Tag Archives: NYC restaurants

Mob restaurants

mobstersGalante&CoppolakilledGangster stories run like a red thread through the 20th-century history of American restaurants, from the speakeasies of the 1920s, to the shakedowns and union infiltration of the 1930s, the rackets of the 1940s and 1950s, and the later years of money laundering and loudly proclaimed legitimate business.

But what seems to interest Americans the most are restaurants mobsters are alleged to patronize, and all the more so if there has been a legendary shootout there.

As portrayed in the film Dinner Rush, even rumors that a restaurant is a gangland favorite can boost its popularity immensely. The film was made by Bob Giraldi who’s been inside the restaurant business.

mobsterscolosimo'sOn July 28 a series called Inside the American Mob will begin on the National Geographic channel. My friend and neighbor John Marks, supervising producer, inspired this post when he mentioned the popularity of restaurants where mobsters have been gunned down.

Violence is abundant in restaurant history. Two of the worst mass murders in the United States took place in restaurants, the killing of 23 people at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen TX in 1991 and 21 at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro CA in 1984. Those tragic events did not bring about an influx of patrons wanting to soak up evil ambiance. Quite the contrary. Luby’s remodeled and reopened but never regained the business it once had, closing the Killeen site for good in 2000. McDonald’s razed the blighted unit in San Ysidro, rebuilding nearby.

MobsterVillaVeniceGlenviewIL1932

On the other hand, when gangsters are shooting victims people are unmoved, evidently figuring they got what was coming to them. The absence of bullet holes and bloodstains disappoints.

Restaurants that are linked to mobsters, such as NYC’s Sparks Steak House, where Paul Castellano was killed as he stepped out of his car, do not always appreciate being included in guide books such as A Goodfellas Guide to New York just because a mobster sometimes ate there. I can’t blame them. Who would want tourists dressed in shorts and tee shirts turning up at your high priced restaurant? The mob is not what it used to be. Yet I have to wonder, is there an American restaurant that can be absolutely certain it has never hosted mobsters?

I’ll also point out that not all mob-connected restaurants are or have been Italian. Also, probably every ethnic group has had its own version of the Mafia at some point.

MobstersCaponeTorioheadquartersCiceroca1939Most major cities in the U.S. have had restaurants that served as gangster hangouts. [pictured: the Cicero IL headquarters of Al Capone, ca. 1939] Chicago’s Colosimo’s was already in the books by 1930, ten years after its owner “Big Jim” Colosimo became one of the first victims of a gangland shooting in a restaurant. As late as 1958 when a new owner of the property announced he would raze the building, the site was overrun with an estimated 1,000 souvenir hunters. In the 1920s and 1930s even “nice” St. Paul MN could boast of four or five nightclub eateries with underworld associations, according to the authors of Minnesota Eats Out. Other mob-connected eating places illustrated in this post are Louigi’s in Las Vegas and Villa Venice outside Wheeling IL.

MobstersLouigi'sNew York City and environs takes the prize for gangland restaurants, among which are restaurants where mobsters, their henchmen, and associates have met a messy end. Few still exist or remain in their original locations. To name some, both present and past: Nuova Villa Tammaro, Coney Island (Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria,1931); Palace Chop House, Newark (Dutch Schultz, 1935); Umberto’s Clam House, Little Italy (Joey Gallo, 1972); Joe & Mary, Brooklyn (pictured at top, Carmine Galante, 1979); Broadway Pub, Manhattan; La Stella, Queens; King Wah, Chinatown; Villa Capri, Long Island; Sparks, Manhattan (Paul Castellano, 1985); Bravo Sergio, Manhattan (Irwin Schiff, 1987).

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Postscript: beefsteak dinners

healysphotoThis year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show, an art exhibit that introduced Americans to modern art, most notably to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase [No. 1]. Last week I received a copy of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art Journal which commemorates the show. To my surprise, the journal contains an article (Meat and Beer, by Darcy Tell) about a beefsteak dinner given by the artists who organized the Armory Show in gratitude to the press whose extensive coverage helped make the show a popular success.

