There was my name coming out of the speakers all over the store again. Everyone in the store could hear it. It wasn’t about how I’m a great looking person that you needed to know about. The voice would reveal the latest task that I needed to perform. Aisles one through twelve, the backroom, and the parking lot were all informed in case I couldn’t grasp the reality at hand. The in-store shopping music was always interrupted. My mission instructions were more vital to store operations.
“Matt! The recycling machines are full again. Change the bags.”
“Matt! Time for a cart roundup!”
“Matt! Restock milk Matt.”
“Matt! Make a bale in the back!”
Of course, the one that everyone has heard at some point in their life.
“Clean-up in aisle seven Matt!”
What was it this time? The worst was those big glass sixty-four ounce mayonnaise jars. Sweeping up slimy glass is such a drag. The voice coming from behind the speakers was low and gravelly. This person always sounded tired with a slight urgency. The vibe was always let’s get this done so we can get the hell out here. When you saw the man behind the voice you might have thought you were on google images and looked up supermarket manager, but without the fake and forced smile. Wide, round, and bald head with the famous ring of hair around the sides and back. There was almost always beads of sweat glistening on the top of his head. Thick coke-bottle eye-glasses. The ever-present red A&P vest with his manager name tag on it. Short sleeve white shirt with extremely hairy forearms. Massive belly that he couldn’t and had no interest in hiding. Walking with a slight waddle and always a little out of breath. Weighing in at about four-hundred pounds, this was my boss, Mr. Joe Sarubo.
Joe was a nice guy most of the time. He had a wife and two kids in Haverstraw. They all had weight problems. I used to cringe when they all got into a car that would then sink to about one inch above the ground. Besides food, Joe was also into smoking and drinking hard liquor. Many times I would see him at the bar just up the way from the store. Joe was the assistant manager of the store and was always at the heel of Vinny, the store manager. Vinny was always an asshole and talked down to women somewhat. Vinny sat up high in the office on his throne while the rest of us did the work. I remember him floating me fifty dollars once and holding it over my head like he owned a piece of me forever since he had floated me a loan. I was a seventeen-year-old kid who was working after school to try and raise money to go to school. It was a classic American scenario. Back then I didn’t know well enough not to push Joe’s buttons. We developed a unique relationship. It was somewhat adversarial, somewhat like we were partners. I was always on time and worked hard. Seeing he had a tool to work with, Joe pushed my nose right down to the grindstone. Eventually, he trusted me with larger responsibilities, which didn’t always work out.
In the front of the store Joe always built elaborate displays of something we had way too much of that was on sale. His displays were often massive and built very high, too high for many customers to reach. There would be displays built of cereal or paper towels for example. No big deal if something fell down. Joe got over ambitious one time and instructed me to build a huge display of sixty-four ounce glass Apple Juices that we of course, had too much of.
“Joe, I don’t know about stacking up all this glass. Will it hold?”
Joe was already out of patience due to the fact that I was talking. I witnessed an extra bead of sweat form on his shiny head, glaring in the store lights. His glasses seemed to fog up.
“Are you questioning me? Get your ass to work and stop all this whining.”
We had these little metal platform stands for the foundation. Joe had instructed me to find strong cardboard boxes and cut out “floors” that matched the size of the platform. Four apple juices could fit on one platform. If we placed a strong cardboard “floor” on top of the four apple juices, then we could stack another four on top. Then we could stack another four, and another. Joe said that customers would eventually have to ask us to take one of the apple juices from the display for them as the display could become fragile. To my surprise I was able to build this giant and delicate glass apple juice display. It looked dangerous, but this is what Joe wanted, and it looked like I had pulled it off.
That night I was sloshing up and down the aisles with a massive floor machine. The floor machine was a kind of water tractor that you pushed around. It had two pads that would spin on the floor obliterating all the dirt from the constant foot traffic all day. I was turning around the corner by the apple juice display when a female cashier waved at me and smiled. Unable to smile back, wave, and maintain control of the floor machine, I clipped the base of one of those platforms holding up the apple juice display.
At this point, the world seemed to move in slow motion. Right after I tapped the display I heard Joe shout out from somewhere, “Matt! Be careful!” It was far too late.
