By Larry Levine –
(Peter Harry Levine, my father, was a champion in the cause of justice and equality and a tower of integrity by the example he set. He entered the hospital for the final time June 30, 1980. I got the phone call while I was lying on my back under the sink, installing a new garbage disposal in the house into which we moved the day before. One week later cancer took Dad’s life. He was the architect of part of the foundation for the fortunate life I have lived. Pete Levine lives on today in me and in those parts of him I have been able to pass on to my sons.)
1. Take the salami down from the hook on which it hangs to dry over the kitchen counter
2. Peel back the shell and slice enough salami for two generous sandwiches
3. Get out four slices of corned rye bread and put a coating of yellow mustard on two of them
4. Distribute the salami slices on the two pieces of bread that have no mustard
5. Lay the other piece of bread over the salami slices and cut each sandwich in half
6. Wrap the sandwiches in tinfoil
7. Take two homemade kosher dill pickles from the jar in the refrigerator and wrap them in tinfoil
8. Put the sandwiches and pickles in a black metal lunch box, the old fashioned kind with a domed top for the thermos bottle we won’t need
That’s what Mom was doing while Dad and I ate our breakfasts those summer mornings in 1947 and 1948. Then it was off to work for us. I was eight years old when I went to work with my father for the first time.
Dad – Peter Harry Levine – was a seltzer man in Brooklyn, NY. He delivered seltzer in the old style pressurized bottles to apartments in the Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn – 10 bottles to a case. He also delivered soda pop – mostly Dr. Brown’s – and various flavors of Fox’s U-bet Syrup – mostly chocolate or cherry.
Dad parked his delivery truck each night in a garage in Bensonhurst, next door to the plant where his seltzer bottles were washed and refilled after each day’s deliveries. That truck was the classroom in which I learned so many valuable lessons from one the greatest teachers I’ve ever known.
Each weekday morning Dad would leave our apartment in East Flatbush and walk to the elevated train station across the street and around the corner. After two stops, the el went underground to deliver him within walking distance of the bottling plant. Once or twice a week in the summers of 1947 and 1948 I would be with him and my salami sandwich and kosher dill pickle would be with his in the lunchbox he carried.
Sometimes, we would find a park in which to eat our lunch and drink Dr. Brown sodas from the ice chest he kept on the truck during those hot summer days. Sometimes we would stay a while to watch a bunch of kids playing a pickup game of baseball. Occasionally, we would sit in the cab of the truck and eat our lunch. On days when we were in certain neighborhoods, we would skip the lunch box and stop at a deli, probably one to which Dad delivered sodas and syrups.
I grew up in those great old Jewish delis of Brooklyn in the 1940s. Hard salami was my favorite. But I got plenty of that at home. So at the delis I would order a pastrami, tongue, or corned beef sandwich on rye bread or a Kaiser roll. That’s where I discovered I prefer my corned beef on a plate with boiled cabbage and potatoes. For sandwiches I prefer pastrami or tongue. I still feel that way today.
It wasn’t a long leap from those Jewish deli meats to the taste I developed for the Italian meats I love today – mortadella, capocolla, copa, sopressa, pepperoni. Italians call them all salumi. That’s pretty close to salami. Restaurants everywhere today offer appetizer courses of charcuterie. Same stuff with a fancier name. In Italy I discovered to my delight that these meats are the stuff of breakfast.
At the end of many of those summer days with Dad, while the machines were washing and re-filling the seltzer bottles and the truck was being loaded for the next day, we would walk down the street to the pickling plant.
We would bring some bottles of cold seltzer and sometimes a loaf of corned rye bread. We would sit on the concrete floor along with some of the guys who worked at the pickling plant. With our backs against the barrels we would reach over our shoulders and pull out kosher dill pickles to eat with the rye bread and wash down with the seltzer. They also turned out sauerkraut and pickled green tomatoes, which we would take home.
Those are some of the fond memories of my father – all that time together in the truck and at lunch to talk about the Dodgers, Dad’s life working in the carnivals after he quit school at the end of the third grade, his failed attempt to join the Army during WWII. He was blind in his right eye but memorized the eye chart to pass the physical. When they gave him a rifle in basic training, he put it to his left shoulder. That was that. They sent him home, where he went to work as a steam fitter building war ships at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Dad’s life was very colorful before he married my mother and landed at the ship yards. After he dropped out of school he latched onto some of the carnival and boardwalk concessions at the Coney Island amusement park. He ran a number of games, some of which got him in Dutch with the authorities. There was one in which he had several monkeys running back and forth on a board at the back of a booth. They had hats on their heads and for a nickel people could throw three baseballs to try to knock the hats off the monkeys’ heads and win a prize. That lasted only until the SPCA learned about it.
