Photo by Mo Riza
I had my first paying job, making deliveries for the local butcher when I was twelve and in the eighth grade. I was not yet eligible for working papers, but the butcher on Washington Avenue, two blocks away, didn’t require them. I knew how to ride a bike and was from the neighborhood—my mother bought her meat from him, preferring it to what she could find in the supermarket.
I was paid $.50 per delivery plus tips, when there were any, which was about half the time, and often from those who had the least money. I learned something nearly every time I worked—just by getting inside the doors of apartments I would not have otherwise. And the work wasn’t hard. The metal ice-box above the front wheel could hold as many as five deliveries if they weren’t too large. But sometimes, the box could barely hold everything a single family ordered. Then the two bags full of whole chickens, a couple of “stock bones,” ribs, roasts and things the butcher referred to mysteriously as “variety meats,” weighed more than was comfortable, especially if I had to walk up stairs in those buildings without elevators.
On one of my first deliveries, I went to Turner Towers, a large and somewhat famous apartment building across the street from the Brooklyn Museum. My father used to call it The Gilded Ghetto because he said mostly Jewish people lived there, as was true of Eastern Parkway as well. But the first person I met in Turner Towers was a black woman working for a couple my boss called “The Brits.” He wrinkled his nose as he said it.
I’d walked by Turner Towers many times, but I’d never been inside. There was a long, deep awning flanked by the two large wings of the building. A uniformed doorman instructed me to move the bike closer to the service entrance. This was 1964—bikes did not yet need to be locked, at least not outside Turner Towers. I rode up in the service elevator to the tenth floor. The door I entered opened right onto the kitchen, which was the only room of the apartment I saw. The black cook saw me peering over at the window behind her and smiled. I could see the top of the Brooklyn Museum and across the entire length of the Botanical Gardens. In a haze in the distance, I made out the Parachute Jump at Coney Island.
She wore a blindingly white, starched apron and a cap, perched towards the back of her head, that made me think of a nurse. She spoke with an Island accent.
“So you the new delivery boy?” she asked. “What happen to Tony?”
It hadn’t occurred to me that someone else had the job before me and this was the first I was hearing of Tony. I’m not generally shy, but I didn’t know how to answer her.
“I don’t know.” I stood dumbly holding the roast, afraid it was going to start dripping through the brown paper bag onto the terra cotta tiled floor.
“You put that down here,” she said, pointing to a butcher-block table not much different than the one on which my boss hacked chops from a side of pork—I had never thought about where the chops I loved so much came from and it had never occurred to me to connect them with an actual pig, but while I couldn’t clearly picture just where on the pig the chops had been, there was no mistaking that the meat he was carefully cutting had once been an animal. I placed the package on a table just a bit smaller than his, but much neater and cleaner, almost new looking. His had a deep depression in the middle and the sides were stained with dark blotches. I often saw blood dripping down the side and into the sawdust. I was astonished that “the Brits” had such a professional looking table, but even more so at the size of their kitchen. I lived only a block away, around the corner on Lincoln Place. Our own kitchen was narrow and although we had an equally narrow dining room, we saved that for ceremonial meals on holidays or when we had company—most of the time we ate at the Formica and metal table right next to the stove. When all five of us were seated, someone would have to get up and step back into the living room if anyone needed to get to the bathroom. The kitchen in Turner Towers had a large black oven with six burners and an awning; hanging above the butcher-block table was an oval rack—saucepans and skillets in various sizes hung from large hooks. There were heavy looking pots stacked on shelves next to the oven. The glass-fronted cupboards were filled with more bowls and plates than I’d ever seen outside of a restaurant. The whole room was larger then our kitchen, dining room and living room combined. It was nearly as large as our entire apartment.
As the cook unwrapped the paper to inspect the delivery, her employer entered through a swinging door. She was a thin, sharp-featured woman with shiny brown hair that framed her face and was held in place by a barrett.
“Let me see that roast,” she said to the cook, glancing angrily at me. I was surprised that her accent wasn’t stronger. She didn’t sound as British as I’d expected.
“It’s fine,” the cook reassured her. “Is good meat.”
She wanted me to tell my boss that she was “Bloody angry!” at the quality of the meat he sent her the last time. I’d just begun working for him and knew nothing about it. But I didn’t say that. I was already speechless at the way she was wagging her finger at me and making sure I knew exactly what I was supposed to go back and tell my boss.
“And,” she said turning to the cook, “there will be no tips until the meat improves.”
The cook smiled at me the whole time the woman was berating my boss, I think to keep me from freaking out. I had never before been spoken to like that by anyone who was not a teacher, a relative or a close enough friend of my parents to know that they could get away with scolding me and my parents would side with them, not me. I left without saying a word to her, only nodding when she asked if I understood.
My boss laughed when I repeated what I’d been ordered to tell him. He didn’t explain or criticize her, just said “So that’s what took you so long!” and sent me out on my next delivery. Later, at dinner at our Formica table, my father was indignant on my behalf, but my mother enjoyed the story and wanted details about the kitchen. She was disappointed that I hadn’t gotten to see the rest of the apartment. But her real pleasure was in explaining to me the implications of “bloody.”
“Oh, that means she was really angry. They don’t say ‘bloody’ unless they’re furious. It’s the same as us saying . . . well, it’s like a curse word to them. Don’t ever say that to a British person.” There was an English secretary at the law firm she worked for and my mother said she’d never heard the woman use the word. The worst thing my mother ever said was “sonsabitches” and she seemed awkward about it. My father was a bit of a prude and could hardly bring himself to say ‘fart’ in front of us children.
I didn’t need to be told what the American equivalent was. Before the end of my first day at the butcher’s, I’d heard him screaming about the “fucking cocksucker” whose car was in the spot where he usually parked the store truck. It wasn’t the first time I heard those words, but the intonation was different, unselfconscious and genuinely angry. I was thrilled to have a new model for how to curse to my friends. I looked forward to dropping in a few “motherfuckers” and “cocksuckers” when I complained about the brothers or the nuns at school and started mentally rehearsing. It was important to get it right. Nothing would be more humiliating than saying, “Sister Agatha, man! What a motherfucker! Know what she did to my sister?” and having my friends stare silently at me, unsure of how to respond. Cursing with assurance, with authority, was a test I was determined to pass. I knew it would sound best if I could do it with a cigarette dangling from my mouth, wincing against the smoke rising into my eyes, the very image of the “surly teenager” my mother always complained about. But I was determined that I would not smoke.
Steve Turtell is a poet who lives in New York City. His first book, Heroes and Householders was published in 2009 by Orchard House Press. His 2001 chapbook, Letter to Frank O’Hara is the 2010 winner of the Rebound Chapbook Prize given by Seven Kitchens Press and will be reissued with an introduction by Joan Larkin in 2011. He is currently at work on Peter Hujar: A Portrait in Life and Death, a memoir of his friendship with the photographer Peter Hujar.