I watched in horror as my apple juice monument started to buckle. One apple juice from the bottom where I had hit the platform fell out and busted on the floor. Just one smashed apple juice was going to be a mess. This one apple juice was vital to the structural integrity of the entire display. All I could do was watch as the entire display slid and collapsed to the right. I found myself paralyzed and rooted to the floor as the apple juices smashed in rapid succession. Pop! Pop! Pop! A river of apple juice and glass flowed all around me. It spread out in all directions about three inches high and seemed to flow on forever. Customers stood at the banks in awe. Once all the shattering had finally subsided, and all that sticky juice had reached its final destination, there was Joe looking at me. He reminded me of a wine bottle trying to pop his own cork but couldn’t. I thought he might be a bomb trying to explode himself. Luckily for me, all he did was hand me a snow shovel. No words were necessary. I’ll never forget shoveling the sparkling river of apple juice shards into giant garbage cans lined with three bags each.
Joe and I closed the store on Sundays. We would lock the doors and spend a couple of hours getting everything finished. One summer day we were working during a heatwave. Hundred-degree days kept coming one after the other, building up a general feeling of oppression. To make matters worse, we had a power outage right after closing time. All the frozen food was now in danger. All the milk was getting warm. Joe called the electric company and learned that power would not be restored within twenty-four hours. With all of his frozen food, meat, fish, and dairy in grave danger, Joe decided there was only one course of action we could take. He got on the intercom once again:
“Matt! Meet me in the backroom by the ice cream freezer!”
When I arrived at the freezer in the back, I found Joe already there with a makeshift table he made from a delivery cart and two makeshift chairs made up of empty milk crates. He had a box of spoons as well. He explained the dire nature of our situation: All of our ice-cream would be lost. There’s nothing anybody could do to prevent the carnage. Our course was clear. Joe issued the command.
His expression was extremely serious though there may have been a twinkle in his eye.
We got to work, and found the ice cream had already achieved a pre-shake like consistency. At first I looked around for my favorite flavors and then realized Joe was planning on going far beyond a simple snack. I grabbed up a half gallon of my old stand-by, Breyers Heavenly Hash and dived in. Next up for devouring was mint-chocolate chip, my brothers favorite. Finally, I settled on the old classic Neapolitan as I blended vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry all into a swirly masterpiece. Exhausted, I had to tap out, not wanting my legacy to be that I died by ice-cream. Joe proceeded undaunted and suggested that my credentials as a man were now in question. Eventually, he told me to go home, and I left him there eating by himself. We never spoke of the ice-cream incident after this.
Next was the time I pushed Joe too far and caused him to lose his temper. It was again on a Sunday after we closed. I had recently watched the film starring the late great Robin Williams, whom I would meet in person years later. In the film, Robin plays a radio DJ in Vietnam. He starts off his radio show with a long drawn out announcement: “Gooood Morning Vietnam!!!!”
I was flying so high on this moment from the film, that I decided to retaliate against Joe’s intercom orders by taking the intercom and delivering Robin’s message to him throughout the entire store.
“Gooood Morning Joe Sarubo!!!!”
It wasn’t morning at all of course, but I delight in making myself laugh from doing things like this. I chose the wrong time however. Joe was not amused. At first there was just silence, until Joe picked up the intercom and said “Get back to work or you’re fucking dead!” I was surprised he was so angry, which killed my buzz. He found me in the milk aisle, and was coming at me to deliver a lecture of some kind, when I knocked over a stack of empty milk crates in his path and then went to hide in the back room while he cooled off. He cooled off eventually, like he always did. Before I left I found him in the deli with a full tray of buffalo wings and a bib on. When I looked at him funny, he cursed me out and sent me home.
In time, I would leave the job to attend college. After my college plans had collapsed like my apple juice display, I ended up working the new night-shift at the store when Joe wasn’t there. I wish he was as I discovered a twisted work environment that included guys doing cocaine, and worse, giving away food to dealers in exchange for crack. The same intercom that Joe used would haunt me further as I received orders from a different boss for a far more sinister task.
“Matt! Bring a box of straws to the bakery.”
It got so bad I was walking around with a hammer to protect myself. None of this would be going down with Joe around. What eventually happened is a story for another day. My last memory of Joe was I was sitting in the bathroom stall and seeing that somebody drew a picture of a snowman with a caption that said “Big Joe playing in the snow.”
Twenty-four years later I googled Joe and couldn’t find anything. I don’t even know if he’s still alive. The way he took care of himself I always thought he was playing with fire in regards to his health. I hope he and his family are well. I’ll never forget him. If I ran into him again after all these years, I’m sure we would share a smile. We worked together in the trenches and survived to tell the tale. We did what we had to do. I’ll take these memories with me as excellent examples of the ongoing saga of the human experience down at the bottom level, where we live check to check. Wherever you are big Joe, I raise as glass of scotch to you, your favorite.