It wasn’t easy to get to know “Mr. Nathan,” the Hot Dog King with his unrelenting workaday regimen.
Nathan Handwerker lived up the block, around the corner from our Mermaid Avenue men’s shop. Some afternoons, he walked past our store. He might wave, or nod to my dad, Simon Powsner, both the same age.
Dad might sometimes comment, as he observed the tall paper bag that Mr. Nathan usually toted under his arm. He was always busy, rarely having time to shop. He probably let his wife Ida do those chores.
One day my publisher, Herb Berman, called me from his Graphic Bensonhurst office.
“Lou, we’ve just hired a new editor, a young woman from the Boston area. I’d like you to familiarize her with the Coney area too,” he said. “If I send her down to Coney tomorrow morning, could you walk her over to Nathan’s?”
She came down early the following morning.
I met Marilyn Stasio around 10 am that day and as we walked the few blocks, I didn’t have to point out the aroma of French fries growing stronger the closer we got to the Surf Avenue breeze.
As luck had it, Mr. Nathan himself was behind the counter at 10:15 am. He was biting into a “nude” frank — without mustard. We introduced him to Marilyn, our young new editor, to whom he bowed politely.
“A nice to meet you,” he said.
“Mr. Nathan, it’s only 10 o’clock,” we pointed out. “Do you eat hot dogs all day?”
He curled his chewing lips and answered us.
“Always when I leave home in Oceanside, my wife Ida makes me my cereal, my orange juice, toast and my coffee. But when I come to the store, the first thing I do is taste a hot dog. I want to make sure they’re giving me the right stuff.”
Marilyn was delighted and surely remembers that moment now, as she is a regular crime-story editor in the Book Review section of the New York Times.
There was another time that we met Mr. Nathan in City Hall. We were both sworn in by then-mayor John Lindsay at City Hall, to his committee on Seaside Resorts, a non-salaried honorarium, trying to alleviate the city’s beach resorts. Mr. Nathan said something that had John Lindsay doubling over with laughter. Nathan wanted the mayor’s help trying to restore some closed bath-houses, oddly stating, “There’s a lot of people who come to Coney, could use a bath, or a place.” It struck Lindsay in his laugh belt.
Another time it was sadder, both Nathan and Ida Handwerker had always been active in the Coney area, and after their deaths, a lamp was mounted for each in Coney’s largest synagogue with brass plaques, inscribed with their names. One day many years later, the president to the temple called us.
“Lou, we need your help,” William Feller screamed. “They broke into our shul here on Mermaid Avenue overnight and they robbed everything. They took out the toilet, the plumbing, the bronze plaques from the memorial wall; in the bathroom, even the tiles and all the pipes — you must see.”
We rushed to our community board office hollering about the brazen crime and met the new police captain as we screamed about the Koch administration that gave Coney no protection.
Our column then was “As temples burn in Koch years.” In some of those years we had meetings shared with Nathan’s oldest son, Murray Handwerker, and later with Nathan’s grandson, Kenneth.
The next time we saw Nathan Handwerker was after his death. After visiting the graves of our parents out in Queens, we sought to pay respects to an old friend buried there. Hiking up that aisle, I could not find Aaron Bush, but in that aisle we came upon the graves of both Ida and Nathan Handwerker, laying side by side, their headstones inscribed neatly. As is the custom, we stopped and said the mourner’s prayer for each and laid a visitor’s stone as reverent visitors.
Rest in peace to both my own parents, my kid brother, grandparents, many aunts, uncles and Ida and Nathan Handwerkers of beloved memory.
It’s a time to remember now and forever.