I recently remembered a childhood experience from when I was nine or so. I used to ‘work’ with my grandfather during summer vacation. His name is Billy Stamboly, Gido to me, which is Arabic for grandfather. Years ago, he owed a small grocery store at the corner of Eagle and Seymour, in the Corn Hill neighborhood of Utica, N.Y.
My adventures with him would start with a sleepover. My grandmother would make us macaroni from Sunday’s leftover sauce with a big salad with lots of red onions and red wine vinegar. After dinner, Gido and I would watch nature shows on the Discovery Channel. Later, Grandma and Gido would tuck me into the daybed in the spare bedroom of their small ranch house. We’d wake up at the crack of dawn, get ready and head out to breakfast at the same Irish diner he frequented most days of the week.
Fitz’s Diner, or The Joint, had character like its owner, Fitz, an old man who manned the breakfast bar. Fitz had a long, hard face and a red nose, probably from drinking. The same East Utica fellas were there every day –– construction guys, cops, firemen –– and everybody knew everybody. I felt like Fitz, the fellas, Gido and me were close, like old army buddies, but of course I was too young to be part of the gang. Still, they treated me like one of the guys. They talked like men were supposed to talk, breakin balls and shootin the shit. I listened with big eyes, and occasionally chimed in which everyone got a kick out of.
I remember the wooden signs on the walls, “May you be in heaven twenty minutes before the devil knows you are dead” and “Old sailors don’t die, they just get a little dinghy.” The place hummed with chatter and sounds of the morning, eggs sizzling, coffee cascading into stained mugs. I even loved the cigarette smoke, which hung in the air. Gido ordered the same breakfast every day: toast with butter and jelly and coffee. I’d get dunky eggs with chocolate milk.
Our next stop was Shidelman’s Wholesale store. Back then I thought “Shide’s” was the largest building in the world, although when I saw it again recently, out of business and lifeless, it was smaller than an average sized Costco or BJ’s. I remember the expansive concrete floors and endless depth of pallets of cans and boxes and packages with colorful labels. We’d grab one of those big carts, more like a platform with wheels than a cart. I think I was too small to push it but I tried anyway. We bought stock for the day: chips, snacks, soda, beer, cartons of cigarettes, and those little grenade shaped sugary juices. We sold them for a quarter, but I bet people would have paid at least fifty cents for a cold purple grenade on a hot August day.
We arrived at the store around nine, put items away in the walk-in cooler and others on the shelves, and then I was off to ring the register. I’d start to learn more behind that register than in twenty years of schooling. I would begin to learn how to talk to people.
“My man!” Gido would shout to nearly every regular who walked through the door.
“Hey Billy, how are ya today?” would be their response. “That your son?” they’d ask, nodding in my direction.
“My grandson,” he would beam.
Some ordered sandwiches and I manned the slicer. Like Gido, I would offer a free slice of American cheese to snack on while they waited. My mother would have freaked if she knew I’d been working the slicer. Some customers ordered pickled pigs feet (to my astonishment), which I would snatch out of the yellow brine with tongs and wrap in wax paper. Some bought my personal favorite, single slices of tomato pie wrapped in plastic, a Utica specialty and staple. Cigarettes were big sellers. Newports, Marlboroughs, or UPCs, ordered in box 100s, soft packs, and even loosey’s, or single cigarettes we displayed in a coffee mug, for a quarter.
Today, Corn Hill is a neighborhood filled with crime and poverty. It’s funny how I don’t remember it that way, but I don’t think it was that much different back then. The difference was the way my grandfather treated the people of Corn Hill. To this day when he walks into a room, he always has a big smile. He talks to everyone, even strangers, as if they were family. He shares his sharp wit and humor with an underlying warmth and compassion behind it all. In the thirty years he ran his store in Corn Hill he never had a problem with anyone and was respected and admired by the entire community.
With the Fitz’s Diners, Shidelman’s Wholesalers, and Stamboly’s Markets out of business it feels like the world around me doesn’t have the character it used to. But there are still people with character, like my grandpa, who are leaders in their communities and in their families. Gido showed me how to run both a business and a family. I’ll always cherish these memories, my first few lessons in leadership.