My brother Cary invented a toy called Stak-Its Building Cards. It was an educational, fun, non-tech, building toy. Dr. Toy gave it an award at least once, I believe. The company was sold by my brother after several frustrating years of trying to break into the world of toys on a major scale, although, the company in it’s most recent management and ownership figured out a way to get Slinky to carry it alongside their products for a short time.
Not only did it legitimize itself as a brilliant invention, it was responsible for a lot of my youth travel. I think I have been to Manhattan a half dozen times for the International Toy Fair at the Jacob K. Javits Center, to Orlando (for an educator’s conference), New Orleans (pre-Katrina), Toronto for the Canadian Toy Fair, and of course…Elizabeth, New Jersey for a night of sleep before catching a flight from Newark.
In the time spent in New York, I met some cool people, as you’re bound to do. Dan Heffer, an American Apparel worker who helped me with a sound project, the son of the inventor of the Slinky (Tom James), the Irwins of Irwin Toys, the sales heads of Topps Trading Cards (I was a huge sport-card collector), the owner of an amazing restaurant near Times Square called Rendezvous, and the most intriguing of them all, William Branch.
Who is William Branch? Well, he is an enigma, to say the least. My brother and I, when we would wander into Manhattan, would get into The Travel Inn and adjust until the next morning when we would go to the deli at the base of the hotel. According to a review I read just now, it was called River West Café. There were about 60 seats in the place, and one server. He was a fit black man in his fifties. His eyes and heart were/are ageless. Across the street from the deli was a New York City Police Department. The cops were a heavy part of the traffic in this deli where they served the usual New York fare. We chose hot egg and cheese (breakfast) bagels with steaming, strong, incentive-to-breathe coffee.
The thing that had us going back every day was not the gooey cheese. It wasn’t the ability to watch policemen chomp lox. It was the lone server. The main man. The man known to take your order and abruptly shout, “Wunderbar!” pronouncing the “w” as a “v”. And he was buoyant beyond any expectation of a tourist, or a conference attendee (of which there were many in this deli every morning) having heard all the rumours of how New Yorkers are grumpy. This guy was a consummate pro at making people smile, and realize that they were alive and in New York. His thick one-of-five-boroughs accent was so endearing, it was like making a direct connection with the soul of the city itself. He was the Gaia of New York.
Every year we went back, he was in fine form, talking of his treks to Germany, where he had his girlfriend, and where he planned to return and live one day. This was, of course, the source of his Wunderbar shouts.
In fact, on one of the trips, I brought William something he had never heard of, the candy bar with the name Wunderbar. As I understand it, Americans don’t get the array of Cadbury products that we get. They have a dearth of chocolate options compared to the Great White North.
We became more than acquaintances. In time, he was coming to the Toy Fair, as my brother secured him a pass to be allowed to walk the floor without paying a stupid amount of money. He wanted to see the show he had been hearing about for years.
The last time I saw him was likely 2005 or thereabouts. That was the time he came to the Toy Fair on a day off, wearing a full length black cape and matching beret. He looked as close to the word “dashing” as one could look without having a sword in hand and a feather in his hat.
We had some wild laughs we did, Cary, William, and I.
He even gifted me a poem that he had written about 9/11, as he was working his day job when the proverbial shit hit the fan. I have the poem somewhere, and when I come across it, I’ll print it here. It’s incredibly good. And good poetry, is truthfully, difficult to find. Especially in a deli.
Now for the twist in the story.
One day after coming home, Jhoan says to me, “Look at this picture I found.” You see, we both like to scour the web for ideas and stories and inspiration from the works and designs of well-known and lesser-known artists and writers. We share the stuff that floats to the top. Well, Jhoan was scrolling though some photos from a guy whose work was being shown on one of the content-collector sites we frequent, when she sees a guy that she remembers meeting on a trip to New York. She knew who he was. She knew the stories about him. She met him and was charmed by him while wearing the cape and the beret.
So here is the image of the man. We do not remember where Jhoan found it. The site, who knows? I did a screen-capture, and then lost the page. The image is of Katz’s Deli on Ludlow (where they filmed the orgasm scene for When Harry Met Sally). I can see why William would want to work there. But this might just be a photo excursion. He may not be working there at all. We don’t know. We do not even know who the photographer is, but if we did, we are sure he/she would know how to find William, and if he worked at Katz’s.
We know one thing. We know that the Gaia of New York is the heart of this shot. William, where are you? I miss you friend. I hope someone who knows you sees this eventually.