My Jobs Behind a Deli Counter: Daitch Shopwell and Butensky’s

5 Feb

Daitch Shopwell supermarket in Monticello is where I spent my summer vacations once I turned 16.  Of course I was not there all the time, but I did work 20 hours a week in the deli department.  The first summer I was assigned to the cheese section, but in later years,  I worked in the deli as well.

It was not my favorite job, but I did meet people who became close friends.  I learned how to speak to all types of people, from the nice grandmotherly types who came in for simple cheeses. To the smartly dressed summer mothers who wanted a specific Tilsit or blue cheese.

I also learned to deal with difficult people.  From those I worked with to those I had to be polite to because they were customers.  I learned that some people treat workers badly, while others will do their best to help you have a good day, especially if they see someone being mean to you.

There was Richard G. who drove me crazy, but kept me sane when things were going badly.  He had a wicked sense of humor. He also was kind enough to drive me home many times, even though I lived 10 miles in the opposite direction from him.  Rich and I became good friends and even were in touch after we married others.

I can still smell the cheeses.  Some were very pungent, others had a nicer aroma.  I got very good at judging what was a 1/3 pound, a half pound, a ¾ pound and a full pound of any meat or cheese in the counters.  It is a skill.  And to this day I can watch someone at a deli counter and tell how much is going to be on the scale.

The one thing I really hated was being on clean up duty.  The people who close up the deli counter also have to clean up.  All those knives had to be washed; all the counters cleaned off; all the trash thrown out.  Not my favorite thing to do at all. But I did it.  It is another thing I learned while working.  The bad comes with the good.

However, working at Daitch also led to my winter job in North Bergen, NJ.  Our neighbor across the street owned a deli on Bergenline Avenue between 77th and 78th  Streets.  I just had to walk up the hill from Boulevard East and I was there.  Sometimes my Dad would drive me up.

I worked for Kenny and Betty Butensky starting in my senior year of high school. Later,  I used to come home from college one or two weekends each month just to work in the deli.

So many people I knew would come into the store.  Working behind a deli counter is not just providing the customer what he or she wants, it is helping them know what they want.  White fish, sable, lox.  Corned beef, pastrami, tongue, bologna, salami.  Rye bread, challah, rolls.  So many good options!

I was the best at deboning the white fish.  This goes back to my days in the Catskills catching fish at Kauneonga Lake.  I learned very early how to filet a fish. I used those skills at Kenny’s.

I learned so much from the Butensky’s.  I learned how to make a deli tray.  I learned to cut a radish to look like a flower.  I learned to garnish.  I learned how to slice lox.  But since I was left handed that job was taken away from me, as I always messed up the angle for everyone else… Sigh.  Whenever I have a party I think of them as I prepare my food trays.

I made sandwiches, bowls of cole slaw and potato salad. There is lots of work in a deli, especially on the weekend.

I made the best corned beef sandwiches….and I had one for lunch each day I worked.  Kenny would  (‘kibbitz’) joke with my dad that he should pay me in corned beef because I loved it so much. When Dad and Kenny teased me too much, Betty would step in and stop them.

In fact when I got married and moved to Kansas, Kenny would send me a corned beef sandwich packed in dried ice for my parents to bring me.  I can still taste those sandwiches.  We do not have great delis in Kansas.  Whenever I went home, I visited the Butensky deli until it closed.

Kenny had another skill.  He was a cantor with a magnificent voice.  It was Kenny who walked down the aisle first in my wedding chanting the sheva brochot…the seven blessings for a bride and groom.   It was beautiful. I still hear his voice, even though I have been married almost 34 years.

Image

Kenny Butensky is the shorter man standing in front.

Everything you do in life shapes you.  I was shy and quiet.  Working in the deli at both Daitch and Kenny’s taught me to be a ‘shmoozer,’ someone who can talk to anyone.  And I do.

I still see Daitch Shopwell in its prime.  The store was always packed with people.  Now it is an empty lot.  But when I go there, I see a filled parking lot.  So many memories are contained in the shell of the store.

In my mind, I see Kenny and Betty behind the counter.  There were times when it was really busy and we could not chat…just work. But then when things were slower we would chat while we worked.

These were times I can never forget.

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