The Armory Show was largely organized by American artists Walt Kuhn, Arthur Davies, and Walter Pach. (Kuhn’s and Pach’s papers are preserved in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)

In an earlier post I wrote about beefsteak dens, dungeons, and caves where men put on butchers’ aprons and threw aside the trappings of civilization. Sitting uncomfortably on boxes in dingy cellars, they drank beer and ate steaks without silverware or napkins.

BeefsteakHealy'sADV1916The 1913 Armory Show dinner was held at Healy’s restaurant, on 66th Street in NYC, a popular place for these feasts. It had three rooms dedicated to them: the Dungeon, the Jungle Room, and the Log Cabin Room. The artists and their “friends and enemies from the press,” as they were designated on the menu, gathered in the Log Cabin Room, probably the most civilized space of the three, furnished with long tables and chairs and complete with tablecloths and napkins. While the guests ate, someone read aloud humorous, insiderish (fake) telegrams, even one purporting to be from Gertrude Stein [see link below].

I have to admit I was a tiny bit disappointed to learn that such a (presumably) sophisticated group of men as was represented at this dinner would choose to attend a beefsteak at Healy’s. By 1913, if not long before, beefsteaks were recognized as evenings of orthodox jollity for business men and conventioneers. Yet, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors paid out $234 [at least $5,500 today] for a dinner much like that enjoyed by the Paper Box Makers Association and the League of Associated Hat Men.

And, just like the hat men and box makers, they took away a regulation group photo to show for it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Taste of a decade: 1820s restaurants

Aside from roadside inns, most eating places are found in cities in this decade. With a population slightly over 150,000 New York is more than twice as big as its nearest rivals, Philadelphia and Baltimore, but most cities are considerably smaller. In 1820 only 12 have populations over 10,000, all of them along the East Coast with the exceptions of Albany NY and New Orleans LA.

Yet industrial development is underway. After a financial panic at the decade’s beginning, textile mills in Massachusetts begin large-scale production. The Erie Canal goes into operation with its completion in 1825, spurring commercial development in NYC. With the city’s expansion there is greater distance between work in lower Manhattan and places of residence, bringing more customers to oyster cellars and taverns. But New York still lags behind Boston in its supply of refined French restaurants.

Big hotels begin to be established, most notably Baltimore’s City Hotel (1826), Philadelphia’s United States Hotel (1827), Washington’s National Hotel (1827), and Boston’s Tremont Hotel (1829). In most hotel dining rooms it is still the custom to put all the food – soup, meat, vegetables, puddings — on the table at once. Except for the occasional banquet, menus are not printed. A list of available dishes is chanted by waiters or chalked on a board behind the bar.

Apart from eating in hotels while traveling, “respectable” women stay home. They avoid  public dining spots, especially oyster houses or cellars which are associated with heavy drinking and the burgeoning male “sporting life” of gambling and frequenting prostitutes.

The temperance movement begins. Since there is little separation between eating and drinking places, restaurants are targeted as sites of temptation and moral downfall. Religious publications warn readers that it’s a slippery slope from sipping “innocent soda water” in a pleasure garden to getting drunk in the oyster house or “the common grog shop.”

Highlights

1820 Aiming for well-off gentlemen, Dudley Bradstreet advertises fine venison, “a warm room and the best of wine” at his Phoenix Restorator in Boston.

1821 In summer wealthy New Yorkers vacation in Saratoga Springs and environs where they enjoy Wild Pigeons, Pike, and Bass “taken daily at the foot of the much celebrated Cohoes Falls” at S. Demarest’s Mansion House.

1823 A visiting Frenchman complains he cannot get French cooking in New York’s typical English-style chop houses. He pleads, “Will any body be kind enough to point out a veritable French coffee house or restaurateur in New-York, where ‘haricot mutton,’ ‘coutulettes a la maintenon,’ and sundry other dishes may be procured?”

1824 France’s marquis de Lafayette, friend of the American revolution, pays a return visit to the US and is feted with a dinner at Boston’s Exchange Coffee House which features an astonishing selection of American and French dishes.

