It was still dark on the morning of Thursday, August 20, 1963. “Come on, son, wake up. Get dressed we have to go.” It was my father, and it was no surprise that he was awake as he usually arose around four a.m. to prepare for his workday in the butcher shop at the Horn & Hardart Commissary on Warnock St. in Center City Philadelphia. “What time is?” I mumbled, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. I was twelve years old.
“Quarter to five,” he said. “Get dressed you’re going to work with me today.” I didn’t know what was going on, but today clearly wasn’t going to be the usual late-summer day. Pop had never asked me to go to work with him. I didn’t ask any questions, I went into the bathroom, washed up, brushed my teeth and dressed: t-shirt, shorts, sneakers. The typical summer uniform in my neighborhood.
A few minutes later I went downstairs and Pop was waiting. “Let’s go,” he said. It was a few minutes after five, in late August still mostly dark with a hint of the heat and sun to come that day. We walked around the corner to 58th St. and Chester Ave., and before long the familiar Route 13 subway-surface street car rumbled to a stop. I didn’t recall ever getting on the trolley that time of day; it wasn’t full but it was far from empty, and I was the only kid. We found a pair of seats and after rumbling through our neighborhood the 13 car slid into the tunnel and made its way to its terminus at 13th and Juniper Streets in Center City.
My father was not much of a talker, we rode in silence. He was not a morning newspaper reader although many of the other riders hid their faces behind the morning Inquirer and some dozed. After about twenty minutes that time of day we had arrived, and it was time to climb the stairs to street level and walk the few short blocks to the Commissary near 10th and Locust Streets. I had been there once before, when my father took my mother and me with him on a trip to New York, and I began to form an idea of what might be happening.
“Pop, are we going to New York today?” I remembered at dinner the night before Pop and Mom were speaking Italian and while I didn’t get much I remembered hearing “New York”. I was putting two-and-two together! Pop didn’t say anything but shot me a look. Yes! A train ride to New York!
Horn & Hardart, the Automat people, maintained strong bases of operations in New York City and Philadelphia. In order to ensure quality control, every month a “samples” suitcase of food was brought to the other city. The H&H signature dishes of Boston Baked Beans, Creamed Spinach, Macaroni & Cheese, Chicken Salad, etc. had to be the same no matter where you ate them. Everyday trucks pulled in and out of the central commissary in downtown Philadelphia and its counterpart on the Lower West Side in Manhattan, bringing the prepared dishes to the automats that thronged the cities. It meant that Horn & Hardart could fit an eatery into a small space without needing elaborate kitchen facilities. Often there were no seats, just stand up tables where the industrial and clerical working classes could have a nutritious, tasty, inexpensive lunch.
We walked upstairs to the Butcher Shop where my father worked. It was cold! The meat locker door was open as we walked in the summer heat just drained away. Huge slabs of beef and pork hung from the ceiling. My father introduced me to some of his co-workers and friends, Frank a large, bluff man from Slovakia and Major his African-American friend from North Carolina. I shook hands with them, my boy-mitts enveloped in their huge hands. There was some small talk, some laughs, and Pop waved goodbye to them. We walked up to the top floor, where the executives were. My father went to the office of Steve, who was the husband of my mother’s best friend Louise, whom I knew. “Hello Joey,” he said smiling. “Going to have an adventure today, eh? Have fun!” He handed my father an envelope. “Let’s go have breakfast,” said Pop. Of course, there was a refectory for the employees to eat and it was H&H food. I had a cup of tea, some scrambled eggs and toast. Pop had soft-boiled eggs which he enjoyed greatly. We then went to another office where he took possession of the “samples suitcase”, a large, specially lined and insulated valise that had to weigh close to fifty pounds. Pop had turned sixty in June, but he was a strong man and he handled it as we went out the door and downstairs to take the Market Street subway line to 30th Street Station.
As we arrived at the train station I was feeling pretty good that I’d figured out what was happening. Of course, I didn’t know the half of it yet.