Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Longest Running Show in New York: Katz's

Len Klein
March 2, 2001

More than anyone else, the one who loved to go to Katz’s Delicatessen was my Uncle Jack. Jack and Beatty would come to Bristol Street calling us out to go for a ride in his ‘pride and joy’ car. Like so many others, he loved his car. Whenever family got together, the men would always speak with pride about their cars. The challenge I heard most often was, “Can your car make it with a full load up to the Catskills?” Almost always, the answer came back, “My car? Of course!” Nevertheless, so many cars would over heat and conk out going up the mountains, and everybody knew it. But, unless you were actually seen with a smoking, dead car, pulled off to the side of the road, no one would ever admit to it.

Many times Uncle Jack drove us across the Williamsburg Bridge into the lower east side of Manhattan, to the theater of all delicatessens, Katz’s. He drove pretty good for a guy who, for as long as I knew him, had only three fingers on his right hand. It was due to some kind of accident when he was a boy, and it led us, the kids, to call him, amongst ourselves, ‘three fingered Jack,’ like he was some kind of gangster. Thinking of himself as a mobster was something Jack playfully enjoyed. Those were the days of the powerful Brooklyn Jewish gangs, with the hottest areas being Brownsville and East New York, right where we lived. We saw them Saturday nights, all sharply dressed in monochrome outfits, in the luncheonettes near the movie theaters and on some street corners near bars. Although we looked down on the beatings and murders, which made the newspaper headlines, there still was a certain romantic allure of being thought of as a wise-guy.

Katz’s delicatessen was a huge, wonderful place that had countless tables, and innumerable people moving around everywhere. Like many others, Jack would walk up and down the length of the endless serving counter. He would carefully look to see who was cutting the leanest hot pastrami and hot corned beef before he would give his order. Sometimes it was Hot pastrami on rye, and other times it would be Corned Beef on rye. The rye bread was always soft and fresh, with a crispy crust, and the total sandwich was unbelievably good. For years I thought those delicatessen meats were called “Hop-a-stromi,”and “Cornbeef.”

Many years later, when I was in graduate school at New York University, whenever we could, we’d pile into Bob Cutler’s little Hillman and off we’d go to Nathan’s or to Katz. One night, before Bernie Kalinkowitz’s class, Bob, Stan, Barbara and I went to eat at Katz’s. It was the very same night as the great confrontation on the high seas, between American Warships and Soviet Cargo Vessels bound for Cuba carrying missiles. Tensions ran high in everyone. Suddenly, as we were eating, we were inundated by all manner of sirens, screaming right outside the restaurant. I thought, as did the others, ‘it could be that this is it. Perhaps the missiles were really flying.' It was a very scary moment and considerably dampened our appetites. Of course, it turned out to be a nearby fire in just one building and not the world in flames, as we had feared.

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