1826 A teenager named Hawes Atwood opens an oyster saloon on Boston’s Union Lane which he will operate into the 1890s. (Still in business and now known as Ye Olde Union Oyster House, it is the nation’s oldest restaurant in continuous operation, looking very much the same as in its 1889 illustration above.)

1826 To the delight of a passerby who copies it in his notebook exactly as it appears, a sign at a Philadelphia oyster cellar captures the speed and energy of the spoken bill of fare: “OystersOPENED,ORINSHELLFriedorstuedBEER,PORtE,ALE”

1827 Swiss immigrants Giovanni and Pietro Del Monico arrive in New York and establish a small European-style confectioner’s shop serving pastries, coffee, wine, and liquor at 23 Williams Street.

1828 Black caterer Edward Haines opens a summertime Mead Garden on the corner of Front and Jay streets in Brooklyn NY.

1828 The editor of the Trumpet & Universalist Magazine applauds a Providence RI restaurant keeper who has “substituted at his Restorateur hot coffee in lieu of intoxicating alcohol.” “If a man must drink at 11 o’clock, he writes, “let him drink Hot Coffee.” (By the way, he is referring to 11 A.M.)

1829 Downtown in NYC patrons of the dark and dreary, but cheap, Plate House crowd into box-like seating and wolf down plates of beef and potatoes. Child waiters shout orders to the kitchen followed by the guests’ box numbers (Half plate beef, 4!). [Philadelphia oyster cellar pictured; note curtained booths]

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

Read about other decades: 1810 to 1820; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

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Celebrity restaurants: Evelyn Nesbit’s tea room

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of celebrities have gone into the restaurant business when their careers waned. Their level of direct involvement may be high or low but all these ventures bank on the idea that a famous name will attract customers.

When Evelyn Nesbit opened her NYC tea room in May of 1921 she made sure that her name was prominently displayed. Located on West 52nd street just off Broadway, the sign saying “Evelyn Nesbit’s Specialty Shop” was visible from the theater district’s Great White Way.

She was then in her mid-30s, years away from her peak as a teenage artist’s model [above, age 16], “Gibson Girl,” Floradora showgirl, and millionaire’s wife. Her fame derived not only from her former good looks – from the years her image was displayed everywhere – but also from her involvement in a romantic triangle with prominent architect Stanford White and her insanely jealous husband Harry Thaw. After Thaw shot and killed White in 1906, she became notorious as a witness during the sensational “trial of the century.”

By 1921 she had divorced Thaw, had a son, returned sporadically to the stage, taken up sculpture, published a memoir, and married a second husband from whom she was estranged. Characteristically, she was in debt, owing the equivalent of a year’s income to a dress shop.

Her tea room enjoyed such a short, unsuccessful run that it is hard to learn much about it. Presumably she raised funds from friends to furnish it and pay the $300 monthly rent. She lived in two rooms upstairs. One account described the 100-seat tea room as “super-beautiful” and furnished with rich carpets, Oriental tapestries, and exotic plants, a description at odds with the homey scene in a 1922 photograph shown here.

In several interviews Evelyn made what sound like preposterous claims that she served food available nowhere else. “I am revolutionizing the restaurant business in New York,” she boasted. Her specialties included deep dish apple pie and ice cream which she said she made herself. “I amazed the chef, let me tell you, with what I know about cooking,” she said.

I found it surprising that she claimed to be a good cook; however I did discover that when she left the US for Paris in 1910, surely pregnant with her son, she told friends that she planned to rent a modest apartment on the outskirts of Paris, study sculpture, and do her own cooking.  Although she evidently hired someone else to cook for the tea room she said she furnished the recipes and did all the buying.

Things went wrong fast. During the first six months she (barely) survived three robberies, one kidnap attempt, one suicide attempt, and eviction for nonpayment of rent. On a second try in January of 1922 she was successfully evicted, after which she returned to cabaret dancing. In 1926, while performing at Chicago’s Moulin Rouge, she tried to kill herself again by swallowing Lysol. Her troubled brother took his own life two years later.

