My first job was at the Phoenix Luncheonette. Before school and on Saturdays I would get to work by 4:30 AM. Weekdays at 7:45 I would run across the park to the small Catholic High School and start another day in the world of adolescent academia. The Phoenix was located in one of the seedier parts of town; arguably not the seediest, but literally three streets up from there. Suffice it to say that at that hour of the morning, no one was stopping a fifteen year old from serving up whiskey or port to the closing crowd from the bar down the street.
The Phoenix was the epitome of every small vintage diner from coast to coast. Like its namesake, its pink and yellow neon sign rose from the ashes of our tired, industrial, mill town. There was a jukebox in every red leatherette covered booth and the counter was crammed with regulars from opening to closing. Coffee, eggs any style and any member of the nitrate laden meat family, were served for breakfast; burgers, sandwiches and a daily variety of home-style specials for lunch and dinner. Day or night, open or closed, grease permeated the air and deposited a thin layer of particles on my glasses before I left for school. The Phoenix still had ice cream sodas made with two scoops of any flavor and seltzer topped with one more scoop and a cherry. Old fashioned milk shake machines and the time-honored soda jerk fountain were the domain of whoever worked the counter. Even the staff were vintage diner with names like Harry, Lil and Blanche; all of whom had worked there for twenty or more years.
Harry was the proud owner and short order cook of the Phoenix Luncheonette. To look at him you would think this is what Dickens saw when he created Ebenezer Scrooge. “…The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue. A frosty rime was on his head and on his eyebrows…” That was Harry! He wore a white dress shirt with a black tie and pants, covered with a white grease stained apron. He stood at least 6’2″and moved with all the arthritic looking grace and aplomb of Frankenstein’s monster. He was a bit of a tightwad but not of the Scrooge caliber. He was stern but he was kind, and while he had a don’t-mess- with-me demeanor, I never heard him raise his voice. I would venture to say he was fairly unflappable. Harry used his words sparingly. When he did say something it was worth listening because it was most likely going to be thought provoking. He was an intelligent man, who respected that quality in other people. He had a bit of the frustrated scientist about him in that he was always planning some little experiment to improve life around the diner.
It had been freezing rain all day Saturday but that didn’t stop the regular crowd. The city was shutting down around us but not the Phoenix because Mrs. Martinelli would be in at 5PM for a hot dog (“Make it good and black, Harry”) on a toasted bun with relish, onions, cheese and ketchup. This would be her second one of the day as she would have already come and gone by 5AM for her breakfast pup. Mrs. Martinelli was the elderly owner of the high end restaurant on the top of the mountain as you left our town for better regions, but she still knew where to get a good hot dog. By 6:30PM it was time to start the cleanup and head for home. Harry had offered Lil and I a ride and went to warm up the car he had parked out back earlier that day.
After a day of subzero temperatures in freezing rain there had to be a half inch of ice covering the car windows. Harry went outside and began chipping away with little success. Every day he would say “I’m gonna invent a remote control that lets you stay inside and just turn on your car to get it warm before you have to go out there in the deep freeze.” Truly, he was ahead of his time. What made it all the more shocking the one and only time I heard Harry laugh out loud, was because it was at a rare moment of his own stupidity. He had been outside making little headway on the car. Not visibly frustrated, he came inside and put a small pot of water on the stove top. When it was at a full rolling boil he removed it and proceeded to the back door. I heard the alarm in Lil’s voice saying, “Harry? Harry, where are you going with the pot? Harry?” She must have sensed something I didn’t, because she ran after him warning, “You know you can’t do that right? Harry, right?” I ran behind them both, wondering what could possibly be going on. I’m not sure what was louder, Lil’s scream, Harry’s laughter at this colossal mistake or the gunshot blast of the windshield imploding on to the front seat of his Buick when all that hot water contacted the frozen glass under the cracks Harry had made in the ice…