At precisely 2:45 pm, after we had spilled out of our large public high school and into a football-field-sized waiting area, approximately 40 of us would automatically sprint towards Vehicle #1, known to virtually everyone at school as “The Work Bus.”
Unlike most of our brethren who leisurely returned home in mid-afternoon, the assorted students on Vehicle #1 were all deposited at a central location in our hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts for one overriding reason – to toil at local business establishments for the rest of the afternoon. As one of the regular riders of “The Work Bus” for three years, I was employed as a bag and stock boy at the Wellesley Supermarket next to E. A. Davis’s, across from the stately Wellesley Inn on tree-lined Washington Street.
After securing my usual seat behind our driver, Gus, I would save a space for my girlfriend at the time, Kathy, who worked at Ara’s, a prominent men’s clothing store. During our five-minute ride, Kath and I nestled together, arms around one another in a solitary seat for the mile-ride to Wellesley Square.
At the conclusion of our ride down hilly Route 16, we then poured out of the bus in front of the old Clement Drugstore, where the business’s longstanding clerk, Sunny Zani, would wave to us from the pharmacy’s front window. As we left Bus #1, Gus, who could well have served as a body double for Burt Ives, would shake our hands as we alighted the vehicle. “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, Gus!” I would bark at him, and the affable driver would roll his eyes and pat me on the back. On temperate days, we would hear a string of harmonica solos that disabled veteran Bernie Zetlin joyfully played on a park bench situated at the juncture of 135 and 16.
Once we reached Wellesley Square, police officer Derb Maccini would normally stop traffic and wave us through the maze of streets that intersected the central point of the town. Kathy would head up Route 16 towards her job at Ara’s. Another high school amore, Mary, would wave goodbye she raced to her receptionist job at Linden Cleaners. My buddy, Chris, who also worked on Linden Street, would dash over to his job behind the counter at Nino’s Delicatessen. Joe normally accompanied him as he worked in the lawn mower and snow blower section at Diehl’s. Three afternoons a week, Judy joined Chris and Joe to Linden Street as she worked as a waitress at Friendly’s.
Simultaneously, Tommy sprang towards the top of Crest Road, where he labored in the Ski Department at Olken’s, a popular sporting goods store. Carolyn had the easiest commute; she simply traversed the street and began work in the Circulation Department at the Wellesley Free Library. Pals Chris and Bruce reconnoitered their way toward Grove Street, where they worked as mechanics at the Jenney Station. Finally, my fellow employees, Diana, Bobby, Cathy, Cynthia, and Debbie, would join me for the two-minute trek up to Washington Street to Wellesley Super Market
Even though our lives were decidedly different from our peers who attended local private institutions, it was our afterschool work that made our high school experiences so unique. While their afternoons were framed by required athletic contests against local independent schools, we would simultaneously punch the clocks at our respective places of work in order to complete the traditional 3-6 pm shift before heading home for the evening.
Although we never misconstrued activity for achievement, we did realize that there were tangible benefits that came as a result of our working lives. Because we were expected to be on the job during the afternoons, our attendance at work meant that we also missed very little time at school. While there were times that we functioned at a frenzied pace, we also experienced the bookends of drudgery and boredom. A thousand days before college, we learned about W2 forms; Social Security taxes; withholding pay; minimum wage scales; set schedules; and 15-minute coffee breaks. During the summer months, when I was the one employee who greeted the Hood Milk Truck at precisely 5:30 am for its morning delivery, I grasped the importance of both self-discipline and commitment. More significantly, we eventually figured out that life is nothing but what we made of ourselves.
We also learned how to work with people – all different kinds of folks. I was often assigned as the bag boy for Betty, an affable mother and longtime employee at the market who seemed to know everyone in town. She expected me to be on time, courteous to the customers, and funny as Betty just loved to be entertained.
