Deja Vu For The Soul

Having tossed dough and pressed pizza pies in the evenings throughout high school, I acquired a talent that still serves me to this day (as in “Hey, Dad! Make us a pizza!”). The skill set was kept sharp during my college summers as well. The re-hire process always went the same way:

During spring break, I would stroll into the famous old joint known as Pizza King, and it was as if the prodigal son had returned. The cook would come out of the back and hug me, the odor of meatloaf and mashed potatoes clinging to my shirt long after I left. The pock-faced, troubled 16-year-old dishwasher would extend a moist hand and manage a smile. The owner would come out of the back, acting indifferent and counting a wad of cash to remind me, “I didn’t need no college to fill my wallet.” The banter would be light. I answered the same question each time another face came around the corner. “Yeah, it’s going pretty well.” And then that moment of relief would arrive. “You wanna come back for a couple months this summer, Ronnie? We could use ya.” I would nod slowly after shrugging, like the thought never occurred to me, and say, “Uh … yeah, sure, I guess.”

And again, the same predictable response: “Hey, terrific--call me when you get home in May, huh?” And I did, and in a few days, I was back on the schedule and in familiar territory, throwing pizza in the air and flirting with young women picking up carry-out orders. It was as welcoming as being back in my own bed for three months. There’s nothing in this world like the comfort of familiarity.

I was always amazed how much I looked forward to that simple process of coming home, punching in at the old pizza joint, and seeing all the faces I had grown up with. I was proud of what I was doing, happy to be telling people I was away at college, but just home for the summer. There was “wholeness” to it. It had a Norman Rockwell feel, and I knew it then just as sure as I see it in retrospect now.

An Old, Familiar Scene

One day this past winter, I took my wife and son Sam to a small breakfast place in Fairview, Ohio. There are eight tables and an old-fashioned barstool counter that seats 10. We sat at the bar that looked straight into the kitchen. It was somewhat cramped and tight, but full of that old-time charm I crave. We ordered a pile of food, and began downing coffee and hot chocolate when a little gal--I’d guess about 19--came in with a red, runny nose and an apologetic smile. She stood by the heat register and warmed up while she waited to be recognized; lo and behold, a familiar scene played out in front of my eyes.

“Is that Miss College Girl I see out there?” the owner shouted from the kitchen. Out she came and gave a big hug. “How is school?” The two waitresses on the floor overheard the ruckus, and came to the register with muffled screams and big hugs. “How is school?” The college girl nodded, smiled, and said, “It’s going really good,” through tears. I sat there, hoping she wasn’t a English major, but taking it all in just the same. After a few minutes, the waitresses gravitated back to the floor, the owner said she would visit as soon as she finished what she was doing, and Miss College Girl stood idle for a moment, but she couldn’t fight the temptation, knowing what needed to be done. She filled my coffee and cleared several dishes.

The dishwasher--an older, shy fellow--peeked around the corner, looking down, then up, then at her, then back down. “Hi, Eddie,” she whispered. “Hi,” he stammered and rushed back around the corner to the safety of his sink. Now the owner returned. I looked into my coffee cup and thought, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …” and sure enough she said, “So, you wanna come back for a couple months this summer, Donna? We could use ya.” Donna nodded slowly, as if she had just then considered the idea, and said, “Yeah. Yeah, I could do that.” The manager said to give her a call when she got home and settled, and Donna said she would, and with that she hugged everyone again and left.

Groundhog Day

I sat there, dumfounded. Except for the faces and the names, this was exactly the routine I had performed 25 years ago. It was incredible. I said nothing more because my poor wife is so sick of me having an observation about everything, and I didn’t want to burden her with another, so we went to the bowling alley with Sam.

After we obtained our shoes and bowling balls, I went back to the counter to order some root beers. As the owner drew the sodas, a young man came in with his hands stuffed in his pockets and a rather independent look in his eye. He smiled at the owner, who did a double take, and said (of course), “Well, if it isn’t JoeCollege making his triumphant return!” He called to a couple people in the back room, and I grabbed my beverages and ran. It was happening again. What was this, Groundhog Day? But then, as quickly as I was alarmed, I was comforted.

Lessons For Life

At the present time, when we human beings sometimes complain how nothing is permanent and how even the simplest things are fleeting, I discovered this homey, small-town, continuing event that probably happens all over the country. Those part-time jobs we all did as kids were really our first exposure to the adult world.

We hear the chatter today of co-workers who have had challenging lives. They are the cooks, janitors, dishwashers and waitresses who are now older, who probably planned at one point to be doing more with their lives, but it didn’t work out. Perhaps they were set back by a lack of money, a bad marriage, a sick child, an ailing parent--whatever the case, we see a side of life that’s char-broiled, not protected, sanitized or edited by Mom and Dad. We may see them cry after a life-altering phone call, or celebrate a child’s graduation with the hope that their kid will never have to work like they do. We see the drama of real life.

The young female workers may have to handle the advances of a drunken man, and the young men may have to deal with the anger of a dissatisfied customer, but these are experiences that teach real-life lessons tenfold. It is that period when we learn the value of money, the consequences of not “getting a break” or making poor decisions, or perhaps deciding that we like and feel comfortable in this small oasis, where we want to stay.

The career path may start and stop right there. In any event, we leave our mark as kids on those doors, and return looking for some confirmation that we were missed, and while we were there, we mattered. Summer approaches as I pen this essay. The kids will be coming home to their part-time jobs like the swallows to Capistrano. Welcome them. Tip large. Say thanks and give them something to take back to school, like a smile, a vote of confidence and all the little things that matter big.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail