10. Pastrami on White

Orders have piled up, so I put the hamburgers on the pastrami box and clear up the backlog. Christine tries to be helpful, setting up plates for me until I ask her to stop.

“It’s OK,” she says, “I don’t mind.”  test

“It’s not that. It messes up my system.”

“Well, what can I do for you?”

“Take me away from all of this.”

“OK,” she says in a low voice.

“Your place or mine?” I ask, trying to keep it going.

“It had better be your place. My husband’s not a very liberated man.”

“What about my wife?”

“Oh, you’re not married,” she says. “You’ve got that hungry look.” She claps her hand to her mouth. “Did I just say that?”

“You did. You look too young to be married,” just to see whether she’s kidding.

“There’s a lot that I don’t look,” she says. She picks up her orders and dashes off.

Once, after we weren’t so good anymore and she had dropped out and was living at home, Matisse hitch-hiked to see me. She walked into my dorm room, grinning from ear to ear, pleased at her surprise. She was wearing a man’s blazer that I’d never seen before. When I asked her where she got it from, she looked sad and said she’d borrowed it from someone she knew. It was a horrible weekend. She wanted so much to please me and she was so proud of coming up, and all I could think of was where she had gotten the blazer. I never found out and I never saw it again. And I spent weeks kicking myself for ruining her surprise.

While I’m putting away the pastrami, I find one with a vein of white mold and I set it aside until I can deal with it. There is something in the lacy way the mold spreads through the black spices that makes me wonder how you could get those lines on a pot. Even the shape of the pastrami would make a nice slab to hang on an outside wall, maybe a couple of hollow spots for flowers or dried grass. I cut the mold out of the pastrami and sweep the pieces into the garbage.

A high-pitched voice over the counter says, “Give me a pastrami on white, with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise.” When I look up, John is grinning from ear to ear.

“How are you, man?” he asks. The guy next to him, short, scruffy, ripped jean jacket, is Jaime, John’s connection. Eighteen years old.

“What’s up?” I ask.

“Mucha marijuana, mucho dinero,” says John. “Fifteen pounds of Colombian. We just drove back from Rochester.”

I know the place. I went there once with him. An old toy factory, one end boarded off and packed with about a ton of Mafia marijuana. Or so they said. “Want something to eat?”

“Sure,” says John. Jaime looks at him. “They’ll be ok,” John says to Jaime. “We parked in the back lot,” he explains.

I tell them to sit at the counter and take their order. “That pastrami sounds good. With French Fries,” says Jaime.

“Jaime, I was kidding,” says John. “You don’t eat pastrami on white bread,” but Jaime is insistent. “That’s what I want.” John and I look at each other and shrug. “Corned beef,” says John. “The usual.”

Bill walks up the aisle to see me while I’m making up their food. “That was a bit of excitement,” he says, leaning against the slicer. “There’s a lot of tension in this business and tempers will fly. I gave Tommy the rest of the night off. I’ve got some college kid coming in” He lights a cigarette and watches me.

I’ve got the pastrami already made up. Bill looks at it, then at me. I shrug. I put the corned beef for John’s sandwich on the slicer, working slowly, hoping Bill will get bored and leave. But he doesn’t.

I lay a slice of rye bread on the Portion Control Meter, an old postage scale, and cut thin slices of meat. One ounce of bread, three of meat. The standard portion.

“How much meat are you using? Danny, you can put a pound of meat on a sandwich and unless you stack it right, they’ll send it back every time.” He takes the corned beef off the bread and crumples each slice separately. The pile is about two inches high, but it will lose half its loft when you put the top slice of bread on it and press down. He starts to put the rest of the corned beef back into the steamtable.

“One more ounce, right Bill?” I ask. “There’s only two ounces of meat on that sandwich.”

He looks at me cunningly and places another slice on the pile. “Two and a half ounces, Danny. We’re going to have to cut back across the board. We just can’t go on like this. Figure it out for yourself. Do you know how much corned beef costs these days?”

He answers himself. “Three dollars and, uh, fifty cents a pound. We just can’t send out the overstuffed sandwich anymore. Those people in Washington are going to ruin it for the small businessman.” He places the top slice of bread gingerly on the sandwich and starts to cut it.

“Wait,” I tell him, and fork up some cole slaw to drain. “That’s how he wanted it. Cole Slaw and Russian dressing.”

“Where? I don’t see any check.”

“I didn’t have time to make one,” I tell him. “Christine was busy so I just took the order.”

“What do you mean? We’ve got to have control over our food.”

“I’ll have Christine make one up.”

He spreads a little Russian on some bread, tops the sandwich and carefully cuts it in two.

“Look at that,” he says. “Beautiful.”