But Evelyn achieved happiness in later life and lived on to age 81. She moved to Southern California near her three grandchildren and their father, a pilot for Douglas Aircraft. She returned to her lifelong interest in art, teaching sculpture and ceramics at a community center. Easing her constant need for money, she received a $10,000 bequest when Thaw died in 1947 and was paid more than $50,000 for use of her life story in the 1955 movie “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.”

After many years away, she visited New York in 1955, reflecting on the great meals she had eaten during her heyday. Passing the former location of Sherry’s, she recalled “the wonderful terrapin they served.” She expressed surprise that she had managed to stay slim in her youth. “I ate so much in the old days I still wonder why I didn’t get fat,” she said referring to another performer’s, Lillian Russell’s, “upholstered” appearance. Heading off to a restaurant dinner, the ever-unsentimental Evelyn confessed, “You know what I really want to see most in New York? A nice big broiled Maine lobster.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Reuben’s: celebrities and sandwiches

Once upon a time there was a famous NYC restaurant called Reuben’s. Today there is a famous grilled sandwich of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on pumpernickel called a Reuben. Wouldn’t it make a nice story if the sandwich came from the restaurant?

The connection has been well researched yet it remains unresolved. For anyone who wants to examine the matter in detail, I recommend Jim Rader’s excellent account. He has the last word, inasmuch as there is one.

Two important points. 1) No one has come up with an early menu from Reuben’s that lists the Reuben sandwich as it is known today. It does appear under the name “Reuben’s Pioneer” on a 1971 menu but by then the sandwich could be found everywhere. 2) Despite being a publicity hound – and despite an Omaha woman winning a national contest for creating the sandwich in 1959 — founder Arnold Reuben never laid claim to it as his restaurant’s creation.

What is certain is that the fame of Reuben’s restaurant and delicatessen was built upon sandwiches — and the celebrity patrons who ate them.

I have seen a menu from Reuben’s said to be from 1922. Under the top heading “Reuben’s Famous Sandwiches” are listed 42 sandwiches. Nine are named after celebrities of stage and screen of that time. What is striking about the named sandwiches is that they cost more than the others. At the low end are ordinary sandwiches priced at 35 cents such as Salami, Corned Beef, and Liver Wurst. The special celebrity sandwiches range from 75 cents to a dollar, amounts that would then buy a whole dinner in many restaurants. The specially named sandwiches probably had more ingredients and may have been larger, but the aura of celebrity around them must have added a few cents too.

Naming sandwiches for celebrities was a publicity gimmick probably thought up by a press agent. The columnist Westbook Pegler claimed that Reuben’s initially acquired fame because of publicity generated by the audacious Harry Reichenbach who encouraged Arnold to sue a well-known New Yorker over the price of a ham in 1920. Thereafter, like Lindy’s and the Stork Club, Reuben’s was constantly in the nationally syndicated gossip columns of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.

Arnold Reuben was a German Jew who, with his family, immigrated to the US as a young child around 1886. He helped out by peddling produce, then worked at a delicatessen. In 1908 he opened his own deli, which he later referred to as a “shtoonky little store.” By the end of the teens, he was thriving; he had incorporated his Pure Food Shop at 2102 Broadway and opened an eating place at 622 Madison Avenue which was popular with Broadway performers and stars from Hollywood. (Transitions from food store to restaurant are not uncommon and, as was also the case with Texas butcher shops-to-barbecues, often begins with sandwiches.) In 1928 he had a third restaurant in Philadelphia and was said to be “enormously rich.” Adopting the slogan “From a Sandwich to a National Institution,” he often told a story about the first celebrity sandwich he created – ham, cheese, turkey, cole slaw, and dressing — for a struggling young actress.

He experienced some financial difficulties in 1933 and filed for bankruptcy but only two years later was back on course with a bigger and better restaurant [pictured] to replace the one on Madison Avenue. Of critical importance to his comeback was the end of Prohibition. His opening announcement in the New York Times attested to this with a prominent display of the names of Reuben’s “friends,” seven liquor manufacturers and distributors.

