So if Shop Boy was the Leonardo da Vinci of the salami, he was more like the Jackson Pollock of the roast beef. A blood-splattered mess. Robert tended to have a bit more success, being a seasoned deli guy, but even he hated the roast beef. And he was on the eggs. The roast beef was all Shop Boy. Sliced thin? I gave them shards o’ beef. Oh, the moaning from the customers. And the people behind them! I’d re-do the order. Same pile of beef shrapnel. I felt horrible. Like a complete failure. Deli dodo. Meat-counter muttonhead. But what could I do?

Overcompensate, that’s what.

When that customer would at last take the package from the counter, he’d separate a shoulder as about 3 pounds of roast beef — for the price of a quarter pound — surprised him. I’d wink, and ask who was next.

They complained, right?

Baloney. They’d be back the next Sunday for their, ahem, quarter-pound of rare roast beef. Sliced thin. Wasn’t hurting the owner. We hustled a ton of product out the door and a ton of money into the till every Sunday, without fail.

Thirty years can change a lot of things. But not everything. I thought my friend Jan, who got me the job at Wilkes’ Deli, would always be around, that we were best buds. Life happens. Haven’t seen her in a decade or more. But if we ever do happen to be in the same room again, I’m sure it’ll be like those years never happened. Mary and Jan’s spouse will be, like, “Who are you people?” We’re not those best New Jersey buds, anymore, really. But of course we are, sorta, you know?

And today, as a printer, Shop Boy still on occasion has the “roast beef reflex.” If I’ve done something I’m not sure quite hit the mark, I push it so over the top that you’d never complain. Mary’s like Robert with the eggs. She’s good, man. Gifted. Dogged. Very smart and resourceful. Shop Boy’s fast, accurate, and can stack whatever Mary wants printed into beautiful rows to be packaged. But I choke on the trickier jobs. Mary’s been the lead printer for so long that she sometimes assumes that Shop Boy’s absorbed all that she has and thus has the same skill level as she does.

Then sometimes I’ll remind her not to make that assumption. Not on purpose … but neither was the roast beef, eh?

Take Jan’s 50th birthday card. You’re not 50 every day, right? Over the years, it had gone from flowers for the birthday, to phone calls for the birthday, to e-mails for the birthday to, “Hey, honest, I remembered your birthday, but Facebook was down.”

Shop Boy had an idea: I’d make — start to finish, by myself (Mary was crazy busy) — a simple but fun card with an image on the front, an image on the back, and a pithy birthday message on the inside, using wood blocks and lead type already hanging around the shop. I wanted to do it almost as much to surprise Mary with how proficient I’ve become at the Vandercook as I wanted to let Jan know that I’d remembered her well — well before her big day.

Nothing says, “I thought of you, but not until it was almost too late,” quite like a rush FedEx envelope through the mail slot on your birthday.

Anyway, part of Shop Boy’s, ahem, genius is starting way ahead. It leaves lots of time to correct for, ahem, stupid mistakes. Mary doesn’t tend to make stupid mistakes, so she’s never been in the habit of leaving too much extra time. Whatever. So a week before the appointed time by which the card needed to get to the post office, Shop Boy had already run the first color, both sides of the card. My idea was to build a form on the bed of the Vandercook SP-15 into which I could easily swap some gorgeous lead type — Stymie, Mary says it is. We’ve got four sizes of this stuff. Heavy as heck, because it’s so thick. But it prints beautifully. Shop Boy’s been getting into the lead type scene a little bit more recently, partly because it’s so easy to manipulate on a Vandercook bed vs. locking it up in a chase and carrying it carefully over to a C&P. I’ve had a chase collapse and drop a heavy metal Boxcar base … NOT on my foot but close … and I can’t even imagine … OK, yes I can … how horrible it would be to painstakingly set some poetic language in lead, space it all out just so, and then have it dump into a big pile on the floor, or “pie,” as they say. The flat Vandercook bed allows no such dumping.

I’d cut pieces of 110-pound Crane Lettra long enough to accommodate a 5″ x 7″ card with a fold. I did the math myself. (Foreshadowing alert!) The idea was to build a form for the first color using non-printing spacers to mimic the size of what would sub in for the second color, in this case the words in lead. I set the lead type, measured the space it would take up, blocked in the space-holders and printed the red images — bits of the old Globe Poster collection. Then I cleaned the press, put on the black ink, swapped in the lead and used spacers to mimic the area previously occupied by the Globe cuts and, voila! It looked, well, lovely. I cleaned the press again, stuck a proof in the truck to show Mary and headed home.

She loved it. Said I’d nailed the printing. Shop Boy beamed with pride.

Which comes before a fall, or so it is said.

Let it be written.

For, a day or two later (we got distracted with a project), as I used a bone folder to crease the paper, having cut it to the perfect size with an X-acto knife, Shop Boy realized that he’s not so good with numbers sometimes. Oh, the card was perfectly registered front and back, but the fold was a full, honest-to-god half-inch off.

Shop Boy was near tears. Honestly. Crushed. It was a bloody pile of worthlessness. All that effort for nothing. Mary saw the panic on my face. She had guests at the studio, but I couldn’t help letting out a little “no, no, no” from where I worked, and she came over.

Too late to reprint, and she couldn’t really afford to help. But she did have a great idea … make it even better than a simple folded card. Take each of the panels, mount them with double-stick tape on beautiful backing paper, drill holes at the top and tie it all off with a big bow of red-and-white baker’s string.

Jan gonna complain about that? Nope. She’ll give me the business once she hears the story, naturally. That’s cool. So’s the card.

Might have saved me hours and hours of work had Shop Boy thought of that right off the bat. But I’m sure Mary didn’t mind me spending all that time on a 50th birthday card for a woman from my past. Right?

Um.

Mary: “Boy, my Valentine had better be something else.”

I’m dead meat.

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4 Responses to “Old Enough to Know Better”

  1. smitty Says:

    Great card, great post.

    And I discover another thing me & Shopboy have in common. I worked at the New Prospect Deli on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn in the 80s. What you did to roast beef I did to Nova lox. Couldn’t slice that pricey fish to save my life. So those nice folks who ordered a bagel with Nova lox walked out with a .75 bagel topped with $39 worth of Canadian fish chunks.

  2. Michele Duval Fedorov Says:

    Funny, I never rec’d the card?!

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