Salty By Nature

By Jon Lencki 

            It was at a Delicatessen that I learned to be a man. I started working there when I was fourteen and this past summer was my first time not working full time at The Old Salts Pantry. I am 20 years old. The Old Salts Pantry sits softly on the corner of Dock Square and Ocean Avenue in Kennebunkport Maine, a town in which I had spent every summer growing up in my home that sits right on the coast of Goose Rocks Beach.

            My mother was divorced at the end of my first year of life and bought the beach house in the same year. For as long as I can remember that was her and our family’s fundamental escape from the frustrations of the home. Located only an hour from my native New Hampshire, it was always a simple drive that in my later years would be a route that was permanently inscribed in my memory like a map.

            The Old Salt Himself, that is, the man that owns the pantry’s name is John Belyea and he was as true to his name and business more then anyone I had ever met in my life. Old Salt’s was hardly twenty square feet and inside there was a counter, a cooler, and a kitchen in the back that could sometimes stand two people. There was a sign next to the assorted traditional sandwich menu that read “Open most days about 9 or 10 occasionally as Early as 7 but SOME DAYS As late as 12 or 1. We close about 5:30 or 6 Occasionally about 4 or 5, But SOME DAYS OR Afternoons, we aren’t here at all, and lately I’ve been here just about all the time, except when I’m someplace else, but I should be here then, too”. John Belyea, who, in his whimsically drunk weekly schedule, was often late to work due to his crippling hangovers from nights out on the small town, closely abided the sign. I, even as a fifteen year old, was often called at seven in the morning telling me I would have to open the shop by myself until someone else could come and help me. And so some mornings I would go into the pantry at 6am, make muffins by hand, prep all the vegetables and condiments and take the multitude of orders we would receive for our most popular item: our breakfast sandwiches. Finally John would stumble in around 8:30 or 9 smelling of pot and polo deodorant, reporting his activities of the night before to me, never holding back any of the explicit details”

            Every summer I would drive up to Maine and work at the beach while most of my friends stayed in New Hampshire. Driving into Maine it always seemed cooler and the air had a scent of salt that is only detectible by a nose that has smelled lugubriously low tides, time and time before. It’s only when you cross this one green bridge over the Pascataqua river that you can sense you are near the sea. In my youngest years I can remember that drive feeling like it took hours, and because of its distinct size and color, that one bridge always stood out in my mind as half way from home. Once you get over the bridge, however, not much changes for another 40 minutes. The trees are as green as they are in New Hampshire, the geography is the same, there are no major mountains to see but you can smell that salt and its scent grows greater with the passing of every mile.

            In Maine the beaches breathe with the seasons and just like the tides, flows of people would come and pass with the changing of months. The highest tide of people came in the mid summer when the air was hot and the water seemed to loosen its grasp on the frigidness of the Atlantic. John capitalized on the major influx of people who visited Maine in the summer months and made enough money to spend his time doing nothing else but staying at his home in Maine smoking pot or driving around the country to his favorite bar towns for a short get away

            My time in the pantry was spent in those summers abiding by John and his compulsive ruling and doing some of the most grotesque cleaning tasks any employee could be ask to do. Since John only opened the place up for five months out of the year things were by no mean up to sanitation standards. On days I closed the shop I would do my best to clean up as much of the meat dust and food particles as I could but it remained in utter despair most of the time. The simple task of even cleaning the meat grinder would often take over an hour to do in completion. In my first years at the pantry I was constantly under scrutiny for everything I did and John never held back in criticizing me as a 14 year old.

             “What’re you a fucking pussy? Put some elbow grease into it”

            I can still hear his sarcastically squeaky voice to this day, and the feeling of regret I had when I had done something wrong.

           Over the years I gained more trust and responsibility from John and our relationship developed from a strict owner-employee dynamic to one of a shared sense of humor and sense of trust. I remember the first time John saw me stoned at work. He looked at me coolly even with customers in the store and with an outburst declared,

            “Shit Jonny you look like a damn china-men and you didn’t even offer me any?”

            The customers would all stir amongst themselves at these outbursts while we laughed and made their food or scooped their ice cream.  As a young man it became a hobby of John and mine to “go get lobster” or “go to the bank”, tasks we would tell the younger workers while we really just went and got stoned in each other’s cars at Johns house which was just a block away from Old Salts. We only did so when work had quieted down.

            With my physical growth and my continued commitment to Old Salts I gained more and more responsibility and at the age of 18 was essentially the manager, coming in virtually every day to close or open the shop, always working with a high school kid who was younger then me. In my young masculine mindset, it was truly the first time I had any sort of real responsibility over anything, and it developed more character in me that any schooling ever had.

            Growing up, I didn’t take interest in academics until my sophomore year in high school. We read The Great Gatsby in my English class and it was the first time I realized I could enjoy reading. So there I was, a growing young man obsessed with Hemingway and making sandwiches and writing. It goes without saying that working at Old Salts provided me with plenty of writing material and so the summer was always a time I looked forward to the most.

             I had all the time in the world to read and write and was generally by myself when I wasn’t working, a characteristic, that although was lonely at times, wasimportant for developing myself as a writer and reader. It was in those high school summers that I created a sense of self that was permanent and not the arbitrary whims of character I was used to having in middle school and the beginning of high school.

            Being able to finally identify with something larger then myself was ultimately what turned me into the person I am. No matter what happened in my life in New Hampshire, I was always able to escape, even if it wasn’t in the summer, to the beach and Old Salts. By investing my time and energy in something so completely, I was actually given something greater then I ever imagined and that was an undeniable sense of self.

            This past summer my girlfriend broke up with me the day before I flew back to the east coast for five weeks. In my dismal state of mind, I didn’t know what to do. I was more distraught then I had ever been in my adult life and with nothing else to motivate me to do anything I turned to the Pantry and the comfort of the Sea once again.  John knew that I was planning on working in Colorado for most of the summer but he didn’t mind one bit, he needed the help, and so for the whole month of May and the beginning of June I spent every day heading into the pantry to work for the Old Salt.

            In the past I had taken my time in the pantry for granted but this most recent summer felt different. I was nostalgic for Old Salts in a way I never knew I could be because I knew it would be my first summer not working full time at Old Salts in six years. I concentrated my every effort to be as efficient as I could, to be as great of a worker as I could. I would spend my nights drinking a beer in the back cleaning the various instruments of production and be overcome with a sense of retrospective remorse about how that sandwich shop had shaped me into the man I was. It was in these moments of slight sadness that I realized what John had done for me despite all of his and my own debauchery; he gave me a home and a friend in a place which mattered to me most, and taught me never to be ashamed about the choices you make.

            I can still smell the meats and hear the refrigerators in my conscious and in the moments I feel most vulnerable I think about how every warm summer- The Old Salts Pantry and Delicatessen will remain unwavering and unbreakable.