Gus’s Diner was right in front of an old ironworks factory on the corner of West First Street and Sixteenth Avenue, in Mount Vernon. It was one of those classic boxcar-like structures, similar to thousands of others in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. It was very small and was painted red on the outside. It was tucked into a corner of an ironworks factory. The factory building and its large yard were likely there for a hundred years, the diner seemingly plopped down beside it, as if airlifted into position.
Gus’s was where my cousin Johnny, my brother Russell and I used to gather for a few hours in the morning while we were playing hooky from high school. We would eat breakfast and then hang out until a little past ten o’clock. Then it was it was off to stay at Johnny’s parents apartment until four o’clock. Uncle John left for work at eight, but Aunt Stella didn’t leave until ten. The radio said some snow for today, but not much, maybe an inch. Unfortunately that wasn’t nearly enough for school to shut down. I got good at forging my mother’s name, but not so good at phrasing and composing the letter to the school from my mother. We mulled it over and thought the snow might actually be a good excuse for not showing up anyway.
Russell and Tommy didn’t attend school yesterday because they both had diarrehea. Sincerely, Francis Brengel.
Johnny was eighteen, though he could pass for twenty-four. With his receding hairline, thick neck, wire-frame glasses and ruddy Irish complexion, he had the kind of face that pops up in old photos of a Belfast workers strike. He lit up a Marlboro, as I asked him what he was reading.
Finnegan’s Wake, said Johnny. It’s by James Joyce.
He handed me the book and after only a short glance, I knew I would never read it. Too much mumbo-jumbo.
What does all that mean, Johnny, I mean those crazy words? I asked him.
It’s dream associations and stream of consciousness, he answered.
I think I’ll stick with the New York Post sports section, I closed with.
This was our fourth or fifth illegal absence from school, all but one spent here. Once before, we had taken the subway at 241st Street, and rode the IRT line to Times Square. That would kill an hour. The token was 15 cents each way, and that left us with just enough to buy donuts and coffee at a little stand along the shuttle stop, and later, a hotdog. We would board the free one-stop shuttle train to Grand Central Station, where we would walk around aimlessly, oblivious to its magnificence. To kill more time, we would shuttle back to Time Square, then back to Grand Central, and would repeat this maneuver several times, like a hamster on a wheel. That was enough for us, and we vowed that next hooky-time, we would return to our alma mater, Gus’s.
We had some money today and would order bacon and eggs, toast and coffee, and sit at one of the yellow-colored table booths along the front, right by the window. As often was the case in winter, the effect of the place was heightened considerably when it snowed. A feeling of fantastic warmth and good fortune, as if staying there forever wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The air would be filled with the comingled aromas of all that Gus was cooking. He operated alone and moved around very well for an old guy. Gus had a lot of Popeye in him, and was straight out of the Great Depression thirties. He always had a cigar hanging out of his mouth and would wear a white cap and apron. He even talked a little like Popeye. Gus’s mumbled speech required some time to translate, to connect the verbal dots. Looking back on it, a signer might’ve made things much easier.
It was fun to watch Gus move around behind the counter. He was fast for a big guy and would adroitly pivot to get this or that, then return to the grill and start flipping pancakes and eggs and hash brown potatoes. We would be at Gus at least two hours. The snow started to stick and was accumulating on the street. Kelley’s gas station was right across the street. And one or another of the three Kelley brothers or staff would come in from time to time. Most of Gus’s customers were blue-collar types in dark coveralls and coats, many with embroidered script lettering on them. I suppose a few worked right there at the ironworks factory. We dreaded the possibility that a grown-up that we knew would walk through the door and rat on us. The only one who could be trusted to not slip a lip was my uncle Ralph. I remember that he once told me he had hated school.
I popped a dime in the red tabletop jukebox and played Runaway by Del Shannon and Popsickles Icecicles by the Murmaids. That’s a faggy song said Russell. My dime, I play it, Those chicks are foxy, plus they’re from California, so get some cotton for your ears. Gus always had the radio going, and always tuned to the all-news-all-the-time station. That morning New York City Mayor Robert Wagner was to meet with city officials over budget appropriations , a budget no doubt fattened by the previous summer’s World’s Fair. and there was bad business in Berkeley, where over eight-hundred students took over an administration building. If Gus had opinions about all of that, doubtless no one could make heads or tails of it.
Johnny had put his book down by now, and we took turns and playing table football. One player would snap two fingers and kick a rolled up piece of paper between goalposts represented by the opposing player’s index finger and pinkie. How unimaginable then to think that harmless formation would be a gangsta salutation half a century later. Scores were kept in a meticulous way, though arguments would result anyway. If someone was clever enough to have brought along a rubber band, then other amusements were enjoyed. Johnny talked high about a senator named McGovern What a name for someone in the Mc Government. Johnny said he would be President one day. Russell told one dirty joke after another, then insulted and berated those passing by in the snow, all out of earshot naturally. Russell was in high gear: Look at this one, with his belly hanging over his belt. He hasn’t seen his dick in twenty years. It’s just a rumor. All of us were laughing then. Russell had an awful lot of Don Rickles in him.
Since both Johnny and Russell were occupied with what, with not much at that point, I drifted into inner imagery. I looked out the window and saw my favorite football team, the Cleveland Browns playing against what appeared to be the San Francisco 49’ers. Right there on West First Street in heavy traffic. Frank Ryan was quickly dropping back in the pocket behind his blockers some thirty yards up the street, right by a passing 241st Street Bronx-bound bus, throwing a forty yard bullet-pass to his favourite target Gary Collins, who was running clear in his route right in front of Kelley’s. I yelled out first down! and Johnny and Russell asked if I was alright. I thanked them for their heartfelt concerns and then sought other reveries. In no time I conjured up the fantastical idea of Leslie Gore walking into the diner. I was in love with her, especially after seeing her on Hullabaloo, or was it Shindig, singing You Don’t Own Me. Suddenly, as my dream’s eviction of reality had demanded, she walked in and went to a corner booth. She was dressed in a black trench coat, and some snow was still on her shoulders.
The diner was now empty except for Gus, me and the apogee of my dreams. I was afraid to approach her, so I selected You Don’t Own Me on the Seeburg. She looked across the empty tables at me and smiled. Emboldened, I then asked if she wouldn’t mind if I sat with her for a minute. She smiled and accepted and we ordered two coffees, as that was all she wanted. I immediately asked her What are you doing in this…. place? If I may ask. She looked at me with eyes that went straight through me and said: I had arrived yesterday from California and had just finished some business with an agent in Manhattan and was en-route by limousine to Scarsdale to see a producer. She continued: I had had a premonition of sorts while on the ride up from New York. A strong inner voice that told me to come here. Leslie went on that she discovered where her power of expression had come from. It came from the hearts of those who most admired her, and that she was here to thank me. She then reached across the table and kissed me softly on the cheek. The acne scarred kid who was afraid of good-looking girls felt like a light that guaranteed inner peace forever had entered him. With that, she quickly turned and walked out the door to a long black Crysler that was waiting out front. A rolled up piece of paper, probably fashioned with spit, then hit me in the eye. Hey Rip Van Winkle, it’s time to go, can’t stay here forever Chooch! The subtle and soothing voice of brother Russell had snatched me from my sanctum of bliss.
We left for Aunt Stella and Uncle John’s, and the snow was thick in its rapid decent. Maybe we wouldn’t have to write that note after all. It was a windless snow that covered every grey inch of the cityscape in no time. Kelley’s gas station, with its big lighted Texaco sign and naked winter trees as background, was turning into a painting called Currior & Ive’s and Gas and Oil, maybe painted by John Sloan. We walked down the hill on South Street towards our destination. Along its entire two block length, heading down towards The New Haven Railroad tracks was Ward Leonard Electric Company with its three-shift two thousand employee workforce. This morning its windows were glowing yellow because of the dark grey sky. This whole thing was a very Pittsburgh-looking scene. The hell with sunny days in winter anyway, I thought. What a waste of sunshine. What a feckless ineffectual sun, that winter sun, neutered as it is, by winters ground level realities. Give me grey, give me snow, give me rain, give me torrent in the mood of grey wintery chords, played to my heart and soul.
