Littlest Penn

It was an early taste I acquired, my own version of a Shirley Temple: Grenadine and milk.

Cherry sweet and pink, with my own swizzle stick, it was my drink of choice at Little Penn Tavern.

My age at the time is an uncertainty, but I'm guessing I was probably 8. I mean, who could imagine a 6-year-old or a 7-year-old child seated on a red barstool, taking in the ambiance of the Knickerbocker and Budweiser logos, and a complete lineup of all those bottles up against the mirror behind that long wooden bar?

But 8 is a good guess for when it began. And yes, I remember hanging out at times behind the bar, on the wooden slats behind the massive wooden divider whose height kept me from seeing the rest of the tavern, where customers might have been seated, if any had indeed been seated. Which they wouldn't have, of course, because I was discouraged from going back behind the bar when customers were around.

In the early mornings, though, as the bar owner's son, this space -- with its ancient, dank aroma and its dark feel -- seemed like a magical, if somewhat sordid fantasyland for me. It was a place that my father went off to early each morning on the Long Island Railroad, before I awoke.

Visiting it for myself at vacation time gave a slight window on what it was like for this mysterious, quiet man who caught the train at Merillon Avenue in Garden City, near Adelphi, and traveled to Penn Station. There, at the Statler Hilton across W. 32 St was Penn Tavern. And directly across Seventh Avenue from the Statler, and the entrance to the old Penn Station, was the bar and grill that I believe my grandfather had purchased for my father when he returned from serving as an X-ray technician in World War II. The Depression, it seems, had closed out the option of medicine as a career.

My father owned and managed the Little Penn, where two other bartenders, Lenny and Tommy, worked later shifts and where a likeable, smiling Mexican-American cook named Frank was a fixture, preparing lunch and, I suppose, dinner for a clientele that I assume consisted largely of commuter regulars.

(Frank always seemed delighted that I appreciated his ravioli, which I'm now guessing came out of a can but was unlike anything I was served at home.)

After wiping down the wooden (was it mahogany?) bar, as I sat at one of the small tables reading my Classics Illustrated Junior and assorted other comics, my father would head downstairs to his crypt-like office to pay bills and do ordering, while I moseyed around looking for what I was certain to be a mouse somewhere. Though, fortunately, for me and for my father, no mouse turned up.

I'm still amazed by the reality of having been able to walk safely -- or so I imagined -- down the street in midtown Manhattan as a young boy, heading a couple of blocks away to the Empire State Building (although I certainly wasn't going to pay to take the elevator up to the observation deck to look out on the skyline or to check whether Kind Kong had left any droppings behind. Going for lunch at the nearby Automat, where I could watch my little macaroni and cheese and my pie being set out behind little glass doors, was enough of an urban thrill for me.

Next door to the Little Penn, curiously, was the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and an array of small busnesses. But the grandeur of the neighborhood was across the street, the grand Statler Hilton hotel, home of the Penn Tavern, the namesake of my father's business. And down the block (though we approached it through an intricate underground concourse through the hotel, above which its legendary HOTEL PENNSYLVANIA name was carved in granite) the even more imposing Penn Station bustled the center of gravityfor everything that seemed to go on here.

This was, mind you, in the days before Madison Square Garden was moved to the Penn Station site from its former Eighth Avenue location between 49th and 50th streets. The Classical station was a part of Gotham's 19th Century urban architecture and before all of the spectacle and hoopla of The Garden, which I believe had an effect on who showed up, or didn't, at the Little Penn.

Even more important, as far as this kid was concerned, was what beckoned down the block in the other direction and across W. 33rd Street, where Gimbel's did business. Gimbel's itself was an attraction, especially for any kid who liked visiting toy departments during Christmas vacation. But by walking through the store, you could come out on W. 34 St ., where the department store's nemesis, R.H. Macy, had an even more impressive toy department, as well as anything else you could imagine. And down the block was a giant (by my standards at the time) F.W. Woolworth.

During these vacation days, my kid-sized sightseeing usually involved a trip to see Santa Claus -- at least until that grew too boring. But one attraction I never grew tired of was searching for additions to Plasticville, the Lilliputian suburbia that sprawled out on a giant table, Long Island-like, as an accompaniment to my Lionel train set at home. Invariably, I'd find some plastic model that my little basement village back home lacked and was crying out to me for location, location, location back home.

It would still be a few years, in junior high, before I'd begin taking day trips into the city. by bus and subway to visit Radio City or the Cinerama Theater, the UN or other favorite haunts. And it would be a few more years before I'd begin walking around the city at night -- sometimes all the way from East Village to Lincoln Center -- or driving into Manhattan for dates, something that seems incredible to me now.

Back at the Little Penn, where my father was likely pouring a drink for a customer with whom he might be engaging in way more conversation than he ever shared at home or take part in for our commute on that afternoon's LIRR return trip, I'd show up with my miniature hardware store or Cape Cod bungalow in a brown paper bag, eager for the moment when I could get it home and assemble it.

My father (right) didn't often
take part in promotions like
this shot of Johnny Walker.

I honestly can't recall what transpired after we entered massive Penn Station and descended down the stairway to our train, or what went through my head as the train rumbled its way toward home, the wheels rolling along the clickety-clack of the tracks like the conductor's percussive recitation of stations of stops: Massapequa, Massapequa Park, Ronkonkama ......

But I know my father and I shared little conversation, and my mind was probably set on how Plasticville would be slightly reconfigured when I got down to our basement, where the walls were adorned with barman's promotional paraphernalia: a Budweiser clock, a Schlitz lamp, a portrait of Miss Rheingold that some people mistook as being a likeness of ... my mother??

You might think, from looking over such a display of kitsch, that my father was a big drinker. Or that, my time spent behind the bar at such an early age turned me into a bit of a souse myself. You'd be dead wrong, since I can't recall anyone in my family ever having much of a hankering for anything other than an occasional glass of wine.

Maybe I was done in at an early age by all that Grenadine and milk.


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