Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Last Days of the Metro Diner

by G. Jack Urso  


Fading Memories: Happy days at the Metro Diner, circa 1959.
Left to right: Joe (Pop) Sr., Maria, Fran, Joe Jr.
On Saturday, September 6, 1986, the Metro Diner on Broadway in Albany, NY, was leveled to make way for the construction of the headquarters for the New York State Dormitory Authority. Though the building sat on the tiny plot for about four decades, the owners of the diner only held title to the building itself, not the land it sat on, which was owned by the city. Years of attempts to buy the land outright came to naught, so when the land was eventually sold to the state, which had other plans for the plot, the family who owed the business had little to recompense them for the loss of a lifetime of hard work.

That family was my family and our story, with some variations, has been played out in many cities with many families whose inner-city businesses withered in the years following the “white flight” to suburbia. I can remember walking through sections of downtown Albany in the early 1980s where several blocks of old row houses and tenements were simply abandoned and boarded up. It was like walking through an episode of The Twilight Zone.

In the 1960s, whole neighborhoods in the city where completely wiped out and paved over to make way for Nelson Rockefeller’s modernist Empire State Plaza. Activists at the time mourned the loss of the city’s rich ethnic heritage, but the truth was that in a few years most of those homes would be emptied as the residents flocked outwards, away from the slow physical decay of the city to the slow spiritual decay of the suburbs. The impact on the diner was a steadily declining customer base.

When times change, times change; we aren’t given a sign from heaven or warned that the world you once knew and thought would last forever is about to vanish. One day it’s here, the next day it’s gone, and before you know it your place in the universe has disappeared.

The Metro Diner was owned by my grandfather, Joe “Pop” Urso, who was a character straight out of a Damon Runyon novel. The name "The Metro Diner" was my uncle's idea. My grandfather asked for suggestions from his two boys; I forget what my father's suggestion was, but something about the word "Metro" fit the diner and the atmosphere perfectly. The name gave my uncle a sense of ownership about the business from a young age that my father, despite being the eldest, did not share.
"Metro Diners" were ubiquitous throughout mid-century, post-war America.
This image resembles the original look of the Metro Diner in Albany, NY
(Louis K. Meisel Gallery, New York).
From the 1940s through the late-1960s, the diner was open 24 hours a day. About a block up from Union Station (the railroad station), and the largest post office in the city, the diner did business hand over fist and funded my family’s own move out of downtown Albany. Pop supplemented his income by making book on the side, and the diner proved to be a perfect place for such extra-curricular ways of raising revenue.

Pop was a classy guy. He almost never swore, and never in front of ladies or children. An elderly ex-marine fondly recalled, decades after the diner closed, about the day he got out of the service in the 1950s, walked into the diner penniless and Pop gave him a free meal something he did for many hard-luck cases over the years.

On more than one occasion, the old man paid for the funeral of one of the cooks or dishwashers jobs often occupied by a string of nameless men with various levels of substance abuse or mental problems and whose presence or absence on this planet was rarely enjoyed or missed.

After my grandmother died, my father and I rummaged through some of my grandfather’s personal things. Among them, I found an embossed invitation to my grandfather for a private party being hosted by Frank Sinatra at the Sands Hotel. My eyes bulged open. Frank fucking Sinatra the man himself! I knew Pop was a big gambler and made annual trips to Las Vegas, but he never mentioned Ol’ Blue Eyes.

“He probably lost a big bet to Sinatra playing craps,” my dad guessed. Pop always dropped a big bundle whenever he went down there, so this was just the hotel’s way of compensating a good customer for a bad bet.

Compensation for the lost bets we make in life, however, is rarely enjoyed.

Slip-Sliding Away

In the days before state-regulated Off-Track Betting, bookies were ubiquitous. Across the street from the Metro Diner was a building which up through the 1960s housed a betting parlor, with clerks behind windows and the races announced over a speaker system just like in the movie The Sting.  Combined with the business from the diner, Pop made quite a few bucks for himself. Local cops and judges were on the take, so the old man was often warned ahead of time whenever a raid was looming; whether you ran a diner or took bets, greasy palms were inherit to both.

The collapse of the inner-cities began in the early 1950s in Albany. By the 1960s, the exodus went from a trickle to a flood. Then, in 1968, Union Station closed and all the business that came with it. Still, the diner trudged on now open only through 11 pm, or earlier some nights.

Fran and Joe (Pop) Sr. with two unidentified patrons, circa 1959.
Notice the juke box and black marble countertop.
By 1969, my grandparents, Pop and Fran, nearing retirement age, decided to sell the diner to an employee. Their two sons, Joey, the eldest, and Jimmy, had gone off on their own. Joey was the first person in the family to get a bachelor’s degree, but Jimmy, who briefly considered art college, eventually opted to follow Pop’s career as a bookie. Oddly, when Joey, my father, announced he would be going to college to study economics my grandparents were barely fazed; however, when my Uncle Jim decided to enter the family “business” they glowed with pride.

Once Off-Track Betting became legal in the 1970s the profits from bookmaking dropped off. Oh sure, there was always money to make taking bets, but not the piles of cash that would sit on Pop’s kitchen table after he made collections. It soon became an equation of slowing diminishing returns: the smaller the take, the smaller the bribes; the smaller the bribes, the smaller the people were who you could buy off; the smaller the people you could buy off, the smaller the “favors” were they could do for you.

My Uncle Jim saw times were changing when the newsstand he ran next door to the diner got raided by the FBI. Jim almost thought he could talk his way out of it until some old rummy, who sometimes worked as a porter at the diner, staggered in from the back room and called out, “Hey Jimmy, whad’ya got on the fifth at Aquaduct?

Jim rolled his eyes in exasperation, but the fact the raid took place without him being tipped off was a sign that the influence he and his father once bought was fading. Once, my grandfather held court with judges and politicians who eagerly held out their hands for financial compensation in exchange for their “favors,” but by the late 1970s neither had much use for the old man. Times changed, and the old days were gone.

Alas, poor Diner, I knew you well . . .

The employee who bought the diner sold it off after a year to a food service business that slowly ran it into the ground. They replaced the brushed aluminum with an earth-toned siding. The friendly service provided by employees who worked for years at the diner was replaced by a string of apathetic and luckless transients who considered the diner a dead end and treated the customers like chattel.
The Metro Diner, circa 1985. The aluminum sliding long gone - a shadow of its former self.
By 1981, my grandmother bought the diner back and turned it over to my Uncle Jim to run. Former employees flocked to him like an old rocker getting the band back together, and despite the slower sales the diner soon found its rhythm. By now, however, the city had indeed sold the land the diner sat on to the county. Jim again explored the possibility of buying the small plot, but the county was as intransient on the issue as the city had been.

Whatever the reason for the city’s refusal to sell the land in the past, it soon became clear that the reason the county now refused to sell the land was because of a looming deal with the state to essentially buy the whole block and build the headquarters for the State Dormitory Authority. Whatever amount of money my uncle could have scrapped up to buy his small plot could not compete with the state’s bid.

The diner was too old to move now. My uncle didn’t have the money to move the equipment out, nor any place to store it. He had gone through a divorce, as had my father. Pop died after a long and expensive bout with emphysema. No one in the family had the money to salvage anything of value from the diner, so it was closed for good in 1985.

My uncle had no intention on spending any money to maintain a building that was just going to be torn down. The county’s perspective was that he should continue to pay for upkeep of the building even though it couldn’t be moved or sold. Eventually, Uncle Jim received an eviction notice for failure to pay the water bill he had until noon on the last day of the month to clear out anything that he owned, after which time possession of the building and all its contents would be assumed by the county.

If I Had a Hammer


Albany Times-Union
article, Sept. 9, 1986.
It didn’t take long for word to get back to my uncle what plans city and county officials had for the diner. At noon, the building would be officially declared abandoned” and the contents up for salvage. Before it was to be bulldozed, they would strip the building bare of its fine black marble countertops. They would remove the classic old grill, the freezer, the stools, the booths, the large mirror that hung on the back wall, and anything else that could be sold off or reworked for man-caves, family rooms, and kitchen nooks throughout suburbia.

About an hour before the eviction notice took effect, my uncle slid into the big white Cadillac that once belonged to Pop. It rode like a cloud, and was soon to be the only physical relic left on the planet of something that once belonged to the old man.

Jim turned left from State Street onto Broadway and saw the diner’s small parking lot was already full of vans and trucks waiting to cart off their loot. They were like pirates waiting to board a floundering vessel.

Gathered on the street were representatives from the city and the county, not there in an official capacity, but rather to lay first dibs on the contents of the diner. What they couldn’t use in their own homes they could resell. Workers from the city and county stood by to haul away their ill-gotten gain; there was no way the officials were going to get their hands dirty, but their hands were dirty. The very same people who once placed bets with Pop and Uncle Jim, the very same people who once eagerly took their money in exchange for “favors,” now stood by like vultures waiting for its prey to finally die before picking the bones clean.

My uncle pulled the Caddy in front of his old newsstand near the diner. He got out and walked on the sidewalk where his brother Joey wrote his name in wet cement just after he was drafted into the marines in 1953. A city official approached him.

“Hey Jimmy! Here to take one last look at the old place?”

“Yeah, something like that,” my uncle responded distractedly, fumbling for his keys.

“I’m sorry about all this Jim, I would have sold you the land if it was up to me,” the official said half-heartedly, trying to distance himself from the moral morass of the situation.

“Then what are you doing here, taking in the sights of beautiful downtown Albany?” My uncle challenged the official. Like everyone else, he was down here to salvage something to sell off.

“Don’t be like that Jim, we’re just following the letter of the law.”

“Oh sure.”

“You aren't going to cause any problems now, are you?”

“Me?” My uncle responded sarcastically. “No, I’m not going to cause any trouble. In fact, I’m here to work on my new career.”

“Your new career?” The man from the city was beginning to get worried.

My uncle popped the trunk, reached inside and took out a sledgehammer, “Yeah, interior decorating.”

With that, my uncle walked past a crowd of men who stared anxiously at his sledgehammer. He entered the diner and without any formalities began to smash up everything in sight and I mean EVERYTHING. He began with the black marble counter tops, working all the way down towards the mirror on the back wall which shattered with one hard strike. Then the booths, the benches, the stools, the windows, the air conditioner, the condiment containers, the milkshake mixer, the grill, the coffee makers, juice and soda dispensers, the bathroom, sink, freezer, and prep areas. He even smashed up the floor.

The city official called out to the old cop, Doyle, who had been watching the proceedings, “Hey, are you going to do something?”

“About what?” Doyle replied, “It’s still his property until noon. Until then, he can do what he wants.”

“He’s creating a public disturbance!” The official shouted to be heard over the destruction, his anxiety level rising as he calculated his losses.

“Right now, the only one creating a disturbance is you.” Doyle didn’t care. He was an old friend of Pop’s going way back. He was going to be retiring soon and Mr. College City Official could kiss his lily-white ass.

Just before noon, my uncle left the building and stood in the doorway smoking a cigarette. Nearly everyone in the parking lot was gone except for Doyle and a few homeless guys who nervously paced around.

“You done Jim?” Doyle asked.

“Sure thing, knock yourselves out.”

“Ok boys,” Doyle called out to the homeless men, waiting to strip whatever metal they could carry away to the scrap yard in their rickety old shopping carts.

Jim looked at the old alcoholics as they rushed past him into the diner for their pickings. Pop would have wanted it this way. If anyone should profit from the diner’s destruction, it should be those guys who worked long hours washing dishes and mopping floors for the price of a bottle and the rent for a room, and in that order.

With the destruction of the diner came a sense of freedom as well as grief grief over the loss of a physical connection to his father’s life, but freed to go his own way. The past was now in the past. Jim thought about his next move. 

Doyle walked my uncle back to his Cadillac.

“Say Jim,” the crusty old cop asked, “what’s the action like at the track today?”

"I couldn't tell you," my uncle said. He opened the door to his car, slid behind the wheel and drove away, looking at the diner in the rearview mirror until it disappeared.
Joe "Pop" Urso, at his favorite booth in the Metro Diner, circa 1964.
 


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