There are memories that we carry with us for a lifetime and over the years, some are bleary and distorted over time, but those that we cherish the most are part of our hearts, our very soul and will be with us always with each breath we take,. They are part of the fiber of our being and if we are fortunate enough to share them with someone dear to us, they are memories all the more enduring and endearing.
Today I visited with an old friend: Mike the Barber, now of Teaneck, late of Pat and Mike’s Barber Shop at the long-gone and renowned Packard & Bambergers in Hackensack, N.J.
Mike’s been my barber for 50 years (since I was 10 and he was just starting out, at 24, in Jersey from his roots in Hell’s Kitchen. He’s also been a dear friend and confidant for 40 years because of his nature and irrepressible self. I’m convinced he’s the fellow that Billy Crystal based his SNL skit and character on, the lovable and at times goofy Jersey guy who knows no social bounds: “Hey, you from Jersey? Yeah, no kiddin’, I’m from Jersey! What exit off the Turnpike?”
At Mike’s Barber Shop (The sign atop the shop reads Mick’s because a sign painter pal of his goofed on the lettering and Mike didn’t have the heart to tell him it was a glaring error), when one went for a hair cut, it was a a multi-faceted experience. The problems of the world could be resolved in short order due to opinions expressed by Mike holding court and the multitude of patrons, all of whom were characters in their own right. As a writer, I would often drop in, find a seat and just listen, taking it all in and finding a wealth of inspiration, never once being disappointed. I once profiled him for a piece in the Sunday New York Times. It’s framed and still on his wall as you enter the shop, a bit yellowed with age, and headlined: “Jersey Barber a Cut Above.” The accompanying photograph that day was taken by Dith Pran, God rest his dear soul, of “The Killing Fields” fame. When I mentioned this to Mike, he was mildly impressed.
“I’m a hard act to follow,” he said. “So who’s he going to shoot next, the Pope?”
I learned that last month, Mike lost his wife Joyce. They’d been married for 50 years. They had their ups and downs, he would always say, but she put up with his antics and they loved each other without question. Their devotion set an example for family and friends. I knew Joyce had been ill for quite some time and for the last eight and a half months, she’d been hospitalized and in critical care. Still, between grueling days and long hours at his shop, Mike was always there at her bedside each and every night of her stay, holding her hand in his. Multiple organ failure claimed her finally and brought her peace.
“She was 16 and I was 20 when we met in the old neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen,” he said. “But she was a smart and wise 16, not some dumb kid, and I knew from the moment we met that she was a keeper.” He took in a breath and welled up with tears, but caught himself, looking off into the distance to capture better days, a pleasant memory, a note of laughter between them and a loving moment.
“All that time in the hospital, all the suffering she went through, she always wanted to come home.” said Mike, his eyes looking back and within. “We had her cremated, and I brought her home.”
My wife and I just got back from a lovely few days in Newport, R.I. The weather was a mix of pleasant sunshine and an early chill of light rain, but we experienced the seaport and town in all of its charm. We didn’t want to come back. From stunning sunsets to placid waters circled by boisterous gulls, we took it all in and savored each moment like young lovers once again. At the Hotel Viking, built in 1926, along the Cliff Walk and taking in the historic summer mansions of the wealthy, we channeled Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and wandered the avenues and back alleys, arm in arm and lost in the moment. It made for new memories and rekindled a few others.
On a stroll down Thames Street I stopped in mid-step as we explored shops along the thoroughfare and adjacent wharves. In the air was the savory scent of something I had not experienced since my childhood: The perfect pizza.
Turning 12, I would spend part of my summer each year at my aunt’s house in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The neighborhood there off Bay Ridge Parkway and 67th Street was all old-time Italian and the shops were a mix of exquisite bakeries, a pork store with hand-made sausage to die for, the corner candy store where chocolate or vanilla egg creams were a priority and what seemed like two or three pizzerias abounded per block. Know that Brooklyn-based pizza is the best in the world, born of a mix of New York City tap water that went into the dough, homemade sauce from San Marino plum tomatoes in a recipe immigrants brought from the old country and closely guarded. The fragrance wafted from each shop and all had their own take on a rich, red sauce, topped by homemade and shredded mozzarella and caressed by flakes of dried oregano and fresh basil.
Here I was, 250 miles outside Brooklyn and more than four decades away from the savory memory. In a dingy little spot on Thames, the same beloved scent brought me to a stop.
We were running late and due in town near our hotel for dinner, but I vowed to my wife that before we left for town, I needed to return and experience a slice so lovingly linked to my youth.
On the day we left, I did just that, stopping off in the midst of a chilly, rain-swept afternoon to revisit a memory.
There are some memories that should remain memories.
The pizzeria was nothing more than a small, reconverted hardware store. The staff, nothing more than wispy teens bearing intricate tattoos. It was pizza by the slice, all right, but with gourmet toppings and prices to match on a grilled-type crust more along the lines of Texas Toast. All I wanted, I explained to the young lady behind the counter bearing a nose and lip ring, was a plain slice fresh from the oven. She pointed to a slab of thick, squared-off Sicilian style pie that had been sitting there for some time. The savory scent of sauce was was too much for me to deny and I pointed to a square with more sauce than cheese. She hacked off a less than generous square, dropped it into a pizza oven behind her for all of 20 seconds, lifted it onto a paper plate and handed it off to me with a smile. The flash back to my past cost me five dollars. We found counter seats (Cheryl passed on a slice in favor of a real meal later but lovingly indulged me). As I bit into the square, it was not hot and bubbly, only cold. I returned to the counter and asked that it be reheated for a minute, perhaps two. The young lady, too, indulged me. Now hot, the sauce flooded me with precious memories, but I had to close my eyes to recall the atmosphere of wobbly tables covered in a red and white checkered cloth, of plaster cast and colorful jugs of wine entwined with grapes that decorated the walls and of the young, affable pizza chefs of my youth, wearing sleeveless T-shirts (We called them Guinea Tees) and sauce- stained aprons dusted in flour. Of laughing and loving relatives now long dead that took me there and held my hand as a child and whispered to me in Sicilian that life is good and family will forever be.
The price of a Newport slice in the rain was indeed priceless, all to recapture a part of my youth. And to appreciate all the more the present and all that I hold dear.
I savor those memories now more than ever.