Friday, September 19, 2008

Pop and Uncle Joe Sky's restaurant

Debra asked on Labor Day if Pop once ran a restaurant. I’ve been thinking about that for two weeks now. What do I know about that? And what do I think I know? It resides in that recess of my mind where the memories of what I actually saw and heard at the time jostle with the memories of what Pop and Mom and others related about it later.

In that regard this is an especially mixed up story because Pop and Mom talked about it often both between themselves and with us from the 1960’s on. And then, most confusingly, it was one of the things Pop talked to me about during those long days and nights in the hospital at the end of his life. Why he picked up on the restaurant story I don’t know; although it did fit in some ways with other things he was interested in talking about during those long weeks of the vigil.

Late at night I would return to his room after a little walk while he was asleep, and I would find him awake; and he would tell me stories of the old days. In the hospital, much more so than in former times, he was responsive when I asked questions, perhaps because I was grown up then and perhaps because he felt more comfortable about sharing things about what was by then the distant past, most of the participants gone. When I was young Pop didn’t exactly dodge questions; but he had a way of skirting around and answering a different question, or he would change the subject. And then he would just laugh when I clumsily tried to pin him down.

So beware! This story about the restaurant is formed from a very few direct observations folded into three decades of stories, including stories told to me at a very emotional time. I’m going to tell it as though I’m confident I have it straight, which is always questionable. I’ve been known to realize after ten years of telling a story that I have a wrong character in it, or I have the era wrong, or I have it mixed with some other story.

With that warning, here goes. First off, Pop definitely did run a restaurant. He ran it with Uncle Joe Sky during a period when both of them were underemployed because of some special circumstances. Pop and Uncle Joe needed temporary work and some income; and Tommy, or maybe it was Reds, knew a fellow who needed a liquor license. As I understand it, a liquor license was easier to get, or cheaper, if you could show that you already had a functioning restaurant for a year or so. The restaurant didn’t actually need to be at the place where you wanted to use the liquor license; it just needed to be nearby – or something like that.

At any rate, Tommy's friend rented a small storefront on Main Street down past the Conte Luna factory toward Black Horse, on the way to Conshohocken. Don A, down in Florida now, told me that section of Main Street and the blocks between it and the river were called Mogeetown or Miggietown way back when.

So now Pop and Uncle Joe have a storefront for their restaurant. It must have been a deli or something like it in a former life; because it had a couple of booths with tables, and a counter and such. It was laid out to serve cold sandwiches. In the era before supermarkets it's owner probably also sold a few varieties of canned goods. It had a regular kitchen stove rather than a grill behind the counter; which was probably just as well. I doubt either of Pop or Uncle Joe was much of a cook back then.

So, they had a restaurant, but they needed supplies. And the way this deal worked is that the guy who wanted the liquor license provided the restaurant and all the needed supplies; and Uncle Joe and Pop earned something each week in the manner of wages. Plus, they got to keep any revenues from the food they served.

So on the weekend that they started Mom and Aunt Mary R were there cleaning the place. I think Aunt Lucy, Uncle Joe's wife, was sick then which was probably why she wasn’t there. Pop and me and, I think, Norfi, Cappy, Doc and Uncle Joe were out front. The restaurant was in one of those irregular shaped buildings that result when streets don’t cross at right angles; and I was interested in how the walls were angled back. None of the four corners of that building were right angles. I had to squeeze down the narrow alley on one side of the building to get in the back to see the fourth corner. Mom and Aunt Mary wouldn’t let me go through to get to the back because the floor was wet or something. Or else I decided not to try to go through the building to the back. I was old enough to know that when they were in that kind of cleaning frenzy, with ammonia and buckets and mops and scrub brushes, it was best to stay clear.

Anyway, Pop and the boys, and Uncle Joe in his suit, were out front on the sidewalk talking like they always did, and a car drives up. And the driver gets out and shakes hands with Pop and Uncle Joe after asking, “You Johnny?” I can't remember what he called Uncle Joe. Then he pops the trunk of the car and unloads a few cases of coffee mugs. Then from the back seat he unloads a couple or three more cases of coffee mugs. And from the front seat he produces a box of stainless steel flatware - forks, spoons, butter knives - all jumbled in a large cardboard box which he picks up carefully and carries from underneath, because it’s heavy.

