“You ask yourself, who could it be
A solitary voice to speak out and set you free
I hate to say it
I hate to say it
but it’s probably me”
I was in Detroit awhile ago ; Met up with a friend of mine who refers to me, as I do him; A Brotha’ from another Motha’. To me, Jim is the epitome of an inner city Italian. Short, stocky, strong as an ox, unbelievably talented and giving to a fault . If you make it in to his inner circle he’s one of those guys that will, quite literally, give you the shirt off his back. Unless you wrong him – then he’ll hang you with it. I have referred to him as my ‘Big Brother’ for almost 20 years now. He is also one of the only people in the world that calls me ‘Chilly Willy’…
When we left for lunch, I was given my choice of things in the area. Being a Jew currently living in Atlanta, the choice was obvious. We needed to go to a deli, and not just any deli, The Bread Basket Deli in Oak Park, Mi.
“Of all the places we could go, you want corned beef?”
“It’s a Jewish thing,” I said. “Haven’t you ever had an unexplainable craving for a connoli?” He smiled and sped off down the Southfield freeway.
We arrived instantly reminiscent of times past. This place has been here so long, the neighborhood has changed twice since its inception. In forty years it has bore witness to both a revitalization and the inevitable decline that follows. Still the best corned beef in the Midwest.
We sat down and decided to play it safe, so we – two grown men – split an order of cheese blintzes and a corned beef sandwich. The staple of any balanced diet. What the hell. I’m on vacation. Although splitting it was a REAL good idea. We went to the cider mill the day before, where I’m quite certain I ate my body weight in cider donuts….
The Bread Basket Deli was owned by a guy named Ron, (whose last name I don’t think I ever knew), for the last forty years. He was always behind the counter. Always. I noticed his absence immediately and knew things would be different. For myself and peers, our parents and our parent’s parents – this was arguably THE deli in the Detroit area for decades. Stage was good. Zingerman’s was fantastic. This was old school baby…
We noticed several changes amongst all the things that hadn’t. Most notably was the staff. Where once the same first string waitresses had loomed for 30 years, now stood a new legion of over worked, under paid, apathetic old woman who could care less if we ordered of not. Frankly – the attitude was the same, but somehow it’s charming when it’s coming from someone who knows your order before you sit down. Behind the counter, young vibrant Italian and Jewish boys used to scream orders and chop salami with a cleaver like a machete through the outback. It appears now that the only job requirement was having a gold tooth. C’est la Vie.
So the blintzes are first on the radar. Complete with a side order of blueberries and sour cream. For those of you of the non-Jewish persuasion- a proper cheese blintz is the equivalent of a cheesecake wrapped in a sweet burrito like casing the size of my fist. There are three to an order. The sour cream and blueberries are there to ensure that no artery is left unclogged. The corned beef serves as reinforcement. It was decided long ago by a panel of experts that it was, indeed, physically impossible to get both pieces of rye bread in your mouth at the same time with out dislocating your jaw first. Weighing in with a two bite height minimum, a corned beef sandwich from a traditional Jewish deli is to be taken seriously. A thing of beauty. Art to be savored… Friends and family are great, but this – this is why people come back to the Motor City.
We were more than half way through the blintzes – so by the time the sandwich came we were reaching maximum capacity. I felt like I should have stretched or warmed up first or something. When it arrived, delivered by our waitress with two hands to support the weight, neither of us cared. I’ve waited a long time and traveled a lot of miles to reach this oasis of cholesterol. The first bite made the wait worthwhile. I knew there was no way in hell I would finish, but I was going to enjoy every morsel.
I was on my third bite when I heard something hit the table. I looked up at my pal Jimmy to see a look on his face that defies description. Fear? Pain? Anger? Disgust? All or none of the above?
“Jimmy. You OK?” My voice clearly muffled by an over abundance of corned beef. He was staring at the table inquisitively. He had a mouthful as well, but wasn’t chewing…
He reached over to the center of the table and picked up what was, unfortunately, clearly a tooth. He looked at it. Looked at me. Looked back at the tooth… Simultaneously, we emptied our mouths in disgust. Almost chewed rye bread, coleslaw and corned beef… A splattering in stereo.
“Now THAT’s nasty!” He said – full of righteous indignation. “I think I’m going to be sick…”
So now I’m thinking to myself, maybe it’s only his half… The brain clearly doesn’t function properly in the midst of a corned beef deficit. I was debating this dilemma internally when I saw his expression change. He was silently exploring the inner region of his now offended pie hole. Now what?!? I’m almost afraid to ask…
“Dude. You OK?” I asked. “Please tell me you didn’t find something else…”
I was talking to him, but eyeing my sandwich. The lack of reaction was starting to worry me though. He was sitting looking blankly at the tooth. Pushing it with a fork like a little kid pokes a jellyfish stranded on the beach.
