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Thursday, September 06, 2012

"Put It On The Wall, Lou"

"Put it on the wall, Lou"

Here's some serious stuff. In researching this series I came across an interesting phenomenon. 

The overwhelming majority of respondees to these 'Brooklyn' blogs had parents who worked in the neighborhood and most were in retail. "My father owned the bakery on..." "My father worked in the men's shop on Utica Avenue." "My father owned the jewelry store on..." So many of the respondents had families that worked in the same neighborhood in which they lived.

What a quaint concept. No one-hour commute. How totally last century! And the stores were open six days a week. All their lives my grandparents struggled so they wouldn't have to live above the store. I think of that every day on my one-hour commute to work. Any of you who grew up in East Flatbush had a parent who worked in Manhattan? 

I was in junior high school when I decided I wanted my own money, not an allowance, so I went into every store along Church Avenue from Albany Av to Kings Highway. ("Hey, you need anyone to deliver orders for you? Have bike; will deliver!")

Not one of the stores I went into looking for a job was a chain store. The person I spoke to was not a manager, but the owner. Aside from the Woolworth's on Utica Av, the closest to a chain store, was the Carvel on E55th St, but even that was an individually owned franchise.

Speaking of Woolworth's, walking into that store was a throw-back to an earlier life. Wood floors and wood counters. THE place to go to for school supplies. A fun place to stroll through before going to the Rugby. This one was unique - no soda fountain. Just very old sales 'girls'. Even my grandmother, who was far from being a spring chicken herself, would comment about how old the 'help' was with their smocks no doubt designed by the same people who designed the Howard Johnson restaurant uniforms. These factors all contributed to the chain's demise. The name above the store may have been replaced, but there is such a distinctive look that long after, you just know it was a former '5 and dime.'

Ok. So I forgot about Ebinger's, started by a German immigrant family in 1898. There was a bunch of them in Brooklyn and by the time the chain went belly-up in 1972 there were 67 in Brooklyn including the ones on Church Avenue, Queens, Staten Island, Nassau and Suffolk.

The closest was on Church near Utica (click on the picture here, courtesy of but their bakery and distribution center was on Bedford near Snyder and if the wind was blowing in a westerly direction, the aroma would not just float over Erasmus; it would sort of caress the school. I still drool, just thinking about Ebinger's layer cake, but hands down, the blackout cake was to die for. Several web sites proclaim to have the original receipe.

Ebinger's also did some miracle work with crumb cakes and buns. Those in the know would just pick off the crumb topping leaving the rest of the family to deal with a virtually bald bun. The stuff was delivered to the stores several times a day in red and black electric-powered trucks that would invariably double park blocking the trolleys.

There was a certain irony in that the large percentage of the chain's Brooklyn customers were Jewish which did not extend to their hiring practices. Ebinger's died a quiet death, allegedly because it did not follow its customers out of the City in the late sixties and seventies, to be reborn as Entenmann's packaged cakes and a Bay Ridge bakery using the signature Ebinger's logo and colors.

How much heartache can one kid endure? Dem Bums moving west and Ebinger's disappearing.

I got my very first job delivering prescriptions after school for a drugstore on Church Av. That won't help you pinpoint the store. There was a drug store on every other block.

I was paid by the number of orders I delivered plus the tips from the customers. It wasn't until years later that I realized how good a deal I had. I'd get the same tip for carrying a bottle of pills as the guy delivering three bags of heavy groceries. Rarely did I have to collect any money from the customer; everything was charged. Not with plastic; but with a pencil and a box full of index cards.

After a while, I'd get to know the regulars and they'd invite me in. ("So, you want I should make you sompem to eat? You look so skinny.") Sometimes they'd tip me by giving me soda bottles to cash in at the candy store for the deposit. That's interesting: Fifty years later the quart bottles have mushroomed to 2-litre bottles, but still command a 5-cent deposit. How did the world of bottle deposits escape inflation?

In high school I went to work delivering for Rubin's Kosher Butcher. And the tips really began rolling in and still the packages weren't as heavy as groceries. Added bonus: I got to ride one of those delivery bikes with the big basket in front. Now, THAT impressed the girls! On rainy days Seymour Rubin would drive me. (He didn't want I should get vet and seeck. It was easier to drive me than to deal with my mother, his customer.) That job lasted through high school. I got two dollars a day for about two hours of work. My first real salary: 2 fives, which my father framed.

