Barbara Johnson Westbrook was born on March 7, 1954. I’ve known her just about my entire life. We were both “Carmel’s Diner kids.” What were they? It’s a descriptor I came up with for the offspring of waitresses who worked at Carmel’s Diner during the late fifties and early sixties. They included Barbara’s Mom Mary, my Mom Erma, Edie Merendo, Chicki Minch, Martha Canfield, Helene Pacillo, and a few other’s whose names now escape me.
These ladies were in my very prejudiced opinion the best wait staff in the history of Rug City dining. For those of you who don’t remember Carmel’s, it was located on the eastern side of the old East Main Street School, right next to another classic Amsterdam diner called DiCaprio’s. Carmel’s was owned by Nancy Greco and her husband Pete. Nancy’s uncle and aunt, Carmel and Concetta Siciliano had opened the diner back in 1912. The building that housed it still stands and has received a lot of local publicity lately because two investors are trying to get it reopened as a non-profit community food center.
Back when our Mom’s worked there, the eatery served a full menu of comfort foods including the best grill-fried burgers in the city, delicious rice pudding, homemade soups, pies and the creamiest mashed potatoes you’ve ever tasted, which were served with a perfectly round mini-pond of Carmel’s delicious beef gravy in the middle. They also used to put a scoop of vanilla ice cream inside a half of a fresh cantaloupe as a dessert selection.
Pete Greco used to work the short order grill with a dish rag draped over his shoulder. They had this real quiet guy in the kitchen named George George, who did a lot of the cooking. Richie DelCostello used to be a dishwasher there as a teenager and every once in a while he’d take some of us Carmel’s Diner Kids down in the basement and pop us open a soda without using a bottle opener which I used to think was as neat as anything I’d ever seen. Concetta Siciliano used to handle the Diner’s checkout station, which included a shiny stainless steel cash register, an always full water glass of toothpicks and one of those old needle pads which held that day’s customer checks. Every time she cashed out a customer, she’d check the math skills of her waitresses to make sure the bill was added correctly and then she’d smash it expertly onto that needle pad without piercing any of her own skin.
Carmel’s crew of waitresses could each carry six dinner plates at a time or four cups of boiling hot coffee on saucers without spilling a drop. Talk about multi-tasking, they could wipe down your table, bring water, take your order, make change for a dollar so you could play the miniature juke boxes at each table and give the next booth their check, all at the same time.
Even back then, the East End was considered sort of the rough part of town. I can remember one summer midnight sitting in the way back of our family’s station wagon in the diner’s parking lot waiting for my Mom to get off from her shift, when suddenly a body came flying through the plate glass window of a bar across the street. Since Carmel’s stayed open till the early morning hours, the waitresses there became very gifted at the art of self-defense. I’m sure each of them had to pick up a steak knife at least once to show an inebriated wise guy he was straying too far over the line. I know my Mom did.
The Greco’s were good people to work for but these girls were paid next to nothing and depended on tips to pay bills and there were a lot of those to pay. The six waitresses mentioned above had about twenty kids between them. Barb had two brothers Billy and Frankie. Like almost all the Mom’s who worked there, hers ended up getting divorced making the effort of staying ahead of household expenses even more challenging.
As a result, they depended on each other outside the diner too. They baby-sat each other’s kids, gave each other rides when cars broke down, lent each other money and socialized together often. Being the same age, it was natural for Barb and me to be close and since both our parents were divorced we had that bond too. Back then, kids coming from a broken home were not very common and there was sort of a stigma attached to those of us who did. I’ll never forget overhearing two elementary school teachers talking about how advanced my reading skills were and one telling the other how surprising that was because my Mom and Dad were divorced.
Barb and I didn’t attend the same school until Junior High and we were both member’s of the Wilbur Lynch Class of ’72 but we were never in the same classes so we sort of just drifted apart. Barb got involved in the Lynch Drama Department and I remember her giving a great leading role performance in a play called “Where’s Charlie” during her senior year.
She ended up moving away from Amsterdam and living all over the country, Georgia, Colorado and California included. We caught up with each other at a class reunion. Barb’s retired after a long career at AT&T. She’s living up on Indian Lake now and her mom Mary, who I believe is the last survivor of the group of waitresses who worked at Carmel’s with my mother, lives up there too. So Happy Birthday to my fellow Carmel’s Diner Kid. Give your Mom my best!