For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

The Burger Rail Diner: A Brooklyn Lesson

by Ken Thompson


imme a medium cheeseburger on rye, no lettuce; … oh yeah, an' a large vanilla Coke."

"Ju wan' fries o' anytink?"

"Nah, just the burger. Put a slice of tomato on it, okay? … Thanks."

I liked The Burger Rail.

All summer I was stopping there on my way home from summer school; an obligation having nothing to do with advanced placement classes. The Church Avenue IND station was right there and The Burger Rail was convenient. The food was good, the place clean, and there were never any problems.

Church and McDonald was a busy intersection in the late fifties, actually for as long as I could remember. There were always people coming and going, traffic and street noises. It was a subway express stop, busses crisscrossed and there was a waiting station for taxis. There were a lot of businesses there too: The Greater New York Savings Bank, Ebinger's, the Beverly movies with the Ace Pool Room above it, barbers, dry cleaners, the Post Office, Silver Rod drug store, Denny's Bar, John's Pub, Gorelick's, a hardware store, men's clothing and a lot of other small businesses. Each of the four corners had an entrance to the subway and a candy store selling papers. This was a rich neighborhood in a lot of ways.

I looked around while waiting for my burger. It was just like any ordinary weekday around noon. Most of the booths and tables were occupied and the two waitresses were kept busy. There was a constant buzz of conversations along with sounds of pans, plates, silverware, a sizzling grill, and chatter between the waitresses and the cook. A few stools at the counter were available. Most people left an empty stool between them and the next person showing they didn't want to talk. It also gave them room to spread out a newspaper, usually the News. Today, as most days, there was no one on either side of me and that was just fine.

I don't know who actually owned the restaurant but a bunch of "Mafia"-type, seemingly connected guys, hung out there. My Dad said they were part of the Gallo family and that it wasn't a good place to hang around even if the food was good. Another of his cautions was that even small decisions, such as where you go for lunch, can wind up with major impacts so always think about what's going on and make good decisions. I guess I was a little wary, but not afraid, of The Burger Rail and its clientele. Anyway, who listened to Dads?

"Da guys" took up three booths in the rear of the diner and they all seemed to manage to sit facing the front door. Their conversations were low-toned, animated, and often seemed to involve some humor. While they were all pretty serious looking, they weren't loud or bothersome; they just drank a lot of coffee. The in-charge guys seemed to be Paulie, Sal and Sonny. They always caused attention and a little excitement when they ordered-in food from Scarola's Italian Restaurant. No one ever commented or complained that I know of.

My friend, Frankie, would usually meet me at The Burger Rail for lunch. We would sit around retelling stories of non-existent conquests and of "what we would do if…" until he had to go to work at a bread factory down by the Bush Terminal. Frankie wasn't connected or a "wanna-be" but he seemed to look the part, Italian features, greased hair, muscles, and jeans. He was a real nice guy and never got into trouble. He was fun and a good friend… plus he had access to his Dad's immaculately maintained and super polished, low-slung Buick.

The car was an absolutely beautiful '56 Buick Special: two-toned blue, two-door, hard-top, slightly lowered, great hub-caps with spinners, big whitewalls, AM radio, and chromed out. Frankie was allowed to do small "customizations" on it such as that minor pin-striping, add-on chrome items, and blue lights in the front wheel wells, under the dash, and in the grill area. It wasn't overdone. All we had to do was fill it up with gas at 23 cents a gallon to make it go.

Trips down Ocean Parkway, along 86th Street, over on 5th Avenue down Flatbush Avenue, and home along Cortelyou Road were part of a ritual that made us feel cool but netted no chicks. The highlight was either the "best in the world Sicilian Pizza" at Spumoni Gardens or an obligatory drive-through and greased food at the 1950's icon, Mitchell's Drive-In, where we got stares, "oohs and aahs", and an occasional challenge to demonstrate what was under the hood along 7th Avenue or Cropsey. These were always declined.

One day as Frankie and I were dallying over sodas at The Burger Rail, one of "da guys", Sal, came over and asked Frankie to do him a favor. As it turned out, George, the afternoon cook, a big fellow who was supposedly being managed to be a "prize fighter", hadn't shown up for his shift and his phone seemed to be off the hook. Sal wanted Frankie to take the black Caddy to go get him back to The Burger Rail for work.

Frankie, lacking other pressing matters, being somewhat adventuresome, and having no fear ‘cause no one would mess with someone driving an obviously connected vehicle such as the big shiny black Caddy, agreed and asked, "Can I take Kenny along for the ride?" Sal shrugged and said "Sure." Frankie got the address, I grabbed my books, and off we went.

As soon as we got out of range of The Burger Rail, Frankie turned up the volume for WABC. We cruised along, air conditioning on and the windows open. We were in charge and we had the world by its attention getters. All was absolutely well with 1959's summer in Brooklyn.

George lived in an apartment near Tompkins Park and the area was VERY tough, particularly compared to Church and McDonald. As we pulled up and parked, I definitely knew I didn't want to be there. When we got out, there were a lot of non-smiling faces peering out of windows and doorways. The kids playing Skelly on the sidewalk stopped their game and stared as did the kids carving their initials in the warm tar with their penknives. Looking at the two of us, the locals knew we weren't doctors making house calls and that we weren't local boys who had made good.

