Ansel Head’s first formal job was during his sixteenth summer. His father had taken him in an earlier year to a store opening in a nice neighborhood to run the cotton candy machine. Requiring little brain power, the task seemed appropriate to the non-superior boy’s intellect. The job was simple: Get more of the spun sugar on the paper cone than on the operator. But a cotton candy machine is tricky even in the best of environments; it is especially dangerous on hundred degree July days. Nevertheless, the young Head preserved his father’s confidence in him by getting 2/3rds of the cotton on the several hundred cones he gave away and only 1/3rd on himself. Although the pink food coloring used to enhance the candy’s appeal gave a cherrub like appearance to the boy’s bare arms, legs, and face, his proud paternal relatives brought him to their traditional Saturday night dinner in the private dining room at Joy Young’s.
Now that he was older, his education in the ways of business could proceed. On weekdays, Ansel Head would arise, have a breakfast prepared by Mary, then drive his father to the Hill Grocery warehouse on the south side of downtown Birmingham. The fifteen minute trip gave his father time to finish his Post Herald, the morning news paper; it was also his time to evaluate his boy’s skills for his upcoming driver’s test later that summer. Occasionally he would look over the top of his glasses to offer suggestions like “don’t get caught speeding” but generally he focused on his paper.
At 8:00 AM, they would arrive at the loading dock which serviced the produce department. Dented and rusted pickups, eighteen wheelers, and trucks of every size and description in between clogged the street waiting to unload their goods. Boxes of bananas, greens and peas of every kind, potatoes, carrots, corn, lettuce, and melons were everywhere. The concrete floors were sealed with a black sticky residue from years of crates, pecks and bushels being moved about by men walking behind electric pallet jacks. The same black film extended half way up the brick walls giving a dingy pallor to the place. But its odor, that musty smell of fresh and discarded vegetables and fruits combined with tobacco smoke and sweaty men in the hot summer air, was to the trainee the thing most recognizable and memorable. To people not born to the food business, that smell might be offensive, even repulsive. To Head, it had been part of his air since his first trip as a newborn to greet his father and grandfather’s employees, and he loved it.
By the time Head arrived in the mornings, most of the work had already been done; but as the owners’ prince, he was never confronted for not coming at 4:00 AM when the trucks taking the fresh produce to the stores were loaded and departed. His curriculum that summer was to learn practical things about produce and working men, not logistics. Although the course lacked McCallie’s rigor, the student was finding it useful and satisfying and well within his intellectual grasp.
His duties started in the produce office, a one room wooden structure built inside the warehouse next to large, open doors leading to the loading dock; through dirty windows, the produce manager maintained control of the people and goods moving about outside his air conditioned command post.
Head would take his place at an aged and severally abused wooden table containing several telephones, black ashtrays with reddish brown pockmarks covered in grey ash, and 11 x 17 tablets of produce ordering forms. The learning station was always ready for the prince’s arrival: pencils were sharpened and neatly organized in coffee stained mugs, fresh blue carbon paper had been carefully inserted between the top and bottom two copies of the ordering tablets, and his tutor George with an unpronounceable Greek surname was waiting patiently in one of the mismatched chairs.
At appointed times, store managers called in orders for the next day. Head recorded their needs, making certain he pressed the pencils hard to give clear numbers on back copies. His tutor watched carefully to prevent store managers from ordering things that would be unavailable. The produce manager remained close at hand to protect the novice from making mistakes that would cause chaos in the next morning’s routines.
Following his morning scribe class, he would join his grandfather, great uncle, and father in a dark blue Cadillac for lunch at his favorite place, Ollie’s for barbeque and cherry pie, or at their favorite, Miss Bibb’s for vegetables and rice pudding. No one objected when he departed before all thirty-five produce orders had come in.
In the afternoon, approved truck farmers would bring in the fruits and vegetables they had picked that morning. A Hill Grocery man had to confirm the quality and that duty fell upon the trainee. He would crawl into the front of a truck filled with watermelons, burrow down towards the bottom – that’s where they would hide the bad ones – pull out a likely sample, cut it open, and eat it. It was the only way to tell if the goods were acceptable. He had to repeat the ordeal with farmers bringing cantaloupes, honey dew melons, peaches, sweet potatoes, and all kinds of berries. He prided himself on how well he performed.
His grandfather and great uncle sold Hill Grocery to Winn Dixie in late July of that summer. Head was unceremoniously laid off without severance. He had lost the best job he would ever hold.