Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Paul's Choice

"We sold the store."

That was the brief FB message I had gotten from my old boss tonight. Not much to it, hell I knew it would happen some day, so I shouldn't have been surprised by it. But I was, actually I am heart broken, I feel like a part of me is lost forever, a part of my childhood I will never get to visit again. The truth is, it has been over 12 years since I have been back to Keene, NH and it never really effected me, until now.

I don't think any of my readers know that I'm originally from New England - born in Medford, MA (a suburb of Boston) in 1973 I moved to Keene, New Hampshire when I was 7 years old and in the 2nd grade. We lived in an old house on Taylor Street behind the junior high school. When I say old, I mean that it was built around 1860. So even when I moved there in 1980 it was already 120 years old. We lived in that house, next to an ancient cemetery, until 1987 when we moved to Tanglewood Estates, a trailer park in North Keene, just off Court Street. Being a bit of a baseball card fanatic, I needed a job to make cash - that hobby would soon turn to beer and girls. I found my way to one of the few local stores in the area - a new butcher/market in the neighborhood called Paul's Choice.

Paul's was new to this part of town, but it was easy to tell that it would be a success. People in New England are old fashion, love quality, and are extremely loyal. Paul's was a collection of misfits who had tried their hands at prior butcher shops, restaurants, grocery stores and other blue-collar, hands dirty type jobs, only to screw them up and be out of a job. Paul and Ronda Stewart brought the expertise and they surrounded themselves with some of the most loyal delinquents around. I say delinquents because these guys (and a couple of ladies throughout the years) were no angels. However, to a 15 year old kid (and freshman in high school) they were every bit role models.

I don't remember the exact date I rolled into the shop and asked for an application. Having made pizzas since I was 11 years old, mowed lawns, raked leaves and other odd jobs hardly qualified me to work at a butcher shop. But Ronda, after meeting my mom, gave me a chance. Little did we know that it would be quite a ride.

I worked about 24 hours a week during school and nearly 40 hours a week on summer breaks. Being from a divorced home I spent every other weekend with my father in central Massachusetts. Paul's was always accommodating. I worked there my entire high school career, learned to drive, learned about girls, sex, weed, Jack Daniels, condoms, pain killers, money, golf balling, and how to be a man. That was a lot of learning for a HS kid.

The store consisted of some strange characters, each of which shaped and changed my life a little. Randy was the tall, rail thin, Toyota Supra driving, aspiring butcher who would marry and divorce the boss' daughter. He was a natural at cutting meat and customer service, he'd been the successor to the thrown since the day he started - and he knew it. He was 6 years older than me, he could drink a case of beer a night and out run the cops after it. He was no stranger to the law, and was a bit of a hot head. I looked up to him like an older brother and he taught me more than I will ever admit. He was dedicated to the store and to me, he knew I looked up to him.

Alan was the serial killer of the bunch, at least he looked like he was. Until you met his wife and little girls - who made him seem a lot more human. Alan had a full beard, crazy laugh, jittery eyes, always twirling a knife in his hands, quiet, observant, crazy, calming. Sure he was quiet, at least until 7pm when we closed, and then he would loosen up - music blaring, singing. I never knew if he liked me or not, but I knew he respected how hard I worked and I never took advantage of him. Alan was always family, but he was that older brother you never had anything in common with because he was much older than you.

Paul was the owner, and although our relationship was always on a boss/employee level I knew he cared about me, and was proud of me. He was more like the Uncle of mine that gives you the job as a favor, but ends up keeping you because he's proud of you.

Ronda was the talkative co-owner married to Paul. She could make, bake or cook anything. She was very creative, very organized, and you couldn't argue with her. But she was spot on and rarely wrong. She was also very short and I remember she had to stand on a crate to reach the counters or the benches in the back. She wasn't really a mom type, she was way too young, but she was the only woman voice in the whole store and you respected it.

