Working & Learning at Louie’s Candy Store Charlie Gili
I guess was about twelve or thirteen years old when I landed my first job in the late sixties. My pal “Pudgy”, aka Brian Jacobowitz was working at Louie’s Candy Store at the corner of McDonald Avenue and Albemarle Road, just across the street from PS 230, and right next to the subway stairs at the north end of the Church Avenue F-Train Station. (It was just about 1967-68 when the F Train replaced the D on those tracks)
Pudgy had been working at Louie's for a while and had become expert at making egg-creams, chocolate sodas and all the important customer favorites.
Now I was hoping to get my foot in the door, and with Pudgy’s help I eventually did. The store needed someone to help put together all the various sections of the Sunday NY Daily News on Saturday nights and early Sunday mornings, to have them ready to be sold to the Sunday customers.
I'd go over at night or really early in the morning and Pudgy and I would grab the bundled papers off the delivery truck. We'd haul 'em over from the curb to the store and open up the padlocks and steel, accordion style gates, on one side and pile the wire bound stacks of papers just behind the gates. We’d lock 'em up for the night, to be worked on once the store opened up in the morning. This was my niche for a while and eventually (within a month or so) I was hired to work some regular hours after school and on weekends.
Louie’s Candy Store was literally a “Mom & Pop” operation. Louie usually wore an apron and a cabbie -style, herringbone, snap cap, also known as a hooligan cap, when he was working in the store. His wife also worked there on a regular basis. The place was a classic Brooklyn Candy Store. It had those tannish, maybe 1-inch octagonal tiles that made up the flooring, the classic soda-fountain amenities behind the counter, about a dozen swiveling, padded stools and newspaper and magazine racks like you’d see in a 1940’s James Cagney gangster flick. Pretzel sticks in a see-through, plastic canister and chocolate covered jelly-rings in a flip-top box with a cellophane "window" in the top of the box...all out on the serving counter.
Being located right above the F-train meant that there was a regular flow of customers. You could “feel” the trains coming in and leaving Church Avenue Station right through the floor of the store. After the rumble, a few minutes would go by and in would come customers fresh off the train.
If it was morning, you’d say, “Have a great day at work or don’t work too hard or see ‘ya later…” and if it was late afternoon or early evening, you’d say, “How was work today or have a nice evening or see you in the morning.” It was like clockwork. You’d get to know who was coming in and when, and you’d even figure out after a while what each customer was going to buy. “Pack of Camels, Pall Malls and a News or a Post.” “Cherry Coke or Egg Cream or Lime Ricky…” “Bialy or Bagel or Buttered Roll…”
Sometimes folks on the way to the station in the morning would glance south up McDonald Avenue, toward Ditmas Avenue, where the Manhattan bound F-Train left the elevated tracks and burrowed down under Avenue C, heading for the Church Avenue Station. If that happened, the alarm would go out, "The trains coming! " someone would scream. Louie's would empty out in a flash and some folks who were headed in for a paper or a roll would do an about face and run for the steps leading down to the platform. Pretty funny when that happened!
Picture all those people running down the steps, like some sort of football team at training camp; quick, little short steps, newspapers folded under one arm like footballs being carried by some pro-bowl half back for the NY Football Giants.
Yeah, Ron Johnson, number 30 could have handled those steps just fine! (With a little practice of course) You see, the guys and gals on the "F-train team" practiced all year long, day in and day out and just like football practice; they did it in all kinds of weather too.
My dad Anthony was one of those quick footed too, a subway-step running back. He was an All- Pro. Pop could not only do the quick step down the stairs with a newspaper under one arm, but he could even reach in his pocket for a token at the same time with his other hand! That meant there was no holding onto the handrails! That's a double move and All-star material any day of the week!
Louie’s was a regular stop for dad and dad would always kid with me when he came in after work, home from a day working the printing presses at Van Reese Press on West 26th Street in Manhattan and a 20 cents ride on the F train.
My dad would almost always ask Louie if I was doing a good job. Louie and his wife spoke with thick, middle-European accents and sometimes I found it hard to understand them. Sometimes they even spoke this unfamiliar language to each other or even to the odd customer on occasion. I noted that the only time they didn't speak English was when they were pissed about something. I guess they didn't want us to know what they were upset about.
I found out later that they were speaking Yiddish. I had no clue! Louie would answer my dad and say something like, “He’s a good boy, your son and he works very hard…” Sometimes Louie would even refuse to take my dad’s money. When dad left the store, Louie would say something nice about him, about how hard he worked and reminded me to be a good son and respectful of my parents.
Ok, confession time. Before I started working at Louie's, every once in a while after an Albemarle Road stickball game, I'd go in there and lift (yeah, steal) an ice pop out of the freezer. I only did it a few times and I don't know why I did it, but I did. Maybe it was the rush or maybe I just really wanted an ice pop and I didn't have enough money to pay for it. I always felt bad about doing it those few times I did. Anyway, that's what Confession was for and in those days, being a good Catholic School boy, I went regularly.
Once I started working there, I never took anything again. I never had to since Louie would always say,
"Charlie, why don't you make yourself a nice sandwich or something? Go ahead, take...have something to eat! A nice cream soda, maybe?"
It was always a nice something or other. I figured it was just a language thing. Of course, I would only consider a nice sandwich as opposed to a crappy sandwich. I always felt the use of "nice" was a bit redundant.
One afternoon, Louie rolled up his sleeves to wash some plates. I noticed that he had some sort of a tattoo on his arm, down near his wrist. I wasn't sure what it was so I waited a couple of days to ask him, the next time it was exposed.
"Louie, what happened to your arm?" I asked timidly.
Louie looked up at me and kept working. He never answered me. A couple of days later, when the store was quiet and we were alone, he rolled up his sleeve again and called me over. He explained to me that it was some kind of a serial number and that he had survived a Nazi concentration camp. I knew about World War II and about Jews being killed, but to me it was just like the War of 1812 or something else I had read in a history book or had heard on TV in passing. I didn't really have any insight about that kind of thing at that point in my life.
I will never forget that little man and the education I got that day and during the time I worked there. From what I learned about the Holocaust over the years and the nearly unbelievable inhumanity of it all, Louie's explanation of his very personal, family ordeal was kind for my sake. I distinctly recall the quietness in his voice and the tears in his eyes.
He explained to me how coming to America was so important to him. How we lived in the greatest country in the world and that no person should ever take freedom for granted. That it is one of the few things worth dying for and that many, many people had done just that.
I've never forgotten Louie's face, the sound of his accented voice and most of all; I have always remembered his words, his work ethic and his kindness.
PS: Before I left working at the store, I "found" about $2.50 on the floor when I was cleaning up. It's about what the stolen ice-pops were worth in those days. I put the cash in the register and thought many years later, that working at Louie's was probably one of the most inexpensive and thorough educations I ever got.