Saturday, December 9, 2023 -
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Sweet memories of a short-order cook

When I was 12, I had a terrible ear infection. We had just moved across the country to a new town. I didn’t know anybody, couldn’t go to school, was in constant pain, had balance problems, a ringing in my ears, and was just miserable. But I found weekly salvation in the kindness of a short-order cook and my father.

For months in the winter of 1966, at 5:30 a.m., my father and I would drive from Stony Brook, Long Island into Manhattan where he had his electrical shop, and I had my dreaded weekly appointment with the hated ear doctor.

We left at that G-d-awful early hour because my father could not stand commuting in traffic. He was a morning person. Cheerful. Alert. The whole drive he would try to entertain me with stories about my childhood imaginary friend Timmy and history lessons. I, much too sophisticated for imaginary friends, sat sulking, bleary-eyed and often tearful and terrified at the prospect of another tortuous appointment with the doctor.

We would arrive in the city so early that even the normally impossible task of finding a parking space near my father’s shop at 1204 Lexington Avenue was easy.

Car parked, we walked a block or two in the freezing cold to a tiny restaurant. I’m not sure you could even call it a restaurant. It was no wider than a railroad car. Just a grill, a Formica counter and 10 stools. The place was old, the ceiling low, always humid, always packed with people, and oh, so welcoming.

The man at the grill never fully turned around, just swiveled his head slightly to acknowledge the newest person to grab a coveted spot at the counter or listen to the take-out order being shouted at him by the person standing over the shoulder of somebody seated. He provided equal service to all — working-class men in coveralls, prim secretaries all made-up and wearing high heels even on icy days, and Wall Street types in pinstripe suits. Nobody got special treatment. Nobody got special attention. First come, first served.

There was only one customer he ever took the time to talk to and that was me. He knew what I was having.

My order never changed. It was a duplicate of my father’s — a hard roll with butter. The only difference — I had hot chocolate with whipped cream from a can instead of my dad’s black coffee.

“You going to that mean old doc today, kid?” he’d always ask in a gruff but somehow gentle voice as the hash browns sizzled behind him. “Well, give him a little kick when he’s done. That’s what I’d do.” Then, he’d wink at my dad and turn back to the griddle and the 10 orders of eggs, waffles and pancakes he had going.

My father and I would sit there silently, smearing the softened butter from those little aluminum packets onto our rolls. We’d eat. Drink. Then, bundle back up and head out into the cold to his shop. He’d unlock and roll open the metal gates. Greet his workers warmly. Then quickly bark the morning service call orders to them. They’d smile at him, pat me on the head, gather their tools, and leave.

All morning long, I’d sit there, reading. Sometimes I’d take a break to dust the soot off the toasters, irons and other small appliances displayed in the shop window. Sometimes I’d just watch my father. Just like the short-order cook, he treated everybody the same, be they a housewife with a broken blender, a client seeking a major re-do on a fancy Fifth Avenue brownstone Avenue, or a man begging for a dime for a cup of coffee.

This “lesson” of treating all people with kindness and respect is, of course, one that Judaism places great value on. It is central to the teachings of the Torah. In my season of illness and pain, I was lucky to have this teaching so vividly illustrated each week by the hard-working short order cook and my equally hard-working and loving father.

Hours would pass. My father would look at the clock on the wall and nod. Off we’d go to the doctor, my hand clutching his big bear paw. Somehow, I’d get through the appointment and the day. If I were lucky, we’d go to the Natural Museum of History afterward.

Finally, we’d drive home. It would take a long time. There’d be lots of traffic. My father would sigh a lot but still manage to tell me stories. Relaxed now, I could laugh. Invariably I’d find a crumb or two from the morning’s hard roll on my coat.

I remembered all this recently when my husband and I went out to brunch. Our favorite diner was packed.

So, we sat at the counter. I watched the short-order cook at work, marveled at his skill, and I had a little cry. Jon didn’t have to ask why. He just hugged me. He knows this story about the NYC short-order cook and he also knows how much I miss my father.

You can read more of Karen’s work at Muddling through Middle Age or contact her at [email protected].

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