Monday, March 29, 2010


 I am writing this at 5:48 a.m. about a subject that at this time on Tuesday would have me standing before a large restaurant grill flipping pancake no. 97 or French toast no. 60. I am, on the second day of the workweek, the volunteer cook in a 25-year-old breakfast program in Spring Valley, N.Y.

Others, like Al Witt, my former boss at The Journal-News, where I worked for pay for 42 years, and George Chalsen, a 50-year printer there, preceded me as cook. The “soup kitchen,” operated as the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program using the good will and facilities of the United Church in Spring Valley, now serves three times as many homeless and poor men and women as it did just three years ago. I am only the Tuesday cook and can report just that day’s figures – about 150-170 people served.

My newspaper jobs as copyboy, photographer, writer, editor, essayist and editorial page chief were arrived at in hands-on learning in the old style once available at thriving newspapers. You watched others work, asked some questions, tried your hand and more often than not, the Horatio Alger effect took place and you moved up the ladder. Such hands-on training provided new blood to carry the torch of an honored profession. It worked well, as it did in other professions, as many acquired the “college degree” of job experience.

Now, in volunteering as a cook, I have been fortunate to continue the hands-on training from my newspaper time, even with two of the same people – Al and George, whose grill technique – not running it too hot that it smokes; avoiding water/oil fires; mixing the right batter and French toast dip; the art of flipping itself; and dividing your time so that  while you work the grill, you also watch the soup, make grits, boil hot water for a variety of tasks, monitor two ovens full of sausage, keep the Bunn  coffee maker in its 10-cup cycle for 100-plus cups and take 15-second breaks to bring the food to the cafeteria.

Al and George did it all and well. George was particularly organized and Al offered jokes along with perfectly shaped pancakes. I cannot duplicate their methods, just as I could not at The Journal-News. But I have acquired experience through hands-on training, and I imagine both Al and George would give me a passing grade.
 What a privilege in life to have spent 50 years learning on the job(s).

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