Elm Farm Foods 1959 - 1962
The paper route I had for 4 years (30 papers) was passed down to brother Joe who in turn passed it down to brother Dave who then sold it outside the family. Dave was the only one who ever made money from the route. Joe and I spent it into oblivion, and, by that I mean deficit spending. The money disappeared faster than a congressman after an ethics hearing.
Some of the people on the route were interesting. The Hacketts used to hide on collection day, usually Friday (I could hear them inside). Mrs. Shoemaker was a widow who lost her son during World War II. She was called a Gold Star mother because her son had made the ultimate sacrifice. She was the biggest tipper both weekly and at Christmas. Mr. & Mrs. Casey were so old it took them 10 minutes to answer the doorbell even though they were seated only 10 feet from the door. Mr. Sheehan sold tombstones and always answered the door in a funerary manner. Mrs. Bates was always drunk. The Mc’Hughes were aristocrats; their maid always answered the door and paid me. I have no idea what the Mc’Hughes looked like.
My favorite, though, was Johnny Yee. Johnny was second generation Chinese who fought with three of his countrymen during World War II. In the early ‘50s, they opened up Tai Hong Restaurant, probably the first Chinese restaurant north of Boston. Johnny Yee was the most amiable person you’d ever want to meet. He always had a good word, inquired after my family, paid on time and tipped well, right out of the cash register. Tai Hong lasted over 35 years until they all retired. One of his partners was the antithesis of Johnny, his name was King Yah. We used to play ball on Bacheller Street behind Tai Hong. Every time someone hit a ball and it hit the restaurant near the kitchen, King would come running out with a 12" meat cleaver in his hand, and, waving frantically, would chase us away screaming high, singsong invectives in Chinese. Thank the gods he never caught any of us.
I know, you can tell there’s going to be another tangent here. And what does any of this have to do with Elm Farm Foods. Work with me; we’ll get there.
The 'guys' in the neighborhood consisted of myself, brothers Joe & Dave, George and Poochie (Bernard) Pelletier. Poochie married a telephone pole with his motorcycle the day before my brother Dave’s wedding, and, passed into history. Poochie’s father was a mailman (I know, we’re supposed to say letter carrier); they had a million kids. In later years, Poochie’s dad & mom split up. They had a 2 story house and dad lived downstairs and the mom lived upstairs. After several more years, they started dating again, and even though they’re living one floor apart, they continue to date to this day.
The rest of the guys included Roddy (Ernest) Deland who was so talented a hockey player, he could have played in the NHL. Roddy’s mom had a beauty salon in her house. Big Rod, Roddy’s father was an alcoholic with an attitude. He eventually got sober and bought the gas station at the end of the street. Roddy took over later and still runs it.
Twink (Carl) Swanson, later was called the ‘Agile Twink’ because he could skate like Bobby Orr. The Twink had the misfortune of severe acne. It was so bad, he had his face sanded twice (they did some weird things in those days). When the Twink’s mother called him in for supper, she would yodel his name in a high pitched soprano wail that could be heard for 10 blocks.
Donny Poor (called Piss Poor – reason unknown) lived next to Tai Hong. He had a pear tree in his yard, whose fruit served as snowballs at the end of Autumn.
And then, there was Bob Green. Bob was the tallest and strongest of all of us. Oh, by the way, he had a twisted sense of humor. He’s the one who gave us all our nicknames. He called me ‘TOE’ because he said I ran like a girl. Brother Dave was ‘QUICK Clarence’ (Clarence was Dave’s middle name). Okay, you’re asking why was his middle name Clarence? My mother capitulated to Pepere’s (Canadian for grandfather) constant complaint that none of his 12 children that were married named any of their offspring after him. Anyhow, later, Bob Green changed Dave’s name from ‘QUICK CLARENCE’ to ‘THE MENT’. While riding our bikes one day, Dave fell off his on the curb next to our house. Twink, the biker behind him, proceeded to drive over Dave’s head.
"Oh my god!!! You’re mental!!! I rename you ‘THE MENT’. Dave appeared OK but the new name stuck.
Bob Green never had a nickname. Nobody in our group was foolish enough to give him one. Later, his father was murdered in front of his house. They never found the perpetrator. A couple years after that, his mother died. Roddy’s mother had to do her hair for the wake. She said it was the toughest thing she ever had to do. Brother Dave told me he thinks Bob still lives in the family house.
Anyhow, I’m now 16 and need a better source of income.
