Salesman’s Apprentice: a memoir

Photos of Modern Diner, PawtucketModern Diner, Pawtucket, RI

By Robert Israel

The rig pulled up to the loading dock, driven by a burly Teamster who got paid five times more than I did and never had to lift a finger.

“We don’t care about Jimmy Hoffa,” Dominic, the driver, said. “Let him take whatever he wants, so long as we get ours.”

I counted the boxes and signed the bills of lading. At lunch I sat in the backseat of a co-worker’s Rambler American in the shade of the leaves of the Trees of Heaven that grew between the chain link fences. When the half-hour was over, it was back to the loading dock.

The conveyor belt chugged to the same beat as the Lee Dorsey song, “Working in a Coal Mine,” and I sang the refrain out loud: “Lord, I am so tired. How long can this go on?”

On Saturdays Bobby Bonacorsi, tall, bespectacled, an Adams apple protruding from his neck and his skin made darker by layers of grease and sweat, worked alongside me to stuff the company truck with trash for a ride to the incinerator.

“You ready, Scamp?” he asked, and he pulled on the lock three times. “For the Holy Trinity,” he said, and when he climbed into the cab, he crossed himself.

We knew if we finished early we’d get to stop at the Modern Diner. Bobby would treat me to a can of beer. We’d pop the aluminum rings in unison. The first man to burp the loudest, foam on his upper lip, won.

The noon whistle was bellowing by the time Bobby backed the truck into the lot. He killed the motor, slapped me on the back, and I’d head home with my pay check.

My father, a salesman with the same firm, arranged it so I could travel with him to deliver merchandise to his customers.

It was a different kind of monotony, sitting beside him in his big Chevy, broken only by Paul Harvey on the radio, or when he swerved suddenly into the breakdown lane slapping his pants to keep them from becoming inflamed when the hot ashes from his El Producto burned through his trousers.

“Third pair of pants this month with burn holes,” he said, tossing the lit cigar out the window.

We passed farm stands with hand painted signs, locals hawking sweet corn, snap peas, jars of beach plum jam. The diners had illuminated clocks heralding Sunbeam Bread. The waitresses wore their hair pinned up with barrettes or else spun onto plastic Spoolies.

The men we met at the gas stations talked about their lives, their wives, they wore green overalls, names woven in red thread over their pockets. My father lit another cigar. He described new product lines, discounts being offered on multiple orders of Thrush mufflers and Champion spark plugs. He knew the model numbers by heart.

“Better bulk up that line,” he’d advise his customers. Back in the Chevy, he said, “It’s all about writing up the orders.”

Or he’d try a new pitch when we got to our next stop.

“You need ’em fast? No problem. I’ll phone them in to my warehouse in Pawtucket and we’ll ship them to you tomorrow!”

Later, wet-chewing an El Producto, he said, “This is useful information for you to know when you take over my route some day.”

On the way home he switched off the radio.

“I got drafted after high school,” he said. “My father took off when I was seven years old. My mother could never provide for my sisters and me. The Army took better care of me, three squares a day, first time I had ever eaten that well. Lots of guys had nothing. When I retire, I’ll get a pension. You ought to think about enlisting after you graduate from high school.”

We arrived home at eight-thirty. Supper was waiting. My sisters and mother had already eaten. I carried the supplies he’d purchased from the PX — sugar, cases of Coca Cola, flour – all for a fraction of what things cost at the local supermarket.

“Now you know what it’s like to earn your daily bread,” my dad said, and he peeled off a couple greenbacks and handed them to me.

I met Bobby Bonacorsi later on at the bar. He ordered a pitcher of beer and poured it tall glasses for the guys seated beside me. The bubbles made their lazy journeys upwards to the rim.

“Here’s to all the wicked ladies!” Bobby declared, and we clicked our glasses. No one cared that I was underage. Whenever a woman dared to enter the bar, the men hovered around her, competing for the chance to treat her to hamburgers from the malt shop next door.

“I got a notice in the mail last week,” Bobby said later. “I’ve got to head down to Niagara Street for my Army physical next week.”

Someone put money in the Wurlitzer. The Lee Dorsey Song came on. “Lord, I am so tired. How long can this go on?”

The soldiers were singing that same song and asking that same question. The war was going badly. I knew, by year’s end, I was destined to join those soldiers in battle.

I never went back on the road with my father. I moved out of my family’s home, enrolled in college for the fall. Later, when my student determent expired and I was issued a 1-A, I waited in a college dorm room with other men my age. We listened on the radio as U.S. Rep. Alexander Pirnie stuck his hand into a fishbowl and pulled out slips of paper, read the dates, and assigned numbers; if your birth date corresponded with the first batch of numbers, you’d have to serve in the armed forces.

My birth date fetched a high number. I beat the draft. But there were many others, like Bobby Bonacorsi, who weren’t so lucky.

My dad and I went to see Bobby board the bus bound for basic training. He was dressed in khakis. We waved.  He made the sign of the Holy Trinity across his chest.

There was a color guard at the depot that afternoon, marching in cadence. When their boots hit the pavement it sounded like the Lee Dorsey song, pounded out to the relentless clamor of a conveyor.


Robert Israel can be reached at


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