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Jewish World Review
Oct. 17, 2008
/ 18 Tishrei 5769
Growing Up, Part III
Working in my uncle's restaurant as a young teenager enabled me to come into contact with people I never even knew existed outside of fiction. The small time hoods, the shoplifters, the con men, the bookies, and other assorted colorful characters gave me a perspective on the human condition that I never would have known otherwise. But it wasn't only the "bad guys" that hung around the place - wherever you have crooks, you have cops. And that was certainly the case with Crosby's Bar-B-Que & Pizza.
The LAPD knew my uncle and liked him a lot too. So much so, that they sort of protected the restaurant. Uncle Donald knew the importance of taking care of the cops, which is why he let them eat at reduced prices or sometimes for free. He looked at it as the price of insurance, realizing that if the police liked him, they'd kind of keep watch over the place - you know, drive by a bit more often when the place was closed and make sure everything was okay. It never hurts in the restaurant business to have the police on your side - especially in a high crime area like East Hollywood.
I came to know a few of the officers that frequented the restaurant. Nice guys mostly, they were nothing like the some of the other hang-arounders that could have easily been rejects from old Damon Runyon movies.
One guy who hung around was not exactly a favorite of my dad's. Matter of fact, he hated him. The man's name was Ivan (I think). He worked as a bouncer in a card club over in Gardenia, when he got off work he drove over to my uncle's to hang out. He was not a young man but he was big, tall and broad, very imposing. He had zero personality and no social graces whatsoever. As my dad would say, "He was a big slob." He mostly just stood around the front leaning on the counter reading the Racing Form and eating pie or anything else he could pilfer. My uncle seemed to like the guy, why I'll never know. I had little to do with him.
Then there was Jerry, a funny-looking redheaded restaurant supply salesman who once was a professional drummer with a band. His music gigs were far and few between, which is why his day job was supplying restaurants with napkins, matches, food to-go containers, etc. But his love was the drums. At one point he even gave my brother some drumming lessons using a practice pad and two drumsticks. Gary was a Bulgarian immigrant who went into the retread/recapped tire business. He and his pals would hog a large booth, order nothing but coffee, and just sit there drinking free refills for hours and smoking. It drove my father nuts that my uncle wouldn't say anything to them, but he never did. One day Gary liked what he saw when he saw Uncle Donald's daughter, Bonnie Lou - so he married her. Funny, huh? You just never know how things will turn out.
Unfortunately I never saved a menu from the place, but I can still remember the food. To start there was a complete line up of pizzas from small to extra large, with ingredients like fresh sausage, mushrooms, pepperoni, green peppers, and meatballs. If you feel really hungry you could order The Big Dago - that would be a combination with everything on it.
The menu had barbeque sandwiches (pork, beef or ham), terrific spareribs, barbeque chicken, spaghetti, all served with the best cheese bread you ever ate! Great side orders - your choice of coleslaw or salad and your choice of baked beans or fries. For dessert save room for the homemade individual pies - coconut cream, chocolate cream, lemon, cherry, or apple.
My first job at the restaurant was delivering food. I was 16 and had my first car, a 1949 Chevy, I think. I'm not sure of the year. It was two-tone green, four-door, and had a stick shift. I loved that car. My dad paid about 50 bucks for it but to me it was worth a million. I'd drag the aluminum hot box out to the car and put in the back seat. Then I'd fill it with the orders and off I'd go. The inside of my car smelled like pizza, ribs, and garlic cheese bread. It was like the best perfume to me, if I close my eyes, I can still smell the smells. Wonderful!
Food delivery turned out to be a good first job for me since it taught me, among other things, how to properly handle money, i.e. making change. In those medieval days before computers, if you dealt with money it was necessary to know how to count the change back correctly to the customer from say a twenty or ten dollar bill. This is something that nobody does anymore anywhere, and I doubt that any store clerk under the age of sixty even knows how to do it today.
Eventually I worked at a variety of jobs in the restaurant including short order cooking, making pizzas, hosting and seating, and taking cash at the front register. I was young, the world was all new, and I had a ball. My first real kiss was from a girl I delivered a pizza to and my first real love affair was with another girl I delivered food to. That didn't go on too long but it sure was nice while it lasted. Remind me to tell you about it sometime - it's a story all by itself.
Yessir, interesting days. For me it was an order of coming of age with a medium pizza and a side of cheese bread.
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.
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