Memories of a journey pursued while living within a tight knit community
When I was eight years old my family moved from east 14th between Kings Highway and Avenue R to an upstairs apartment on East 2nd street between Kings Highway and Avenue S. We had moved from an apartment building and I remember being nervous about the move. I was eight years old and already neurotic. Soon, though, it was clear to me that it was a great move for the family.
I used to spend days playing stoop ball in front of my house, wiffle ball with my brother on the side of it and we were down the block from the PS 215 schoolyard. I would spend the bulk of my time from around 10 until I was 18 or so, playing softball, stick-ball or football.
A year or so after we moved, my father joined my uncle in the travel business. At first, it was located on Avenue S (where the Sephardic Center stands today; there was building with stores on the ground level). Then they moved to Avenue U just off of McDonald Avenue. Finally they settled on Kings Highway, between east 2nd and east 3rd streets. This was in 1976, when I was ten years old. The store and the original sign, would be there for the next 45 years. (It’s still there though obscured by a “For Rent” sign).
I used to love to go to work with my parents when I was young. My parents taught me about the business, such as how to write airline tickets, answer the phones and even do the weekly sales reports to be submitted to the airlines reporting corporation.
My mother was one of the trailblazers for women in the Syrian community. She not only ran a household with five children; she worked all day at the travel agency. When my father announced that they would be adding an airline computer system, she went to Dallas for a week to learn how to use the system. This was in 1981 or so, way before most of the world even knew what a computer was. Once they were installed in the office, for me, it was love at first sight.
Since the store was around the corner from our apartment I would hang out there a lot, especially when I would meet my friends. They would meet me there and then we would go have lunch by Lou’s next door.
Much like myself, my father was unable to sit still for too long, so he used to walk from store to store saying hello to everyone, he never came back to the store empty handed. He had such a friendly face and demeanor that everyone took to him right away.
This is a sampling of when I would go for a walk with him. The stores are out of time and placement; but this is simply a sample and how I remember it. He would say, “Freddy, lets go for a walk.”
So I would hold his hand leaving the store and then we would cross the street. The first stop was usually Ralph’s Fruit Store. He would talk to the husband and wife running the place and then see something he felt my mother would like and buy it for her. “Hold this for Momma.” He would tell me.
Then we would head next door to Setton’s. Morris Setton was the boss there and he always would tell my father when the pita or zaatar bread would come in fresh. In the back of the store a lady named, Rachel, was the baker. She would be leading a group of women in preparing the various foods they would sell. The aroma of the pastries being baked was intoxicating and to this day I remember it and my mouth waters. Whenever she would see me or my father, Rachel would come running from the back of the store with something straight out of the oven on a paper towel for us to try. Zaki, was the manager of the store and possibly one of the friendliest people I ever knew. He would always be smiling while doing whatever needed to be done in the store.
We would then stop by Sol’s Hardware to say hello. Sol was an older man and would ride his bike to work each day. Later on his son, Howie, took over the store and updated it. (Its still there today, owned and run by a gentleman named, Manny).
My pop would hold my hand as we then walked next door to Mansoura’s Bakery. Mansoura’s had opened their first location around the year 1780 in Syria. They moved to Egypt and then to France before settling in Brooklyn. They proudly used the same recipes which had been handed down from generation to generation. Mr. Mansour would always greet my father with a big hello and a smile. Mrs. Mansour would tell me, “Come, come here.” I would go and she would have a fresh batch of grebe or baklava. Everything, I mean everything in that store was delicious.
We would walk out with more goodies in a bag and would head to Adelaide’s. He would open the door and tell them if they wanted coffee, “Just come across and take, t’fudul! It’s fresh!” They would come by and always be so sweet and gracious. Adelaide Picciotto was the owner, she commanded respect with just her presence and she got it. What a wonderful lady who was also one of the first women to go into business in the community. Next door my father would repeat himself at “June’s Collection.” June was a sweet lady who was another pioneer in the community. (Later on, after the Photography store closed, Marion Shabot opened a women’s clothing store which was there for over 20 years. She was another trailblazer for women in the community)
Then we would walk over to the corner store; Nat’s Luncheonette. They would say some words about the area, the weather and whatever else that was going on and laugh. Nat’s wife would have her hair done up and smile. (In August of 1977, their daughter, Stacy was killed by David Berkowitz, a serial killer)
We would cross the street and go to Bat-Yam where Mr. Levy always had a joke to tell. He was cute because before he told the joke, he would be laughing. Elie, his son, towering behind the register and Mrs. Levy running the kitchen. She too would offer some sort of food to try.
Across the street was Carvel. A silver walled store with an overhanging roof, and an L-shaped parking lot.
My father would give me money to buy ice cream, “for Momma,” he would say with a twinkle in his eye. On Wednesdays we would get the two for one special so he could get one as well and I would get a lalapalooza or a chocolate milk shake.
