The Demise of A Neighborhood Deli

THE Bagel Nosh, a cafeteria-style deli on Chicago's Near North Side, reminds me of the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story about a cafeteria on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Old, Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century gathered there to exchange thoughts, memories, ideas - fears about the new world, memories of the old. Reflected in their daily conversations was the life of a disappearing community. The cafeteria burned down one day and part of the narrator's l ife died. Recently, The Bagel Nosh closed with no explanation. And part of my life has died. Delicatessens aren't plentiful anymore. There are even fewer cafeteria-style restaurants - places where friends can sit and talk. Like the automat, the cafeteria is becoming a thing of the past. Already I'm picturing myself years from now recalling the long mornings at the Bagel Nosh - the long conversations with my father and three brothers. Like the Jewish immigrants, we argued, we told stories, we made hard decisions, we celebrated - impossible in our world of fast-food and upscale restaurants. For e ight years I lingered mornings with fellow Bagel Noshers. Solitary, but among friends.

At the Bagel Nosh, for $1.08, one could have as many refills on coffee as it took to read the Sunday paper. If you sat upstairs, near the oval-shaped windows, you might watch the street scene, which in this Chicago neighborhood is always interesting - women in furs alongside men rummaging through garbage cans; yuppies sipping cappuccinos and eating scones in outdoor cafes. The Bagel Nosh was a microcosm of that neighborhood.

The Nosh was nothing fancy. Polished veneer tables often needed a matchbook to balance faulty legs. It was a rare occasion when you didn't have to clear food from a previous customer in order to find a spot. Critics wouldn't rave about the food - warmed-over potato pancakes, apple strudel, lox, gefilte fish, cheese blintzes - the usual deli fare. Most of us washed our mugs under the hot water tap before filling them. And when the morning sun filtered in through the windows, a sticky sort of grime would show on the table tops.

But to Noshers the bare-bones service was attractive: No tips to leave. No ``waiter persons'' saying ``enjoy,'' interrupting conversations. No Reeboks here. The Nosh was a refuge for families, old people, alcoholics, and the poor. Now we are lost souls, lost Noshers, looking for another place as vivacious, as colorful, and as real - away from the running-shoe, Sony Walkman crowd.

And Noshers talked! Unlike its more upscale neighbors, the Bagel Nosh encouraged conversation. My father, and fellow Nosher, laments he never heard such lively conversations as those of several young people recovering from a variety of drug and alcohol addictions - hands waving. If the rest of their lives were in disarray, at least they knew how to talk to each other.

And the conversations weren't always in English. A group of Eastern Europeans, maintenance men working in nearby condominiums, would talk incessantly, wiling away their mornings. I imagined they were talking about the changes in their countries - perhaps Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary. The art of conversation often seems lost. At the Bagel Nosh it thrived.

``How's it going today, honey?'' the balding, middle-aged manager would shout to me from behind the steaming, matzo-ball soup. I never spoke with him much, yet by listening to his booming voice regaling customers with his stories, I feel as if I know everything about him. Bit by bit, when you see someone everyday for eight years, you get to know them. Day by day, the details accumulate: He's divorced, his children sometimes give him problems, he was once in a serious car accident....

Gruff and garrulous, the manager never tired of his customers, quirky and peculiar as they might have been. He rarely turned a poor person away. He shouted a lot with the cashier, who was always some bleary-eyed, crabby college girl. He was always arguing with someone. Yet year after year I saw the same bus boys - he must have treated them well. He wasn't afraid of work; he didn't delegate; he carried the crates and baked the bagels.

I feel responsible for the restaurant's closing. A beaver-sized rat that one morning scurried out from under the dirty dishes and into the kitchen curbed my appetite. I only drank coffee after that, not, after all, a big contribution to the bottom line.

The Bagel Nosh's demise is final. I don't even know why the restaurant closed. I don't even know the manager's last name. Goodbyes would have been a luxury.

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