The White Castle
“When I was a young man courting the girls, I played me a waiting game…”
Actually, what I did many nights and on weekends in particular is end up in the White Castle Hamburger and coffee shop on the southwest corner of Francis Lewis Boulevard and Hollis Avenue, in the Hollis neighborhood of Queens, New York City.
A warm, small, cozy room with about ten spinning metal stools and standing room for about ten more, comfortable, the White Castle was a cross road for intersecting commuters, teenagers and late night drunks. The grill was the first thing that met you when you entered, then the very short white counter. The grill always sizzled with smells of one-inch meat patties and onions cooking, rolls warming. Plus, on cold snowy nights, the grill would provide you with warmth while you ordered and stomped your icy wet shoes on to the dirty snow slushed floor of black and white tile.
My story takes place on a much warmer night in the summer of 1960.
Hollis, Queens and most surroundings neighborhoods, Queens Village, Cambria Heights, and Belmont, where the racetrack was, and Hillside, north of Jamaica Avenue were considered and were in fact white areas mostly, and Saint Albans was fast encroaching as a black area. My aunt and uncle lived in St. Albans, my aunt Rose was black, her husband Gene is white. There was some trouble between the two changing and emerging areas and races, but not a great deal of it. There were groups of young white males from each neighborhood; no gangs and I would suppose similar groups of young blacks in St. Albans and Jamaica, with only one gang in those areas that was spoken of, “The Chaplains.” That summer I don’t recall any particular threat in the air between blacks and whites in Queens or New York. But then it is always there isn’t it?
Friday nights were busy nights on that corner of Queens. The black and white patrons parked their cars in the wide parking lot behind and beside the White Castle building with its all white walls and faux castle ramparts and simple large black lettering of, “The White Castle,” on all four sides. Glass windows allowed you to see the tight fit crowd milling inside. The hamburgers, tiny inch square sliders were 12 cents. Most customers could eat a half a dozen in one sitting. Four or five small jukeboxes on the counters let your beer soaked eyes pick out AM radio top hundred pop tunes to fill the White Castle.
There were often fights at the White Castle especially since it catered to a half drunk late night bar crowd. That summer was no different. Except this night the fight taking place in the parking lot was about to explode into to a battle royal race riot.
I had moved around towards the back to see the standoff, the pushing and shouting and shoving going on between a blond headed white boy whom I kind of knew from the area and a black kid whom I had never seen before.
The garage and gas station on the northeast corner of Francis Lewis Blvd. and Hollis Ave. was a hangout for half a dozen car junkies. Two guys were retreads from the south, their parents having moved north for the better jobs. One, being a tough red neck that everybody called, “Tiny.” He of course was huge.
As soon as the word spread, “Fight!” I saw “Tiny” and his car junkies cross the wide street and head over to the White Castle parking lot. One had a tire iron. With their arrival, I noticed the trunks of at least two autos pop open and the black male owners taking out at the least one baseball bat. This was about to be a huge donnybrook that I could talk about for all of the next high school year. If I didn’t get my head bashed in and need, my jaw wired.
My adrenaline started to kick in as more people young and old, male and female, black and white, began to encircle the main bout of the two boys fighting, one black, and one white, still arguing and circling each other and about to come to heavy blows. The gathering adults began to egg each boy on. “Punch him man!” “Kick his ass, Tommy.” This was going to be a bad and bloody battle as no one wanted his or her guy to lose.
Then out of nowhere, (how he knew what was transpiring I will not know to this day), came an off duty NYPD officer. Just a plain ordinary patrolman. His green plaid shirt open over a t-shirt, his blue uniform pants still on, his cop work shoes on, strapping his heavy gun belt on as he crossed Hollis Avenue from his personal car. Just a cop with a silver patrolman badge, I rightly guessed, but the badge, however was not visible. His parked car, a dark one of no memorable distinction, other then, that fact that it was clearly not a police car and that this cop must have just clocked off duty from the nearby 110th precinct, it being late night and he was likely on his way home when he saw the commotion in the parking lot of the very well lit White Castle and pulled over.
Off duty or not he knew exactly what he was doing and what his job was. As he passed me, I saw that he was not a tall man but a well built one. He exuded strength with handsome features, blond, German or Irish. The look in his eyes seemed to say, “Damn, will this job never end tonight. Let me just do this.” And that he did.
He marched into the gathered crowd back there in the center of the White Castle parking lot and as if on cue and with maybe some relief, this angry crowd spread wide like this man, an obvious cop, was a hot knife and they were all butter.
He looked at no one but went right to the two fighters. He grabbed the white kid by the back of the neck, who immediately winced in pain. In almost the same movement he pointed to the black kid’s face and said clearly so all could hear, “You go!” The kid may have arrived with others but he quickly turned and left. This wise cop then took the white kid by the arm, turned and again without a word or a look at the others, escorted him passed me, and back cross Hollis Avenue to his parked car. We all watched. After seeming to chastise the kid, he put him in the car and drove off, never once looking back.
Adults in the parking lot, Tiny, and the garage boys included, no longer knew what they were standing around and angry about. The crowd melted quickly like that butter. They turned and went back to whatever they were peacefully doing before this mess all started. This fight, this battle royal, this summer time quick to escalate race riot was over! Thanks to one cop and no SWAT team, or tanks, or teargas, or shotguns and riot squad.
A few days later I ran into that same white kid involved in the fight that night, on Hollis Avenue near the drug store that later burned down, and I asked him what happened? He arrest you? He laughed. “Nah.” He said, “The cop waved his finger in my face alright, but he was saying, ‘I am going to put you in this car and drive you around the corner and let you go. Look worried.’ He made a left at the Pizza Place and dropped me off like he said.”
Now that is good police work. And that was in the summer of 1960. What the hell happened?