He was one of the best short-order cooks in New York. No, he was the best. And the kid he taught the trade to wasn’t bad either. Although unlike my father, I didn’t stick with lunch counters. Worked them mainly after school or over the summer holidays. And after that, when I was programming first-generation computers and before joining the Air Force et cetera, occasionally on weekends. But I was good. Whether it was eggs over easy, BLTs or blue plate specials I was throwing together. Or chocolate egg creams and banana splits.
Eddie Woods Sr. started working in luncheonettes after however long a spell in show business. Vaudeville, to be precise. As a song and dance man. With a partner named Charlie Noble. Which is why he changed his surname from Fagastino. (Big Neapolitan clan, the Fagastinos. With a hierarchy that resembled the Mafia’s. Only headed by a matriarch, my paternal great aunt, the Sabatini.) Woods & Noble came easier to the tongue and looked better on posters and theater marquees. Including those of, or so I was told, New York’s famous Palace Theatre and even the Palladium in London. (I like believing it, that Dad ‘played the Palace.’) But when vaudeville died, and with it my father’s act, he quickly got into what for him was an even better way of earning a living. As well as doing what he was equally talented at, meeting and connecting with people. Short-order cooking was perfect for the Depression years. Or to quote him: “No matter what, people still have to eat.” And was especially lucrative where tips were concerned (the financial bottom line for waiters, countermen and the like) after the war and beyond.
I’ll skip for the moment going too deeply into other aspects of Ed Woods Sr.’s in many ways colorful life. Such as his uncontrollable penchant for gambling. (Okay, it was an addiction; must have been.) But why the horses, God only knows. To my knowledge, he never went to the track. Not even when the ponies were running nearby, at either Jamaica or Aqueduct, both in the borough of Queens, where I grew up. He placed all his bets with the bookies. And almost always lost. Then borrowed from loan sharks to cover his debts. Which too frequently he didn’t. Using the high-interest Mob cash to bet on yet more horses via other bookies, in hopes of winning big enough to pay everyone off and have money left over. It was a vicious circle that continually spiraled downward. And yes I do remember the doorbell ringing and my mother answering and two guys in black coats and hats standing there with their gun hands jammed under the lapels and asking stonily, “Where’s Eddie?” Still, he somehow pulled through. As he did with the numbers, the sports pools (which I sometimes sold in school for him), his countless other bets (from boxing to baseball to you name it). What really amazes me, especially now looking back, is that he didn’t stick with cards. Like, he was practically unbeatable at poker. Well, can’t talk to him about it now. And was too busy with my own young life to do it then. Tja.
Ed Sr. had another insatiable appetite. For women. As they did for him. Damn near literally in droves. At only five foot six, in his prime he looked like a cross between George Raft and Rudolph Valentino. With the charm to match. And a real gift for gab. Certainly of the honey-tongued kind. No matter how corny the line, they all went for it. Lock, stock, broom closet and bed, so to speak. What with work and his relentless amorous activities, coupled with the genuine union meetings, he was away from the house (no, never a house; the apartment)…he was out a lot. But when he was at home, he liked being at home with someone. Not necessarily to talk to or anything, but to be there. Which is why he married five times.
Right then, back to the lunch counters. Understandably, Dad generally worked two jobs. Likely would have apart from needing the extra money. Plenty of ladies went to luncheonettes alone. Single and married, Dad was hardly fussy on that score. Throughout most of my childhood and early teens his daytime job was in Greenwich Village. First Grove Street and then Sheridan Square. (Later on, for various reasons, he shifted to a place in Midtown.) Luncheonettes combined with drugstores, pharmacies. The two went hand-in-hand for decades. Until the drugstores became bookshops and the luncheonettes gave way to the fast-food eateries we’re more familiar with today. Greasy-spoon diners were another matter entirely. You’d never have caught Ed Woods working in one of those.
At night he was at the Hillcross Drugstore on Hillside Avenue, Jamaica. (Uh-huh, the same Jamaica where Paul Bowles was born.) Smack by the last stop (or first, depending on which way you were heading) of the IND subway line, the E and F express trains. Which meant tons of motormen trade. The chaps who drove the trains, and the conductors. Precisely Dad’s kind of male people. Just as he was their kind of guy. Outgoing, knowledgeably talkative on the right subjects (women, sports, workingmen’s rights, union matters), humorous; and, whenever it was called for, a good listener. But above all he was a crackerjack counterman and short-order cook. Incredibly fast. And particularly where food was concerned, with an infallible memory for each and every regular customer’s pet likes and dislikes. Plus the little added touches. Such as at Christmas time having a bottle or two of decent whisky under the counter for pouring a healthy nip into this one and the other’s coffee. An off-the-cuff coffee royale. Or, likewise during holidays, small servings of special desserts and other foodstuffs that my mother had made. Crustala at Christmas; or this meat & cheese filled glazed bread, the name of which I forget (and don’t have the recipe for, as I do with crustala), at Easter. All that jazz and more. That as I said in the beginning made Eddie Woods Sr. the best short-order cook in New York.
In independent drugstores (as opposed to at Walgreens and other chain outfits), the luncheonette sections were for the most part concessions. Operated by individuals who rented the space and the equipment and/or paid a percentage of the proceeds to the owners. When my father first started at Hillcross, the concession there was in the hands of a Greek fellow who knew how to run a business. And, equally important, how to treat my Dad. I’d worked for him, too. And seem to recall that his name was Mike. Then Mike decided to retire or whatever and sold the concession on to a ‘dude from nowhere’ who in no time flat showed himself to be a class-A jerk. He made all sorts of changes that quickly added up to a huge mistake. Thereby making it increasingly difficult for my father to work for him. In an attempt to boost his profit margins, he began cutting corners. And all the wrong corners at that. Customers were grumbling, then openly complaining; and when it was on my father’s shifts, Dad had no answer for them. Other than to say (which he hated doing): “It’s the new boss, his rules. I’ll talk to him.”
