The You All Avenger
So let the king Jews and the king blacks pontificate all they want from their pulpits and lecterns, then as now, now as then; but the very date 1957 tells you it’s the little Jews and little blacks that have to buy and sell a sandwich and bump each other in the night and battle over rents and evictions and pawn tickets and bail bonds and transactions over everything from diamond rings to potato salad – and if they wish Hell’s flames on each other it’s for good cause, not bullshit at all but years and years of Jews beating shit out of the blacks in the store business and blacks beating shit of the Jews in the street business.
Nothing but nothing the Supreme Court or the White House can do will ever get down as far as the Blue Hill Deli, all the mandates and dictates and proclamations and readings into the Congressional Record. But then there are those nights like the night of Ollie the dishwasher kid and the you-all avenger and Harold the deli man and Jack the deli man’s son, nights when the earth moves a thousand years in the minutes it takes to stagger from the back of the deli kitchen to the greasy glass of the front door.
Harold Kopinsky, the deli owner, can tell from the number of times he’s dumped new boatloads of pastrami into the steamtable vat that this is no ordinary Friday night, this is on its way to being a recordbreaker. It’s a feeding frenzy, that’s good, that’s the whole point of the exercise. What made so many of them so hungry at the same time could be the stars, the moon, the heat and the beer in the Boston clubs where Lady Day still plays and Illinois Jacquet, but the idea is move the pastrami at them and let them move the money at you, and if you do it right you needn’t pay extra for special police details and paddywagons because hunger, mouthwatering lust for dripping pastrami and fresh-from-the-bakery rye or rolls is the most powerful peacekeeper of all.
But you don’t have a sandwich you can sell without a plate to put it on, and with four sets of hands slicing and piling the meat between the rye slices and feeding the mob and ringing the register the heat in the kitchen gets hotter because the only one cranking back there is sweet Ollie, the gospel singer kid, and he’s working the dishwashing machine so fast his skin is as shiny as the baking chocolate gets when Harold Kopinsky melts chocolate for the Passover season, for the Blue Hill Deli’s vaunted chocolate macaroons. Each year for three years running macaroon sales have dropped but a new pastry item has shot up – it’s sweet potato pie – in record numbers. New faces and new tastes in the neighborhood. Macaroon eaters moving out of their homes ahead of the sweet potato pie eaters swarming up from the ham and cotton country; sweet potato pie eaters occupying the abandoned kosher streets of the fleeing macaroon eaters; and Harold thinking of offering grits for breakfast and phasing out the kasha that used to fly across the counter like wildfire together with the poached prunes. It’s a New Day, post-Korea. America on the move.
But with four sets of hands making sandwiches and one set of hands, the ones that belong to Ollie, washing the plates, you have a supply-demand situation spinning madly out of control. You have Ollie not only working the machine, shoving in the full trays and pumping out the cycles. You have him turning into a machine himself, hand-scouring the extras in the sink, beating the machine at its own game, doing all he can to keep the rush hour humming, even scouring the pastrami pots and racing around with Rufus, the octogenarian busboy who tells the Northern skeptics both black and white his Mississippi tales of raining frogs, Ollie running like a relay runner to snatch dirty dinnerware off the overwhelmed formica tables and plunge it into the machine he wishes was big as a car wash.
Out from the kitchen inferno comes Ollie, squeezing himself behind the counter and hauling his load of six just-washed trays of cups and saucers, still scalding-hot from the machine. He appears just as Jack, the owner’s son, is tying his mustard-stained apron over his black pegged pants with the pink saddle-stitching, so late for work again there isn’t time for Harold to scream at him.
“How are you Ollie,” says Jack, still in the musky mood from the Friday night Nash Rambler party where the backseat windows got as steamed with hump-grind sweat as the deli windows got steamed with pastrami sweat.
Ollie shakes his face at Jack but says nothing, he’s so wild to drop his trays and run back to his machine. But one of the queued-up customers does say something. A new man, slaughterhouse worker, just up from Mobile and parole expiration, still called Curtis Jefferson but four months away from being called Curtis X.
“You, hey you,” he snarls at Jack. “Where you from? You from the South?”
Jack, whose pegged-pants hipster dream is to grow biceps and fear no man, looks up, scared at the snarl and the slaughterhouse arms, which are thicker by twice than his own legs.
“You, I’m talking to you. You not from the South.”
The place freezes as cold as the new polar feeling in Jack’s fingertips. Harold looks around for a cop, but there is no cop, there being no cop budget. The pastrami production line stops dead, so dead you can hear the flies buzzing on the flypaper and hear Harold drop his tongs on the stainless steel steamtable frame.
“Of course he’s not from the South, but he studies the South in school,” says Harold, quick-changing into Jewish lawyer for his gawky teenage son, who could have walked through the deli door and been behind the counter ten minutes earlier had he not been staring in a rearview mirror combing the crack in his duck’s ass haircut.
Slaughterhouse man Curtis surveys the crowd and the muttering eyeballs that say at this moment he’s as popular as Harold, the white Jew, would be if he left the meat out of someone’s sandwich. You don’t get in the way of a mob and its hunger. Not this pastrami-sniffing mob, not without good goddamn cause.
“If you not from the South,” Curtis puffs out his chest and proclaims, adding decibels to his snarl-tone, “how come you say you all?”
“You all?” Harold scratches his near-bald head and wrinkles his nose. On his arm is a lewd tattoo that doesn’t fit the rabbinical face. Echoes of a Bugsy Siegel past. “Did he say ‘you all’ to you?”
“I didn’t say ‘you all’ to him, I didn’t,” says Jack, piping with righteous indignation, his fingers colder, his voice higher and younger with each new syllable.
“Don’t be cute with me,” says slaughterhouse, pounding the countertop so the napkin dispenser clatters on the glass. “You said it to him.” And all eyes turn and follow his thick-as-a-log arm pointing down the counter to the kitchen doorway, which frames the gaping Ollie, who’s even scrawnier than Jack, chocolate forehead so sweat-slick from his thermal machine it looks ready to melt. “You not from the South, you a Jew from Boston,” he accuses Jack. “You said ‘how are you all’ to him. Don’t be cute with me. Why you have to say you all to him?”
While Harold’s wishing he had a button under the counter, one of those bank buttons the tellers have to bring on the cops, Jack goes into such a paroxysm he whites out totally on whatever it was he said, he can only wobble in his pegged pants and gulp for sounds that will let him beg for his life. No sounds come out, only the silence before the storm.
Then Ollie, in his sweet-polite choirboy voice, cracks the pastrami-famished void and explains, “he said ‘how are you Ollie.’ Ollie’s my name.”
Now lined up ten deep waiting for a sandwich, a few of them laughed, a few of them cursed, but most of them went back to what they were doing before, roaring for their food. Slaughterhouse, who had been planning to take his tray to a table, surveyed the crowd and made an instant switch to takeout. He grabbed his brown bag and beat it out of there, just as the man from Rupelman’s bakery pushed through the door with twenty-dozen fresh-baked egg and Vienna rolls, still hot in that way that makes hungry people want to rape bread.