There is a fat lady between the slicing machines and meat grinders on display in the store window. Cotton droops out of her overstuffed neck and arms, but still she sits on an antique dentist chair with dignity, confusing passersby. Shining against her lacy, dust-stained blouse is a HUVPAC Washington conference nametag, and fastened to her skirt are colorful pins made by me and my brothers when we were young. Few understand why she sits in the grit, grease and grime of my father’s restaurant equipment store, but I know she is its matron saint.
Learning and beauty flourish alongside sweat and filth throughout the lady’s domain. Stainless steel machines clutter the chipped mahogany shelves and half the rubber-carpeted cement floor, but nestled between Hobart 12-quart mixers, two horsepower Fleetwood grinders, OMCAN scales and Globe slicers are an African mask, gourds left over from fall, several maps, and programs from all the school functions my brothers and I ever had.
Above some deluxe model General slicers, antique bronze registers teach history with wider slots for old bills and extra compartments for two and three-cent coins. Exotic birds perch in calendar pictures next to the hand cleaner bucket overflowing with grease, and an electrical cord hangs from the ornate art-deco tiled ceiling. Bright Spanish music floats through from the hazardous back-room workshop, where screws and welders, rags and even more grease and machine parts litter the floor and shelves and Japanese art decorates the walls.
The focal point of the store, however, is not the machines or the birds or the maps or the boxes that have invaded the back half of the room, but the desk. A relic of the computerless age - a time still in existence here - it is covered with index and business cards, notes and sample register labels stapled atop each other in a half-inch thick layer. Three newspapers cover this ancient database each morning, providing the day’s news from every standpoint. Buried under a perilously tall tower of receipts, unattached notes, catalogs and calculators, the most recent edition of Foreign Affairs awaits a fabled “spare minute.”
Above the desk, at least a hundred foreign bills paper the walls: conversation starters to transport the customer from the chaotic world of the Bowery to the sunny place of his childhood, while providing a quick geography lesson. Everyone and everything is a teacher here, and my job (when I am not busy answering the phone, writing labels on machines or bargaining with clients) is simply to watch, learn and experience the fat lady’s dichotomous world, knowing that an hour spent in this collapsing little store can teach me more than a year in school and that the quest for knowledge thrives wherever it is planted.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.