If you didn't go to Ebinger's, there was Sutters on Flatbush and Caton or you went to a 'Jewish' bakery. You didn't have to be Jewish to own a Jewish bakery. If it was a bakery and you lived in Brooklyn, it was a Jewish bakery - pronounced as one word. That's it; don't argue; don't ask why. Just get a small seeded rye and ask them to slice it. And make sure it's fresh. Truth in advertising did not apply to local bakeries or fruit stores. "Of course it's fresh! Would I sell your mudda sompem that ain't fresh? Of all the retailers, bakeries had two of the most fascinating pieces of machinery. Sure the butcher had his saw that could cut through bone like it was butter, (a bad analogy, especially in a kosher butcher shop) and the shoe maker had that neat row of grinders and belts and brushes, but bakeries had bread-slicing machines and cord tying machines. You know, those gismos that would wrap a cord around a box in five seconds including tieing the knot. How it do that? And why did your mother save all the cord in the kitchen junk drawer? Especially the green and brown cord from Ebinger's.  That was special occasion string.

Each store had its loyal following. Would you ever think of going into a candy store that was not your 'regular' store?

I lived in an upscale neighborhood. We didn't have a candy store; we had Dave's.  Just plain Dave's  No further explanation required.  It was on a corner, there was a newspaper stand out front.  What did you think it was? And when Coca Cola replaced the old Breyer's Ice Cream sign, Dave's became Dave's Luncheonette and Soda Shoppe accompanied by a price increase. East Flatbush must have been the candy addict capital because Dave had competition on all sides - four within two blocks; one on the same block. How did any of them make any money?

At home our refrigerator had a freezer compartment large enough to hold two ice cube trays.  That's it.  You want side-by-side?  One of the trays would have to be put in the sink.  We'd go to Dave's and order a pint of hand-packed ice cream and we'd stand over him to make sure he packed that container with as much ice cream as it could possibly hold.

Each store had its unique aroma, but none compared to the smell of the fish store. My mother went to Al's on Church near Schenectady. No one could accuse these local merchants of creativity in naming their establishments. The decision centered solely around whether to use the owner's first or last name. If the names were already in use, then just initials would do. Al's offered the freshest fish at the best prices. It was the best. It was the best because my mother knew. Yeah, I know. Your mother also went to the best fish store, wherever it was. Everyone's mother did. Same for the bakery.

Maybe not so for the grocery. Even after a Bohack's opened two blocks away. my mother still patronized Lou's. Not only was allegiance based on proximity but on certain other perks: free delivery and your family's ability to join the hallowed ranks of those to whom credit was extended. I would be sent to Lou's for a container of milk (or 'a milk') and a stick of butter and maybe a measure of sour cream. Never eggs. (It wasn't until I started shaving that my mother would trust me to carry a dozen eggs a block and a half. To this day I still have an aversion to carrying eggs... and seltzer bottles.) After I told Lou or his wife what I wanted, he'd reach under the counter, take one shopping bag just large enough to hold my order, remove the big pencil from behind his ear, lick the point and add up the order on the paper bag. Maybe he didn't got such good English, but he sure as hell knew addition. I would tell him to 'put it on the wall' and every Saturday my mother would go in and Lou would add up all the orders we had bought for the week and my mother would pay. No plastic; just a sheet of wrapping paper on the wall and Lou's big pencil. (What's with the licking of the pencil point???)

Here's something to ponder: Let's say American cheese was on sale for 89 cents a pound and you wanted a quarter of a pound. It never came to exactly a quarter of a pound. as good as he was, Lou wasn't that good, so the cheese on the scale would be a little under or over what you had asked for. How did the Lou's of the world determine the price? And do it before the scale's needle stopped quivering? Did you ever know anyone to question the grocer's math?

OK. For you non-Brooklynites: a container is what you outlanders erroneously refer to as a carton, or quart of milk; a stick of butter is a quarter-pound stick of butter (one-pound boxes would be opened and the individual sticks would be sold separately) and pints of sour cream (a 'measure' according to my grandmother) defy derivation. The best I can conjure up is that at one time sour cream was sold in bulk to the merchant who then ladled out a supply to the customer. Hey, if you can do better, let me know! Also, 'a milk' was always one quart.  If you remember being sent to buy a half-gallon container, you are too young to appreciate this blog.  It wasn't until much later that milk started being sold in larger-than-quart containers.  By the way, the half-gallon containers helped signal the death knell for home delivery of milk.