I started a quick discussion with Frankie.

"You go get 'im; I'll stay with the car."

"No, I'll stay with the car; I'm the driver."

"Okay, let's go back to The Burger Rail now and you can explain to Sal why YOU didn't get George. Drop me off at Ocean Parkway first."

This was definitely a message that Frankie didn't want to have to deliver.

"Fine, but you better not let anything happen to the car. They'll kill us."

Frankie put on a very serious, tough guy look and headed to the doorway and asked, no one in particular, "Whattaya lookin' at?"

At the apartment Frankie rang the bell and, getting no response, banged on the door with his fist about ten times. When George finally opened the door, he was naked except for a pair of boxers - how appropriate - and had a 12-inch chef's knife in his fist. With a scowl and psycho look he shouted, "WHA'DA ‘ELL YUWAN?"

Frankie, attempting to speak as if with power, facing a 6'5" tower of defined muscle, holding a very BIG knife, told him, "Sal from The Burger Rail sent me to pick you up for work." Quickly, George's mind started to clear. He blinked hard, focused his eyes and asked what time it was. Frankie told him and reality set in for George. His stance and voice toned down, he blinked two more times further clearing his head, and said, "Gimme ten." and slammed the door shut.

When Frankie came down he told me how menacing George looked and that he almost peed in his pants when he saw the knife.

Looking around, we both hoped George was going to be quick. The crowd of peering eyes had gotten larger. Not threatening, just larger. We quickly talked about whether we should sit in the car or stand outside to protect it. Even though the Caddy had air conditioning and the afternoon was pretty hot and very still, we decided to stand outside and guard it rather than face the wrath of Sal and "da guys".

The next issue was where George would sit when he came down. I said I didn't care but Frankie said that we shouldn't look like chauffeurs and that the three of us should sit in the front with me in the middle. It was agreed.

As George came out the doorway he went right to the back door, got in, and again slammed a door shut. It was re-agreed that Frankie and I would sit in the front.

The drive back to The Burger Rail was very different… the music was off, the Dodger pre-game was on low, and the windows rolled up. There was no real small talk and the trip seemed to break the rule that return trips always seem shorter.

George just stared out the side window. He spoke only once and asked, "Was Sal mad?" Frankie and I said "Nah" together, glancing at each other. In my head, I'm saying, "Nah. Sal loves the opportunity to send two kids in his Caddy to fetch his Brooklyn "prize-fighter" who can't seem to tell time. He'll probably give you a bonus for this. "Da guys" don't ever forget. Think who you work for you big jerk, OF COURSE HE'S MAD!"

Back at the diner we double-parked as "da guys" always did. George got out, said nothing and quick-stepped in and took his place by the grill. He never looked over at Sal. Raul, the cook he was relieving, said something that I couldn't make out, probably having to do with the fins on a Caddy. George just kept his head down, put on his apron, and turned his attention to the grill.

Frankie gave back the Caddy keys and Sal asked if there were any problems. Frankie tried to look as cool as he possibly could and said, "Nah, everything's okay." There was definitely a small hint of nervousness. Sal offered us another burger but we declined. He then passed Frankie a crisp twenty saying "Good work, here's for gettin' George."

As he was talking to us, Paulie came over and whispered something in Sal's ear. He nodded and leaned toward Frankie, cast glances left and right, and in a hushed voice said, "Hey, I got another favor, how about driving some special boxes down to President Street? You can make a couple more bucks."

The look in Sal's eyes seemed to have changed and I sensed we were just about being given an order. My Dad's cautions and comments flashed through my mind and all of a sudden I felt way beyond wary. I knew what was on President Street. I didn't know what Frankie was going to say so I blurted out; "Hey, nah, we gotta get to work, were probably late already. Frankie's gonna drive me over to the laundry on Cortelyou. Hey, we'll see ya tomorrow."

I didn't wait for a reply. I started to quickly back out of the diner and tugged hard on Frankie's shirt to join me, which he did, if somewhat reluctantly. Sal just looked at us quizzically and said "Hey, wait a minute, let's talk…" Paulie just stepped forward us and simply stated "Hey, get back here." but I was definitely exiting. I had made a decision; I didn't want to take this conversation and situation any further.

When we got outside, I told Frankie, "Keep walking. I don't wanna have to do that again. This isn't good; we're absolutely in the wrong place."

"Hey, he gave me twenty bucks. Not hard work for twenty bucks."

"I don't care… I don't wanna end up dead any time soon. Who knows what the next "favor" he'll ask?"

"Nothin's gonna happen. He's a nice guy."

I just looked over at Frankie and gave him the look that says "Yeah, right, and pigs fly."

We kept walking, picking up the pace somewhat, and not looking back.

"Hey Frankie, what's black and blue and floats in the Gowanus Canal?" Without waiting for a reply, I continued, "People who piss off `da guys'." We both chuckled cautiously. Frankie knew exactly what I meant.

I finally looked back over my shoulder and to my relief, no one was behind us. We continued on to his Buick.

The George trip and the day were a learning opportunity, a Brooklyn lesson. In hindsight, it was one of those things that just as easily could have gone the other way and taken me down an entirely different path of life. It was a key decision point in my life and my Dad was right.

What wonderful opportunities in Brooklyn. This time I learned without pain.

The Burger Rail was out; Burgerama was in!

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