Tillie the Toiler Redux

by Phyllis Kriegel

According to New Jersey labor laws, minors under the age of 18 were allowed to work three hours a day; maximum 18 hours a week when school was in session. At age 14, I garnered the requisite working papers and became a some-time Tillie the Toiler, snagging a job at the Kresge Five and Ten on Main Street in Hackensack, New Jersey.

The store was a kid’s paradise where a dime could get you a burger plus a mug of root beer big enough to swim in.  Such store food was deemed forbidden fruit in my family.  Gleaming show cases offered happy hunting grounds for loose fingers eager to filch a shiny bauble or snatch a small toy. But as a card-carrying worker, no more petty larceny for me; sales help was carefully monitored when coming and going.

I longed to be assigned to the book section where scores of Nancy Drews and a raft of comic books awaited my delectation. But the store manager– tall, grey haired with a luxuriant mustache–had other plans, sending me to the makeup counter where he advised, ‘Keep busy.’

Did he imagine I had special expertise in the cosmetic world and that I– barely allowed to wear a touch of lipstick– would morph into a budding Helena Rubinstein, despite my having zero smarts in the field?

As was my wont when confronted by a quandary, I scooted full bore to the local library to explore the world of women’s magazines whose mission was to show aspiring ladies how to fashion the good life.

I discovered makeup mattered! Especially the color of your lips.  Seductive ads urged ‘buy a new lipstick and get transported to the moon.’ I fastened on the Tangee brand which sought to separate the ladies from the tarts: “Look beautiful without looking artificial. Brilliant, flaming tones are passé and no longer worn by fashionable women.”

My friendly smile and trendy spiel culled from advertising come-ons worked. Sales burgeoned. In my heart of hearts, I cottoned to Chen Yu, a brand that evoked the Inscrutable East: slightly sinful, conceived as an homage to Rudolph Valentino.  My favorite was Dragon’s Blood Ruby–as if ripe plums were channeled into a tube encased by ersatz ivory adorned with Chinese motifs.

Despite a surprising offer from management to become head of the Make-up Department–did they suspect that I wore an A for Ambition underneath my Sloppy Joe sweater—I said, “thanks, but no thanks.”

My sights were set on the College Shop at Arnold Constable, a swanky New York department store, newly moved down the block from Kresge Five and Ten on Main Street, Hackensack.


Virginia Woolf wants us to write “For the good of the world.” I believe that to survive, you must tell stories. Phyllis Kriegel

Martinis on Christopher Street

by Phyllis Kriegel

Moving into New York in the early 90s, l landed a dream apartment on Christopher Street, complete with beamed ceilings, bookcases galore and a working fireplace. The second story windows provided an added bonus– a perch for keeping an eye on neighborhood happenings.

My block offered a clutch of hedonistic haunts: play darts at Kettle of Fish, sing-along at the Duplex, buy bongs and booze side by side. I could purchase an adorable puppy, try on sexy underwear, meet the LGBTQ crowd at Stonewall Inn and stop at Bar 55 for cool jazz.

But it was a gustatory wasteland. A subpar Argentinian restaurant had replaced Les Deux Gamins-an intimate bistro run by two dour French men whose cigarette ashes just missed the onion soup. I yelled a joyful adios when the space was vacated, watching it morph into a Zagat-touted hotspot with tin ceilings, exposed brick walls and extremely loud rock music.

The hands-on new owner—Gabe Stulman– named his venture Joseph Leonard, in honor of his two grandfathers. As Gabe put it, “there are few things more charming and with more heart and soul…than a West Village corner.”

Never mind that the music played wasn’t Rodgers and Hart, I became a regular. Although my senior status and grey hair upped the age demographic, generational differences took a back seat. The affable staff welcomed me. In short order they knew my name, the name of my dog and what I drank. We schmoozed and traded stories, sharing must-see, must-read lists.

I loved my nirvana on the corner where I savored chance encounters with all comers–locals, tourists, art and film mavens—even an occasional bold faced name.

Meanwhile, animated by the vibes of his contented customers, Gabe launched another local eatery—cater corner to Joseph Leonard—on the corner of Waverly and Christopher, just a few doors from my building.

He called it Jeffrey’s Grocery, where he plied organic vegetables and fresh seafood, all the while filling glasses with beer and wine. But in short order he jettisoned the grocery-cum-bar concept, determined that Jeffrey’s needed a radical makeover—including a full liquor license.

The prospect of applying to the Community Board must have caused some anxiety. Board 2 was notorious for being particularly stingy with new liquor licenses. Meetings were said to be raucous, even grueling.  Applications frequently pitted neighbor against neighbor; while some insisted that that a new license on their block would ruin people’s lives.

Gabe asked me to come to an upcoming Board meeting to speak in support of his new venture. So began my maiden skirmish in NYC internecine war over booze.

On a Tuesday night midwinter: Meeting room packed. Applications argued. Passionate differences. Then my turn to speak. I detailed the way Gabe and his helpers had turned the neighborhood into a spirited community. Then I got to the nub…’I’m not getting any younger, and it seems a shame that I have to cross the street on a cold, dark night to get my martini.’ Applause followed.

If you go to Jeffrey’s and ask for a “Phyllis,” you just might get a vodka martini, straight up, with ice and olives on the side.


Virginia Woolf wants us to write “For the good of the world.” I believe that to survive, you must tell stories. Phyllis Kriegel

Daddy Stories

by Phyllis Kriegel 

The only funnies allowed in our house came tucked into the New York Herald Tribune–a respectable Republican newspaper, considered boring by seven-year-old me. My father refused to give a nickel to a Hearst publication or any newspaper considered “yellow journalism.” Neighbors took pity and supplied me with their castoff comics: Dick Tracy, the Katzenjammer Kids, and Lil’Abner—delectable, forbidden fruit.

But Daddy offered other treats, “Let’s go to the bakery and you can choose dessert.” So we’d walk down Main Street hand in hand. Like a Jewish Socrates, he would solicit my opinion, answer my questions with due deference, and turn our stroll into a privileged moment.

After dinner, ending with my chosen gooey dessert, came Toscanini time– when the Philharmonic ‘s music poured out of our mahogany Magnavox.

Sometimes Daddy would dance around the living room to Tchaikovsky or Brahms. My world turned joyous. He was so graceful, so handsome, as light on his feet as Fred Astaire. After whirling and twirling, he’d make a daring leap to our coffee table for finale.

One memorable Sunday he landed instead on Momma’s lap.  I clapped and begged for more. I wonder, did he feel like a bird soaring over New Jersey? Or was he remembering bearded men dancing in Vilna?


My father, never a big drinker, loved his shot of Haig and Haig Pinch before dinner. Drink in hand, he’d settle into an over-stuffed armchair, available to hear my pesky plaints–the small compass of a child’s world deserved serious consideration.  What I deemed as monstrous slights, he reduced to small potatoes. With a smile or gentle joke, came advice:

“You might tease someone about their good points but not about weak ones,” he said, after I had mocked a neighborhood kid for some flimsy fault.

Eventually our schmooze time diminished. Girl friends became intimate confidants. Boys and Saturday night dates loomed large. My heart no longer belonged just to Daddy.

Before going off for my freshman year at college, we talked of the new life ahead. An offhand, “Sweetheart, if you’re going to drink, stick to Scotch.” he said. “And be a good girl.”

Did Scotch have some gnomic property to keep me safe? Was he aware of my teen escapades: sipping a Cuba Libre on the terrace of the Claremont Inn; slipping into New York state with its lower drinking age to order a rye and ginger; partying in backyards and swilling purple passion punch–guaranteed to make you sick. Forget the taste, you wanted the euphoria.

The subtext was sex: frantic necking, slow dancing in the dark, grappling in the back seat—all those delicious, dangerous games.

I wonder, did Daddy think that Scotch warded off randy feelings. No matter. My father was paying attention– the rarest and purest form of generosity–some say the greatest act of love. With my children and grandchildren I try to pay attention, as if Daddy were whispering in my ear.


I have a passion for narrative. I see telling stories as a survival strategy—a way of being in the world.





A Birthday Celebration, 1963

by Phyllis Kriegel

Call her a lousy mother but the thought of throwing a party for a gaggle of rowdy kids triggered high anxiety—“more Valium,” she muttered.  She balked at shriveled hot dogs, melting ice cream cakes and the obligatory goody bag. Fed up with over-themed birthday parties she said hooey to dejected clowns, gave thumbs down to the tricks of tired magicians.

But how to celebrate her son’s eighth birthday with joy on all sides and no bruised feelings? She offered David a catalogue of alternative treats: a romp at Palisade Amusement Park, a trip to Coney Island with a ride on the cyclone, trekking up Bear Mountain -–suggestions that received a cool “No thanks, Mom.”

