My father was the friendliest man I’ve ever known. That is, when he was in his element. At home he was taciturn, which is why it took me so long to realize he was friendly to the point of being gifted.
His element was Levenson’s Market, a corner grocery store in Middle America. Middle America is a state of mind and the state Levenson’s Market was in was New Jersey, way south in New Jersey, in the town of Bridgeton. So far south, in fact, that it is below the Mason-Dixon line. So if I want to go into a mush-mouthed, y’allin’, drawlin’ manner of speech, I am entitled.
Bridgeton, New Jersey is rural. I know, I know. Rural New Jersey is an oxymoron in our national consciousness. But way down on the southwest edge, just ten miles from where the Delaware River begins to open its mouth and form the Delaware Bay, population is thin and family farms stitch a patchwork quilt. I go back there every five years for high school reunions for a booster shot of bedrock values, the world’s best tomatoes and peaches, and a refresher on the proper pronunciation of ‘water’.
When I was growing up, the front doors were never locked, car keys were left in the ignition, and cars were washed by their owners every Sunday.
Bridgeton isn’t famous for much. I looked up a list of Who’s Who in Bridgeton history and the only name I recognized was Goose Goslin. If you recognize the name, you must have been nutty for baseball statistics when you were a teen.
While in high school, I worked in my father’s store after class and on Saturdays. I re-stocked shelves and wrote the prices on cans with a wax crayon. Campbell’s Tomato Soup was 12 cents, the same price as a loaf of bread. I delivered groceries on my bicycle. I also sliced lunchmeat because it was before the days of pre-packaged lunchmeat.
And there I learned to imitate my pop’s welcoming style.
Pop knew the name of everyone who came into his store. If he didn’t know it when they came in, he knew it by the time they left. He knew the names of his customers’ kids, what grade they were in, what sports they played. At least I learned to make an effort to remember names.
I was a shy, awkward, under-sized, invisible kid, friendly and forgettable. It was many years before I learned most teens think of themselves as shy, awkward, and forgettable. I remember my 25th reunion when one woman told me she should have seduced me when she had the chance. No one would say that if it weren’t true, would they? It doesn’t matter that I did not know what seduction was when she had the chance. It is the thought that counts. Another woman told me she always hoped I would ask to carry her books. I suppose I should add ‘dense’ to the list above.
Eventually, I learned the value of knowing a lot of people. Long before it was given its name: networking. Networking means if you sell things, you have more customers—at least if they buy the things you sell. It did not make a lot of difference in my case. I never sold a boat to anyone who was a friend, but many of my friends are people that I helped to buy or sell their boat.
Also having a lot of friends means you don’t have to look a lot of up. You get to submit your question to people who already know the thing you have to find out. For instance, the most interesting route to Needles from Alameda.
When I posed that question in yesterday’s blog, I got good information and a huge bonus. I realized that A Year on the Road which started as a newsletter to let people know where I was and which evolved into a conversation about a variety of topics. Now it seems to have graduated to full-scale resource. And that is important because I have more questions than ever–questions that go to the threads of the fabric of our time–people, politics, an religion, as well as values, lifestyle, and yearnings, and more. Questions I will ask new people I meet as soon as they understand a friendly man is asking, a man whose agenda is mere curiosity. Questions I can pose to my Internet passengers, who collectively, are encyclopedic in their knowledge and experience.
I wonder what my life would look like had my father not taught me that there is profit in putting people at ease.