Life Lessons in the Neighborhood Deli: Appreciating Life’s Simplicity


Photo from Pixabay

Michael Sweet

I walked into Alesci’s of Shoregate in Willowick, Ohio, to the usual scene. I was greeted by the smell of freshly-baked bread made in the early morning hours by old Italian men who rise before the sun and rest after it sets. The din of the deli workers cracking jokes with their customers gave the small Italian grocery store a warm tone of humor and good cheer. 

In spite of having no windows, save those of the glass doors at the front entrance, the small market was very well-lit. As I made my way past the solitary check-out line, Paolo spotted me from his semi-enclosed office and waved his hand in greeting.

“Hey Mikey, how’s the family? How’s your mom?”

“They’re doing good, Paolo, thanks for asking,” I replied with a smile. His attention turned back to his desk where he had been intently pouring over a list of numbers and figures. I continued to the deli and was greeted by Adam’s grinning face. His smile is infectious. It’s one of those sly, mischievous smiles that’s always accompanied by a joke or a story of misadventure from the night before. He snapped on a new pair of latex gloves in preparation to take my order.

Photo from Pixabay

Photo from Pixabay

“What’s goin’ on, Red? What can I get for ya today?”

I gave him my usual order: a sub made of genoa salami, mortadella and hot sopressata with fresh mozzarella, mustard, mayo and lettuce.

The back of his shirt came into view as he grabbed the meat and turned around to the slicer. It read, “Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli” — a play on the famous line from “The Godfather.” After slicing, he piled the heaping assortment of cold cuts onto a golden-crusted roll.

I noticed a scrape and some bruising on his tattooed arm and asked him what had happened. He snorted jokingly and relayed how he got it. He had been working construction over the weekend. 

A buddy of his thought it would be funny to drop a piece of loose concrete from the floor above, right next to where Adam was standing. 

As the stoney slab was falling, Adam happened to move a couple feet to his right, and it glanced off his arm before crashing to the ground.

I widened my eyes in surprise when he told me what happened. “Did you yell at your buddy?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, that sly smile again spreading across his face. “I told him he should’ve aimed for my shoulder so I coulda got worker’s comp!” I laughed as he began to wrap my sandwich in deli paper.

When asked about how they had gotten a fracture or laceration, most people would respond differently. They would contort their face into a frown and embark on a bitter saga, placing the blame on some inept coworker or a stupid misfortune. 

Not Adam though. It seems as if every time I see him, he has a new injury. When my curiosity inevitably forces me to inquire into its origins, he’ll brush it off with a laugh and a joke. It’s an approach to life I wish more people had, myself included.

“So when’s the big arrival?” I asked.

“Seven weeks away now,” he told me matter-of-factly. Although he tried to say this with a casual tone of voice, he couldn’t help but let some excitement leak through. He was smiling again, but this time it wasn’t that same sly smile he usually wears. This one was one of joy and anticipation. 

Adam and his girlfriend are expecting a child within a couple of months, which is a time that every parent looks back on with happiness but also remembers the fear. Will the birth be okay? Where can we find a bassinet? How will we pay for this or that medical expense?

All of those thoughts have undoubtedly gone through Adam’s mind in the months of expecting his first child. But to him, there’s no point in worrying about things he can’t control. In the meantime, he’s just going to live.

I am a junior right now, and with less than a year-and-a-half until I graduate, I still do not completely know what I want to do with my life. 

I often find myself worrying about what I am going to do in May of 2021 after I walk off the stage with my diploma. This worry, though, is not going to get me a good job or make me a lot of money. It won’t make me happy, either.

When I find myself worrying about everything that is waiting for me, I take a deep breath and  look around. I relish simple things, such as a conversation with a stranger at the grocery store. A little kid blissfully running around, blowing raspberries in the park. Watching someone’s eyes light up as they understand that joke you just told them.

We don’t need the perfect job, the perfect house or the perfect life to be happy. Happiness comes from being able to appreciate the simplicity of life. In the final line of “The Office,” I think Pam Beesly put it best: “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kinda the point?”

Adam, like most of us, is not going to have an easy life. He will have to work hard to provide for his new family. 

There will be days when he gets home from work late at night and falls onto the couch, all his muscles aching from the strain of a 10-hour day. But, as he lies sprawled out on the sofa, he’ll still be wearing that mischievous smile, eager to tell his newest joke to anyone who will listen.