Sunday, September 18, 2016

Cover It With Chocolate And A Miracle Or Two

Every fall I go to a farm market and buy a big bag of hot cherry peppers to stuff.  It was my aunt's recipe, and for years, they were a staple for Wingman as he watched Sunday football games. The recipe is memorable for more than the burning sensation from the oil that stays on my hands for days after cutting and removing the seeds. Every time I make them, it takes me back to a candy company and an air traffic controller's strike.

I was working in retail for six years when my old candy buyer phoned me about a job opportunity in the wholesale field.  Two weeks after my only interview and armed with a Willie Loman suitcase, a road map and some samples, I was out selling chocolates.

I approached it in what I considered was a scientific way.  I would initially go to my biggest clients, and make subsequent visits to the smaller ones.  The first company I visited was an Italian food distributor in South Jersey, where I was ushered into the office of a guy my age who was a mustached Tony Soprano looking type. Without even shaking my hand, he proceeded to MF me and my company, shaking his cigar right in my face. I looked at him wide eyed, started shaking uncontrollably, and then broke out in huge racking sobs. He looked back at me bewildered since he had never made a vendor cry before, and then shuffled me into his car where we went to a diner for coffee. It turned out that that my predecessor had set up a bunch of small stores as distributors, and they in turn were passing their low costs to their friends/his customers so he couldn't compete. I skipped the scientific approach and went to every small coffee shop, pizza parlor and deli he complained about and told them that their distributorships were rescinded and that they had to buy from him.

He became putty in my hands and my best business friend.  When my company needed to dump inventory, I could count on him to buy all or most of what we were offering, and I always made great commissions on his account. Most of all, he taught me how to deal with men-Italian men-who had little or no respect for women in business by developing a thick skin and a backbone.

In early August of 1981, the Specialty Food Industry held its summer trade show in Chicago, and I went out early as the set-up person for our booth.  As I deplaned at O'Hare, there were news crews everywhere.  The air traffic controllers had staged a strike, and Ronald Reagan fired all of them.  As organized as the government planned it, only half of nation's flights would be available for the next week.

The show would be a bust.  Vendors couldn't get in to set up.  Planes of cargo were grounded. Buyers couldn't fly in.  On the opening Sunday, there were gaping holes where booths should have been, and aisles empty of buyers.

My distributor stopped by my empty booth and asked if I was going to the industry dinner that night.  My company was "frugal" in that regard, so I wasn't.  He said that since his parents couldn't get a plane-would I like to take one of the tickets as his guest? Of course I said yes.

When I arrived at the dinner, I found him standing in a line of men in shiny suits, waiting to shake hands or kiss the cheek of some guy.  At our turn, my distributor said, "Barbara, I want you to meet..." and I shook hands with a 40-something man with a gold pinky ring, who was in the olive oil business.  But his name jarred my memory, and I said "I KNOW THAT NAME" which of course, happened to be a very famous Mafia family name. As everyone around me gasped clutching their chests, he sarcastically asked how I knew that name. Men expected guns to be drawn.

But in fact, the previous Saturday, my aunt (of the cherry pepper fame) and uncle, had come to my parents house for a visit which always consisted of a lot of talking over coffee and an Entenmann's cake. They were tut-tutting how my 18 year old cousin was being wooed by a classmate with dozens and dozens of roses...begging her to go out with him. They were none too happy because his father was being indicted in something boxes and oregano were mentioned.

So I asked Pinky Ring Guy if he had an 18 year old son. He said no, that his boys were older.  I replied that I heard that my cousin was going out with someone with the same last name.  He said he had nephew who was 18, and after comparing notes, jumped up from his chair and exclaimed "WE'RE PRACTICALLY RELATED! MY NEPHEW IS GOING OUT WITH YOUR COUSIN!!!" Everyone exhaled nervously, he made the guy who was supposed to sit next to him move down a chair, and I got the seat of honor.

My distributor looked at me in amazement. Or disgust. I forget which.

The next day at the very empty show, Pinky Ring Guy showed up with a guy from Boston.  That distributor, another guy in a shiny black suit who looked remarkably like the undertaker from "The Godfather" and who had never bough our candy, was being "encouraged" to buy a container of product from me.  Then he brought San Francisco.  Los Angeles.  Florida.  In total, we sold 12 CONTAINERS of candy, cookies and whatever else we had to business associates of my new "relative" at the worst attended show ever.

I must now talk a little about my boss.  He was not Italian-in fact he had escaped Austria by train with the Von Trapp family and came to America. He served in the US Army as a paratrooper during WW ll, and later as a war crimes interpreter with one of the Von Trapp sons.  He was a brilliant business man, but he had one small flaw.  When he got nervous, he would start scratching himself.  Down there. With the first container, he was pleased.  By the 12th container, his pants were practically in shreds.  He was a nervous wreck that I had created a candy show monster. At breakfast the next day, he questioned me as to whether Pinky Ring Guy was really a relative or had I slept with him to get those orders. I was indignant. He was relieved.

And he didn't pay me one dime of commissions on anything from that show.

The following year, right after Wingman and I got married, Pinky Ring Guy called me up and wanted to help us out with a home.  He took us to his brother's house-what even now I would say was a mansion. All I remember was that the pool in the back had a fountain, as well as the brother's company logo in imported Italian tiles embedded on the bottom.  The house was listed for $350,000 when the average price of homes back then was about $85,000.  So totally out of our price range that even Wingman was nervous about the motive.  They wanted to keep it in the family, so if we could make a nominal payment, the family would hold the mortgage, and then buy it back from us at a later date. Wingman was adamant that we were being set up, so I used my distributor friend to help me decline their most generous offer.

Some years and two career changes later; I attended another Specialty Food Show, and made it a point to look up my distributor.  He was there, looking thin, pale and very sickly.  It turned out that he had cancer, and not long after that show, I learned he passed.  His company is huge now and when I go shopping, just seeing everything with the bright yellow labels makes me smile and yet get a little sad.  If he were alive today, I wonder if he would be retired with kids and grandkids, or still shaking cigars in vendors' faces making them cry. Probably no to the latter. He helped me develop a backbone. I helped him become compassionate towards young people starting out in business.

My aunt is gone too. And my uncle.  He taught Wingman how to make great Italian bread.  She taught both of us how to cook her way which was good, basic Italian food. And right now, my eyes are tearing up.  Partially in remembering them and a lot of good family times.

And partially because I still have lingering bits of hot cherry pepper oil on my fingers when I wiped my eyes.  Man, my eyes really do burn, as my distributor would have said, like a MF.

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