I walk into Joe’s Deli anticipating a ham and swiss on rye so thick that jaw surgery may well be in my future. This is a venerable place. Joe has been here forever. The Cathedral of Sandwich. The House of Ham and Swiss. The Castle of Pastrami. The Temple of Dill. Entering, I see the perennial pre-bobble-head plastic models of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford on display in the front window. The early 60s Yankee icons are a bit dusty and yellowed by the relentless afternoon sun. Mickey and Roger are frozen in their swings, and Yogi is caught forever in the act of flipping his mask off to catch a foul ball, while southpaw Whitey is captured for all-time in fielding ‘set’ position following his delivery. These dolls represented the last of the Yankee dynasty days. Maybe this deli should be called The Church of Yankee.
The deli is empty of customers. That’s great. If several were waiting before me, it could be forty-minutes before I’m out of here. Joe takes forever to prepare a sandwich. But it’s worth it, and then some. At a dollar thirty-five, his ham and swiss on rye, with lettuce, tomato, and mayo is world-class, though I couldn’t verify that. Two lazy ceiling fans, of the type common in the 1930s and ‘40s, are circulating the air which carries the wafting smells of comingled deli-delights. The Yankee pre-game show is on the radio in the back of the store. To the left, shelves holding canned goods and other grocery and household items, are made of polished wood, and run the length of the long store and climb over halfway to the ceiling. On the right is the centerpiece of this operation: A long refrigeration case where baloney, hams, pot roast, pastrami several selections of salami’, all types of cheeses as well as several salads – not the least of which is a vast tub of potato salad – are on display to my right. The whole effect brings salivating anticipation and a sense of walking back into a safe and happy time of decades past.
Bald-headed and thick-headed, Joe is as deliberate in his movements as he is intransigent in his opinions. His relaxed demeanor is especially apparent in his constant rubbing of his palms together. I used to be a big baseball fan, and as a kid a big Yankee fan. But after their dynasty crumbled in the mid-‘60s, I became an American League fan, rooting hard for the Yankees only when they played against the hated National League. They had whipped the Dodgers the year before in the World Series, after they had defeated them in the 1977 World Series. Back to back championships that ended a drought going back to 1962, though they had appeared in their last World Series in 1964, losing to the Cardinals in seven games. But trying to talk baseball involving any team but the Yankees was impossible with Joe. His horizons rose and set with his beloved Yankees. Before long though, I thought it ludicrous to discuss anything with him.
‘There was turkey, there was ham, there was caviar’* sang the song. Who needs those high-fallutin sturgeon eggs to satiate one’s appetite anyway? “How positively delightful. And does your husband suspect anything?” “How dreadfully exciting!” said the silvery coiffured heiress. Some demitasse? Have more caviar?” But at Joe’s it was more like: “Hey Bobby, pop me another beer. Yanks up by two. Guidry. Louisianna Lightening with ten K’s and it’s only the sixth. This sandwich is awesome. Where did you get it”?
The overhead light catches Joe’s eyeglasses as he turns to perform his craft
He handles the slicing machine in an effortless manner, as if it were an extension of his hand. Three slices each of ham and swiss now rested on a slice of rye bread. With a deftness and I dare say tenderness, culled from some 25 years of such preparartions, Joe gently places lettuce, slices of tomato and a sizable glob of mayonnaise to complete this work of culinary art. As I watched this process, I’m thinking that I’ll be in my sign shop soon. I’ll hang my hand-lettered sign: “Closed until tomorrow” and lock the accordion gates. Nobody to bother me. I’ll immediately pull all the shades down in the back room and blast the air conditioner.
I’m going to be removed completely from the noisy bleached-bright-hot. Hell, it must be 85 degrees today. And the humidity isn’t whistling Dixie either. It’s sucking the will out of me. And that walk up the scoffing and insulting hill on Mount Vernon Avenue from the train station didn’t help any either. It’s cool and dark in here now. I’m ready to pop a beer open, embrace this thick sandwich and watch the Yankees take on the Twins in the first game of a twi-night doubleheader. Excuse me, but this act of wanton and narcissistic indulgence is a religious experience.
*Lyrics from Leo Sayer 1974 hit record Long Tall Glasses