Guy can work up an appetite occupying Wall Street and I can’t tell you how many times during last Wednesday’s march I was tempted to jump a barrier and make for a hot dog stand. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It wasn’t fear of cops that kept me in line. I’d like to say it was solidarity. What it was, though, is that I decided to hold out for something more than a hot dog. I wanted a sandwich. Corned beef. Pastrami. Roast beef. Something substantial but portable because I’d be taking it on the bus. Roast beef! Roast beef on rye with Russian dressing! That’s what I wanted. I figured, I’m in New York, I’ll find a good deli, I’ll be golden.
Turned out to be a more difficult proposition than I expected.
The first and only place to eat I saw when I came out of the bottom of Liberty Park onto Church Street was a Burger King. No big deal, I thought, as I walked on, Bound to be something better not too far along. And there was. I passed several inviting-looking bars and pubs and although they all looked crowded if I’d had the time to sit down to eat I’d have happily gone into any one of them. But I pressed on, confident of finding a deli just up the block or around the corner, and if not then a pizza joint---I’d settle for a slice or three---or a falafel stand.
Now here’s where I show that despite the many times I’ve been to the City I’m still a tourist. Sure, I was in New York, but I forgot to take into a account where in New York. The bus was picking us up over on West Street and that meant I was wandering deeper into the ghost town the Financial District and the area around the site of the World Trade Center becomes at night. It wasn’t that there were no places to eat. There were none that were open.
By this time I was starving and now, facing the prospect of going without food for an hour or two until the bus stopped at a Thruway rest stop, I began to grow a little desperate. Desperate enough that if I’d spotted a McDonald’s I’d have made for it on a run. Not desperate enough, however, to try the dismal and dingy-looking Thai restaurant I found down a side street in a block of otherwise empty storefronts. A few more futile circuits of the neighborhood and I might have been that desperate, but then I turned another corner and…there it was.
It was a clean, well-lighted place, small but not cramped. Not many tables, but the tables that were there were full. A good sign. The tall, cheerful counterman looked, I thought, more Persian than Jewish, but what was I expecting, the Carnegie Deli? This was New York in the 21st century not New York in a movie in 1950. More to the point, the counterman seemed to appreciate the urgency in my voice as I placed my order.
I had another urgent need.
“You got a rest room?” I asked as he set to work on my sandwich.
“Right through the door at the back,” he said pointing with his knife.
The door at the back had a fake brass plastic sign that said in large raised letters ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.
I entered, hoping that all I was risking was that they were out of paper towels.
The door was metal and, it turned out, soundproof.
The risk was to my hearing. The music was pounding. It was so loud I couldn’t make out a tune. All I could hear distinctly---feel, really---was the drums.
The room I’d entered was dimly lit. The walls were painted black. It took me a few seconds to realize I was in a bar and a few seconds more to realize that the woman bartender was topless.
The only customers at the bar, two men sitting far apart from each other, stared glumly out over their drinks through cutouts in the wall behind the bar into an even darker room on the other side. I couldn’t see anything in there. I did get a sense of bodies in rhythmic motion but that might have been my imagination filling in.
Believe it or not, this was my first time in a strip club.
I took care of business and hurried back to the deli where, once the door slammed behind me, all was quiet and peaceful and bright and full of good cheer. The counterman handed me the bag with my sandwich. It was as plump and heavy as a Pony Express rider’s saddlebag.
The can of cream soda I bought with it was ice cold.
Out on the sidewalk I took a look at the awning of the establishment next door to the deli, which I hadn’t paid attention to on my way in.
The deli shares bathrooms with the Pussycat Lounge.
On the bus people openly coveted my sandwich and asked where I’d gotten it. I told them about the Pussycat Lounge.
Everybody joined in on the same joke.
“You should have stayed for the show!”
I would have, I told them, but the guy had my sandwich waiting.