Outside, the sun peeks out over the high condo buildings and blazes across 80th Street into the windows of Zabar’s. New Yorkers are scurrying up and down Broadway. Mommies stroll by with adorable babies on their backs or in their strollers. When I’m at the window, I wave at the passing kids. Some wave back; others seem to question my motives.
Kiosk booksellers stand at their regular sidewalk posts in front of the store awaiting their next customers. Walking out of the store is the actor Peter Boyle. I always figured he was short and chubby; turns out he’s lean and over six feet tall.
Two golden retrievers are tied to a tree waiting for their master to return from shopping. They watch as two kids in a carriage scream for a frozen yogurt cone.
Purveyors are delivering huge boxes of food; cops write tickets for illegally-parked cars. An ambulance screeches by and almost crashes into the Shelly’s Prime Meat Truck that is stopped at a traffic light.
The outside of the store is a very busy place. Inside is also very busy. But it’s a different kind of busy. There are the clerks, the managers, the owners and the customers. By far the customers are the most interesting of the lot. Here are some I’ve met over the course of my 26 years at the store:
1) THE OLD JEWISH WIDOW: Sometimes she comes in alone, other times with her Jamaican health care worker. She never smiles; she’s all business. She tells me at great length what she doesn’t want, and watches my every move as though she expects me to do or say something not to her liking. She wants to know why one salmon is darker than another. The painful expression on her face as I respond to her inquiry could be heartbreaking to the uninitiated, but to the trained smoke fish professional, she’s a pussycat.
I explain that salmon are somewhat like people — some darker, some lighter, some smaller, some larger. She looks at me. “What are you talking about?” she says. “Salmon are like people?? Don’t talk, just slice, slice. I don’t want salty. No dark and don’t give me near the skin.”
2) THE CRASHER: Having realized that there is a long wait for her turn, she works in cahoots with an accomplice who is currently being waited on. The two begin a conversation. There’s an unspoken agreement that the accomplice will make a purchase for the Crasher. Since I’m a professional, I also know what’s going on. When the accomplice finishes her order, she tells me that she is also buying for her sick daughter and proceeds to order the items on the list that the Crasher has asked her to buy. I don’t want to argue or make a scene, so I usually go along for the ride. But sometimes this plot is uncovered by another customer I call “THE SPOTTER” (see below).
3) THE SPOTTER: She’s watched the whole scam being perpetrated by the Crasher and her accomplice. She intervenes loudly, calling out the situation and forces the Crasher to wait for her turn. The Spotter knows exactly what she wants to buy, has the next number and is not about to lose her turn to a Crasher.
4) THE PERPLEXED ONE: She’s in her late 30’s and is planning to make her first important Sunday brunch for six. She wants only the best; she’s savvy enough to know where to get it but is overwhelmed by the number of fish in the showcase. She is momentarily disarmed by a huge whitefish that seems to be starring at her. At that moment, she considers the possibility of taking everyone to The Plaza instead.
This is my opportunity; it’s one of the reasons I love this job. I will restore her tranquility and peace of mind. I will make her feel that she can’t wait to put this whitefish on her table. I invite her to feel that she is in the care of an expert who wants to assume full responsibility for the success of her brunch. I tell her exactly what and how much to buy, how to plate each item, the order in which the selected items should be served, the kind of plates to use, the beverages she should buy. Soon she feels so safe and confident that she asks me to come to the brunch. She settles for asking me my name and telling me how wonderful I am.
A few days later she returns to tell me how glad she was that I made her buy the eel; it was the hit of the brunch. Of course she becomes one of my regulars.
5) VICTOR BORGE: He was literally hanging over the counter to get the closest possible look at Jerry, one of my co-workers, slicing his salmon. Jerry, one of the three Chinese lox slicers Zabar’s employed at the time, had no idea who Victor Borge was.
Borge was my first celebrity sighting on the job and I was thrilled. I’d always loved his work and couldn’t resist the impulse to intrude. “You know, Mr. Borge,” I told him. “I’ve seen so much of your work and enjoyed it immensely, but there’s one question that I’ve always wanted to ask you.”
He had been fixated on the salmon with the concentration of a great pianist, but then he looked up at me with a half smile. “Yes?”
“I’ve always wondered if you will ever be able to play a classical piece properly, you know, with no wrong notes?” I said.
He broke out into a smile. “Well, I don’t know,” he said. “Not if I keep falling off the chair.”
6) THE MOGUL: In his pinstriped suit, he looks immaculate, but his display of sartorial elegance is totally out of place at the fish counter. He requests 14 ounces of Beluga Caviar, and doesn’t need an insulated bag or an ice pack because he is only minutes away from the helicopter that will take him directly to his Lear jet at JFK, which is, of course, equipped with a refrigerator that is temperature-programmed to keep to keep his caviar ready to eat at any time. Happy landings sir!
