It was March 13. The pandemic was in its early stages. No one knew what was yet to come.
I was three quarters through the slice when my supervisor came behind the counter. I stopped slicing and looked up at him.
“I don’t think I want you here next Thursday, Len.” he said. “We’ll talk later.” My stomach sank. What had I done?
Later that day, I put down my knife, removed the plastic gloves I wear when I’m working, walked to a spot in the store where I could see if he was at his desk up in the perch. He was. I climbed the 14 steps and there we were.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“Look, Len,” he said. “I love you, but you’re over 90 years old and you’re in the group that is most susceptible to the virus and if you got it, if anything happened to you, I could never forgive myself.”
Suddenly everything became crystal clear. He didn’t want me in the store because he feared that if I got the virus, I could die.
“There are over 230 people that work in the store,” he said. “The way I see it, it’s not a matter of if, but when. What will I do when it happens? Close the store for a week or two, do a major clean-up and sanitize everything? I just don’t know, but what I do know is that I don’t want you here when it happens. I told the same thing to Saul (Zabar), but I can’t tell him not to come in to the store. It’s his store! But I do have the power to let you go.”
For the past 26 years, I’ve worked at Zabar’s, the famous appetizing store located on 80th Street and Broadway in New York City. I started work there right after I sold my accounting practice and decided to do something I’d enjoy in my later years. Zabar’s needed a part time lox slicer and it turned out to be me. So since 1994, every Thursday and Friday I’ve been working behind the fish counter, slicing lox and smoked salmon, filleting whitefish, brook trout and more. Every Thursday morning I would get up, shower, shave, get dressed, have breakfast, get in my car and head off to work; just like everyone else. Waze told me how to go, but no matter what route I took, sooner or later I found myself looking, once again, at the mighty Hudson River as I approached the Henry Hudson Parkway.
“What a great sight,” I’d think when I was tied up in traffic. I’d listen to Mendelssohn’s violin concerto on WQXR and look out at the river — the freighters heading to their destinations; the small pleasure boats; the helicopters flying overhead. I’d get off at 79th street, take a left on Broadway, a right on 80th street and pull into the garage.
“Hi Juan, how’s it going this morning?” I’d ask.
“Everything’s good,” he’d say. “5:00 today, right?”
“Right, See you later.”
When I entered the store, a feeling of contentment would come over me — as if I were at my second home, ready to engage with my friends behind the counter and the customers in front of it. I could go on and on, telling you about my day with the fish, my conversations with customers and co-workers but I think you get the idea. It wasn’t just work; it was a way of life and I needed it.
So no wonder I was stunned when I learned that they didn’t want me in the store: No more driving to work, no more Hudson, no more Juan, no more engaging with co-workers, no more slicing. No, they couldn’t take that away from me.
As I stood behind the counter, everything looked the same as always but I didn’t feel the same as always. A kind of yellowish hue enveloped the store everywhere I looked. Everything was the same but it wasn’t. I sliced, I cut, I talked with co-workers and customers like always, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that this was my last day — after 26 years it was over.
An hour later, it was time for my first ten-minute break. I removed my plastic gloves, washed my hands, proceeded to the time clock and punched out. Next to the time clock was a chair that I would occasionally sit on during my break. It helped with the mild pain I felt in my feet and legs after standing for several hours. Saul (Zabar) also sat here sometimes. I would always give up the chair if he approached because he’s 92 and I’m only 90.
“Sit, sit, sit, Len,” he would tell me, and he’d lean on a shelf. At these times we would talk about what was going on in our lives because we had something in common. We were both over 90, and we both knew the value of work other than putting money in our pockets.
Today, when Saul approached me, I told him what had happened — that I’d been fired.
Saul looked tired and slow today. “How come?” he asked. “Did it have anything to do with insurance or law?”
“No,” I said. “He said that he did it because he loved me and that if anything happened to me, he could never forgive himself”
“Oh,” Saul muttered. “He told me the same thing”
“Look, Saul,” I said. “We’ve talked about this a lot. This is our place and we’re so lucky to have it. It makes us feel that we’re still contributing, that we count, that we’re still part of it. Saul, what’s more important to you at this time of your life — to risk possible exposure to the virus or to give up this place that we love so much, that we’re part of?”
”It’s more important to have a place to go,” he finally said. “I’ll talk to him.”
And so I went back to work.
Later that afternoon, my supervisor showed up behind the counter. He was talking to one of my co-workers. As he was leaving, I crossed his path. “How about I work one day a week instead of two?” I said. “That reduces your risk by 50%; how about that? I’ll sign a release.”
He smiled. “I’d never ask you to do that; I haven’t made a decision yet,” he said and he left.
Saul must have spoken to him, I thought — maybe it’ll work out after all. The yellow hue seemed to get a little less yellow.
At home that night, I could not stop obsessing. How long would it be? What would my week be like now if I’d have two more days to fill at home? Would I ever go back to work? “Don’t forget,” I told myself. “You’re over 90. Maybe by time this thing is over you won’t be able to go back because you won’t be physically able any more.” That made me feel that I wanted to work now even more.
Like the king said, “Tis a puzzlement.”
That night, I felt more tired than usual. Work seemed to be taking its toll on these 90-year-old bones.
By time the following week rolled around, our country was under siege. The pandemic had worsened, and my children, including my son, the doctor, all but forbade me from going back. No way was I returning to work, so I made the decision. I wouldn’t go back no matter what Zabar’s position was. I had given myself permission to live.
So what will actually happen when all returns to normal or a new normal? I will quote the words of a self-proclaimed genius, the president of the United States of America: “We’ll see what happens.”
For now, though, I feel like my world has changed; and not for the better. But as always, if you look hard enough you can find an upside. I don’t have subclavian stenosis, emphysema, congestive heart failure or occipital neuralgia like one of my friends does. I’m still in relatively good health and that’s what really counts.