September 30, 2022

Brooklyn Charlotte Russe

by Michelle Cacho-Negrete

Lately I spend time thinking about things that have vanished and I’m slipping into the past after visiting New York, still home despite my forty years in Maine. The little Manhattan piano bar up two flight of stairs whose cool jazz thrilled us. The White Castle in Queens, when we still ate meat. Coney Island’s boardwalk, where I carelessly rode my bike at top speed; the engulfing scent of saltwater in the breeze that tangled my kinky hair. My husband Kevin and I visit the city frequently and there is an inevitable sense of home sighting, from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, that iconic skyline; the heaven-reaching spires of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, the reflective glass walls of the U.N., the water towers that I always wanted to climb up to, although I never had. I breathe deeply, eyes filled with tears, finally there. Though, not quite. My New York is a collection of remembered places paved over by the endless construction that marks this city. I treasure the remnants:  street signs, landmarks too important to destroy, although Penn Station is gone, the deceiving shape of buildings spied from a distance, the sprawling vault of The Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On our last visit we wandered Williamsburg, a dangerous slum when I was growing up, now prosperous, boasting a warren of shops that I would have been too intimidated as a child to enter. The area possessed a determined cleanness that I felt sought to overwrite history. I was infused with a sense of profound loss; a part of the city that defined me still was irrevocably altered. We passed a bright cheese store, flooded with affluent shoppers tasting bits of gourmet cheese on specialty crackers, accompanied by white wine in clear plastic cups. All I could see there, however, was the unmarked social club where I met my first husband, dark and smoky with a jukebox constantly fed with dimes while adolescents explored their sexuality on tattered couches spread around two rooms. The little Russian luncheonette where the owner had served borscht and, just as my mother did, used a curved metal blade with a wooden handle to chop eggs and onions in a large wooden bowl, then added chicken schmaltz, is more present to me now than the upscale coffee shop on that corner, selling bagels which bore no resemblance to the heavy uneven circles of dough I’d grown up with. The second-hand store where we once bought sturdy, worn, winter coats, heavy wool dresses with practical buttons and unfashionable galoshes whose rubber remained wet and cold, chilling your feet, now offered trendy expensive clothes. The back entrance to the Metro movie theatre, where my brother and I snuck in when the door opened to let somebody out, was now the back door of a church, perhaps the most apropos replacement since, to us, the Metro was a holy place of sorts.

We walked over to the Williamsburg Bridge bus terminal where engines growled impatiently to hurry passengers onboard, deafening when combined with the roar of the elevated train line. I turned to look across the street as if Stevens, long gone, might magically reappear. Stevens, just a store front, culinary miracles hidden behind the façade. I always imagined bakers inside like those from children’s books, with white coat and tall important chef’s hat. An overhead awning kept the sun off the long glass counter whose shelves harbored cakes and cookies. It was the home of Brooklyn Charlotte Russe:  a thin sliver of pound cake, topped with a tower of whipped cream, crowned with a Maraschino cherry, nestled in a cardboard cup with a frilled top like the peaks of a crown. You pushed the bottom up slowly with an eager finger and ate the cherry, then the whipped cream, finishing with bites of the sweet, crumbly cake. They were a nickel each, something our immigrant, single-mothers could afford. My choice of dessert was always a Charlotte Russe, its royal drift of white a promise of joy to come. Counter girls took your nickel, instructing you to “enjoy it,” before turning to the kid behind you.

I’d loved to catch a bus from the terminal and cross the bridge into the Lower East Side. I rarely got a seat, but leaned against the door to watch Brooklyn become Manhattan, the East River a kaleidoscope of sun and shadows. On Sunday the buses were filled with Hasidic Russian Jews, distinct in their fur rimmed black hats, long black coats and beards who took paranoid care not to brush against me. When I was older I thought of crossing the East River as metaphor for the crossing they, and my Russian-Jewish grandparents, had made across the ocean, only reversed since the Lower East Side seemed a recreation of “the old county,” especially on Sundays.

On Sunday, the Orchard Street Market lined eight blocks, the sheer density of shoppers exceeding that of any contemporary mall at Christmas, noise as constant and loud as emerging cicadas. Doors were flung open even in winter with stalls and bins of men and women’s clothing:  coats, shoes, underwear, socks, hats. Stands of vegetables, kosher pastries, wooden vats of pickles were crushed against each other. The crowds were a multi-lingual, surging, impatient river. Vendors and shoppers screamed prices at each other until a bargain was struck. My mother dragged us through those streets at the change of every season, critically eyeballing every item with the disdain of a tailor’s daughter. Although she made our clothes, my brother and I would beg her for something from a store. During one of those forays I found a simple black cotton tube skirt, two seams and an elastic waistband. I knew immediately that if I had that skirt it would transform my life, end the unpopularity I endured because I was a quiet bookworm who brought a scrambled egg sandwich to school every lunchtime. My mother listened earnestly to my pleas, examined the seams, the fabric, and offered three dollars, fifty cents less than the asked price. The vendor looked at my flushed face and feverish eyes and nodded. My status remained unaltered but I wore the skirt almost every day, in every season, washing it in the kitchen sink, hanging it carefully over the shower curtain rack. I wore that skirt from mid-junior-high through my last year of high school, when no matter how many times my mother repaired it, it became unwearable. Twenty years later at a shop in Cambridge I found an identical skirt and took it home, a bridge between past and present that also seemed a bridge between two countries, the sophistication of Cambridge juxtaposed with the desperate, immigrant world I was raised in. I wore that skirt for years also, through my first marriage into the beginning of my second until no amount of coddling could save it.

