“Oh no Joe. Say it ain’t so!” Such was the lament of the little boy pleading with Shoeless Joe Jackson that his beloved Sox hadn’t taken a dive in the Series.
Such was my reaction to the news that in December the Carnegie Deli will be no more. Nothing lives for ever and the owner of the Deli decided that since she’d like to live a little longer, the deli had to die.
The restaurant business takes an awful toll on those in it. For very few hours of a day is there nothing happening. Long before opening does the place begin buzzing with preparation. And it’s long after closing that the staff leaves.That’s the short term. Medium term is finding wholesalers and getting food and supplies. Some of that done at four and five in the morning. Long term is developing strategies how to keep the people interested. If they don’t keep coming, the place can’t pay its bills.
That’s a regular restaurant. The Carnegie is no regular restaurant. The Carnegie is famous for things like its four (yes four) inch high sandwiches and it’s customers who will notice if buried in those four inches is a piece of meat that is too fatty, or too lean, or if the four inches somehow comes out 3.7″ in height.
The Carnegie is famous for its waiters, or those of the old timers who are left. Gruff to the point of nasty, sarcastic to the point of being good contenders for a rumble with Don Rickles in his prime, you can’t train someone to be those people. It’s in the genes. In fact only a trained lion or bear is that snarly. The waiters were basically untrainable. They don’t bite but that’s about it. They famously don’t care who you are and what you want.
Nor could one take for granted where one’s food would land. At the Carnegie big, heavy old-fashioned plates were dealt rather than served. The waiters had this inimitable movement that whipped the plate off their arm and pitched it towards the spot it was to land. To add another metaphor the plates came towards the table like frisbees.
Nor was it wise to question them. The Carnegie and its one time many confreres were the genesis of many Myron Cohen Jewish waiter stories such as:
“Waiter! What’s that fly doing in my soup?”
The waiter peruses the soup and responds, “The backstroke” and departs stage left.
“Waiter. May I have a clean spoon please?”
After a good 5-10 minutes wait, the waiter returns and asks, “Which one of you wanted the clean spoon?”
Ba da boom.
Or the patron jokes.
Texan comes in asking for his first real Jewish meal. Waiter starts him off with Matzo Ball Soup. The patron finishes it to the last drop and asks,” Waiter what were those delicious, chewy round things in my soup?”
“Matzo Balls” is the reply.
“They were delicious. Say, do you serve any other parts of the Matzo for dinner?”
So you see, the Carnegie was not a restaurant. It was an event, a happening. It was a place you talked about long after you digested your meal. And believe me that could be a long, long time… It was a place to unexpectedly rub shoulders with people from stage and screen giving one the upper hand a up and coming cocktail party conversation. “Oh, you’ll never guess who I sat next to at the Carnegie that other day….”
There are still one or two icons left. For me it would be Katz’ Deli waaaaay down town. There are also a few East Side delis left; they are a poorly sung aria compared to that at the Carnegie.
Because of what a Carnegie or a Katz’s is, they are mostly irreplaceable because the waiters and waitresses are gone. Oh yes one can find nasty waiters–there’s Puerto Rican nastiness and Black nastiness, or Greek nastiness, but finding the special breed of New York City Jewish nasty–that generation is gone.
No, one doesn’t replace a Carnegie. One sits and mourns it death, tells stories at the shiva and remembers it every time one reaches for the bottle of ant-acids.