My Turn: the Banana King, Paul Rossi

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I was 11 years old when my first job came to me. I guess I should not say it came to me as I went and found it.

You may question how an 11-year-old kid landed a job. Well, back then in Levittown, most of our parents were blue-collar workers. My dad was a Parcel Post delivery man. Many of my friends' parents worked at Grumman, the huge aerospace company on the border of Levittown and Bethpage.

There was not a lot of money, if any, for kids' allowances. So one sunny Saturday morning, I set out on my bike to see what type of job I could find to give myself some spending money and to help out the family if it was needed. (Luckily, things never got that bad so what I earned I could keep.)

I headed to the Nassau Farmers Market, one of my favorite hanging-out places where you could get candy for a penny. My favorite was Nik-L Nips (pronounced nickel-nips), a candy shaped like a tiny soda bottle made from wax and filled with a sugary drink. It came in many flavors. I cannot imagine how many calories and bad things were in those bottles, especially since we usually slugged down 10 to 20 a day.

Another reason we went to the market was to get cool things from the magic shop there. Smoke bombs and exploding caps were particularly great when you threw them at the floor next to the girls. They would always shriek and run away.

The market was only open on Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays after noon, allowing customers to go to church on Sundays before shopping. When I got to the market, I went right to the candy stand and the magic shop and asked for a job. I was turned down because I was too young. However, they told me to check out the banana stand. So I asked the banana stand guy if he would hire me. He said yes, with the caveat that I had to work all Saturdays and Sundays the market was open. He said my salary would be 75 cents an hour. I was so happy and he started me working right on the spot. I quickly did some math in my head -- I would be making about $12 a weekend. Given that most of our parents were probably making only $150 a week, I was in hog heaven.

So he trained me right then, and my proficient math skills made everything easy for me. However, he stressed that one of the main points to remember was that the scale was off by a quarter of a pound and that I was to keep my thumb lightly on the scale as I weighed bananas for the customers. In addition, I was not to tell my parents about this fact if I wanted to keep the job, so, of course, I never did. If anyone questioned me, I was to say that the scale was off by a quarter of a pound and that was why I kept my thumb on the scale. I didn't realize till many years later that the thumb on the scale was really a way for him to make more money and, most of all, he knew that if a patron asked an 11-year-old why his hand was still on the scale, they would accept the answer without a challenge.

For the next four years, I worked at the banana stand. I had regular customers who, after once questioning me about my thumb, never asked again -- in fact many of them gave me a nickel or a dime tip! They probably felt sorry for an 11-year-old working.

My friends, who were jealous that I got such a great job, nicknamed me "Banana Man," which I proudly responded to all those years. My father did it one better -- bestowing upon me the name "Banana King."

I was the king of the bananas and had much cash in my pocket. Looking back, I believe that I had more spendable income than at any other point in my life -- no mortgages, no car payments -- just cash in my pocket.

My parents explained to me the process of saving money. It only took me about 20 years to incorporate that into life again. I planned my spending so that at the end of each week, I usually would have $10 to put away.

At about that time, the school introduced us to bank accounts. The bank was a long ride for many of us on our bikes, so the bank came to us. Franklin National Bank came to school the same day each week; we got a bank book to keep track of our savings.

The bank book would be picked up with your filled-in deposit ticket and returned to you the next day. It was amazing to me because every month, we got interest on our money. To a kid who knew nothing about finances, it was an incredible feeling to get money for doing nothing! We were told our money was safest in the bank.

(Many years later, while I was working for a large CPA firm, I had the job of sifting through the collapse of the very same Franklin National Bank after their officers committed fraud. Luckily all account holders were paid off in full.)

Unfortunately, I had to quit the banana stand job when I entered junior high school. I was playing football, basketball and baseball, which required me to practice after school and on Saturdays.

The Farmers Market closed more than 20 years ago. I pass by every so often, and see the shopping center located where the market was.

However, it will live in the heart of the Banana Man/aka the Banana King, forever.

Paul Rossi,East Northport

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