Once a week, Marcelle Soviero's mother took her to Uncle Joe's soda shop, Soviero's Luncheonette. This family-owned restaurant became Marcelle's safe haven, where she learned compassion and acceptance from her family and the patrons who frequented.
My great Uncle Joe purchased the soda shop on Main Street in Huntington in 1967, the year I was born. My mother would bring me to Soviero’s Luncheonette on Tuesdays when my older siblings were in school. Once a week, we’d step into the smells of sizzling bacon and sides of fries, the door chiming behind us.
Mother and I sat at the stainless steel counter, facing the mirror-backed walls and long-necked fountains that spurt soda water. Spinning on one of the twirly stools, I had only to decide between egg creams, grape trickles, lemon fizzes, and cherry smashes. I was happy, a blonde pony-tailed 5-year-old, known by all as Joe’s niece.
I usually ordered a chocolate egg cream, before my lunch—always a grilled cheese—“smiley food,” is what Mother called it. My drink came with a long-handled spoon in a fancy glass and kisses from Uncle Joe or Aunt Milly, or whatever family was in the place. Italian-style kisses—pinched cheeks and “you’re getting so big.” I was shy then, still am, but I loved those kisses. I know now how lucky I was that I had a safe place all through my girlhood that was mine, where I knew going in that everybody was going to like me.
I took great sips of soda, listening to the voices trill, and the slow hum of the fans hung in rows from the tin ceilings, the sound of grease on the griddle, and the toaster’s pop. “Why would anyone go to the Hamburger Choo Choo?” my mother would say. The Choo Choo was another local favorite, three doors down. It’s true, hamburgers there were served tableside on a small train set, but Soviero’s burgers were twice the size and came wrapped in wax paper in a little red basket with flat-cut fries.
And Soviero’s had tap root beer, blue plate specials, and whipped cream made by hand. Some days I’d follow my uncle downstairs to the basement, a magical place with mixing bowls and candy molds stacked on wood shelves. Uncle Joe showed me what to do. The simplest of recipes: Take a half gallon of cold heavy cream, add pinches of sugar, and beat to the consistency of cloud.
In spring the basement was a candy factory. My aunts and uncles and cousins lined up, melting the milk chocolate made by hand and pouring it into iron Easter bunny molds. What fun popping the three-dimensional bunnies out! Bunnies in profile, bunnies in top hats, bunnies jumping, caught mid-air in sweet leaps. My job was to help wrap the chocolate in clear cellophane, my small fingers pinching the puckered top while Uncle Joe tied the baker’s string. The front window of the Luncheonette that faced Main Street became a bucolic diorama, filled with chocolate bunnies nestled in pastel blue baskets, jelly beans peeking through the faux grass.
The Luncheonette, situated in a village bordered by both a train station and the waterfront, was a place where folks of all kinds found comfort in the food, and in my family, my uncle especially, known as the nicest man in town; he never turned anyone away. His unspoken motto might as well have been, The coffee is free if you can’t pay. More than once I’d spy him slipping a cup of tomato soup to Nick, a street addict who lived behind the train tracks, and others like him.
Nanny, my Irish grandmother, red-haired and red-lipsticked, cashier and bookkeeper, tried to keep a tally of the meals and drinks Uncle Joe gave away so she could at least attempt to keep the books. Once she came in late on a busy day and Uncle Joe had left the cash drawer out on the counter for people to make their own change. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Nanny would say. “It’s hopeless.” But I knew my Uncle Joe was trusting, and that seemed right to me.
Eighth grade, age 14, still shy, I took my place on the other side of the counter, serving instead of being served. I worked as a waitress after school. Poppy, my grandfather, would stop by, order the breakfast special at $1.95, and leave me a $5 tip. “You work too hard, Martie,” he’d say. I felt rich.
And I saw plenty who were not. Tony was our most colorful patron: It was a guess on any given day whether he would be Tony or Tina (his shoes gave it away—silver heels with peep-toes or sneakers with holes, both pulled from a dumpster where he acquired his eccentric wardrobe). “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, who is he today?” my Nanny would say, waiting to see which restroom Tony would use.
Maybe it was my shyness, or the way I held my head, I don’t know, but the downtrodden, the outcast, any customer who could not pay, sat at my counter, particularly on cold nights. I learned the art of listening and the meaning of acceptance while pouring coffee and mixing milk shakes.
One night Tony came in, as Tina, particularly anxious. “What shoes do you think I should wear to the dance?” Tony asked as I refilled his coffee. He was 30, tops, which was old to me then. His hands shook as he put on lipstick, completely missing his lips. There was a new bruise on his left eye. I slipped him a hot burger, greasy from the grill; my uncle would not mind.
The Luncheonette closed decades ago and I’ve since moved far from Long Island. I have children and I wish for them a place, not Starbucks, where I can take them and surround them with kisses, root beer floats, sweetness in a fountain glass—and so much more.
Marcelle Soviero is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in “The New York Times” and Salon.com. Born and raised in Huntington, Long Island, she currently lives in Wilton, CT with her husband and five children.
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