Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mrs. Vanotti -- Part Two

My father was a waiter by profession. He worked nights, as he did all through my youth: the 10PM to 8AM graveyard shift, at a nearby Sunshine Restaurant, in the Bus Transfer Station section lower Union City, where many local bus lines converged within its three block radius and exchanged passengers.

He was a local favorite of many of his late night customers. He was known as Sam. His real name was Ismail, but he was always afraid his bosses, two Greek brothers, would fire him if they discovered he was a Turk. So he became Sam Adams; Greek. (He was able to maintain the fiction because he spoke fluent Greek as well as Turkish.)
Sixteen years into his job, he finally told them. They laughed, and nothing changed in the relationship.

At work my Dad was always smiling, and always in control of his job and the customers he served. He was super proficient at taking orders (he prided himself on never having to write down an order, even when a party of six or more was involved) and he swore he never making a mistake on serving the order. To insure tranquility with sometimes rowdy late night customers, especially those had flowed after closing time from the many bars serving the Transfer Station area, he made sure that a series of full Heinz Ketchup bottles were strategically placed under the U-shaped restaurant counter in case drunken customers got a little too frisky and/or physical. He rarely used them; his smile and professionalism as a waiter seemed always enough to defuse any threatening situation.

After finishing his ten hour shift, every morning, six days a week, my father would move from behind the restaurant counter, still smiling, start his exit amidst a handful of goodbyes, and place his slightly stained waiter’s apron on the hook in the kitchen area, put on his suit jacket and fedora that was hanging nearby, and walk home, arriving at our one-bedroom apartment at the latest by 8:30 AM, already having had (free) breakfast at the restaurant. He would greet us, kiss us good morning, see my brother off to school, and go to bed.

My mother made sure mornings and lunch were quiet time at our small apartment. During the school week, she would pack Kurt off to the nearby Thomas A. Edison grammar school, and soon thereafter take me, a typically rambunctious three year old boy, out of the house to the nearby Washington Park.

Washington Park was a four block-wide city oasis of swings and slides and trees, benches, hedges, play areas and ball fields located at the most southern end of Union City. It encompassed the width of the city from Palisades Avenue to the east to Central Avenue to the west. (Union City was—and still is--a narrow strip of land, only one square mile in area, forty eight clocks long by, at most, ten blocks wide. It is situated between the neighboring cities of Weehawken and West New York to the north and northwest, Secaucus and North Bergen to the West, Jersey City to the south, and Hoboken—which could be seen directly below Washington Park--to the southeast. The population was 50,000 people. The whole greater area was so contiguous that, unless you lived there, you never knew where one city ended and the other began.

Almost the entire strip of Union City lays on the rock hard shale plateau of the southernmost part of the great Hudson River Palisades, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River valley, almost directly east from New York, across the NY-NJ Lincoln Tunnel connecting it and surrounding cities to mid-town Big Apple.

Union City sits 200 feet above the city of Hoboken, itself also a flatland mile-square city of 50,000 people. Weehawken, where on its bluffs Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, part hillside, part flatland, is to Union City’s northeast. Both of Union City’s sister cities nestled between the black hard shale palisades cliffs and the Hudson River to its east. A cement viaduct—starting at Washington Park--ran down the hill from Union City to flatland Hoboken, connecting the two cities.

During the school week, fall, winter or spring, whether the day was hot, rainy or snowy, Mom would take me to play in Washington Park, where we could view Hoboken and beyond that, the Hudson River. Beyond that grey or blue--depending on the weather--rib of water, one could see the tall, great towers of the skyline of New York City majestically punctuating the sky. (My lifetime dreams of success and fame began with that every day morning visit to Washington Park and its view of New York.)

After an hour or more releasing most of my energy in the park, Mom would daily take me, my little legs churning with somewhat tired eagerness, a straight shot along New York Avenue, which bisected the park, to Mrs. Vanotti’s candy store, four blocks away. Once there, Mom would plunk herself down at one of the four round stools at the soda fountain, with its marble counter and dizzying array of machines and faucets dominating the central area of the candy store. To the left of the fountain stood two large glass enclosed candy displays; the magazine and comic books racks were to the right, near the front and side windows.

(...to be continued.)


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