If the wrecking ball demolishes the Parker-Spruce Hotel and adjacent Westbury Bar and Restaurant at 13th and Spruce, it’s going to destroy more than a decrepit 12-story hotel and popular gay sports bar. It’s going to disturb my family’s ghosts.
For 35 years, my grandparents, Sam (“Doc”) and Anna Friedman, walked each day the half-block from their house on Spruce Street to stand behind the counter of their drugstore, the Spruce Hotel Pharmacy (later Parker Hotel Drugs), located on the ground floor of the hotel, in the current location of the Westbury. They never closed the store. Not even for Yom Kippur. And they never hired (or trusted ) anyone else to run it. It was a mom-and-pop store in the truest sense of the word.
When they opened the pharmacy in 1932, the Spruce Hotel (now the Parker) was a highly respectable establishment, catering to businessmen and musicians. A far cry from the seedy, rooms-by-the-hour, fire trap it became in the 1960s. Like most pharmacies of that era, it had a soda fountain and luncheonette that served up blue-plate specials on fine china, along with Dolly Madison ice cream and Mrs. Smith’s pies.
I, literally, grew up inside the drugstore. As a child, I could think of no greater joy than helping stock candy, magazines, cigarettes and cosmetics. (And keeping all the Hershey bars I could stuff in my pockets.) When I was 12, I was allowed to work the grand old National cash register, a mammoth machine with jumbo keys that made all kinds of wonderful sounds. My grandparents taught me how to count out change to customers, an art clearly lost on today’s digital cashiers.
A couple of characters
I spent hours sitting in a wooden booth devouring grilled cheese sandwiches, milkshakes and the Saturday Evening Post. Of course, there was a downside to this. Sitting in the booth meant being joined by my grandmother, a woman who began every conversation with “Do you want to hear some gossip?” To my horror, she would then tell me family “secrets” that no pre-pubescent should hear.
My grandmother’s wardrobe was stuck in the 1940s. The Depression happened once, she reasoned. It could happen again. In spite of her mothball fashions, she knew a thing or two about modern life. When a tall man wearing lipstick and rouge came to the counter to purchase extra-large nylon stockings, my grandmother shooed me away and waited on her customer politely.
In retrospect, both of my grandparents were characters. Doc, as he was called by customers and family alike, was a penniless Russian immigrant who came to America as a teenager determined to find gold in the streets. And find it, he did! First in real estate, then in pharmacy, with a detour as a bootlegger during Prohibition.
A short, skinny guy, Doc made up in personality whatever he lacked in stature. He was a natural storyteller who had us kids convinced his hair had really turned white overnight when fell into an open grave back in the Old Country. It wasn’t until decades later when I found his wedding photo showing Doc with thick brunette hair that I realized my grandfather was more interested in captivating an audience than in honesty.
Which leads to Doc’s “hobbies.” My grandfather loved to make money. He also loved to lose it. He regularly took his hard-earned money to the race track and bet on horses that either matched the names of his seven grandchildren or sounded like winners. When his horse came in, no one was more generous than my grandfather. When his horse lost, Doc took his misery to the nearest bar.
As fate would have it, there was a bar adjacent to the hotel lobby, which Doc could enter without walking outside. “I have to see a man about a dog,” he would say, before slipping out the back way. An hour or so later, my grandfather would return, swaying and staggering, smelling of his best friend, Four Roses Whiskey.
Naturally, my grandmother didn’t approve. But it was another hobby of my grandfather’s that really tried her patience. Doc liked women. And women liked him. Personally, I couldn’t blame them. My grandfather was charismatic, handsome, a bon vivant, and in retrospect, he had sex appeal. Even as a kid, I knew there was something not kosher about his annual trips to Miami without his wife.
Many years later, after Doc’s death at the age of 80, my grandmother was stopped by a little old lady on Spruce Street. “Pardon, Mrs. Friedman,” the elderly woman said. “You don’t know me, but I was a friend of your husband.”
My grandmother, who was known for a tongue sharper than a Gillette blade, snapped back, “I know who you are. You’re the whore my husband took to Florida.”
I wasn’t surprised that my grandfather died just five years after closing his pharmacy in 1967. The “store” as he called it, had been his life. And when it became the Westbury Bar 20 years later, I felt his ghost would be at home. Even if the patrons were gay, there’s no place Doc would rather be than in a bar, sharing in the stories and the laughter, and drinking away the pain.
On Oct. 20, a small fire on the 9th floor of the Parker-Spruce revealed that the building’s sprinkler system was not up to code. As a result, the building, including the Westbury, has been shut down indefinitely, and on Friday the owner of the bar announced that it would not re-open. The building is being sold, but its fate remains unclear.
I worry about where my grandparents’ ghosts will go when their beloved store is gone. Will they wander aimlessly back and forth on that half block of Spruce Street, as they did every day for 35 years? Or perhaps my grandmother’s soul will finally rest in peace now that my grandfather no longer can sneak out for a shot of Four Roses.