Written by Carla Rose Fisher Thursday, 13 January 2011 20:26
IN DOWNTOWN: Last summer, two former Harrison residents visited Butler Bros. Market Place, 295 Halstead Ave., for some food and nostalgia. Co-owner Brian Butler recently put me in touch with John Burke, who has lived in Illinois for the past 40 years, and his younger sister, Regina Vassak, a resident of Brewster, who were happy to share memories stirred up from their daylong trip to Harrison.
SHOP TALK: When and where did you live in Harrison?
JOHN: From 1943 to 1949. Our parents were Irish immigrants and decided New York City was no place to raise a family, so we moved to “the country” in Harrison, in a small apartment above Brachfeld’s Liquor Store, now Butler Bros.
REGINA: And Brian was very gracious and let us look around the store and the yard and share our neighborhood memories.
SHOP TALK: You must’ve captivated him with your stories. Give us a colorful one to start.
JOHN: There was a taxi office on one side of Brachfeld’s and an empty lot with a billboard on the other (at the corner of Halstead Avenue and Purdy Street). I used to climb to the top of the billboard to watch the world go by. One day, the coolest thing occurred: A big flatbed truck delivered a diner — Cappy’s Diner — and installed it in the empty lot. It was all chrome and neon, and looked like a fancy overgrown railcar. Cappy’s was a modest place where workingmen and women could grab a quick cup of coffee in the morning or a sandwich at lunch. I understand it‘s a trattoria now. Cappy would have a good laugh at that!
SHOP TALK: Yes, Trattoria Vivolo. It’s fantastic. Tell me, as a kid, what was the biggest bargain in town?
JOHN: At Mr. Planamente’s Italian grocery store, I could get a Hershey Bar or a Coke for a nickel!
SHOP TALK: Wow!
JOHN: Yes, it was a great place for a kid to grow up. Friends of mine were twin brothers Eugene and Joseph Modugno, whose apartment was the most popular because they had the very first TV set in the neighborhood. If any mother had been looking for her child on any afternoon, she could usually find him or her among a semi-circle of kids sitting on the floor in rapt attention watching “Howdy Doody” or “Flash Gordon.”
REGINA: Money was tight, so our familiarity with local businesses was limited to the grocery store on the next block, the laundromat, our neighbors at Cappy’s, the taxi stand and the bowling alley on the second floor over Risoli’s Restaurant [now Trinity Bar & Grill]. And I remember fun shopping at the frequent local rummage sales!
SHOP TALK: What did your parents do for a living?
JOHN: My dad was a post office clerk for over 20 years, and he supplemented that by delivering prescriptions for Cosacchi’s Drug Store (close to the corner of Halstead and Harrison Avenue), and delivering meat and fish for local stores.
REGINA: Our mom kept busy those days raising four kids and worked evenings as an usher for the early show at the Biltmore, the movie theatre a few blocks away.
SHOP TALK: And your father worked there as well.
JOHN: Correct. At the end of that show, Mom would hustle home and Dad would cover the late show. One night, as he was cleaning up, he found a burial urn on one of the seats. It seemed someone had taken the remains of his friend or relative to his “last picture show” and walked out at the end of the movie without it. Dad was mortified. He placed the urn in the ticket office, certain that some embarrassed soul would return the next day to retrieve it. No one ever showed! After a few weeks, his friend Jake Pape, who ran a funeral home in town, promised to see to it that the urn was disposed of in a proper and respectful manner.
SHOP TALK: Many people approach January from a dual perspective — looking at what’s ahead for the new year and looking back on the previous year. But I think it’s important to look back even further, especially during these tough economic times, to discover how resilient our town can be.
JOHN: Yes. For instance, back then, World War II was still raging, so much of everyday life in Harrison was influenced by the war. Each day, it seemed, trainloads of tanks and artillery rolled through the station. Everyone pitched in however they could as a community.
REGINA: That’s why photographs back then were scarce; it was wartime and there was little film to be had, and the few that our family had taken were often sent to Mom’s parents in Ireland.
JOHN: Our return here brought back a flood of memories of the happy times and simple pleasures of growing up in a close-knit neighborhood and small town.
IN WEST HARRISON: Speaking of nostalgia, those walking through the Silver Lake community may happen by the dozens of old photographs displayed in the window at the Silver Lake Hardware, 73 Lake Street. The store is owned and operated by Bert Ricci and his son, Greg Ricci, who last year became the Harrison Town Historian, a volunteer position.
“I love sharing the history, especially the last 100 years, because most people are really interested in places they can relate to — what used to be where,” said Greg, who prints the photos out of old film, including the Silver Lake casino in 1909, old churches and even downtown businesses.
Bert considers them a mixed blessing. “Some people stop in because of the pictures, but then I’ll start hollering because I’ll tell Greg there are so many pictures in the window that people can’t see the products!” he said.
“This is true,” Greg said. “He asks me, ‘When are you going to take the pictures down?’ but people keep asking me to put up more.”
Visits to the Charles Dawson History Center, 1 Park Lane in West Harrison, are by appointment only. Call 914-948-2550 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carla Rose Fisher is a freelance writer for web and print. Email story ideas to email@example.com.