In The Lunch Room
January 2001

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 off. 
"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 extra 
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 said.  "I 
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 races, 
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.

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