COMING OF AGE AT BURY’S MEAT MARKET
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Teenage work experiences are many and varied. Often they are eminently forgettable, and not particularly pleasurable nor inspiring. I was fortunate to work at a place in the 1960s that proved to be extraordinary.
I cannot remember too much of how the opportunity opened at Bury’s Meat Market, in Moodus, Connecticut. Some other teenager likely decided to move on to grander opportunities and a friend who was working there gave me a heads up. I must have gone in to interview with the Bury brothers the same day and talked my way into a provisional appointment as junior apprentice meat cutter and cleanup guy. My pal, Artie Campanelli, must have put in a good word for me.
From the outside, Bury’s was an unremarkable place. The rambling wooden structure was probably part of a barn complex at one time. Tucked behind a Victorian home and bungalow, on a residential side street, you had to know it was there. Teenagers knew it was there because it was clearly visible across an open field beyond the high school parking lot. Also, my mother shopped there occasionally, so I was familiar with it from the customer-counter vantage point.
The point about Bury’s was that, somehow, you understood it was special. While working there after school, on weekends, or during the summer, I knew that what I was experiencing then would be the stuff of important memories in the far-off future. I just knew, and I wasn’t wrong.
I worked there a lot, and yet I can’t remember an occasion when I didn’t want to go in to work, was bummed about being there, or was watching the clock. Was it the work? Preparing meat scraps for the hamburger grinder? Cutting up a chicken for a waiting, unseen customer? Moving things around in the freezer when the delivery trucks arrived? No, it wasn’t the work.
Bury’s was a living, breathing anachronism. You knew you were working with people and for an institution that survived in a transitory niche, a rare holdout in the encroaching world of modern commerce.
Bury’s was about Joe and Julian, two older bachelor brothers wildly different in appearance, worldview, tastes, and persona. Whether they even liked each other was an open question. But month after month, year after year, they applied their different and unique talents to maintain a thriving business. It was just the Bury Brothers and one or two junior apprentice meat cutters. That was the business.
Joe was the public face of Bury’s, the man out front, attending to the very particular needs of the endless stream of housewives with their tagalong kids. The counter couldn’t have been more than twelve feet long, and the customer waiting area no more than eight feet deep. So it was cozy in a crowd. This was Joe’s domain.
Every customer was treated with a politeness that was of some bygone age in its formality. And yet, his politeness was intensely personal, invoking the honored customer’s name repeatedly when consulting on the size of the desired roast, the thickness of sliced ham, the appropriateness of the chicken choice. And always, it was “Mrs. Whomever.” I never heard Joe greet a customer with a given name, and some customers were pretty crude and lewd. But Joe’s world was one of courtly courtesy to all.
Certainly, not a few customers must have suspected that Joe’s manner was some sort of marketing affectation. Not true. Out of sight of the counter, and especially when no customers were around, Joe was actually more fussy, more particular, even in the back rooms where only the apprenticed proles could appreciate him. Enlisting one of our strong backs to bring out a beef carcass, Joe was like a surgeon sizing up his new patient. Peering through his spectacles, nose high in the air, he would begin an exploratory inspection, prodding, picking, and assessing various regions on the swinging hunk of meat. After some time, and considered private mutterings, Joe would bring out his blade and begin precise incisions. Somewhere in steer heaven, a bovine soul rested content in the absolute reverence afforded his remains.
I must have worked at Bury’s for a year or more before Joe, in a press of demanding customers, allowed me to take a beef loin to the band saw and cut a steak to a customer’s specifications. Other backroom denizens stood around watching how I handled the awesome responsibility. Joe, of course, inspected the result, consulted with the customer, and, with a tolerant nod, dismissed me to usual pursuits. To this day, I can’t view a busy supermarket meat department, with its shrink-wrapped stacks and pre-cut portions without thinking about Joe’s first test.
The guys in the back talked incessantly about the usual subjects: sports, women, the meaning of life, sports, women. Joe almost never participated in these meaningful debates. If he had a contribution, it was far removed from popular culture or gossip of the day -- stuff like business ethics or moral decline in western civilization. It was always a conversation stopper. We went back to our work. It wasn’t that Joe was unfriendly or didn’t enjoy the company of others, even us high school guys. You could always be certain of a big smile and warm greeting when you came in the door. He just had a self-imposed isolation when the rough, gruff real world came into the shop, as exemplified by his brother.
