In the summer of my tenth year, circa 1963, I decided I needed a job. DC Comics had published more 10-cent superhero issues than coin prospecting under the sofa, riffling through Dad’s trousers, or keeping the change from grocery runs could support. Even if I tacked on a surcharge for embarrassing items like Modess or Grandpa’s enema tubing, I still came up short.
I asked my parents about the idea. They laughed indulgently until I suggested a weekly allowance instead, just like Beaver Cleaver on TV. Employment suddenly became the obvious choice in our Brooklyn, New York, working class household if I wanted to support my habit.
I’d watched the Little Rascals daily. Now, in my penurious state, I noticed that episodes featuring Spanky and the gang often involved sales – lemonade, newspapers – or services (grocery clerking, shoe shining).
It was the same with the Cagney movies of the 1930s, where every kid seemed to be employed. Shoe shining was the most popular job after hawking newspapers, and my hero Bobby Jordan made it look easy and lucrative. I found a box and some black polish, but Dad kyboshed it ipso facto. “You think I lived through the Depression and ate air sandwiches to see my only son doing shoes?”
Therefore, I became an egg candler. Our neighbor, soft-spoken Mr. Dragoni, offered me the job. I determined in the interview that all I needed was the ability to see, stamina to withstand the unventilated interior of the glass-fronted store in summer, and the ability to judge yolk sizes using a machine.
My first day, in mid-July, I wore a black work apron — a freebie courtesy of the “Egg King” — to keep egg goo off my chinos. After five minutes of in-service education from the sixty-something Dragoni, I got to sit in a Hades-hot little sweatshop for $1 a day.
Each morning by nine, I’d spy the egg crates waiting and Mr. Dragoni writing in his ledger or sweeping up stray chicken feathers that came with the eggs.
I stepped dutifully into the curtained-off, six-by-eight, airless candling sector and began work. I’d carefully handle the crates of eggs — one at a time — that baldheaded Mr. Dragoni – whose shiny noggin looked like an egg from behind — used to drive daily to pick up from southern New Jersey chicken farms. His ride was a windowless old black panel truck that looked like Jimmy Cagney’s getaway car in “White Heat.”
In my cubicle sat a square box emitting an intense beam of light. It radiated enough heat so that when I pulled the curtain back for air every 15 minutes, I felt like Superman and that someone — sometimes in my imagination it was Jimmy Olsen, other times Lois Lane or, once or twice, Perry White or Inspector Henderson — had safely lead-shielded me from debilitating kryptonite, allowing my super powers to return every quarter-hour.
I’d raise each egg to the light. If there was a fetus inside, the egg was discarded and sent with all the others to the “egg products” people — those shadowy beings with even bigger trucks responsible for the line on product labels reading “eggs and egg by-products.” Then, I’d judge the egg according to instructions from the boss about yolk density and size.
I processed three ort four grosses of eggs daily: 144 eggs per cardboard shipping box, packed 12 – then as now – to a carton. The cartons were made from a smelly, spongy gray material that seemed almost animate –very scary as packing materials go.
With sweat dripping down my nose and my underwear sopping, I suddenly felt all alone in the hell I’d made for myself, just so I could see Superman vanquish Lex Luthor and fly away with Lois in his arms each month. (Incidentally, these were the days before child psychiatry took hold in a nation just becoming a world power. Therefore, I was around 32 before I could order eggs “lookin’ atcha.”)
There was no room for advancement. Mr. Dragoni handled the egg deliveries to local homes himself. Therefore, I was an egg candler or not — unlike, say, the electrical field, where one day you’re screwing in light bulbs and the next you’re designing power grids for mid-sized hamlets in New York’s Hudson Valley.
One hot and steamy July day, the “office” thermometer hit 100. My father was a union member, and so I decided to emulate an entire union local and stage a slowdown. I also took to whimpering about the heat, with occasional low moans thrown in for effect. This did not sit well with Mr. Dragoni, who noted how slowly the egg crates were moving from palette to loading cart. I was summarily fired.
In a couple of weeks, though, I’d find another one of Satan’s occupations to help support the DC Comics habit: Hauling cases of soda and paper products and dodging rats in a vermin-infested Scandinavian grocery store basement in downtown Brooklyn.
Mr. Dragoni continued working in the shop after my aborted slowdown until he contracted a bad case of salmonella, was sent to a rest home, became a fill-in chef there at Sunrise Acres, and had a cheese omelet named after him.
They served that omelet at Toots Shorr’s for many years, I learned recently from the fascinating “Gastronomic and Labor History of Eggs,” published by Ovum Press in 1994.
True story. Most of it.
I have been writing and photographing professionally for most of my adult life. For the past 13, I have been a writer-producer and photographer for Internet content and multimedia for ad agencies, nonprofits, and The Mount Sinai Medical Center (as associate director of communications for medicine). I also co-produce traditional music concerts in a historic Brooklyn venue. I write for the New York Journal of Books, Blues Music Magazine (print), the former Blues Revue, Sing Out! and several other music and online publications covering American roots music, history, and culture.
I studied American and Latin American literature while in college and speak fluent Spanish as well as my family’s native Sicilian dialect. I have written extensively about the history, music, and popular culture of 19th and 20th century America. I am very comfortable using social media, and recently used a combination of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, and Instagram to promote my current charity — raising funds for a headstone for pioneering blues performer Mamie Smith, who has been buried in unmarked ground on Staten Island for 67 years.