"One of our police sergeant’s knows the manager of Elm Farm Foods super market on Summer Street, a Mr. Lendall Hunt. It’s less than a mile from school. You’ve got an interview tomorrow after school." Said Ma one day out of the blue.
I was hired as a grocery bagger and later worked as a cashier. At that time, students my age were only allowed to work a maximum of 15 hours per week. This is where I first learned how competitive I could be and set the stage for athletic pursuits later in life. Now, don’t forget this was the era before scanners. Cash registers were glorified calculators. You actually had to ring in each item by its price. The register never told you how much change to give the customer nor did it automatically calculate the price if someone had 4 items that were 9 for $1.50. You had to figure it out in your head the 4 for price and how much change to give from what the customer gave you.
Recently, a register in a store broke down and the cashier was unable to figure how much change to give me without calling for the manager who had a problem himself. He ended up getting a battery operated calculator from his office. I just looked on in amusement. Now I know what Plato meant when he despaired of the youth of his day. But, I guess every generation feels this way. What the heck!
Anyhow, there was a game most cashiers played to see who could have the highest totals at the end of the shift and be most accurate when the money was counted. To be off a few pennies was sort of acceptable, but off a quarter or more got you a reprimand. As a bagger, I gravitated toward the fastest cashiers. I had to not only fill the bags quickly but safely – an art in itself as you can understand if you do your own grocery shopping today where the eggs tend to go to the bottom of the bag and canned goods on top in the flimsiest of plastic bags.
Oh well! At least sometimes, they speak English.
Before I continue, I should explain the layout of Lynn, MA at the time in relation to where Elm Farm Foods was located. In the late ‘50s early ‘60s, Lynn still had ethnic neighborhoods, i.e. Italian, French Canadian, Jewish, Polish, Black (called Negroes back then), etc. Surprisingly, there were very few Spanish (IMAGINE!!!). Elm Farm Foods was at the crossroads of these different groups, so I got my first taste of diversity there since I was brought up in a neighborhood and school of mainly French Canadians and the few Irish on my street. My grandfather’s generation gravitated toward their own. My parents’ generation began to break the mold by intermarrying like Irish to French Canadian, Irish to Polish, etc. But, it was to take my generation to put aside most ethnic issues with the exception of the racism that didn’t start to disappear until my son’s & daughter’s generation, especially so in the Boston area. Here in this country, we still have racism but it’s promulgated by the black liberal leadership in the guise of Young, Jackson, and Sharpton. Brother Martin is turning over in his grave!
Let me get off my pulpit for a bit and talk about the layout of the store. The front of the store contained a separate concession run by the Wieners, father Abe and son Izzy. They sold beer and wine, something you can’t do in MA super markets at the time of this writing. I became friends with Izzy. Izzy and his dad belonged to the most liberal sect of Judaism imaginable and Izzy once told me that he’d never forgive his father for letting the rabbi give him "the unkindest cut of all" shortly after he was born. Anyhow, Izzy had a car called a Vespa 500, a two seater. It was smaller than a Wolkswagen bug and so narrow that you could ride it on the sidewalk, which he did, with me in the passenger seat. Izzy terrified pedestrians on Summer Street and me in the process. That Vespa got about a million miles to the gallon and had a top speed of 50 – 60 MPH depending upon whether he had a passenger or not.
To the right of the Wiener’s concession was a luncheonette owned by one of the first Greeks to open a food concession. His name was George Something-opoulis and George had an assistant recently arrived from Athens named Chris. George tipped the scales at around 300 lbs. and was in his early 50s, a nice guy with a warm personality. Chris, in contrast, was mid twenties, thin, and the horniest individual I had met to that date. Today’s ads for Viagra, Levitra, etc. carry the warning to seek medical help if you have an erection that lasts 4 hours or more. If that applied to Chris, he would have constantly been hospitalized. As he was cooking or passing out food, his eyes were always scanning the T and A of every woman who came into the store. He leered so much, I can understand why he never got a date.
They served great sirloin steak if you had the teeth of a saber toothed tiger, but their meals were plenty and filling.
The rest of the super market was your typical layout.
As I mentioned earlier, I started my stint at Elm Farm Foods by bagging groceries, and then there were certain cashiers I gravitated toward. There was Mary Difilipo, and Linda Lave, the blond, for both of whom I had a serious crush. Mary was petite and brilliant. Linda was the fastest cashier (ringing up orders I mean) and a gorgeous blonde. Bill Comeau, another cashier I bagged for, thought so too because he carried on an affair with her, ended up leaving his wife and kids (the bastard), then both ended up leaving Elm Farm and disappeared into oblivion.
