Historian and Amsterdam native David Pietrusza’s new memoir “Too Long Ago: A Childhood Memory, A Vanished World” recounts in poignant and fascinating detail his upbringing in the former Rug City.
Pietrusza has written many books on American presidents and baseball, perhaps the best known is “1920: the Year of the Six Presidents.”
After his friend and fellow Amsterdam history buff Robert Going died last year, Pietrusza, who now lives in Glenville, decided it was time to turn his well-developed storytelling and research talents to chronicle his own early life and the story of how his industrial home town declined during the mid-20th century.
“It is a vanished world,” Pietrusza said.
“It just doesn’t exist anymore, whether in Amsterdam, New York, or the rest of the universe. The world has changed so much in attitudes, style, behavior, technology.”
Descended from Polish immigrants, Pietrusza was born in 1949, the child of Daniel Pietrusza and Loretta Marek Pietrusza.
David spent the first decade of his life living in a flat (Amsterdam people lived in flats, not apartments) over his Uncle Tony Lenczynski’s tavern at the corner of Church and Reid streets on Reid Hill in one of two then predominately Polish neighborhoods in the city.
Pietrusza’s book cover shows him as a happy little boy standing next to his uncle Tony behind the bar at Lenczynski’s Tavern.
Tony was old school.
He wore a white shirt, tie and jacket when he tended bar. But Pietrusza said most people dressed formally then when they went to church or visited relatives.
“Polish women were very strong,” Pietrusza wrote. “They might abandon certain avocations and activities like politics and elective office to their husbands, but they ran the roost, and Polish men wisely treated them with more than a modest deference (that’s putting it a little diplomatically).”
Pietrusza remembered two common questions when he was young, the first being “Where is it?”
That meant “Where is the wake?”
Relatives and fellow workers from the mills it seemed passed away at an astonishing rate and attending wakes was an obligation.
The other common question was “What was it?”
I remember that question as being “What came out?”
The answer was the daily number in the illegal numbers game that dominated lower- and middle-class recreation in the old mill towns.
Pietrusza’s father was a soldier in World War II and then worked in the finishing room at Bigelow Sanford Carpet.
His was one of the jobs eliminated when Bigelow Sanford left Amsterdam in 1955.
Brownie’s Lunch was a block down Reid Street in Pietrusza’s youth. It was hard to miss the giant neon hot dog. The lunch was run by Ray “Brownie” Krzys.
The menu was “painted in red letters on white glass panels high above the wall back behind the counter,” Pietrusza wrote.
He added, “That it was so painted and not printed told you something about inflation in the 1950s: There wasn’t any. Prices at Brownies remained inviolable year after year. So much so, that I still remember a good deal of them.”
Hot dogs were 20 cents and hamburgers were 30 cents. French fries were 20 cents and gravy, which most people ordered, was 10 cents extra. Regular milk was 10 cents and so was chocolate milk, also a favorite. No tipping was allowed.
In 1960 the Pietruszas had to move because the tavern building they were living in was purchased and torn down by Amsterdam Federal Savings to build a new home for the financial institution most people called “the Polish bank.”
The Pietruszas moved to a small flat on nearby Jay Street.