While Joe was slight, gray, formal, and fussy, Julian was rotund, slicked-back black, expansive, and down to earth. If Joe was marketing and customer relations, Julian was production, single-handedly manufacturing homemade kielbasa, smoked shoulders, bacon (regular and jowl), veal loaf, and other sausage kinds of things. Julian’s world was the rear room and its mixing vats, smoke cabinets, grinders, and carts. It was a place of varied music or Boston Celtics radio – “Havlichek steals the ball!” -- and apprentices sticking their heads in the doorway to cheer. Julian was a willing participant and instigator in all topics of earnest discussion, always as an adult, an experienced authority. Never as a vicarious teenage wannabe.
Get the conversation going the right way with Julian, and you might get an unexpected tidbit of information. Case in point: Just up the road from our home in Hadlyme lived “Aunt” Flossie in a two-room shack. Well advanced in age, she fed pet raccoons and other forest creatures, and hauled water for washing and cooking in buckets from the brook down the steep hill. Her shack’s interior design was male beefcake calendars on ancient peeling wallpaper, illuminated by one naked hanging bulb. After she passed on, Julian revealed in a totally unrelated conversation how Flossie, back in the day, could drink the young men of the town under the table and keep on going. I had to know more and it led me to reassess the life and identify of my grizzled but bright-eyed former neighbor. Julian waxed large on big bands, politics, and phonies. His grumbling and facial expressions, when next-door relatives made their demands known, or when his and Joe’s worlds collided, were always a source of stifled amusement for the apprentices.
The weekly cycle of production always came to a climax on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. The entire complex was full of the cooking and smoking smells of Julian’s creations. The end of the week was also top-to-bottom cleanup time, when apprentice energies were turned loose on all the vats, pans, butcher block, floors, and sundry other items that needed a good scrubbing. The music got louder, the repartee got boisterous. By this time, it was usually dark outside, and Joe was preoccupied with late customers.
With the cleaning half done, Julian would invariably slip inside the back refrigerator room where one or two six packs were tucked behind the pickles. With understated camaraderie and a knowing raised eyebrow, he would slip a cold one to each of the apprentices. If the night was warm and the mood was good, a second round usually followed. Intentional or not, cleaning crew productivity would soar, accompanied by intense discussions about the deeply meaningful issue of the moment. We knew Julian was exercising a certain measure of corporate risk in celebrating the end of the week with us underage types. We would not have betrayed his trust even under torture.
My last days at Bury’s were just before heading out to orientation at an Ivy League university and, ostensibly, a different sort of life. As cleanup ended and some task would take me outside, I would pause and stare across the valley in summer twilight. Some far-off dog would be barking amidst the cool stillness, and I’d ponder the moment, with regret and contentment. Regret at knowing that this rare experience and its moments would soon end; contentment at the existential poetry of it all, however fleeting.
It may be hard to understand how working in a meat market can rise to that level of meaning, emotion, or introspection. But when you take into account how severely judgmental adolescents can be, how conscious they can be of what’s cool and what’s not, it must be understood that humble Bury’s market engendered pride among its lowly teenage workers. If some village lovely made her way into the shop with her mother and I was manning the counter, my blood-splattered apron and chicken-entrailed hands became badges of honor.
I was proud of the institution and my role in it. It produced products with a quality and authenticity available nowhere else, as far as I knew. The Bury brothers were artisans in a time when artisans were the stuff of history books. One summer night near closing, the parking lot was full and a man’s head appeared suddenly at the screen window of the backroom where we worked filling orders. From the darkness, a disembodied voice asked some questions of us in a tone of wonderment and then said, “Wow, this place would do a hell of a business in New Jersey.” Well, precisely. But New Jersey can’t have it. It’s ours. Or it was.
That was 1966, and neither the market nor the brothers still survive. Always having been a packrat of bits of personal and family history, at about that time I resolved that when I reached some doddering old age, I would put all the bits together while rocking on some front porch. Actually, not “some” front porch. For decade after decade, as the bits of history accumulated, the porch image that informed my resolve to write it down in retirement was the porch on the house in front of Bury’s Meat Market. So wherever you are now, Bury boys: Here’s to you, Julian, and thank you very much indeed, Joseph.