Friday, May 7, 2010

Cousin Sam, Head Cashier

Sam Kisberg, the stuff of small family legend, was a cousin of my great-grandmother Katie Littwin (nee Kisberg).

In his middle age, he lived with Great-grandma Katie in her big boarding house on Ocean Parkway. My mom describes his room as so tiny, overlooking the railroad tracks, furnished with nothing but a bed, a dresser, and a little bookshelf. It smelled of soap; she says he was the cleanest person she ever met. Sometimes she would peek in his drawers just to marvel at how perfectly folded and glowing white his undershirts were.

Sam was the the head cashier at the famous NYC institution, Keen's Steakhouse:



Every Thursday, he came for dinner at my Grandma Eva's, bringing treats from the Steakhouse as a hospitality offering. The Steakhouse staff was allowed to leave work each evening with the best leftovers from that night's dinner seating. Sam would arrive at grandma's house with single portions of cherry cheesecake and brownies. Mom tells me the cake slices would often have a single bite off their pointy ends. Grandpa Max found this shocking, disgusting, and would rail against Sam for his gauche beggarly habits. But Grandma Eva would always whisk the cheesecake into the kitchen and cut off the offending bitten end, whispering to mom "shhh...don't tell daddy..."

Sam brought the dessert on Keen's china, blue and white sturdy Willow-ware plates. The family took to calling this china "Samware," and as a child I would often venture into the little attic room that housed the dishes no longer in frequent rotation, and stare at the hundreds of little Samware dessert plates, neatly stacked in the glassed cupboards...for nothing was ever thrown away in Grandma's house...

He brought, too, from time to time, the white ceramic smoking pipes for which Keen's was famous. Symbols of manly opulence just out of reach, for Sam himself, that soapy-clean Russian immigrant in the tiny room overlooking the train tracks, was a servant, an onlooker, possibly envious, possibly wistful. I'm certain he would have liked to join the ruddy crowds of men in their loud, laughing, drunken steak dinners.

Instead, he made his quiet livelihood behind the cash register, consoling himself with the ill-gotten souvenirs of half-eaten cake and plates and pipes...





The famous Keen's pipes

Servers and staff at Keen's Steakhouse

31 comments:

Brian Miller said...

nice. i am drawn to the last pic actually with all the servers together. it seems like a family...i cant think of many places i worked that would take the time...

so, um...cheesecake?

Princess said...

Another glorious chapter from your family rememberings... What a wonderful gift to share...
I should be so lucky...

The Unbearable Banishment said...

I had drinks at Keen's just last week! Sitting next to me was writer and Microsoft doppelganger/schlub John Hodgmen.

A classic old world bar attached to a beautiful restaurant. It doesn't look any different today than it did when Cousin Sam was working there. It's a piece of olde New York and a good place to take your out of town friends. In addition to the steak, they have great lamb and pork chops.

Martin H. said...

Sam was a neat and tidy individual. I love the image of Grandma Eva cutting off the 'offending bitten end' of the cheesecake.

sEAN bENTLEY said...

Love the shot of the staff; I'm intrigued by the pipes - were these for customers' use, or ...?

JeffScape said...

Is this a true story? Pretty sweet if it is (and I'm thinking it is)... but if it isn't, you've got the start to a kick-ass tale here.

Paul C said...

Interesting portrait of the culture at the time: opulence, steaks, and smoking pipes.

kylie said...

i love love love this story!
i love the soap smelling room and the slightly eaten cheesecake. who these days would consider eating a "contaminated" morsel? and more amazing, bringing it for family?

nick said...

So you think all the things he brought home were ill-gotten gains? If not, his employer was very generous to the staff. Food, china, pipes, not bad at all. Not many employers these days would be that generous.

I like the way he kept himself so clean despite his spartan accommodation. Or maybe because of.

Pat said...

Was Sam the guilty biter?
I still have Samware (willow ware)
that we ate off in the thirties.
You are an excellent custodian for your family:)

Betsy said...

Leah ~ your sepia posts are just the best...your family has such a fascinating history! Love the grandma trimming off the ends of the cheesecake! ha.

corticoWhat said...

Very nicely told Leah.

Barbara and Nancy said...

I wouldn't mind having a piece of that bitten- off cheesecake right now! I even have some willow-ware to put it on.
Barbara

just bob said...

What a wonderful tale... Pass the cheesecake!

Nana Jo said...

What an interesting story! Sam sounds like a lovely man. I can just see him; sweet-smelling, gleaming skin, sneaking his bitten cheesecake into the house. I love the fact that the willow became Samware.

Poetikat said...

Now THAT was a fabulous tale - the cherry cheesecake, the china and the chalkwhite singlets.

Was Keen's an Irish establishment? My dad used to buy me a white ceramic pipe (not to smoke) on St. Paddy's Day from a shop in Toronto. That's the first thing that came to mind.

Lovely, memorable post.

Kat

savannah said...

talk about new york stories, sugar! ;~D xoxoxo

willow said...

Leah, I love your family stories. I'm conjuring some wonderful images of those fancy treats on my favorite blue willowware!

Alan Burnett said...

What a fabulous story. Even more so when in the hands of a gifted story-teller. Your words help us share the person, share the time and share the place. That's why I always enjoy visiting your blog.

John Hayes said...

A really fascinating glimpse at this world & this enigmatic man who inhabited it. Wonderful details!

Madame DeFarge said...

You have such a marvellous collection of relatives. I could read about them for the rest of time.

mago said...

"A spy. In the house of love."
You know the teilnehmende Beobachtung of course, participant observation. He wasn't related to Lazarsfeld? :)

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Mark Sanderson said...

Yes, I could settle down with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit and listen to this being read out on the radio. Maybe I'd have a little cry as well. Great pics, where do they all come from?

JGH said...

In a way I envy Sam his simple existence - and certain things about him are familiar. He reminds me of my grandpa. Really enjoyed this post!

lettuce said...

beautifully written Lean

I love the "stuff of small family legend" and these are great legends - Samware, the bitten-off cake ends...

great

just bob said...

Hi Leah! Hi Remus!

Tracey said...

What lovely peeks into a foreign (to me) world you give. Thank you for the effort. It is tiny stories of other people's lives, like this one, that stick with me the most.

Walker said...

I love reading these stories.
Who's to say Sam wasn't part of that crowd.
Even if he wasn't in t he middle of the group he was surely part of it and brought it home with him after to share with the rest.

Nancy said...

How beautifully you write!

jeannette said...

Came over from another blog -what a wonderful story about cousin Sam!