“George’s Diner,” a Memoir by Fred Nagle

Entering my teens, I petitioned my parents for a trumpet. Some years earlier, probably at the onset of baseball season, I divorced the piano teacher my mother had wedded me to. With some persuasion, they relented and one was purchased, in part with my paper route earnings along with their significant contribution. The piano lessons had not been a total loss. They taught me to read and gave me at least a rudimentary understanding of chord progressions or changes.
    I wanted the trumpet since I’d discovered jazz. Specifically, I’d discovered Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven. I would go on to discover Muggsy Spanier, Max Kaminsky, Wild Bill Davison, Bob Scobey, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Buck Clayton, Bobby Hackett, Cliff Brown, Chet Baker, Art Farmer, Clark Terry, and, finally, Miles and Marsalis. 
    Uncle Will was no more successful at escaping the sounds of my practice in the apartment upstairs than we were those of his printing presses on the ground floor of the house. He never said so, but he must, in some way, have liked what he heard. I did appear to have a naturally good embouchure and, almost immediately, was producing a pleasing sound or tone.
    One night, with my parents’ permission, he took me to a meeting of the V.F.W. Under his auspices, I auditioned and became the official bugler of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 853. I played “Taps” at the funerals of all the passing veterans and at commemorations like Memorial and Armistice Days. At the funerals, I would stand in an adjacent room or hallway, away from the assembled celebrants. I played softly and with as much feeling as I could muster at that early age. It was my first gig. Will was always present. Somehow, I knew he was thinking not only of the current departed vet but of all those left behind, in France, so long ago.
    Each morning, on waking, Will might shave, though he was, more often than not, in stubble. Yesterday’s clothes were hung on a chair at the foot of the bed. He hurriedly dressed and made his way down the block to George’s Diner for breakfast. George invariably sat at the register by the door. They greeted one other as they had the day before and the day before that. The waitresses, Marge and Elsie, did likewise. Both were middle-aged and friendly. They were the only women in Will’s life, as far as I knew. There was no evidence to the contrary. Harry was the short-order cook. Wolfgang, or Wolf, as he was called, the kitchen cook, did not come in till lunch. Their faces were the first that he would see each morning. They were the first with whom he spoke. They were, as well, the last to whom he said goodnight.
    Even in the Depression we always ate well. She may have had to scrimp in other ways, but Mother always put good food on the table. It was not always to my liking. There was too much cabbage, too much turnip. They were cheap. There were compensations. In early autumn there was cauliflower with a white cream sauce, which I loved. For some unknown reason, since we were not Catholic, Friday night was fish, usually flounder, dipped in beaten egg, breaded, and pan fried. The fare was simple, meat and potatoes, but good. Some of Mother’s specialties were pot roast, meatloaf, chicken fricassee, beef rouladen and, on special occasions, sauerbraten with kartoffel kloesse, or potato balls, and red cabbage. Those occasions were rare.
    The meal was extremely labor intensive and time-consuming. The sauerbraten itself was not, though it marinated for two days, but the kartoffel kloesse took hours. They were my father’s domain. I called him the “potato ball king” — he prepared them with such finesse. He enlisted my aid to help roll the dough into balls before dropping them in a huge pot of boiling water. With the sauer gravy they were delicious.
    On a regular basis, my favorite evening meal was Sunday night. It was not dinner at all. Sunday dinner was mid-day, usually roasted chicken, and at night we had a light snack-like meal we called supper. Most often it included potato salad from Peter’s Delicatessen on Fresh Pond Road. It might simply be grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches, or ham and cheese on fresh seeded rye from Stengel’s bakery. My favorite was creamed shrimp on toast, with Hungarian paprika. After supper, we gathered around the standup Philco radio and listened to Jack Benny and Fred Allen before bed.
    Shortly after my 16th birthday, Will started teaching me how to hand-set type, backward and upside down. I had been watching him at work for many years, and was intrigued by the process. It was difficult at first but I was motivated to learn, though I was not sure why. It did not occur to me at the time, nor did it for many years thereafter, why I was being taught. Will was in hope that after high school I would work with him and eventually be his successor. Who knows, I might have been. The proposition was never presented or explored.
    One morning several weeks before my graduation I went down to the shop. Will was not there. It was too late for him to be at George’s. I found him in his bed. His face was drained of all color, his breathing extremely labored. I asked him what was wrong. He did not, or could not, answer. I elevated him slightly in the bed to facilitate his breathing and rushed to the phone to call for help. He died that morning of a heart attack.
    Several weeks later, we moved from Ridgewood, from the only house that I had ever known, to an apartment in Bayside, Queens, some unknown suburb. The old house must have been hurriedly sold. Mother never liked living there. Will’s passing created a perfect opportunity to leave and find what was for her more desirable surroundings. I never learned what became of Will’s shop, those thundering presses, the pinochle club, the “easy chair,” his Springfield. I did not ask.
    Sixty years after he was gone, following the death of my wife, Nancy, I renewed my relationship with Will. In some respects, I knew him better now than in life. Now, I knew a thing or two about solitude, about a life unshared, removed from love, from intimacy; about life in protracted suspension. I had an “easy chair,” a smaller version of Will’s, in which I dozed some afternoons.
    In our life together, Nancy was the cook, I was her sous. We enjoyed cooking together. I loved seeing her at work, and executing the minor tasks I was assigned. In a country suddenly obsessed with nutrition, for me, the only nutrient of any interest was Nancy herself, and she was no longer. My appetite went with her. Preparing meals for myself, by myself, was onerous. I skipped as many as I ate. I lost weight precariously. I needed George’s Diner.

    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.”