Abe and Teddy ran a luncheonette, soda fountain and candy store on Johnson Avenue. It was known amongst us 13 year-old aficionados as Abe’s Cage.
Magazines, newspapers and comic books lined the front of Abe’s.
Towards the back were telephone kiosks with folding doors that allowed semi-private conversations or very public arguments.
Occasionally someone raced out to the cash register for more coins, and raced back.
Several booths sat against the wall across from the lunch counter where people with squirrely kids could lock them safely in and enjoy their coffee, or quietly listen in to deals going down, marriages on the outs, or men on the make in the phone kiosks.
At one end of the lunch counter was a much-visited jar of foot-long pretzels. At the other, a gathering of ketchups and mustards.
Abe’s functioned as a kind of town square, a meeting place, a news, gossip and rumor distribution hub. It was our Social Media with a real address, where men picked up Bering Straights cigars or Mixture 79 pipe tobacco and women their Pall Mall, Philip Morris and Winston cigarettes.
Kids were sent to collect daily newspapers. Mothers escaped domestic boredom and the cleaning lady, and pacified protesting toddlers. (Those pretzels, Tootsie Roll lollipops and long sheets of semi-waxed paper with dots of sugar candy you bit off).
Cops stopped to schmooze and enjoy coffee and cake, free of course, leaving their patrol car by the fire hydrant in front, motor running of course.
In spite of the role his place played, Abe was not a welcoming host or community type.
A bear of a man, he was an ex-New York cop, retired early and going comfortably to seed. We knew he had been a cop. Every once in a while he would show us his badge or flash the 38-caliber police special he kept under the counter.
There was little need for it. Crime on Johnson Avenue was almost non-existent. Everyone believed Abe was connected with the local hoods as well as he was with the local-station house. It would have been as not smart to try something on his turf—amidst the mingling mothers and baby carriages and countless kids in front of and in the store—as it would have been in Little Italy.
You never saw Abe behind the lunch counter. Short-order cooking was not his thing.
Serving was not his thing.
Working was not his thing.
Taking the money while sitting Buddha-like behind the cash register, that was his thing.
The only job he embraced with enthusiasm was policing the magazine rack. His radar for young felons sneaking previews of the latest Marvel comic without paying was unerring.
“Hey kid, you buying that?’ he boomed as you were just getting into in the newest adventures of The Fantastic Four or the gothic horrors of The Elevator From Hell.
But where Abe was a born bully, large, gruff and lazy, his partner Teddy was small, friendly and hard working. He greeted you by name. And behind the counter in his white apron he was Mr Short Order.
We live now in the era of Fast Food, where a uniformed mindless dummy takes your order and turns to transfer something from a cold store or shelf, warms it in an automatic oven and makes you forget what an artist a short order cook can be.
The right man (or a woman), an apron, a spatula and a grill and magic can be made.
Teddy turned any number of those quarter-inch thin hamburgers peeled from wax sheets, which had gone on to the grill at different times, at just their right moments. They landed on your plate juicy and moist, never dry, with a slice of raw onion in a roll that had spent a minute on the grill, and a sour pickle that puckered your lips.
Hamburgers were 35¢.
Teddy lowered, raised and shook the fries basket countless times until they were perfectly golden and tumbled out onto your plate.
His bacon was crisp and his BLTs, swathed in mayo, left little to be desired, except a second BLT.
But Teddy’s claim to immortality rests not on his short order skills but something else: he made consistently great egg creams.*
We instinctively knew a talent like his was special, it took sensitivity and the hand/eye coordination of an athlete.
Let me explain.
An egg cream has only three ingredients, but the order and how they are introduced makes all the difference.
How Teddy made egg creams.
First, he poured an inch of cold milk into the bottom of a chilled 8 oz glass.
Then he pumped the syrup dispenser twice for an inch of Fox’s u-bet chocolate syrup.
And (and this is where so many fountain mavens fall short) he pulled back the lever of the soda fountain so gently the seltzer flowed without aggression. It didn’t attack the milk and chocolate, it caressed them. He buffered it into the glass with an upturned spoon. (Some people turn the glass on angle, like pouring beer to avoid the foam. He did not.)
This seltzer-fall, almost in slow-motion, conjured the egg cream into life.
A brief stir with a long spoon and the ingredients transformed in a swirl that rose in the glass, stopping just at the top.
As the emulsion grew, all shades of beige, a foamy white head appeared. Then, as everything settled, thousands of tiny droplets fell to the bottom, like snowflakes.
Later, there were fewer and fewer egg creams in our lives. But there was beer, then girls, then women. Finally, and much later, the downbeat welcome of dark bars, John Coltrane and a well-made Martini.
But no more us and no more Abe’s.
At Abe’s, egg creams were 15¢.
Long before Starbucks or McDonald’s became “America’s stop away from home”, Abe’s was ours.
That’s too modest. For us, for a few critical years, it was our headquarters, our retreat, our lair, our clubhouse, where we made our plans.
Louie Wexler, Stevie Roth, Howie Cantor, Eddie Klein and me was us.
We grew up playing stickball together, then basketball and softball. Then we grew into a group who played poker on Friday nights, first for pennies, then 5¢–10¢–25¢, then quarter/halves, then dollars. And then we discovered the attractions of the larger world outside, including the girls.
Boyhood over, we went our separate ways.
The early group often repaired to Abe’s after the the Battles of the Schoolyard.
It’s where we nursed losses and celebrated victories and the heroic feats that made them: the over-the shoulder-catches, the game-winning jump shots, the hail-mary passes that actually found receivers.
Abe’s is where we worshiped Mantle and the Yankees, and and mourned the Giant’s Y.A Tittle. Serial losers, the Knicks of Richie Guerin, Willie Naulls, Ray Felix, Kenny Sears and Harry Gallatin weren’t worthy of our hopes. The Knicks of Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley (Senator Bradley to you), Dick Barnett and, especially, Willis Reed definitely were.
* Food historian Andrew Smith writes: “During the 1880s, a popular specialty was made, probably in Brooklyn, with chocolate syrup, cream, and raw eggs mixed into soda water, In poorer neighborhoods, a less expensive version of this treat was created, called the Egg Cream (made without the eggs or cream).”