Two New York stories

One of the baffling contradictions of New York is that so much of its economy is service-based and yet service there is so desperately bad. You go to the drug store to get a candy bar and when you finish the transaction the cashier does not thank you, you thank the cashier. You thank the cashier because the cashier refrained from killing you. There will be three bodegas in a two-block stretch, which under normal circumstances would create an environment of healthy competition for customers, but the service in all of them will vary from casually listless to downright hostile.

The reason for this is, of course, that everyone in New York on permanent mental life-support. It’s tough to live there, and everyone, no matter what their age, nationality or educational level, has to struggle struggle struggle just to make it from day to day or across the street. The waiter from whom you need ketchup has his own goddamn problems to worry about, thankyou very much, he can’t make his rent and his therapist is putting moves on him and his girlfriend is a junkie and his car’s been impounded for no reason and he just lost his health insurance on the day he’s discovered a lump on the underside of his jaw: he’s not about to care a rat’s ass whether or not you enjoy your meal.

It was bad when I moved there at the beginning of the crack epidemic in 1983, it was worse when I left in 2006 and it’s even worse now. These two stories happened to me and my wife on the same day this week.

1. I go into a deli, as I’ve gone into delis in New York for 25 years, to get a sandwich. For 25 years I’ve always ordered the same thing, not because I like it so much but because everybody in every neighborhood from every nation seems to understand in basic terms what it is: roast turkey on whole wheat toast with mustard, lettuce and tomato. Folks from old-time deli traditions even have a term for this sandwich — “turkey, full mustard, whiskey down*.” (*please see correction by R. Sikoryak in comments)

But this guy in this deli seems a little more overwhelmed than usual. He’s struggling with the elderly woman ahead of me in line because she can’t supply him with the price of the cheese she wants. She can’t supply him with the price of the cheese she wants because the price of the cheese she wants is not displayed. He’s grown very impatient with her on this matter and finally she bends to his will and asks instead for some cheese the price of which is displayed.

That out of the way, he asks for my order. I give him the same order I’ve given to deli guys for 25 years. He furrows his brow in thought, nods and vanishes behind the counter. I go elsewhere into the bowels of the deli to fetch a Diet Pepsi and a yogurt for my daughter. On my way back to the counter, I stumble across the sandwich guy standing in the bread department, gazing in confusion and desperation at the different breads on display, as though he’s never actually seen bread before and is not sure what to expect when he opens up one of these mysterious bags. When he sees me he brightens and gestures to the breads: “Which one?” he begs. I’m dumbstruck. The guy put in charge of making sandwiches in a New York deli does not know what whole wheat bread is. What’s worse, he doesn’t know that the bread for the sandwiches is kept behind the counter. I stammer for a moment and then realize that if I have to teach the sandwich guy what whole wheat bread is, I am then going to have to show him what mustard is, then tomatoes, then lettuce. Then a toaster. I politely thank him for his service, relieve him of his responsibilities regarding my sandwich, put back my Diet Pepsi and yogurt, and leave.

Obviously, my sandwich guy was not the sandwich guy at this particular deli. Rather, he’s somebody’s brother or cousin or friend and is filling in while the real sandwich guy is off doing something more important than making sandwiches in a New York deli. And who can blame him?

2. My wife is in the park with my son. The heat is in the 90s. There’s a guy with a hot dog cart and an ice-cream cart. My son wants something called Shots, which is a cup of frozen lime-flavored pellets of whatever the hell popsicles are made of. She waits in line and tells the guy what she wants. He doesn’t understand. She repeats herself. He still doesn’t understand. He asks her to point to the picture of the item, displayed on the front of the cart. She does. He can’t see it. He comes around the front of the cart so she can show him. He goes back around and searches his cart. He can’t find it. He asks her to repeat her order. She does. He still doesn’t understand. He comes around to look at the picture again. He asks her if she wants something else. She does not, or rather my son does not. After much struggle, the frozen treat is identified within the cart,retrieved and exchanged for cash. The vendor is weary and apologetic. “I’m sorry,” he says, “this is not my usual job. I run the hot-dog cart, but it is too hot, no one wants my hot dogs. This I’m doing for a friend. I am a professional hot-dog vendor.”

