By James Maher
Name: Sheila Rothenberg
Occupation: Production Manager at Works in Progress NYC
Location: St. Mark's Place between 1st and 2nd
Time: 6:30 pm on Thursday, Feb 5
I’m from Midwood, Brooklyn. My bank was the "Dog Day Afternoon" bank where the real bank robbery happened. So we were not on the map until then. I think I was in high school then. It was a real middle-class neighborhood — private houses, not real big, mostly Jewish and Italian and kind of suburban.
I moved to East 7th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues in 1978. I didn’t really know anyone in the neighborhood. I was just looking to move out, because in those days you could afford to move out when you were 21. My apartment was $185 a month and I paid half of that when I first moved here. It was great. I had a job in an office then, and in those days you had to earn your rent in one week. That was the formula back then.
There were Italians who owned the 24-hour vegetable store on the corner of 7th and 1st, and there was the 24-hour Souvlaki place on the other corner. There was one nice restaurant, Pier 9. When my parents would come to visit that’s where we would go. It was a seafood restaurant where the 13th Step is now on 2nd Avenue. Or Hisae was a place on the Bowery and those were the only acceptable places to take my parents.
I’ve worked in this neighborhood most of my life. When I first moved here I was working at an office and I wanted to be a waitress so badly. I got a job on 6th Street. One of the Indian guys opened up Hiros, a fake version of the macrobiotic restaurant The Cauldron. Macrobiotic was the way that vegan is now, but they eat fish. For $3.50, you would get a big pile of brown rice with vegetables and tempura and tahini and orange carrot sauce. It was a very popular restaurant and it was kosher. You’d see religious people in there, which was always funny to me being Jewish, never thinking of the religious Jews I grew up around eating with chopsticks in a macrobiotic restaurant in the East Village.
[Hiros] was my first waitressing job. The owner also owned a bunch of the other Indian restaurants and he was a pig. He sexually harassed one of our friends who worked there, so we all left en masse. I went to the Kiev and they didn’t have any waitressing jobs but they hired me as a cashier. I got the first waitressing job that opened up there.
I loved working at the Kiev. I met a lot of people. And then we tried to start a union because they were treating us terribly. It was bad pay and it was freezing in there. I fell one day. It was raining and they didn’t have good clean-up practices or mats and I just fell completely back. They paid for my chiropractor because they didn’t want me to report it. Then I realized all these things, because I was pretty young and idealistic and very pro-union. So we contacted, I think it was Union 1, and we signed the cards and we started to organize, and then I got fired. They closed the counter down and fired all the counter men.
I never went to cooking school but I was always a good cook. I learned from watching the guys at the B&H and then at the Kiev. My first time cooking [at a restaurant] was one night when the Kiev got busted by immigration. That was another thing that got us really mad. The owner would get people here and give them fake social security cards and then house them, since he owned the building on the corner. So like eight people would share an apartment and sleep in bunk beds. They’d sleep in shifts. He was a bastard. Then when they got busted he denied knowing them. When immigration came and took everyone I had to cook. I was waitressing and cooking.
So I sued them and I won and then I opened my own restaurant on 2nd Avenue, between 1st and 2nd. It was called Dine East. We bought it from Sam of Sam’s Luncheonette. We didn’t know at time, but the reason he made money was because he had poker games in the back. I bought all the equipment from some cokeheads who had a restaurant in Chinatown. I was there from ’83 to ’86 and that’s where I met my husband — he was teaching at La Salle across the street.
It was so much fun and so much hard work. It was like a greasy spoon. My dad was working as my dishwasher. I’m still friends with everyone who worked with us. I really had my regulars. But in ’85, ’86 the crack stuff started happening. The heroin wasn’t so bad because they would not bother you so much. They'd ask, ‘Do you sell bottled soda? Do you have a bathroom?’ They wanted the bottle cap. I’d say, ‘No, because you want to shoot up in the bathroom.’ But crackheads were crazy, so it got a little sketchy. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had five years left on the lease when I left. It was 28 seats. I made $100, $200 a week. I didn’t know about business so well and I gave a lot of stuff away, but it was really fun. I just realized that I couldn’t really go on with the life we were planning.
Next week: Life after the restaurant business
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.