Friday, February 29, 2008

Diners and old friends

This is a column by Randall Beach

It’s lucky for us that these city fixtures just keep on keeping on

We turn today to old friends and old diners. Against all odds, they persevere.
Last Thursday, I continued my tradition of stopping in to visit my buddy, Manson Whitlock, on his birthday. This was his 91st.
But I didn’t go to his home to see him. I knew that if I went to 272 York St. and walked up the long flight of stairs to the second floor, I would come upon him there in his shop, tinkering with typewriters.
Sure enough, there he sat at his desk by the window, working on a Royal. Whitlock’s Typewriter Shop was open for business.
He greeted me warmly as he always does, although he knows a visit from me invariably leads to some lines of ink in the newspaper. As a modest man, he finds this embarrassing.
So what if he’s probably the oldest typewriter repairman in the world? In his view, he’s just doing what he has always done.
“It gives me something to do,” he said. “It keeps me off the streets. There’s no business at all.”
But shortly afterward there arrived a young woman, carrying an Underwood. Whitlock looked at it with keen interest.
“They were the Model T Ford of their time,” he said. “It looks like it needs a little tender loving care. We’ll have to rejuvenate this fellow. I think it can be done.”
“How long will it take?” she asked.
“I’m slow,” he told her. “It may take more than a couple of days. I have to look inside it first.”
After the woman departed, I thought about how unusual it is for a young person to want a typewriter repaired. Whitlock told me one reason he keeps coming to work is because “It’s nice to see old friends. And I can help them out. Nobody else will bother to do it anymore.”
When I asked him how the drive in from Bethany is going, he answered, “Oh, fine. Driving has always been a hobby of mine. I used to race sports cars.”
“When the Department of Motor Vehicles calls me in for a test, they can set up an obstacle course,” he said. “I’ll show them how to do it!”
Whitlock has been plying the typewriter trade since 1930. His only concession to changing times or age is to close up for the day after working through the morning.
Every time I visit him, I am amazed and heartened.
I also stopped in to see Helmi Elsayed “Mo” Ali, owner of the New Star Diner on Lombard Street. What I really came to see was the remnants of his Forbes Diner, now sitting on blocks in two big sections on his property behind the New Star.
The New Haven Register reported three weeks ago that the Forbes, a fixture at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Stiles Street, had closed and was slated for demolition. But as the story noted, Ali decided he could not bear to have the stainless steel classic destroyed, so he arranged to have it towed to his lot.
Ali left Forbes Avenue because Dunkin’ Donuts made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He sold the property to them.
But as we sat at the counter of the New Star, Ali told me, “The diner is a foundation for America. Junk food, fast food, rush, rush — they eat junk.”
Ali is still looking for a new home for the Forbes so he can re-open it. “It’s in very good shape,” he said. “That’s why I won’t let it go.”
Nonetheless, it’s sad to drive by that old corner and not see the Forbes, and it’s also sad and weird to see it up on blocks in Fair Haven.
In another down-but-not-out diner story, we have the ongoing saga of the Yankee Doodle Coffee Shop, which closed suddenly Jan. 29 amid a rent dispute. Supporters of “Doodle” owner Rick Beckwith continue to work on a business plan for an undisclosed new location under consideration.
“We’re taking the re-opening very seriously, to make sure we have all the ducks in a row,” said Phillip McKee III, a Yale alumnus.
It’d be fabulous to have a new Yankee Doodle up and running in time for the Yale reunion weekends in June but McKee said he can’t make any predictions.
Randall Beach can be reached at or 789-5766.

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