7) THE PLAYER: She takes a number from the red dispenser at the front of the fish counter to make sure she gets a good place in line. She then proceeds to the cheese counter, the meat counter, the bread counter and the coffee counter, acquiring numbers at each location. She has a lot of numbers when she returns to the fish counter to check on her position number-wise.
This situation can play out in one of many ways. Here’s a typical one. I call her number and we engage. She has one eye on me as I slice her salmon, the other eye on the meat counter to her right. She is also tuned in to the cheese frequency and she strains her neck to observe the status of the bread line. She is totally strung out waiting for the inevitable, which is that the cheese number and the meat number will be called simultaneously as I am in the middle of slicing her whitefish. At this point, an experienced “Player” can almost manage to deal with three different clerks in three different departments in three different parts of the store simultaneously. Less experienced Players will fall by the wayside. I always feel for the “Players,” for theirs is not an easy calling.
8) MR. FRIENDLY: I’ve never seen this guy before but he wants to know my name, how I am this afternoon, if I saw the game, whether it’s been a hard day for me so far and what I think of the weather. Is he just trying to be friendly or is he as phony as a Waldbaum’s Scotch Salmon?
9) YOU’RE HIM, RIGHT? His name was on the tip of my tongue, but I just couldn’t spit it out. These kinds of moments can be very frustrating, but they are what they are. We were looking at each other. He had a smile on his face like he knew something that I didn’t, and he was right. Desperate to say something, I looked him right in the eye and said “Are you him?” He looked back at me with a smile and said, “Yeah.”
I finished slicing his lox, wrapped it up nicely and said, “Would you like something else, sir?” He said, “No thank you” and I handed him his package. He smiled, turned and disappeared into the crowd. About ten minutes passed; I was waiting on another customer and then it came to me. I knew who he was. He was either an ex-senator from Minnesota or an ex “SNL” comedian or both. Need I say more?
10) MR. LUCKY: He was standing directly behind a Super Spotter who wanted everything just so — Nova from the tail only, the length and width of each slice the same. I explained that the shape of the fish means that there’s no way all slices can be identical. She wasn’t buying my explanations. I told her that I’d do the best I could. I was well into 3/4 of a pound when she said that several of the slices were too small — some were too thick, some too wide and some too narrow.
I reviewed each and every slice with her, removing the ones she rejected and placing them on another piece of parchment paper. They were all beautiful, but it was a struggle to satisfy her. With a forced smile, I assured her that I would remove the undesirables and replace each with acceptable cuts.
Mr. Lucky watches, in awe of my care and concern. He shakes his head with a disapproving grin aimed at The Super-Spotter who is totally unaware that she is being observed and mocked. I call my next number and Mr. Lucky has it. He wants six ounces of Nova, the exact amount the Super-Spotter had rejected, which is now sitting on parchment in the showcase, looking beautiful and waiting to be sold.
Mr. Lucky is a nice guy. He’s in his forties and has mother issues. I put the previously sliced salmon on the scale and I can see what he’s thinking: “My mother once told me never to buy smoked salmon that wasn’t sliced specifically for me.” This could be the major breakthrough he and his therapist have been awaiting. It seems that we have something far more important than a Nova purchase going on here. On the one hand, he knows that the slices sitting on the scale are fine, but he remembers his mother’s caveat and now he’s in the throes of Nova dilemma.
I have to do something to get this situation back on track, something that will allow him to take the previous sliced Nova, and still feel that he has heeded his mother’s warning. I suggest that we examine each slice. If he finds any to be unsuitable, I will replace them and also give him a free slice.
“Momma,” he’s thinking, “You should see me now; I’m about to make a Nova killing.” After all, his mother told him that if he could ever get something for nothing, he should go for it.
He winds up rejecting three of the slices; he just didn’t have the “chutzpah” to go further. So he gets his six ounces plus three free slices. For a moment, he’s happy. But then, he becomes fearful. Did his mother tell him to take it if it’s free or did she say you never get anything for nothing?
I weigh the lox, price it, wrap it up, hand it to him with a smile and say, “Today’s your lucky day.”
He looks back at me, accepts his package and says, “I’m going to take the salmon, but I want you to know that I know that you put one over on me.” He turns and leaves the store. I see him stop at a payphone outside the store and I wonder: Is he calling his mother or his therapist?
11) THE KID: I hear someone say, “a quarter pound of Nova, please,” but no one is there. I look down and through the glass counter, over the sable and through the trout, and spy a six-year-old lad, who has been entrusted with the sacred duty of making “The Purchase.”
“Yes, sir,” I say to the lad.
I slice and he stares. I don’t want to say any more to him because he seems petrified and fragile. I want him to complete a successful transaction and my gut tells me that silence is the key. Perhaps next time when he’s a bit more experienced, I’ll talk to him. I stretch over to the other side of the counter, hand him the package and thank him. He takes it and dashes towards Mommy.
