Mendel Letters 36 — Manny and Joe’s Luncheonette in Astoria

The corner of 21st Street and 36th Avenue in Astoria, Queens.

July 2, 2021

Dear Mendel,

You started bringing me to work with you on Saturdays in 1964 when I was fourteen. The luncheonette on the corner of 21st Street and 36th Avenue in Astoria, Queens was about an hour from our apartment in the Bronx by subway. We left at 5 AM to open at 6. In those days I was a helper, washing dishes and mopping floor, putting out the newspapers, and sometimes manning the register. By the time I was sixteen I was the Saturday counterman every week and worked with either you or your partner. That way you and he could have alternate Saturdays off.

We always closed up at 4 PM on Saturdays. I was paid minimum wage, off the books, $15 for a ten-hour day. Once I was the counterman I picked up a few extra dollars in tips.

When we arrived at six we put up the coffee urn, turned on the grill, and as soon as the coffee was ready opened the doors. A lot of the early customers lived in Ravenswood Houses across the street and they had to get up early to go to work. Morning orders were usually a buttered roll and coffee, though breakfast “regulars” would want eggs, fried, scrambled, or soft boiled with buttered toast and sit for a while. Once the grill was heated up there was bacon or ham, but no potatoes on Saturday. When it slowed for a few minutes I put out the newspapers and prepared coffee containers with a spoon of sugar for later delivery. While I worked the counter, you or Joe worked the register, though you came over to help out if we got too crowded.

Because of your vision problems, the counter was set up for touch and placement. Everything had to be in its assigned spot, plates, silverware, glasses, and cups and saucers. Butter, cream cheese, seeded rolls, eggs, salads, cheeses, and cold cuts, were all aligned so you knew and didn’t have to “see” where they were. Knife placement by the cutting board was especially crucial and had to be obeyed.

From 9 until 11 AM it usually slowed down. I washed dishes, ate breakfast, I didn’t drink coffee in those days, read the newspaper, maybe read a comic book, prepared the coffee and buttered rolls that I delivered to the Key Food down the block, and then we started to set up for lunch. There was usually chicken, tuna, and shrimp salad left over from the day before, but sometimes I had to prepare a fresh supply. All three staples came out of a can. I diced and crushed celery, mixed the prime ingredient in a bowl with the celery and mayonnaise, and then added the “secret ingredient.” So the salad would bind together, I trimmed a couple of slices of white bread, diced it up small, and mixed it in with the tuna, chicken, of shrimp salad.

From 11 until 2 PM was very busy. The counter was full and there were lunch take-out orders to prepare. On Saturdays lunch was a tuna, chicken, or shrimp salad sandwich on rye or white, a hamburger from the grill, chips but no fries, a BLT (Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato sandwich) always on toasted white bread with a smear of butter, or cold cuts, usually ham, on white or rye. I don’t think anyone knew about whole wheat bread back in the 1960s.

Most people drank coffee, tea, or Coca-Cola from the fountain. Sometimes I made a Lime-Rickey, cherry syrup, seltzer, and a slice of lime, or an egg cream. New York-style egg creams had no eggs. They got their name from the froth on top. You mixed chocolate syrup, milk, and seltzer, stirring until the froth settled and then adding more seltzer. We also served “malteds,” milk, syrup, a table spoon of malt, and a scoop of vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry ice cream, blended together. Egg creams and “malteds” were great with a rod pretzel.

By 2 PM I could grab a sandwich for lunch, usually finishing off one of the salads. I liked tuna or shrimp on white or chicken salad with lettuce on rye. I pretty much always had an egg cream and pretzel with my lunch. Lunch was followed by cleanup, washing dishes, mopping floors, closing up the grill, and emptying and washing the coffee urn. I put up a “silas” of drip coffee for any latecomers. While I cleaned your or Joe counted cash and settled the “books.” You had a large magnifying lens to help you read and write. At four o’clock we were ready to turn off the lights, close the doors, and head for the subway.

I kept working for you and Joe on Saturdays until I was nineteen and starting my junior year at City College. Gradually you raised my pay to $2 an hour or $20 for a Saturday. At that point I got my “hack” license and could drive a yellow cab and earn real money. Usually worked out of a garage on 170th Street in the Bronx just west of Jerome Avenue. I stacked my school schedule to Tuesday and Thursday and would drive two week days and one weekend day and make about $100, a $120 if tips were good. More about taxi driving in another letter.

Manny and Joe’s on 21st Street and 36th Avenue in Astoria is now a no-name fried chicken take-out place. Once a year I bike passed it on the Five-Borough Bike Tour. I always thank you and Joe for teaching me how to work.

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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