So typical of the class struggle in New York: the lazy, over-privileged ice-cream vendor, corrupted by access to so much easy money, has better things to do on the hottest day of the year. No doubt he’s gone traipsing off to the Hamptons in his BMW, chasing skirts, fine wine and the good life, while he has left his business to fall apart in the hands of an honest, hard-working but ill-equipped hot-dog vendor. Let some other poor sucker work like a dog in the blazing heat, he smirks to himself as he downshifts his convertible and takes the opportunity to lay a hand on the naked thigh of the willowy blond in the passenger seat, Ice cream, hot dogs, what’s the difference? he muses, People are idiots anyway.

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17 Responses to “Two New York stories”
  1. New York sounds like the greatest city ever!

    And I’m getting some flashbacks of my trip to San Diego for the 2005 Comic Con.

    Great stories.

  2. craigjclark says:

    “I am a professional hot-dog vendor.”

    There’s something about this statement that floors me.

    • Todd says:

      It reminds me of Fitzgerald in Hollywood, being one of the greatest writers of his generation and being asked to write formulaic crap. The hot-dog vendor has a trade, an honest profession. Perhaps he trained as a young man as an apprentice to a master hot-dog vendor. He’s put in many years of struggle and strife, ignoring his family and the good times being had by his peers, in order to one day be recognized as a proud, upstanding professional hot-dog vendor, and this is his reward — shoved behind an ice-cream cart by a callous bully who has no pride of soul.

  3. r_sikoryak says:

    Four thoughts:

    Is this a pitch for a sequel to the 1989 film of the same name?
    Because you’ll need one more story.

    Didn’t you see the tourism ads that encourage everyone who visits NY to bring their own snacks?

    “Whiskey down” is rye toast.

    I still like living here.

  4. curt_holman says:

    In 1995, my wife and I visited New York and had breakfast at a deli. My wife asked for a bagel “with schmear” and the waitress stared at her like she’d grown a second head, apparently never having heard that expression before that moment.

  5. tamburlaine says:

    And yet, this city is the best city in the world. I haven’t been able to find better yet.

    Though if you go to more upscale places, you’ll be waited on hand and foot, as though the waiter/shopgirl’s life depends on it.

    • Todd says:

      New York’s uniqueness and individuality is what kept people staying here for many generations. Now it’s becoming just another city of chain stores and international brands, except with crumbling infrastructure, terrorist attacks, omnipresent filth and overpowering odor of human waste.

      • tamburlaine says:

        I’m 60% hurt, 40% right in between a state of denial and a state of sad acceptance.

        I was born and raised here. It’s never not going to be home to me. (And I don’t smell the filth.)

        And I’ve been to LA. In my opinion, that town is the gate of hell. And not in a good way.

  6. zodmicrobe says:

    I totally love NYC. When my partner and I moved to LA two years ago, we weren’t sure we’d really be able to adapt.

    Surprise, we did, and we like it here better now. Regular trips to Canters and having a fun car helps, though.

  7. edo_fanatic says:

    Todd Alcott: The crack epidemic’s effect on the service industry.

  8. mikeyed says:

    Dearborn is like the exact opposite of NYC, it’s almost rediculous. You get nice, english-speaking hot-dog vendors. It’s not unique in any way besides the Green Field Village/Henry Ford, which is not necessarily anything to be proud about either. Lastly, as long as they aren’t commuters from Detroit, most of the service industry here is filled with people who could only hope to be as troubled as that waiter of yours.

  9. adam_0oo says:

    “Of course you’ll have a bad impression of New York if you only focus on the pimps and the C.H.U.D.s.”;

  10. greyaenigma says:

    It’s INsane!

    Clearly the guy in the deli was the guy from the ice cream cart.

    My New York story: (Did I tell this already? Screw it, here it is again.)

    Last time I was in New York (within a few days of the first WTC attack), I was walking down the street and I hear a swish, a crash, and an exclamation from behind me. “Oh my god!” I turn around to find a brick had plummeted from some great height, missing the back of my head by inches.

    As I said, this was the last time I was ever in New York. The place has it in for me.

    • Todd says:

      Re: It’s INsane!

      Clearly the guy in the deli was the guy from the ice cream cart.

      Since the two events happened almost simultaneously, it would certainly account for his inability to focus; he was, after all, in the midst of a temporal split.