12) THE TV TALK SHOW HOST: He stood before me at the lox counter and asked where the whitefish salad was. I knew who he was since I had watched him host “The Tonight Show.” I told him the whitefish salad was on the extreme left hand side of the refrigerated case he was facing. He proceeded to walk over to the right side instead of the left. I walked out from behind the counter. Not wanting to embarrass him, I said, “Mr. Paar, I think I may have told you the wrong spot; it’s actually on the left side, not the right.”
He looked at me, smiled and said, “You did say the left but unfortunately I’m not taking directions very well these days. I returned his smile, went back to the counter and he walked over to the left side to get his whitefish salad.
13) NS: NS died about five years ago. He was one of my favorites, perhaps because he was a retired tax attorney teaching Tax Law at NYU, and I was a retired CPA slicing Lox at Zabar’s. I did find out that his first name was Norman, but he will always be NS to me. Why, you may ask? Because when he appeared almost every Friday to purchase caviar, he always felt it necessary to tell me the initials to put on the silver bag containing his caviar.
He always purchased the best and most expensive caviar. He was one of the very few allowed to taste the caviar because we knew he was a serious buyer, not just a taster. Not only did he taste the caviar but also the Nova, Sable and Baked Salmon. He was such a prolific taster that we all called him “president of the Tasters’ Club.” Every time I saw him, I would announce “The president is in the store.” Occasionally his wife accompanied him and she earned the title of “First Lady.”
She continued purchasing caviar after he died. She is, or was, I’m not sure, a lovely woman — an attorney and a caviar lover. I haven’t seen her recently. Sometimes I wonder with whom she is enjoying caviar these days.
14) THE REJECTERS AND MRS. PIVNIK: Many types of Rejecters frequent the fish department. Some reject whole fish, (too big, too small; too fat, too skinny). Others reject a chunk of fish (the color looks a little off, the skin isn’t shiny enough). Then you have your Slice Rejecters. (The slice is too narrow, too wide, too thick, too thin.)
One day, I was slicing a pound of Nova for a “Slice Rejecter.” I was well over the half-pound mark when she said, “Those last three slices; they look a little off-color.”
“No problem; ‘I’ll remove them,” I said.
I neatly placed the three rejected slices on a separate piece of parchment and continued slicing her Nova. I had about three more slices to make the pound when she pointed at the rejected slices and said, “What are you going to do with those three slices?”
“Oh, I’m going to save them for Mrs. Pivnik,” I said.
“Who’s Mrs. Pivnik?” she asked.
“She’s that rich lady who lives on 86th Street, near the French restaurant,” I said. “You probably have seen her here; she comes very often. She usually stands two or three feet behind the customer I’m waiting on and watches me slice. She’s waiting until I get to the part of the salmon she likes and sure enough, then, she’s my next customer. Those are her kind of slices. She’ll be glad I saved them for her.”
“On second thought, I’ll take those three slices,” the Rejecter said.
“Sure,” I said and placed them in her package.
15) THE FOREIGNERS: The foodies of the world all show up at Zabar’s sooner or later. They come from as far as New Zealand, as close as Canada and from all the countries in between. They look different, they speak differently, they are different but the one thing they have in common is that they appreciate good food. Some ask if they can take a picture of me, some have even asked for my autograph on their bag of Lox.
The Japanese arrive by the busload. I take a slice of lox and hold it up to show them. They smile. I put the slice on a piece of parchment and hold it over the counter as an offering. “Dozo,” I say. “Please have some.” Someone usually steps up to accept the offer with a slight bow and always with a “thank you” in Japanese.
Once, a Japanese woman looked at me and said, “I remember you. You were the American Judge at the cooking competition at The Taipei Food Festival of 1992; you’re famous, right?”
I was speechless. All I could do was smile. (Yes! I was the only American Judge at that event).
16) THE OTHERS: Thanks to the guy who comes in almost every Friday and buys six ounces of smoked tuna, only. Wait, I think he bought baked salmon once.
To the tasters who never buy and the buyers who never taste.
To those who walk by and look down at the fish in wonderment.
To those who pass the fish counter and never see it.
To my many friends and relatives who have visited me at work over the years, and to those who couldn’t make it.
And to the following celebrities who lightened and brightened my workload over the years by their presence and smiles: Lauren Bacall, Ann Meara, Jerry Seinfeld, Jerry Stiller, Charles Durning, Eli Wallach, Ann Jackson, Fyvush Finkle, Zohra Lampert, Barbara Walters, Glenn Close, Peter Boyle and to those whose faces I see and whose names I can’t recall.
There are so many many fish stories out there. These are just some that come to mind.
Len Berk is the Forward’s lox columnist. He worked for 26 years at Zabar’s.