Old Man and the Deli - Andrew Sarewitz
There are some things about New York City that spot light her brighter than most anywhere in the United States and arguably, the rest of the world. And she harbors one anomaly in particular that sustains no where else. The enormous, eclectic mix of ethnic, color and religious differences crammed into five boroughs. I won’t go so far as to say there is overall acceptance among the individuals or multitudes. But without question, there is enviable tolerance. Attack us, as was the case on September 11, 2001, we stood as one people. At least for a month or so.
My corner — literally — of town. I couldn’t tell you anyone’s name who worked at the local deli half a block from my home. Not just at first, but for years. I moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan 25 years ago, when I landed a small, rent stabilized one bedroom apartment. To my surprise, there was a gay bar at First Avenue and 74th Street at the time. It didn’t survive the winter. And on the corner of 75th and First, lives The Second Avenue Deli, relocated from East
Village a number of years ago. Second Avenue Deli on First Avenue. Seriously?
Mohamed. It was more than ten years before I learned his name. Either a partner or sole owner of the deli, the father of many sons and daughters, he is around my age, or a few years less, though I would vainly say I believe I look much younger than he. He has a brother who works there, often at different hours (they open at 6 a.m. and close at 1 in the morning). I still haven’t learned his name. Always nice to me, saying “hello, hello!” when I walk in. I don’t think that greeting is reserved for me. It’s performance. Nothing wrong with that.
At a certain point in my purchase history, they began rounding my orders up. If something was
$3.99, they’d charge me $4. They did this with my blessing after I continuously told them to
“keep the change,” if my total was a few pennies below a rounded dollar amount.
I don’t remember how or when it started, but one of Mohamed’s sons began engaging with me in comical conversation. When he found out I was actually older than his dad, he started calling me, “Young Man.” I volleyed back, referring to him as “Old Man.” This began when he was probably 20 years old. A neighborly camaraderie began. But I didn’t know his name. He just became “Old Man.”
Over the years, I met a number of Mohamed’s sons who would work at the deli. One, who is a younger brother to “Old Man,” was the first in his family to go to college. Nearly two years before he would graduate, I told him when he finished school, I would give him the pool cue that I own as a congratulatory gift. That wasn’t random. He and I often talked about playing billiards as a sport and a pastime for relaxation and bar conversation. There was a time in the 1990’s when I took playing pool with dedicated seriousness. One of my closest friends and her wife bought me a beautiful pool stick (and case) for my 35th birthday. About 4 years later, I stopped playing and the stick rested retired, leaning on the back of an antique chair that’s paired with my Depression era butterfly-leaf dining table that I primarily use to display framed photographs.
He did finish school. I went home, brushed the dust off the black faux leather case and took the pool cue to the Graduate. The stick was in excellent condition. Even the felt tip was not too worn. As soon as he opened the case and saw the quality of the piece, he looked at “Old Man,” and then his father. He thanked me, but he was not happy accepting the gift. I didn’t understand.
I soon had a realization that perhaps they assumed I am some rich, white New Yorker who was giving him an extravagant “show off” gift, I was discarding. The irony being that his family owns a number of delis as well as producing and selling top quality olive oil. They are, by anyone’s standards, working class wealthy.
The following day, I came back into the deli to buy the usual: hand sliced American cheese, a couple of bagels, milk, paper towels and a protein drink. The Graduate was acting polite but strange around me. I said, “dude, I know it’s a top shelf cue stick, but I didn’t pay for it. It was a gift from a generous friend of mine. I don’t play pool anymore and thought a stick of this quality deserved to be passed on.”
That seemed to repair things.
I knew the family was Muslim and from somewhere in the Middle East, but I hadn’t asked where. It’s a large region and other than Israel, which in general is a pretty Westernized culture,
I couldn’t peg the language that might give away the country from which they had emigrated.
