Time Capsule: Manhattan Memories

By Sid Caesar Premium

My father, Max, came to this country from Poland when he was 9 years old, in the late 1880s. Max grew up on Broome Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, back when they still had sailboats arriving in New York harbor. Although he was only 5 feet 7 inches and heavyset, Max exuded authority and was a tough, powerful and stern man. Max was a product of the American immigrant ethic of working hard to get ahead. He was also pan of a generation of stoic men who didn’t express their feelings openly.

My father was ambitious and industrious. During his youth he held down many eclectic jobs, including being a Sbabbos Goy, which literally meant “Sabbath Gentile.” For a penny, he would turn on lights and stoves for more observant Jews who did not perform such activities on the Sabbath.

He later came up with another lucrative endeavor. For 50 cents a day, he would take your new pair of shoes and walk around in them for you, breaking them in. His big feet would stretch the tough leather, and in two days the shoes were comfortable.

My father eventually gave up leather and lights for the food business. He and his older brother Joe opened a luncheonette in Manhattan that they would own and operate for a number of years. He later looked for a place in the up-and-coming town of Yonkers and opened the St. Claire Buffet and Luncheonette on the corner of Riverdale and Main streets. It catered to workers from the Otis Elevator Company (which alone took up more than 15 square blocks of space), the phone company, the sugar company and the local carpet and hat factories. There were a lot of mouths that needed to be fed.

The restaurant also had 75 rooms for rent upstairs. Rooms without windows cost 50 cents a night. Rooms with windows and a fire escape cost 75 cents. The fire escape was a rope tied to the radiator.

My mother, Ida, was a tall and beautiful woman who came to the United States from Russia when she was a year old. She doted on me. I remember her strong body and her dark bobbed hair. She would sing to me in Yiddish and feed me oatmeal.

The restaurant was a 24-hour-a-day operation, and it took my entire family to run it. My brother Abe worked as the counterman from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. My brother Dave took over for him from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. My mother worked as cashier during lunch. When my mother was gone, Dave was in charge of watching me.

To undercut the competition, my father would get up at 3 o’clock every morning and drive all the way to the produce market in downtown Manhattan in order to get there before it opened at four. By 5: 45, he was back in Yonkers with a truckload of vegetables in time to serve breakfast to the factory workers. He would often fortify himself against the early morning cold by drinking a tumbler of whiskey laced with spoons of black pepper. Let Starbucks try and match that.

From the April 2004 Family Tree Magazine. Excerpted from the book Caeser’s Hours by Sid Caesar with Eddy Friedfield. Copyright 2003. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.