Luchow's is a famous old German restaurant in downtown New York, situated just about where Irving Place and 14th St. make a T. It's bustling spot all year long, but especially so at Christmas time, when the proprietors prop up a huge Christmas tree for all to ogle, and a hefty group called the "Oom Pah Band" toots "O Tannenbaum" as the customers sing. Diamond Jim Brady proposed to Lillian Russell in Luchow's, offering her a suitcase filled with one million dollars if she'd consent. (She didn't.) That's the kind of place Luchow's was, and still is, as far as I know.
My parents used to take my brother and me to Luchow's every to often, even though my father suspected the restaurant of having been a Nazi hangout during the war. Still, there we went, nevertheless, to stuff our faces and game at celebrities. I saw Jackie Gleason there once, looking like the comics' Little King, leading a retinue including Jack Lescoulie, of mellow memory, among the crowded tables. That was not on New Year's Day. My family never went anywhere on New Year's Day, though for two years running my brother and I, while never going anywhere, still managed to spend the day at Luchow's.
You see, when my brother wasin high school, he acquired his own telephone, the number of which was but one digit removed from that of the German eatery. At first he was annoyed by this coincidence, as calls for Luchow's and calls for my brother came in at a ratio of 20 to one. So, eventually tiring of the phrase, "Wrong number," he began to accept a few reservations. This was a cruel prank, to be sure, but partly justified in his, and later my own mind, for our being on the receiving, rather than the phoning end of the calls.
Returning from graduate school one Christmas vacatoin, I was delighted to discover my brother's new enterprise, and immediately joined his restaurant business with all the high spirits of the season. Embellishing his practice of taking reservations straight, I would ask -- whenever someone called requesting a table for eight, for example -- if the caller also wanted chairs. In no instance, and there were dozens, did the reservation-makers treat my question as odd. As long as they thought they had Luchow's on the phone, everything was jake.
During spring vacation we adorned our business further by adding a touch of professionalism. Because of frequent requests for the Luchow's head waiter, we learned that the man's name was Julius, which my brother, for reasons of his own, insisted on pronouncing as Hollio, and which name he adopted whenever a call came in. I would answer the phone, and transfer the call to Hoolio, who would do most of the talking in a Spanish-German accent so difficult to penetrate that requests for tables, and chairs, often took 10 minutes.
We then began to push things a bit, in part to test the limits of human credulity. We asked people if they wished to be seated in the Himmler Room, or if they wanted to try our special "Luft-waffles" instead of rolls. There were long pauses at the other end of the line when we would say such things, but the answers, when they arrived, were always polite and sincere. Once we asked a fellow if he'd mind taking a table for three instead of four -- one of his party could eat elsewhere, and they could all regroup for coffee. He declinedour suggestion, but considered it.
Our best customers were big shots who presumed a favored relationship with the restaurant. These customers made their reservations in barks: "Julius. Mr. Van Kamp. For two. Tonight. Good." Whenever Hoolio would hear such talk, he would warm up the tone immediately, keeping Van Kamp on the line for interminable periods, as he, Hoolio, confessed his deepest, most intimate problems to his personal customer. After a while, Hoolio would lead around to the fact that he was broke. Perhaps Mr. Van Kamp could see fit to make Hoolio a gift of $500 as a token of their long friendship. No? In that case there was no table for Van Kamp.
As these transactions continued over the summer, my brother and I became more than a little ashamed at the havoc we thought we were causing. (In fact, the havoc was minimal, because we'd usually crack up toward the end of our conversations, thus blowing the ruse.) We did not stop altogether, however, until the following Christmas vacation, when we started asking people if they would mind being seated on the roof, where we had set up a cold buffet, card tables and paper plates. This was late December, and the temperatures in New York often fell below zero, when it wasn't snowing. Still, there were one of two takers for our rooftop seats -- though that was not the event that persuaded us to give up the restaurant business.
That event occurred on New Year's Day itself -- this very day, 13 years ago -- when a sugar-voiced lady phoned in the morning to cancel a reservation for lunch. Hoolio was furious. How were we supposed to run a restaurant -- he told her -- if everyone called up to cancel reservations? No, madam, it was impossible. Under no circumstances could we accept her cancellation.
When the woman apologized and started to change her mind, we knew it was time to close shop.