It’s 77 degrees and sunny.
New York City is having a heat streak.
As winter takes an early exit and our premature summer takes center stage, I’m feeling ready to release a few layers. I dispense of my dependable down jacket and store away my series of scarves. I tuck my winter-wear deep into the depths of my narrow New York closet and unearth an enormous amount of sleeveless summertime survival gear. Unfortunately, my comfy winter coat covers nearly half of my hallway hanging space and I come to the conclusion that I need a more sensible scenario.
After a quick tap on Target.com and a delivery 2 days later, I find myself on the floor of my 300 square foot apartment contorted and confused as I build a new 36 piece clothes closet that will house my seasonal skirts and summer shirts. Sweating and suffering from 3 hours of Spanish-only assembly instructions with more washers and wooden dowels than I care to mention, I place the final fixture atop my 6 foot 5 inch creation and hope that my 3 years of Ms. Crecca’s high school language lessons have served me well. I gained a brand new closet to store my seasonal stock but depleted my recources and exhausted my energies in the process.
I need a drink.
And not one of the alcoholic variety but rather, one of those sweet syrupy refreshments that symbolizes that summertime is about to bloom out of this springtime of indecisiveness.
I quenched my thirst last Thursday making Egg Creams at Hinsch’s Luncheonette in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
I wake at 7AM with only one item on my agenda: To craft the quintessential Brooklyn Egg Cream. My only obstacle is the R train. After 2 unexplained train delays and 22 sessions of “please stand clear of the closing doors” I arrive in the Borough of Brooklyn for my morning shift.
I was raised hearing histories of a Brooklyn of an ancient era. My parents painted a picture so pure and peaceful that I sometimes wish the subway was a modern day time machine. I wish that when I emerge above ground on the other side of the East River that I will arrive in a Brooklyn filled with stoop ball and Spaldeens and sock hops and sweet confections sold for 5 cents at the corner store.
As I arrive at at 8518 5th Avenue and spot the old-school style sign for Hinsch’s Luncheonette that stands out among a sea of modern meal monopolies, I begin to wonder if all my wishing has been rewarded. I’m about to enter one of the few old-time luncheonettes that have been lost on our recent city landscape. This one is complete with its own confectionary. Yes, they even make their own malted milk balls and nonpareils and the best-I’ve-ever-eaten-butter-crunch in small batches off site and sell it here at Hinsch’s. I’ll have to save some of those for later. What I’m most in need of is a good old fashioned egg cream. But I’ve got to begin with the rites and rituals of this carbonated concoction before I can quench my thirst.
All this egg cream investigation has me thinking about a few labels of my own. I wondered about the words we so regularly whisper but seldom scrutinize. Our cast of characters is filled with lovers and enemies, friends and foes – all playing overlapping roles. And what about the word family? How do we define a word that is littered throughout our lives so frequently, that it often escapes explanation.
I have an adorable uncle named Stanley who, by definitions sake, is not really my Uncle. Many years ago my Dear Uncle H passed away. My Aunt met a nice man at a meeting and although they’ve never married, Stanley is more my uncle than many others, though there is no bloodline between us. And from my vantage point, whenever I stand on my Cornelia Street stoop and look lovingly all around, I see my extended family: I have 15 blue shirted brothers who work behind the counter at Faicco’s at the beginning of our block. I have a best friend who also happens to be my boss. We all share one beautiful black coated canine named Charlie who resides at 29 Cornelia. And lastly, I have a husband at Home Restaurant and although he may not exactly fit the origins of the word (from the Old Norse meaning Master of the House) he serves as more of a husband than others who have held his position. Although none of them know this is their namesake, our Greenwich Village Family – while not ancestors, nor blood, nor brood – share a Cornelia Street kinship that is apparent to anyone who is willing to extend their dictionary definitions.
As I think about my new friends back at Hinsch’s, I am starting to see some of these very same characteristics. There is a difference between dining in a restaurant and being adopted into family. And Hinsch’s has perfected the latter with its proud papa and protective patriarch: Roger Desmond at the helm. Roger is the type of owner who offers hellos, handshakes and ‘how ya doings’ to each and every one that enters. Hinsch’s is not an exclusive club. One needs no engraved invitation. There are no formalities, no fancy furnishings or tables topped in white. No velvet ropes to wrestle with and no reservations required. This is a flock of friends who have formed into family. Just one order of their well known waffles and you’ll feel the same.
