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.
“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.”