Alice Koenig waited for an especially auspicious occasion to set foot in her very first White Castle restaurant. On Dec. 17 the time came. It was her 100th birthday.
The milestone was marked by a surprise party with family and friends, who asked Koenig about her recollections of growing up in Union City, where she was born, and North Bergen, where she has lived in the same house since 1962.
“Do you remember farms around here?” someone asked. “Do you remember cows on the road?”
“Cows?” scoffed Koenig. “What are you, nuts? I’m only 100.”
Surprisingly sharp, looking no more than a day over 80, and with a barbed sense of humor, Koenig these days is a landlady, living on the ground floor of her home with a tenant upstairs. “And it is not easy,” she said. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of money. The house gets old. You get this fixed; you get that fixed. It’s tough, believe me.”
She has lived alone since her husband Frank died in 1971. The couple had no children and most of her relatives are gone, but nieces Joy Squilanti and Melodie Raff dote on Koenig. Raff, who lives only five blocks away, sees her every day.
“I’m so thrilled to have someone in my family who’s 100,” said Raff. “And especially her, because she’s so with it. Nobody believes she’s 100. She’s a trouper.”
Alice Koenig never had a birthday party… until she was 100.
“When Oprah was on she had to see Oprah every day,” said Raff. “Now she’s completely deaf in one ear and the other she has maybe 50 percent hearing with the help of a hearing aid. TV doesn’t interest her. She loves puzzles, though, and reads a book a day.”
“But they have to have sex in them,” piped up Koenig. Then she leaned in and furtively indicated her friends from Our Lady of Fatima Church at the next table: “Don’t let them hear me say that.”
Child of immigrants
Koenig’s parents emigrated from Italy through Ellis Island. She and her brother were both born in the states. Their childhood was austere, to say the least.
“Growing up, they really had nothing, no Christmas or birthday gifts, nothing. They were really very poor,” said Raff. In fact, the party at White Castle was the first birthday party Koenig ever had.
And she almost didn’t come. “Zizzi,” as she is known in the family (from the Italian for “aunt”) first discovered White Castle burgers last year when a visitor brought some over, and she fell for them hard.
“She used to be a McDonald’s person,” said Koenig’s great-niece, Dina Fogarty, attending the party with daughters Keagen, 6, and Caryn, 5. “She switched, I guess.”
Raff has since been keeping Koenig fed with a steady diet of sliders, but actually getting Zizzi to leave the house and visit the restaurant for the first time took some doing.
“Especially on a rainy night,” said Raff. “She doesn’t like nighttime and she doesn’t like rain.”
“She told me that I had to come here. You should have heard me at home,” said Koenig. “I really didn’t want to come.”
In the end Raff managed to lure her out, and there were tears in Koenig’s eyes when she saw her friends waiting inside the restaurant.
So was it worth the hassle of dragging herself out of the house?
“Yes,” admitted Koenig. “In a way. In another way, I’m still angry because…I’m 100 years old! I should be able to tell you what to do.”
White Castle memories
The event was the first birthday party ever hosted in the White Castle on the corner of Bergenline Avenue and Kennedy Boulevard, by the northern entrance to James J. Braddock North Hudson County Park. When Raff first came to them a few weeks ago, General Manager Brian Dias jumped at the idea.
“He said, ‘We’ll make it really nice,’” said Raff. And so they did, with tablecloths and decorations. They also gifted Koenig with a large basket of White Castle swag, so if you see an elderly woman sitting in the park in a White Castle cap and t-shirt, sipping from a White Castle thermos while playing cards with a White Castle deck, go up and say hi to Zizzi and wish her a happy birthday.
“I never expected this,” said Koenig, surrounded at her party by loved ones. “Too bad I didn’t bring a beer.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.