AWAI Writing Challenge Winning Entry:
How Paul Newman Helped Me Sell Tomatoes
Way back in 1970, between the summer that I graduated high school and the fall when I trooped off to college, I had the best summer job ever. I had grown up in the town of Fairfield, CT, and somehow managed to get a job at Rippe’s Farm Market in neighboring Westport, CT.
For a dime above minimum wage I would unload trucks, sweep and clean, help the customers choose produce, work in the fields, and do anything else the bosses could dream up. This was not brainwork, which left a lot of time for schmoozing with co-workers.
Rippe’s was an odd collection of buildings and refrigerated trailers. Except for the rest rooms and the office, everything was open to the parking lots. Tables and wooden stands held the finest produce available. Gourmets came from miles around swoon over the tomatoes.
The place was owned by Old Man Rippe (I never learned his first name, I’m not sure he had one). He was stooped over and white haired with a face like a rock quarry. His lips were bent in a permanent scowl. He had reason to scowl. Local property taxes were killing the market. His family had farmed in Westport since the time it was one of the colonies and he knew the line would end with him. He had about forty acres of land in town, most of it planted in corn, tomatoes, and flowers (He often said, ‘You have to plant what people will pay for’). They also trucked in produce from around the nation that with a magical wave of his hand became ‘local produce.’
Big John Huntington ran the day to day operation. He was the Old Man’s son-in-law. Big John had a receding hairline, a big smile and a laugh that could fill an auditorium. He was a tough taskmaster with a sense of humor. His motto was ‘The work must get done, before the fun.’
I learned several important lessons working at Rippe’s.
If you want the job, act like someone they want to hire. Be respectful! When I applied for the job I was there with six other applicants. I was the only one that got hired that day. Why? When I filled out the job application I wrote at the bottom ‘Please hire me, I need the money so I can go to college.’ I referred to Big John as ‘Sir’ (the others called him ‘Dude’), and I dressed in a button down shirt and tie. Yes I looked like a total geek, but it made me stand out from the rest of the crowd in their Grateful Dead tee-shirts and cutoff jeans. Who would you hire under those conditions? Who would you rather have waiting on you?
Time is critical … always be on time … Always!!!! We had to punch in on a time clock when we came to work. If you were a minute late you would end up with the Old Man putting a boot to your rear end and you’d get the worst assignments that day.
He used to say that only Farmers knew the importance of time. ‘The corn isn’t going to wait for water until you get around to it. When a job’s gotta get done, it’s gotta get done. Period.’ Fail to be on time and you could lose a whole crop. Above all other things always be on time. (To this day, I arrive at jobs, meetings and doctor appointments at least 10 minutes early; God only knows what would happen if I got there late, I’d probably end up with another boot print).
Do not be impressed by money or fame, but use it to your advantage. Westport was a town with many wealthy and famous people, most of whom expected to be treated like wealthy and famous people. The actor Paul Newman was a Westport resident who shopped at Rippe’s regularly.
Whenever he entered the store, business would cease temporarily, as the local housewives (our best customers) stood around and gawked at the movie star. This ticked off the Old Man who would bark at us employees ‘Do something, nobody is buying because of him.’ In a moment of inspiration I began packing bags with tomatoes from the bins he had handled and labeled them ‘These tomatoes were touched by Paul Newman.’ They sold out in a hurry. At more than the usual price. The Old Man bought me lunch that day.
Sometimes the worst job has unexpected rewards. By far the worst job at Rippe’s was harvesting flowers. You would be out under the hot sun, attacked by bugs and bees, sweating like a pig. It was a job that most employees sought to avoid. My turn came on an exceedingly hot day. Big John was handing out assignments, pointed to me and yelled ‘Go pick some flowers’. I thought it would be an afternoon in Hell. How wrong I was.
The flower crew that day consisted of me and three college girls in halter tops. We cooled off by spraying each other with a garden hose. Watching them bend to pick flowers completely distracted me from the dreadful working conditions. And listening to them chatter amongst themselves gave me several tips for improving my social life. I volunteered to pick flowers every day thereafter, but was never chosen again. This taught me to keep a poker face when dealing with bosses. Never let them see you smile.
I only worked there for one summer. They folded back around 1982. The forty acres of farmland was turned into an expensive condominium development. The Old Man passed away, and Big John moved to Vermont where he kept on farming. The business is long gone, but the lessons I learned there are still work for me today.
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