Twist and Shout

Twist and Shout
Life is never straight (Joey Kulkin photo)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Trenton, My Trenton: Uncle Al of the Trenton Atelier

TRENTON -- The more he cooks them food, the more he feeds his sense of being.

"I help out where I can help out," he says amid the sizzling. "If I can't do something I'll tell you, but if I can I'll pour my heart out for you."

Uncle Al Green pours his heart out in the kitchen at 220 Allen Street, home of the Trenton Atelier, which is having its 24 Hours of Atelethon from 10 a.m. to 10 a.m. Saturday to Sunday. The Atelethon is one part liquidation art sale, one part entertainment and one part Trentonian Page 6 photo shoot. There are lots of other parts, I suppose, because we'll need a lot of other parts to fill the 24 hours. One thing's for sure, though, Uncle Al will be cooking up plenty of food to provide sustenance to make it through to the other side.

Uncle Al was born in Trenton and has lived in all parts of the city. These days he lives in East Trenton. He's 58 "and I'm still vibrant, still got good health," he said in front of a gas stove, left hand holding a frying pan full of eggs he had just begun to scramble with the spatula in his right hand. The pan next to the eggs was full of cooked bacon. Soon as the eggs were done he started the slices of Spam. Don't knock it till ya try it. Behind him on a counter were golden cakes covered with strawberries. And on a counter to his left was a baking sheet lined with homemade French toast and Eggo waffles. Uncle Al held up a saucepan full of melted chocolate. Wait a second. Waffles. Melted chocolate. That's when it dawned on me that the Atelier boys who had done a Trentonian TV show a few days before must have remembered the picture of the greatest waffle ever eaten and told Uncle Al all about it.

"This is a special meal for you," Uncle Al said. That made me feel really good. See, I would have eaten anything he cooked for this meeting to discuss the Atelethon with the Atelier guys, but what made this moment so endearing is that the Atelier guys remembered the greatest waffle in the history of the universe (topped with butter, chocolate and syrup) and made sure chocolate-covered waffles were on the menu. These are guys I would go to war with. Uncle Al made a hodgepodge of sweetness by melting a Hershey's chocolate bar then mixing in syrup then adding his secret ingredients: nutmeg and cinnamon.

Uncle Al is a little Hershey's chocolate, a little maple syrup, a little bit of nutmeg, a little bit of cinnamon, and a whole of emotion. Years ago Pete Abrams, who owned the Atelier, gave the man who has struggled with his mind a job cooking meals for artists. "I suffered from depression, but he gave me an opportunity to do something constructive and stay out of harm's way," Uncle Al said. "My self-esteem went up a little bit more, and the depression -- it's there from time to time when times get hard -- but it's been smooth sailing. I appreciate the opportunity to give me something positive to do with my life."

No one knows where the Atelier guys will be in a few weeks. Then again, they might not be going anywhere because guys like Charles Waaben and Graham Apgar have devised a mighty plan to save the industrial building that the great brotherhood of artists has squatted in for years. Yes, the wheels of what seems like a great business plan are in motion. If that plan works out the way Waaben and Apgar think it will work out -- it would produce one of the coolest art projects Trenton ever has known -- and the 24 Hours of Atelethon raises enough cash through its liquidation sale and entertainment parade, the Trenton Atelier will continue to thrive as one of the unique art brotherhoods in America. A brotherhood that eats together after praying over those meals together.

Uncle Al Green leads those prayers. On this day he stood at the Atelier entrance, faced the Golden Dome of the Jersey Statehouse and thanked the spirits for the bounty we devoured.

"This is a meal for a king," he declares. "Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's ... ain't none of 'em got it like this. This is straight from the heart."