For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing some preliminary research for a historical novel that’s been nagging at me for a while. I learned that in the early twentieth century, there were about 10,000 kosher delicatessens in Brooklyn. Now there are just a few dozen. This fact inspired a story for #2minutesGo this week. Happy Passover or Easter or Sunday, whichever you celebrate.
The masonry and wood in the basement smelled like decades of everything it had absorbed: corned beef curing in stainless steel bins, cucumbers pickling in barrels, even the German and Yiddish and Russian and Polish words that had been spoken here, as the newer immigrants in Williamsburg supplanted the old.
Eli’s first trip to the basement was as etched into his memory as the hash marks on the support beams. “See these, boychik?” his father had said. “This is where I keep track of employees that don’t work out so well.”
Pop had been smiling when he said it, so it was probably a lie; nobody knew the real answer. Eli eventually surmised that the marks represented a mundane system of accounting: how many rounds of pastrami, how many pounds of kosher salt, how much black pepper.
He ran a finger over a segment of them, ticked off like days a man might count his prison sentence.
Eli had never counted.
He swiveled toward his granddaughter. “Yes, Miriam?”
“I’m so hungry for Chinese food and this place is giving me the creeps. Can we please go back up to our table soon?”
“Yes. Very soon.” He peered up along the tops of the walls. It didn’t look much different, except for some new wiring. Telephone. Cable. All the modern conveniences. He took another deep inhale of the literal melting pot the space had become. “You know, I found it immensely comforting to be down here when I was your age.”
“Why, because you could hide from Papa Abramowitz?”
He grinned. Remembering all the hours he’d spent here. “Your great-grandfather was a pussycat. No. It wasn’t like that. I liked that it was quiet. I liked when we were working down here, just the two of us. He was so busy running the restaurant that this was sometimes the only time we spent alone together.”
Still with her arms hugged around her skinny middle, she picked her way over, through what was now extra cases of paper take-out containers and soy sauce packets. She stopped a few feet away from him. How much of her mother, her grandmother he could see in her face.
“That sounds nice,” she said. “I wish I could work like that with my dad. Well. I can’t paint like he can. But, you know. Help with stuff. Buy new brushes and write in the little book which paintings he’s sold.”
So serious, my little Miriam.He was thrilled that she agreed to this weekend together. Soon she would be of an age not to be caught dead wandering around Brooklyn with an old man. Eli plucked his hat off his head and plopped it onto hers; she tilted it at a jaunty angle and made a movie star face at him, which always made him laugh.
“But let me ask you something, mein aynikl. Did you ever ask if you could?”
Her gaze dropped to the concrete floor. Then she peered up at him. “Did you ask Papa Abramowitz?”
“Ask! There was no asking back then. It was the family business. We just did.”
“But we have a family business.”
“Yes. I suppose you do.”
She took off his hat and smooshed it back on his head. “I’ll ask him. I’ll ask him when we get home. But please. Please, please, can we go upstairs and eat now?”
“Go on.” He pressed a hand to her thin shoulder. “I’ll be right behind you.” He had a feeling he would never see this place again, and, unlike the last time he’d left, he wanted to say a proper goodbye.
Photo: City Foodsters [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D