At the other end of the store, I would occasionally serve at the other main counter of the store. Jean, who controlled that area like an Eastern European autocrat, was a middle-aged chain-smoking cynic who had a heart of gold beneath a crusty veneer that could disarm the meek and the powerful alike. “How ah ya, Judge!” she would bellow in her classic Boston accent to a retired member of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. We always smirked as the Judge appeared stunned whenever she greeted him. Of course, Jean would also have me hide her “medicinal” – a flask of the “hahd stuff” – in case some “customa” pissed her off. Whenever there was a fender bender outside on Washington Street, Jean would yelp, “Holy Mary, Motha of Gawd!”
In the fish and meat department, Joey, the store’s manchild prankster, used to hold the head of a large striper, fresh from Cape Cod Bay, and move its jaws up and down, mouthing a “How was school today, Shaunie?” to me. And then there was Henry, the venerable fruit and vegetable man, the most well-read man in town, who would pontificate about everything from Camus’s heady sense of alienation to Nixon’s Vietnamization policy to any Wellesley College student or professor in speaking distance of him. Five decades after she graduated from Wellesley College, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright remembered Henry as the most cultured man she met during her years at Wellesley.
When it was “slow on the floor,” I was often was asked to restock the shelves, something that appealed to the OCD in me. In retrospect, I probably invented the concept of “the anal retentive chef” years before Phil Hartman did. I regularly was asked to alphabetize the market’s extended spice rack in a sing-song pitter-patter that would often leave Betty and Jean in hysterics. (“Our Anise Seeds are followed by Arrowroot Powder, which then introduces us to Black Peppercorns and then – making their grand entrance – our much-beloved Caraway Seeds! Vola!”) When it was time to do the soups in the middle aisle, it was even a bigger deal for my employee-audience, who would often give me sustained applause as I completed the soup aisle.
Adjacent to Betty’s counter was the frozen food section, where she loved to laugh away as I stocked the shelves of Matzos above Minute Maid Frozen Orange Juice cans. The only way to reach that high was to stand on top of the frozen casings. Thus, I would sing-and-dance to the refrain of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” as I deposited the boxes of Passover-inspired wafers. Because Larry Dobis, the beloved owner of the market, was Jewish, I once belted out an inspired version of “Hava Nagila,” much to his bemusement.
Another job that Larry gave me was to escort the elderly to their cars with their bags of groceries. One Wellesley College octogenarian, a Mrs. Edith W. Johnston, Class of 1912, who resided in a tiny apartment on Cottage Street, expected me to deliver her groceries each Friday by wheeling them in a Wellesley Supermarket basket almost a mile from the store. “Here’s your nickel, Shaun, and thank you so very much!” she would say as I unloaded her groceries in her kitchen. My big payday would occur each Christmas when Mrs. Johnston would give me a quarter. I always thanked her profusely and then chuckled as I ventured back to the market.
And then there was Mrs. Aurelia Plath, who was then an administrator at BU and would habitually appear each Friday afternoon to stock up for the weekend. She loved the fact that my English teacher at Wellesley High was the legendary Wilbury Crockett. “He taught my daughter how to write and was the best teacher she ever had,” the mother of Sylvia Plath informed me one day when I helped her with her groceries.
The secret of places such as Wellesley Supermarket was that they added value to people when they valued them. My three years as a bag boy seem like a blur in time 45 years later, partly because the best families in life are usually the result of great teamwork – and we were one fabulous group.
In September 1970, when I took Vehicle #1 for the first time, I never realized then that I would begin a life of work that continues to this very day. Within those margins was the reality that there was nothing worth knowing that could be taught. As Bill Dempsey, one of my old bosses at Wellesley Supermarket, once said to me, “Experience is the one thing you can’t get for nothing.” Ultimately, our lives would then be defined by what we did and what kind of people enlarged and shaped our existences in life.
When one of my private school friends recollected playing competitive sports each afternoon during his high school experience, I said to him, “Yes, but I was actually more fortunate.”
After all, I rode “The Work Bus” each day.
In loving memory of one of my Work Bus adventurers, Carolyn, who worked at the Circulation Department at the Wellesley Free Library until she was too sick to continue. She died much too young in 1972.