Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Cafeteria

            It’s a Sunday, and my dad gets off work at the Division Street Lumber Yard. He comes home, clothes smelling like sawdust, that sweet smell, takes a shower, and tells my mom, “Get the kids and we’ll go eat at the Cafeteria.” This was a big deal, us eating out. So we all go, my sister Pearl and Mom and I, Dad in the front, walking up East Broadway, away from the river. The sun is setting.
            This was after the War. There were a lot of—what do you call them?—refugees. From the camps. They moved to the neighborhood. We were living in the co-op apartments at the time. It was all brand-new. The Spanish and Blacks didn’t like us much. We had some fights. Mostly, they left us alone, we left them alone.
            We’re walking up East Broadway. The religious Jews, they had these little shuls in the tenements along the way, old brownstones. They’re standing in front of them. “Did you daven yet? Did you daven?” they’re asking. My father ignores them. He was Jewish, my father; we were all Jewish, just not religious. Dad fought in the War. He was a mine detector. One time, for fun, the guys in his unit played a joke on him. They took the batteries out of his mine detector machine. Big joke, he said. He was lucky not to get blown up.
            So we’re walking. And then, she comes up to us; this lady. All skinny and dirty. Long, greasy hair. Like a witch. She plants herself in front of my father, and he tries to pass, because he’s hungry for his dinner, you know? And she moans, “Take me—take me,” at him.
            “Sorry, lady,” Dad says, and we all walk around her. Crazy lady.
            We get to the cafeteria. It was a big, well-lighted place. Big hangout, too. Old people go in there in the morning, buy a cup of coffee and a Danish, sit there all day. Just sit. Crazy. The system was, you took a ticket—little cardboard ticket—go up to the steam counter, get a tray. Point to whatever food it was, the guy behind the counter, the counterman, he would get it for you, take your ticket, punch it whatever it cost. You got your main dish, veggies, dessert. Dessert was in a separate section. All dairy. You paid on your way out at the register. What’d they call that? Honor system. It worked pretty good.
            So there we are—my mom and Pearl grab a clean table, get cutlery for us all; Dad and I go to the counter. Mom and Dad had it all worked out, a system. They had been going there for years, even on dates. They would go there after the movies. The old Loew’s Canal—they all called it the Low-EEs—was half-a-block away. So they would go there for cake, coffee, after. It was always crowded. These old guys carrying on in Jewish. Mom and Dad maybe knew what they were saying.
            “What’re they saying, Dad?” I would ask him. It bothered me, I didn’t know Jewish.
            “Ah, who knows?” he would say, wave his hand, get back to his food. Dad useta love the kasha varnishkas they had there. Jewish food: can’t beat it. I’ve eaten many different countries since; can’t beat that Jewish food.
            Anyways, so Dad and me, we’re standing by the counter, waiting our turn, the counterman should call on us. Dad gets his eye, finally. I think the counterman, Moishy, maybe knew him from the neighborhood.
            “What can I getcha, Willie?” guy says.
            “Gi’me the kasha, and the stuffed cabbage for two, and….” My father starts telling him.
            Then, this other guy comes over, guy we never saw before, takes my father’s arm, I mean, literally takes his arm, right there. I couldn’t believe it, what I’m seeing.
            I look at this guy: he’s taller than my Dad, like skinny, but kinda built. He’s got this—this look in his eyes. Eyes were blue, pale blue.
            “I letcha get aheadah me,” he says to my Dad, “but I didn’t think you was gonna be ordering for the whole world!”
            This guy leans forward, my Dad tries to pull back, but the guy has his arm. I hear a clinky sound. It’s dog tags. The guy’s dog tags.
            My father looks at this guy, my father doesn’t make any quick moves, like he doesn’t wanna shake this guy up, you know? And he says to this guy, low voice, slow, “Let go my arm.”
            “I letcha get aheadah me,” says the guy, and he’s not even talking to my dad, now, he’s like talking to himself. I see the counterman off to the side, Big Moishy, he’s like reaching under the counter, and I’m wondering what’s he got there: a bat? A gun? I mean, this is the neighborhood, it’s not Park Avenue.
            “Let go my arm,” says my dad, and he slow, slow puts down the bowl of kasha that he’s holding, and he reaches over slow, slow. He takes the guy’s arm, and he takes it offa his arm. Moish stands a little bit up, but his hands stay under the counter, where you can’t see them, you know?
            Meanwhile, Mr. Adler, the manager, is coming over. He looks at the crazy guy. He looks at my father.
            “Is everything OK here?” he asks.
            “Sure, sure,” says my dad. Crazy guy says nothing. Mr. Adler looks at him.
            “Can I get you a cup of coffee, Sir?” he asks.
            Neighborhood full of crazy people.