I also bagged for Eddy Johns who was studying to be a teacher at the time. Last I heard, Eddy was Superintendent of Schools in Lynn.
Tangent time; In the 1980s, my barber was Tom Gecoya in West Lynn. I only learned years later that he had married the sister of my Uncle Joe Stanley. At the unfortunate passing of Uncle Joe’s daughter, Judy at an early age, Tom showed up at the wake.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"Judy was my niece."
Wow! Talk about a small world.
Tom was one of life’s great people but his brother Pat was something else. He was a gym teacher in Lynn and had my son Josh as a student. For some reason, there was a personality clash between the two and Pat was constantly berating Josh. It became such a problem that I made an appointment with Pat. Our conversation got rather heated and I threatened to break every bone in his body if he persisted in his behavior. Well, things changed dramatically after that and Pat and I became at least acquaintances if not friends. He even invited me to a Super Bowl party at his house. When I got there, to my surprise, the other two guests were Eddy Johns whom I hadn’t seen in years and Bob Witcher, a well known area athlete in his younger days and now a teacher. Bob passed away recently. I think I’m going to be writing the previous sentence a lot more in the future.
We’re sitting around the TV after introductions and Eddy says,
"Hey Pat, how about a beer?"
"Oh my god, I forgot to buy it!"
Now, remember, this is Sunday in the 1980s when you couldn’t sell any type of liquor on Sundays because of our ridiculous Blue Laws.
"Gecoya, you’re a moron!" Said one of us.
Eddy got on the phone and called in a few favors from a few friends. He was able to get enough beer by half time to at least get us through the rest of the game. Needless to say, that was the last event at Pat Gecoya’s and I never saw Pat, Eddy, or Bob again.
As another aside, I was sitting on Tom Gecoya’s barber chair one day and asked about his origins.
"I’m Italian." He said
"I figured that but what part of Italy?"
"My great, great grandfather came in through Ellis Island in NY with millions of other LEGAL immigrants. The problem is he couldn’t read or write very well. The immigration official heard his name as Gecoya and wrote it that way. I’ve tried every spelling and combination I could think of but came up with a blank. For all I know, he could have come from Spain because he left no records either written or oral."
Back to the real story, I eventually became a cashier and the competition continued to see who could bill out the most dollars and accurately.
Elm Farm Foods was a "closed shop" which meant we had to join the union. What did this mean? Nothing except another unwarranted deduction from my paycheck and a great life lesson.
Peter Paicos was the head of our local. We had a few issues (I don’t remember what so it couldn’t have been that important) and I brought them up at the only union meeting I ever attended. I didn’t know at the time why so few people attended.
Now enter Camuso, district manager of Elm Farm Foods. We never knew his first name because his omnipresent name tag said "MR. Camuso". Maybe his first name was Mister, I don’t know. It didn’t dawn on naïve me that whenever he came into the store, Peter Paicos was with him 90% of the time. A week after the union meeting, Camuso came into the store accompanied by Paicos. Camuso greeted each cashier by their first names.
"Good job Eddy."
But when he came to me, it was "Carmody. What kind of name is Carmody?"
"A proud one, why?"
"Well Carmody, (accenting the Car), you really ought to mind the business at hand if you value your job."
That woke me right up. Camuso and Paicos weren’t joined at the hip; rather they were joined at the butt. We Irish forget everything but the grudges. On my last day at Elm Farm, I was collecting my paycheck when I ran into Camuso.
"Carmody, so where are you going?"
"Are you Italian?"
"Are you Catholic by any stretch of the imagination?"
"Well, I’m entering the monastery where I’ll pray for your imminent demise."
I left him there speechless for the first time since I’d known him. Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord’. No, you’re wrong. Vengeance is mine sayeth Carmody and it feels damned good when you can get the last word.
PS – it doesn’t happen very often because you become smart enough to keep your mouth shut, especially when it comes to your job. For Paicos, I have nothing good to say, therefore, I’ll say nothing. At least Camuso did his job as a manager.
Now, I’d like to relate vignettes of some of the more interesting people at Elm Farm Foods.
We had a head cashier named Sam Vitale who ran the front of the store, mainly the cashiers and baggers. Sam was probably the most intelligent albeit cynical person I’ve ever met. He had a rapier like wit and could and did stop you on a dime. He was an extremely efficient manager and frightened everyone under his command. I remember one day Joe Comeau came up to me.
