In the winter, moisture condenses on the front windows, because it’s cold out there and it’s warm in here, in this place where steam rises from the grill and rye bread and onion rolls sizzle in butter and cheeses melt and seep out the sides of sandwiches named Rachel and Arlington and Italian Sailor.
A metal floor stand reads “Please Seat Yourself,” but the place is packed — it’s always packed — and the booths are filled. Given a choice, I’ll always take a booth; who wouldn’t? So comforting and cave-like, an interior room within a room, some subconscious reminder of how we tented the den with quilts or climbed into packing boxes when we were children, gravitating toward an inherent need to be contained. To be held in.
So I wait next to the glass case stocked with bagels.
Of course this place has bagels — the deli’s name is Lox, Stock & Bagel, after all — and it has meat and cheese, too, piles of it in another glass case, pastrami and prosciutto and kosher bologna, and Colby and Muenster and mozzarella, all of it listed on a board with by-the-pound prices.
A seat opens, and I scoot into a hard-backed wooden booth, brown-paneled, just like the walls. Everything is brown here. Even the tabletops are marsala, a deep red-brown, and brown is good. Brown is warm.
A couple of menus, single laminated sheets, sit on top of the napkin dispenser, but in all my years of coming here, I’ve rarely looked at a menu.
A waitress brings me water in a plastic cup and asks what’ll I have.
I say a Reuben. Given a choice, I’ll always take a Reuben, that perfect marriage of stacked corned beef and melted Swiss and sauerkraut and Russian dressing. It was the first sandwich I ever ate in a restaurant, a grown-up choice I made at my dad’s sandwich shop when I was ten years old.
In a few minutes, the waitress sets down a brown plastic basket — no plate — my sandwich tucked in it on plain waxed paper. A handful of chips in the basket. A dill pickle spear.
I eat slowly, and then somehow it’s 30 years ago as much as it’s today, and I hold that sandwich and think about so much.
An older lady sits at a table beside me. She’s by herself, like I am, and her cane, which has been propped on the chair beside her, falls to the floor.
I get up, pick up her cane, position it a little closer to her. “That thing just won’t stay put,” she says, shaking her head, smiling at me. Her thin hands hold a plastic fork, and she dabs at a small Styrofoam bowl of baked beans. Her basket holds half of an egg salad sandwich.
She’s here for supper, like I am, and I wonder if she has, at home in her cabinet like I do, a can of Underwood Deviled Ham with its white paper label and the red devil with the pitchfork. I wonder if she has tuna fish packed in oil, like I do. I wonder if she has a tub of emergency pimento cheese, Ruth’s, or a container of chicken salad, fixings for emergency sandwiches for the days when she doesn’t drive here, for the days when it’s raining or there’s a chance of sleet or, for whatever reason, she just doesn’t feel like getting out.
But that’s not this day, thankfully, and so the two of us sit, wordlessly enjoying our meals. Given a choice, I — and maybe this lady, too — will always look for a place like this one, where the atmosphere is warm and strangers are kind, and the food isn’t meant to be complicated or cut with a knife and fork, but simply picked up and held.