It was an unassuming little place where you could get a nice place of Veal Parmigiana. Nothing fancy, but red gravy to die for. If you were not a regular, the sound in the place would suddenly hush when you walked through the door. One time when my brother-in-law was with us, the regulars thought he might be an FBI agent. They were wary of guys with high foreheads. The guy who wrote numbers out of the place calmed everybody down. The guy with the high forehead was with me. No FBI agent. Where the real name of the restaurant was never used by the regulars. Only the location.
There was a big TV over the bar. Black and white picture. The screen was only 24 inches, but it seemed huge back then. Hung over the bar like a threat. The bartender was pointing out to a group of young guys popping PABST BLUE RIBBON that a ballgame from New York was being televised in a half-hour. If they were lucky, the reception would be good tonight. It had been reasonably good all week. Only the bartender didn’t say “reasonably.”
Picking up ballgames from New York was a big deal. There was no cable TV back in the mid-’50s when this place thrived. A giant antenna sat on the roof of the building like some monster out of WAR OF THE WORLDS. Nobody seemed to mind the occasional bursts of static that sometimes interrupted the game. The Phillies weren’t very good then. The A’s were gone. To Kansas City, like Wilbert Harrison. It was the ultimate in neighborhood sports sophistication to be able to catch a New York telecast of a ballgame from Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds. In a few years, the Dodgers and Giants would leave New York and the Yanks would be purchased by CBS. But the apocalypse had not happened yet. At the moment, you almost expected a guy to jump up on the bar and start singing, “I’ve got a horse right here. His name is Paul Revere.”
Everybody knew the place wasn’t quite kosher, but that made it more exciting. It was a place where cop cars used to swing by on a Saturday afternoon for cops to be paid off. It was a place that enjoyed a certain amount of celebrity. Where the illegitimate fell upon the establishment with the heady smell of garlic. Where crime and God knew what else triumphed and made the world a place of mischief and hinted of other prohibited delights. A place where you never quite felt grown up enough to belong. Where cops had their price and looked the other way. Where it was hard to tell who upheld the law and who made a mockery of it.
Yet it also held a strange innocence. A place where adults hung out just like college kids did just a few blocks away. Where guys he knew never grew up. Where betting on games and numbers was serious stuff. Where money circulated according to the pitching matchups.
The corner guys would visit the schoolyard on Sundays. Guys from the corner grew up faster than kids like him. Corner guys always wore taps on their shoes that clicked against the sidewalk like George Raft’s in the original SCARFACE. The crap games transformed the schoolyard into an extension of the saloon. The men shooting craps in the corner of the yard, shouting their strange incantations. And inevitably the games ended with a neighbor calling the cops. The guys with taps on their shoes immediately disappeared like ghosts into the wind. An innocent moke might be nabbed. And then silence would descend again over the sleepy schoolyard. Until next Sunday, when they would emerge from the saloon again to play. The real game was avoiding the cops.
In the saloon, families mixed with wannabes as patrons. The place had no name. Just a location. Regulars were never known by their real names. Everybody, it seemed, was “Ryan,” “Brown” or “Kramer.” Only nobody’s name was really “Ryan,” “Brown” or “Kramer.” It was a place where a 62-year-old man with a cigar in his mouth organized stickball games with the kids. He even bought the balls.
It was a place where you argued whether Newcombe or Roberts was the better pitcher. Whether Pabst Blue Ribbon had really earned a ribbon for its beer. Who was the better middleweight, Giardello or LaMotta?
Neighborhood restaurants were scenes of mob hits. Where a guy was “retired” involuntarily and an entrée was named after him a week later. Through those years, it seemed like the two centers of community were the church and hangouts like the one with no name. Where seminarians mingled with mobsters.
Those “disreputable” restaurants most pretty much are gone now. The few that are left are museums whose lawlessness is used as a meme, a commercial gimmick to sell meatballs. Places that parade faded posters of THE GODFATHER.
The old place lost its menace. Then its liquor license. Went Mexican. Stories told to attract tourists. Most of the mobsters are dead of stomach cancer or crippled with arthritis. The uncontrolled chaos and violence of the city today almost makes the old mob wars seem quaint.
Nobody wears taps on their shoes anymore. And they shoot craps in casinos, not schoolyards. The places where they serve parmigiana using chicken instead of veal because veal costs too much today. The vibes in these joints are about as authentic as a seashore arcade and menacing as cotton candy, but there was a time …