Shoe Column: The Pop Bottle Sorter

By Tim “Shoe” Sullivan

It was the summer of ‘64.

I was a sophomore at Pacelli High School, time to go to work since I needed some cash. My classmate Barry Fecteau suggested I apply at the old Northside IGA. His dad Charlie was the manager, a great guy.

The Northside IGA was in a big building about five minutes from my house. It was located on Second St., kinda across from Belke Lumber. We called it “Igga”. The IGA was a block north of the square, and the place was always busy.

Charlie hired me immediately as a stock boy/carryout guy. I earned a couple bucks an hour—punched a time clock and everything.

I asked Charlie, “So, uh, what is it that I’m supposed to do?” He directed me to have a chat with John, the assistant manager.

John said, “Basically, your main job will be to answer two bells,” he said. “When someone is checking out their groceries, the checker will ring a buzzer twice. Drop whatever else you’re doing and go up to the front. The checker will want you to bag the groceries and carry them out to the customer’s car. If you hear the buzzer ring four times, that means get right over there ASAP…If you’re not busy bagging groceries, we might have you do other things like unload trucks, cut boxes open, stock shelves, and other things.”

John also said, “And when you’re bagging, never put the eggs on the bottom.”

There were a lot of good things to like, working at the Northside IGA. Charlie Fecteau was a wonderful man. Always upbeat and positive. My co-workers were super. Ronny Landowski, Duck Shannon, Ma Pesch, Jack Mrozinski, and Joe “Gunky” Coady, among others. The checkers were all knockouts. Homecoming Queen Katie Boyer. Barbie “Foot” Alfuth. Mimi Peck. Dorothy Raflik. and so many more. Gorgeous gals, one after the other.

The only part about Northside IGA that I didn’t like was my job.

The main problem was that I wasn’t good at anything. Zip. I hated stocking shelves, especially in the noodle section. The spaghetti noodles came in long plastic bags, and every time I’d put the noodles on the shelf, they’d slide off and I’d have to put them right back up. I almost wished to hear a two-bell instead.

Bagging groceries got old right off the bat. Part of the problem was that you would put the groceries in paper bags (no plastic option back then) while the store temperature was a fine 70 degrees. Perfect working conditions. However, you then carted the groceries to the car, and the temps outside were sometimes in the high 90’s. This meant you were constantly walking in and out of a cool place only to go outside in the scorching heat. I caught colds lots of times.

If a customer saw a box of Wheaties which had part of the top cut off, that was one I did. Every time I tried to cut open a cardboard box, I’d wreck whatever was inside, 90 percent of the time. I told everyone I didn’t want to cut open the boxes, and I meant it.

Stocking shelves was a pain in the butt. Here’s an example: I’d be assigned to stock the jelly jars’ aisle. Sounds simple, right? I’d take the “two-wheeler” and bring the case of grape jelly jars to the jelly aisle. I’d open the box, stamp the price on the top of the jar, and gently put it up on the shelf. One had to be careful not to knock the other jars off the shelf. If you did, you had to rush back to the backroom, grab a mop, and get back out there to clean it up. And right when you’d be doing that, the damn two-bell would ring.

Sometimes, you would fill up the shelf with the jars of grape jelly, but you’d have one jar left over. It wouldn’t fit. So what to do? It always pissed me off. You’d have to take that whole box with one jar still in it and put it somewhere instead of simply throwing the empty box away. Sometimes I’d stay up at night hoping that a customer would buy one jar of grape jelly so I could put that extra jar in its place and get rid of the box once and for all.

I also was terrible at stamping prices. For starters, I always got ink all over myself. And accuracy wasn’t one of my strong points.

Assistant Manager John would politely call me into the office and ask, “Uh, did you stamp the Swanson TV dinners today?”

I said “Yes.”

He said, “Well, do you really think we should charge $3.39 for a TV dinner that goes for 39 cents?”

That happened a lot. When I was done stamping, you could get a bag of noodles for one cent and a jar of grape jelly might run ya $7.89. You never knew.

They wanted me to sweep the floors. Hell, I didn’t sign up to be the janitor.

I wanted to quit about a month after I started. Sweep the floors? Forget it. Carry out groceries? No thanks. Stock shelves? No way, Jose. Stamp prices? You can’t be serious.

I wasn’t what one would call a “hard worker.” “Hardly worked” was more like it. I just didn’t like to do much of anything because I sucked at everything. Attitude wasn’t the issue. More like ineptness.

And then a few months in, I finally caught a break. Heard the dreaded two-bell. Dropped whatever I was doing (which probably wasn’t much), and reported to the front. One of the nice checkers said, “I just checked in those boxes of empty pop bottles. Paid out two cents a bottle. Now they’re all in the way. Can you do something with them?”

She was right. Pop bottles were in carts and boxes all over the place. I went into the huge back room and found a small area where the empty pop bottles were kept. It looked like a tornado went through there. I soon found out that nobody wanted to take a few minutes organizing the pop bottles. Nobody.

If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s organizing. I went to the assistant manager and said, “John, I want to volunteer to be in charge of the empty soda bottles. You have a meat manager. A produce manager (Leo Zivicki was great). A dairy manager. How about a pop bottle manager?”

John laughed and said, “Go ahead. Give it your best shot”.

So I came up with a “system”. Cleared out the entire area in the backroom which was right next to the garbage stall. Perfect. Got a broken bottle? Toss it out. Put all the Coke bottles in one row. Pepsi over there. Quality Beverage bottles and Squirt next to the cooler. RC Cola in another place. Wieco Soda bottles in a different section. Empty trays stacked up neatly. Had someone cut me empty cardboard boxes to use if we ran out of the wooden trays. Eight ounce bottles here and 12 ounce bottles there.

I was suddenly a king, and the pop bottle section was my castle.

And everyone noticed. If there was even one pop bottle up front, I’d put it into my system in the back room. The checkers were in awe. They loved the extra space up front. The pop vendors were thrilled. Made their jobs a lot easier. I was addicted to sorting empty pop bottles.

You wouldn’t believe what people would bring in. I even took a towel and dusted off the bottles. And nobody else was allowed to sort the bottles. They were my bottles, dammit. They were instructed to just leave them in carts or falling-apart boxes and I’d get to them first thing.

It was great. A two-bell would ring. A fellow worker would say, “Hey Shoe. Get that?”

I’d say, “Nope. Doing bottles. Sorry,” and they understood.

The worst area in the whole backroom was turned into a showcase. Got some empty pop bottles? Take ‘em to Shoe. Never had to stock another jar of jelly or package of noodles. Everyone was a winner.

Ronny Landowski might come back and say, “Hey, the dentist’s wife is up front. I need some help bagging.”

The lady always bought a ton of groceries. I’d say, “Sorry, Ronny. Tell her not to buy so much. I’m busy”.

On my last day on the job, after four years, I actually answered a two-bell for the hell of it. Was really tempted to put the carton of eggs on the bottom but thought better of it.

A few years later, I was hired to be a bartender at the old Unique Bar across from the Point Journal. A great guy, Bob Drengberg, was the owner.

Behind the bar, Bob said, “Look over here. This is where we put all the empty pop and beer bottles.”

I asked, “Hmmm. Where do they go?”

He said, “They slide down a chute and drop into a big tub in the basement.”

We went down to the basement and saw a tub with about 500 empty bottles in it. Guess who offered to sort out all the bottles and put them into cases?

I loved every minute of it.