For the Christmas holidays one year, I asked if I could buy some of their olive oil. Mohamed’s brother said he could bring me some of “the good stuff.” Though treating this as a special favor, he forgot for about a week, and when he did finally bring what in the wholesale arena is probably twenty dollar’s worth, it was housed in a label-less, plastic water bottle, repurposed as a container. He told me the oil had many practical uses beyond cooking. One being that it’s great for the skin. In my curiosity of their heritage, I asked where the olive oil comes from.
“Our family has groves of olive trees,” he said. “We’ve had them on our land for over two hundred years.”
“Where is that? You guys aren’t Greek or Italian.”
For whatever reason, he didn’t want to tell me. “Back home,” was as much information as he was willing to share.
I wasn’t trying to make them uncomfortable. But I did want to know. I can be nosy that way.
Maybe they had come here illegally and were being protective.
Late on a Sunday, after a grueling day and evening at work, I stopped into the deli before going home. While waiting for my cheese to be sliced, I asked Mohamed where his family came from. He wouldn’t look at me. But he did answer the question. Israel.
I didn’t do a double take. No pause of surprise. I knew right away they were Palestinian. And for whatever reason, they didn’t want to tell me. I assume because I’m a Jew. It could be he theorized I would no longer patronize his deli.
I live in a predominantly Jewish area called Yorkville. I speculate that Mohamed and his family have a prejudiced view of how Jewish people think — an assumption that we all despise Palestinians. And I have no idea if they share a common Palestinian and Middle Eastern opinion of hating Jews. I’d like to think I’m wrong, but I don’t know and I’m not going to ask. Mohamed and his family are always friendly and kind to me. They definitely know I’m gay and a Jew. I don’t know if they talk disparagingly about me when I’m not in ear shot. “Old Man” is more transparent. Through past discussions, I realized he thought I was “another” rich Jew. I corrected him, both in general terms and related to my own financial status. And when COVID hit and I was laid off from work, if his father or uncle aren’t in the front of the store, he sneaks me bagels or under charges me for my groceries.
I finally learned “Old Man’s” given name a few months ago. Abraham. I’ve known this boy — now a man — for decades and never knew his name. He probably knows mine, from my credit card, at the times I don’t pay in cash. In the Bible, the name Abraham is translated to “Father of a multitude of nations.” In secular English, “Father of many.” I don’t know if the name is mentioned in the Koran.
I’d like to believe they more than tolerate me. I know — from Mohamed’s brother — that at one point, the Israeli army destroyed some of his family’s ancient olive trees while re-districting borders. Their mother, who still lives in Israel, was beside herself at the pointless and cruel murder of the generations old family groves. I love Israel, but as with my home in America, I am not always proud of political and cultural decisions, both present and past.
I don’t know Mohamed and his family’s religious strength. They don’t drink alcohol, and I presume they keep to some of the rituals of Ramadan. I am not a practicing Jew, but I culturally acknowledge Passover and the High Holy days. Religious or not, Palestinians and Jews are presumed enemies. And as is often the truth, in individual cases, humans seen as coming from enemy camps can find commonalities that take them beyond tolerance to everyday acceptance and even affection.
I wonder the reason why Mohamed opened his deli in a Jewish neighborhood. Does he think all Jews are rich and wanted to take advantage? His prices are on par or less than those of the supermarkets in the neighborhood, which argues more to wanting to secure success in a stable area. Or maybe he simply was offered a reasonable rent.
My relationship with New York City is love/hate. I threaten to leave, but probably will just whine about it until the day I drop dead. Where there is pride in my city, a big part is the diversity that survives and thrives in this populated metropolis. I found who I am here. It clearly has been good, at least in the long stretched trajectory, to people of completely different cultures like
Mohamed and his family. Subconscious, but a big part of why I made this city my home.
Andrew has written and published several short stories (website: www.andrewsarewitz.com) as well as having penned scripts for various media. Mr. Sarewitz is a recipient of the 2021 City Artists Corp Grant for Writing. His play, Madame Andrèe (based on the life of Nancy Wake, The “White Mouse”) garnered First Prize from Stage to Screen New Playwrights in San Jose, CA; produced with a multicultural cast and crew. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America.