During those days in the seltzer truck and over our lunches I learned Dad ran booze during prohibition and once blew up a still belonging to rival gang. I learned he ran numbers in Manhattan in the 1920s and 1930s. When I was born, I weighed 7 pounds, 11 ounces – a gamblers dream. Word went out all over Broadway that Pete’s kid weighed in at 7/11. Play on those numbers was heavy that day. The 7 came in but not the 11 and the bookies breathed a sigh of relief.
These things got fleshed out in conversations in later years. But my first inkling of them came in the seltzer truck. So, when I learned later that Dad did more than run booze and numbers it wasn’t a total shock. He had been pretty “connected.” He walked away from that life after he got married and I was born but his friendship with “the guys” remained solid, though distant. When his brother-in-law, my uncle Bill, went to work for N.Y. Life Insurance in the 1960s, Dad joined Bill in Las Vegas and introduced him to some of “the guys.” Bill quickly became a member of the N.Y. Life Million Dollar Club, writing life insurance policies for “the guys” who ran Vegas before the corporations took over.
I got my street wisdom and my gamblers instincts from Dad; I learned to never give an overlay or take an underlay; I learned that hot streak and cold streak are past tense. He was the best gin rummy player I ever knew and he taught me that game. He was an excellent checkers player and he taught me that game too. I haven’t lost a checkers game since 1953, when I finished second in my age group in the city championships. The next year I won it all. Every once in a while, when I get an itch for a game, I go on line and beat some anonymous person. Most often we get into the game and the other player just clicks out. My game is pretty rusty now; I haven’t played serious checkers in more than 30 years.
All these things pale when compared to the most important thing I learned from Dad. In those summertime conversations and from the example he set, I got my sense of justice. I learned a person’s skin color should be of absolutely no consequence. All the helpers, who worked with the route owners on the seltzer trucks, were black. So, were all of the men who worked at the bottling and the pickling plants. Dad never called any of them black, or colored, or Negro, or any other such descriptive. To him they were Johnny or Tom, Jack or Mike. And when he took the lead in organizing a benevolent association of the route owners, he made sure the helpers were included. Years later I looked at photos from the association’s first annual banquet and realized the significance of the racial mixture. It took Jim Crow, fire hoses and attack dogs in the south to teach me not everyone saw the world as dad saw it.
Sunday nights in Brooklyn usually meant the Chinese restaurant around the corner, next to the elevated train station, unless it was snowing. The order never varied – hot roasted pork ends, egg drop soup and chicken chow mien. The pork ends were for me and Dad. My sisters were interested only in the crispy, fried noodles that were meant to go in the soup. Hot pork ends required hot Chinese mustard. Dad taught me how to eat that without suffering. He also taught me to eat hero sandwiches with hot peppers and cherry peppers with steaks Mom would cook at home. Whenever I order a Chicago beef sandwich or Chicago dog with “hots” instead of sweets, or when I pop a jalapeno in my mouth with a bite of a sub sandwich, I know Dad is smiling.
Hot dogs were yet another matter. They had to be all beef, no fillers, or Dad wouldn’t eat them. The first hot dog I remember eating was at Ebbets Field, May 28, 1944. We were there with my uncle Irving for a Dodgers vs. Cincinnati baseball double header. I know the date because Irving was in the Infantry and shipped out a couple of days later. He was killed during the D-Day landing on the beaches of France.
My first pizza? Dad did that. The five of us – mom, dad, me and my two younger sisters – were walking on the Boardwalk at Coney Island one hot summer day. I was about five or six years old. I saw a sign that read “Nickel a slice.” I asked dad, “What’s a slice.” Today pizza ranks up there with salami and salumi as weaknesses even in my post-coronary bypass diet years.
In the spring of 1949 Dad sold the seltzer route. We picked up and moved to Los Angeles. It would be five more years before he and I would go off to work together again.
I got my first work permit when I was 14. Appropriately, the job was at a restaurant, or more accurately a soft-serve ice cream shop that also served burgers and hot dogs. It had been closed for a couple of years. I was going to help the new owner get the place in shape to re-open and then stay on part time. A couple of days before the opening he informed me there was no job for me.
A year later, the summer I turned 15, Dad was working as a plumber and was an officer at the local union. I got my apprentice card and went to work on new residential construction jobs for the same company that employed Dad. We were back in the salami-sandwich-for-lunch business. Some days, however, we didn’t bring lunch and bought food from one of the “roach coaches” that made the rounds of construction sites. Now they’ve given those coaches fancy paint jobs, call them food trucks and Tweet about their locations. To me they’ll always be roach coaches. I haven’t been able to bring myself to eat from one of them, particularly after I learned they are operating with virtually no oversight from the health department.