“No. Wait… I think that’s mine.” He said.
OK. There is a possibility I’m slightly less disgusted. Just slightly. Still… He just kept searching the inside of his mouth.
“Are you in pain?”
“No” he replied
Still with the blank glare. In retrospect, I think he was in shock. Must be a little disorienting to be in your forties and have pieces of yourself drop off with no warning. Thankfully – I have no idea. On either count…
So there I sit. Sandwich in hand. Trying desperately to mentally push my stomach back OUT of my throat. Really wanting to finish but having trouble finding the will to do so. The view of the table was not exactly appetizing at this point. Not to mention, as a supportive friend – My buddy is down. He’s hit. The VC clipped him good. We need a medic…
How can I be supportive when I can’t figure out what he needs. If he was nine it would be easy – ‘open up kid. Let’s take a look at the damage’. This guys older than I am. Embarrassment is a serious factor here.
When in doubt – I do as I do…
“You’re not in pain, right?”
“It’s just a crown, right” I’m assuming here.
“Yes. But I’ve had that crown for thirty years…”
“But you aren’t in pain?”
“Good” I said, switching gears abruptly, “Cuz this is some funny shit!”
He looked up at me with the wounded puppy look and saw me desperately fighting back the laughter… and failing. We both lost it together. I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard in decades. My eyes were watering. My stomach hurt. People were starting to stare. Neither of us cared.
We tried to talk – bits and pieces really – but nothing was translatable through the full throttle laughter, the hands in front of our faces wiping the eyes, and the un-explainable reason why two grown men north of 250lbs both now sounded like cackling school girls. The more we tried to talk, the higher the pitch got.
When I could finally get control, I gave it another shot.
“OK. We need to push past this. I feel for you my brother, but I’m finishing this damn sandwich! I know you are emotionally wounded. We’ll have a moment of silence for your thirty year old tooth, then soldier on.”
He then proceeded to stop laughing. Pulled his hands away from his mouth for the first time – and with a full ear-to-ear grin – gave me a wide open shot of his choppers. With a large gapping hole almost dead center.
We both lost it. Round two seemed longer… We exhausted the napkin container in round one, so I resorted to wiping my eyes on my shirt sleeves. After awhile, he managed to speak .
“I’m so sorry buddy. I don’t think I’ve even been this embarrassed. Whew. OK! Let’s try to finish..”
“Why would you be embarrassed?” I said. “We’re like family. If you can’t drop body chunks on the dinner table with family…”
I didn’t even bother to finish. He was off again. I wasn’t far behind.
“What IS the life cycle of a crown?”
“Anything else artificial going to fall off, or will your pants catch that?”
“Is there a statute of limitations on dental work? Maybe you can go back to ‘Teeth R Us’ and get your $4 back. or as we say in Detroit ‘We Be Crowns and Shit’…”
“Thirty years on a crown? I’m sorry – I have to ask; When was the last time you bought a new condom?”
“Listen,” I said. “It’s lucky I was here. You could have been on a date or something… You know; ‘Ooops. Sorry Baby. My bad…'”
He was taking it well…
“You have to have some serious game to drop a tooth at the table, look at her with a straight face and say, ‘Yea. Mea Copa’. You want desert?'”
We went back and forth for awhile. He clearly was embarrassed – and rightfully so. But laughter cures all and shock quickly gave way to jokes at his expense. It was the least I could do. I finally gave up on the corned beef though. I took one for the team. After all, he is family…
On the way back to the car, he lights up again. We had to stand there for awhile while he gained his composure…
“Now what?” I asked. His laughter was contagious and I was easily infected at this point. As entertaining as this was, I was thinking our next course of action should be to move on – otherwise we may both part ways with the little bit of lunch we actually managed to eat.
We were leaning on opposite sides of the car. He wouldn’t unlock the door because he couldn’t see the remote through the tears. I waived to the couple walking past us.
“Hi. How are you?” The stare continued.
“I asked him to marry me,” I said as they walked towards the deli.
After his voice retreated from the place where only dogs could hear him he said;
“I just realized the downside of having this happen in front of you. You make me feel better now, but I will NEVER hear the end of this! Make sure you at least change my name when you write this story…”
He was all teeth now. Well, almost…
“Who me? I would never! Now open the door you toothless wonder, we’re late…”
He sent me a text later that day. His friend the Orthodontist had rushed him right in.
‘Tooth reprd. Mouth full again!’. I was glad that was behind him, so I replied with the kindness only a younger brother can deliver. ‘Great! In the future maybe you’ll have more respct for pwr of a Jewish sandwich… ;-)’
‘Course that’s just how it looked through my eyes. Your view may differ…