In 1951, my family moved from a small Brooklyn apartment into a home on a new tract in Albertson that had been a potato farm. The hamlet wasn't even on the map, but that changed when the development was finished two years later. The Cape Cod houses were near Exit 28 on the Northern State Parkway and a Long Island Rail Road station, ideal for commuters.
When I was a kid, collecting bottles and bagging and carrying groceries to cars for pocket change was an acceptable source of income. But in 1952, as a Mineola High School sophomore, I needed “real cash.” After all, I had a black hand-me-down 1937 Chevrolet, and gas was 27 cents a gallon. The gas guzzler didn't leave much money for dates.
My first real weekly paying job, at the hefty minimum wage of $1 an hour -- minus taxes -- was nearby in what we newcomers called “old Albertson.” It was down the hill on the west side of Willis Avenue -- Thimm's Nursery. “Mr. Thimm” had been there for years along with his several greenhouses, where he grew cut flowers for commercial florists all over Long Island and the five boroughs. I was one of two teenagers hired for the summer to help the aging owner . . . sterilize dirt. Thimm said that it lessened the threat of plant diseases and removed pests and weed seeds.
The all-glass and steel-frame greenhouses were large, about 10 feet wide, 30 to 40 feet long and 10 feet high. Two wooden planting tables ran the full length, separated by a center work aisle, underneath automatic sprinklers. The greenhouses remained hot all year, by oil heating in winter, and summer’s sunlight usually spiked the temperature to more than 100 degrees.
After each planting cycle, we “hired hands” dug a trench down the center of each table. There, we placed 6-foot sections of perforated terra-cotta pipe. One end was connected to a boiler that generated 180-degree steam that was pushed through the tube’s entire length for about 24 hours.
After the first-day steaming process, we immediately removed all the hot soil and mixed it with the remaining soil in the planting table and re-covered the tube and sterilized it again for yet another 24 hours. All this raised the greenhouse temperature to more than 120 degrees -- a hard way to sweat off one’s weight. When done, we uncovered and removed the tubes, leveled the dirt into beds and moved on to the next greenhouse. When the dirt sufficiently cooled, nursery workers would start planting crop seedlings from other greenhouses.
We weren’t always sterilizing dirt, though. Thimm taught us a trick that kept us busy the rest of the summer – custom-coloring carnations. He grew greenhouses full of carnations, some pink, but most were white. The white ones were customized to any color to satisfy the whims of young brides, catering halls or holiday needs. For July Fourth, we had heavy demand for blue, and green for St. Patrick’s Day, etc. For the Fourth, we placed the cut white carnations in buckets of blue water, and by the next day, they had absorbed enough coloring to turn blue. The longer in the colored water, the bluer they got. We could create any color by mixing them with Thimm’s water-soluble dyes. At home, I learned that I could use the trick with white dahlias and mums, too.
That was the summer I learned how hard some people had to work for minimum wage.
Reader Orlando T. Maione lives in Stony Brook.