I shouldn’t be surprised if my father suggested to the motormen (who accounted for most of the steady business at night, i.e. when Dad was working) that they should start going to the Greek diner down the road. Or to Joe Foyer’s newsstand-cum-lunch counter two minutes in the other direction (and for whom I’d pull an emergency shift on occasion, like when old Joe was ill or his son Mel had a hot date). Same as in the early 1980s I urged people to steal books from my own Amsterdam bookshop (and also handed out coupons that I’d signed, with which they could ‘pay’ for purchases), by way of getting my partner to listen to me. My partner finally did listen (and then got his own shop, which is exactly what I wanted), but not the luncheonette dude. He held stubbornly fast, even as custom went steadily down the drain. But not down quite enough. Until my father up and quit. And all the motormen trade vanished. Along with a goodly chunk of the rest. It was the final straw for George and Ben Weiss, the pharmacists who owned the establishment.
“If you don’t change your ways, which also means somehow getting Eddie back, you’re finished,” they told the dude. “In another month or so, there won’t be sufficient income to pay for the concession, let alone put food in your own mouth.”
“No worries,” the dude replied. “I’ll turn things around.”
“Like hell you will,” the Weiss brothers shot back. Then watched from the sidelines, with wry smiles on their faces, as the luncheonette business continued to dwindle. With now and then a motorman sticking his head in and loudly inquiring, “Where’s Eddie anyway?” Sometimes adding, “The Greek’s really enjoying this, you know!”
Still, so damn stubborn was the dude (sorry, but I don’t feel like giving him a name!), that it took a long while for all the salt to rub deep into the wound and actually start hurting. But hurt it did, eventually. Whereupon the dude caved in.
“All right, you win, let’s get Eddie back,” he went and said to the brothers.
“Good idea,” they responded. “How you gonna manage that?”
“Well, just ask him. Plus offer him a bit more money…?”
“Just like that, eh? And he’ll tell you to shove it. You want Eddie, my friend, you’re gonna have to bend over backwards. Meaning not only more money, but also letting him do the things he does his way and not yours. And even then there’s no guarantee. You better let us handle this. And in the meantime pray!”
Of course (and you may already have been thinking this), the obvious natural for running the concession, or even managing the luncheonette for the Weiss boys, would have been my father. Had he not been a gambler, that is. And with no head at all for business. I doubt he could balance a checkbook (never mind keep accounts), or even had one. My mother took care of all that. And after her his next two wives. (The fourth, who was the same age as my much older than me half-sister, I came close to having an affair with. A tale for another time.)
Indeed it was my mother who George Weiss initially went to see. To get her to speak with my father. And see if a meeting couldn’t be arranged. With the dude. To hash things out. It wasn’t easy, it took some doing. But in due course Dad agreed. On a trial basis. In other words, the dude was on probation.
End of story? Far from. The best was yet to come. And it came with a bang, on the first day of my father’s return to Hillcross. A bang that kept banging for at least a week or possibly an entire month. There was beaucoup lost ground to recover, and ‘the whole world’ had to be made aware of what was going down.
The Hillcross Drugstore was large. To your right when you walked in through one of the two big glass doors was the cigarette counter. Followed by a cosmetics section leading to the pharmacy. The prescription drugs were kept at the back, in a partitioned area where the pharmacists also mixed any potions that required on-site preparing. Down the middle of the store there were shoulder-high shelves with toiletries and such, on both sides. The Hillcross didn’t sell newspapers or magazines. The other half of the premises was devoted to the luncheonette. With the soda fountain paraphernalia (ice cream, seltzer-water dispensers, syrups, malted milk machines, etc) nearest to the doors and the coffee urns and silexes, grills, bain-maries, everything pertaining to sandwiches and hot meals at the other end. On the counter itself were round covered receptacles containing croissants, Danish pastries and the like. Some luncheonettes had tables, the Hillcross did not. Patrons sat on stools at the counter. And were immediately served with a glass of water and a napkin.
“Sixty-one!” ‘Cup of coffee.’ “Sixty-two!” ‘Two cups of coffee.’ “Eighty-six!” ‘We’re out of it’; or (if referring to a customer), ‘He doesn’t tip.’ “Forty-nine!” ‘Check out the pretty girl!’ The codes were at once endless and highly imaginative. Countermen stood and walked on wooden plank boards, which were best for the feet. And got taken up after closing so whatever had fallen through could be swept up and the floor mopped. And the boards taken outside, through the rear door, and leaned against the wall for hosing down. Whenever there was a lull, you cleaned. Even though you were always cleaning. In the food trade, hygiene is the first order of the day, every day. Nor did you ever stop moving, other than to catch a smoke at the far end. Where you’d stand not sit. You only sat down for your lunch or snack break. Sitting could make you tired. And a tired counterman was as good as dead when a crowd poured in and the rush was on. Oh, and any counterman, any short-order cook or even soda jerk with a lick of sense wore a jockstrap. On your feet for hours, bending over, changing heavy gas cylinders to keep the seltzer dispensers going, and so on: hernia country if you weren’t careful.
So the Hillcross was large, spacious. And really large were the two enormous plate-glass windows on either side of the front doors. No displays. Anything inside you needed to see from the street you could see through them. Yet on the day Eddie Woods Sr. again donned his short-order cook’s apron at the Hillcross, and for however many days or weeks thereafter, nothing whatsoever could be seen through the window that looked in on the luncheonette. Since it was completely covered with a gigantic sheet of plain white poster paper on which but three words were painted big and bold: