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May 29, 2023

The Last Éclair

By Harvey Silverman

Weintraub’s is gone.

The last business on Water Street that was a tangible link to those days well over sixty years ago when I, with my mom and dad, entered a world I had at the time no idea was special. Not unique; there were no doubt similar businesses on similar streets in similar neighborhoods in other cities, but for me it was a time and place now recognized as so sweet, so rich, so embracing and so missed.

Water Street. It was dirty, crummy. Trash in the gutters. Grubby sidewalks, dully lit, littered with crushed filter-less cigarette butts. Storefronts with greasy looking windows, peeling paint. The street itself was narrow; cars parked on both sides left a constricted path, a single tightly squeezed lane on the one-way cobblestone road. Each parking spot along the street was filled, each auto parked inches, it seemed, from the one in front and behind. There were no meters, no painted lines.

Water Street. Though it extended further, for me Water Street was a single block. Saturday after sundown, sometimes Sunday afternoon or evening, we moved on sidewalks that were always full. People doing their shopping for the week, adults carrying brown paper bags, often stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to greet a friend passing the other way, the older ones sometimes conversing in Yiddish, the foot traffic held up, people twisting or pushing to get by, the greeting friends seemingly oblivious to their part in the obstruction.

I looked forward to our trips to Water Street, a drive across town, the slow crawl along the street looking for a spot in which to park, the drive around the block so as to try again, the hint of relief when an open spot appeared, the discussion as to whether the car would fit, the back and forth of somehow fitting into the space, the lack of power steering requiring the muscling of the steering wheel by my dad, the manual shifting to proceed forward and backward, finally the minor triumph of successful parking.

The first stop was usually Cohen’s, the Kosher butcher. It was a small shop, always crowded with customers. While my mom waited her turn to be served by one of the two or three men in white coats that were never clean, the butchers standing behind the long display case that ran along the length of the long side of the shop, I looked at the variety of meats through the glass front of the case. Most interesting to me, each time we went there, were the pans filled with beef tongues, so large that it seemed hard to believe they fit into a mouth, the raised taste buds somehow off-putting, and the pan with a single cow’s brain, fully intact, the blood vessels running along the convolutions, an odd membrane covering it all. After a few minutes of looking at this museum-like display I retreated to stand along the far wall, kicking at the layer of sawdust that covered the unfinished heavy wooden planks of the floor. A few times the butcher would give my mom a hunk of cow lung which she would later cut into pieces and feed to our family cat. Once, just one time, putting lung into the cat’s dish, she remarked that as a child she and her impoverished widowed mother would sometimes obtain free cow lung and grind it up to add to a bit of hamburger for their food.

Sometimes my dad would go off to Arkus Pharmacy which was at the far corner of the street to visit with the druggist there. A few times I went with him and shuffled about the small drug store, bored, while my dad and the owner chatted about whatever fellow pharmacists chat about. There were never any customers when we went. One year for my birthday my dad bought a child’s microscope set there and at home I looked at magnified housefly wings and onion skins.

I always tried to be with my mom when she went to Widoff’s Bakery. There was another bakery across the street -- Lederman’s -- but we were Widoff’s people. She routinely bought a loaf of wonderful rye bread which she sometimes asked for as a “corn rye” and which she referred to at home as “Jewish bread” to differentiate it from the common white sliced Wonder Bread which she called “goyishke bread.” Occasionally she bought a babka. I was there with her hoping for a treat for myself, a half-moon cookie or perhaps a couple of kichel. But my favorite, a rare luxury due to cost, was an éclair. Widoff’s éclairs were substantial, large and heavy, puffy dough stiff enough to contain intact a thick flavorful yellow custard which filled the interior, and topped with a long band of dense chocolate. As we walked to our next stop I would eat this special indulgence rapidly and slowly; rapidly because it tasted so good, slowly to make it last.

Whitman’s Creamery where there were dairy products and packaged foods and where my mom might buy some lox and cream cheese, the chicken store where there were live caged chickens in the front and where one might be able to procure yolks from unlaid eggs that were a delicacy in soup, the fish store where the guy scaled fish with a large device that fit on his hand, were occasional stops.

Across Water Street from where we did most of the shopping was Weintraub’s, a kosher delicatessen that had been there for many years. The pressed tin ceiling, booths on the right, a Weintraub or two behind the counter on the left, and the meats, the chopped liver, the half sour pickles combining to produce the unmistakable aroma of a delicatessen. My mom would buy corned beef, pastrami, or other deli meats such as rolled beef, a seasoned delicacy irregularly available. Weintraub’s was an institution among the community, known for reluctant trimming of fat from roast beef or corned beef and what some thought frugal portions. “You should work at Weintraub’s,” was a common expression when at family gatherings somebody sliced the turkey or roast beef too thinly.