After arriving at our destination of the next several hours, we immediately pursued something more meaningful than Gus’s Diner. We turned on the television. From a selection which included Jeopardy starring Art Fleming, Truth or Consequences with Bob Barker, reruns of Andy of Mayberry and The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, we chose the most serious one. Bullwinkle was not only the coolest and smartest cartoon moose ever, but likely the coolest thing standing on two feet in all of television. The smartest was Mister Peabody, with the second coolest being his sidekick, Sherman. I don’t know who the third coolest was, nor the second smartest, but I suspected that whoever they were, they had a lot of catching up to do to surpass the smartest and second coolest, respectively. Peabody & Sherman excelled at going back in time to help history’s hero’s achieve their fame. Rocky & Bullwinkle, on the other hand, were forever finding ways to outsmart the villainous Russian spies, Boris & Natasha. After Johnny advised us against raiding the refrigerator for obvious reasons, Russell, who hadn’t eaten since emptying a bag of Connecticut potato chips at Gus’s well over twenty minutes ago, waited, like the patient carnivore that he was, for our host to relax his vigilance. That moment came when Johnny got up to use the bathroom. Before one could blurt out the customary Jackie Robinson, brother Russell quickly wolfed down two slices of Kraft swiss cheese and the remains of a plastic bowl containing some unidentifiable brown sauce.
I looked out the window and to my dismay, the snow had stopped. It was now time to write and forge the absent-from-school letter, which we would bring to Mount Vernon High tomorrow. And with Bullwinkle’s antics over, and with Peabody & Sherman having figured out what actually happened aboard the Santa Maria with Christopher Columbus, Russell and I left for home, leaving our hapless host to contend with an empty plastic bowl that needed washing. Two days later, Russell and I were called into Vice Principal Doctor Panitz’s office. Doctor Panitz was a impressive man of about fifty. With his piercing blue eyes and imposing and very administrative and authoritarian demeanour, I could easily imagine Wehrmacht or Waffen SS medals pinned to his blue suit. He cordially asked Russell and me to have a seat.
Dr Panitz: So you both don’t like school so much?
Russell: No, Dr. Panitz, we like school fine, but we just didn’t feel like going last Monday. Tommy: I like school too, but it looked like it might snow that day.
Dr. Panitz: I see. You both know that it cost a lot of money to build this beautiful new school, don’t you? And to pay all the teachers and maintenance crew. Do you both realize how lucky you are to receive an education, and a free education, with no cost to your parents?
Russell: I bet it cost a lot of money. We’re sorry, and we won’t do it again.
Tommy: Yes, Dr. Panitz, we’ll be in attendance every day from now on, right, Russell? Russell: Every day, for sure.
Dr. Panetz: That’s wonderful, that’s what I like to hear, sensible students, appreciative of the importance of their education.
Dr. Panitz, now yelling very loud: NOW YOU BOTH WILL WRITE A THOUSAND WORD COMPOSITION DESCRIBING WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO ATTEND SCHOOL. AND YOU SHALL HAVE IT IN MY HAND BY FRIDAY, IS THAT CLEAR?
Russell and Tommy: Yes Dr. Panitz, it’s clear.
When we returned home that evening our mother announced that a truant officer named Mr. Gist was there earlier and had asked if she had signed an absent from school note on Monday. We were dead-to-rights, and it was KP and no after-school activities for the next two days. That evening, I started penning my composition, entitled Why I should attend classes. But in my brainless adolescence of ingratitude, it quickly became a farce resembling this:
Dear Doctor Panitz: While I see some reason for attending classes, I notice that all the adults that I know or ever heard of or that I like and admire don’t really use math, proper English, geography or history in their jobs. I mean, Joe the bartender probably didn’t learn how to tap beer and argue about baseball with customers because he went to school. Gus, at Gus’s Diner didn’t go to school to learn how to smoke a cigar without really smoking it. And he didn’t go to school to learn how to flip hamburgers or fry eggs in such a way that they were the finest of their kind. Then I know for a fact that Luigi of Luigi’s fruit stand didn’t learn how to sell fruits and vegetables without ever have learned English to all the people who buy from him, and still love him inspite of his linguistic shortcomings. And not for nothing, Doctor Panetz, but Mickey Mantle didn’t learn how to hit a ball over a building in New York that bounced on top of a moving train that went all the way to Eau Clair, Wisconsin, by attending geography classes. It’s not like he had to know where Eau Clair actually was, you know what I mean? And I’m just saying, but isn’t it true that it’s possible to acquire a decent knowledge of American geography by studying the backs of baseball cards? After all, the typical major league player has had to endure playing in some places with more