Going to the appetizing store to buy lox (smoked salmon to those of you who might have just landed from Iowa) was close to a religious experience. The slicing of lox added new meaning to the word 'thin.' An eighth of a pound could serve a family of six. A pound of lox? You bought a pound maybe for a bar mitzvah.  Forget your definition of thin.  Thinly sliced lox meant you could see through it.  Rumor had it that our favorite appetizing store on 48th and Church, hired moonlighting surgeons to slice lox

There was even an art to applying the lox to a bagel. I grew up in a 'dot' house. This meant you took a small slice and to make it last you cut it up into even smaller pieces and placed it strategically over the cream cheese so that each bite would have some lox. This process paved the way for the splitting of the atom, which was a piece of cake in comparison. Rich people put an entire slice of lox on their bagel. I used to dream of someday being rich enough to do that. Gentiles sometimes did that when they wanted to 'assimilate,' or wanted a change from the usual corned beef with mayo on white bread diet.

The only way to buy halavah was from an appetizing store. The clerk would cut off a piece from a giant hunk and weight it. The pre-packaged stuff is good, but does not come close to buying it from that giant hunk.  While we're in drool mode, think about those chocolate covered jelly candies and all those other goodies strategically placed at waist height for a six-year old?

Next session we'll touch on a sub category of merchants - the street guys. Later blogs will delve into the exotic culinary world. How old were you when you learned that exotic cheeses did not include Velveeta or any cheese you spray on a cracker?


home improvement - wood flooring said...

Really nice post East Flatbush Brooklyn Memories.
thanks for the posting.
A+ to this post.

bettyjean said...

A++ for certain, missing my Mom and Dad, aunts and Uncles....all their stories growing up in Flatbush Brooklyn....sitting on the stoop..Luigi Alba's and Ebingers bakeries....! Thanks for your blog!

Sandy Andina said...

My Brooklyn memories straddle E. 98th St. (i.e., the border between Brownsville & E. Flatbush). I lived one block east in downscale Brownsville and attended PS 183--now an empty hulk. All the stores along Riverdale either had their windows bricked over to create more apts. or were in buildings razed to make way for Section 8 townhomes that are doubtless flimsier than the early 20th-century brick apt. houses and 2-flats (sorry, 2-family-houses) they replaced. But I went to Tilden Day camp, housed in Tilden and Meyer Levin (the only school buses I ever rode were for day camp) and to Somers (252) for jr. high. 2-year SP, of course--skipped 8th grade, and got to enter Tilden as a sophomore--as the vast majority of JHS grads did back then. Only the former parochial school kids were freshmen--and though we were both technically rookies we outranked them. Moved next door to the car wash on Kings Hwy and Church the summer between jr. high and high school. Only half a mile as the crow flies but it felt like we were moving to the ‘burbs--even had a lawn in the back yard and some neighbors had above-ground pools. Went to Brooklyn College--commuted to the Junction by Church Ave. bus and either IRT to the end of the line or BMT to Ave. H on the other side of Ocean Ave. On gorgeous days (or when I didn’t have enough carfare), even walked the 3 miles--especially with someone to talk to.

My dad was a NYS Labor Dept. inspector whose territory included Ridgewood, City Line and Ocean Hill--one of the few kids whose dad used the car for commuting. Mom stayed home till we were in HS--she then commuted by subway downtown (Bklyn, not “NY”) first to the Bd. of Ed. and then Social Services--where in the course of 20 years she worked her way up from clerk-typist to caseworker supervisor: all by dint of Civil Svce. exams and a “commercial” diploma she earned from Tilden at barely 16. (Same age at which I entered B.C.). Married and moved to Seattle 3 wks after graduation. It was a mixed marriage: he went to Van Buren and lived in a single-family house in Bellerose, nearly Nassau County. (That he was Catholic wasn’t as big a deal). We eventually moved to Chicago--where I recently retired as a lawyer (still working as a touring singer-songwriter) and he will soon retire as a cardiologist. He started as a Genetics grad student--so I’m the only one of my friends who married a doctor--and I did so without actively seeking one out.

Street food: I remember Charlotte Russes, Mom’s Knishes, Sabrett franks with sauerkraut, hot chestnuts, Bungalow Bar, Good Humor, Mister Softee; Other itinerant vendors: Sam the shoeshine guy, Dominick the produce guy (with a mule-drawn wagon), Krugs, Dugan’s, the Sunnydale milk guy (we all had those metal dairy boxes on the stoop), Sol the seltzer man (who also delivered Hammer sodas), and Sammy the window-washer (who always reeked of Glass Wax). And then there were the Hasidic schnorrers....

Anonymous said...

Anyone remeber Friedaman'd Sporting Goods store on Flatbush Ave., across the street from Erasmus Hall? Or, Jeffery's Bakery on Nostrand Ave., just off Church Ave.?