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A toast to welcomes and simpler times

A mug of beer.

A mug of beer. Credit: iStock

During a mostly uneventful business trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a few years ago, I made a lunchtime excursion down a side street near midtown. The streets were bustling with traffic, and I recall a good number of people walking around.

I stopped someone and asked for directions to a "good place to have lunch." I was told that the best food in the neighborhood was served at a beer hall right down the block. I made my way over and soon found an old, clapboard building next to a dirt parking lot. A huge whitewashed sign proudly proclaimed, "Good Food and Drink."

I opened the front door and walked into a large, one-room, well-lit, German-style pub with wooden tables lining dark-paneled walls and a 20-foot-wide oval bar in the center. I froze momentarily when I noticed that everyone in the place had suddenly turned to focus on — me! Almost simultaneously, the burly bartender turned toward me and smiled, raised his arm high over his head and exhorted all those present: "Friends, we have a stranger here today! Let's welcome him!"

And they did — every single person there! Each patron, whether alone at the bar or seated in a booth with others, looked my way and either said some words of welcome or raised a stein, waving me cordially into the room. I am still amazed that it happened — especially to a New Yorker in a suit and tie.

On the flight home, I marveled at how warm and friendly everyone was during lunch that day. My thoughts drifted back to other warm and friendly days I had as a boy in Huntington Station, and I realized how much I missed those good old days, when life was a bit slower here on Long Island, and the world around me was also a bit more peaceful and friendlier.

I remembered having dinner with my parents at a saloon near the train station and knowing almost everyone there, and, later, laughing during the "Texaco Star Theater" with Milton Berle on the tiny TV set perched high up in one corner of the barroom.

Ultimately, I thought of my father and how his decision to leave the city had impacted the entire family. Living on Long Island was so very different from living in a crowded, multifamily apartment building with fire escapes on that narrow, noisy street near downtown Brooklyn.

After we moved to Huntington Station, my father would sleep very late on Sundays. About noon, he would eat a huge breakfast before meeting with some of the neighbors for an afternoon card game in someone's garage.

During the baseball season, the men would gather in a side yard and string a long extension cord so they could listen to one of the city's baseball teams on the radio. We had three local teams: the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants. Most of the children played in the street in front of the house, but I would always hang around the card players and was thrilled watching them bet nickels and dimes — always rooting for Dad to make a big killing. He never did.

As the weather warmed during the summer, the card players would "ante up" 5 cents before every hand, and toss the money into an empty coffee can. They kept strict count of how much money was collected, waiting until they had enough to buy some beer. Since I was always hanging around the card table, I was the one they asked to carry Dad's metal container, with its tin lid and wire handle, down the block to the saloon on the corner of Pulaski Road and New York Avenue, where it could be filled with icy-cold draft beer — Rheingold or Schaefer.

The can was called a "growler," a name given, perhaps, by fathers who growled at their sons when there was a bit too much beer missing after the son (and growler) returned home.

Alfred J. Faragasso,
Miller Place

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