It wasn’t like he was drunk or anything, just young and a little nervous, which is probably why he ordered “an Absolut and vodka”.
“And did you want those in separate glasses?” I asked, with a tinge of tease in the tone, “or would you rather have them one on top of the other?”
His eyes widened. “What do you mean?”
“What I mean is… you ordered vodka twice. You said Absolut and vodka, shouldn’t there be a soda or tonic in there somewhere?”
“Oh, right,” he said, chuckling as his cheeks gained a blush, “better make that an Absolut and soda.”
“You got it, that one I’ve heard of… Absolut and soda coming up.”
“With a lime!” he shouted, trying to recoup his poise.
“A lime indeed,” I shouted back, and I even called him, “Sir”, for your friendly bartender has worn those shoes… he’s shouted an order that has failed to make sense… and he wanted the kid to know it was no big deal.
So I placed the young man’s drink on the bar, we exchanged knowing smiles, then I walked back over to the cash register… (Big Bertha) to those who haven’t heard of her… and I folded my arms and leaned against her in reverie. For my thoughts quickly ran to my gaffe of all gaffes and it didn’t even happen in a bar but a goddam deli. Here’s that story…
See, to my way of thinking, dear reader, there are few things more quintessentially New York than the Jewish delicatessen, and when I first arrived in this great big city (save for the subway at four in the morning) there were few things more intimidating than the Jewish delicatessen. And I mean that. For there’s something about the hum and buzz of those places with everyone savvy and quick… everyone knowing exactly what they’re doing requesting all this inside stuff… that makes the likes of me feel like an alien. Like a big fucking jar of mayonnaise rolling through the door. Oh sure, I know hot pastrami and I know corned beef, even brisket, potato or tuna salad and bagel, but everything else holds the arcane reverence of the Torah.
So lo those many years ago as a brand new Apple-tonian, and a rookie of the first order in all things deli, when I first walked into the bustling confines of Shapiro’s on West Seventy Second Street, I was even less the gastronome than that just described. I was a raw egg! But my mission on this day was simple enough… a half a pound of tuna salad and two poppy-seed bagels… so I figured I’d get “on line” and give it a whirl. I mean I didn’t need Alan Dershowitz to walk me through this one, right? Wrong! Check out this internal monologue that played in my head…
Christ, everyone really is in a hurry, better not hold things up when it comes my turn. Get your shit together and know what to say, man. Got it, Goyim? You want a half a pound of tuna salad and two poppy-seed bagels… a half a pound of tuna salad and two poppy-seed bagels. Spit that out when it’s time and keep on moving.
Whoa… hold on here… relax, man, you’re getting all tense for no reason. You’re acting like this is a spelling bee and “antidisestablishmentarianism” is still out there. This is tuna and fucking bagels, not rocket science. I mean it ain’t like you’re going deep here, you’re not getting into Gefilte fish or something that requires a prayer shawl and a yamulke. Chill out, Dude!
“N-e-e-e-x-t-!” shouted the guy handling the line movement. Just three more people then me. But at this point, dear reader, (which often happens to your friendly bartender), a song began to play in my head to score the action at hand, and the song that backed up this action was the theme song from “Rocky”. But rather than the words, “Getting stronger…” coming through, the lyrics instead were switched to, “Getting closer…”
Yeah, getting closer, tuna-poppy, three more orders and you’re gonna have the floor.
Then, a few minutes later, after the woman at bat stowed her culinary secrets deep into a big canvas tote, and inquired about an upcoming affair to be catered by Shapiro’s, she trundled off and the man again shouted, “N-e-e-x-t!” “Getting closer… Getting closer…”
Listen, white bread, if everyone’s in such a big hurry around here and you’re worried about holding things up, why don’t you just shorten your god damn order?
“Ne-e-e-x-t!” Jesus Christ! “Getting closer… Getting closer…”
Getting real close!
Yeah, why don’t you just shorten the thing to a half a pound of tuna and leave off the salad part? He knows you’re not gonna buy the actual fish. Plus you can point to it. And then why not just say poppy instead of poppy-seed? Doesn’t that sound like you’ve been here be-fucking-fore? Yeah, I like that… a half a pound of tuna and two poppy’s… a half a pound of tuna and two poppy’s. Damn that sounds good, someone toss me a yamulke. A half a pound of tuna and two poppy’s. A half…
(In full-blown falsetto) “Gimme a half a pound of tuna and a poppy deli!” What the fuck? Even Freud might have to sleep on that one! A poppy deli!!!
And the guy who was taking my (order?)… the guy staring back through glasses that could stop a bullet… exposed enough teeth to to grille an old Buick, spread out both of his arms and said, “What… you wanna buy the whole store?” And the line behind me like dominoes fell into titters.
“Er-ah.. no, Sir,” I said. My cheeks felt hot enough to fry a whole plate of latkes. “That was A half A pound of tu-na sal-ad… and… two pop-py seed bay-gols.”
“Ahhh, now this I can do,” said the man to much louder titters. And when my order was carefully assembled, bagged and paid for, your friendly bartender then turned and slouched toward Bethlehem.
But there’s a post script to this event which I’d like to share with you. And it goes like this. Remember that episode on “Cheers” when Frazier followed Diane to Europe in an attempt to win her back, hung around with some soccer players, and ultimately failed miserably in his mission? And remember when he got back to Cheers and said something along the lines of, “It was humiliating, Sam, just humiliating! I became a laughingstock. In fact ya’ know know in soccer when a guy misses a kick and lands on his back? That’s now called a Frazier!”
Well guess what, dear reader, (and I swear this is true)… to this glorious day, when friends of mine with whom I’ve shared this tale hear a sportscaster screwing up royally during a telecast, they’ll shout for all to hear, “Did you catch that? That stupid fuck just pulled a poppy deli!” Ahhh immortality!!!.
So I walked back over to “Absolut and vodka”… the young man who started this trip down memory lane… and I asked him if he’d like to have another.
“Sure,” he said, eagerly.
“Another what?” I said with a smile.
“Another Absolut and soda with a lime,” he said with a smile much bigger and sunnier than mine.
Over and out from Shapiro’s… see ya’ next week-end!