It’s one of those absolute generational and geographic divides.
If you are from somewhere other than here, or if you are below, say, 40 or so, the Red Apple Rest means nothing to you.
But if you are from here, defined very broadly, and if you are at least nudging middle age, then even if you never actually went there, your memory will conjure up images of that iconic place. It was what? A diner, sort of, or more accurately a cafeteria, a rest stop on the way up to the mountains. (And if you have to ask which mountains, then never mind. It’s the Catskills, dear. Now go and play while we grown-ups talk…)
The Red Apple Rest – the never-closed oasis that drew motorists off the macadamed hell that was Route 17 as they made their almost endless way to their vacations or summer bungalows – was created by Reuben Freed, who made it his life and loved it dearly. Elaine Freed Lindenblatt, 72, who lives in Tappan, N.Y. and is the youngest of Mr. Freed’s four children, has written a memoir, “Stop at the Red Apple,” chronicling the family’s life there. Its publisher, SUNY Press, will release the book in January.
Reuben Freed, who was born in Minsk, Russia, in 1894, immigrated to the Lower East Side. Entrepreneurial by instinct, he began to work in the garment industry; by 1920, he was well established as a coat-maker, with his own manufacturing company. “He was doing very well,” Ms. Lindenblatt said.
And then, in 1929, the stock market imploded and the Great Depression began. Mr. Freed, then married to Ethel and the father of a young child, soon lost his business. “He was left with nothing,” according to his daughter.
In 1930, Mr. Freed went for a ride with his cousin, who had a car; the cousin sold auto supplies. One of the cousin’s customers told the men that he was building a restaurant and was looking for someone to run it. “The cousin said ‘Wow!’ and pointed to my father, who said ‘What?’ The only experience he’d had with restaurants was eating in them,” Ms. Lindenblatt said.
But “not having any better prospects, he just took a leap of insanity, and he leased the place,” she said. The family was living in Brooklyn, but they moved to Southfields, a tiny town in Orange County, four miles from the Rockland border and just north of Tuxedo. In 1931, Reuben Freed opened the Red Apple Rest.
“At first, it struggled at lot,” Ms. Lindenblatt said. “But my dad was an amazing person.
“He was a small man physically, socially reticent, quiet, laid back, happy just sitting by himself reading a newspaper. But in business, he had courage and tenacity. He took foolhardy risks in those early years. But they were well thought-out. He did things that he thought would work – and for the most part, they did.”
He realized that his location was ideal because it was both on the way up to the Catskills ““ the Jewish Riviera – and halfway between New York City and Albany. He had at least two natural constituencies: vacationers and bus passengers on their way to the state capital. “He got a contract with Greyhound Bus Lines to stop there,” Ms. Lindenblatt said. “People traveled by bus a lot. When he got that contract, it gave him a steady stream of clients.”
In 1941, the second of Mr. Freed’s two five-year leases expired. “My father had the foresight to insert a clause giving him the option to buy,” his daughter said. The landlord regretted having allowed the clause – “he knew he had something good” – but the Freeds bought the space. “So there my father was, with what I called his adoptive child – and maybe his favorite one.” As she explained, the Red Apple demanded just about every available minute of her father’s life. The way to see him was to go there; family dinners, except for the special ones at Grossinger’s, the fancy Catskills hotel nearby, were snatched and gulped at the Red Apple. “If he would sit down with us at dinner, he’d have tea, and then we’d know he was sick.”
Soon the war ended, the servicemen flooded home, and the economy, fueled by their testosterone, exploded. The Red Apple Rest, along with a small table-service restaurant, a bar, an outdoor stand, and a motel, took off. Soon it drew crowds, who overwhelmed the facilities, waited on lines, sat wherever they could find a surface large enough, or ate standing up. “We couldn’t really handle the kind of flow of people we got,” Ms. Lindenblatt said, but in fact they did.
The system the Red Apple then used to move customers through the line seems counterintuitive, at least all these decades later. Every customer had to have a ticket (or a check – the words were synonymous). “You used to come in and take a check, and it was punched by the counterman” when you ordered, she said. After you ate, you would hand in your check, pay, and leave – if the system worked smoothly. Often it didn’t. The system “opened up a Pandora’s box of terrible things.”
The tickets were handed out by the newest, rawest employees. “That was the low man’s job, standing at the check machine. Everyone had to have a check, and most people did not want one.” Unless you were a big eater and were upgraded to another one, which could handle larger sums, tickets would go up only to $1.45. Punching tickets slowed down the line; sometimes they were punched incorrectly, and sometimes patrons tried to lose their tickets and replace them with other, less punched ones.
In the late 1950s, the New York State Thruway opened. At first it cost the Red Apple some business and later it was one of the many forces that killed it, but after the first excitement for a while it was just a blip. “The Thruway gave people an option, a way to go instead of Route 17, and a lot of them initially left to try this new road.” Once they were on the Thruway, they bypassed the Red Apple. “But a number of them came back. There were tolls, and the Thruway was sterile. People returned to the place where their memories were engrained,” Ms. Lindenblatt said.
“In 1960, when other people were cutting back because of the Thruway, my dad did just the opposite. He put on an addition that really changed things. It had a lot more seating capacity, for one thing.” For another, the system of payment was updated so people paid for their food before they sat down to eat.
Ms. Lindenblatt, like her parents and siblings, worked in the Red Apple Rest. Even when they were too young to work, they spent all their time there. She remembers being about 6 years old, sitting behind the candy counter, playing with big boxes of candy. She does not remember first hand but remembers being told that once, when she was 4, sitting behind the counter, playing with boxes, minding her own business, she heard someone keep saying, “Excuse me, excuse me,” and making rattling noises on the counter. “He was annoying me,” she said. “So I jumped up and said a few very not nice words. I did not know what they meant, but I learned them from the busboys.
“The man ran away, yelling ‘Oh my God, it’s a midget.’
“I personally don’t remember that happening, though,” she said primly. “I was a nice little girl.”
Southfields was a nice place to grow up, but it was not Jewish. “My dad was raised in a traditional Jewish background,” she said. “During a lot of my growing up, there was some negativity because I was different from everyone else. We were the only Jewish family in the area; the only Jewish kids in the school. We were different economically, socially, and religiously. And I knew sometimes, from the way other kids talked – I knew that they had heard things from their parents. That was inevitable, really; it was a very small town.
“When you are a teenager, you don’t want to be different. That was one of the challenges in growing up the way we did.”
She did go on a date with a non-Jewish boy. “I was working for the summer at the restaurant,” she said. “I was 14, and that’s when you got working papers. It was a big thrill.
“I was taking cash at the register, and also doing all the menial stuff, and a boy who worked there asked me out on a date. He wasn’t the boy I liked – but he was a boy. And he was cute.”
Her father allowed her to go, but he told her not to do it again. And, in fact, the date was a disaster, and she didn’t.
Their father also wrestled with the ambivalence of living as a Jew in a largely non-Jewish world.
“Even though he didn’t go to synagogue most of the year, twice a year he wanted to be in walking distance of a shul – the holidays and Pesach,” Ms. Lindenblatt said. So we would go away for the whole time, eight days, 10 days.” That’s when the Freeds would go to Grossingers.
Ms. Lindenblatt and one of her sisters also went to an Orthodox summer camp, Camp Monroe. “I still get mail from camp, and whenever I get it, I read it,” she said.
Reuben Freed died in 1980. The Red Apple Rest was 50 years old then, and showing its age. It died in degrees, inch by decaying inch. The economy was slowing; the Catskills were losing their allure as Europe and the Caribbean grew ever cheaper and closer; drivers eventually gave up the homely attractions of Route 17 for the much faster Thruway; and when the ever-promised casino gambling in the Catskills failed to materialize, business grew more and more sparse. The family decided that it no longer could keep it open seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
In 1984, the Red Apple Rest was sold. Since then it has declined even further, and it now stands as a sad hulk, empty by the side of the road.
Ms. Lindenblatt is saddened by that, but her life has been a good one. “One weekend we went to services at our local temple – Monroe Temple – and I ended up marrying the cantor there. He was a student cantor then, George Lindenblatt.
“When my friends heard that I was going to marry a cantor, they all gave me candlesticks. Very many candlesticks.” More, in fact, than one family possibly could use. “I don’t know why – maybe they thought I was going to have a sÃ©ance in the garden.”
Ms. Lindenblatt’s book, set to be published in January, talks about the food at the Red Apple Rest, and the famous people who ate there. It is full of evocative stories. Somehow, though, all most people need to hear before they get misty-eyed and start talking about their childhoods are just the name of the place where she grew up. The Red Apple Rest.