My Grandfather

My grandfather, Sol Drelich at work in his Brooklyn lunchenonette

My folks are doing some minor redecorating down in Florida. They had a closet rebuilt with shelves.

Of course rebuilding a closet also means cleaning a closet. Everything came out and my folks started to sift through things they hadn’t seen in years. That’s what takes the most time, because you really want to savor every bit of history you find.

As is so often the case, my mom kept a lot of memorabilia¹. I’m glad she did. The picture attached to this entry is part of the haul. It’s my grandfather, Sol Drelich, taken in the restaurant he owned, probably sometime in the pre-war 1940s.

The prices jump out first. Imagine paying that today!

What’s not so obvious is my grandfather. He came here from Poland. He chose to leave Poland rather than serve in the army.

When he came to the United States he had nothing. He spoke no English, only Polish and Yiddish. In New York City, that was OK. There were thriving communities where Polish or Yiddish were all you needed.

He worked hard as a waiter, learned English, met my grandmother, Rose, and started a family – my mother, Betty, and her sister, Norma.

As time went on, Grandpa bought his own restaurants. With his partner Nat (always referred to simply as “Spiegel” – his last name), he owned a series of luncheonettes. By the time I was old enough to know what was going on, they owned a little place right at the foot of the stairs of the Rutland Road Station of the IRT.

I loved that little restaurant. When I’d go, taking the subway all the way from Queens, Grandpa would show me off like a trophy. I didn’t realize that at the time – though I do now.

He also let me work behind the counter, where I’d pour coffee, get Cokes and generally slow things down. From time-to-time I also worked the register.

I remember being at the cash register, at the front of the store, when a policeman came to pay his bill. There were always policemen there. Grandpa ran to move me out of the way.

It was only later I found out, police officers ate for half price. Captains, lieutenants and other supervisors ate free. Coffee was always free for anyone in uniform, police or fire.

Was that illegal? I’m sure it was.

I know why Grandpa did that. Having cops in his restaurant in this very tough neighborhood was good for business. If it were my business, I might do the same thing.

There’s a lot of me that comes from Grandpa. My quick temper – unfortunately – is one part.

He always talked to me as if he knew I would be a success, even though he didn’t know at what. There was never any doubt that I’d go to college and make something of myself. He wanted me to be more successful than he was.

As a little kid Grandpa took me aside more than once to tell me about the Nazis and their concentration camps. That’s where his entire family was killed. He knew his stories scared me, but that was the point.

I can close my eyes right now and see him, in front of his little Cape Cod in Laurelton, Queens, telling me. We stood face-to-face as he went through it piece-by-piece; how the Nazis would herd the Jews and send them to “take a shower.”

Grandpa has been gone a long time now. He never got to see me on TV. I wish he had. I know he would have been very proud, even though he would have preferred me becoming a doctor.

I wish you could have met my grandfather. You would have liked him.

¹ – As long as I’m mentioning my parents memories, I should give a plug to the little video I produced about how my parents met.

4 thoughts on “My Grandfather”

  1. Geoff, that practice of discounting prices for police/fire/ems still exists today. For many years I worked in EMS, and many places either gave us meals for free or at discounted rates while on duty, as well as for police officers, etc. My daughter also worked at a fast food outlet that followed that practice.

  2. I can second that a very well known fast food franchise was following that policy. Your grandfather sounds like a great guy who was quite a success himself.

  3. Geoff–

    Great story about your grandfather.

    Seeing the old photos always causes me to recall those wonderful days of yesteryear! For me it was the 1950’s and my grandparents had a small drygoods store on Winchester Avenue. Although they too spoke Yiddish they both struggled to learn and to speak English. After all their store was not in New Haven’s Jewish neigborhood and they became well loved fixtures in their area of town.

    My grandparents always referred to their friends by their last name. It was always Drutman or Ripkin and never Nate or Jack.

  4. My Dad was a policeman for many years, and several restaurants (both locally owned and national chains) in our small town only charged half price for any order—until some of the younger officers apparently abused it, taking large carry-out orders home to their families.

    Interestingly, it seemed some teenagers occasionally liked to phone in prank orders for multiple pizzas, with no intention of picking them up. Those were usually given to the police station to enjoy. And sometimes a locally owned seafood place would drop off leftover quantities on weekend nights, not minding how it might be distributed.

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