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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

School Fixtures

First, a bit of housekeeping.  If, as you scroll down this page everything is in one long, very long, paragraph, then you are not reading this in the original format. Someone has stolen my blog for their own use. So, to see it in its original, please go to

I went to Winthrop JHS – an expanded version of the typical 200-series Brooklyn public schools. If you went to Somers, you'd have no trouble finding your way in Winthrop.  Same layout.  White brick (well, the purists would call it 'cream'), 4-story building, auditorium to the right with massive chandeliers, wood seats, linoleum floor that was buffed daily.

The weirdest class was co-ed guidance where the hot topic consuming most of the semester was whether girls in junior high school should be allowed to wear makeup. Wow!!! Now that really held the interest of the boys in the class. The common element for both groups was that they both wanted lipstick that didn't wear off. (In fewer than ten years later I was leading student discussion groups on unwanted teenage pregnancies. I had two pregnant girls in my eighth grade official class. The hell with the attendance award. That made my class a contender for the school fertility award! ) More about the junior high angst later.

I had Miss Casey for math, Mr. Zeitlin for woodworking, Mr. Spear for Guidance. Some terrifying woman for Spanish and learned English grammar and the parts of a sentence from an elderly woman who had the inate ability to make thirty fairly bright kids double over with fear. Our big courtyard discussion was deciding whether it was better to have English in the morning and get it over or prolong the agony until after lunch. The cowards wanted to prolong it, as did the perennial optimists who hoped that by prolonging what everyone knew to be the inevitable that she might die during lunch, or better yet, a fire drill would be scheduled. Neither of which happened. What did happen was that I learned grammar and, you know what? It was logical and it was fun. How many of you can parse a sentence? Find the verb, the subject, the object? How many of you really understand subject-verb agreement? Good old Whatshername left her mark on me! And I went on to share this joy with countless other students.

There must have been more to my education, but that’s about all I remember about the two years in JHS 232, Winthrop Junior High School.

Except for the school fixtures – the perennials. The constants that were there when you started school and were still there five, ten years later when you came back to visit (or still there as a student). The same constants that your older brother talked about when he went to the school. No change. I mean the really important things that really matter when you’re growing up.

I mean fixtures like Winthrop’’s version of Tomaine Joe’s; Tilden's Ralph, the cop; the pretzel guy; the Mr. Softee truck and Pop the hot knish guy. Knishes were seven cents; pretzels only a nickel. (Do you split for the extra two cents and get a knish sprinkled liberally with a month’s worth of sodium, or go for the pretzel and ten ounces of mustard?) These are weighty decisions when you’re thirteen.

Wait a minute.  Breathes there a person who knows not what a knish is, or even how to pronounce the word?  Whaddayou, from Cleveland or sompin?
Get off this site, now!

Pop’s personal hygiene was a topic of much speculation and we agreed that his bathing coincided with major natural events, primarily lunar eclipses. But, one thing about Pop: he was dependable. Here was a guy who truly embraced the Post Office motto.

Every day, rain or shine, there he was pushing that little cart with four squeaky wheels and his inventory, if you could call it an inventory since it consisted of only one product – knishes. I mean HOT knishes. Now, we’re talking about simple days before microwaves. Even if they existed, he’d need a 600 foot extension cord. It was years later that the topic came up and we wondered how did he keep them hot for so long. The concensus was that there was a charcoal or wood fire at the bottom of the cart. We’re not talking about crispy two-inch high Mrs. Stahl's things; these were soggy, greasy, ultra hot, flat jobs delivered on a small piece of wax paper that did nothing to protect your fingers from the molten blob of knish. And, anything that tasted that good had to be really bad for you.

Anyway, back to Pop and his fully insulated wagon that looked as though it was a junior high school metalworking shop project that started out as an ashtray. We thought Pop was unique unto Winthrop. How could there possibly be another hunchbacked ninety-year old with a thick European accent of undetermined origin?

And then it happened.

I seen it wit my own two eyes. Pop had a twin in the business and there the two of them were both pushing their carts up Utica Avenue toward East New York Avenue. I couldn’t believe it. At first I thought I was seeing double. And then, around Rutland Road they were joined by a third. Damn!. Pop was one of triplets – all in the same family business. Each hunched over his cart; they looked alike; they walked alike, they dressed alike. Jeez. Stepford wives of the pushcart cuisine world.

You mean EVERY school has a Pop? Say it ain’t so! There can’t be!

The picture to the left is a fine example of nepotism at its best. Shown is a vendor who must be Pop's grandson working outside the E58th side of Tilden.  No way Pop would let anyone, even mishpuchza, encroach on his "Winthrop turf.'

Here's an update:  Seems there was a guy, Ruby, who muscled in on Pop's turf.  We're talking up-scale because this guy had a van for his inventory.  Same dress code, same hygiene standards.  His franchise may have been further south, closer to Tilden and Canarsie High School.  But his presence no doubt signaled the death knell for the Pops of this world.

On days I didn’t bring my lunch we would go to the corner luncheonette. Now, you wanna get some blank stares? Try explaining what a luncheonette is to someone who grew up west of the Hudson or east of the Queens border. In any case, the place to be seen at lunch was Pinky's,  a block from the school on Rutland Road for what was possibly the world’s worst hamburgers and french-fries.

Pinky's was a spatial phenomenon.  At 10:30 in the morning, it looked like a typical corner Brooklyn luncheonette with enough seating at the counter and in the booths for maybe twenty customers. Two hours later half the Winthrop student body would cram into Pinky’s,

But, once every two weeks my friends and I would treat ourselves to a deli sandwich on Clarkson and East 51st.

I’m talking real kosher deli and real corned beef and pastrami and fat French fries – not those string things that Pinky passed off as French fries. Anyway, the sandwich was under a dollar, the French fries were probably a quarter. I don’t have a clue how much the Dr. Brown’s Celray Tonic or cream soda was. Now that was living! Cholesterol had not yet been discovered. (Think Ratner's; think jars of chicken fat as a delicacy.) 

I feel so strongly about the passing of kosher deli's that I've devoted an entire chapter to them.  Check the table of contents.

Raise your hand if you ever ordered a pastrami sandwich with mayo?  Let me guess; you're from Ohio, right?

But, I digress.

Years later, outside the main gate to Brooklyn College was ‘the’ pretzel guy. Sold them, also for a nickel, out of the trunk of his Pontiac – a new Pontiac every year. (Why was I knocking myself out in school when this guy with the speech impediment that wouldn’t allow him to say ‘fresh pretzels’ without screwing up one or both words so it sounded like presh fretzels, he had a new car every year.)

Four years in the school. There he was every day. Went to the same grooming advisor as Pop, the knish man.

I went back for my Masters. There he was, still hawking presh fretzels.

A regular school fixture.

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