Gratiot Central Market

Around the time I was a Freshman in High School my cousin Kenny, my best buddy, moved to California with his family . Those were still the days when you strapped a burlap evaporative water bag to the front of your car to help the cooling as you crossed the hot desert on whatever 2 lane you took going West.

My cousin was a few years older and had been working a job at our Uncle Phil's bakery. The Nortown Bakery, on 7 Mile Road, just west of Van Dyke Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. It's still there. Sort of. Seen better days. Photos later.

When Kenny left the job came to me. 

The deal was that on every Friday directly after school I would go straight to the bakery and work from around 4:30 pm for 14 hours, dog tired and leaving for home at 6:30 am the next morning. It was my first work experience, and you can imagine the black dread it was going to work like that every Friday afternoon during Summer recess. And, mind you, I worked. Never had an idle moment, except during a "lunch" break at Midnight.

Uncle Phil paid me exactly 75 cents per hour. At that rate, I soon became aware, I was going nowhere. I asked for a raise. When I opened my pay envelope the following week there was a little more. But I asked Phil about getting a raise. "I gave you one! Now its 85 cents an hour." At family get togethers my proud AFL-CIO Union Worker Dad would argue loudly with Uncle Phil about about Labor and Management injustices. Phil would just bait my Dad to see him get blood red mad. Management held the power.

At 85 cents per hour, I got it clearly that I in fact did not have a future. And, I wasn't about to trust Uncle Phil to mentor me to some sort of career in the floury trade. Next day or so, I quit. Much to the consternation of my parents. Phil was rich. And, like a lot of other SOB's with money, people looked up to him. Wanted to please him. My destiny lay elsewhere.

Just so happened my brother's friend Bob had just graduated Law School and was leaving the job he held since his high school years. That's how I came to Gratiot Central Market. 

There, I learned a lot. Especially how to sell. How to kibitz with the folks. What NOT to say. The market was an open air theater of shops. You were competing with stalls on either side of you who sold almost exactly the same items. Repeat customers were made on the service, reliable quality, and developed relationships. 

There was a bit of hawking, trying to lure in passersby to take a closer look. In my inexperience I once proudly boasted to a potential customer that, "Our meat is fresh". The boss took me aside after hearing that and gently told me we don't say that, because it implicitly raises the question that it might not be fresh.

Then there's the old, go-to, crudity, "You can't beat my meat." Seriously, we dealt with a wholesaler who printed that boast on top of every bill. 

At the end of the day on Saturday we wanted to clear out the inventory. It was time to deal. No leftovers for Monday. We would strike deals. "Take it all, and I'll sell it for . . ." Once I gave a customer a discounted price. The boss, hearing that, admonished me in front of the customer that the price was too low! You guessed it, the lady scooped up the deal without a second thought. Afterward, the boss gave me a wink. I sort of knew what the game was all along, it was a great lesson in selling, teamwork, psychology, keeping your wits about you.

And, yes, I learned how to cut meat. There were no power tools except a meat grinder and a cuber; that's small device with a pair of wicked sharp multi-multiple jagged blades through which you pass a tough cut of beef to "tenderize" it. Cube steak. For the rest of the cutting we used knives, cleavers, and hand saw blades. My boss, Norb, taught me right. Never cut myself. I could take a lamb carcass and turn the whole thing into chops. Splitting it down the middle with a cleaver. Sawing the round bones. And finishing the chops by cutting along the spine with the cleaver again.

This was an old fashioned kind of place. We worked a stall 3 windows wide, set alongside similar stalls. Most merchandising the same things. There were in that huge enclosed market other stalls. One right across from us specialized in poultry. Flower stands. Greek pastries, where I would get my lunch treat Baklava's. A Kosher hot food stand with Corned Beef and Beef Franks, pickles on the side. 

I started at a whopping $1.00 per hour, and within the year would see that doubled. I started Saturday's there at 6:30 am and left 12 hours later. With breakfast and lunch breaks. $25.00 richer and with some discounted purchases to bring home. Now that was some serious dough. Saved enough to buy a used car when I was old enough to drive.

That job lasted me through the middle of my college years, when Varsity fencing and weekend away games took priority. 

Here are some photos.

First, the Nortown Bakery. Currently run by a Bulgarian gent who when we visited in the Fall of 2013 refused to let us see the back of the house. Which, by the way, he did permit when we visited several years before. All he could do was sing the blues about the sorry state of things in his shop and around the neighborhood. He said his roof was falling in, and business was not good enough to keep up repairs. Alas. I did work there in better times. The photos are my own from that last trip.

Gratiot Central Market, current times.

Gratiot Central Market when it was new, circa 1915. 

In the above photo we see poultry hanging overhead. It must've been kept cold then. Some years later, when I worked there, only one vendor in the whole store specialized in poultry. Kept under refrigerated display cases.

The interesting thing about this photo, however, is that it shows what is more than likely the spot where I worked. The 3-window booth just right of the pass through shown in the upper right of the photo. 

This image is also significant since it is the only I have been able to find which shows the set up of the market as it still was in the middle 1950s, when I worked there. But, by then, it was indeed showing its age. And, now, as you have seen, all of it has been completely redone.

It was at my job at the Gratiot Central Market where I learned that famous come back to a customer complaining about the price. "You know, some say it tough to pay $3.00 [back then] a pound for steak. But, if you don't it might be tougher."

My boss and I were flirts. It's a butcher thing. When someone would ask if the beef liver was tender, the line was, hand to heart, "Lady, that beef liver is as tender as your mother's heart."

Once I tried that line, but to opposite effect. Seems the lady had some old business with mom. As she stormed away in a hurry I heard her yelling, "My mother's heart ain't tender! Godamit! Sonofabitch!"

Not everyone is your customer.


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