In the 1930s and ’40s, and presumably for some time thereafter, George’s Diner occupied, along with Jake Haas’s Bar & Grill, the southwest corner of the juncture of Metropolitan Avenue and Fresh Pond Road in the Ridgewood section of Brooklyn.
Ridgewood in those days was a German enclave nestled on the borderline of Brooklyn and Queens. Why “Fresh Pond” Road, I would never know. There was no such pond, fresh or otherwise, in sight. If ever one did exist, it had evaporated lifetimes earlier.
What was very much in evidence, across from the diner, was a mammoth freight yard stretching east to Middle Village. Its westbound freights tunneled beneath the two streets and their trolley tracks, the locomotive disappearing momentarily then emerging with a monstrous belch, engulfing the avenues in smoke and ash.
We lived one block away, on Metropolitan, across from the Grandview Dairy, a tumultuous enterprise both day and night. Grandview was yet another misnomer. The dairy looked out upon the avenue’s trolley track, our unprepossessing, two-story gray structure, and a weeded vacant lot shouldering two wooden billboards.
George’s Diner came to my attention as a small boy when I first learned that my Uncle Will ate there every day, three times a day. Will was my father’s older brother, a bachelor and army veteran of World War I, who served in France in the American Expeditionary Force. He was a printer, with a shop encompassing the ground floor of the house we shared. We lived upstairs. Like almost everything else about Will, the circumstances under which he entered the printing business were a mystery. He rarely spoke about himself, or very little else, for that matter. My father, equally expressive, provided no additional information. It is difficult for me to remember them ever talking to each other.
My grandfather, whom I had never seen, was a house painter and paperhanger. He must have been relatively successful. The old house he left to Will and my father was spacious and included grounds, in a heavily populated area, with a garden, two-car garage, a small workshop, a barn from those earlier horse and carriage days, and a fairly large roofed shed.
My father followed in his footsteps and worked with him from age 14. For Will to enter the printing business was ambitious, requiring considerable training and, even in those days, capital. What motivated him and what made it possible — that was the mystery.
The shop and its activity intrigued me from the time I was old enough to maneuver the stairs down from our apartment and watch Will at work. My earliest memories were largely sensory: the rhythmic throbbing of the presses, the pounding of leather-covered blocks and mallets, the flashing blade of the paper cutter cleaving with a sharp, staccato whistle through thick layers of stock.
Will was a cigar smoker, as was my father. Both could rarely be seen without a butt protruding from between their teeth. Ashtrays were strewn, strategically, about the shop, almost always filled. The shop was long and narrow. In front were two large display windows, always in need of refurbishing, and the entrance door. Left of a center aisle was a counter and glass display case, behind which were shelves of stock and supplies, and the paper cutter, the blade of which was half again the length of a Samurai sword and razor sharp. To the right, floor to ceiling, were large bins holding sheets of stock.
Some wintry days, while Will worked, I would sit up in the topmost bin and watch the falling snow covering the trolley tracks and pushing huddled pedestrians to their unseen destinations.
There were three motorized, floor-standing platen letterpresses, large and noisy. Two were hand fed and one automatic. At the rear of the shop stood a huge bank of fonts, a massive array of typefaces.
Will, I came to understand, was an artist of a sort, an artisan at the very least. If he did not take pride in his appearance or what he euphemistically called home, he did take pride in his work. He was not Johannes Gutenberg, but they were kin. Will was true to his craft. Every job, whether George’s menu, a Veterans of Foreign Wars flier, a program for Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal or Old First Presbyterian Church, even a business card — each received meticulous attention. He selected each typeface with care. Spacing was paramount. Every project was scrupulously designed, appropriate stock chosen, inked and printed with precision. Every product was a little, pedestrian work of art.
