In 1991, I was living on the Lower East Side. It was still the Lower East Side then, though just barely. Essex was fairly lined with old Jewish businesses and there were small, dusty manufacturers on the side streets. Not a club or bar or trendy restaurant in sight.
I was in the early months of dating my soon-to-be wife. I decided to impress her by cooking her a Rosh Hashanah dinner. Only three years removed from the Midwest at that point, I knew nothing about Judaism or kosher cooking, but I figured I could muddle my way through. My main undertaking was to be a pot of matzo ball soup. I knew enough to understand that I needed a kosher chicken, but I didn't realize the importance of shopping ahead. It wasn't until late in the afternoon of the appointed night that I went out to purchase the fowl. Sure enough, most local grocery stores didn't carry kosher chicken, and those that did had been picked clean by smart forward-planning shoppers.
I began trudging down Essex in the drizzling rain looking for an open butcher. It soon started to dawn on me how hopeless my prospects were. Of course, kosher butchers closed early on Jewish holidays, as they did every Friday evening. The light was failing. My chances of finding a chicken were next to nil.
I walked the length of Essex and did not find an open store. Locked doors and roller shutters. Not a soul on the street. But I couldn't give up; I had no back-up plan, foodwise. And I promised matzo ball soup. I was also well aware of how foolish I would seem: A Rosh Hashanan chicken soup cook who thought he could buy a chicken on Rosh Hashanah.
I turned left down East Broadway and passed the old Forward building, Seward Park and Jefferson Street. Then, on Clinton, just a few doors south from East Broadway, a saw a dingy little storefront with a light on and no sign, but some of the earmarks of a butcher. I walked in. An old, stout, graying man was busy closing up shop. There was a large bloodied counter to the left, some meat hooks along the wall, and a large, ancient, walk-in fridge at the back with its door open. White, red and gray were the only colors on display.
The man eyed me up and down with a look of weary disbelief. "Who is this fool?" he seemed to be saying. I looked around. Not a piece of meat in sight, though it was clearly a butcher shop. A butcher shop that saw no need for niceties or decor, but a butcher shop.
"I need a chicken," I said, with little hope in my voice. The butcher sighed and looked around at the vast amounts of nothingness that surrounded him. "Do you see a chicken," he said, without saying anything. Then he shrugged and walked back into the fridge. A minute passed. He miraculously came back with the yellowish, rather misshapen carcass of a hen that looked as though it had lived a long, colorful, exhausting life. It was not one of those pretty, perfect, symmetrical birds you see in the supermarket. It was a real, dead, plucked chicken. A working-glass Friday night chicken.
And it was the only chicken I was going to find on the Lower East Side that eve of Rosh Hashanah. I bought it and he put it in a clear plastic bag. The soup I made from it was delicious.
I walked back to Clinton Street a few months later to check in on the butcher and he was gone. I should have guessed by the look of the place and look on his face that the shop was on its last legs and the owner was ready for retirement. Both man and business were from an era on its way out.
Above is a picture of the address where it once stood, now home to L's Beauty Salon.