Mayonnaise, Scotch and the Rabbi

October 4th, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

A post on skyline signs at Universal Hub put me in the memory tumbler. Yeah, yeah, Citgo…but I have personal flashbacks related to the gigantic lit CAIN’S sign by MIT plugging mayonnaise and pickles.

Up here for a year and a half or so in the late sixties, I lived in Cambridge while I was on a grant to study underground papers in Manhattan, Boston and Cambridge. I filled in income with summer jobs at places like Advent and Cain’s. Sharing a big apartment on Broadway nearly Inman Square with my girlfriend and four other women, I’d head toward the back of that sign to work. The front faced Boston on the Charles.

The only part of Cain’s that came home other than stories was a radish knife. That’s not like a wee paring blade. Rather, a foot or so long machete-like blade for coarsely chopping the forearm-size horseradishes before processing.

I was a cook even then and admired them. One of the older guys said they had lots of them and they weren’t worth sharpening, so I should just take one.

The Spider Lady

Back home, the spider lady loved it. She worked as a grad student in Harvard’s arachnid lab. Her bedroom had walls pied with prints, photographs and posters of bats and spiders. She was spider-like herself, way thin with long arms and fingers (although only the usual human number of each, I am pretty sure).

I had a car and drove her out to her family digs. I think they were in Dover. It was the next estate to Gov. Francis Sargent’s. She could likely fixate on spiders or anything else given her station.

She also liked meat…bloody meat. She saw that radish knife as another tool in this fixation. The six of us shared a kitchen and she was often there doing vigorous things with steak.

The apartment was jolly and there was a pleasant sexual undercurrent. It was five women, two female cats, one male one (Balls for his most obvious feature), and I. Frequent humor was of synchronized menstrual cycles, human and feline. The women other than my girlfriend were largely busy with studies or work, and boyfriends were not common visitors or visited.

(Promise note: This apartment was also the setting for a Fourth of July overnight psychotic break, replete with endless arias, neighbors calling police and a holiday visit to MGH’s psych ward. More on that in a future post. Also, the tale of Balls’ vanishing and the night of the gigantic bottle of retsina will be another one.)

Spider lady loved that knife from Cain’s though. Thus, none of us was surprised to see her in the kitchen flailing on a chunk of dead cow, bringing the massive, lobed blade down too hard. I think everyone was there when we learned how powerful her spindly arms were, as she took a massive swing, cut the steak straight through and continued splitting the butcher block cutting board in two.

Lunch in the Locker Room

Back down to the mayonnaise factory, I found another kind of education entirely. I had grown up earning my way as a paperboy, working agriculture, lolling as a lifeguard, getting sore and calloused as a house carpenter, but this was my first factory job. It was also my first brief stint as a union member (Bakers and Confectioners, the Teamsters).

In the height of the Vietnam War and me with long hair and an earring, I was a bit trepid. A couple of us were 19 or 20, but the regulars were in their 40s through 60s. Many were WWII and Korean vets and I was unsure how elbow-to-elbow work would go, much less lunch at a long table in the shared locker room would go. The two youngest of us had to wear hairnets because of our hippie dos, as well.

The first lunch settled that. One of the oldest guys, gray, pot-bellied and with forearms like Popeye unfolded his Record-American tabloid (later bought by the Herald). Oh, crap, thought I; here we go. He read about battles and deaths over there, swore and said we had no business sending our boys to die in Vietnam. The room heard widespread grunts, obscenities and agreement. I, of course, felt like a total fool, because I had already stereotyped the reader as a conservative, warmonger. Instead, we basically shared the same politics.

Back then, Cain’s was still a family business. The founder John E. had died almost 20 years before, but the workers had known him and knew his son Bob who took over. Today, it is part of a large corporation and is Cains Foods. It long ago moved to a sprawling suburban location and the sign by MIT is gone.

When I was there though, I learned a bit about the Teamsters, something about mayonnaise and salad dressings, a major drawback of a food assembly line, and the slightly unsavory visits from the kosher-certifying rabbi. Those in part two

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