Tuesday, August 27, 2013


By Henry C. Parke

(Pearle Vision used to be Unisex Haircutters)

August 14th, 2013

            “BERK’S” was a candy store and newsstand on 7th Avenue, one store from the corner of Union Street.  It was a place to pick up sodas and candy bars, comics, big pieces of sidewalk chalk, and the pink rubber balls we used for all of the stoop games.  They were Spaldings, but for some reason we called them Spaldeens.  By the phone booth in back there was a big Mission Soda cooler, and you’d reach into the cold water up to your elbow and pull out a Coke or 7-Up if you were flush, or an actual Mission Soda if you wanted to save a few pennies.  There were small yellow boxes of salt-coated pumpkin seeds and sun-flower seeds to chew and spit.  If you were an adult you could buy The New York Times, The Herald Tribune, The Mirror, The Telegram, The Journal American, The Amsterdam News, and in the afternoon, The New York Post.  If you were a horse-player you could buy The Daily Telegraph.  If you were a smoker, there were cigarettes, open boxes of cigars behind the counter, and Tiparillos and White Owl Demi-Tips in packs of five.

            Mr. and Mrs. Berk were a cheerful couple, patient with indecisive kids and adults alike.  I guess they were in their 60s, but they could have been in their 70s or 50s – when you’re ten or eleven, it’s all the same.  They were both a bit chubby, she a little taller, with red hair and glasses with, I think, blue frames.  I don’t remember her first name because, as a polite kid of that era, I called her Mrs. Berk.  Mr. Berk, whose name was Harry – it was also my father’s name, so I wasn’t likely to forget that – had black hair, and usually wore a small black hat of the type we now call a Sinatra hat. 

            I know they had a son, maybe more than one, whom they had sent to college, and he had done very well.  There was probably a wife and kids, but I don’t recall – what kid cares about someone else’s grandkids?
            Harry was crazy about his wife, maybe all the more because he had to put up a stiff fight to win her.  It was the 1920s, and the future Mrs. Berk was dating one on the top singers and vaudeville stars of the era, Arthur Tracy, known as ‘The Street Singer.’  He’d come out onstage with his accordion, singing ‘Marta, Rambling Rose of the Wildwood,’ and the ladies would swoon.  He was playing ‘The Palace,’ the pinnacle of vaudeville in the United States.  I never heard the details of how Harry defeated Arthur – these things are usually a matter of one personality or heart winning out over another.  Arthur Tracy must have recovered from his loss, because he lived to be 98, and was performing almost to the very end, in 1997.

            But back in the 1920s, Harry Berk had a different business, which I think was also called ‘Berk’s’, and was located in Times Square.  This ‘Berk’s’ was an elegant men’s haberdashery.  “A lot of stars came there, especially dancers.  I had dance shoes made of calf-skin.  They shined like patent leather, but they were much lighter, and dancers loved them.  Fred and Adele Astaire were regular customers.”

            One day Harry heard shouting coming from the shoe department.  He hurried in to find a regular customer screaming at a salesman, and slapping him around.  “I said, ‘You stop that!’  He said, ‘Do you know who I am?’  I said, ‘Yes, I know you’re a good customer, Mr. Flegenheimer, but I won’t have you abusing my employees: get out of my store and don’t come back!’ 

            “So, he’s mad, but he leaves.  My salesman says, ‘We’re good as dead now.  He’s gonna kill us.’  I say, ‘Don’t talk nonsense!  He knows he was wrong.  Who is he to kill us?’ 

            “‘He’s Dutch Schultz.’

            “‘What?  He’s Mr. Flegenheimer.

            “‘Arthur Flegenheimer is Dutch Schultz, the bootlegger.  He’s going to kill us.’”

            Harry stopped to get himself a Mission Soda, grape, I think.   He told me he started to wait for a bullet.  When he was in his store, and he passed by the plate-glass window, he waited for a bullet.  When he walked along Broadway, and a car slowed down beside him, he waited for a bullet.  When he missed his subway, and was suddenly alone on the platform, waiting for Times Square to Grand Central Shuttle, he waited for a bullet. 

            After a couple of weeks, he started to wonder if maybe the bullet wasn’t going to come.  It never came.  He never heard from Dutch Schultz, who died in 1935, killed by the Syndicate to prevent him from murdering New York D.A. Thomas Dewey.

            “But I’ve got one thing to remember Mr. Flegenheimer by.”  He took off his hat, and tilted the top of his head to me.  His hair was jet black, except at the roots, where it was white.  “That first morning, I looked in the mirror to shave.  And I saw my hair was white at the roots.  It grew in all white.  I’ve been dying it ever since.”    

Arthur Flegenheimer in a contemplative mood.

To hear and see Arthur Tracy sing 'Marta' and 'Trees', click the link below.

The Story 'BERK'S - A 7TH AVENUE STORY' is copyright August 27th, 2013 by Henry C. Parke -- All Rights Reserved

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