If you usually use the 12th and Filbert entrance of the Market, you see them every week: A man or woman surrounded by event brochures, sitting behind the green desk underneath the big Information sign. Perhaps you say hi when you grab your Metro; maybe you’ve sought their advice on finding an unfamiliar ingredient for a recipe. We recently took the occasion of National Volunteer Week to find out a little more about some of the Market’s longest-serving and most often-seen Information Booth volunteers.
Allan Segal, 8 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday
Alan Segal, 76, has worked more hours in the Market than many of its paid employees. He started with a single shift shortly after the Convention Center renovation in 1994 but as other volunteers left for various reasons, continued to add on shifts so that he now mans the desk five mornings a week.
Market regulars know him for his unflappable manner, Santa-Claus beard and USS Forrestal baseball cap. The Center City resident served in the personnel office of that Norfolk, Va.-based aircraft carrier for only a single year (in 1957, a decade before its tragic fire) but he was in the Naval Reserves for 28 years and he says, not a month goes by when some Market visitor doesn’t thank him for his military service. “It’s happened two times this week already,” he says. An afterschool job delivering flowers all over the city left him well-equipped to handle the many non-Market questions he now has to field.
After 18 years, Segal has heard it all. Two of the most memorable queries: ‘Where is 12th Street?’ (from someone who just entered from 12th) and “a woman who wanted to know if I could recommend a nursing home in Montgomery County.” (He could not.)
Carol Spawn, 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Friday
Carol Spawn, 84, is not the oldest Info Desk volunteer (that would be her Tuesday afternoon counterpart, Solomon Volen, 86) but as a Market shopper since 1957, she is the one with the deepest knowledge of the place. Her late husband, Willman, actually introduced her to the Market that year on their first, quite unromantic, “date”: He invited her to accompany him on his weekly Saturday shopping trip. Spawn herself is now a regular customer and fan of L. Halteman Cornish game hens and Kauffman’s early and late season tomatoes.
Spawn was a librarian and archivist at the Free Library and the Academy of Natural Sciences before her 1993 retirement and, true to her training, she writes down every question she is asked during her volunteer shift. The top five most frequently asked Information Desk questions, based on her four years of Friday afternoon research, are: 1. Where are the rest rooms? 2. Where is the place I saw on TV that makes the pork sandwich? or some variation thereof, from people in search of DiNic’s. 3. Where can I get a cheesesteak? (which Spawn and the other volunteers diplomatically answer by mentioning all three stands that regularly sell them: Carmen’s, By George’s and Spataro’s.) 4. How do I get to the Liberty Bell, Italian Market, Pat’s and Geno’s, Art Museum or fill-in-the-blank Philadelphia tourist attraction? 5. Where is a post office, a branch of my bank, drug store or source of some other practical thing these people need?
The actual most common thing people ask for is a Market map but Spawn says, “That happens 20 or 30 times every two hours I work,” or way too many to write down.
Yvonne Brown, noon to 4 p.m. Monday and 2 to 6 p.m. Wednesday
Yvonne Brown, 64, has only been volunteering at the Market for about a year. But she makes up in presence what she lacks in hours. Most desk volunteers don’t speak to shoppers unless spoken to, but Brown yells out friendly greetings to people as they enter or exit. As in:
“Have a nice day sweetie!” “Enjoy your lunch ladies!” And to a senior citizen, “You lookin’ sharp girl!” with a big smile. A few moments later another senior — obviously a Yvonne “regular” — comes up to report on her weekly Market shopping trip.
Three years into retirement from her job as a special ed aide at Cheltenham High School, Brown was bored and on a visit to the Market fortuitously ran into a former student turned Market employee who told her about the Information Desk job, which the East Oak Lane resident says she “loves. I’m a people person and here you meet people from all over the world.”
She is particularly amused by the Australians and Italians who ask for the location of the Market “toilets.” “I tell them, ‘We don’t say toilets here, we say rest rooms,’” she relates with a chortle. After 2 p.m., she directs tourist explorers “all the way to the end of the aisle first, because the Amish will start leaving at 3.”
Her celebrity sightings include WPVI-TV Channel 6 broadcaster Vernon Odom and Mayor Nutter, who she says regularly takes out sweets from Termini’s.
Donna Martorana, 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Friday
Donna Martorana, 65, is an ex-operating room nurse now in real estate who responded to an ad seeking volunteers for the Market because “I love the Market and the city and being here is like being an ambassador for them.”
The job definitely has its diplomatic aspects, like when kids from school groups on treasure hunts come to her for “hints.” “I give them a map,” she says.
After 45 years in the city and 10 years on the Information Desk, there aren’t many questions that get her stumped. When there is, she’ll make her questioner into a scout. “When I’m not sure I’m sending them to the right place for a certain product, I’ll ask them to come back and let me know if they found it.” She, personally, loves the tea at the Tea Leaf, and frequently precedes her shift with a visit to that stand for a fresh-brewed cup of lung ching green, lemon herbal or the pure-dried-ginger ginger tea.
The Powelton Village resident also gets a lot of satisfaction out of her other volunteer job — – at the Ronald McDonald House for families with seriously ill children in West Philadelphia — but “it’s not a happy place, like this is.”Posted on 05.13.13