Lunch Ladies: The All-American School Cafeteria Heist [2]

“Don’t count the money. Just put it in the drawer.”

This is part two of my three-part feature story, “Lunch Ladies.” For the previous post, click below.

Previous post

The arrival of a MooBella Machine, a personalized ice cream dispenser with 96 different mix and match combinations — leased for $400 per month in 2010 — was big news in the New Canaan High School cafeteria. As lines grew longer and longer, however, students began taking advantage, going back for refills without paying for a second cup. Soon after, students came to school to find a “closed” sign on the MooBella for a few days. “We had to shut it down,” Gluck told the student paper, “because of a small minority of students who were stealing.”

But this was not the only theft suspected in the lunchrooms. Torcasio was beginning to wonder if Gluck and the sisters had their hands in more than dirty dishes: she and other lunch workers suspected they were skimming cash from the registers. Though schools were converting over to electronic payment systems, they still accepted cash. As lunchroom manager, it was Torcasio’s responsibility to keep track and record the transactions — a substantial amount of work in addition to all the cooking and cleaning.

One day, however, Wilson came into the lunchroom and told her she didn’t need to bother punching all the numbers, she could just put all the cash in a drawer. A lunch lady at another school experienced Pascarelli doing the same. The sisters rarely, if ever, showed her compassion for her work load, and yet every time the lunch ladies had more complicated prep for the meals, Wilson would suggest they simply skip all the tedious money counting. “Oh, it’s pasta day,” Torcasio recalled Pascarelli telling her once, “don’t count the money, just put it in the drawer.”

As suspicions spread, Torcasio began noticing that Wilson began living more lavishly for someone on a lunch lady salary. She purchased a bigger home on the ritzy side of town, and arrived at a banquet in her shiny new Mercedes. Though Gluck continued to drive what Torcasio described as his “beat up” old Volvo, Torcasio and the others had a sense that there was something shady happening between him and the sisters.

After work, they’d see Pascarelli or Wilson emptying registers into a drawer without even counting the money. Sometimes they’d see the sisters with loose cash in their pockets. “I don’t even know how much they were taking,” Torcasio recalled.

But Torcasio felt too scared to speak up, given Gluck’s power in the community. “The Board of Education wouldn’t have believed us anyway,” she said, “He was like a god to them.”

And with her husband growing more ill, having to leave his job and stay home on an oxygen tank, she couldn’t take any risks. Whenever she had concerns about work, Wilson told her to stay silent. “Keep your mouth shut,” she said Wilson told her, “you need the insurance, you have a sick husband.”

October 17, 2013 was pizza day at East Elementary, and students, teachers and parents had it marked on their calendars, eager to swoop in for a slice of Mrs. T’s delectable pies. But pizza day meant a long morning for the lunch ladies, who had to whip up 50 pizzas from scratch. “You had to make the pepperoni,” Torcasio said, “you had to make the vegetable, you had to make the gluten-free, there was a lot you had to do.”

But on that Thursday, making the pizzas for hundreds of hungry kids became a crushing challenge for Torcasio. One of her coworkers had called in sick again, so she had to do it all alone with just one helper. She scrambled as fast as she could: grating cheese, spreading the dough, chopping the onions, only to see the students — one by one by one by one — pour in.

When Kimberley Aponte, the school secretary, came in for a slice, she found Torcasio exhausted and in tears from all the work. Torcasio explained that she was short-staffed again, but pled with Aponte not to tell Wilson or Gluck for fear of reprisal. “Please don’t tell anybody,” she said, “I can do it, I can work through it, I’m fine.”

But Aponte felt concerned enough to bring it up with principal Alexandra “Bunny” Potts anyhow. “Toni is shorthanded in the kitchen,” she told her, “can we see if we can get her an extra hand?” Potts had always known Torcasio as a hard worker, too — one who, in the past, had also urged her not to tell Gluck when the kitchen was short-staffed.

But this time, Potts took it upon herself to alert him. “It was my goal to help the cafeteria run as smoothly as possible,” as Potts later said, “It’s a very, very busy time and it’s an important time to children. So, I felt it very important to do that.”

The next morning after a staff meeting, Torcasio was summoned into Gluck’s office, where she found him and Wilson waiting.

“Why the hell would you go talk to Bunny?!” he shouted, “Bunny called me to tell me that you complained that Marie wouldn't send anyone to help you.”

Torcasio swore she didn't complain to Potts. Potts must have just learned of her situation from Aponte and taken it upon herself to reach out to them.

“Are you telling me that Mrs. Potts was lying to me?” Gluck screamed.

“I never spoke to Mrs. Potts!” Torcasio replied. Terrified of losing her job or being sent to relegated to dish duty, she burst into tears.

“I won't talk to you if you're crying,” Gluck said, “That's unprofessional. This is a place of business.”

But after years of fearing Gluck, Torcasio told me, she felt something turn inside of her, the unfairness, the oppression, the insistence that she and the others remain silent. This man had built a gluten-free empire of fame — and perhaps ill-gotten fortune — on the sweat of the lunch ladies, and for what? For this?

She couldn’t take it anymore.

So, for the first time ever, she snapped back. “Bruce, you got to listen to me!” she shouted, “I don’t want to deal with you!”

She rose from her chair and started approaching him at his desk. “Why do you treat me this way?” She cried.

Gluck and Wilson, who’d never seen her like this, felt taken aback.  “She was a disaster,” Wilson testified, “She was really, really red.  Her neck was really red, she was shaking and she kept pointing her finger and just screaming and that’s all she was doing.”

“As of today,” Gluck told Torcasio, “you’re not to talk to Bunny! To the secretaries! To nobody!” Gluck put an end to the meeting, heading out.

At this point, according to Torcasio, Wilson physically shoved her out of the way as she too headed out the door. (Wilson denied this later, though, saying she was so upset by the fracas that she ran into her office and threw up in the garbage can).

Distraught and overwhelmed, Torcasio began to panic, gasping for air — until she stumbled outside, passed out in her car, and woke up in a hospital bed surrounded by her family.

That’s when her daughter Rosa, her husband Frank, and son Vincenzo pleaded with her to do something. She and the lunch ladies had suffered long enough.

As Torcasio listened, she felt something inside her harden. They were right. She didn’t have to take this anymore, or let any other cafeteria workers endure such wrath. She was going to fight back. “It’s time that I do this,” she said, “it's not right what they did to me.”

This concludes part two of “Lunch Ladies,” a three-part feature I’m serializing exclusively in my newsletter. For interviews, feature stories, as well as posts from Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future, please subscribe below and spread the word. Thanks!

Share Disruptor