In The Lunch Room
Ann Petrizzo is 85 years old. She is about 4 feet 8 inches tall.
She needs to hearing aids, but only has one, and that hardly works.
She finds that as she gets older, she likes to take an occasional nap.
But she wakes up every morning for a 40 minute commute from Orange
County, N.Y., and reports to work as a cafeteria monitor at Bergenfield
High School at 9:30 a.m., where she stands for half the day, sentry-like.
"I had one table of smart alecks," Petrizzo said. "They got straightened
out pretty fast.....I chased them out to the other cafeteria," Petrizzo
remembers. Petrizzo has been an aide at the high school since 1992.
In all, about 30 women work in the cafeteria. But with nine
years under her belt, Petrizzo is the neophyte among a group of nine workers
who have more that 240 years of Service. The real cornerstone of
the cafeteria, the women say, is Martha Livaich. She has worked in the
cafeteria since it was built in 1959. Her route was like the others':
She applied when she saw an advertisement for the job, mostly to supplement
household income to support her four children. All of her children went
through Bergenfield High School and ate the cookies and doughnuts their
Mom baked. Livaich meant to stay in her job for a little while -
a year, maybe two. Now, she bashfully admits that things don't go
as planned. "Oh, I don't even like talking about it," she says with a coy
grin. It's all worker out, though. Livaich gets to the cafeteria
every morning at 6:30 and dutifully bakes cookies and puts together up
to 100 sandwiches. She does it despite her sometimes painful joints and
poor leg circulation. Often, her health becomes the topic of conversation
in the kitchen. "We hear the hard luck stories," she said, "about
who's got aches and pains at this stage of the game." But if she stayed
at home, said Livaich, who will turn 80 next month, she would be worse
"If I were at home," she said, "I would sit here and watch the idiot
box, the TV." From the time they enter the school - some start
work as early as 6 a.m. - the women are busy. The assembly line for lunch
begins in the kitchen, where hamburgers are grilled, pizzas are baked,
special items are cooked, and deli sandwiches are slapped together.
Once all of the students are served, the cafeteria is like home.
The Women dance, they scream and yell, they laugh, they eat.
They sit and chat like a regular kaffeeklatsch, poking fun at one another,
gossiping, asking about this one's hearth or that of one's new grandchild.
All the while, they keep a watchful and loving eye on the students.
"Sometimes they leave their napkins on the table," Petrizzo said.
"I say, 'See that napkin? Because you came here to sit at a nice, clean
table, somebody else has to come sit here at a clean table.'"
Like Livaich, most of the long timers took the jobs to have a little
income and schedules similar to their children's. Ask any of them,
and they "ll tell you they meant to stay in the cafeteria for six months
or maybe a couple of years at the most. "When I started, I thought I would
only help my husband put the kids through college," said 70 year old Terri
Flenner. "That was 1973". What makes them stay is more than the money now.
Carolyn Saucyn, 68, says it's anything but. "We are all in the same
boat, and we're not in it for the money," she said.
Its not about keeping themselves busy, either. The women have plenty
of things to occupy their time. For most of them its grandchildren.
The antiseptic smell of cafeteria belies the warmth that resides there.
The women say they see one another more than they see their families, and
they have become surrogate mothers to the 1,008 students at Bergenfield
High School. "Junk again?" Marie Casella asks a girl whose lunch
tray contains potato chips, ice cream and iced tea. Casella manning
the cash register, shakes a finger in the girl's direction, and the student
giggles softly. The year 2001 is Casella's 38th working in the BHS cafeteria.
She assumes her position at the start of each lunch period and doesn't
allow for any distractions until everyone has been served and has paid.
But once the feeding frenzy is over, the 80 year old is all over the place.
She will pinch your cheeks. She'll pat your backside.
She'll make sure you ate enough vegetables.
"She is Mama; Mama Leoni." said her co worker Mona Smith, a former
bookkeeper. Smith is 68 wears old and has worked in the cafeteria for "30,31
years.... you loose track." Smith adds a dose of home by preparing
her fresh tomato and mozzarella speciality for the salad bar. Smith has
been serving lunch to kids for so long that her claim to fame is having
served the director of the board of health, the fire chief, and several
borough police officers.
"There are a lot of children that come back to see me," Smith
always said I wasn't gonna stay another year." But she still
sits at the
salad bar with Casella, who has called the "the class clown."
Born and raised in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, Casella became a
finisher for Berdorf Goodman after she graduated for high school, putting
the final, ornate touches on dresses that cost more than $500 and exorbitant
amount for the 1940s. "The salary was terrific. I think we got $12
a week," she said. She moved to Bergenfield when she had her first child
in the 1940's with her husband, Dominick. She stayed home with three
children while Dominick worked. When her last child entered kindergarten,
she decided to go back into the workforce because it seemed like the natural
thing to do. "Its a great job. I was home at 2" o'clock. I was home
for the holidays," she said. As her children graduated and became independent,
Casella decided to keep
working. Her co-workers were nice, she said, and she cared about them.
When her husband died 18 years ago, Casella had a ready-made family at
the high school. Like the other widows in the cafeteria, Casella
has never remarried - or even dated. Her co-worker Flenner is succinct:
"God only gave me my husband", she said. "That's the only man I want."
Casella liked being with the kids at Bergenfield High School too.
She said it gave her someone to take care of after her own had left the
nest. "But although she loves them, she believes they are more spoiled
than her generation. "We were born during the Depression. Then there
was the war, then there was the recession after the war. We know
the value of a dollar," Casella said.
When she sees students with beepers, cellular phones and name-brand
clothing, she says "I think they're all spoiled. I think the parents
give them too much money. But Casella's definitely not bitter.
She treats all of the students the same way - as friends.
"The secret to our success: You're nice to them, they are nice
to you." She preaches. Isaac Yiadom, a junior, said of Casella, "When I
first talked to her, she wasn't mean or rude. She respected my point
of view. If I was a boss and I had money, I'd give her a raise".
Casella marvels at the children's ability to get along, across "all
all nationalities". A look around the cafeteria reflects that Bergenfield
is one of the most diverse towns in Bergen County. Forty-eight
percent of the students are white, 26 percent are Asian, 20 percent are
Hispanic, and 7 percent are black. English no longer dominates, and there
is no clear racial or ethnic majority in the student body, but students
in the cafeteria are as integrated as the vegetable medley side dish. "We
got the best kids in the world," Casella said.
Two new cafeteria workers, both Puerto Rican, helps bridge the language
gap with Bergenfield's growing Hispanic populations. They also liven
things up. During the holiday season, there were small dancing cacti that
sang "Feliz Navidad." Most of the ladies agree that the kids are different
today - in a good and bad ways. They said students now know more
about the world around them and
are plugged into the technological revolution. "The kids nowadays,
I find, are more serious than before," Smith said. "A lot of them
work very hard; they have part time jobs." But Smith said young people
seen to shoulder more problems. Casella said many of them have problems
at home. School is a place where they feel safe, so it helps them
to be treated with respect and courtesy. When a student is knowing restless
on a table in the small cafeteria, disturbing the peace, so to speak, Petrizzo
gets up and slowly makes her way to the table. "Could you please
stop banging on the table?" she asks sweetly. The student mumbles
an apology. "See? You've just got to be ice to the kids." she says.