I should explain that Pop didn’t help in unloading or anything physical because even back then he had to be pretty careful how he exerted himself. If he wasn’t careful he could end up spending a long time trying to catch his breath, holding his hand out to you if you asked a question. He had to concentrate all his attention on the task when he caught his breath. So he didn't help; but now that I think about it that guy didn’t ask for help, or seem to want help. He just went about unloading the car and carrying the stuff inside.

Anyway, that guy leaves. And a little later, Uncle Nicky drives up in the dump truck from the factory where he worked. He had been down to Philly; and he had that truck filled with stuff. He and Norfi and Cappy start to unload five or six huge boxes of paper towels, and boxes of napkins and paper cups, and plates and saucers and steak knives and cases of canned foods and all sorts of other stuff. And again I should explain about division of labor. Doc was a real doctor, so he didn't do anything manual that might hurt his hands. He was in good shape and all, and he played ball at the Redpeppers picnic, although come to think of it he always had a pinch runner like Pop, and the boys treated him just like one of the guys; but the thought of him doing physical work just didn't occur to him or anyone else. Uncle Joe Sky was the same in a way. He was a stander out of the way when physical work was being done back then; although later he became a manual laborer to support the second family he started after Aunt Lucy died.

So I didn't think it was odd that Pop and Doc and Uncle Joe just watches as Norfi and Cappy and Uncle Nicky did the physical work even though they were not involved in the restaurant except as bystanders. Just as I didn't think it odd that Uncle Nicky used the company truck on weekends whenever anything needed to be moved, or that he would show up at our house in Trooper with that truck and unload, for instance, a full set of the Encyclopedia Brittanica which I much later realized was the 1913 edition. A funny story how I came to realize that, but that's another digression.

Cappy and Uncle Nicky and Norfi did the work because they were factory guys to whom manual work came naturally. I later learned that Norfi was a very elite sort of factory guy, a highly skilled machinist who made one of a kind parts of exotic alloys for the space program. But in almost naturally doing manual types of work Norfi was just like Cappy and Uncle Nicky.

So, they unload paper products, and dishes, and then they start unloading cases of food. They unload until Mom comes out and says there isn’t enough room in the restaurant or in the back room to put all this stuff. So back onto the truck go three or four big cases of paper towels, and a few cases of coffee mugs, and cases of napkins, and other stuff as Mom and Aunt Mary sort and decide how much of each thing needs to be there at the restaurant, and how much else will fit in the back room.

After that Uncle Nicky couldn’t very well take that unneeded stuff back to Philly, so he took it to Grandmom L’s house and put it in the cellar there. I remember that those paper towels lasted for several years, and that was with all the aunts using as many rolls of paper towels as they wanted. Mom used those coffee mugs in Trooper and in Collegeville for the next thirty years. For a long time there was a case of those coffee mugs in the basement in Trooper; but eventually that was gone after all of its mugs were taken to replace broken ones upstairs. I wouldn’t be surprised if Marianne and Dave have some of the surviving coffee mugs from that case at their house.

Come to think of it Aunt Mary R used those mugs at her house all the way through the 1990's when Mom lived down there with her after Pop died. Here’s a laugh. I’d almost be willing to bet that Frankie Jiggs or Gussie have some of those coffee mugs down in Maryland to this day, or that Al R has some of them down in Florida. And if Angela has some in her condo in San Diego it wouldn't surprise me in the least. They were very good coffee mugs, with just the right balance and heft. An olympic swimming pool of coffee was served in those mugs. We're talking about an era wherein I, or any of a couple dozen cousins, could walk into the delicious smelling kitchen of any one of eight or ten houses through the unlocked side door and immediately be offered coffee and cookies and conversation and then "Can you stay for dinner? I'm making. . ."

So what else can I say. Pop mostly ran the restaurant for the year because Uncle Joe wasn’t really cut out for hanging around a restaurant. Pop, on the other hand, was perfectly cut out for hanging around a restaurant. One or two or three of the boys were always stopping by to have a cup of coffee and talk. And Pop knew just about everybody in Norristown, or it seemed that way. So anybody who walked in would be a conversation about sports or politics or the old days. Mostly Pop sold cold sandwiches. He made zeps and hoagies on Corropolese or Morabito rolls; and he also made plain lunch meat sandwiches on spongy white American bread, which a surprising lot of people were willing to eat just like it was real bread.