Orchard Street eventually transformed to a chic, gentrified avenue of boutiques, expensive coffee shops and set prices. I grieved its loss, but what I really grieved was the uninhibited interplay between seller and buyer and the closeness between my mother, brother and me. My present husband, Kevin, and I did actually find an outdoor market that closely resembled Orchard Street when we went to a Finnish town that bordered Russia. The noise level, crowds and pungent smells covered it like a fragrant tent, and bargaining voices shouted one over the other in languages both unknown yet familiar. As I pushed through the crowds I floated back in time and just ahead of me I saw the back of a tiny woman with short auburn hair and gold hoops and with uncontainable longing called, “Ma?” then with a Yiddish inflection, “Mamma?” A few heads turned, saw nobody they knew, and continued on their way. This blip in time, this wink between then and now, left me breathless with an ache I hadn’t experienced for at least twenty years.

In those long-ago days on the Lower East Side my favorite restaurant was Ratner’s, a milchik (dairy) restaurant on Delancey Street with steamy windows and a gaudy sign where my mother took us after shopping trips. It has since been replaced by an Urgent Care. We’d wait patiently on the long lines, staring at the desserts while we waited for a table. The waiters were elderly Jewish men who told you what you wanted to eat and if your children were well behaved. I would always order potato pierogis topped with sour cream and apple sauce, a time-consuming dish that my mother rarely made. My brother always ordered potato latkes, an order I considered wasted since my mother made them a couple of times a month. Meals always began with Ratner’s onion rolls, yeasty delicious, fried onion-topped. The waiters nodded when we put one on our plates and neatly buttered it. My mother smiled proudly when the waiter complemented her on how well-behaved we were. Of course, getting a black and white cookie for dessert was dependent upon being quiet, not swinging our feet, using our napkins to wipe our mouths and returning them folded to the side of the plate when lunch was over.

During construction work at the old Ratner’s location, workers discovered the original sign, ghostly letters on their red background spelling out its name. I thought of how the ghosts of these places seem to linger and haunt me. The only time I had brought my Cuban, first husband there he was not “well-behaved.” Although I’d explained to him the difference between a milchik and a fleishig (meat) restaurant, he ordered an egg dish and asked for bacon. The incredulous waiter stared at him, his impossibly wrinkled face somehow wrinkling even further in a grimace. He ran his hands through his sparse gray hair, removed his glasses which he polished with a handkerchief, put them back on, then turned to me and said in Yiddish, “Get him out of here and never bring him back again.” This incident was a warning I didn’t heed about how culturally different, and irreconcilable, Carlos and I were.

After that trip to Finland, I longed to retrieve something from my past and decided it could only be a Brooklyn Charlotte Russe. I searched online until I discovered an article called “Lost Foods of New York” that said the only place they knew of was a little bakery on Staten Island. Despite being a native New Yorker, I’d never visited Staten Island; there was no bus or subway line connecting it to the “mainland.” In the dead of summer many of us took the ferry back and forth for the ocean breeze, but never got off. We were planning to visit our granddaughter in Manhattan and I insisted we would make “a trek.” My husband, the designated driver in big cities, expressed his dread about driving through hellish traffic in search of a memory burnished to such a gleam it would make any present reality disappointing. It made no difference. While our granddaughter was in class we drove over the Verrazano Narrows bridge into Staten Island. Thus began our bewildering, winding, hopeful journey past the shimmering water, large well-mannered houses with immaculate lawns, small parks, a neighborhood of crumbling storefronts and badly maintained apartment houses, through stop-and-go traffic till we arrived at a little bakery on a side street.

The smell of bread was a warm haze over loaf-laden shelves behind the counters of mouth-watering pastries and cookies, but no Charlotte Russe. A tall, grey-haired man with a gentle face and a spotless apron watched me and smiled when I asked if he might have any. He nodded and said, “We sell them in boxes of six.”

“May I have a box please?”

He walked into the back room. I heard a refrigerator door open and close and he returned with a white box. He smiled at my gray hair and crows’ feet and said as he handed them to me, “There’s very little call for these. I carry them as a courtesy. I suspect in a few years I’ll just stop making them.”

I clutched them to me and said, “I’m glad you have them now.”

He smiled again. “Enjoy them.”

Once outside, my husband looked up expectantly as I got into the car. I settled into my seat, box on my lap, reluctant to open it, but finally did, presenting one to each of us. It was all there:  the extravagant mound of whipped cream, the cherry, the feel of cardboard on my fingertips, the sweet pound cake. I held it in my hand, held the long-ago past, a time when I expected little from the world and so was easily pleased. My husband’s eyebrows lifted questioningly and I nodded. We took a bite. It was…. OK… somehow flat, mundane, just ordinary. I closed my eyes, remembering my ecstasy at that first bite each and every time and knew that my memory of that experience was right; that I was as different as New York was, only certain identifying remnants remaining. We quietly drove back to our Manhattan hotel through rush hour traffic and, when we arrived at the hotel garage, I held the box above a trash can beside the elevator, looked at my husband who nodded, and dropped it in.