I had walked all day.
I had run up and down stairs, in and out of subway trains. I had stood in the coat-check line at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for twenty minutes, and then spent two hours on the museum’s unforgiving floors. The 12-block walk to the Frick Collection wasn’t so bad, but the central rooms of the Frick have plush, green carpets that suck up your sneakers like quicksand. The carpets would have made perfect mattresses, but they were destabilizing and wobbly to walk on.
From the Frick, I had meandered around Central Park, looking at Christo’s “Gates” installation and periodically slipping on patches of black ice. Despite the dull ache in my shins and the bitter cold air, I decided to walk from Central Park (at around 70th Street) all the way to the Second Avenue Deli… at 10th Street. By the time I arrived at the restaurant, my thighs felt like they’d completed a two-day hike.
I was tired, my feet were sore, and I was extremely hungry. Maybe that’s why my meal was so delicious. I doubt it, but maybe.
I could tell I was in good hands when I was taken to my table. My waiter, an elderly man in pressed black slacks and a vest, immediately handed me today’s New York Times as soon as he noticed I was sitting alone. I told him that I had reading material, pulling out Stephen Dixon’s Tisch. “Dixon?” he asked. “Is he Jewish?” “I think so,” I said. “Certainly comes up a lot in his work.” “Is he good?” “The best,” I said. “A little weird, though.” “I might have to check him out then,” said the waiter.
The décor was old-school—shiny tables, wooden booths with frosted glass on the backs of the seats, a coat rack and a hat rack, tables close to each other. I sipped my celery soda and read my book. My waiter brought me a small plate of pickles—not pickle slices, but full, juicy, small pickles—and pickled cabbage. One set of pickles looked like the nuclear green kind you see in grocery stores, but one bite let me know they were better. Salty, crisp, sour but not overpoweringly so, they were perfect. So I thought. The other set of pickles looked like baby cucumbers. When I bit into it, I saw that the flesh was still white. Less tart and more vinegary than the first batch, these had a subtler, almost sweet flavor while maintaining their sourness. Now these were perfect pickles.
Now, when I ordered my twin-double, I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting. Two sandwiches, one corned beef and one pastrami, on rye buns—that much I knew. But I expected them to be relatively small. The aromatic delectables that appeared on my table, next to the still-sizable heap of pickles, were each the size of a boxer’s fist. Meat spilled out of the buns. The meat was so tender that I could tear it by rubbing it between my fingers. They looked as splendid as the works of art I’d spent all morning looking at. I added my personal brushstrokes—generous splashes of spicy mustard, large sprinklings of pickled cabbage, pickle slices I had cut—and closed up the buns. I was almost ashamed to eat them.
Almost. I took a small, furtive bite. And then a bigger one. And then I let this juicy, spicy perfection roll around in my mouth. So tender. So peppery. So deliciously pickled. So outstanding. With my book in one hand and a sandwich in another, I eavesdropped on four guys talking about TV shows they loved. I saw beautiful women walking by outside. I marveled at my waiter’s buoyant efficiency. I ate my perfect meal in silence, amidst the clatter and chatter around me. I licked my lips and fingers a lot. And I figured that life can’t improve very much on this moment.
Too soon, it was over. I’m not usually a glutton, but my plates were so clean that they looked like they’d come fresh from the dishwasher. I sipped the dregs of my soda and waited for the check. My waiter seated two young men—one neurotic and whiny-voiced; the other confidently WASP-y and with perfect, tousled hair. The whiner went to the restroom, and so, as a coda to the meal, I got to hear this exchange between Perfect Hair and my waiter:
“So, what’ll you have?”
“I, um, I dunno, I think I want meatloaf.” I glanced to my left at him—he hadn’t even cracked open the menu.
“We don’t really have meatloaf here.”
“Whatever—what’s good here, then?”
A quick, almost unnoticeable sigh. “You might like the Reuben.”
Perfect Hair flicked his hand, like the waiter was a gnat. “Sounds okay, let’s go for that.”
“What type of bread would you like that on?”
“Sourdough would be great.”
“Sir, this is a Jewish delicatessen.”
He glanced in my direction. I rolled my eyes and shrugged. The waiter flashed a grin.
“No, we don’t have foccacia, either.”
I left him a big tip, and walked back out into the cold.