When I was maybe six years old, my father introduced me to Nathan’s. We had dropped off his mother at her what was to me dreary apartment. That woman never seemed happy to me, and it wasn’t until I became an adult, I understood why.
When I tell you that Nathan’s has the best hot dog in the entire world, you better believe me. Whenever I come across a hot dog place, I have to check it out. It’s kind of turned into a thing with my sons too. I’ve been many places on this earth and have never found a tube steak that tasted as good. I became addicted to Nathan’s as a very young child, and I still am.
The fries at Nathan’s are nothing to sneeze at either. Especially now with our spiffy new pandemic. The flavor is unlike any other french fry or really crinkle-cut fry in the world. My mother told me once they tasted the way they did because the potatoes were blanched in sugar water.
I think my dad had a good time with me at Nathan’s. I remember him smiling a lot. He must have enjoyed showing me the world, his world, the world of his youth. I did the same with my boys.
I’m not exactly sure why, but in my old age, memories I didn’t know I had suddenly and with clarity appear in my mind. Maybe it’s pre-dementia or something, but so far, I am enjoying it. Nathan’s was one of those memories, as well as one about my grandmother.
I was not very nice to her. As a child, she bothered me. She never seemed to laugh, and she seemed to my young mind to be world-weary and tired.
My family used to celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas because my father was Jewish, and my mother was not. It went like this: 8 days of Chanukah 8 crappy presents. Like a jigsaw puzzle or those awful chocolate coins. Maybe a box of tissues. I didn’t think it was much fun being Jewish. And I knew I wasn’t Jewish. I was on Team Santa Claus since the first time I saw those colored lights. I had a crush on Clarise, the girl reindeer in that Burl Ives Christmas cartoon too. It had not occurred to me that reindeer-human relations would most likely be frowned upon.
Christmas just blew my little mind. I couldn’t sleep Christmas Eve night, and my brain would be racing over all the things that I thought Santa was going to bring me. So, morning came, and I bolted from my room to see what was under the Christmas tree for me, me, me.
My Father and his Mother Circa 1940
My grandmother was already awake at what must have been the crack of dawn sitting in the living room in the dark. I didn’t know she was there, and when I turned the lights on and saw her, I almost plotzed. Yeah, Yiddish, woohoo.
I started to unwrap the one present I was allowed to open before the others woke up. It was heavy and about the size of 2 shoe boxes. When I saw what it was, I couldn’t believe my eyes. At 6 years old, I had decided that I would be a scientist, and what does a scientist need? A microscope, of course! I was so happy. My grandmother, who had been sitting on the couch not saying much of anything, asked me if I liked it. Of course, I did. Then she asked me, “Do you know who gave it to you?” Sure I did. “Santa Claus,” I responded.
In not the most pleasant tone, my grandmother told me that she had given me the microscope and then informed me that “Of course it wasn’t Santa Claus, don’t be ridiculous. There is no such thing as Santa Claus.” I tearfully disagreed with her and repaired to my room. So yeah, there was that.
Once and only once, she babysat my sister and me while my parents went to Montreal for a few days. That was right before my dad got sick. So there I was stuck with the Santa killer for a long weekend.
I’m not sure what the exact circumstance was. It might have been using a bathroom towel that my grandmother had set aside for her own use. It could have been my taking an egg salad sandwich that I thought had been made for me but turned out to be hers. Whatever it was made her angry with me and that… well, that is all I could stanz, I could stanz no more. Thanks, Popeye. That’s something Popeye the Sailor used to say. You had to be there.
My mother said that I was a quiet child. That I didn’t say a word until I was 16 and then she couldn’t stop me. But at 8 or 9 years of age, I tended to keep my mouth shut. Now, not so much. I launched into the loudest nastiest swear filled sentences my young mind could put together. “Why are you here, you old fart, nobody want’s you here.” I’m sure I said that I hated her a few times. That’s when my sister stepped in and dragged me off to my room. It felt fucking great.
My father died 6 months later, and years later, I found out that my mother never told his sister or his mother he was sick. So when he died, it must have been unbearable for my grandmother. Hey, I was his son, and I didn’t get to go to the funeral. Oh, Mom.
I didn’t speak to that side of the family again until my first son was born. My grandmother was long dead, but my aunt was very much alive, living in San Diego. We visited her while she was in the city, but after that, I didn’t stay in contact.
When my mother died a few years ago, my aunt sent me an email. I was so happy that she did. All my adult life, I’ve felt guilty about ignoring my father’s family. I found out that she lived in a semi-care facility in Ardsley about 45 minutes away. She was 93 and sounded great to me. She invited me to visit, and I told her I would bring my sons.
It was a pleasant visit, and my sons enjoyed it very much. It felt a little awkward at first, but once we started talking, all sense of discomfort was gone… I got to see photographs of my father growing up, and I learned about his teenage years. I found out that he used to get into a lot of trouble, and he really loved the women. Then World War II came, and everyone grew up fast.
Hirsch’s Knishes and Owner Boardwalk Coney Island Brooklyn NY 1976
I asked my aunt why her mother always seemed so dour, and this is what she told me:
Her parents and her sister emigrated from Eastern Europe, most likely just ahead of a pogram. They lived on the lower east side of Manhattan, and life was very hard. She and her sister worked as sewers making shirtwaists. Her sister died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. She married a gentleman who had his own business and was quite successful. He died while my grandmother and her 2 children were on vacation to the Grand Canyon. She was married for 7 years, and it was the only time in her life when she was happy and comfortable. She was a single mom doing whatever work she could. She raised my aunt and hellraiser of a father with no help from anyone. World War II happened, and any family she had back in the old country were murdered. My father came home one afternoon and announced he had joined the Navy, and that’s where he was for the duration. 15 years later and unknown to her, my father was sick for 6 months, and she only found out about it after he was dead. He was 40 years old.
And now I understood, and I regret the relationship that I had with her.
She was the first of many strong women in my life. I just didn’t know it at 9 years old. I was shocked to find out that she had a wicked sense of humor until her son died.
I asked my aunt if she could remember something, any little thing that she, her mother and brother did together that was fun. “There is one thing that stands out.” my aunt said. “Sometimes on the weekend as a special treat, my mother would take us to Coney Island. We would walk in the sand and on the boardwalk. If we were well behaved, she took us to her favorite place at Coney Island, Nathan’s. She and your father couldn’t get enough of those hot dogs.”
P.S. My Subway book is available through Etsy:
About the author: Since 1975, Gerard Exupery has used photography to document the subways, streets, and people of New York. The opinions in this article are solely those of the author. Exupery studied at The School of Visual Arts and with Lisette Model at the New School. Though Mr. Exupery has been a photographer for more than 40 years, only recently, he has begun to show his work. You can find more of his work on his website. This article was also published at 35mmc.