At the start of eighth grade, I used to work in a small luncheonette with an old man who most people saw as miserable. His name was Irving.
He was always frustrated and his face was wrinkled. His nose was large. His eyes were squinted and angry. His head was bald on top with gray hair on the sides.
Irving wore black-rimmed eyeglasses, which often dangled from a string that hung around his neck. He always wore an old white t-shirt with yellow stains and a white apron, which was also stained. He wore the same jeans, the same black shoes, and the angry old man always had a Tiparillo cigar with the plastic mouthpiece dangling from between his clenched teeth.
The luncheonette had been there for decades. The countertop, which ran from the front of the store to the back, seemed to be faded from its original color, or like Irving and everything else in the shop, the counter seemed yellowed with age.
The pedestal seats in front of the counter spun around—but Irving hated when customers spun the top of the stools. There was a ledge at the bottom of the counter for customers to rest their feet upon as they sat and ate. The edge of the countertop was rimmed with a stainless steel border, which was broken in spots, with a strange black guck that never seemed to wash away in the opened crevices.
The seat covers to the pedestal seats were black; the sides were once shiny steel. The pedestals were also steel—but there was no shine on them either. I suppose, the luncheonette looked nice once. The décor was that of a 50’s soda shop with a checker-tiled floor, and very much like the faded décor, the owner remained unchanged since its opening. I was told the luncheonette used to be nice. As for Irving, I was never told he was ever nice.
Irving was unkempt. His fingernails were close to the long side—they were yellow from nicotine stains. He had aged hands and arthritic fingers. Irving was a thin man. He had gray, bushy eyebrows that always pressed downward to express his lack of patience with the rest of the world. Irving was quick to shout and fast to argue; however, his burgers were good and his chocolate egg creams were excellent.
This was my first real after school job and Irving was my first real boss. After the last bell, I left Woodland Junior High School from the rear entrance near the gym. I cut through the football field, usually alone, and walked through the back gate down Albert Street to Powers, and then after the right on Powers Avenue, I made another right on Flowers Lane, which turns into Deiman Lane.
Then I turned right on Garden and then left on Prospect Avenue. Prospect is a main street. Otherwise, my trip was through the quiet side-streets of my small Long Island town. I knew which way to go. I knew which yards to cross through if I needed to get to another block in a hurry—but there was no hurry. There was no rush—least of all; there was no rush to get to a job which only paid $3.00 an hour.
I felt a strange sense of awareness during this walk. There was a sense of lonesomeness and teenage confusion. There was the combination of dignity and insecurity combined. There were thoughts about the social structures in school, as well as the different cliques, and where I found myself or wished I fit in.
I thought about my so-called friends. I thought about the girls I wanted to date and how they were always different from the girls that wanted to date me. I thought bout the teachers and their coffee breath. I thought about the way they spoke to me, and often, I quietly rehearsed what I would say the next time one of my teachers tried to embarrass me again.
After the short walk on Prospect, I turned right down Chestnut until I reached the rear parking lot to the shopping center, which faced where Merrick Avenue branched at Bellmore Avenue.
My job was easy. By the time I arrived, the lunch crowd had already gone. Irving did little business in the evening. He mostly sat on the first stool, reading his newspaper with his cigar dangling from his teeth. A grayish-white curl of smoke lifted from a long ash that hung from the end of his thin cigar and pillared to the ceiling . Irving spoke under his breath. He mumbled and complained about the news and politics. He had his opinion about our country and he often said what was wrong with it.
Meanwhile, I worked the dishwasher in the back. I cleaned and separated the silverware, stacked the plates for the next morning, and I cleaned the sink when I was finished.
Next, I scrubbed the grill. I cleaned the countertop, swept and mopped the floor, and when Irving was ready to close, I left through the front door, right onto Merrick Avenue and walked to my house, which was a little less than one mile north of the luncheonette.
There was a strange sense of awareness during this walk too. I thought about working for a living. I thought about my Old Man and the complaints he had about the laziness of my generation. I thought about being a kid and how I would rather run around with my friends instead of work for an angry old man named Irving.
There was nothing exciting about the luncheonette. There was no one for me to talk to at this job.
Irving spoke, but I always felt he never wanted me to answer, which is why I think he liked me and offered a Saturday morning shift to organize the inserts for the Sunday morning paper.
Saturday morning was a busy time for Irving. This is when I saw him in action. He took orders, but never with any kindness. Nearly all the stools at the counter were filled by long-time customers. Some of them would say, “Hello” to me. And some would try to talk with me, but Irving would shout at them and say, “You leave that kid alone and let him do his job!”
It was suggested by some that I was a favorite.
“He never likes anyone,” I was told by a few.
“But he must really seem to like you.”
Then Irving would scream, “Get the hell away from that kid and leave him alone!”
Irving was not only unfriendly and unkempt; he was also cheap. Even though I worked for him, Irving still charged me full price for everything. I did get a raise once. I went from $3.00 to $3.50 an hour. I worked Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for three hours until Irving closed up. Saturday was a four hour shift—unless I finished earlier, which I usually did, but the pay never changed.
I once heard a customer ask Irving, “Hey Irv, what are you gonna do when that kid gets fed up with you and leaves?”
“I’ll get someone else,” Irving said.
Then he slammed a tall drink down on the counter and said, “Now drink this and get the hell out!”
I never understood why people came back to the luncheonette. The food was good, but Irving was nasty. My guess is people got a kick out of the old timer. The long-time customers loved when Irving complained or yelled. But I never did.
Some nights, I watched Irving count out the register, which perhaps, was even older than him. He pressed a series of buttons to make the cash drawer extend. This always created a ring-sound, and then I could hear Irving flipping through the cash and whispering numbers to himself. I learned of all times, this time was the worst to interrupt him. If Irving lost count, he complained, “Dammit,” and then Irving would start over again, and he always began his count with the words, “Son of a bitch!”
After Irving finished the register, I would walk over and ask if there was anything else he needed me to do.
Irving would pay me and say, “Get out of here,” or “Go home.”
He never complimented me or said if I was doing well or poorly. However, he rarely complained about my performance and he never threatened to fire me. Sometimes, I watched Irving. He looked tired; he looked alone and unhappy. He was bitter, but there was still something redeeming about Irving. He seemed lonely. . . I suppose I felt that way too.
I felt that way because I was working in an old luncheonette, meanwhile, other kids my age were out having fun. And the luncheonette was not fun—so I gave my two week’s notice.
On my last day, Irving counted my money and handed it to me.
“You’re a good kid,” said Irving.
He told me, “It was nice working with you.” and then Irving shook my hand.
The old man’s face turned from a soft expression of respect to his usual angry scowl.
His voice quickly changed from kind to cruel.
“What do you want?” he asked
“Do you think you could make me a chocolate egg cream before you close up?”
“Pain in the ass,” he said
Irving slammed the cups down to prepare the drink He mixed the egg cream, poured it, and then served it to me.
“Now get the hell out of here,” he told me.
“And don’t come back unless your here to wash the dishes!”
To this day, that was the best chocolate egg cream I have ever tasted in my life.
While leaving the door, I heard Irving grumbling to himself, which was nothing unusual.
Only this time, I understood what he said.
“That’s a good kid,” he said. Then he called me a pain in the ass.
Yeah . . .
I think it’s safe to say that Irving liked me
Saw this picture the other day.
It reminded me of Irving and the luncheonette.
Figured I would share it with you