Pop also got to where he made pretty good peppers and eggs. And that was when he started making ham and eggs with deli type boiled ham; because he was being supplied with far too much lunch meat for what he was selling. He was even being supplied with too much of the expensive stuff like sliced boiled ham. I guess the guy who wanted the liquor license didn’t mind the expense, because for that whole year cars came up from Philly bringing more supplies and food than Pop could possibly use. I remember him saying that he even told the delivery guy that it was too much. But the next week there the guy would be again, with too much stuff. It was a major issue he talked often with Mom about, getting rid of the stuff without wasting it.

Not that too much stuff was ever really a bad thing back then, at least not in Mom’s opinion. Some of the extra supplies came home, although we became resistant about eating restaurant type stuff after a while. Anyway, the last thing we needed was meat, what with Butch bringing a box of meat from the butcher shop every Wednesday night when he and Rose came over to play canasta.

There was always too much lunch meat, Butch would simply bring way too much, no matter what Mom said. Three or four inches thick of baloney and of white American cheese; maybe a couple inches thick of Italian salami; and always a stack of deli ham two or three or even four inches thick in the box with the ground meat and the chip steaks and the t-bone steaks and maybe a pork roast or whatever else mom had ordered. And then there might be a ring baloney on top. Nobody but Butch himself ate much ring baloney, other than Jippon.

By Sunday Jippon would have eaten the leftover ring baloney. And on Monday and Tuesday, Jippon would be eating baloney and American cheese. Jippon even ate boiled ham sometimes; but that used to make Mom a little crazy, feeding expensive boiled ham to the dog. And she would tell the story of Grandmom L in the 1930's, feeding ten on pasta and one pound of ground meat made into enough meatballs with a couple of eggs and a lot of bread crumbs. Sometimes she would even go on to the story about them trapping blackbirds which I acted like I believed, but never really did believe.

How could I believe that someone ate scrawny blackbirds when the controversy in our house was about someone getting tired of eating steak, although even then we ate linguinis at least a couple or three times a week, with meatballs. But the meatballs had to have a good mix of bread crumbs in them, just as hamburgers had to have a generous mix of breadcrumbs. We would resist if Mom made them too heavy on the ground meat.

Jippon ate a lot of leftover meatballs and hamburgers too. He was not as particular as us. He liked them if they were too meaty, and he liked them if they had a good mix of bread crumbs. He especially liked the ribs from the gravy. You could make him jump surprisingly high to get his teeth on one of those ribs. But you had to be alert; because Jippon's patience had a distinct limit. If you frustrated him beyond a certain point he would suddenly abandon the game you were playing and go after your ankles, fast as lightning. Just to nip, mind you. But he could convince you that the next time he might bite hard.

The extra supplies from the restaurant also went to the various aunts, of course - Aunt Mary R and Aunt Lucy and Aunt Carmella and Aunt Mary P - and to the wives of the boys whose families lived on Penn Street. And then Pop could usually send some stuff home with whichever of the boys stopped by who didn't live on Penn Street any more. And at least a few times Mom filled up a box of lunch meats and eggs and milk and stuff and had me take it over to Doris S. Mom somehow had the feeling that the other neighbors in Trooper were too proud or something to accept a box of food; but she was easy about it with Doris, who she knew from before. I think Doris worked at Logrip's rug mill when Mom was the bookkeeper there just after the war.

So that’s the story of Pop and Uncle Joe Sky’s restaurant, which was really more of a luncheonette. I’ve tried and tried to zero in on what year that was. I think I was at least ten or so years old, so it couldn’t have been before about 1958; and I’m sure I wasn’t in high school yet, so it had to be before 1962. I know that because Pop and Uncle Joe Sky were no longer working together by the time I was in high school.

About the time I started high school Pop started driving the school bus for Visitation School; and a little later he started working nights at St. Gabe's home for boys, tending the boiler in the brick machine building on Park Avenue. That was the perfect job for him because he could mostly sit and read his paper, or listen to a West Coast ball game, or do his crossword puzzles while keeping an eye on the water level in the boiler and adjusting the valves that controlled how much hot water and steam for heat were going to the residential buildings further from Park Avenue, where the Christian Brothers and the bad boys lived. Perhaps the brothers hired Pop to watch at night because he could relate to the bad boys when one or a few of them would contrive to escape at night and foolishly think they were going to be able to hitch a ride back to Philly.

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