“Swell,” I say without enthusiasm.If I made pottery for someone like him, I’d hate clay in a week.The fries are done, so I pull the basket from the fryolator. I reach for a plate, but Bill puts his hand on my wrist and says, “Watch.”

He slides the sandwich onto an oval plate, placing each half so it will take up as much room as possible. He places a pickle on one side of the plate and shakes a few fries into the middle.

“See?” he says. “It’s all in the presentation. Get the red”

I put a spiced apple ring on a piece of lettuce in the corner of each plate and call for a pick-up. I dump a few extra fries on John’s plate. Bill takes them off.

Ignoring him, I watch Christine move across the dining room. If you made a vase with a curve like those hips, you could get hard just looking at it. All those blond streaks–how about a straw colored hare’s fur tenmoku?

Going over glazes in my head, I take John and Jaime their plates. I apologize for the sandwiches.

“He was doing portion control,” I explain. “If you’re still hungry, let me know.”

“Don’t worry about it,” says John.

When Christine comes, I ask her to get two beers for the guys at the counter.

“Where’s the check?”

“Make one up for the beer,” I say. She looks at me quickly and nods.

When she comes back, she says, “I can’t believe that scruffy guy. He kept trying to put salt in the sugar dispenser. He thought it was funny. I took it away from him. He also wants more fries.”

“He’s an asshole. The other one is a friend of mine, John Lerner.”

“I figured as much. I just put the beer on the check.”

“You’re a dream.”

“Thank you.” She curtsies.

“About the other guy, I can drop his fries on the floor, if you like. A little spit and polish.”

“No.” She sighs. “He’s just a kid. He doesn’t know any better. We probably weren’t any different.”

“I may have been stupid, but I wasn’t an asshole.”

“I was a cheerleader,” she says shyly. “I went to an all-girl Catholic school. Cheerleaders got to travel with the boy’s school football team.” She laughs. “I grew up in a suburb of Rochester that was so far out of town that half the people who lived in it had farm plots. We lived in a big white house, my parents and my three sisters.”

“I grew up in an apartment building. The ghetto was on one side, across the Long Island railroad tracks. Richer people on the other, up the hill. Classic.”

“I wanted to move to the city ever since I could remember,” she says. “That’s what I did when I got out of high school. I moved to Rochester. I was a waitress and I lived with my boyfriend and my parents never knew.” She puts her hands into her apron pockets and rocks a little on her heels. “I grew up a lot, I think.”

Bill strides up the aisle. Christine rips a check from her book and hands it to me. “Here’s the check for the counter.” I take it without letting Bill see.

“I’ll give it to them,” I say, as Bill tells Christine that 17 needs coffee.

Bill follows her to the Silex and out to the register.

“How was it?” I ask John, dropping the check on the counter. “Want anything else?”

He shakes his head. “We’ve got to get going.” He sounds disappointed. He probably wanted to talk. “That waitress has a hot bod.”

“Christine. Yeah.”

“Here,” he says, laying a baggie beside his plate. “Get her high for me.”

“Hey John, wait!” says Jaime, but John shakes his head no. Jaime looks out of the window nervously. I look at the bag. There’s a good half ounce of fat buds in it.

“There’s a lot of pot in there.” I jam the baggie in my front pocket where it looks like I’ve got a hard-on.

“There’s 15 more pounds in the car. We’ve also got a shitload of Mexican coming, so keep your ears open.” Jaime gets up and heads for the Men’s room. I watch him, half expecting him to steal a couple of salt shakers.


“We’ve got a little partnership going. Jaime fronted the money for this load. He has the connections. I deliver the customers.”

“John, he’s a kid. And he’s an asshole.”

John looks at me. “Three years ago, anyone who walked through Canadian customs looking like a hippie got strip-searched, so the dealers put on suits and carried hash in briefcases. Customs got hip and stopped everyone who looked like a young exec. Jaime carried a little over a pound of methedrine through Customs last year, dressed just like he is now. He’s sharper than he looks. And he’s got the bucks.

“Come over tonight if you’re not too busy.” John smiles and jerks his head towards Christine.

Jaime’s back so John slips a crumpled five on the counter and off they go. Bill wanders over, absently counting salt shakers. I rearrange the baggie and head back to the grill.


10. Pastrami on White — 2 Comments

  1. This one captures that lost sense that the dope trade is so. . . normal. Something ordinary chaps do, at least on occasion, to augment the income or build a little stash. No great mistique about it. Maybe because of it’s time–or my vintage. Today the practice has such an odor of criminality, it seems.

    Christine is married? WTF?

    • Both your points become pivotal. I’ll say no more except to ask do you think Danny and Christine are simply kidding around?