173 Ridge Road
Krasner’s Korner, a toy store my uncle owned at 173 Ridge Road in North Arlington, was paradise for a growing kid. In 1969, when I was 12, hefty and bored, I went with my father back to his supermarket after lunch one Saturday.
“Can I go to the Little Store?” I asked when he parked his station wagon in the store driveway that doubled as the loading dock.
“Go ahead,” he said, “but don’t bother John. He has work to do.”
We walked around the corner, passing the two-step concrete stoop that led into the apartment building above the Little Store, aka Krasner’s Korner. I pushed through the glass door while my father continued another hundred feet of fenced yard along Ridge Road to Krasner’s Shop Rite Market, announced in big, bold capital letters like marquee lettering but affixed to blond brick. The signage for the toy store was nothing like that. It seemed more temporary, just a wooden sign with painted lettering. But together, the two stores represented a piece of Jewish real estate in a Roman Catholic town. My father, the eldest, managed this store, and his brother Harry managed the store in Rutherford. Whether their youngest brother, Herman, wanted to manage the toy store or that’s what they gave him, I didn’t know. The brothers also owned another Shop Rite farther south along Ridge Road and eventually a location in Sussex County.
When I entered Krasner’s Korner, John was standing behind the counter at the register. Business must have been slow, because his nose was buried in some textbook. He was a student at Newark College of Engineering. He probably found my school girl crush entertaining. He teased in that sarcastic kind of way that my family savored. We enjoyed verbal sparring. But as an owner’s daughter, armed with the ability to tattle, I was not to be trifled with.
I roamed the three aisles to see if any new toys had come in since I had been there maybe a month before. I lingered among the pink and purple Barbie boxes to make sure I already had each outfit. I passed the paddle balls, the jacks, the marbles, the bags and bags of plastic army men. I knew the store by heart but had never thought much about a closed door at the back until that Saturday when I peered past the open door into a living room. I would have expected to find boxes of merchandise inventory ready to be put on the shelves at a moment’s notice: balls, jump ropes, baby dolls that cried. But instead, by the light of the store, I saw only a sofa up against the store wall, maybe a couple of easy chairs, and open space. I focused on that sofa; it loomed larger than life. I think I was just too shocked, and too timid, to peer further into the apartment at the time, and there were no windows inside to allow me to see anything really. What struck me most of all was the idea of a single, wooden door separating their lives from the store; they slept, ate, talked, shared their secrets with only a door between them and the public.
“John! John!” I cried, racing back up the aisle to the front. “There’s a living room in the back of the store. Who lives there?”
“Nobody now,” he said. “But that’s where your grandparents lived.”
It spooked me. I had never known or thought about this family of six in such a tiny space. Of course, I knew they lived in the building. I just never put two and two together to realize they lived behind the store. I only knew their house a block up from ours in Kearny. This door at the back of the store not only opened into a family’s living quarters, it also opened into my family’s history.
For decades I’d forgotten all about 173 Ridge Road until 2012. Hoping to learn more about my family when they lived behind the store, I spent some time with my aunt, the only remaining Krasner sibling of my father’s generation. Would she draw me a picture of the apartment, I asked. My aunt pulled an insert from a Valu-Pak and directly over the ad drew the door from the store into the living room. The kitchen was to the north, on the right. The bedrooms were straight ahead. Aunt Doris slept on the couch. She told me how her mother, Eva, had taken her to New York on buying trips for dry goods merchandise at wholesale prices for Eva’s section of the store. My aunt also shared how my father had set up a small office for himself in the basement where he operated a ham radio, a hobby he enjoyed well into adulthood.
I left my aunt’s house and jotted down what I recalled from our talk on a notebook I kept in the car. She told me all she could, and while the information was new for me, I wanted to know so much more and there was no one else alive who could give me the answers I needed. My aunt didn’t remember the kind of food they ate, except hot dogs. As the youngest, she couldn’t have had the memories my father did as the eldest, nine years her senior.
But with her drawing of the apartment, I began to see my father’s family as a real set of people, not just photos and subjects of stories. And every time I looked in her eyes, I saw my father and found that comforting.
I wanted desperately to see the space again. I was in the area that July, planning to meet the Kearny Museum director to talk about a proposal for a new book of Kearny biographies, my fourth book on my hometown. I checked the car’s clock. I had just enough time to go back to the Little Store, which had sold to The Italian Villa pizzeria in the ‘70s. I cruised along Ridge Road, my heart jumping. Would I find any secrets? The façade was still the same, yet different. A thatched kind of awning sheltered the entrance in a Tuscan way and aluminum siding covered the exterior walls. But there were still two large front windows and a narrow door leading to the apartments upstairs. I turned left onto Sunset and realized I could no longer park in the driveway. I was no longer the owner’s daughter. The store wasn’t ours and the apartment building my grandparents once owned — and the one in which my parents lived with their four girls until 1959 — wasn’t ours either.
No sign bore the name Krasner. A storefront bearing our name for 50 years had no place in community memory. But it did in the memory of the owner who was sitting behind the counter in the pizzeria.
“I remember your father,” he said. He came out from behind and took me on a tour, a tour I could complete from a single spot.
“This is where the wall was, leading to the back apartment,” he said. He pointed to a pillar now painted with Tuscan imagery.
“And this was the bathroom.” It was a storeroom now. “The toilet was against this back wall.”
To the left of the entry hung an oval mirror.
