(Mike DeGidio and John Litterini at Bernie's Deli)
Update: I’m still grounded for the entire summer. So, rather than stay home, I set out to get as many jobs as possible.
The first job I got by walking unannounced into Mayor Corbiscello’s office. His secretary, amused by my story, escorted me into his office. Having no blessed idea who I was, and humored by my chutzpah, he made a phone call and got me a job as a summer camp counselor. That was definitely the first, and perhaps the last, time I ever saw government in action!
I scored my second job at the newly opened Haagen Dazs in Cardinale Square. Scooping frozen ice cream is undoubtedly one of the most labor-intensive jobs out there; by the end of the summer I was sporting Popeye arms. However, working with so many other high-schoolers was hands-down the most fun I ever had at a job. There was a sixteen-year-old boy, whom I christened Cheech, I was always partnered with. He was notorious for smoking in the freezer…and I don’t mean cigarettes; ergo the nickname Cheech. Whenever I had to go into the humongous walk-in freezer to fetch a new barrel of ice-cream, I was lost in a plume of herbal essence.
One particularly slow night, Cheech decided to hand-make one of his smokes on the counter in front of the ice cream case. My cry of “In-Coming” when a customer walked in freaked him out so much that he tossed his herbs into the ice cream case and ran. Unable to leave the register unattended, I took a scoop and mixed the “special toppings” into the ice cream. After handing the customer her scoop of rum raisin, she sat at a table, ate it, and then came back for more.
“I don’t know what’s in this batch of rum raisin, but it’s absolutely delicious!” she exclaimed. “Give me another scoop and a gallon to go! Make that two gallons.”
Then there was Bernie’s Deli on the corner of Main and Anderson in Fort Lee where I learned the art of telling a good story from the Master himself, Bernie Jensen. On my first day, while demonstrating the safe and proper way to use the slicer, the tip of Bernie’s thumb went flying past my left ear and I watched in horror as blood squirted all over everything. Bernie jocularly laughed it off and told me, before driving himself to the emergency room, that if I found his thumb I should just toss it into the trash can.
All the most important people I would meet in my life I first met at Bernie’s that summer. My counter partner, Mike DeGidio, although no Cheech, ended up being one of those people who would forever remain in my life. We’ve been through it all —bad relationships, bad choices, bad hair. He introduced me to my husband, and stood by me throughout all the years I’ve been married to the fire department. He also gave me material for some of my best columns. I thought I lost him the morning of 9/11 in the World Trade Center. I didn’t. For that I give eternal thanks. There are very few people who know all my secrets—Mike is one of them. Thankfully he survived to tell his story; I just hope to God he never tells mine!
That summer set me on the path that landed me where I am today. Thanks to a librarian who turned me into a great reader, a pretty good writer, and an avid Times Crossword Puzzle fan; thanks to Mayor Corbiscello who gave his time and attention (and a job) to an anonymous young girl whose confidence I wish I still had; thanks to Haagen Daz for filling my summer with ice cream, laughter, and no trace of a criminal record; and thanks especially to Bernie Jensen who taught me the art of telling a good story…I strive to return the favor every single week.
My parents set out to teach me a valuable lesson that summer of 1980, and I learned more than I ever dreamed I wanted to. But maybe they knew that all along. In the midst of my greatest confinement, I grew my wings; I found my voice.