In the Nick's of Time

Some places close down yet never go dark

There was a diner, I guess you’d call it — an Upper West Side joint known as Big Nick’s, named unfancily for its owner. “Joint” sounds like a pejorative, but actually the full name of the place was Big Nick’s Burger Joint & Pizza Joint. It was two restaurants in one. They’d hand you a set of heavy, laminated menus that went on forever. If you couldn’t find something to eat, you just weren’t trying.

Nick’s became the second half of a first date in 1987. The first date became a marriage in 1991. Thus, Nick’s attained a sense of institutionhood for my wife and me. It wasn’t pretty, but we considered it ours. Then one day this past summer, we discovered our place would be no more. Rising Manhattan rents simply overwhelmed Nick’s burgers, pizza and cheesecakes.

Soon after learning of Big Nick’s demise, I bemoaned this latest episode of “all things must pass” on a call with my father. It’s always been a reliable bonding topic for us, what with my dad having seen more places go than I’ve seen come.

My father can “sadly, it’s not there any longer” me under the table, if he so chooses. It’s an occupational hazard of being an octogenarian, I suppose. Maybe I had set our conversation down memory lane with my Big Nick’s bulletin, but we eventually landed on familiar terrain: the late, lamented Brooklyn Dodgers.

Dad was never much of a baseball fan, certainly not to the extent I am (the first half of that aforementioned first date was at Shea Stadium, which is also no longer there), but he’ll occasionally bring up something he’s noticed from our national pastime to keep our chats rolling. As it happened, he had just seen HBO’s oft-aired Dodgers documentary the night before. I’d seen it plenty since it debuted in 2007, but gladly went along for another trolley ride. What stood out for him was the mention that when the ball club won its sole World Series in 1955, they threw their official party at the Hotel Bossert in downtown Brooklyn.

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The Hotel Bossert is also no longer there, naturally, but it was a draw in those days, and not just for the champion Dodgers. My father segued into the Bossert’s New Year’s Eve to-do from when he and my mother were first married: dancing, drinking, the whole shebang. It wasn’t until we had finished our call that I began to think about what he said. Not about the Dodgers, but about the Bossert on New Year’s Eve. It all sounded so familiar to me, yet I couldn’t figure out why.

Then I remembered where I had heard it before. It was from another New Year’s Eve: 1989, long after my parents had made like Dem Bums and left Brooklyn, long after the Hotel Bossert ceded its status as the place to be. The place we were — the whole family, including my recently ringed fiancée — was a room in Roosevelt Hospital, 20 or so blocks south of Big Nick’s. My mother was at the center of the muted festivities. She’d been battling cancer for a year and a half, increasingly unaware of what was going on around her. She was going to usher in the 1990s in this one, whether she realized it or not. On this night, surprisingly, she seemed plenty lucid and as cheery as Guy Lombardo.

Of course she was. She was pumped full of morphine. And besides, she kept reminding us, it was New Year’s Eve. We should all stay! There’s going to be a band later! There’s going to be dancing!

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But no orchestra was en route. Only hallucinations were playing. Despite my mother’s insistences, we all excused ourselves at the end of visiting hours and let her get as much relatively pain-free rest as she could on what turned out to be her final New Year’s Eve. None of us ever paused during her remaining months to analyze where exactly this business about bands and dancing came from.

Nearly a quarter-century later, I had my answer. It was the Bossert on what was left of Mom’s mind. It had to be. In my next phone call to my father, I confirmed the New Year’s Eve they tripped Brooklyn’s most fantastic light was 1951. The Dodgers had been stunned by the Giants not quite three months earlier. My parents had married that April, while Dad was in the Army. He was on leave and took his new bride out on the town. Of course, there was a band. Of course, there was dancing.

Through the decades, the cancer and the dense druggy fog, all my mother had to hear was “New Year’s Eve” and she was sure she could hear the music, no matter that her actual surroundings and circumstances couldn’t have been any less celebratory. The hotel could close, but what it meant to her and my father stayed with her forever.

Young couples in love can’t go to the Bossert for a formal New Year’s soirée anymore, just as they can’t eat at Nick’s to close out an evening or start a life together. But that’s OK. The joints that stay special to us always somehow find a way to deliver.

Tags: memoirs

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