I wish I had had something clever to say as he passed me.
“Do you think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?”
That would have been a good one, from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
But therein lay the problem. He was Butch. I was in high school.
Mostly I was in awe, wearing a tie and the blue apron that marked me as a bag boy at Bonneau’s supermarket in Lewiston, Maine. It must have been summer 1984, and walking past me was Butch Cassidy himself, the actor Paul Newman.
Memory tells me Newman, sunglasses masking his iconic baby blues, bought a bottle of wine and grapes, walked past me right to left, and drove away in a Volvo with tinted windows. (His daughter Nell was a college student in Bar Harbor; Lewiston would have been on his way.)
‘Never a bum steer’
The actor’s food company, Newman’s Own, was in its infancy in those days. Bonneau’s was a local institution.
The Bonneau family, like my own, came to Maine from Quebec. The Bonneau brothers started the business in 1934, moving it in 1969 to the building where I worked. I had delivered newspapers for five years before that, but this was my first real job. And I loved it.
I didn’t like my time at Lisbon High School (Lisbon is next to Lewiston), so working with people who weren’t from there offered me a separate peace. I liked my co-workers, most of whose names were Franco-American like my own. I remember reading them on the time clock: Blais, Bussiere, Charest, Legendre, Lussier, St. Pierre.
Bonneau’s was known for its butcher shop: Its motto was “Never a bum steer.” But what set Bonneau’s apart from the competition if you were a bagboy was the roller conveyor that ran along the tall front windows, into a back room where we kept our aprons in lockers, and outside under a carport.
Back then, plastic bags were only for frozen and refrigerated foods; we used brown bags. We would put the bags in rectangular plastic tubs (three bags to a tub) that we sent outside on the conveyor. Customers pulled their cars under the car port, handed over numbered tags that matched a number on the tubs, and a bagboy would load the groceries into their cars.
It was a unique, efficient system, one I’ve never seen anywhere else.
Remembering the people
Thirty years have passed since I worked at Bonneau’s, but it doesn’t take much effort to summon vivid memories.
The hand-painted signs, red or black lettering on white posters, that we taped in the front windows to promote each week’s specials. The customer service booth where Roland Bonneau would kiddingly call me “Mr. Gullet” when I retrieved rolls of coins for a checker. The salad bar that I sometimes packed away at closing time; the celery that I put on ice left my hands with a distinctive smell.
Like Newman’s visit, there are other snapshots, such as the time I was sitting outside on a break when I spotted an unoccupied car rolling down the sloped parking lot toward the building. I jumped up and came around the front of the car, opened the door, and applied the brake before a collision could occur.
What couldn’t a Bonneau’s bagger do?
Mostly I remember my fellow bag boys: Steve, who dated and later married cashier Lisa; Ron, who commiserated with me about the fickleness of love; Mike, a fellow long-suffering Red Sox fan who didn’t always have a lot of patience, least of all for checker Pauline, who was in her early 50s but seemed much older.
She could be bossy and impatient in her own right. Pauline spoke a combination of English and French, each in a torrent, often in fractured grammar. A heavy rain to Pauline was a “pourdown.”
‘It was fantastic’
No one made me laugh more than Tom Legendre, with whom I shared an affinity for Martin Short’s albino-comedian character Jackie Rogers Jr. from “Saturday Night Live.” Tom’s now an author and creative writing lecturer at the University of Nottingham, England.
I emailed him about Bonneau’s and what he took from the experience. It warmed my heart to read Tom’s memory of our “discussing all things great and small while frequently laughing to the point of tears.”
“There were times when it seemed like life was passing outside those large windows on a sunny day, that the real things were happening elsewhere,” he wrote. “But of course it was happening right there with us more keenly than I realized. I could tap away at this keyboard for a long time, reeling off colorful and instructive incidents, but the bottom line is that it was a formative experience. As first jobs go, it was fantastic.”
I only knew Tom for a short while, but he’s a friend to the end. I still miss that crew, all but one of whom I never saw again after 1985.
Deaths in the family
Sadly, Pauline died in January 2011 at age 76. That July, I learned of the death of another checker, Claire, with whom I hit if off probably because she had children around my age. I saw her a few times over the years at the Lewiston Public Library, where she worked after Bonneau’s. She was 68.
I signed the guestbook that accompanied her online obituary: “Of the many memories I have of working at Bonneau’s supermarket in the 1980s, working with Claire is among the fondest,” I wrote. “We were friends from the very beginning, but I suspect that was true for anyone who met her.”
She worked at the library for 20 years. She had no choice but to find another job after Bonneau’s closed in September 1985, just one month after I left for college.
We knew that Bonneau’s was struggling, a single store challenged by growing chains. Bonneau’s owners had brought in an “efficiency expert” named Dennis. Moving shelves to widen the aisles and reduce congestion at the checkouts was the only tangible result of those efforts that I remember.
Arthur Fortin, one of the owners (along with Maurice Bonneau, who worked in the meat department and resembled Liberace) was a shy man, which at times was mistaken for gruffness. I suspect that the longest conversation I had with Arthur was at my hiring interview. But he did something for me when I left that can bring tears to my eyes still.
He must have thanked me for my efforts the past couple of years and wished me luck. And then he handed me a wad of bills, the total of which escapes me and really isn’t the point. Arthur’s business was failing, and he probably had little money to spare.
I’ll never forget his gesture or my experience at Bonneau’s. In the movie of my life, it gets considerable screen time.
Better still, Paul Newman makes a cameo appearance.