Little Porkchop at Odessa in 1997. Photo: Jens Jurgensen

For New York’s anniversary, we are celebrating the history of the city’s restaurants with a series of posts throughout the month. Read all of our “Who Ate Where” stories here.

I probably ate at Odessa on Avenue A more than any other restaurant. The food there was good. They were open 24 hours a day, served large portions, and supplied endless baskets of free bread. I do not remember ever looking at the menu, which was very large. It had a lot of pages and may have been in more than one language. I never even thought of eating the staples of the place: kielbasa, kebabs, pierogies, blintzes, or stuffed cabbage. (I do not think I have ever eaten those things, actually.)

Every afternoon that I could, I had hot steamed chicken, white and dark meat smothered in gravy with a side of mashed potatoes. To this I added bread, more bread, more bread. Sometimes I’d switch it out for a huge turkey-and-Swiss-cheese sandwich with tomatoes but no lettuce. (Lettuce seemed too healthy.) I put ketchup on everything.

I ate there because it was incredibly cheap. I was poor. I recall tabs of $10. A Caesar salad was four bucks. I didn’t know anyone else there, exactly, yet everyone felt familiar. Here were the people coming back from nights of partying having coffee and eggs before going to sleep. There were artists, musicians, singers, songwriters, burnouts holding on by the skin of their teeth, registered nurses on break from a nearby nursing home, carpenters, plumbers, and hangers-on. I was one of those. I wanted to belong to the art scene but did not know how. At Odessa I found an atmosphere of acceptance and anonymity.

I was working as a truck driver. I was miserable but acted like a know-it-all asshole in control. We could park and double-park the ten-wheel trucks we drove around town outside the window and keep an eye on them to make sure we weren’t being robbed. We had to run out more than once to stop someone from trying to jimmy the rear-door locks. Then we’d resume lunch. I didn’t eat many dinners there.

At night, I was home trying to work. I lived in a rear-facing fifth-floor walk-up shithole studio apartment on Avenue B between 4th and 5th Streets. I bought the apartment for $5,000 from a lawyer named Morris Roth who owned the building. The only problems were that his name wasn’t Morris Roth, he wasn’t a lawyer, and he never owned the building. He disappeared. I hired a lawyer who also ripped me off. The building fell onto the other side of the law. Drug dealers’ dogs lived in the hallway and patrolled all day long. There was often no heat. I never paid rent. I was in heaven.

Odessa was my unofficial headquarters. For almost no money, you could sit and eat and read the papers and talk. There was no music, just the sound of people in many languages coming and going. The lighting was high pitched; the décor was orange vinyl booths, a few tables, a bar, and green Formica. The service was older Ukrainians who were quick, gruff, friendly, took no nonsense, and accepted whatever tips we could all muster. When it closed in 2020, I had not been there in at least ten years, yet I miss it somewhere somehow all of the time.

Photo: Sally Davies/B)2015 Sally Davies All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission only. No exceptions

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