“Is that original?” I asked and he nodded. I imagined my father combing his hair with some sort of cream. I imagined my grandmother looking into the mirror and shrugging her shoulders. I snapped a photo. Did Eva ever wonder how she did without plumbing in her home village of Kozlow in Austria-Hungary? That if they’d had a bathroom, the nine of them would surely have been fighting over it, especially with five females.
“The kitchen was the kitchen.” Where my father and his siblings ate vegetable barley soup or beef stew, which was always ready for them on the stove because my grandparents were busy in the store.
“There was a booth in the corner,” he said, gesturing to the southwest side. “I guess it was a living room. And two bedrooms — one for the boys and one the master bedroom.”
The bedrooms stood next to each other at the western wall. I tried to take it all in. Imagining six people in this cramped space, my Aunt Doris on the couch in the middle of it all, trying to get enough sleep to go to school the next day. The closeness, the intimacy, the entanglement with the demands of a business just on the other side of the door, the sound of the ham radio interrupting it all. I took several photos and when I look at them now, I can almost sense the comings and goings of my family in their apartment.
One door led to the apartments upstairs where my father and mother moved as newlyweds in 1946. Another door led outside and several more doors led to the basement. I could now fathom my mother’s isolation coming from Bensonhurst in Brooklyn where she lived among other Jews in a fairly homogeneous community to this borough where she could count the number of Jewish families on two hands. But she was also used to having all her family in one building. She and her parents lived in one apartment. Her sister, husband, and baby lived in another. Her mother’s parents in another. When she moved to New Jersey as a bride, she lived above her mother-in-law. What fun that must have been as a newlywed.
The pizzeria owner escorted me down the rickety stairs to the basement. He pointed to a narrow but deep room. He said, “Your father probably hooked up his radio in there.” And I could imagine him studiously fiddling with knobs and frequencies to tap into other young people with similar hobbies, to connect with a world separate from his immigrant, accented parents and his provincial existence until the call to war came.
Back upstairs in the main living space, the large gold-framed wedding portrait of Max and Eva must have hung. It was taken against a prefabricated backdrop at a Newark photo studio. In the three-foot-high photo, Max placed his fingertips on Eva’s shoulder as if to say, “I will support you, but will not hold you down.” His mouth was closed; hers, slightly agape, suggesting she was open to the possibilities of the future. They both looked forward into the lens and the future.
On some wall hung portraits of my father and his brothers in the Army Air Force, Army, and Navy, respectively, during World War II. The frames were heavy and tangled in velvet tassles.
But more than twenty years prior, after two years of marriage, Eva and Max left Van Buren Street in the Ironbound section of Newark in 1920 with my one-year-old father in tow. They planned to open a grocery in the boro of North Arlington, across the Passaic River to the northeast. Maybe this place with about one-hundred families reminded them of the shtetl. Maybe they figured the town would grow and they could buy land and a building for a good price. I’m banking on the latter. I’m banking on a feeling that Eva, more than Max, made shrewd business decisions.
They purchased a corner lot at the intersection of Ridge Road (then called Kearny Avenue, a continuation of the main street from neighboring Kearny to the south) and Sunset Ave. The store was situated on a large parcel for a mom and pop store. There was an apartment building across Sunset with maybe three homes on their side of the street. Across Kearny Avenue stood the massive Our Lady Queen of Peace. Max and Eva had probably never been so close to Catholics before. A bit to the west on Sunset stood another church, St. Paul’s Mission Protestant Episcopal Church and Parish. Max and Eva had probably never been so close to Protestants before either.
They lived in an apartment behind the store and eventually become a family of six. They owned the apartment building above and rented out the flats. The only stories I heard involved their activities during the Depression. Max ran the grocery; Eva ran dry goods. Max allowed customers to buy on credit, and in June 1933, when a Jewish-owned plastics factory on Crystal Street down by the Passaic River exploded, Eva donated clothing and other dry goods. More than 150 people were injured and many died. She’d known those who suffered loss. They had sat with her in the store near the window and the radiator, trading stories. Sometimes her daughter climbed into her lap. She loved when Doris called her Ebiekenebie.
A simple door separated the family’s private living space from the goyishe public space. In the apartment, Eva maintained a kosher home and served traditional foods, such as the Sabbath cholent of beans, carrots, and onions, to her family. But in the store, she made ham sandwiches for the kids attending Queen of Peace High School across the street. I wonder if she wore gloves or protected her hands in any way from treyf. Did she learn how to handle meat from her butcher father, from Max, or did she teach herself?
They stayed here, at Krasner’s, at 173 Ridge Road until 1949. Max and Eva had saved up enough by then to buy a corner home in the Arlington section of Kearny. By 1953, my father and his brothers, with money from Max, bought an adjacent lot next to the store and opened Krasner’s Supermarket. The little corner store that had belonged to my grandparents became my uncle’s toy store, Krasner’s Korner.
Despite the small living space behind the little store, the disproportionate size of family portraits tells me family meant everything to Eva. I wonder if she ever thought about how her mama would never know her American grandchildren. Eva herself had only known one of her own grandchildren, born in 1949. Why couldn’t she have hung on until the rest of us arrived? Why couldn’t I have tasted her cholent or stew? Why couldn’t I have sat on her lap listening while she kibitzed with neighborhood women? Why couldn’t she have pinched my cheek and called me mamashaynele?
About the Author: Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her prose has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Manifest-Station, Jewish Literary Journal, South 85, The Smart Set, and other publications. She teaches in the English and History departments of New Jersey colleges and universities.