Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The last (and first) supper



Only once did my parents take me and my two brothers to a restaurant. It was on a Sunday afternoon, sometime after 1 o'clock, after dad had closed our family's fountain service store in Brooklyn for the day. Sunday afternoons were the only time he had off.

I remember my father putting on a suit and tie and my mother one of her nicest dresses and even a big hat. I don't recall what my brothers and I wore, but likely we were dressed in sport coats and good slacks that my mother had bought for us at one of the many clothing shops along Pitkin Avenue.

We left our second-floor apartment on Liberty Avenue in East New York, walked down the street to Shepherd Avenue, then all the way up to Atlantic Avenue, where the 22 bus ran through much of Brooklyn and deep into Queens.

We didn't own a car. I never saw my father behind the wheel of any vehicle, in fact, and my mother never learned how to drive.

I can't say exactly how old I was at the time but as dad passed shortly after I became a teenager my guess would be eleven or twelve. The only food I knew at the time was what my Italian-American mother and all of my Italian-American aunts and uncles cooked.

Other than inside my (very) extended family's homes there were only two other places where I had sampled any foods at all: Sal Abbraciamento's restaurant a block away from our apartment, where we would sometimes get a take out pizza; and the White Castle around the corner on Atlantic and Shepherd, where a little square burger cost five cents, or maybe it was six.

Dressing up and getting on a city bus to go and eat at a "fancy" restaurant in Richmond Hill, Queens, was about the most exotic thing that my pre-teen head could wrap itself around. And only barely.

Westfal's was what you might call a "continental" restaurant, around a 30-minute bus ride away. It was at the corner of Atlantic and 111th Street, about a block from the bus stop, which itself was right in front of the Boy's Club. I remember getting off the bus and being impressed by the Club's massive white brick building and wondering about what kinds of things might go on inside. I never did find out.

I'm pretty certain that all of us were at least a little nervous about being inside a place like Westfal's. The menu had nothing on it that I knew, except for maybe a steak or a baked potato. No manicotti, no ziti, no tomato sauce, not a meatball or a sausage or an eggplant in sight.

When it was my turn to order I silently and reluctantly pointed at a strange-sounding item on the intimidating menu. "The duck then," I heard the waiter say. "Very good."

Actually, it wasn't. The meat was so tough and hard to chew that most of it wound up hidden underneath the other stuff that went unfinished on my plate.

I didn't eat duck again until I was almost 30.

And the five of us never stepped foot inside another restaurant together again.

Several years back I got word that an old family friend had passed and that the wake was being held not in Brooklyn but in Richmond Hill. It had been a long while since I'd had a reason to be in this part of Queens. And so you can imagine my surprise when the funeral home turned out to be housed in the exact same space where my parents had taken my brothers and me for our first—and only—restaurant meal together.

Standing outside the funeral home, I reminisced with some old friends about that Sunday afternoon at Westfal's with my parents and brothers.

"What was the occasion?" one wondered matter of factly. "A bus trip all the way out here, wearing your Sunday best no less. Must have been to celebrate something special, right?"

And just like decades earlier, when the fancy restaurant's waiter had pressed me to decide what to order for Sunday supper, I was completely and hopelessly flummoxed, unable to speak a word.

After what felt like a very long period of embarrassing silence, in front of old friends I had not seen in several years, all I could manage to say was, "I have no idea."

Which surprised me as much as it did them.

It still does.
 
countercounter