On the rear wall next to the door to Will’s apartment was a huge, rolltop desk filled with unimaginable clutter. His old army helmet rested on a shelf above the desk, and in the corner, his Springfield rifle, bayoneted. I was fascinated with the rifle. When I got a little older, I sometimes held it and sighted it at an imaginary enemy.
Will allowed it, so I knew it was not loaded. I thought about him in the war. He never spoke of it. I wondered what the war was like. I knew little about it. France seemed worlds away. How did he face it, what had it done to him? Was he afraid? When I held the rifle, I wondered if he had used it. I wondered if he had killed with it. I never dared to ask.
Behind the shop were Will’s living quarters. They were meager, to say the least. The main room was ostensibly a kitchen, since it held a gas stove, a sink, mirror, and an icebox, but it never served as such. Will’s kitchen was George’s Diner, where he ate virtually every meal of his life in the time I knew him, and without question, years before. The sole purpose of the stove on the premises was to help heat the room on cold winter mornings, along with a small gas heater. It never produced as much as a cup of coffee. The icebox, in my recollection, had no use whatsoever.
In the middle of the room, and commanding most of it, was a large, round oak table covered in green felt and surrounded by several high-backed chairs. Suspended above it was a green shaded lamp. By the doorway was a ponderous, antiquated, padded Morris chair. I called it the “easy chair.” It exuded a musk of cigar smoke, stale beer, and age. Will reclined in its massive embrace for hours at a time. Arriving home from school, I would often find him snoozing there, a newspaper draped across his lap.
The bedroom was even more austere. It held a single bed, rumpled and unmade, a small clothes closet, a curtained shower and a water closet. Mother never ventured near the shop, and certainly not his quarters. They were too slovenly.
The “kitchen” and its table were host on Saturday nights to the pinochle club. The regulars included Bill Bolas, Steve Fuchs, and Artie Andel. They were usually joined by one or two part-timers. Bolas was a small, graying wisp of a man. He made up for his size with a shrill, high-pitched voice that outgunned his larger compatriots’. Steve Fuchs was an uncle through marriage, the husband of Will and my father’s only sister, Louise. He was a giant of a man, a carpenter by trade, and given to every excess imaginable. Andel, by comparison, was relatively quiet, until losing. He worked, in some unknown capacity, for Spaulding, and kept me in supply of baseballs and bats, once a glove, even spikes.
All were cigar smokers, and inveterate beer drinkers. The game went on well into the night, the little room impenetrable with cigar smoke and the cumulative mass of emptied beer bottles. They could be heard haggling boisterously into the early morning hours, their strident laughter reduced, then, to hoarse and reminiscent chuckles as they shuffled, homeward, through the pre-dawn light.
Aside from his work and pinochle, Will afforded himself only two pleasures in life of which I was aware. They were bowling and fishing. Once a week was bowling night. He was a member of a team that competed in local tournaments. It appeared he was quite good. He was a big man, and strong. The team’s activities were frequently reported in the sports pages of a local newspaper. More often than not, Will was mentioned as the leading scorer.
Fish and Ridgewood were not congruent. Not only was it lacking a Fresh Pond, it was situated in the middle of westernmost Long Island, far from any body of fishable water.
Despite this, every summer in memory, he got himself to Montauk Point to fish. From June to September, one day a month, ordinarily Sunday, he made the considerable journey. His alarm would awaken him at roughly 2 a.m. Trolleys at that hour were few and far between. It was well over an hour to Jamaica, where he caught the Long Island Rail Road’s Fisherman’s Special. From there, it was at least another two-hour ride to Montauk, and a taxi to the docks and the charter fishing boat. Later, that evening, he returned home with his catch, usually flounder or fluke, filleted and wrapped in newspaper. He shared some of it with us and took the rest to George’s Diner, where Wolfgang, the cook, prepared it for him.
To Be Continued
Fred Nagel is a retired educator and psychotherapist living in Springs. He has contributed to the Star’s Guestwords on several occasions, and is the author of “Twenty-five to Life, A Love Story. ”