January 17, 2010

“You’re Not New York”

Nostalgia is the engine that makes us feel relevant. Without nostalgia, we’re nobodies. New Yorkers are big on nostalgia. Those who can remember and lament back the farthest can lay claim to being “real” New Yorkers. I can remember some things. A slice of pizza and subway fare in the 70s were both 35 cents. There was a time when you could ride the bus free on Sundays. They’d stick a giant cork in the coin receptacle so people wouldn’t put money in it. And about the pizza. It was different, too. It was sloppier. You’d eat it folded. They served it on wax paper instead of paper plates. And bagels? Don’t get me started on bagels. Back then, bagels were so dense and chewy, some said they were dangerous to eat. You might have ended up with a spinal injury from chewing too many of them.

When I started living downtown 12 years ago, Katz’s deli still had some of the old white hairs behind the counter serving up the sandwiches. Those neighborhood alter kakers really knew how to lament. Which means they’d talk about who in the old neighborhood was dead.

“Moshe,” said one to the other, while he sliced me up some pastrami.

“He died in a home,” said the other while in the middle of training a local kid, one of many they had hired to eventually replace them behind the counter. “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, Cesar,” he said to the kid. “That’s the only way you”ll learn.”

Over time the old guys disappeared, leaving only the Hispanic kids they had apprenticed, which seemed odd for a place called Katz’s. But that’s how New York neighborhoods go. A long time ago the Lower East Side was Jewish, then Hispanic, then white hipsters, then uncool lawyers (a race unto themselves), and now it’s being devoured by Chinatown, which grows in size every year and has already overtaken Little Italy. Katz’s though, remains. It’s where the tour buses stop.

I went in recently for my once yearly pastrami sandwich. Surprisingly, there was still one of the old guys left, surrounded by the neighborhood boys who had learned their craft well. A woman had just asked one of them for bacon on her egg sandwich. Looking shocked, the kid attending her said, “No bacon in the house!” The old man shook his head, outraged and pleased.

At the counter I asked for my pastrami sandwich and the guy began to cut slices from a slab of brisket.

“Lean,” I said. I don’t know why but I always ask for it that way, even though I know that fatty tastes better. I picked up this habit from my dad, who had always insisted on lean — sometimes angrily.

There was a big man standing next to me, making small talk with the counterman. A regular. Or a guy who wanted to be a regular. Or a guy who wanted to be known as a regular.

“How’s Jake?”

“Dead.”

“Him, too?”

“All the old ones in the neighborhood, they’re all dying. One by one.”

“The neighborhood’s dying.”

The fat guy talked loudly. He looked around while he talked. He wanted to be noticed. Meanwhile, the counterman continued slicing. In the way of the old school deli, he took a moment to hand me a piece of pastrami that he held firmly between two fingers. It sounds unsanitary, but this is how it’s done. It’s a ritual among cooks; who knows where it came from. If you’re anywhere near a cook slicing a roast, he’ll not only cut you off a piece, he’ll hold out the slice for you in an intimate, almost fatherly fashion.

“They’re all disappearing,” said the old man.

The fat man said, “Hey, like Jimmy Hoffa. Under the 50-yard line at Giants Stadium.” It sounded rehearsed. I got the feeling he came in regularly to say that line about Hoffa, as though to project his old New York credentials with the tourists.

Meanwhile, nearby, some poor schnook asked for mayonnaise on his roast beef sandwich.

“Mayonnaise?“said the counterman. “We got no mayonnaise here.”

The fat man turned to the confused customer.

“Do you know where you are?” He paused, then looked around again. “You’re not New York.”

January 8, 2010

End of the Line

We all die. Your parents die. You die. Most of us have the misfortune of living through at least one parent’s death. It’s the final push into adulthood. That, losing your virginity, and living in your first place. The troika of adulthood. But even though we all die, we still try to keep as far away as possible from death. And it’s when the fear of death stalks a community that strangers start talking to each other, if only to share information that might help keep them alive. A crisis erases anonymity. Instead of fearing each other, as usual, we fear the stalking specter of death. None of this explains why people smoke.

I was heading to work on the A train one morning last week, the express, standing at the door and listlessly looking through the window as we pulled into the 14th Street stop. As our train slowed down, I saw people on the opposite platform shouting. Some were running. Some were waving their arms. Someone had been robbed. A man ran down the platform both yelling and waving his arms. Our train stopped. Exiting passengers lined up at the doors in anticipation. But the doors didn’t open. The shouting across the way continued. A man ran up the stairs.

Passengers wanting to leave our train started looking around, as though unable to bear the stare of the closed doors. Annoyance crept into our faces. Someone said, “Shit!”

“What’s going on?” asked a lady.

“There’s some trouble,” I said, pointing to the platform across the rows of tracks.

“It’s a police thing,” someone else declared, though he had no evidence of this.

Two women started talking to each other, while over the speaker came the conductor’s voice.

“Attention passengers.”

We waited, hungering for some information. But that was it. Nothing else came from the speakers. The two women who had started talking now amplified their conversation.

“See what happens is, they’re chasing someone–”

“The police.”

“Yeah, the police. They’re probably chasing him and they don’t want him to disappear into the crowd. That’s why they’re keeping the doors closed. So we can’t get out.”

“You see? That’s what happens. All it takes is one person and they ruin it for the rest of us.”

“They ruin it for the rest of us.”

“People need to get going.”

“We’re busy.”

“We’ve got jobs.”

“We’ve got to take our kids to school.”

“One person.”

We murmured and bitched to each other. There was nothing else to do. We were in the dark. Five minutes slipped by while everyone in the car stood or sat in the same place, looking at the same thing, in limbo, bereft of knowledge of the present and future. By now the platform across the tracks had more or less emptied. There was no one left shouting or running. Then we heard a tapping sound coming from outside the subway car. A transit worker was walking down the length of the train, tapping on the windows with his keys and pointing to the end of the car.

“Attention passengers.” The conductor again. We instinctively looked up to the sound of her voice. We were filled with hope. “Attention passengers. Due to … due to an injured passenger, train personnel will be keying open the last door of each car. Please exit the train. This train is going out of service.”

So it was us. Our train was the problem. We filed toward the end of the car; the train worker had manually opened the last door. Grimly we leaked out to join the others on the platform.

“Attention passengers. Due to an incident at 14th St., 8th Avenue express trains are now running on the local track.”

A little ways down the length of the train, a bigger crowd had formed. They were looking down, in between two cars, down at the tracks. It was beginning to dawn on us that something terrible had happened. Not a mugging, not some knife play between teenagers, but something worse: a horror that we all worry about in the reaches of our commuting fears.

The local train pulled in and we boarded it silently. The doors stayed open. One of the women from the earlier conversation stood by herself clutching the center pole. She covered her mouth with a hand.

“Somebody fell on the tracks?”

A burly man had peeled himself away from the crowd and came on the train.

“Jesus,” he said. We stood by the door, looking.

“Is someone under there?” I asked.

“Yeah. I saw his legs.”

“Were they moving?”

“No.”

The doors closed and we went on our way.