The Butcher, the Baker…but not the Candlestick maker(c)2022
by Dee-Dee Diamond
Papa’s butcher shop, (under the noisy IRT elevated line), …that’s where I first saw it. I was still in my baby carriage… as it was during World War Two.
Livonia Avenue is dark even on sunny days. The subway train that snaked overhead made sure of that, as it played with the daylight. It screeched piercingly as the old multi-cars were stopped hard on metal tracks, when the engineer slammed on the brakes for… the shabby Junius Street Station. The train would be almost emptied of riders, as this was its next to last stop.
Then the crowd of weary passengers would descend the tall iron stairway to the sidewalks below…that’s where his small butcher store stood. It was next to the corner newspaper stand who in those days sold many different New York daily papers and a few in different languages.
Dead limp chickens, still wearing their feathers hung by their tied legs from hooks in the storefront window…with red painted Hebrew letters on the windowed front. The other half of the saw dust floored business held a white meat showcase with glass, displaying cut meat. This being wartime, not much merchandise was displayed. A well-worn butcher block table with thick thighed legs, sharp knives and an electric saw for cutting a carcass.
Women were lined up grasping their Ration Books. If they were lucky today, the butcher would still have some meat, for them to buy for the family. They had a little cash in their pockets to perhaps bribe the butcher to favor them.
The store smelled like chicken feathers, for as the fowl was plucked of bare of their feathers, the stubborn stubble was burnt off on a single, free standing gas burner in its rear.
Guts of the chickens were fed to the hungry alley cats meowing in the barren backyard.
Now to the rod-iron chair one of an unmatched threesome that filled the front of this crowded neighborhood shop. Those for the elderly as they waited the long line.
This was a community of Eastern European immigrants mostly Jewish. They chattered away in Yiddish, mixed with their Slavic tongues…laced with broken English. Normally they would brazenly bargain prices with the proprietor…but the Ration Book in their clast fists reminded them they had better…not.
My father, the shopkeeper, as other small butchers, had a difficult time getting meat or chicken due to wartime shortages. I understand that Uncle Abba, my mother’s uncle, a butcher himself in Williamsburg, had connections with a slaughterhouse. He was able to get my dad, a limited amount to sell to his desperate customers…thus feed us, his own family of 5. Now that I’m writing this story at 80 years old, I realize why when I was born in June 1941, I was named after his wife, my mother’s aunt. Coincidence? Uncle Abba adored me…I remember though he died when I was 5 years old. He called me, affectionately by her Hebrew name, Bat Sheva.
Up on Sackman Street, around the corner stood a bronze memorial, with freshly etched soldiers’ names from this community. The housewives would gather with their shopping bags and ogle teary-eyed at the familiar neighborhood boys’ names.
Hearts heavy they would say a silent prayer for the young servicemen that paid for our freedom… with their young lives. On Normandy Beach and battle fields they couldn’t pronounce.
I remember mournful “Taps “echoes, I sensed unspoken terror, all played in the background of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home, again” and waving American Flags, of my earliest childhood memories. One more important vision…pictures, calendars all over of President Roosevelt… This is a collage of Brooklyn, early 1940’s.
When Boy Scouts appeared on our streets, I thought that they too were soldiers…too young to know the difference…a khaki uniform was a soldier to me.
Reader, can you believe all this shard of memory was provoked by a covered table with one chair, in a wee French Café. It stood humbly at the corner of a cobbled niche, in Greenwich Village. My friend & I, were freezing that fated Winter afternoon, when we shopped the quaint streets last week. Claire noticed the tiny inviting Madeline’s café, first. In we went in the cozy, steamy jewel to warm up with coffee, and a delicious fresh baked snack.
In this oasis from the brutal NYC weather, I couldn’t take my eyes off the one curlicued iron chair which invited a patron to enjoy their food.
“Holy Toledo! the chair was an exact mate to the one father had in his butcher shop… some 8 decades, ago. I was taken back by this surprise sight in this hidden away café. I impulsively blurted aloud, “That is…I have the chair to make it a pair”!
The French baker/owner raised her brows as she eyed me from top, to bottom at as if to question my sanity.
“I cannot believe what you’re telling me “. The Baker responded hands on both her cheeks, “My papa he give it to me, from his mama’s kitchen” in Paris”. Her accent, the buttery smell of baking croissants, the lone chair, at the tiny table, set an almost surreal scene, while the wind shivered the shop’s paned glass windows. It looked to me it was awaiting its lost mate… my chair.
“My name is Dee-Dee and this is my friend Claire”, I gestured to the aproned matron with the pleasantly laced, flushed face.
“I am Madeline”, She responded, extending hand…warmly.
We three mature ladies stood together, while we drank delicious fresh brewed coffee, lost in memories of long ago.
Now, I proceeded to tell her why her chair gave me such a start.
“Your chair ‘s twin sat thru World War 2 in Brooklyn in my late, father’s shop”. I drew her a verbal picture, with those worried mamas shopping the sparse stocked meat shop, under noisy El. Madeline in turn revealed,” This chair was always part of my gramma’s petite shoppe on rue Blanche 43, which was in our family for generations. It was in there she baked, and sold buns during the 1940’s, to help feed our family. The delicious fare was baked in her old wood oven. It was so difficult to get flour, butter, and wood for fuel, she often told us children, but I somehow managed to. She’d affectionately tap the old-fashion relic and say, it heated the rear of the shop where we slept”.
Madeline and I stared at each as we were relatives, survivors, of survivors, who held onto a chair! We each had a legacy piece of our late European father’ family.
“I lost my papa when he joined the resistance…we went to bed many a night hungry even with Grandmama’s bun. The Germans in our streets terrified us…sirens, motorcycles… screams,” she suddenly remembered not having spoken of those nightmare days.
Madeline lived in my time with the world at war. She came to America in 1949. “How lucky I am that my father immigrated to USA in 1919” I said both to her, and myself. Why were the 2 twisted iron chairs saved and brought to America, abet decades…apart? We were all witnesses of that time. Such attachment to an otherwise just functional seat. Random displacement reminders, of where and how war can scramble ordinary people and things… about.
“Well, I do not know the particulars how it got under the EL in Brooklyn… and apart from its twin to Greenwich Village but the butcher’s daughter, Dee-Dee and Madeine the baker’s granddaughter bonded over The Chair(s).
One day in the future the chairs will be united we promised.