23 September 2007

Job One

Today I visited my old neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens. For years, I lived in Elmhurst, Queens just south of the Jackson Heights-Elmhurst border. For those who don't know, Queens is one of the five boroughs of New York City. Only in Queens people specify their towns in their mailing addresses. People in the other boroughs would simply list their borough name followed by NY, such as Bronx, NY or Brooklyn, NY but in Queens, you get things like Elmhurst, NY, Woodhaven, NY, or Utopia, NY. Of course, nowadays the zip code makes it pointless to specify anything at all, but the Queens people like their towns so much they want it that way, at least that's what I read in some pro-Queens free newspaper.

Even back in the early 80's when I lived in Elmhurst, Roosevelt Avenue was already the commercial strip of the area. We did our shopping, grocery or otherwise, along Roosevelt and even went into Jackson Heights to use its post office, movie theaters, and public library. South of us we had Broadway's commercial strip but it was much farther than Roosevelt Avenue.

Much of Jackson Heights has changed since I moved out of the area. Many mornings before school I would sit by the window looking for my schoolmate Mario walking toward my building. He would walk through an alleyway connecting Denman Street and Roosevelt Avenue to meet me and we would walk to school together. The alleyway has long since disappeared, blocked off by some new building. Seventy-fourth street has long ago become India Town, all the stores either sell fabrics or some other merchandise catered to the Indian population. There used to be a department store, children's department store, I would even venture to guess, at the northwest corner of 82nd Street and 37th Avenue. The place is now home to many little stores, on the 37th Avenue side. I think some church school occupies the rest of the old department store.

The site of my first job ever, at the corner of 86th Street and 37th Avenue, is still around. The lousy camera in my lousy cell phone failed miserably at capturing the street signs. The store is now called something and V Bagel Cafe but it was called Hot Bagel when I worked there. A friend of my father had part ownership in the store and somehow I got a job at the store one summer. On the first day, I made $14 for working seven hours. I thought it was too much and refused to take the money, but took it in the end. What a dumb kid I was.

At the bagel store, I made bagels from ready-made dough, sprinkled with the various toppings (sesame, poppy, salt, etc.), slid the uncooked bagels into the oven, and took them out later. I also did some cashier work, food delivery, and floor-sweeping. I learned how to make bagel pizza - basically flattening out the dough, spread tomato sauce and sprinkled shredded cheese on the dough, and put in the oven as usual. I discovered the joy of eating a nicely toasted bagel with Philadelphia cream cheese spread on.

I enjoyed the free food and drinks at the store. One time, I had a pint-sized carton of orange juice while the big boss was around. Next time I wanted to have a pint of OJ, the boss got me a half-gallon and wanted me to drink from a cup. He probably wanted me to use the half-gallon for the whole week, instead of a pint each day. I ended up drinking the whole half-gallon in a day. Oh, well, I'm sure Mr. Boss made lots of money off of my cheap labor already.

I think I gave all the money to my parents. Life was much simpler when one didn't have to keep up with the latest operating system or the latest electronic gadget. I didn't have to worry about clothes or girls - at least not yet. At some point, for reason I cannot remember, my parents didn't let me work at the store any more. Maybe it was because they figured I needed to pay more attention to school. They only wanted me to have a little exposure to the working life during the summer break, but not to work during the school year.

The bagel store looked different. It now had a few tables and chairs. I didn't go inside to see if they still make the bagels on premise. Management probably changed a few times in the intervening years. However, I still remember well how I reacted in my silly way when presented with the $14 cash that I earned for the day.

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