|Invitation to my mother's 10th birthday party, 1938|
My mother has forgotten many things but not the luncheonette that her parents owned at 23 East 20th Street in Manhattan. These days the neighborhood is very fashionable, known as the Flatiron District. During the 1930s, however, it was largely given over to manufacturing.
Of course, as goes the urban cycle, the area was home to affluent New Yorkers through much of the nineteenth century. In 1858, Theodore Roosevelt came into the world in a brownstone at 28 East 20th Street. An American flag waves out front, as it did in the thirties.
At the little restaurant, one could have breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday. The customers were largely factory workers from the cast-iron buildings that clustered around Broadway, which cuts across a large slice of Manhattan from west to east.
The Flatiron Building rises where Broadway crosses Fifth. In its shadow, the blocks are short with little sunlight.
My mother recalls a well-muscled guy who looked just like Tyrone Power. He worked in a carpet factory around the corner. On Saturdays when he came in for lunch, she sat at the counter, sneaking glances.
I had no idea.
In addition to Tyrone Power, there was Frank, the sandwich man. In 1939, Frank went west to work for Boeing, where he would earn a lot more money.
My grandmother handled the cash register and my grandfather was the cook.
One day, a man in a fancy suit entered the restaurant. He held his hand in his pocket, as if he had a gun. He said to my grandmother, “How many guys you got working here?”
He wanted to know if there was organizing to be done.
He went into the kitchen and spoke with Frank and the dishwasher. After a few minutes, he left the store.
In 1932, at the bottom of the Depression, a customer asked if he could get a meal in exchange for drawing a picture of my mother.
The luncheonette also was the scene of her tenth birthday party. That is her last memory of East 20th Street. One year later, her father sold the restaurant to his cousin Murray and bought a luncheonette further uptown, on Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets, very close to Times Square.
From there it was a short walk to the Capitol Theater where The Wizard of Oz opened in 1939. She remembers prancing up Broadway with her mother and a friend, full of eager anticipation.
Before the show, Judy Garland came on stage. Everyone was shocked. The actress had become chubby and wore her hair in short blonde ringlets, but she sang beautifully.
In a way, the luncheonette was a snapshot of the 1930s – a square meal, a job, the advancing war, and the lift that came from finding a movie star, real or imagined, in your midst.