There were several other cutters, counter help and checkers that I remember, but no one else was constant. We were the core group for the first 4 years I was there. I worked there through high school and returned every Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Years weeks while on breaks from college - Northeastern University in Boston, MA. I would go home to visit mom, give her a kiss and off I would go to Paul's. We would work crazy hours - sometimes 36 to 48 hours straight getting roasts and turkeys and shrimp orders ready for the holidays. We'd sleep in the back room on crates and boxes, trying to get in a few hours sleep from 4 to 7 am before we'd have to go back at it to meet the holiday rush. I'd work until 7pm on XMas or New Year's Eve and go home exhausted. My mom would just shake her head, feed me, tell me to go to bed and wake me up early. My fingers were cut and sore, my bones ached from the cold in the coolers and I constantly smelled like meat - even after two hot showers and 10 hours of sleep. But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't the best times of my life. Paul and Ronda had me back every year from 1991 to 1995 - I'd work a week and then disappear, spend the holiday with the family, then back to Boston.

The Stories
I wouldn't do Paul's justice if I didn't talk about the crazy times/memories I had there as well.
- In my first year I remember cleaning the slicer when I slid my hand under the blade (it was off) and sliced my middle finger knuckle on my right hand all the way to the bone. Alan saw the whole thing and saw the look on my face and grabbed me. He told me not to look at it, run it under water and he would bandage it up. He asked me 5 times if I was going to pass out - I did not. However, that cut took almost 4 months to heal - I never went to the doctor and had to lance the thing open 2 times to clean out the puss from infection. I still have the scar to this day.

- Our first year we got frozen uncooked shrimp with the shell on it. We would defrost 12 lb boxes of these things in trays of hot water, cook them up in pots, then peel and de-vein them. Luckily we didn't get a whole lot of orders that first year, maybe a ten thousand pounds or so, but then you realize how many boxes of shrimp that was and the work that went into it and how many pounds of shrimp you peeled and it brings back nightmares. We would peel all night long, do contests, have split fingers, shells under your finger nails, cuts like no ones business. I will never peel an uncut shrimp again. I like them pre-cooked and pre-cleaned now!

- I remember being friends with the kid who worked at the convenience store next door and him leaving out beer and wine coolers (come on - they were for the girls!) in the snow bank out back. Made for some fun weekends.

- I remember golf balling down the Ashuelot River that ran next to the Bretwood golf course behind the store. Taking Randy's canoe, a cooler, a case of beer and goggles and paddling and swimming the entire 6 miles of river in search of golf balls. We'd fill that cooler with balls and empty it of beers on that entire trip. We'd sell the golf balls back to the golf course and barely break even on our beer fund. We'd brave hail storms, beavers and snakes - all for a few golf balls.

- I remember frozen hands, stomping in the card board dumpster, power washing coolers, brine barrels full of corned beef, making thousands of pounds of sausage and hamburger, trying Jack Daniels for the first time, talking about girls, and having so much fun. I remember paychecks and bonuses, I remember my mom always getting a huge discount, and being treated like a queen there.

- I remember the one time I was sent home from work - the only non-sick day I ever had at Paul's. I had a huge Jack Daniels bender the night before, had stumbled into the house and passed out in front of mom and dad. My mom ended up hosing me off in the shower to wake me up - it was that bad. The next day I had to be at work - and my mom made me go. I got there and was green and ill. I was sent home with a stern warning never to do that again. I didn't. I was ashamed of myself for letting my boss down.

- I remember DUIs (not mine), I remember pregnancies (not mine), I remember marriages (not mine), I remember fights (not mine), I remember pinkies (not mine) and I remember being shielded from a lot more. I was lucky to be the shielded one.

In my 4+ full time years there I was a straight A student in HS, I played baseball and some football and had a girlfriend my senior year. I was shielded from a lot of the stuff because I think they (my Paul's family) wanted to not get me caught up in the things that would keep a guy in Keene, NH. They wanted more for me and they didn't want any distractions. They actually pushed me out of Keene, and for that I thank them. The work ethic I learned at Paul's would be the foundation for the rest of my life. All my life I have kept the same energy and loyalty since the day I set foot in there. Paul helped me save money for college and taught me what a wage meant and how to earn it. I owe a lot to Paul's Choice.

So, on this day that I find out the "store is sold" I am saddened. Not because my friends are moving from the working world to retirement, they greatly deserve it, but rather because a piece of my childhood is lost - and is unrecoverable. Every story has a "The End", and this one is no different, I just never thought I would read the last page. Page 1 started in 1987, followed by a great story, and it will end this holiday season 2010 - so many stories, so many pages, so many lives touched. It was a great ride, and I hope retirement is the happily ever after.

Best wishes Paul and Ronda, enjoy retirement and we hope to see you out here in Colorado soon!


Juan Ramirez said...

Loved the story. Good stuff!


Joy Stewart Mixon said...

Not sure how I found your blog, (I think I was doing a search on a "Paul's Choice" story; and voila! I am Paul's niece. My Dad was a meat cutter back in the 1950's, so it runs in the family. I'm sure Paul has shared the good ole days with you! Thank you for sharing your memories in such a wonderful way.

Brandon said...

Joy - Paul and Ronda have always meant the world to me. They are very good (great) people and have helped a lot of people. They were loyal to their employees and were treated equally. A lot of people loved them (and still do of course) - just sad to see the store change hands. With Randy still there, the store will continue to be top notch. Again, I haven't worked there in 15 years, but I am sad. A little piece of me is gone forever. Happy Holidays to your family!

Laurie Armstrong said...

Hey Brandon,

Another one of Paul's nieces here. You couldn't have worked with better company and received a better education than the one you have described here. I love these stories!

Paul and Rhonda are truly a remarkable, wonderful couple. You haven't lost a little piece of yourself, it's just been pushed a little further back behind what you're making your priorities today. Best thing is, it will never be gone! Best to you going forward!

Thanks Joy for introducing the story!

Brandon said...

Wow, I never expected anyone who actually knows the people in the story to have read it. I mean, I'm 2,000 miles away now and it is 15 years later. But I'm glad you did read it - it's something I am very proud of - it is the foundation they laid that lead me to be the person I am today - and my kids will be in the future.

I hope no one takes my comments badly - I use the terms delinquent, crazy, etc - these guys were no angels, and they were crazy to a 15 year old kid like me. But I loved them all - and I know they kept that part of their lives away from me because they wanted to make sure I got out of Keene and went to college.

But, if you asked them, they'd tell you it was nothing and that they didn't shield me from anything. They wouldn't take credit for teaching me anything - but they'd be saying it with a smirk on their faces a mile wide!


Joy Stewart Mixon said...

Thank you Brandon! My Cousin Laurie, couldn't have said it better!

You should be proud, Brandon! You had wonderful life teachers in Paul and Ronda! I am so glad that you had the opportunity to know them and work with them and that they influenced the person you have become today!

You will always have those wonderful memories and stories to share with your family!

I wish you and your family all the best in this Holiday Season. And again, thank you for sharing your stories of "Paul's Choice". You keep the flame burning bright and it will never diminish!! :)

aprilbrothers said...


I'm sure Dad and Ronda will appreciate your post. I know I did.

You made a lasting impression on us as well. In fact, just last week I blurted out "Eddie!" when my daughter Jamie was trying to tell me a story about a boy, Eddie, in her accounting class...

Hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

Best, April

Brandon said...

Thanks April. We really were a one of a kind bunch - I was only part of it for a short time, but the rest of the crew were lifers.

I'm still trying to get Randy's cell phone number, since I know he doesn't have an email address (no way he uses a computer!!).

You can send it to me at brandon722@yahoo.com.

Happy holidays!!

Jamie Cornwell said...

Hi Brandon,

I am Jamie, granddaughter of Paul and Ronda and daughter of April and Randy. It's funny that I see this four years after it was written but your feelings were spot on with mine. I grew up in that store and had many similar experiences to you when I worked there through high school and during college breaks. I got a good laugh over your summation of my dad and Alan.. spot on! They haven't changed at all. Alan still helps out during the busy holiday seasons.
Anyway, thank you, this brought back some good memories of how the store used to be. I'm glad you moved onto bigger and better things like they wanted you to.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad you got to read this Jamie. Brandon was one of a kind. And if I didn't tell you Brandon..Great Job..as expected

Brandon said...

Who is anonymous??

Thanks Jamie. Please tell your Dad that I said hello. I miss the whole crew!

Best of luck and congrats on college!