cows and chickens than people. But Eau Claire and Greensboro, NC and Augusta GA and Batavia NY and Visalia CA and two hundred some odd other stops along the minor league trail on the backs of baseball cards taught me all about American geography, few years ago. OK, I’ll grant you that there are most definitely worthy courses in Mount Vernon High School. Classes like Mister Milonzi’s commercial art class and Doctor Dodd’s drawing and painting class. However, if I had to fill up this composition with one thousand words, I’m more likely to be successful at it if I had to admit the ludicrousness of my duplicity which I do. None the less, if I consider the uselessness of gym class, here we go with at least three hundred words: I get a lot of exercise. Most of which consists of horsing around with friends on my block. We like to jump over parking meters. It’s a hoisting manuever that requires strength, thrust and a fair amount of courage, lest the participant go minus one or both of his testicles. Sometimes we play as teams, that is to say, two players against two opponents. This then teaches team play, a worthy endeavour, you have to admit. Other athletic games consist of playing touch football in heavy traffic along West First Street. Setting up complicated pass plays and patterns while the 241st Street bound bus is passing at forty miles per hour inches from your gluteus maximus, is an activity that promotes awareness, courage, agility and quickness, all attributes of superior athleticism that I think to be a notch or two above what is prescribed in school gym class. Then there is the unique test of one’s determination to hang in there, and not flinch, from fielding a sharply hit ground ball right at you that will very possibly hit a piece of broken glass or pebble, thus diverting its path and redirecting its trajectory to make hard contact with your eyeball or lip, resulting in a black eye, split lip or missing tooth. Of course I’d like to add that I a…
Of course I never sent such an abomination, just a sloppy, repetitively written and insincere apology describing my wanton recalcitrance and total lack of appreciation for a quality high school education. An education that would in fact prepare me for a lifelong career as a commercial artist, and later as a sign artist. Following is a letter of gratitude that was unfortunately and shamefully never written to my commercial art teacher, Mr. Victor Milonzi.
Dear Mr. Milonzi: I know that this letter is over a half-century too late. But when I was a student of yours, in 1963 and 1964, At Edison High, then at Mount Vernon High, I didn’t know or care anything about gratitude or sacrifice. And I didn’t know or care about such things for the next fifty years. You provided me with a great education that equipped me to be a commercial artist. I showed my thanks by jumping from your class and enrolling in Dr. Dodd’s fine arts class, without ever having said thank you. It turns out that you were the best teacher I ever had, including all of my instructors during my two years at Phoenix School of Design. And I can add that any bad professional breaks that came my way during these ensuing decades might’ve have been payback for such lack of character and ingratitude. I used to hate it when you would tear at my artwork just to remove a tiny imperfection, smudge or speck of dirt. But this taught me to shoot for the very best professional quality in the way of presenting my artwork. It took me all these years to appreciate you as a first rate professional advertising artist, who sacrificed a lucrative career to teach young kids how to be successful commercial artists. I remember now how you would make special trips to Manhattan, to advertising agencies and corporate headquarters like Coca Cola, just to gather samples of products, particularly new products, in the pioneering stage, as you called them, so the class could redesign the package, label, billboard, or magazine ad. Or how you took us on field trips to offset printing companies and typesetting shops to see first-hand how it was done. You taught us about duotones, halftones and four color process printing. About register marks and bleed marks and how to do paste-ups and mechanicals. And how to make mock-ups for point-of-sale displays. You taught your students all about materials such as illustration board, Cellotac, Zipatone, Coloraid, Magic Markers, drawing instruments, and even how to operate an airbrush. You taught about typefaces like Bodoni Bold and Franklin Gothic and scores of other fonts. You gave us the opportunity to use those liquids that smelled like rotten eggs but that created magical halftone dot patterns for cartoon illustrations when painted on a special white board. For this was how it was all done in the days before digital art. You offered your students the opportunity to compete in poster contests that awarded great prizes to first, second and third place winners throughout Westchester County. Contests, I might add, that were won by many of your students, including me. And you did all of this with a unique sense of humor. Your disarming wit was entertaining yet edifying and got the message home. Thank you, Mr. Victor Milonzi, for all you did for me.
Sincerely, Tom Briggs