"Did you hear that Sam is writing his thesis on Epistomology. It’s titled ‘The Essence Of Existence’.
I laughed so hard I almost fell on the floor.
"What’s so funny?"
"Think about it. This is Sarcastic Sam we’re talking about. You asked the title of his thesis and he gave you a typical Sam answer." I said still laughing.
Sam inevitably became and still is a prominent local attorney.
I almost forgot to mention Dimo Dimartile, a cashier and aspiring actor. One day, 2 guys came into the store to see him to ask about some rehearsal questions. Now, remember, this is 1960. These guys were dressed as women complete with jewelry and makeup. Dimo’s discomfort was evident as his face turned 10 shades of red to match both guys’ lipstick. This was my first experience with cross dressers.
In 1961, Jack Lepkowski became my best friend. He was also a cashier. Joining our small circle of friends was Vito Adamo whose obit I read recently. The third member of our motley group was Bill Callahan who ran the produce section of the store. We hung out for months at Bill’s apartment. Bill was also the sexton at St. Francis’ church in Lynn right down the street from Elm Farm Foods. Vito, Jack, and I would often meet Friday or Saturday nights at Bill’s. He was a lifelong, confirmed bachelor. Now, given the times today and reputation of the Archdiocese of Boston, I’m stating categorically that Bill never entertained anything untoward. I still remember his most famous saying whenever we would swear or talk sex as teens like we were wont to do.
"STOP, you’re in the presence of a gentleman and I will not tolerate that language or this discussion."
Bill Callahan was one of the most gentle, decent people I ever met and encouraged both Jack and myself who were bound for different monasteries, Jack to the brotherhood in a cloistered sect in Rhode Island and me to a monastery in Hyde Park, NY.
Neither Jack nor I lasted beyond 2 years.
Bill Callahan’s only weakness was a life long affair with beer. His refrigerator usually contained a couple cold cuts, cheese, and a head of lettuce. The other shelves held only beer; I’d say usually 24 to 30 bottles. When we went there, he let us drink but never let us get to the point of drunkenness. Another of his famous sayings:
"You, you’re shut off!"
Jack, Vito, and I were in our late teens and Bill was a good mentor. I feel honored to have known him.
I’ve talked a bit about Jack but not Vito. Vito Adamo, I think, was third generation Italian. His father and mother whom I met on several occasions were two of the warmest people I’d met to this point and you could feel that warmth in their home. What I remember most about Vito was his passion for the music of Frank Sinatra. He owned every record (vinyl, 33 1/3 RPM in those days) that Sinatra ever made. I can still picture Vito, not a tall guy, under 6’ and obviously Italian, walking by us to his cash register and singing.
"Strangers in the night……"
Vito became a school teacher and, I understand, a good one.
I never saw Jack, Vito, or Bill again after I left Elm Farm Foods.
Before I finish this tale, I want to mention a few customers who always came to my register. There was a Jewish lady whom I loved. We had a constant contest going. I was probably the fastest and most accurate cashier at the time. As I mentioned before, in those days, there were no scanners and if the price of soup was 10 cans for $1.89 and the customer only had 6 cans, you had to calculate in your head what the price was. She never had 10 and would often stop me during ‘ringing up’ her order and question my math. It was rare that she won, but she loved the challenge as did I.
Then, there was the high rolling French-Canadian businessman, complete with accent, from Montreal. He was always dressed impeccably complete with, yes, a 2 carat diamond ring. He bought the most expensive cuts of meat and everything else and always paid in $100 bills, something I’d never seen. As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen many since. I remember one of our conversations.
"Your traffic laws out here are crazy. You not only drive too slowly but you obey most traffic lights. In Montreal, a yellow light means hit the accelerator and go like hell before the light changes.
Another was a couple who had so many kids they filled 3 carriages of food. They paid in Scrip (welfare money at the time) and money for items not covered. They told me their kids, if they were lined up by age, looked like a staircase since they had one child every year. I remember the day they came in and proudly paid for the whole order with cash.
The last character never came through anyone’s register but, rather, walked by the registers and carried on a constant conversation with himself. Occasionally, he’d lift up his hand to his mouth in imitation of a trumpet, then walk through the store going "Toot,Toot,Toot" reminiscent of a character out of "Arsenic and Old Lace". He stood about 6’2" and was always dressed in a blue suit complete with white shirt and tie. He weighed about 250 pounds, so was a formidable presence. It was said that he was a genius in his youth and went over the edge in his twenties. He was cared for all his life by his parents.