But this family – Hinsch’s happy family, like so many other families – is marred with mourning and near misses. After 6 generations of family-run fun and countless egg cream creations – Hinsch’s was going to be history. On September 29, 2011 a sign in the front window read: HINSCH’S IS CLOSING AFTER 63 YEARS OF SERVICE. It struck me that, in NYC and beyond, you never know what you’re walking by until it’s gone. Well loved shops with long histories fall by the wayside, just as my Grandfather’s did. And Hinsch’s was about to suffer the very same fate. Hinsch’s originally opened in 1915 as Reichert’s Ice Cream Parlor before Herman Hinsch took over the business back in 1948. Hinsch eventually sold, in 1962, to the Logue Family who carried on the namesake – along with handmade chocolates and hand packed ice cream – until the current economic crisis, rising rent and desire to retire threatened this beloved brooklyn eatery.
Hinsch’s went the way that so many Happy Days era diners do. They were done for.
When the doors shut on that dark day, this story might have ended sharply. The headlines were headed to print (and printed) and the locals forced to find another hangout to call home. Another New York institution loses its life.
But Hinsch’s fate followed a less predictable path. She’s the little luncheonette that could.
Enter Roger Desmond: Local business owner. Neighborhood guy. Hero.
When the nostalgia nestled in Roger was inspired, then inquired and eventually acquired Hinsch’s. He remembered the Hinsch’s of his youth – he’d stop in after school whenever he was in the mood for a good old grilled cheese & some neighborhood girls. His heroism is not completely lost on him. As humble as he is, Roger does get a kick out of his newfound status. “I own Hinsch’s, for gosh sakes.” It’s a bit of a self esteem boost for him. “If you can make Hinsch’s come back, thats nice.” There’s something sweet and simple about the sentiment. But after all, there’s something sweet and simple about Hinsch’s too. And after 2 months of renovations, the doors eventually opened again. Long live the luncheonette.
Roger is the one-time bartender turn soda fountain owner responsible for saving our fair Hinsch’s. He’s the man that made is possible for Edna to eat her 3 meals a day – every day – here at Hinsch’s. He’s the guy who remembers where Vicki went on vacation when she comes in after a few weeks away. He’s the angel who allowed Julie and James to have a place to celebrate (on the house) the fact that today – on the day of my employ – their doctor informs them that they will soon be proud parents. Julie and NYC firefighter James always visit Hinsch’s for their small scale celebrations – as their family has for 3 (and soon to be 4) generations. Roger is the host who warmly welcomes his diners. With boldness and brevity he simply asks, “a little lunch?”
And even if you’re not yet a regular, wait a little while – you surely will be soon.
And so Hinsch’s was saved – as the backside of the staff shirts proudly proclaim. Brought back from the brink and rescued from a harsh reality – as so many of us have. I, too, remember a time when I was feeling quite lost myself. And my savior? The city itself. To her, I am forever indebted. I recall a time in late August of 1998 when I wandered jobless and joyless just after grad school graduation. I moved from my small Hamptons hometown to live in the corner of a cousin’s kitchen on 77th and Columbus. I knew nearly no one except for the next-door neighbor I dated for a short time, only to discover he was also dating his next-door neighbor – one wall away from me. I’d listen at the door for the sounds of his arrival and often sat in silence when he wouldn’t return for a while. I figured it was time to find another friend so I turned to New York and asked for her assistance. She became my constant companion. I devoured her sights and sounds, block by block. I rarely took her subways but preferred a more intimate approach. I pounded the pavement and after 3 miles to work and 3 miles back, a best friendship was born. And as strange as it may sound, as long as I’m in NYC surrounded by her skyscrapers and brownstones, and even when I’m alone, I am never ever lonely. She’s a warm blanket and a cozy cocktail. And only a New Yorker understands her offerings and gets her gifts.
So sometimes, as in the case of Hinsch’s, we save the city. And sometimes, the city saves us.
We all suffer in silence at select moments of our lives. And just when we need it most, sometimes someone swoops in and gives us a save. My only question to you is: Who or what saved your soul in these last few seasons of your life and are they even mildly aware of their influence?
In addition to egg creams and countless other items (I had the utterly amazing Chicken Cardinal with fresh local mozzarella and roasted red peppers on ciabatta lightly brushed with herb butter) that fare much finer than so many other diners, Hinsch’s still sells those sweet handmade confections as it has for 60 years. Their nonpareils are the best I’ve had and well beyond any boxed candy variety. And it’s perfectly appropriate that those dark chocolate discs dotted with white are Hinsch’s bottom line best seller since the French word nonpareil literally translates into: having no equal or unparalleled. I think it’s fitting.
Be sure to stop by Hinsch’s Luncheonette in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and visit with our hometown heroes, Roger & Raul. And maybe even wave hello to Julie, and James of the FDNY. And don’t forget to order an egg cream for an experience of unparalleled proportions.