It would be an understatement to say that my father was unimpressed when I showed him a draft of my law school application essay declaring that the experience which had had the greatest impact on me was working in the butcher shop. Raised in the Bronx by Russian immigrants, and having graduated from City College at nineteen before stumbling into the insurance business, my exasperated dad yelled: “You’re applying to law school–they don’t give a f***k about what you did in a butcher shop!” He may have been right, but after spending forty years in a global law firm litigating cases worth hundreds of millions of dollars, I still count my time at West Rock Meats as one of my life’s highlights.
It wasn’t my first job in the meat business. My short career in the industry began in the summer of 1968, when I rode shotgun on a Boar’s Head meat delivery truck for Karl Kaiser–a former World War II officer in the German navy. Short, with close-cropped grey hair, pointed ears, and glasses, Karl was probably in his 60’s; I was sixteen. He spoke highly of Jews. As he put it in his heavy German accent: “The Jews, you know, they really know how to use their noggins.” And he was good to me. I was paid $100 a week in cash and all I could eat at the various delis throughout Westchester county to which we delivered hams, salamis, capicolas, and other cold-cuts.
Karl lived vicariously through me as I ate my way along our route. He got pleasure watching me inhale meatball wedges at the Italian deli in Tuckahoe, Pastrami in New Rochelle, chocolate eclairs in Pleasantville. He never ate anything at any of our stops. With his stomach having been rotted out, I suspect by alcohol, Karl was relegated to the few Zwiebach crackers his wife packed for him in the same baggie each day. “Richie, would you please reach into my briefcase and hand me my Zweibachs,” he would say as we drove from the garage in Ardsley, where he parked his truck, to the Boar’s Head plant in Brooklyn, where we journeyed twice a week to load the truck with fresh supplies. When he was done I would return the baggie to his briefcase for reuse the next day.
Karl knew exactly where in his refrigerated truck every black forest ham, smoked turkey breast, and salami belonged. Unfortunately, the junkies who hung around the Brooklyn plant and helped load the truck for a few bucks had difficulty following Karl’s increasingly impatient orders. When his frustration crescendoed, Karl would pull a dazed assistant out of the truck and demonstrate the proper placement of a head cheese.
Occasionally, Karl’s friend Hermut showed up to drive the truck in Karl’s place. Bald, and always in faded overalls, Hermut wasn’t a bad guy–just a little sullen. Whenever we made a morning stop at the deli in Tarrytown that served liquor, Hermut would stand at the end of the bar–otherwise deserted in the morning–and have a few shots while I unloaded the meat the deli had ordered. It didn’t occur to me until years later that Hermut had a serious problem–and that I did too, with the wheel in his hands.
Although my Boar’s Head tenure was short, I enjoyed the job: I liked doing physical labor and earning money; the food was good; and I liked Karl. Whenever I see one of the red and black trucks with the gold Boar’s Head lettering and insignia go by, I think–and too often say: “There goes my truck.” By this point, my wife tells me, she’s thinking the same.
I believe I started working at West Rock Meats after school and on weekends and vacations sometime later in 1968 or 1969. West Rock was located in Elmsford–a teenager’s reckless 15 minute drive up the winding Saw Mill River Parkway from my hometown of Dobbs Ferry. Occupying one of several pale green cinder block buildings in an alley alongside the poor excuse for a river, it wasn’t your ordinary butcher shop. Customers came to West Rock to buy whole sides of beef and sometimes more. While I loved the job, I’ve come to recognize in retrospect, or perhaps to admit to myself, that it was something of a racket.
Customers were lured to the shop by ads in the local Westchester papers offering “choice grade” sides of beef containing filet mignon, porterhouse steaks, rib roasts and rib steaks–all for 99 cents per pound. The ads promised that we would freeze and store our customers’ purchases: all they had to do was call when they wanted a particular steak or roast retrieved from the freezer for them to pick up from the shop a day or so later. Qualified Buyers could buy on credit upon filling out a short application, supported by a quick call to the bank for authorization.