Things warmed up when she invited his friend Bob to join the birthday jaunt: let the kids decide, after all, they were no slouches about current goings on. The boys decided a movie in NYC fit the bill. They chose Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which had just opened in a Manhattan movie palace. The three- hour plus movie was billed as a symphony of slapstick, crammed with comedians and craziness– tailor-made for two smart alecks in training.

Last hurdle:  Where for dinner?  The kids craved a Horn and Hardart Automat, but Mom, knowing she’d need a Martini said, “How about going to a little place where the waiters dress like French sailors and they have ship models of the Normandie? “ The prospect of steak and fries—aka Steak Frites–animated the hungry pair. Three napoleons with candles morphed into an impromptu birthday cake; Happy Birthday sung with French accents put the cherry on top.

Reluctant to call it a day, the boys gave a rousing yes to her suggestion of a ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

Waiting for the ferry to dock, she had a Proustian moment. It was a memory out of the pages of the Bobbsey Twins, a beloved series from childhood. Hadn’t Flossie and Freddy- the younger set -gone to the wheelhouse and met the captain? “Why not us,” she thought, and asked an attendant swabbing the deck, “if this birthday boy might see the wheelhouse? “ A mumbled okay and the trio climbed up to be greeted by Captain Andy– grey beard and ruddy cheeks, looking like he’d come from the frontispiece in a children’s book.

In the wheelhouse a vast expanse of windows framed the skyline of skyscrapers and bridges of lower Manhattan. Dazzled by the gleaming brass and burnished wood of the setting, they watched the twinkling lights as night began to fall on the city.

“Would you like to pilot us across New York harbor, birthday boy?” asked Captain Andy.  David scrambled into the captain’s chair and grabbed the mahogany wheel. “You sound the horn when I signal,” the Captain said to Bob.  And sure enough, with David at the helm, the ferry sailed decisively past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, docking safely at Staten Island.

With big grins and firm handshakes, farewell was said to the wheelhouse and to Captain Andy. Then David turned, grabbed Bob and said, “I’m really glad you’re here, ‘cause no one would believe this story! “


I have a passion for narrative. I see telling stories as a survival strategy—a way of being in the world.


Speaking Up in Paris

by Phyllis Kriegel

In the late 40’s a redoubtable college professor introduced me to the mysteries of French grammar.  I memorized verb forms, studied vocabulary lists, imbibing idioms calculated to spark conversations.

During the 50’s, in reading groups and conversation circles, lycee graduates brushed up my accent and fine-tuned linguistic subtleties.  Along the way I absorbed nuggets of French culture, bits of history.

But the path to passable French was strewn with dangers: cognates that look similar but have different meanings turn out to be false friends. They can betray you in a twinkling.  Baiser as a noun means a kiss, but baiser as a verb means to fuck.  Better safe than mortified: use embrasser and avoid a grosse gaffe.

In the early 60s, aided by a trusty Baedeker, I planned my virgin siege of Paris. To the barricades… bring on the monuments…the chic cafés and venerable brasseries. Allons-y !

In my fantasy life I yearned to be welcomed by the French, to present a mix of charm and wit, a certain je ne sais quoi and l’esprit galore.  Perhaps even have a romantic fling.  But what if I made a faux pas or flubbed le mot juste.

Maybe a well- rehearsed monologue delivered with a smile and sneaking in a snippet of the subjunctive would disarm, pass muster, even at the  French Academy.  This is my first trip to Paris, the most beautiful city in the world. I am thrilled to be here.  I have studied French so that I might chat with tout le monde.

My carefully crafted set-piece apparently worked.  Taciturn taxi drivers, blasé hotel clerks, surly waiters in cafes and snooty barmen at the Ritz responded warmly. The dour woman who ran the beauty salon even offered a smile with a gracious bonjour.

There I was, feeling newly soignée with a trendy haircut and secure in scarf-tying skills. Meanwhile, I longed for the sexy underwear that only the French can dream up.

Chatting with all comers like a wind-up doll, I reveled in the sounds and sights of The City of Light. In street markets and elegant gardens I sauntered, affecting the guise of a disinterested bystander.  But now, as I caught the full measure of seductive scenes overheard, je tout compris!

Diffidence be damned.  If the proper moment should happen, I might even attempt baiser.


I persist in believing that stories happen to people who can tell them.