Turkey in the straw

When I attended UNC-Chapel Hill in the late '40s, most students viewed the holiday season as a time to relax. For me it represented economic opportunity. My parents had saved to pay my college expenses, but I was responsible for earning my spending money.

My first year home from college, a close family friend gave me a job at his small credit-jewelry store in Waynesville. The retail business was new to me. I had always worked in an industrial setting, primarily with recyclable scrap products.

I was required to wear a coat and tie and greet all the customers. It was fun, because it was sort of a Norman Rockwell setting: a small town where everyone knew one another and came to the store not only to shop but to socialize. The mayor, the banker and other dignitaries would drop in to visit with my courtly and very popular boss, Dave Feldman.

I enjoyed seeing the children with stars in their eyes, fresh from the traditional Santa Claus lap dance, accompanying their parents in their holiday shopping.

I knew very little about jewelry, but I could sell a watch or an inexpensive ring. If the customer seemed interested in a higher-price item, a prearranged signal would suddenly bring Mr. Feldman to my side for a friendly "T.O." (takeover).

One day, as I was cleaning up in the back, I came upon this truly horrible pair of long, dangly ladies' earrings with some of the glass "stones" missing. They were obviously meant to be discarded.

My grandmother — one of the kindest, sweetest people I have ever known — was visiting from Atlanta. Always very proper and carefully dressed, she never, ever said anything derogatory about anyone. As a matter of fact, she was so sweet and wonderful that, as much of a miscreant kid as I was, I never considered doing anything to displease her.

But the discovery of the reject jewelry and a family proclivity for practical jokes made for a dangerous combination. My grandmother was not only gullible: She detested earrings.

On the night when the family gathered at the dinner table to exchange gifts, I presented her with an exquisitely wrapped package containing the earrings. Of course, all the rest of the family were in on the scam.

When she opened the package, my grandmother looked absolutely incredulous, but she recovered immediately and began to rave about the beautiful earrings. Those assembled were also bragging about how stunning they were, what a devoted grandson she had, and encouraging her to hold the earrings up so we could all see how they looked.

She soldiered on without missing a beat until I presented her with another package containing a nice brooch (that's what grandmothers wore in those days), and we all had a hearty laugh and a good family story that we told for years.

In a way, this incident helped me reach another conclusion. I decided that retail work was less desirable than industrial work, even though it required less physical labor and took place in a more appealing setting. Wearing a coat and tie and standing on my feet all day never fit my comfort zone.

More importantly, however, the cost of my grandmother's gift took a sizable chunk out of my meager paycheck. There had to be a better way to make money in the short time available.

My dad put me on to a new idea. He had concerns and even felt guilty when he gave his employees cash bonuses. He was afraid, with some justification, that the money would not survive the temptations of John Barleycorn from the shot houses and the bolito tickets and tip-board joints that beckoned to many of these employees on the way home.

So he came up with the idea of also giving each employee a food basket to ensure that, at the very least, their family would be able to enjoy a real holiday meal.

I offered to supply the baskets, provided that I could sell enough of them to other employers to turn a profit.

I went to the wholesale food distributors, many of whom were right near my dad's business in the Depot Street neighborhood, and checked prices. Then I developed a menu, which included a turkey, dressing mix, cranberry sauce, canned vegetables, nuts and fruit.

Believe it or not, I could sell the basic basket for $5 and the most elaborate one (complete with candy and even a few small toys) for $10. I still had to drag out my coat and tie to make my sales calls, though.

There were a number of textile-waste recyclers and small manufacturers in the area, most of whom I knew. In the late 1940s, people receiving the minimum wage earned $16 for a 40-hour week.

For my sales pitch I used the old Ebenezer Scrooge guilt trip: that Bob Cratchit might stop by the local speakeasy and drink and gamble away his paycheck, leaving poor Tiny Tim sitting in the cold eating thin gruel and moldy bread for his holiday meal.

This pitch proved so successful that I sold some 300 baskets the first year and made a tidy profit. I hired some of my former high-school buddies to help me pick up the ingredients, pack and deliver the baskets, decorated with red and green confetti.

By my third year I made an astounding profit — nearly $1,000 — and was able to donate the leftover food to a shelter.

It was a win-win: I earned my college money, and the employers could relish their own bountiful holiday meal guilt-free, knowing that Tiny Tim and all of their employees' children would also enjoy a sumptuous repast.

Let it be scriven in the Gospel of Jerry, then, that ye too shall have a joyous and fulfilling holiday.

[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years. He can be reached at gospeljerry@aol.com.]


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3 thoughts on “Turkey in the straw

  1. gimmemybonus!

    Wait — so instead of giving his employees cash bonuses, your dad instead had you sell them food baskets for a profit? What kind of bonus is that?

  2. notgoodatreading

    Nope, you sold them to other employers, not employees. My error, good sir.

  3. killarue

    Ah, the season of giving. I would have suggested that your father give his employees a bottle of liquor rather than act like their parent, not that I disagree with his concern, but his action seemed almost, dare I write, like government intervention aka a bureaucracy. It seems like your father was a good capitalist, and you gave him something to be proud of.
    One other point though, as much as I would like to congratulate you on that healthy profit, I wonder if you spent any of it on liquor, being the miscreant child you claim to have been. I smell a lot of condescension and judgment in this article.

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