Pete Neary was the store manager at Daitch Shopwell, the main grocery store in our North Riverdale neighborhood — our “village” in the Bronx where it seemed during the 1960s and ‘70s, that kids from every family worked at one time or another. My older brother Marshall worked there for years before I did, and Pete had been his boss as well.
Everyone knew Pete, the often gruff, “always right,” occasionally kind, and sometimes amusing “old school” Irishman who kept his store operating like a relatively well-oiled machine. When I turned 16, this was my first real job — one where I needed to punch in and punch out at the timeclock. Where I was entrusted with a tool — the solidly built adjustable ink price marker and its holster — and was expected to actually earn my $1.65 an hour starting wage by keeping everything neat and tidy and well-stocked in the store’s dairy department.
Throughout much of the ‘70s, I worked after school and on Saturdays — in those days, stores were closed on Sundays — during the summers until I graduated high school, the summer after graduation, and then each summer when I returned home from college in California.
Pete Neary taught me, and many, many other local teenagers, what it meant to work, to contribute, to be on a team, and to do the right thing. He led by pointing, by shouting, by threatening, by cajoling, by laughing and poking fun, and always by example.
Four decades later, I still remember clearly what I learned from him. And now that I am retired, I believe I honestly can say Pete’s lessons stayed with me, and often provided needed guidance and happy memories.
In retrospect, we may not have known it then, but I know now that Pete loved each and every one of us, and we loved him.
He was one-of-a-kind, and I always will feel blessed to have known him, and to have had him yell at me.
• “If I catch ya stealin’, you’re out. And I’ll catch ya if you are.” This one is obvious, but apparently he felt he needed to say it to everyone as they first came on board. He rightfully expected honesty and integrity.
• “I wanna see you workin’, not ferkin’ around!” This is a job, you’re expected to work, and when you’re “on the clock,” it is not play time.
• “When it’s busy, I expect to see you hoppin’!” You need to be aware of and pay attention to the conditions around you, not lost in thought or routine or in your own little world. And sometimes you simply need to work harder. Sometimes you need to pick up the pace.
• “Make it look good!” Take pride in your work and understand that you and your work represent your employer, your store, and your boss, and there is more than just “getting it done.”
Sloppiness is unacceptable. Keep your aisle or department looking neat and clean, and keep in mind there’s more to selling and being of service to your customers — your neighbors — than just stocking shelves: Appearances convey a message and they matter.
• “When your aisle looks good, go bag up front or go help Billy get the carts.” Just because your specific project is complete and you’re feeling satisfied with your work, doesn’t mean that now you can sit back and rest. There’s always more to do.
Look around and see who needs some help, and then go and help them. Keep yourself busy and useful beyond your small assigned sphere, and don’t forget you are part of an entire store, not just your portion of it. You are on a team, and don’t forget it.
• “When you’re baggin’, cans go on the bottom, eggs on top.” Use your common sense, pay attention and think about what you’re doing. And be careful, especially when you’re going fast.
And never forget to respect the customer. After all, these are your neighbors, they just paid their hard-earned money for those grocery items, and they would like to get those eggs home unbroken, the deli containers not leaking, and the bread not smashed.
• “Hey, you there, boyo, pick that up!” If you see something amiss, do something about it. If there’s a mess, block it off so nobody slips and gets hurt, and then go and get the mop and bucket and clean it up.
There’s no such thing as, “That’s not my aisle, not my mess, not my job.” Whatever is needed, just do it: clean it up, fix it, make it right, put it away. Keep your eyes open, take care of problems, and do not wait for someone else to do it.
• “Are you hearin’ me ‘er what?” Acknowledge people, and let them know you heard what they said and understood what they meant. Doing so makes them feel better, and increases the odds that you got it right.
• “Why are you still hangin’ around here?” When work’s done, and you have clocked out, go home. Separate your working time from your home, family, friends, time. And stop bothering those who still are working.
• “And don’t think I don’t know you make fun of my accent.” Sometimes, even joking around can be hurtful, and you never know when the target of your less-than-kind efforts at humor may learn of them. So, try to be thoughtful and careful with your teasing, sarcasm, and “making fun.”
Other people’s feelings matter, and growing up should bring greater empathy, sensitivity and awareness. That being said, we sure did love imitating Pete’s manner of speech. I’m tellin’ ya, though, don’t be an eejit about it.
• “And stay away from my daughter.” In a small neighborhood store, where it seems everyone in the neighborhood shops or works, it is not surprising that romances blossom among adolescent co-workers. Nonetheless, lad, don’t be an eejit.
The author lived and grew up in Riverdale between 1962 and 1974, returning each summer until about 1980