Crossing back towards the store, we would pass Metropolitan Life Insurance and then drop off the ice cream by my mom and head next door to say hello to Kalman and Smadar, at Elite Photography. The place was a mess but Smadar would make the place shine regardless.
Next was Lou’s Deli. I wanted to get a hot dog but I knew that if I had the hot dog I wouldn’t be able to eat my ice cream, so I would put it off until later. I loved going into Lou’s. Buddy the waiter would always greet me as if I were an important person. Lou would make a joke about something and Ruthy would smile and say, “Don’t listen.” This store would become such a big part of my life and until this day, I find it amazing that one establishment can have such a strong lasting effect.
Next door to Lou’s was Decorative Dinette. One of my heroes in my older years would be carrying a queen size mattress from his station wagon into the store. He was a tall man who would call my father, “Hacham.” Later on I would get to know him and his family very well. A survivor from the camps he never lost faith in God even when his wife developed a debilitating sickness and he would take care of her with so much love.
Then we would head back to the store and have our ice cream. Oh I loved that Chocolate Milk Shake! I would have them add Chocolate crunch to it, so when I finished the shake, at the bottom that chocolate crunch would be waiting for me.
I walked on Kings Highway the other day and it was filled with strangers working in the stores. Most had changed, some had stayed the same business. Metropolitan Life was now The Well, an educational center for Sephardic women. Elite Photographer was Swoon a women’s boutique shop, Lou’s is now Juice Theory a Vegan restaurant and Decorative Dinette is Vanilla Sky another clothing store.
Across the way, Ralph’s Fruits remains, Setton’s was sold and was now Chalouh International Food, Sol’s Hardware remains, Mansoura still continues it centuries old business run by Mr Mansour’s grandchildren.
Because I was part of the business, I never realized the impact our business had. Whiz Travel had a major impact on the community. My father started sending people to Acapulco by offering their money back if they didn’t have the best time. It started with one family and by the early 1980s we had hundreds of people traveling there during the schools intersession. I remember going to Acapulco after we graduated from Sephardic High School. On the plane I would see almost everyone carrying a “Whiz Travel” bag. In Acapulco itself, the place was swarming with community members from Brooklyn, Deal, Mexico and other places. We were all related one way or another and developed quick friendships. I remember I was supposed to be there for one week but ended up staying for two weeks. I remember feeling a sense of pride each time I saw someone my parents had booked to go there – they would always say, “Your parent’s are the best, I got my room upgraded for free.” Or something to that effect.
What a world it was. I can still feel my fathers hand in mine as we made our way around the highway. I have inherited from him his love of people and his integrity.
My father passed away almost seven years ago. Whiz Travel, though still going strong, but has moved out of 518 Kings Highway. More recently, Morris Setton, of Setton’s and Ruth and Lou Jerome, of Lou’s Deli, have passed away. As I get older its only logical that I will lose people I have known for most of my life, doesn’t mean I have to like it. It certainly doesn’t mean I have to forget the life we all shared. We were a community that that two block span. We were all there for each other and even the competitors would be there for each other.
In the spot where Carvel once stood, is a building built to house the senior citizens. My mother lives there and when I go to visit her she always has that beautiful smile.
I walk to visit her and when I leave and step onto Kings Highway I can always sense the ghosts roaming the sidewalks, running their businesses. Its how I think, like I said before, I have issues.
I can sense the old neighborhood alive and busy as it always is. The aroma of baking in the streets, my fathers voice booming across the highway calling Zaki. Lou sweeping the sidewalk, Sam carrying a queen sized mattress on his shoulder, customers and friends who used to frequent my side of Kings Highway who have passed on. They are still here, I can see them, hear them and sense them. A community of people who cared for each other and treated their customers like family members.
I learned much more than how to work as a travel agent or how to use computers. What I learned was how to treat customers and people in general, with respect. There was never a time when my parents were disrespectful to anyone; a customer or someone selling something. My father never let his smile leave his face unless someone really upset him. I always remember, if someone was causing a scene with my father, my mother would stand up and stand next to him.
Later on I worked with my brothers and my parents in Whiz Travel. We were a great team. We worked hard, had arguments, laughed uncontrollably at times and always had each others backs.
I think back and I remember wanting to leave that area, I wanted to get more out of life than just working in a travel agency. I wanted more and more only to realize as I got older, I really needed less and less in life. No one who has passed away ever took their belongings with them. What they do take are the lessons they have learned in life. No death and no one can ever take away the memories of a life lived.
These days I am trying to make a living by telling people to work with me to keep the memories of the lives lived alive forever. This way others can learn from what others have learned. A life’s lessons should be passed down, just as family recipes are passed down from generation to generation. A recipe of sorts or an answer to the questions about life, humans have been searching for – forever. When the answer can be found in a four letter word – Love.