Storytelling: He became better at selling zucchini than at spelling it

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I vaguely remember finishing near the top in the John Minadeo Elementary School spelling bee in 1969.

The top five spellers at that Squirrel Hill school -- Jimmy, Jerry, Karen, Elise and I -- were invited to participate in the citywide spelling tournament at Buhl Planetarium. I did not want to do this! It was on Saturday. I did not want to do school stuff on a Saturday.

But upon hearing that my beautiful, blonde, knock-out, sixth-grade English teacher, Miss Hershey, would be accompanying the group, I was all in!

I managed to get through the early and middle rounds, each time looking at Miss Hershey for approval. I vividly recall her smile as I conquered the difficult words. I was making good guesses. I will never forget when my classmate, Jimmy, misspelled a word and burst into tears. Good grief!

In the final round, only a few of us remained in the contest. It was there that I would meet my nemesis.

"Zucchini" came the dreaded word from the moderator.

What the? "Zoo-what -- uh, can you please repeat that?"

"Zucchini ... zoo-keen-ee."

I had not the faintest clue of what a zikeeny was. I was not a big vegetable consumer back then, and that one was definitely foreign to my family's dinner table.

In a feeble attempt, I awkwardly blurted out a "z" and a "u," but beyond that, I can barely remember. I was done. I could not look my sixth-grade crush in the eye in my moment of weakness, but at least I did not cry like the other kid. A few minutes later, I felt better as my schoolmate Karen captured the city title.

I fondly remember Miss Hershey taking us all out to lunch at Palmer's Restaurant in Allegheny Center Mall after the event. She sat directly across from me as she lifted a cigarette out of her pack.

"Do you mind?" she asked with a smile, slowly raising the cigarette.

Mind? Are you for real? I was totally mesmerized, sitting across from Miss Hershey and her lit cigarette. Even Jim seemed to have recovered suddenly from his serious case of spelling bee depression. I remember little else about that day, and the word "zucchini" slowly faded from my memory.

That was until I began working after school at the Ross Fruit Market on Murray Avenue. My primary responsibility consisted of delivering fruits and vegetables in a large station wagon to produce-hungry customers. Vegetable ignorance once again reared its ugly head that day, when my mom asked me to bring home a head of lettuce and instead was presented with a rather large green cabbage.

After my first couple of days on the job, Ed, an older gentleman from the store, gave me some product enlightenment. As we toured the long, refrigerated green rack, there it was, piled neatly in a wooden chip basket.

"And this, Howie, is called zucchini ..." Truth be told, I recalled hearing the word, yet could not pinpoint its origin at that moment. But I dealt regularly afterward with Miss Sherman, a customer whose weekly order by phone always included a request for two medium-sized "zoo-chin-ie."

I worked at the market for over three years, always etching the word "zukes" on order pads, carefully distinguishing them from "cukes," as in cucumbers.

Years later, I wound up owning that fruit market, which had been renamed The Greengrocer. I would spend the next 12 years of my life inspecting, buying, promoting, marketing, analyzing, displaying and selling ... zucchini.

During that time, the business grew to become a source of not only fancy grade zucchini, but also medium zucchini, jumbo zucchini (which could also be used as a deadly weapon), and even on occasion, baby zucchini and zucchini blossoms!

Yet, somehow, in the midst of this squash madness, I never could spell it right consistently. There was always an extra or missing "h" or "c" or "n," though once in a while it would randomly end up spelled correctly.

One day in the market, I looked up and there she was, (the former) Miss Hershey. She was now probably in her late 40s, married, still stunning. She told me she was no longer teaching, but instead playing the harp at fancy events and venues.

Heavenly thoughts filled my mind. We wished each other well. I do not remember if she purchased any zucchini that day, and I doubt that she remembered our spelling bee adventure.

Howard Ehrlichman of Wilkins, a Port Authority dispatcher, can be reached at hrehrlichman@gmail.com


The PG Portfolio welcomes “Storytelling” submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.

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