“Tommy, get my bag,” my grandmother barked. It was February 1965. I was 11.
“Oh, Christ,” I thought. Slowly, I made my way through the railroad flat looking for Nan Rode’s pocketbook. It weighed more than my little brother, and when I heaved the thing up, I imagined Nan in the audience on Let’s Make A Deal, easily meeting Monty Hall’s challenge to draw an Indian head penny out of the bag, or a 1928 Al Smith for President pencil with Al’s head and big nose on the top (I still have that item).
I muscled the bag into the kitchen. Nan wanted to give me money because it was Saturday, and Saturday meant I was going shopping. Nan liked Schaller & Weber’s frankfurters, Karl Ehmer’s pork chops and bologna, and Reliable Meats’ veal cutlets. Plus, George at Reliable Meats on York Avenue would throw in a half-pound of skirt steak if he was in a good mood.
Schaller & Weber was my first stop, and there was always a major crowd there on Saturdays. I wanted to play ball sometime that day, so I’d minimize my wait by getting there early. Nan had specific shopping directions for each location. Schaller & Weber: “Make sure you see the guy’s hands at all times. If they drop below the counter, and he comes up with franks, tell him to put them back, and take the fresh ones out of the glass display.”
I watched the guy’s hands like he was a card cheat. And there he went… “Hey Mister, I don’t want those franks, give me two pounds of these.” I pointed to the glass; the guy gave me a dirty look and put the old franks back below the counter.
Next stop was Karl Ehmer’s. I reviewed Nan’s instructions for that store: “Tell the guy to leave all the fat on the pork chops.”
The Karl Ehmer butcher loved me. I’d point out pork chops in the glass; he grabbed them and wrapped them in paper. He never even had to pick up a trim knife.
After Ehmer’s, I walked down 85th Street with five pounds of meat in paper bags. All the dogs I pass on the sidewalk are looking at me funny and moaning. Halfway down the block, Nan’s final direction pop into my head. “Make sure George pounds the cutlets paper thin and throws in the skirt steak. Don’t forget the steak!”
George was a problem. He knew my large grandparents bought lots of meat, but only bought part of their meat from him. He wanted all their business. There was no way I’d bring the other meat into his store -- he’d torture me – but I was too lazy to run it up to my grandmother’s apartment one building away. So, I’d hide it outside the shop -- in the gutter hugging the curb, in the basket of the delivery bike, or thrown up on an awning. I had plenty of places to put it but they all had potential consequences. Lots of kids and animals comb the gutter for goodies, and they might pick it up and eat a frank right there. The delivery boy could slip by me and take my meat for an unwanted ride. Up on the awning, pigeons could use the bags for target practice, or I might not be able to find something to reach the bags to get them down.
“Why you so antsy?” George asked.
“What are you looking for?”
I was second on line, and George was working alone. He was annoyed that I kept asking the lady behind me with the baby to hold my place, while I checked on my hidden stash.
When it was my turn, George leaned over the counter. I could smell his coffee and cigarette breath.
“No franks and chops today?”
He knew. He knew everyone’s meat desires.
“No thank you, George, just the cutlets. Please give them a good pounding. Nan said, nice and lean.”
He hit the meat like it was my head. Then he put my stuff in a bag and eyed me over. I gave him a nod toward the skirt steak with a pathetic look. He grudgingly wrapped a chunk in paper and threw it in the bag.
On the way out, George shouted a farewell.
“How long was the line at Schaller & Weber’s?”
The hair on my neck stood up, but I didn’t turn around. I began looking for something to knock my bags off the Chinese Laundry’s awning.
Do you like old New York City photos and street life stories? Then check out my 1960s memoir,"I Hate the Dallas Cowboys - tales of a scrappy New York boyhood."Available at Logos Book Store and online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
The book has 121 Amazon five star reviews out of 121 total reviews posted. We're pitching a perfect game. My old world echoes TV's "The Wonder Years" ~ just add taverns, subways and Checker cabs.