In November of 1989, after residing in New Jersey for a number of years, I decided that I simply had to live in New York City. I opened up the New York Times classified ads, circled three places hiring and called the first one - which was Zabar's. Oddly enough, whoever answered put me right through to Saul Zabar - whom I spoke with for some time. He told me to come in for an interview. Though I was young and full of confidence - and had plenty of food retail experience, the store's general manager, Harvey, at the time wasn't too keen on hiring me, but Saul was. Harvey was concerned about what they may have to pay me - as I had come from a local union and knew full well what my fair wage should be for the job advertised. After talking with both of them for some time I watched Saul as he turned and for several minutes explained to a disgruntled looking Harvey why it was a good idea to hire me. One of those reasons was that I was from the Midwest, Saul liked that. They finally agreed to have me work for a two-week trial period, after which they would assess how much they could compensate me. I was out of work and had nothing to lose so I took the offer.
The store never seemed to slow down and though the work was hard - I was surrounded by an amazingly diverse group of co-workers who were helpful and kind and whose lives interested me to no end. There were mostly Russians, Chinese and Dominicans. I listened to their stories and learned from them, and I saw that their work ethics were in fact a lot stronger than mine. Many had recently emigrated from overseas - and to them - this work was as vital and important to them as breathing. You could see in their eyes that their jobs were serious business to them - not to be taken for granted. They all had families to feed, whereas I just wanted to be a rock ’n roll star.
The 2 weeks went by in a blur and Saul called me into his office. Though Zabar’s was happy to take me on as a permanent employee, he explained that they would likely not be able to pay me what I had been making under union contract at my previous employer. My disappointment was evident. I couldn’t gauge if Saul was simply being a shrewd businessman or if Harvey’s influence had taken hold. Either way, my dreams of living in Manhattan were going to be crushed if I couldn’t get at least a relatively decent wage. I told Saul as much - and he leaned back in his chair and asked if I thought living on the Upper West Side appealed to me at all. I indicated that it didn’t matter where in the greatest city in the world I was - as long as I could call it my home - and I most certainly had no reservations about living on the most charming Upper West Side. Saul picked up the phone and after a brief conversation turned to me and said: “What if I told you that though I can’t pay you what you were making at your previous employer, perhaps I can offer you a studio apartment across the street - and I can adjust the rent so that as long as you are working for me - we can make it affordable for you.” Those were magic words to my ears. The apartment was 2245 Broadway, Apt 2B - on 82nd street in Manhattan. I graciously accepted the offer. I didn’t even need to see the place first.
In the coming months - Saul took me under his wing, challenging me, teaching me and always giving me newer and more responsibilities. He apprenticed me in the fine and delicate art of buying smoked fish for Zabar’s. We’d drive out to several Brooklyn smokehouses each week, placing orders for thousands of pounds of lox, smoked salmon, whitefish, sable and sturgeon. Eventually the inventory of the entire appetizing department was in my hands. The studio apartment gave way to a proper, albeit modest 1 bedroom apartment. And my pay soon far eclipsed what I had ever before made in my life.
I was continually intrigued by Saul himself, as he is truly unlike anyone I have ever met. He was often difficult to please, meticulous and demanding and naturally he expected hard work and dedication from his employees. You might expect that a man in his position wouldn’t bother getting his hands dirty with the menial labor that is required to run a store which makes upwards of 60 million per year. But Saul is as much in the trenches and on the front lines as his employees are. He is not afraid to get his hands dirty - indeed he will work elbow to elbow with anyone - anywhere in the store. When a refrigeration units breaks down - he is the first one on his hands and knees on the floor, in the grime with a flashlight and screwdriver taking apart the console to see what’s wrong.
Over time, I realized that the store was to Saul Zabar what music was to me. An art, an inspiration, a craft, an adventure to be explored, savored and cherished. It doesn’t matter what form it takes on - our art feeds our souls. The store is Saul’s art.
To say that I grew up in those years, treasured and learned from those experiences is an understatement. Zabar’s, Saul Zabar himself, the job and the people that I worked with day in and day out were, and remain the pinnacle of all the work experiences I’ve ever had. My co-workers became my lifelong friends - and even after leaving them after many years, we still pick up right where we left off last. The friends I made at Zabar’s would take a bullet for me, there is not a question in my mind about that. I have never come across such devoted, passionate people who care about one another so fiercely and with such determination. It is a family in the strongest sense of the word. I worked with these people, but we also celebrated together, ate and drank together, they invited me into their homes and embraced me as not just a friend, but one of their own family.
When I add up all these experiences in my mind they fill me with an unending supply of good memories and happiness. I wonder how different my life may have been had I not opened up the New York Times classifieds that day. I am fortunate. I was able to live my dream - work and live in New York City - and work on my music and feed my creativity with the countless stories of the individuals that surrounded me.
I attended writing school at night for many of those years and I remember sitting at a bar late one evening after class and telling my creative writing professor this same story. I told it rather casually, he seemed interested in my background. When I finished he reached across the table and grabbed my wrist tight in his hand. He said: Joe, let me get this straight: you came from the corn-fields of Iowa to New York in order to pursue your dreams of being a part of the music scene of this city - to be in a band, and you’ve done that. Along the way, you’ve become a smoked fish buyer for the premier gourmet food store in Manhattan, secured a comfortable apartment on the UWS, and you still have time to take creative writing class two nights a week. My god man - most of us struggle to tell a story so rich even in fiction.
It really is a wonderful life. Thank you Saul Zabar and all my Zabar’s friends and family.
Zabar's Celebrates 80 Years on Broadway | NBC New Yorkhttp://www.nbcnewyork.com/entertainment/the-scene/287141971.html via @nbcnewyork
Time, I absolve myself of your vow to vanquish me.