Teenage work experiences are many and varied.
Often they are eminently forgettable, and not particularly pleasurable
nor inspiring. I was fortunate to work at a place in the 1960s that
proved to be extraordinary.
cannot remember much of how the opportunity opened at Bury’s Meat
Market, in Moodus, Connecticut. Some other teenager likely decided to
move on to grander opportunities and a friend who was working there gave
me a heads up. I must have gone in to interview with the Bury brothers
the same day and talked my way into a provisional appointment as junior
apprentice meat cutter and cleanup guy. My pal, Artie Campanelli,
probably put in a good word for me.
the outside, Bury’s was an unremarkable place. The rambling wooden
structure was probably part of a barn complex at one time. Tucked behind
a Victorian home and bungalow, on a residential side street, you had to
know it was there. Teenagers knew it was there because it was clearly
visible across an open field beyond the high school parking lot. Also,
my mother shopped there occasionally, so I was familiar with it from the
customer-counter vantage point.
point about Bury’s was that, somehow, you understood it was special.
While working there after school, on weekends, or during the summer, I
knew that what I was experiencing then would be the stuff of important
memories in the far-off future. I just knew, and I wasn’t wrong.
worked there a lot, and yet I can’t remember an occasion when I
didn’t want to go in to work, was bummed about being there, or was
watching the clock. Was it the work? Preparing meat scraps for the
hamburger grinder? Cutting up a chicken for a waiting, unseen customer?
Moving things around in the freezer when the delivery trucks arrived?
No, it wasn’t the work.
was a living, breathing anachronism. You knew you were working with
people and for an institution that survived in a transitory niche, a
rare holdout in the encroaching world of modern commerce.
was about Joe and Julian, two older bachelor brothers wildly different
in appearance, worldview, tastes, and persona. Whether they even liked
each other was an open question. But month after month, year after year,
they applied their different and unique talents to maintain a thriving
business. It was just the Bury Brothers and one or two junior apprentice
meat cutters. That was the business.
was the public face of Bury’s, the man out front, attending to the
very particular needs of the endless stream of housewives with their
tagalong kids. The counter couldn’t have been more than twelve feet
long, and the customer waiting area no more than eight feet deep. So it
was cozy in a crowd. This was Joe’s domain.
customer was treated with a politeness that was of some bygone age in
its formality. And yet, his politeness was intensely personal, invoking
the honored customer’s name repeatedly when consulting on the size of
the desired roast, the thickness of sliced ham, the appropriateness of
the chicken choice. And always, it was “Mrs. Whomever.” I never
heard Joe greet a customer with a given name, and some customers were
pretty crude and lewd. But Joe’s world was one of courtly courtesy to
not a few customers must have suspected that Joe’s manner was some
sort of marketing affectation. Not true. Out of sight of the counter,
and especially when no customers were around, Joe was actually more
fussy, more particular, even in the back rooms where only the
apprenticed proles could appreciate him. Enlisting one of our strong
backs to bring out a beef carcass, Joe was like a surgeon sizing up his
new patient. Peering through his spectacles, nose high in the air, he
would begin an exploratory inspection, prodding, picking, and assessing
various regions on the swinging hunk of meat. After some time, and
considered private mutterings, Joe would bring out his blade and begin
precise incisions. Somewhere in steer heaven, a bovine soul rested
content in the absolute reverence afforded his remains.
must have worked at Bury’s for a year or more before Joe, in a press
of demanding customers, allowed me to take a beef loin to the band saw
and cut a steak to a customer’s specifications. Other backroom
denizens stood around watching how I handled the awesome responsibility.
Joe, of course, inspected the result, consulted with the customer, and,
with a tolerant nod, dismissed me to usual pursuits. To this day, I
can’t view a busy supermarket meat department, with its shrink-wrapped
stacks and pre-cut portions without thinking about Joe’s first test.