But there were a few snags:
- A side of beef includes a lot of fat: My memory of the precise percentages could be off, but the “trim loss” on a side of beef (consisting of one hind quarter and one front quarter) was something north of 30%. So the real price of a “choice grade” side was considerably higher than the advertised 99 cents per pound.
- Although our meat cooler, through which prospective customers were given a tour, was loaded with front and hindquarters of beef hanging on hooks, our inventory of 99 cent “choice” grade meat was paltry–a few fatty, unattractive pieces. Accordingly, the butchers, who doubled as salesmen and worked on commission, were able to persuade many customers to buy the “prime beef”–which went for something like $1.49/lb–before the trim loss.
- Although a side of beef did indeed contain filet mignon, porterhouse steaks and the other prized cuts, much of a side of beef consisted of soup bones, stew beef, shank meat and chuck steaks that many customers would not ordinarily have bought, at least in large quantities. Also, a customer had to choose between some of the most desired cuts. For example, a filet mignon consists of the same meat from the loin that would otherwise constitute the tenderloin section of porterhouse steaks. Customers got either the filet or the porterhouse–not both.
- I’ll come back to the freezer, which requires more than a single bullet point, in a minute.
I had two main tasks when I started working at West Rock: wrapping the individual steaks, roasts, and other pieces of meat as the sides of beef were butchered in front of the waiting customers; and retrieving the individual packages from West Rock’s freezer when customers later ordered them from their inventory.
The wrapping was hard work, but fun. We would cut and wrap a typical order–consisting of more than a hundred separate packages–in about half an hour. On a busy Saturday, we would work furiously to cut and wrap over 10,000 pounds of beef. I often worked alongside Jay–a tall Jewish teenager from Yonkers who also worked weekends and after school. To this day, I can wrap any piece of meat in seconds using the standard butcher’s method I learned at West Rock. When they notice, friends are impressed. The feedback is less positive when I use the same method to wrap gifts, which I invariably do.
To describe the West Rock freezer as anything less than a fiasco wouldn’t do it justice. Located in Stamford Connecticut, around 30 minutes from the shop, our freezer was a large one-story building with several chambers that harbored the orders of hundreds of West Rock customers contained in thousands of boxes arranged in no discernible order. A few days a week, Jay and I would drive the shop’s white panel truck up to Stamford to retrieve the selections that had been made for that day by 15-20 customers. This was the least appealing part of our jobs because the freezer was indeed a deep freezer and It had virtually no light. We attacked our task bearing flashlights and wearing ski jackets, hats and gloves in mid-summer.
A typical order might be Mrs. Roberts’ request for two cube steaks, one package of ground beef, and one chuck roast. The first hurdle was to find Mrs Roberts’ boxes from among the disorganized mess of thousands of boxes in the frozen darkness. Then began the long process of fishing-out her cube steak and chuck roast from among the hundreds of other packages she didn’t want that week–which were contained in 15 boxes that bore no indication as to which cuts of meat were buried within each box.
Once we succeeded in filling an order, we’d put the chosen packages in a box in the back of the panel truck and return to the freezer to search for the remaining customers’ boxes and fish for the individual packages they had requested. In the meantime, the panel truck was sitting in the hot sun with Mrs. Roberts’ roast, so Jay and I worked as quickly as we could. Only his companionship made these stressful afternoons bearable.
At some point, I “graduated” from just wrapping and retrieving orders to also helping to unload the trucks that delivered beef to the shop. In the case of the hind quarters, this entailed carrying the unwieldy hunks–weighing over 100 pounds–on my shoulder for a distance of about 100 feet to the cooler, and then inserting the eye of the hoof onto the meat hook. The front quarters were more cumbersome and, at 5’9’’ and 150 pounds, I couldn’t handle them. But lugging the hindquarters was like a merit badge which, after a while enabled me to gain entry to the inner sanctum of butchers.
