When did it really start?
Was it when I made the appointment for my first COVID shot? Was it after I received the shot and heard Dr Fauci say that the first shot provided 85 percent immunity? Or was it after the next shot, the second shot, at which point 85 percent to 92 percent immunity was predicted.
Maybe it was when I had the two shots in my belt and I called Saul Zabar.
He answered his phone with a pleasant “Hi Len.”
I cut him off. ”Hi Saul, I have great news. I recently got my second COVID shot and I’m ready, ready to come back to work.”
I was excited because this was a real step toward my return. I asked him if he had received both shots, (He’s over 92) and he answered in the affirmative. He told me how glad he was that I wanted to come back and that he would make it happen. He instructed me to call Scott, the store general manager, because he made up the weekly schedule. Uh-oh, I thought, was asking me to call Scott a way of taking back his promise to me that I could return any time I wanted? I didn’t think so but the thought did occur to me.
Or was it when I made the call to Scott and he didn’t answer his phone? What did that mean? The next day he returned my call and we spoke. “I heard you want to come back,” he said. “Is your family OK with it”?
“They’re all on board, no problem there.”
“OK, Len. I’ll speak to so-and-so and if he agrees, we’ll bring you back.”
Or was it when Scott called me a few days later and said “OK, Len, let’s start with one day and we’ll take it from there. How’s Thursday 11 to 7, that’s your previous schedule.” He said that, since I hadn’t worked for almost a year, I had to show up at Human Resources first to answer some questions before I assumed my spot behind the Lox counter.
TWO DAYS BEFORE MY RETURN
It was the morning after Scott’s call. The return date had been set. I was really going back. No more thinking, will I? When will I? Now, it was real. There’s a difference when it’s real. I was a bit nervous and scared. Can I still do it? I was slightly annoyed at myself for having these feelings. Slicing salmon is like riding a bike, I think. You don’t forget how to ride a bike, right? But I don’t think I’d attempt riding a bike these days. Slicing lox should be easier for me than riding a bike. No problem! I’ll just go to my spot behind the counter and slice. “May I help you ma’am?” “ What would you like?” See how easy it is? You’ll pick up just where you left off, I thought.
ONE DAY BEFORE MY RETURN
What route will I take to go to work? Hutch south to the Cross Bronx to the West Side Drive? No, too much traffic. Hutch north to the Cross County to the Deegan, get off at 230th street, Broadway to Riverside Drive to the Saw Mill? Yeah that’s much safer. Maybe I should let WAZE decide. Will my knives still be in my locker where I left them or have they been removed? Where are my knives? Will I remember how to work the scales? I have to be very careful going down the steps to the lunchroom. It’s real all right.
I set the alarm clock for 8 a.m. the next morning (Thursday, Feb. 25, the date of my comeback) so as to allow sufficient time to do all I had to do before my departure for work. I was scheduled to arrive at 11 a.m.
THE RETURN DAY
We left the house at 9:45 a.m. I decided against WAZE — too distracting for my first drive back. We exited the Cross Bronx at the ramp that took us to the West Side Drive. At one point, before we reached the Drive, the Mighty Hudson appeared in all its glory and magnificence. There were two freighters in the river pretty far south. The water was calm; it looked almost like a sheet of glass. I have always loved that sight, and it was special to see it again.
I got off the drive at 96th Street in order to drop Llewellyn off at her friend’s house with whom she would be visiting for the day while I worked. It was her first visit to her friend’s house in almost a year.
I arrived at the garage on 80th Street about 10:45 a.m.
The staff at the garage seemed especially glad to see me since I had been absent for almost a year. I left the garage, walked the short distance to the store, enjoying all the sights and sounds of Broadway.
I entered the store, and paused for a moment to collect myself as I blended in. Then I made my way up to the mezzanine where I spoke with a few of the office workers on my way to Human Resources department. Once there I met with one of the staff who gave me a batch of forms to fill out, about 15 to 20 of them. One of the forms required me to enter all my education starting with secondary school. Another requested references; I listed Saul Zabar.
After filling out the forms I watched a 45-minute video about sexual harassment. By the time I finished dealing with all the preliminary requirements of new employees it was about 1 p.m. and I hadn’t sliced any salmon yet.
Then I went to the basement that housed, among other things, the employee lockers. I found my old locker, # 560. I still had the key and I attempted to open it. Success! I opened it and there they were, my three knives, still wrapped in aluminum foil, along with my lower back support belt. Then, in came Christian, the store’s chief handyman, who provided me with a Zabar’s jacket. Now I was ready for actual work.
I went upstairs to the main floor and walked to the fish counter. There are six slicing positions and six slicing boards there. My old position was the first board as you enter the fish counter. My old spot and my old board were there waiting for me. No one had taken my spot. I stood there, looked up at all the guys , said my hellos, accepted all the “glad to see you back,” greetings, received a few hugs (which unnerved me because of the COVID warnings against such things) and I was ready for action.
I looked around. The scales were where they always were; behind me, the wrapping paper, bags (three sizes), paper towel dispenser, refrigerators, everything in its proper place. It was like I was home.
