Sunday, January 17, 2016

Owner of recently closed The Usual reflects on a Prospect Heights when "it wasn't about money"

Truth be told, it drew only a small crowd.

But the 10/24/15 panel at the Brooklyn Public Library, part of the InterSection/Prospect Heights project, had resonance. No, neither Public Advocate Letitia James nor Rep. Hakeem Jeffries showed up, as originally billed.

Instead, we got Mike Halkias, a Prospect Heights figure of less official stature but a significant unofficial figure: the longtime proprietor of an anchor institution in the neighborhood.

His brochure, "Mike's Places," was among the six distributed that described landmarks of personal importance. Beyond that, he told his story, and it sounded a lot different than arena CEO Brett Yormark's plastic, promotional pronouncements about Prospect Heights.

Coming into the neighborhood

When Montreal-born Halkias and his brother moved to the Prospect Heights in 1990, he and his brother looked for a restaurant to open. They bought a building with a place known as George's, run by two Greek guys, George and George.

The renamed it The Usual, and kept it open 5:30 am until 9 pm, in contrast with every other restaurant, which closed by 3 pm.

In the early 1990s, he reflected, "the neighborhood was very violent, lots of drugs." He and his brother worked with the police to rid the area of drug dealers, and offered a haven to anybody who felt unsafe on the street, walking them home.

Halkias recalled being invited to speak at Career Day at P.S. 9 and chiding the parents and administrators for not cleaning up a schoolyard filled with crack vials, so they did that together.

"In 23 years, we never got ripped off," he said, allowing that "I had to pay protection in the beginning." The proprietors invited cops in to eat cheap or free.

A home, not just a business

"The Usual for me, was my home. It wasn't my business," he recalled. He loved speaking with old people. He delivered on Rollerblades, meeting people in their doorway because of his tight schedule.

"Very friendly, beautiful atmosphere, cheap food, good food," he summed up.

They even gave food away. "If you didn't have money, no problem," he recalled. "When I was here, it wasn't about money. What I've seen now, it's become cutthroat. There's no such thing as 'pay you tomorrow.'"

Why, he was asked, did they close down?

"Me and my brother, we got tired of working 90 hours a week," Halkias responded. He could visit his parents, who retired to Greece. He's traveled. He has a place in Florida, and one in Brooklyn.

 "We're considering maybe opening up a little cafe," he said, but "right now I'm enjoying my freedom."

"The Usual was a place where anybody could come, it was the center of the neighborhood," he said, with  wistfulness and apparent regret, albeit trumped by relief at the opportunity to finally rest.

After the event, after Halkias spoke to a few people, a woman rushed up and gave him a hug; she was visiting the library but hadn't known about the session. When she heard his name on the public address system, she had to say hello. She too missed The Usual.

The Usual was listed for sale by Arena Properties, a firm that took the name to take advantage of Google searches.

From the brochure


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