John Cortese | New York
I walk into Golden Gate Fancy Fruits shop just minutes before 8 am, their usual opening time. John appeared to be rearranging the fruits, trying to set up the shop for the day’s business. I was immediately greeted by his son, stepping out of the back room asking how he can help me. After briefly introducing myself, I turn to John and ask if it’s okay if the two of us speak. “I’d love to hear your story and the story of this shop. I think it’s pretty remarkable”.
“Me? What can you possibly want to hear about me?” Strange that the most worthy people are the ones most reluctant to speak about themselves. I explain that it would mean a lot to me to have this opportunity and capture a little bit of his history. He smiles, graciously agrees and begins.
John Cortese is 94 years old. A World War II veteran, he’s witnessed some of the most pivotal and darkest moments of the war, like the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of Bulge. John left the New York Harbor on March 21st 1943 and at 18 years of age made the 6 day journey across the Atlantic. Part of his duties as a soldier was to identify land mines, a role he was quickly trained to do on an actual mine field. Some say that those who have served their country in those trying times live with war inside them. I can’t attest to what is inside John’s mind but I can say with absolute certainly that he exudes charm warmth humor and understanding.
We start to talk a lot about the shop. His father opened it in 1939 and apart from his years of military service, John worked there ever since; starting as a 14 year old delivery boy and subsequently running the business after his father’s passing. He aims to be there every morning for opening time. At that age I can just imagine myself finding a million and one reasons to take it easier and the fact that he doesn’t astounds me. John has that old school business ethic that isn’t too common place these days: “I wanted to have some cherries this week but I have to wait. They weren’t the best and I don’t want my customers buying them. Have a good product and charge a fair price. That is what will make the customer come back”. I ask him about the different people who come into his store, I’m sure he’s encountered some characters. “Smile at everyone and wish them a good day. Eventually even the grumpiest person will break down his frown and smile back”. John works with his heart. I think that’s the secret.
The store itself is a portal into the past. Nestled deep in Brooklyn, it maintains the original exterior, the original wooden floors, the tin ceiling, the scale hanging from it and a rotary phone that continues to function. Songs from the decades passed are softly playing from a stereo in the back room. Frank Sinatra becomes the soundtrack to our tête-à-tête. Produce, cans and boxes of macaroni are displayed on wooden shelves with an extraordinary collection of photographs exhibited above: A photo with former mayor Rudy Giuliani before his election, one with Tony Bennet, a group shot of John and his delivery boys all grown up, some family photos and some of soldiers. An absolute treasure trove of history that with my short couple of hours with John, I was only able to scratch the surface of. I notice a yellow piece of paper with song lyrics on them. His son explains that John loves music and really enjoys singing along to his favorite tracks; the lyrics are there for him in case he forgets some of the verses. I yelp out that I’m the same way and that I must have music playing at practically every waking hour, albeit my vocal abilities are very much lacking. “Well, do you know the song ‘I apologize’ by Bill Ecktsein?” John asks. No I answer, making a mental note to brush up on the old school jazz artists. John doesn’t skip a beat. “When you go home, look the lyrics up on your computer then come back here and we will sing it together”. Yes! It’s a date!
Before leaving, I ask John what he thinks of the world today. How has it changed through the years? He looks at me and shakes his head. “Oh, the world right now is upside down. So much scandal on the headlines, we should write more human pieces but everyone loves scandal. All these stories, no one is innocent and with war, we all lose. It’s sad to see the world like this. Just be kind and be good. It’s so simple.” He gives an exasperated wave of his hands and looks toward the windows of his shop, pausing perhaps to give me a chance to offer some insight into my generation. I stay quiet. I can’t say that his answer surprises me but listening to his age withered voice really echoed these unfortunate truths of our times.
I’ve a lot to think about on my way to work from the shop. I had the honor of speaking to a man who defended his country with his heart and soul. A man who built a strong family and business, who continues to live his life with purpose, gratitude and humility. Someone who doesn’t allow his mind nor body to relent and who, first and foremost, expects the best from himself. My mind wanders to his last comment. Do we hold ourselves accountable for that negativity in our society? Human nature has us putting the blame on the next person yet I think we all share the responsibility. We write these headlines. We buy and read them and share them on our social media news feeds. We are the ones who glorify the scandals and not the human pieces on our news simply by the attention we give them. Gossip sells. Being kind and good became difficult since we so often find a reason to perpetuate a grudge. We forgive less and hardly ever forget. Heavy reckoning for a morning commute. I take out my phone and search the lyrics for “I Apologize”. I’ve a duet to prepare for.