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What if Every Day Were Take Your Son to Work Day?

January 30, 2015 | Frank Bonanno


Marco has a knight in one hand and Batman in the other and the two are engaged in combat above the oatmeal. I tell my youngest to move this battle away from the breakfast table and into the attic. Wouldn’t a castle be a better scene to wage this war?

One summer, when I was younger than Marco is now, my dad and I built a castle together. It was an Awesome Castle. A tiny turn-crank dropped a genuine drawbridge; perfect slits lined the walls and housed miniature crossbows. A spring-loaded wooden cannon shot rubber balls across a courtyard filled with dismembered royal militia and their horses. We worked together long weekend days on that castle, shoulder to shoulder, eyes crossed to focus on craft knives and the nicks that small carving tools make. To be honest, I’d have been happy with a couple of shoe boxes to house my royal army, but once we started, my dad was committed to the Awesome Castle. Every so often, I’d spring from my spot, warriors in fists, itching to play and declaring the castle complete, and Dad would say no but look at the turret, it needs a spiral. See here? And I’d be drawn back in to his craftsmanship, his patience, his creativity.

My first paid job was the summer after second grade working for my dad. Saturdays and Sundays he’d bring me to construction sites and we—me and some neighborhood buddies—would just fill dumpsters with trash, pieces of trim and chunks of flooring, acoustic tiles and foam coffee cups. Look here, Frank, you missed the drywall dust in the corner. You forgot to break down those boxes in the dumpster—better go attend to them. Why don’t you hose down the trashcan after you empty it? Make it shiny. And that’s how it was with my dad; the work was never done, and he enlisted his kids in those efforts. The thing was, he made it a read day’s work for me, and I got real paychecks for the effort. I imagine my dad had lots of reasons to work us so young and so thoroughly: It was probably better to keep the aimless pack of kids close and focused on a task other than trouble, and I’m sure it was good to get the kids out of the house and give my mom a break. I bet he wanted us to connect dollars to effort and maybe even the bigger lesson of connecting satisfaction to effort. He maybe hoped we would grow to be thorough and patient and I suppose he wanted us to know that looking closely, really closely—like say, a small slot in a castle wall, perfectly sized and shaped to host a miniature crossbow–was a good thing, that the beauty really is in the details. That if you worked not just hard but well, you could maybe put some money in the bank—or maybe, you’d get to build an Awesome Castle.

The first time my son Marco came to cook with me, he was six. He had one of those random days off school that kids get, so I invited him to join me at Luca and make pierogi. In truth, he’d been coming to work with me on off school days for some years, but was more interested in finding the office computers than the kitchen equipment. I figured if I engaged him in making a favorite dish—and that kid loves a pierogi—he might muster up some enthusiasm. He did. We peeled and tended to the potatoes together, flattened the dough as a team, my arms on either side of his, hands lined up on the rolling pin. I showed him how to pinch the half-moon to seal the cheese and onions inside, and he gently dusted the batch with flour so they wouldn’t stick in the plastic bag. While he was focusing on his task, I got to do my own tasks around him, returning to him intermittently, pointing out this and that. It was pretty great, but it wasn’t work-day work. Lately, though, Marco’s been coming with me to Salt and Grinder—real work. At first, he was supposed to join me for twenty minutes to help stuff the casings for the first batch of mortadella. Four hours passed before we emerged from the charcuterie cellar, blood stained and reeking of bung and funk. Sweaty. Happy.

The next weekend, we were out of eggs at home, so Marco and I walked to Salt and Grinder to make breakfast sandwiches–and wouldn’t you know it but the two of us ended up cooking through a rush that had a line wending down the block. Never got back to making those breakfast sandwiches, but Marco did manage to make four dollars in tips from behind the line—and now it’s a regular thing. Come on Marco, let’s go to Salt and Grinder. Not today, he tells me. I’m not really in the mood he says as he’s pulling on his sneakers and grabbing a hat. We leave the house together—well, not really together, because I have a tendency of pacing up ahead, lost in food thoughts, until he scrambles into my coat pocket and reaches for my hand. I tug him closer, mess his hair, and we walk the rest of the way down the block in a sort of satisfied peace.

People ask me all the time if my sons will go into the restaurant business. Hell no, I say. I wouldn’t wish this stress, this risk, this work on anyone. Not on your life would I wish this upon my sons. Restaurant business, no way. Would I?

Marco has moved to his battle to the attic now, and from the sounds of it Batman is facing an army of knights. I think Godzilla is up there, too, in the Lego castle my sons and I built together a few birthdays back. In a little while, we’re going to walk up to Salt & Grinder to check on the progress of the soppresata mold. It occurs to me now, as I type this, that my intent in bringing Marco to work with me isn’t to give Jacqueline a break, or keep Marco out of trouble, or really to “teach” him a thing. The truth is, I work a lot–a whole lot—and when I leave my house on weekends to tend to my businesses, I am doing it for us, this household, the foursome who live here. I am doing it for this–this moment of peace over breakfast in a home I love that is filled with the sound of monsters in the attic.

Would I want my sons to go into the restaurant business? I suppose I do. I want them to build it with me, or at least see the cost and the reward of tending to the smallest details. And the bigger truth is, I like having them around. I think about that Awesome Castle, the summers spent sweeping construction sites and pulling weeds from sidewalks, and I wonder if my own dad felt the same about his sons–and I hope, I really hope: he did