Once Upon An Avenue

Written By: Joel  Reitman

As Anne and I enter Erik’s, we are met by the cheerful owner wearing a baseball cap, “What can I getcha?” The hat, the smile, all hide a person who has been a chef for more years than his body let’s on. I order my usual: rancheros; two eggs over easy, refried beans and nachos. With Erik’s mild salsa finish the ranchos are tasty. Anne orders the parfait – yogurt topped with fresh fruit. We draw our coffees, black for me, milk and hazelnut for Anne. Erik’s coffee has that full-bodied aroma that draws you in and always makes you want another round. The place is spotless, cared for by a small team disciplined by a master-Erik. Once on the patio we look for a suitable table. Anne says, “How ’bout this one?” This is the only one with a butcher block top.

Here in Southold at Eric’s Breakfast and Lunch it’s a much different look than the butcher block table at Fat Charley’s in Brooklyn on East New Avenue. Here it’s farm country, serene, slow paced. The North Fork has grown up in the last few years, trendy shops, craft breweries, hip music and fancy restaurants. Brooklyn has also moved forward, with refurbished brownstones, a new sports arena downtown and even a major league baseball franchise.

In 1945 Brooklyn was a hustling place. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was building ships for World War II, the Brooklyn Dodgers would finish third in the National League, and the movie, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” would make its debut. Here, in Southold, it’s vineyard, farm stand, brewery and B and B’s. In Brooklyn it was newsstand, candy shop, deli and apartment buildings.

In the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, my neighborhood, there was ‘the avenue’ or Pitkin Avenue at the center of Brownsvillle’s retail shopping. The corner of Rockaway Avenue and Pitkin stood Woolworth’s Five and Dime. Woolworth’s was a delight for this five-year-old boy dressed in a white buttoned shirt tucked into knickers, and brown socks with brown leather shoes. Woolworth’s had everything, men’s, women’s and children’s clothes piled on tables in the center of the store – smaller items were inside glass enclosed cases. Along the rear wall was a lunch counter where you could get a grilled frank and five cent cherry coke. The coke was a blend of seltzer water, coke syrup, and cherry syrup, all mixed and served by the lunch counter person, called a soda jerk. Nearby a glass case was filled with the best item in Woolworth’s, the Charlotte Russe. This mouth watering morsel consisted of yellow cake, man-made whipped cream, topped with a maraschino cherry. All inside a white cardboard tube. The whole dessert was no more than three inches high, but the taste was at least a mile high.

My grandparents lived on Rockaway Avenue above a furniture store. The apartment had a kitchen and bedroom at one end, a living room and second bedroom at the other end, with the bathroom in the middle. In my earliest recollection, grandpa who worked as a hod carrier, would come home from work in Manhattan covered with white cement dust. He would get a bottle of beer from the ice box, either a Rheingold or Schaefer, and a kosher style pickle. Before he sat down, he’d pour a bit of that beer into a Tom and Jerry jelly jar and give that to me along with a slice of the pickle. I was feeling mighty special!

Howie, my older cousin, and about six inches taller, was like my older brother. One time at Grandma’s we were having our usual visit, Mom and Dad, aunts and uncles all gathered in the kitchen chatting away. While us two kids were horsing around in the living room throwing a small pink ball, a Spaldeen, against the bedroom wall. TV, Nintendo, and other gadgets were yet to be invented. It didn’t take long before either someone would yell, “you two cut it out.” Then two little boys ran out the apartment door, into the dark hallway, scrambling down a long flight of stairs to another adventure on the street. I also remember my parents shouting out, “Why don’t you go around the corner and see if it’s raining.” Howie and I often took the bait, anything to get outside. My older, taller and wiser cousin had a brilliant idea, “Let’s go to Woolworth’s,” he said. “We’ll buy handkerchiefs for our mothers and then tell them we had to be inside a store because it was raining.”

Other times, the adults would send us out for lunch, usually to Fat Charlie’s. At Fat Charlie’s, the butcher block wasn’t a table like the one at Erik’s, it was a counter top, loaded with shards of makings for sandwiches and subs. The counter was littered with tomato seeds, kosher pickle bits, scraps of ham, cheese shavings, crusty bits of bread and lots of “the works.” The works was a combination of oil, vinegar and Charley’s secret seasonings. The blending of the works made the sub what it was – a large, sloppy tasty delight; crusty on the outside, soft and spongy inside. It didn’t matter that the place wasn’t spotless and the ingredients not altogether healthy – the subs tasted heavenly.

Subs was the name we used for heroes, long sandwiches, shaped like a United States Navy submarine. Charley worked his magic on that butcher block counter. The smell of all the ingredients on that counter top added to the taste. Fat Charley looked the part of the ultimate hero crafter. A big unshaven man, he loomed over the counter, wearing his food splattered apron, with a white paper hat perched on his graying hair, while wielding a large chopping knife. Charley would wrap each one in white butcher paper protected by a kosher style pickle tucked inside.

Howie and I would take the order, walk back to Grandmas and delivere the lunch to the adults, who were looking pretty hungry. The crusty sub was softened by the presence of family at grandma’s. Through the apartment walls, I could feel the world outside-hustling people on the avenues, the aromas of so many ethnic delights and the clang of the trolley cars.
In Southold, Fall is beginning to penetrate Erik’s patio. People are heading back home, to the concrete streets, vacations over. As I peer outside on Route 48, I can see people in their cars rushing west, back to New York City, to Brooklyn or Manhattan. The long line of vehicles seems less dense now, and the cars move slower. Here at Erik’s, the rancheros hit the spot, and the coffee warms me just enough to keep the chill out.

In Brooklyn as here in Southold, the food goes down easily, the bounty of the harvest delights the taste, and people gather to be together. The places may seem worlds apart, but people contribute to the the places where they live, making each unique – yet the same.