The final stop on those weekly shopping trips was to purchase fruits and vegetables at Sheppy’s. His store, on the corner across from the pharmacy, was cluttered with boxes of lettuce or bananas or grapes and the like, with empty wooden crates stacked haphazardly outside. There were always flies in the air and on the produce. One needed to pay attention when shopping there; it was not uncommon that when Sheppy placed the requested peaches or tomatoes or anything else in a small bag some would be charitably considered past their prime. Sheppy himself was a fellow with a low gruff voice who was often chewing the butt of a cigar. He wrote the price of each purchased item with a stubby pencil on the outside of a large brown paper shopping bag, then loudly added up the total bill, my dad watching over his shoulder and checking the accuracy of Sheppy’s arithmetic.

When my dad raised my allowance to thirty-five cents a week -- I was about ten years old -- I liked to go by myself into The Boston Spa, a small and narrow business somewhere between Widoff’s and Cohen’s. There was a small soda fountain on the right with round stools and a rack of comic books and magazines on the opposite wall. There were likely other items for sale but I never noticed; I already knew why I was there. Using ten cents to buy the latest Uncle Scrooge comic I spent the remaining quarter on a vanilla ice cream soda and sat at the counter as if I were king of the world, sipping my soda, taking the occasional spoonful of ice cream, and reading the comic in its entirety, perfectly timing the simultaneous completion of ice cream soda and comic. Then I would get up and go join my folks who, in such a limited universe, were always easy to find.

When shopping was done, our trip to Water Street ended by getting back into the car, working our way out of the tight parking spot, and returning home to the other side of town, often listening to a radio drama as we traveled. My favorite was Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

* * *

Water Street. When Jews from Eastern Europe emigrated to Worcester, Massachusetts at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century they settled, as did immigrant groups, in the same neighborhood as the others like themselves. Jewish businesses opened and Water Street became the area where they shopped. After World War II, as they became more affluent, their children gradually moved to the other, “better,” side of town. But many returned to Water Street to buy the food necessary for following the dietary rules -- keeping kosher -- or simply to enjoy the foods with which they had grown up. My mom was born at home a few blocks from Water Street and grew up in that neighborhood. In 1951, when I was five, we joined the migration of the aspiring middle class to Worcester’s west side.

My dad told me back then that it was named Water Street because the Blackstone River flowed under it. How could a river run under a street, I wondered, but he told me the street had been built right over it. He was a smart fellow and always right so I accepted his explanation. It was many decades later that I learned that -- surprisingly -- he had not been exactly correct. The Blackstone Canal, built in the early nineteenth century to connect Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island and the Narragansett Bay was just west of Water Street. The next street over was built over the remains of the obsolete canal when it became progressively filled with trash and sewage. Close enough, dad.

Over time people shopped less often on Water Street. Whitman’s Creamery opened a “supermarket” on the “better” side of town. One could likewise buy fruits and vegetables closer to home. She did not put it out of business but my mom stopped getting her kosher meat at Cohen’s after some sort of disagreement. She never patronized the shop again, instead getting her kosher meats at Klein’s which opened blocks from our home. Years later, when she was by then in her eighties, I asked her, during a siege of nostalgia, what was the disagreement with Cohen’s. She smiled and said she could not recall. Though most of the shops from those days of my childhood had closed, my two favorites, Widoff’s Bakery and Weintraub’s Delicatessen, continued to operate, the last ones standing.

It remained a treat to make the drive across town and buy Weintraub’s corned beef when I visited or family gathered, then crossing the street to Widoff’s to get a loaf of their still unequalled rye bread to create the unadorned delicacy of corned beef sandwiches. Weintraub’s was the “go-to” place for many families to get a large platter of meats, cole slaw, half sour pickles, and mustard to feed visitors when having a “shiva” to mourn a loved one’s death.

After our folks died in the first decade of the twenty-first century I periodically visited my brother who still lived in Worcester, driving from my home in New Hampshire. Sometimes we would enjoy a sojourn to Weintraub’s -- unchanged save for the absence of the Weintraubs themselves -- to sit in a booth, look at the old yellowed menus displayed on the wall, the vintage photos of the Weintraubs working behind the counter, and have corned beef sandwiches, as tasty as ever.

One pleasant autumn afternoon a couple of years before Weintraub’s, after ninety-nine years of operation, closed forever, I visited my brother. As I began driving back to New Hampshire, acting on a vague and unformed idea that had for some time sat irregularly gestating in my mind, I detoured to Water Street, parked in front of Widoff’s Bakery -- parking spaces had long been easily found by then -- went in and bought an éclair, not knowing that within weeks Widoff’s would close for good after more than a century in business. I returned to my car, carefully placed the bag with the éclair on the front passenger seat, and drove to B’nai B’rith Cemetery. I parked, walked to my folks’ gravesite, and standing there ate my éclair, slowly.

First appeared in Hypertext Magazine.

Article © Harvey Silverman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-10-10
Image(s) are public domain.
2 Reader Comments
04:06:11 PM
What great personal stories!! They are always delightful! Keep them coming! Thank you! Lynne
11:28:32 AM
What fun to read! I didn't realize the diversity and ethnicity of Worcester. Thank you yo opened my eyes!
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