In 1946 he opened a restaurant on West 57th near Carnegie Hall, with a front nearly identical to East 58th Street. Like his others it was open 24 hours. No doubt it, too, had a doorman who greeted patrons with the bywords “Reuben’s, that’s all.” Larger than the East 58th place, it was billed “A City in Itself,” and contained shops for delicatessen, flowers, chocolates, cigars, and theater tickets, as well as a perfume bar and a barber shop. Despite all, it silently disappeared a couple years later.

Arnold retired to Florida in the mid-1960s and sold the business, which he had turned over to his son to manage years earlier. Reuben’s in NYC continued under new ownership at various locations until 2001. A Reuben’s was also opened in Miami in the 1940s but I have not been able to determine its subsequent fate.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Theme restaurants: Russian!

Restaurants and coffee houses run by Russian immigrants appeared in the late 19th century. Their proprietors were Jews living on NYC’s lower East Side as well as others in California and Chicago who were pro-revolution enemies of the Czar. But not until after World War I (and the Russian Revolution), when a very different wave of anti-revolution, pro-Czar Russian immigrants arrived, did explicitly and self-consciously Russian-themed restaurants come into being. They flourished in the 1920s and 1930s.

For many readers New York’s Russian Tea Room will immediately spring to mind. It was established on West 57th Street in 1927 by Jakob Zysman, a Polish immigrant who operated a chocolate factory at the little tea room where ballerinas hung out. The business soon moved across the street where it changed hands and was expanded into a full-fledged restaurant. Over its long history it had many owners, notably including Faith Stewart-Gordon who ran it from 1967 until the end of 1995. After extensive renovations by restaurant impresario Warner LeRoy, it reopened in the fall of 1999. LeRoy died in 2001 and the RTR closed the following year.

But it should be noted that, unlike other Russian restaurants of the interwar period, the RTR was not started by a White Russian nor did it have a specifically Russian emigré clientele for most of its tenure. Reportedly, at one point the Russians who haunted the barroom were discouraged from patronizing the place because of their propensity to linger while they eulogized the olden days. The RTR was mainly famous as a flamboyant celebrity restaurant.

In the 1920s NYC gained a population of White Russians numbering about 6,000, most of them well-educated former members of the intelligentsia or the Imperial Russian Army. Numerous Russian eating places soon cropped up, with names such as The Russian Inn, The Eagle (E 57th), Katinka (W 49th), The Russian Swan, Kavkaz (Bdwy & 53rd), Casino Russe (W 56th), The Russian Sadko (W 57th), The Maisonette Russe (W 52nd), and The Russian Bear (W 57th). On the lower East Side were The Russian Kretchma and the (original) Russian Bear. Striking modernistic wall murals by emigré artists such as Boris Artzybashev, balalaika music, and entertainment by Cossack performers often contributed to the atmosphere of these eating places. As far as I can tell they served both as gathering spots for Russians and as tourist attractions.

Los Angeles also had a White Russian settlement of up to 2,000, with an Orthodox church, art shops, tea rooms, and restaurants. Lured by Hollywood, some Russians from this period acted as extras in movies and a few became studio consultants with expertise on the former glories of the fallen Russian aristocracy. When Theodore Lodijensky, proprietor of NYC’s Russian Eagle, moved westward he consulted on Sternberg’s “Last Command” (1928) — and he opened a West Coast version of The Eagle.

When the RTR began there were also other Russian tea rooms in NYC and around the US, some going by that exact name, some with names such as The Samovar. An importer of artistic wares named Polakoff, a Czarist who used a royal crest in his advertising, ran a Russian Tea Room filled with Russian arts and crafts on Chicago’s South Michigan Blvd. A specialty there was the Petrograd Supreme, a tall sandwich which the eater approached from the appetizer layer on top, working down to the dessert layer at bottom. In the 1930s Valentina Alekseevna Vernon ran a Russian Tea Room in San Francisco. A woman of strong opinions, she found Americans as resistant to some Russian dishes as she was to theirs.“I wouldn’t touch either an ice cream soda or a fruit salad,” she proudly proclaimed. Also in San Francisco was the Moscow Café which opened in 1932 and featured flaming Beef Stroganoff and Cossacks balancing flaming swords. A few Russian restaurants could also be found in Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven CT, and Miami in the 1930s.

