It was very early; far too early for a sixteen year old boy to be up and at it. The city of Chicago was still asleep. Ralph, my boss and the proprietor of Dileo’s Produce insisted on my joining him at the South Water Street Market where he would be purchasing produce for the day’s deliveries. I really don’t know why, but Ralph had taken a liking to me several years before. I had begun working his fields with other boys from town at about the age of thirteen. Over the next few years I graduated to the role of stock boy and cashier at his farm stand and had recently begun making store deliveries for him. I think the morning’s venture was meant to be a lesson in customer relationships.
Ralph was a coffee drinker. Hot, cold, fresh, old, it didn’t matter. Ralph liked coffee. Upon arrival at the market he parked his truck and motioned me to follow him. Raising his nose to the sky as if he were scanning the morning air for the aroma of brewing coffee, he marched across the street to the all night greasy spoon. Like I said, it was early, like 4:00AM early. Ralph served himself a cup and found a place at the counter where he pulled out his book and started to review the orders he’d be filling that morning. I stood there next to him because there was nowhere to sit. The diner was full of men sleeping on the tables, most looked like winos to me. Ralph glared at me and said “Sit down.”
I said, “Where?”
He said, “Push one of these guys out of the way.”
Ralph was serious. Apparently this was accepted behavior. So I grabbed one guy by the back of his shirt, said “excuse me” and gave him a little shove. He looked up and let out a groan.
Ralph snapped, “Push him!”
Following orders, I gave the sleeping man a more forceful two handed shove to which he responded by stumbling down to a different spot along the counter.
Ralph looked over his list and said, “We need cabbage, a lot of cabbage.” Ralph’s locally grown crop was finished for the season. One of his clients, Rube’s Sportsman’s Club in Harvey offered a corn beef and cabbage lunch special every Wednesday. Rube’s catered to the business crowd that worked in the surrounding area industries. His place was always packed; especially for the Wednesday special.
Ralph threw back his fifth cup of coffee and said, “Let’s go.” Then headed back to the market where carloads of fresh vegetables and fruits had been delivered hours earlier that morning.
The half mile long market had an Old World feel to it. It was a major distribution center for not only the city but to the entire Midwest. Weather-beaten men decked out with soiled aprons and odd hats carted crates of produce around the dock. The pungent mix of fresh vegetables, human sweat and cigar smoke drifted through the market place. Some men shouted while others laughed, many speaking in languages foreign to me. My ever growing frenzy to make sense out of what was happening was contrasted by some of the older merchants who leisurely leaned back on wooden chairs and just took it all in. They’d seen it all many times before.
Ralph worked his way through the pandemonium, stopping to speak with merchants in a manner that made it appear they were old friends. It seemed as if everything took place in slow motion to Ralph. He radiated confidence as he bargained his way down the dock. Ralph was cool and calm. He could handle people, not man-handle; Ralph just seemed to have an air of fairness about him and people trusted Ralph. I learned much by watching his approach. That awareness has at times been very helpful.
Ralph assigned me the job of making truck deliveries to his small businesses clients. He said, “Remember, the customer is always right, but making them feel that way doesn’t always have to cost me money.”
One stop on my route was a family grocery store in the low income town of Dixmoor, Illinois. Ralph welcomed the business of small African-American businesses that were often shunned by other suppliers. My route consisted of a number of similar small stores. The woman who owned and operated this particular store paid me with rolls of quarters, which were always two quarters short of ten dollars.
Upon arriving at her store I was usually greeted by a group of young boys who hung around outside on the steps. I caught them climbing in the back of the truck while I was inside the store and had to lock the doors after that. Locking and unlocking the doors with each load was getting old.
I told Ralph about it. I didn’t want to have to dump out the roles of quarters each time and count them in front of her and I was tired of locking the truck. Ralph said, “Handle that in a way that keeps them happy without me losing money.” He left me to figure out how to achieve that goal.
I thought long and hard about it and came up with a plan. I pulled up to the store and as usual the boys gathered around the truck. I climbed out of the cab and called them over. I said, “Look I’m tired of locking this truck up every time I have to go inside, I’ve got a deal for you. I will give you guys one free watermelon. In exchange you will sit here on the steps and watch my truck while I’m inside.”
One boy asked. “Is that a melon every time you come back?’
I said, “One melon every time I come to make a delivery.” They agreed. I let them pick the one they wanted. I then went about making my delivery.
A watermelon back then cost around 50cents. I took that 50cents and added that to the 50cents for every ten dollar roll of quarters she would most likely use to pay me that day. Then I took the sum of that and added it in small amounts to each item on her bill. So in the end she paid both the full price of the produce and the levy to leave the truck unlocked.
She smiled and continued to believe she was short changing me, the boys smiled as they discovered the satisfaction of earning the watermelon, Ralph smiled when I told him how I solved the problem, and I smiled bigger than them all.