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The Journal Gazette

  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Rajib Jainagerker, an engineer, has worked at Coney Island downtown for 47 years. “I love the place,” he says. “People are good to me.”

Tuesday, April 25, 2017 1:00 am

Coney Island fixture planning to retire

From handshake to 47-year job

FRANK GRAY | The Journal Gazette

One day in 1971, Rajib Jainagerker was wandering around downtown Fort Wayne, just seeing what the city looked like.

Rajib, who was born in Mumbai, lived in Pakistan and later was educated in England, had just arrived in the city, where he was a student at Indiana Tech.

As he wandered, he stopped at the Coney Island wiener stand and got a cup of coffee.

The owner, Russell Choka, eyed Rajib, who had big, bushy hair (everyone had long hair back then) and called him over.

“Young man, what are you doing?” he asked.

Rajib told him he was a student at Indiana Tech and new in town.

Are you looking for a job? Choka asked.

Sure, Rajib said. So Choka shook his hand, and told him to grab an apron. He was hired.

That was it, Rajib says. “No interview, nothing, just a handshake.”

And no training. They didn't train new employees back then. They still don't, jokes James Todoran, who runs Coney Island now.

In time, between selling hot dogs, Rajib got an associate degree at Indiana Tech and found various jobs around Fort Wayne. In the 1980s he enrolled at IPFW, got an engineering degree and was hired at General Electric.

But he always kept that job at Coney Island.

Today, Rajib is an operation leader, aftermarket, at BAE, a pretty good job.

But 47 years after he walked into Coney Island and unexpectedly got hired, he's still at Coney Island, making and serving hot dogs and chili and beans when he's not busy as an engineer.

A lot of things have changed in those 47 years. Main Street used to be lined with bars, and there were plenty of drunks who would stagger up and down the street. When they caused a problem there was a beat cop they could summon.

Because of the atmosphere on the street, Coney Island didn't hire women and people wouldn't bring their kids there.

One day, years ago, a local hotel owner came in very drunk and ordered chili, and when Rajib forgot to give him crackers, he yelled, “Hey, darkie.”

“What did you call me?” Rajib asked. And when he repeated it, Rajib slapped him and he fell off the stool. He promised to tell the owner and he'd lose his job. Instead, the hotel is gone. Rajib is still there.

Another hotel, the Van Orman, was being torn down, and its furniture was piled up outside. Rajib asked what they were going to do with it. Take what you want, he was told, so he furnished his first apartment with hotel furniture. It was good stuff, he said.

The bars, along with the hotels, are mostly gone, too. The area's atmosphere has changed. They started hiring women in the 1990s, and today people will bring their kids in for hot dogs and leave them there for a little while as they run off to pay a parking ticket or run some other errand.

And Rajib remains.

Why, you can't help but wonder, as an engineer, is he still here, 47 years later?

“I love the place,” Rajib says. “People are good to me.” Old customers know him. Some send him birthday and Christmas cards. One guy he has been serving for decades dropped in the other day and showed him a picture he had taken of him in 1973, big hair and all.

But he's getting old. He's 66, and Rajib has announced he's going to retire.

When? Soon is all he'll say.

But there are busy times. Christmas gets crazy. “If Jimmy wants me to fill in,” he'll be available here and there, if you want to call that retirement.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others' experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.