I turned toward the low refrigerator behind me, opened it and removed my first salmon of the day, placed it on my board, removed it from its wrapping and trimmed it. I felt like I had done it yesterday, not a year ago.
Almost before I realized where I was, and what I was there for, I found myself waiting on a customer. Then another one and another one. During the course of the day, three customers gave me a “Welcome Back,” greeting and we talked a bit about the cause of my absence and the circumstances of my return. They seemed genuinely glad to see me back at my old spot. Unfortunately, because they were masked, I didn’t recognize them. No matter, it was sweet to be remembered.
I loved slicing the salmon but sometimes I had trouble working the scales. When that happened one of the guys was there almost immediately to help with my problem. I felt much taken care of and secure — co-workers can be kind of like a family. You see and relate to each other almost every day and in some cases relationships can and do become close. It’s nice when that happens.
I hadn’t been there for more than 15 minutes when Saul Zabar showed up behind the counter. He told me how glad he was that I was back and how some had concerns and issues in connection with my return but that those concerns should not stand in the way. He knew how important it was to us older folks that a familiar place, a workplace, should not be taken from us as long as we remained capable of doing the job. He and I have formed a special kind of club for all employees over 90 years old. So far, he and I are the club’s only members.
He told me that he had read several of the stories that I had written during the past year, about my time at Zabar’s, and which ones he liked best. He recalled some parts of the stories that he especially enjoyed. I felt the he was very happy to see me and glad that I was back.
During the day I took my two 10-minute breaks and my 20-minute lunch, just like old times.
Zabar’s takes the recommendations of the CDC very seriously. Every half-hour or so the store manager gets on the loudspeaker and, in firm and specific language, instructs the Zabar’s shoppers to wear masks and maintain appropriate social distancing. After hearing it twice, spoken with exactly the same words and tone, I realized it was a recording so I stopped feeling sorry for the store manager.
As the day progressed and I had gotten into the slicing mode I recalled that in the past I had sometimes thought of slicing salmon as a game played by the customer and me. The more I thought of it, the more I wanted to play. I recalled what playing was like.
At least two players are required to get a game going; sometimes three or four. The players have names. There’s always “The Slicer” and “The Slicee.” Sometimes two Slicees and occasionally a “Watcher.” The game is played like this: The Slicer slices the amount of salmon requested by the “Slicee” (e.g. 1 pound). The Slicer’s slices are placed on parchment paper, usually three to four slices on each layer; each layer covered by additional parchment paper until the required amount is sliced. A good “Slicer” usually knows when the proper amount is sliced but the scale has the final say on the weight.
The “Slicee” gives tacit approval of each slice, sliced by the “Slicer” or criticizes a slice or indicates that a particular slice is, for one reason or another, undesirable in which case it is removed from the parchment and placed aside to await further disposition. This process is called “remove and replace” for obvious reasons. When both players are satisfied with the results, the salmon is wrapped in special Zabar’s paper. There are only winners, no losers, in this game, since it ends when both players are satisfied with the salmon slices, which is the goal of both players. If there is a second “Slicee,” they play along with the other “Slicee.” If there is a “Watcher” in the game, they just watch. I can play this game all day Thursday. I really love playing it.
It was getting on toward quitting time. The day seemed to go by quickly, which is often the case when you’re having a good time. I had been behind the counter, slicing, for almost eight hours and I felt like it wouldn’t be a bad thing to sit for a while. When the time came, I washed my knives, wrapped them up well, and instead of returning them to my locker, which would require me to go down then back up the staircase to the basement, I hid them in a secret place behind the counter, hoping that I would remember where that was when I returned next Thursday. I said my goodbyes to the guys who were still working, found my coat and hit the street. My first Thursday back on the job had come and gone. I no longer had to worry about any problems that might occur then. It felt good to know that I’d be back in my spot next Thursday.
Driving to work, the following Thursday, I was listening to my car radio and heard a song from the past (I was listening to a Sinatra station). It was called “The Second Time Around”; a song about the virtues and wonders accompanying a second love. Music by the famous Jimmy Van Heusen and words by Sammy Cahn, it was written in 1960, sung by Bing Crosby and it hit the top of the charts when Sinatra did his version.
Suddenly the phrase “Lox is Loxier” popped into my mind; kind of catchy, I thought. During the next 24 hours I wrote my own lyrics to the song thinking about how nice it was to return to work. Ultimately I came up with the lyrics below that I thought were appropriate to the occasion of my “comeback “to the lox scene.
So it’s Zabar’s on Thursdays, you can’t go wrong, a free taste is yours, if you sing this song.
THE SECOND TIME AROUND.
Music by Jimmy Van Heusen; Lyrics by Len Berk.
Lox is loxier the second time around.
Show up at Zabar’s and buy yourself a pound.
Len is back and he is there to slice.
Still looking for that perfect slice, is sweet and oh so nice.
Lox is tastier your active buds will know.
Smooth and delicate, just like a fine Bordeaux.
Who can say what led us to this miracle we found.
Lox lovers know, you bet
It’s Saul, you owe and yet
Lox is the show, no threat
The second time around.
Len Berk is the Forward’s lox columnist. He worked behind the lox counter at Zabar’s for 26 years. After a yearlong hiatus, he is back at Zabar’s on Thursdays.