Three Broadway Hits: At Park News, Jimmy's Cafe, and Off Broadway Diner, It's Always Showtime!
No, we're not talking about THAT Broadway. We're talking about Broadway Avenue in nearby Taunton where at Park News, Jimmy's Restaurant, and Off Broadway Diner the shows go on every day and have done so for decades.
Mind you, these three don't think of themselves as entertainment showcases. In their eyes, they are just local businesses serving their customers on Broadway, Taunton's downtown main street. Nevertheless, as a walk-in outsider, I saw, however unintended, slice-of-life theater.
When I first walked into Park News nearly four years ago for my New York Times, I not only got my Times but stepped into human drama and back into history. The place was just like the old days when newspapers reigned supreme.
The stars were a remarkable couple, Tommy Clark and his wife Anna, who shared with me, a perfect stranger, how deeply attached they were to Park News. They told me how much things have changed, how they were selling fewer newspapers, how keeping the place was a struggle -- but that they were going to keep it open come hell or high water.
They opened up to me about their innermost feelings about the business and each other.
I was so moved I couldn't help doing a story about them. Click here to see a picture of Tommy and Anna and to check out that story. The following is a short excerpt:
Tommy says that marrying Anna was "the best thing I ever did." He met her in Park News. She went to high school down the street and would come into the store every day and buy some candy.
Then he went away to the service for two years. When he came back, Anna came into the store and said, "You're not married?"
He said, "No."
"Six months later, we were married," Tommy said.
That was in 1948, before the advent of television, when newspapers were king. People came to Park News for news, to get the latest on what was happening. Since then, while raising five children and being blessed with eleven grandchildren, Tommy and Anna Clark have sold a lot of newspapers.
But gradually, as people got more news from TV and, more recently, as a full-blown Internet age has taken hold offering news 24/7 with a couple of mouse clicks -- and much of it for free -- Park News has been selling fewer and fewer newspapers.
This time when I went into Park News, however, I did not see Tommy and Anna. There was a woman behind the counter.
"Hi," I said. "I'm looking for The New York Times."
"Oh," she said. "Let me look." She hurried to the front of the store. "Got it," she said triumphantly and came over and handed it to me with a smile. "You're in luck. They gave us only one copy and you got it."
"In other words, you knew I was coming in and you saved it for me."
She smiled. It was genuine.
"I don't know if you know it, but when I was here a few years ago, I met the owner and his wife and wrote a story about them and Park News. Are they still running it?"
"I'm their daughter. No, I never saw that story. They don't read newspapers or go online."
Then she said that she was sorry to have to tell me that her dad, who has MS, was no longer able to work in his beloved shop. Nor, she said, could her mom keep working the way she was. Her health was also failing.
"I left my job to work here," she said. "My husband and I are doing our best to keep the shop open for my dad. It's his life. If it closed, it would break his heart."
I could see why. Tommy Clark had owned and operated Park News for 63 years, since he was 18. He told me that he had "been on Broadway longer than Mickey Rooney" and that he wanted to "die right here on the floor."
When I came in for my paper the next day, Maureen -- we were already on a first-name basis -- was teary-eyed when she handed me The New York Times.
"You okay?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, wiping her eyes. "I read the story you wrote. I read it to my parents and you should have seen the three of us crying our eyes out. I printed out a copy for us to keep."
For the rest of the week, Maureen saved The New York Times for me. A couple of times I got the only copy. And, like I did with her Mom and Dad, we talked, we shared, we became friends. On my last day, Maureen walked out from behind the counter, came over to me, and hugged me tightly.
Eyes moist, she said, "Thank you, George, thank you."
After I get my Times, I go two doors down to Jimmy's Restaurant for coffee and a read. Like Park News, Jimmy's has also been there forever. Like Tommy Clarke, so has Jimmy. Three waitresses have been at Jimmy's all their working lives, two of them over 30 years.
Like Park News, Jimmy's is a social and entertainment center. Everybody talks to everybody and there are no private conversations. There is one open, running conversation open to all. Patrons gossip, skewer dumb politicians, give health updates, announce the latest deaths. The nonstop talk is anything anybody wants to bring up.
One issue had really gotten under customers' skins, the new parking meters outside.
"The cops are giving out a hundred tickets a day," said one waitress.
"They're towing cars all day," said another waitress.
"Stupid," said a customer.
"It costs twenty dollars for the ticket and a hundred and thirty-five to get your car back," said another customer. "It's nothing but a money-making scheme."
"Hey, I can't get towed can I?" I asked.
"Nah, you're all right," said a customer. "They don't start ticketing and towing until nine a.m."
"Good, that's what I thought. I'll be out of here well before nine."
I get bold and go up to Jimmy working the grill. "How long have you had this place, Jimmy?"
Amazingly, Jimmy said the same thing that Tommy Clark had.
"Mind if I take your picture?"
"No, go ahead." He posed unsmilingly. Jimmy, I gather, can be crotchety. It's a big part of the ongoing entertainment.
Back at my seat, Eileen, gives me yet another coffee refill. All I order is raisin toast and black coffee. After the fifth or sixth refill, I ask, "You're not getting ready to throw me out are you?"
"Nah, make yourself at home, honey," she says as she pours yet another free refill. Eileen is shown at right chatting with regulars.
So I relaxed and enjoyed the show. For five straight days, I heard, "More coffee, honey?" And when I left after a couple of hours of reading the Times and sipping coffee, it was "Bye, George" or "Bye, honey."
On our last day in town, on a spur of the moment I decided to check out the Off Broadway Diner, almost right across the street from Jimmy's. I had noticed it before but had never gone in.
It looked more modern than Jimmy's. I wondered: How long had it been there? Who owns it? Was it a social center like Park News and Jimmy's? Could it be as welcoming and entertaining?
I went in. I don't know why, but I went straight to two gentlemen sitting together at the far end of the main counter. "Hi," I said, "I'm visiting in town. How long has this place been here?"
The younger one smiled and, pointing at the older gentleman, said, "Ask him, he's the owner, John Sousa. He's my father-in-law. I'm Dinis Louna. I work here and so does my wife. This is a family business. Nice to meet you."
"I'm George Pollock. Nice to meet you."
"Over thirty years," said owner John Sousa.
"What'll you have?" Dinis asked. "On me."
"Oh, thank you," I said. "That's so nice of you. But I'll just have coffee."
Dinis raised a finger and in seconds I had a hot cup of coffee, on the house.
Within two minutes of walking in the door, I had met the owner of the Off Broadway Diner, his family, got a free cup of coffee, and felt accepted and right at home. The place was packed with obvious regulars yakking away, laughing, playing around, wolfing down breakfast. OMG! Another great show!
Even though they were rushing around serving customers, the owning family happily posed for this picture.
In the foreground is Dinis Louna. In the background, left to right, is owner John Sousa, Anna Louna (Dinis' wife), and Carmen Sousa.
What great theater on Broadway in Taunton, Mass.
So long and keep moving.
Update, June 7, 2013: On a visit to Taunton, I learned that Tommy Clark had finally sold Park News, bringing an end to his 60 years as its owner and his reign as unofficial "mayor" of Taunton.
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