I first met Fred in March of 1992.The local supermarket where I was employed had been sold to a Cleveland food retailer. Terms of the…
I first met Fred in March of 1992.
The local supermarket where I was employed had been sold to a Cleveland food retailer. Terms of the sale dictated a handing over of physical assets. But all employees were terminated. The result came as a shock. After six years, I was asked to perform the same duties while losing wages, benefits, vacations and seniority.
My union representative could only say “You are lucky to have a job.” While his observation rang true, it did not feel like a personal victory. Only later would I realize that it represented a genuine turning point in my career.
Fred was a veteran Assistant Manager, from Euclid. He spoke of joining the team at Fisher Foods in 1957. His brusque manner had been developed working at a variety of corporate locations on Lake Erie. It was a defense mechanism that served him well in urban areas. But in a sense, he was destined to fail in the kinder climate of Geauga County.
He first appeared wearing a Flinstones baseball cap. We reckoned he must not have had a mirror at home, to witness his own visual silliness.
But he felt no remorse for being unwelcome. His was a life of duty.
A quick remodel and staff revision at the reborn store had little positive effect. Shoppers were uneasy with our lack of old-fashioned service. It did not take long to see a steady exodus of customers to our competitors. Our sales volume literally plummeted. I was on the third-shift crew, which served to insulate me from the fury of customer complaints. Yet Fred had to face the wrath of unhappy patrons with no protection. Still, he marched along like an old soldier.
He talked about the Cleveland Indians in 1948, when they won the World Series against the Boston Braves. And about 1954 when they lost to the New York Giants.
We did not like him, but he seemed not to notice.
When the roof leaked, Fred stationed ladders and buckets around the sales floor. When pallets of grocery stock were left in the back room, due to cuts in labor hours, he continued to order more product. When the crew turned surly, he growled in response like an old bear.
Nothing made him flinch. Not even threatening words from our corporate supervisors.
A Geauga County snowstorm in the 90’s buried this ill-fated store, overnight. We were certain that he would be unable to report for work on that frosty morning. But the crabby veteran showed up, a few minutes late, in his Buick station wagon.
Fred was an unstoppable force. His loyalty could not be questioned.
Eventually, circumstances took their toll. We had lost over half of our customer traffic. Product was going out of date in the back room, on a regular basis. Employees flew out the door. A customer suggestion box was removed because of the violent nature of the comments being offered.
One shopper observed poignantly: “Your employees do not seem happy to be here.”
Later, construction began on a new, high-end food emporium in town. Our Cleveland hierarchy reckoned it meant we were finished. Then, the entire company was bought by an out-of-state entity. Fred was transferred to a Lake County store.
The Water Street business closed in 1998.
But then, things brightened in my own life. I was promoted to Co-Manager at a different location and did well in this new environment.
When I saw him again, he was astounded by my gold badge.
“You rose up through the ranks quickly!” he observed.
He had developed cancer and was working with a chemo pack under his dress shirt. Never missing a single day of service. Suddenly, I saw him in a different light.
Before, he had appeared to be unpolished and boorish. A clumsy oaf with too much authority and too little training. But now, I looked at him with the benefit of more experience.
Regret made me bow my head.
I pondered trying to make out grocery orders with little qualified help on duty. And mused about running a retail outlet with a shoestring budget. Moreover, I considered how challenging it must have been to arrive in a foreign county where damning first impressions had already been made.
Fred may have felt like a genuine Flintstone, time-slipped into the unfamiliar age of George Jetson with no idea of how to survive.
Having reached 30 years of service on my own resume, I told stories about Fred and those who shared the journey, in yonder days. Each manager had contributed to my own knowledge of the industry. In modern terms, I felt grateful for their tutelage.
Over the summer of 2013, Fred passed away. His death was noted in the UFCW Local 880 newspaper. A retiree friend mentioned reading this notice.
I felt cold inside.
Our service together was brief. Yet his memory will last forever.
Rest in peace, Mister Flintstone.
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