The dishes introduced by White Russian restaurants included not only Beef Stroganoff, but also Blini with Caviar and Nesselrode Pudding. Although their menus might list Borscht, Darra Goldstein points out in The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink that this humble Ukrainian beet soup was brought by Russian Jews who had immigrated earlier.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Romany Marie

Marie Marchand, whose business name was Romany Marie, was taken aback in the 1950s when a Greenwich Village restaurateur declined to host a dinner for Marie’s artist friends on the grounds they would occupy the tables too long. In a 1960 interview recorded in Romany Marie, Queen of Greenwich Village by Robert Schulman, Marie reflected, “It was a little shock to me. Poor dear, she felt she had to have turnover, she was in the restaurant business, not in the venture of maintaining a center for lingering tempo.”

For someone such as Marie who had herself been in the restaurant business for over 30 years, this would seem to be an odd reaction. But hers were odd restaurants – she preferred to call them centers – where patrons were encouraged to linger. If they lacked money for a meal, and they fit her criteria as creative spirits, she let them eat for free. Luckily, she had a brother who helped her out financially because hers was not a lucrative business. On the other hand, she encouraged and helped sustain dozens of artists and creators such as Buckminster Fuller, Burl Ives, Stuart Davis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Sloan (one of the many artists who painted her portrait – pictured above).

Marie, who as a teenager came to the US from Romania in 1901, said she patterned her taverns (so-called though she served no alcoholic drinks) after the inn her mother ran for gypsies in the old country. To honor her mother, Marie dressed as a gypsy and usually decorated in rococo style with peasant scarves, batiks, pottery, and her patrons’ paintings. Several of the 11 locations she occupied over the years featured fireplaces, which to the horror of health inspectors she used for broiling steaks.

After working initially in the garment industry Marie brought her mother and sisters to New York. The family lived on the lower East Side near the Ferrer School which offered workers free adult education. She became involved with the school where she met artists and thinkers who later became her patrons and, sometimes, volunteer waiters. In 1914 she opened her first place in the Village’s Sheridan Square. Amenities were sorely lacking, with both stairway and toilet facilities located outdoors. For years she had no electricity, candles furnishing the only lighting.

AtmosphereRomanyMarieSummer1921In 1915 she moved to 20 Christopher Street and it was at this location, the one she occupied the longest, that her name became well known. Another location of renown was 15 Minetta Street, with an interior designed by Buckminster Fuller in the late 1920s. In the 1960 interview Marie quoted Fuller as saying, “I’m going to fix up this place in a Dymaxion way.” He outfitted the restaurant with canvas sling chairs, “aeroplane tables,” and aluminum cone lights. Instead of the darkness her patrons were accustomed to, Fuller lit the place up by painting the walls silver. Sculptor Isamu Noguchi assisted (“Bucky got me to help him with painting the place up solar.”). Everyone disliked the brightness, the tables wobbled when food was placed on them, and the chairs collapsed when sat on. The experiment failed but Marie promised Fuller one free meal a day for the rest of his life, a benefit that carried him through the Depression.

In addition to Romanian dishes such as meat pies and cabbage rolls, Marie specialized in strong coffee which she advertised as Café Noir à la Turque. Her signature dish was ciorbă, a soup of vegetables, meatballs, eggs, lemon juice, and sour cream. Marie’s husband Arnold, a difficult man who was known to deliberately break dishes and otherwise sabotage her efforts, rendered this dish on his phonetic menu as “Tchorbah, peasant soop.” A menu by him also listed “Boylt Beeph wit been’s & hors radish,” and “Lone Guy Land Greens.”

Marie continued in the restaurant business until 1946 when she retired to care for Arnold. Each time Marie moved her restaurant she announced it with a sign which said “The caravan has moved.” Its last move was to 49 Grove Street.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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