A parable of pastrami
Word has got around that New York, like Paris, is ungenerous and has no heart. There may be something to it, because some years ago, when hooligans interrupted the Shakespeare in Central Park, Woody Allen, then our Charlie Brown with a false face, observed that ''your 'nay' and 'prithee' cut no ice with the 125th Street Bombers.''
With due respect to the Bombers, I take another view. For one thing, I have never been up in Central Park. But I have been to New York recently, and I can report a heartwarming instance of both generosity and heart. Here's the way it went.
I was adrift at dinner time somewhere in what is often called the ''silk stocking'' district of Manhattan, and, lacking the purse for the more exotic French restaurants, I began to browse along Seventh Avenue in the 50s. Greek candy shops . . . directions to McDonald's . . . pinball arcades . . . fruiterers offering showcase apples at 75 cents apiece . . . and then suddenly a Jewish delicatessen. Before you could say ''blintzes,'' I was seated alone at a table for four, reading a large menu card, and salivating quietly.
I ordered No. 6, modestly described as ''Pastrami and Cole Slaw on Rye Bread.'' The price - I give the details - was $6.95. While I waited to be served , the other chairs at the table filled up one by one with strangers who, in New York as in Paris, neither spoke nor nodded. They could have been from North Platte, Nebraska, for all I knew, wondering why Im neither spoke nor nodded. But they were natives - at least one of them - as we shall see.
When the sandwich arrived, my heart sank. For there between the borders of two half dill pickles was such a mound of pastrami and cole slaw coming through the rye that I despaired of how to eat it - being a stranger, you understand, to local customs. I contemplated the size of the sandwich. It was fully 105 millimeters high. That's about four inches, if you are uncooperative and have not yet gone metric.
But 105 mm or four inches, no matter how you slice it, how do you eat it? I turned my paper napkin 90 degrees and adjusted my chair. But I felt that the three strangers at my table must have known that I was stalling.
It seemed a matter of principle not to dismantle so expensive and generous a sandwich. A knife and fork? Probably not thatm knife. And besides, I once ate a club sandwich with a knife and fork at a country club and was never asked back. What to do? No sandwich on neighboring plates was so mountainous. Two of the others had ordered blintzes (No. 12), and the third a cheese plate (No. 8). No guidance there.
So finally I began to eat around the edges, where the rye bread had by now drooped a little. That left me with two high mounds of pastrami and cole slaw, each encased by crustless rye halves. In desperation, using the butt of my hand, I quickly compressed 105 mm to 70 mm, opened wide, and in four bites made it! I left not a sliver of pastrami, not a shred of cabbage, and only a morsel of rye bread to wipe up the last drops of slaw sauce - the way they do in France.
''Perhaps they will think I'm from France,'' I thought, because I was suddenly aware that one of my table companions had been eyeing my gastronomical deportment carefully - from the comparative ease of his cheese plate (No. 8).
To my astonishment, then, as I leaned back from a cleaned plate, my dear No. 8 man, uttering not a word, simply sat up straight and applauded. North Platte, Nebraska, indeed! Not a bit of it! A genuine New Yorker who recognized heroic action and finesse when he saw them - ''most select and generous,'' to borrow Shakespeare's nice phrase.
I acknowledged his gesture as fully as I could with my eyes, for no one else at the table seemed to pay more than routine attention either to my accomplishment or to No. 8's kind endorsement. As one of my friends from Brooklyn puts it, ''When the subway hits a cow, you finish the Daily News before looking into it.''
''Well, that's New York,'' I thought.
So I paid my bill, bought a large chocolate chip cookie about six inches - sorry, 157 mm - in diameter for 90 cents, and stepped out into the bracing night air of Seventh Avenue.