I was something of a novelty in the shop–a Jewish kid headed for college who, unlike Jay, wanted to learn to cut meat. The guys were willing teachers. I learned that an important part of butchering entailed knowing where the seams in the meat were–such that light touches of the tip of a sharp knife along the seams was all that was needed to separate some roasts and other cuts. I learned how to cut quickly and safely, with knuckles curled–a technique I’ve passed down to my older son; and I learned the importance of a sharp knife–and how to hone one. I was proud to be an apprentice butcher.
But my favorite part of working at West Rock was spending time with the guys–the men who doubled as butchers and salesmen, regaling customers on the the benefits of buying prime beef in bulk. There were three or four butchers in the shop at any one time, including the boss. My favorites were Vito and Tony, two brothers who I believe were Italian but had immigrated to the States from somewhere in South America. Vito was short, tough, and stocky, with sandy brown hair and a mustache. My most vivid memory of an experience with him occurred about five miles from the shop. For some reason I was hitchhiking to work that morning and Vito stopped to pick me up. Jokingly, I said “Vito–I’m surprised you would pick up a long-haired kid like me.” Reaching under his seat, Vito produced an old meat cleaver and replied: “Rusty cleaver; if the cut won’t kill ‘em the infection will.”
Tony bore no resemblance to his brother. He was the consummate salesman–of everything. About 5’9”, thin with black hair, Tony was handsome and ever-friendly. He had a large selection of business cards, one of which he invariably found an opening to hand to customers after he’d sold them a cow and discovered their additional needs: “Anthony Valpone, Professional Carpenter;” Anthony Valpone, Professional Mason; ” Anthony Valpone–Licensed Contractor”–were just a few I remember. The one card Tony apparently lacked was a Green Card. This omission came to light one night when a customer who had purchased a side of beef filled out his application to pay on credit. A stir went thru the shop–and Tony went out the back door–as word circulated that he worked for the FBI.
I went off to college in the fall of 1970, but returned to work at the butcher shop during vacations and summers. I did it to make money–but also because I liked the job and especially the guys in the shop. And they had fun with me. One of the highlights for them occurred when I locked the keys in my car with the engine running shortly before going to law school. After using a coat hanger to break into the car and bail me out, Louie and Tony, in particular, basked for days in the stupidity of their college grad.
Over the years, my short career in the meat business has been the subject not only of my law school application, but also of many stories I’ve told. The stories distinguished my otherwise drab bio from that of the usual New York lawyer. But as I look back today, I wonder why the “highlight of my life” featured in my law school application wasn’t that I had blown the whistle on what I’ve now depicted as a bait-and-switch racket? Or why I hadn’t at least quit, rather than returning to my butcher shop year after year? I’ve searched my faded memory trying to remember if I was even troubled by what was going on around me at West Rock.
Here’s my best guess: Although, as a 65 year old lawyer writing in 2017 I’ve painted a picture of a scam, it didn’t seem that way to me in the early 1970’s. Indeed, while perhaps naive, my work at West Rock felt wholesome. I was working hard, trying to do a good job, learn, and impress the butchers, as well as the customers. I was making what seemed like a lot of money (around $8 an hour, plus time-and-a half for overtime). And, not least, I had fun working and joking around with the other guys who, bearing no resemblance to my school friends, teachers, or family members, struck me as good, decent people. And I still believe they were.
Although most of the beef West Rock sold was not the 99-cent “choice grade” product featured in the advertisements that drew customers to the shop, the prime beef my friends pushed was, in fact, excellent. I don’t recall complaints from customers claiming to have been ripped off (although there were occasional gripes about our ridiculous freezer operation when we failed to find particular packages customers had ordered). We had repeat customers.
Were my friends “hustling” as they worked six long days a week to scratch out a living for their families? I suppose so–undoubtedly in some cases. And on their days off, when they went with their wives to buy a new car or ventured into Macy’s to chase whatever fabulous deals they’d seen advertised on tv or in newspapers, they were the marks of someone else’s hustle. Finally, I suspect they might not have a lofty appraisal of the work I’ve been doing defending corporate America since my West Rock days.