Sunday, January 04, 2009

How Tommy Toy Changed My Life

In late 1975, I was 20 years old, a college drop out; looking for some meaning in life and a decent job. I was working painting the walls of the Jackson Center, a home for the developmentally disabled in the inner city (interestingly, now being renovated into a Days Inn). It was an okay job, but I was running out of walls to paint and was interested in something more public and interactive.

I saw an ad in the paper and went to one of the original Cousins sub shops that was downtown on Wisconsin Avenue to apply for a job opening. The shop was closed, but there were a couple of guys in there taking applications for a new shop that was opening soon on the Marquette campus at 17th and Wisconsin (only the fifth in the chain at the time). I approached timidly, saw the shop was closed, and started walking away. "Hey, where are you going?" said one of the guys inside. "Uh, you look closed," I muttered. "Well, do you want a job or not?" he said. "Uh, sure..." "Then fill this out – and wake up a little bit," said Tommy Toy.

He was being funny. Sarcastic, impatient and funny. He was screwing around with me and he didn’t even know me. It was a test, not that he took his sandwich shop job or me very seriously. But, with Tommy, there was no point doing anything without jazzing it up a little bit. He was wondering – was I going to be a fun guy to work with, or was I going to be a drag? I guess he decided I was alright. I’m not sure, but I think he hired me on the spot and told me to show up at the Marquette store on Monday.

So I did and worked at Cousins for nine months or so, until I took a job at Peaches Records in late ‘76. Tommy ran the Marquette store for a while, trained us, and moved on fairly quickly. I don’t remember working with him as much as I remember that first encounter with the total stranger who made me get back in the store and apply for the damn job I wanted. He had a tremendous force of personality, all driven by his good sense of humor and a somewhat serious, no-bullshit purpose. "Get with the program so we can have some fun already" appeared to be his motto.

I ran into Tommy a couple of times in later years when he bartended on the East Side – at Century Hall and Hooligans a couple of times, but the last time was at least 20 years ago. I was sad to read about his death from a heart attack last month in a very thoughtful obit in the Journal Sentinel. He knew a million people and didn’t know me from Adam, but he would always pretend to when I ran into him those couple of times. He certainly had no idea how he changed my life. But he did.

Now, most people wouldn’t identify their first fast-food job as a major turning-point in their life. It’s a long story, but: Cousins begat Peaches; begat UW-Madison for education degree; begat MPS substitute teaching; begat law school; and so on. I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t meet Tommy Toy that day and get the Cousins job – it seemed to set a lot of things in motion for me that might not have happened otherwise. Meeting Tommy was one of the happy accidents of my life, one of those fleeting encounters that somehow creates direction from chaos, meaning out of confusion. It seems, from that day on, I was always working at an interesting job or going to school or doing something positive. Something about that day propelled me forward.

Of course, I never realized all this until I heard Tommy had passed. But that’s the way these things are, when you hear someone you know has died and remember how you know them. I imagine, if I had told him about all this across the bar, he would have listened very intently until I was done – and then laugh uproariously, buy me a shot and tell me to shut the F up. And, as usual, he would have been right.

I thought about Tommy Toy today while having lunch at the Cousins on Port Washington Road. I was having my usual – cheese steak with mayo, the daily ingestion of which while I was working there permanently destroyed my skinny former self – when I noticed a young woman in the corner with a TV and some papers on the table in front of her. The graphic on the TV said "Cousins Training DVD". We didn’t have a DVDs, VCRs, cassettes, 8-Tracks, LPs or even 78s to train with back in 1975. All we had were people like Tommy Toy, a sharp knife, and big bins of bread to slice and fill with perfectly fine food.

I muttered something to the new hire about my history with the franchise and wished her well. All young people deserve at least that one person who moves them forward, either by accident or design, knowingly or unknowingly. I know I’m lucky I had one.

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