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Love At First Punch: Still Going Strong After 75 Years

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
May 18, 2012

Van Harris and his wife, Shirley, grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. They lived about a block away from each other. At StoryCorps, they talked of how they first met — 75 years ago.

Van, 87, recalls the day that he first noticed Shirley, 85.

“I met her when she was about 10 years old, and she was beating up a couple of guys,” he says. “The boys had taken her hat off her head, and they were tossing it around.”

Shirley kept asking the boys to give her hat back, but they wouldn’t do it.

“So one by one, she punched out every boy,” Van says. Laughing, he adds, “I said, ‘Geez, I’d like to meet a girl like that.’ “

They did more than meet — in 1945, the pair got married. And for decades, Van worked as a classic Borscht Belt comedian. Around the time they were married, Shirley started performing with him. They performed together in the Catskills for nearly 40 years.

The couple lived in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, where they often visited their favorite restaurant, on Eastern Parkway.

“I used to take you with me when we’d go to our hangout, which was Dubrow’s Cafeteria,” Van recalls. Dubrow’s was a New York institution for many years; the last restaurant in the chain closed in the 1980s.

“We’d come in late at night. We’d have a cup of coffee,” Shirley says.

And often, they’d see a fellow patron — one they called Herbie the Nibbler.

“He ate so much,” Van says with a laugh.

“And they gave him a discount on his food,” Shirley says.

“They sure did. At Dubrow’s — here comes Herbie, so they’d give him a table, and he’d sit all by himself. And we’d gather around and watch Herbie the Nibbler eat. We used to say …

“… he had a tapeworm,” Shirley says, finishing his sentence.

“He didn’t have a tapeworm,” Van says. “We used to say he has a snake.”

Herbie wasn’t the only rare character who frequented Dubrow’s in those days.

“We had a guy called One-Ball Barney,” Van says. “I don’t think I have to explain it.”

“And there was a guy named Mendel Berman,” he adds. “Mendel had a leaky ear. And he’d go to dances, and he’d sit there. And he’d put a handkerchief in his ear. And it was a terrible habit: He would smell the handkerchief.”

“How could you pick up a girl,” Van asks, “when you’re there sniffing a handkerchief that’s got the deposit from a bad ear, you know? But that’s the way these guys were.

“Oh, Shirley — you grew up with these fellas too. They loved her,” he says.

“Yeah,” Shirley says. “We’d sit around, and everybody would be telling jokes. You just felt at home.”

“Filthy Miltie was my friend,” Van says. “And when we got married, Filthy Miltie was our babysitter.”

As Van remembers, Miltie got his name because his hands were always dirty — he repaired car radios for a living.

“And he was as crazy as a bedbug,” Van says. “While we were out, wherever we went, he would take the dresser drawers, and he would exchange them. He moved the top drawer to the bottom, the middle drawer to the top. So if we went looking for, let’s say underwear, it wasn’t in the same place. This was Miltie.”

“And it turned out that all of our children have a great sense of humor as a result of being surrounded with these guys,” Shirley says. “And I say to you today, thank you for a wonderful life.”

“Well, thank you,” Van answers.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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