6 train last stop

6: Pelham Bay Park, the Bronx

6 train last stop

Monday, February 21, 2011

We went to Manhattan. We went to Queens. Now we’ve gone to the Bronx… on what felt like the longest train ride ever. It’s unnerving to check the electronic map and discover you still have 17 more stops to travel.

MTA map end of 6 line

Exiting the 6 train at Pelham Bay Park reminds me of exiting the M in Middle Village, but instead of a cemetery, a vast expanse of highways and overpasses signals the end of occupied territory. Trying not to linger under the tracks where the sidewalks are covered in pigeon poop, I reject a few fast food outlets and head to Villa Barone Ristorante, but it’s too nice, by which, of course, I mean that it’s too expensive. The $24.95 special includes appetizer, main course, and dessert, and if the place is good enough to justify its entree prices, then the promotion may be a great bargain, but it’s still more money than I want to pay for more food than I want to eat.

We turn back past a beauty supply outlet and spot a signless diner we hadn’t noticed. Actually there is a sign, a faded picture of a coffee cup, but we can only find the name by checking the inspection notice on the front door: Sophie’s Diner. Unfortunately, the department of sanitation has given Sophie’s a C rating, but Sophie’s customers have countered with their own homemade sign, and they give the restaurant an A. Under the warring signs, the restaurant has posted a long, defensive response to the sanitation visit, claiming among other charges that the inspector assaulted an employee. Sounds interesting. We’re definitely eating here.

Sophie's customers give the restaurant an "A"

Inside, the diner is brightly black, white, and red. Photos of customers and specials signs handwritten on paper plates cover the walls. The ceiling is in the style of pressed tin panels, but the actual metal seems much shinier than tin, and strings of Christmas lights hang from it in a giant web. Valentine’s decorations fill every horizontal surface, and along the back wall are the exact same untouched modern jukebox machines from the bar in Queens—Broadway and My Touch Tunes.

Sophie's interior

Sophie's customer walking past interior collage

Sophie's interior sign "Sophie"

The early bird special here only $8.95, but we’re not early birds, so we read the whole menu, including a page dedicated to international specialties from Spain, Greece, and Italy. We’re both craving burgers though, and isn’t the burger the classic test of any diner?

Our middle-aged waitress has long black hair pulled into a ponytail, long purple fingernails, and long bottom eyelashes so thick with mascara they remind me of eyelashes painted on a doll. Damaso orders a Coke, but she tells him they only have Pepsi. He asks for a Sprite instead, and she looks across the room to confirm there is some in the cooler. I comment that it’s odd for a restaurant to carry only Pepsi but still have Coke products, and she says they usually carry both brands but that they thought they were going out of business and had let their stocks run down. She directs our attention to an empty cooler by the front door. At the 11th hour and just a few days ago, a friend of the owner had come through, buying into the business with enough cash to keep it from shuttering. Damaso says, “Wow, they really were at the end of the line.”

No Coke. Pepsi.

I order Sophie’s Special deluxe, which hits both of the things I like in a menu offering: it’s the home special and it’s the weirdest combination, bacon, feta, and grilled onions. It arrives overcooked, but who cares as long as it’s got bacon on it. The real treat though is the fries—curly fries for Damaso and waffle fries for me. Both styles are seasoned and crisp. I even like the coleslaw, which comes in those tiny paper cups that look like mini toques, and the pickle spear.

Burger & curly fries

Sophie's special burger with waffle fries

The bathrooms are locked by a key that hangs from a five-foot string attached to the opposite wall. The advantage, I suppose, is that you can’t accidentally lock the key in the bathroom. The disadvantage, which seems more salient, is that anyone else can unlock the door while you’re inside. Apparently I don’t understand a lot about how other people do things. A giant glob of green soap squirts onto my hamburger grease-covered hands, but the water is only a thin, cold stream, and it takes forever to wash the chyme-like grease-soap mixture from my hands.

When I come back to the table, Damaso has struck up a conversation with a uniformed MTA employee eating alone. I wonder whether the end of this line is an MTA haunt the way the end of the M-line was stock trader central. Turns out the MTA dude has spotted Damaso’s Leica, and they enjoy geeking out together about the pricey camera. I don’t care about the hardware at all and am slightly sad when the transit man leaves before I can ask him what he would shoot with a multi-thousand dollar camera.

Our burgers are gone, I’m resisting getting a milkshake, and it’s time to go. On the counter near the door we discover a big glass collection jar raising funds to save Sophie’s Diner. It’s a good thing Sophie’s affluent friend bailed her out. The jar contains $3.21.

Save Sophie's collection jar

Photographs by Damaso Reyes

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