Dad wasn’t very adventurous about food. He wouldn’t eat fish because he was sure he would choke on a bone and die. He liked calves liver, but he liked it well done. So Mom would cook it to the consistency of a baseball glove. I finally asked her to not serve me liver anymore. Many years later I learned liver can be served pink in the middle. I loved it and started eating it regularly. Six months later, I got my first cholesterol warning and had to stop. Now I only eat liver on rare occasions (pun intended) – mostly at Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood.
Dad could pick a chicken bone cleaner than any other carnivore on the planet. He did it with a knife and fork. He wouldn’t consider picking up the bone with his fingers. I never aspired to that talent. I don’t mind picking up a chicken bone at home and gnawing on it. Jennifer, however, wants to protect her acrylic nails, so she sticks with the knife and fork and occasionally proclaims, “Almost as good as Dad.”
Within weeks of our arrival in Los Angeles, Mom had located the heart of the city’s restaurant life on the La Cienega Blvd. Restaurant Row. The Captain’s Table and the Oyster House became regular spots for our family. Why these two? Because that’s where Mom could get Maine lobster. Both restaurants are long gone. But we would be at each of them once a month. That’s where I learned to enjoy Cherry Stone Clams on the half shell, another of Mom’s favorites. Then Mom and I each would have a Maine Lobster. For Dad it always was the same thing – a T-bone steak cooked medium and a baked potato with nothing but butter. For my sisters it was the extra olives from Mom’s gin martini and then they would share a steak and baked potato.
A year later we moved into Burbank and found The Smoke House across the street from Warner Bros. Studios. It was a steak house – no lobster – and it served a decent rack of pork ribs, another weakness of mine. The Smoke House is still in operation today. There also was the nearby Far East Terrace, a Chinese restaurant in North Hollywood, where Dad tried without success to get the hot pork ends we used to eat in Brooklyn.
By the time we made our first return visit to New York, five years after we moved west, the old neighborhood was changing. The Jewish population was being replaced by a Caribbean population; the Chinese restaurant had closed; Harry’s butcher shop was gone; Abie’s appetizing store was no more; the store front where we ate hero sandwiches and drank lime rickeys was boarded up. The home delivery seltzer business was in shambles, with the customer base having shifted ever further out on Long Island.
By now I was a high school journalism major, thrilled to tour the New York Times news room and printing plant with Dad. We stopped for lunch at Horn & Hardart’s Automat, where we each had a bowl of Navy bean soup and a portion of baked beans, just like when we lived there.
Then there was the day the two of us paid a visit to the shrine of all hot dogs – Nathan’s Famous at Coney Island. This was long before anyone thought of staging a July 4 hot dog gorging contest. And it was before Nathan’s tried to branch out with locations from coast to coast and with packaged hot dogs in super market deli counters. It was a time when you had to go to Coney Island if you wanted Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, also lovingly known as franks for frankfurters.
We arrived at Nathan’s with all innocent intentions. We ordered a frank with mustard and kraut, fries and a grapefruit drink for each of us. We really were home again. How many times had we done this very thing before we moved out west?
The first franks vanished in short order, so we ordered another. It was a cold mid-week day in late November and there weren’t many people at Nathan’s. We were handed our second franks with a little mustard and some kraut. These didn’t last long either, nor did the thirds. By the time we finished we had eaten 13 Nathan’s Famous franks each, and downed two orders of fries and two grapefruit drinks each. We had to make up for a lot of lost time.
“Let’s go,” Dad said after the last frank. “We need to get back for dinner.”
That was Dad’s last visit to Nathan’s Coney Island and it was the last time we were in New York together. We tried two Nathan’s locations in L.A. when they opened 20 some years later. But it wasn’t the same. When Jennifer and I visited Nathan’s in May 2013 for the re-opening after hurricane Sandy, I had two franks – one for me and one for Dad.
Dad died in 1980, just short of his 74th birthday. But in many ways he still is with us. He’s with us every time I order liver and onions at Musso and Frank Grill and it arrives cooked perfectly pink in the center; he’s with us whenever we eat a chicken thigh at home and Jennifer tries to pick it clean with just a knife and fork; he’s with me as I fight through the pain of the tendonitis in my right elbow and remember how he taught me to throw the curve balls, sinkers and screw balls that made me a modestly successful parks and rec league pitcher as a kid; he’s with me every time I use my tweezers to de-bone fish before I cook it; he’s with us when my son John calls to tell me how he used Dad’s old plumbing tools on some job around his house; he’s looking over my shoulder whenever I play blackjack or checkers and he’s sitting next to me each time I’m at Santa Anita or Del Mar racetrack reminding me to never take an underlay.
But most of all, he’s right by my side every time I walk into a Jewish deli and smell the smells and look up at the hard salamis hanging to dry. And when my two sons talk about the salamis that used to hang over the sink in Grandma and Grandpa’s kitchen, I know he’ll be with us as long as my they continue to remember. Maybe I should hang a salami in our kitchen for my grandchildren to see. There are worse ways to be remembered.