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So, what do the lox-slicing knives at Zabar’s talk about when they think no one can hear them?

From the master of all lox slicers, a dialogue from a trio of sharp wits who worry about losing their edge

Every Thursday when I arrive at Zabar’s, after I don my gloves and apron, I proceed to a rear refrigerator. There, in a narrow, cold space behind the tray of salty lox, is where I hide my three knives, wrapped in paper and aluminum foil. One day as I readied them for another day of slicing lox, I wondered what they would say if they could talk. 

Shorty: I gotta get out of here. It’s dark, crowded and there’s a piece of aluminum foil pressing on my rivets.

Slim: Relax, Shorty, It won’t be long now.

Shorty: I can’t take it much longer, Slim. What time is it?

Slim: 10:45. He’ll be here soon.

Shorty: What time is it now, Slim?

Slim: The same time it was when you asked me before, only two minutes later. What is it with you, Shorty? We go through this every week. By now it should be a piece of cake. It’s been the same thing for 27 years. OK, except for the year of COVID. But by now you should be used to it. It’s nothing new. Snap out of it!

Shorty: Yeah, yeah, Slim, I know, I know. But still, why does it have to be so tight in here, and it’s so damn dark. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.

Jagged: He just opened the door, Slim. We’re out of here!

Slim: I told you, Shorty. You worry too much.

Shorty: Oh! It feels so good with all the wraps off. I can breathe again. Just lying here on the board is such a pleasure. I can’t wait to get into action. Come to think of it, Jagged has been pretty quiet all week.

Slim: True, Shorty. That’s just the way he is. He just lies there most of the time showing off his serrated edges. Thinks he’s hot stuff; so special. I’m glad I’m long and sleek. I do most of the work. People ask questions about me. They don’t even know he’s there. Screw him. He never gets real intimate with the salmon like I do.

Shorty: Do you feel that way about me too, Slim? I’m not as intimate with the salmon as you are.

Slim: Shorty, you’re cute and I love you. I wouldn’t be happy if you weren’t around. You get into the nooks and crannies that make my job a pleasure. I don’t know what I’d do without you.

Shorty: Thanks, Slim, I love you too.

Slim: OK, Shorty, Len just pulled his first fish of the day out of the fridge. Go to work and get the fish ready for me.

Shorty: Not so fast, Slim. In two minutes I’ll have done my part. After that Len will take Jagged and cut off the crusty layer of the salmon top. Then we can all just lie back and watch Len remove the exposed pin bones from the fish.

Jagged: He’s such an artist! I love to watch him work. I wish he worked every day. Then we wouldn’t have to sit in the fridge wrapped in paper and aluminum foil for a week until he shows up again.

Slim: You starting that again? Always thinking of yourself. Can’t you feel anything for Len? He’s 93! I’m surprised he can still work one day a week. It’s not easy for him to stand behind the counter and slice all day.

Slim: Shorty, you and I have been working together, side by side, for almost 30 years now. In that time, and with your help, I’ve probably cut well over a million slices of salmon. I remember many years ago when Len introduced us. We’ve been working side by side ever since. Without you, Shorty, I wouldn’t have been able to cut a decent slice. I know we’ve had our differences, our ups and downs, but I want you to know that I respect and appreciate what you do. I feel that we’re close.

But there’s something I’d like to talk to you about while we’re resting here on the board.

Shorty: Sure Slim, what’s on your mind?

Slim: Well, the truth is, although my spine, handle and rivets are still in good shape, I think I’m losing my edge. I’m worried about it. Last week when Len was in the middle of a slice, he stopped suddenly, withdrew me from the salmon, placed me on the board, reached into the spare knives tray, picked up another slicing knife and continued slicing the salmon with the new knife. I felt terrible. That’s when I began to worry about losing my edge. I remember when Len and I started to work together, so many years ago, the steel part of me was a little more than a half-inch wide. I was proud of my width. But over the years, with frequent sharpening, both by Len with his carbon steel and hand sharpener, and then when Bob, our professional sharpener, would take me back to his place and really work me over to make sure I could do the job I was cut out for, I noticed my width getting narrower and narrower. Now, my blade is less than a quarter-inch wide, and getting even narrower with time and use.

Shorty: I rarely think about things like that. Jagged and I don’t get the kind of use that you do, so our lifespan is probably longer, but you still look good to me. I think you probably have at least 15 to 20 more years of slicing before they retire you. That’s more time than Len has. Just keep doing what you do. And don’t forget that Len put that other slicer back in the resting tray and you’re still his main blade. Right? I remember what you told me about how you feel when you and Len are slicing: that you’re part of him, that the two of you become one, that you’re an extension of his right arm.

Slim: Good talking to you, Shorty. I’m beginning to feel better already. You know, when I’m really sharp and I glide effortlessly through the salmon, and come up with a beautiful slice, I feel so good. I think I’m back, Shorty, thanks to you.

Jagged: I wonder if she’ll come back today.

Shorty: Who’ll come back?

Jagged: “Lady Thin Thin!” Remember when she was here last Thursday and she and Len had the encounter?

Shorty: No! Was she here last week? It was kind of slow last Thursday and I think I fell asleep on the board for a while. Did I miss something?

Jagged: You sure did! Len called a number and he got “Lady Thin Thin.” At first I didn’t think Len knew who she was, so he gave her his regular “Hi, may I help you,” opener. Their eyes met and you could see that something unusual was about to happen. Then she said, “I’d like ¾ of a pound of Nova and I’d like it sliced very, very, very, thin.” Their eyes were glued to each other’s. They were staring, at each other.

Shorty: So what did he say?

Jagged: Well, he put on his big smile, looked her right in the eye and said, get this, “I only do two ‘verys.’ The three ‘very’ guy will be here tomorrow from 2 to 5.” For a moment, there was silence; then Len picked up Stretch and started to slice. Stretch was really sharp last week because Bob had just returned him to Len after a thorough sharpening. So Len and Stretch sliced a beauty. Len held it up for “Lady Thin Thin” to see. She looked and said, “Two verys will do fine.”

Shorty: Yeah, Len knows how to lighten up a situation that could have been a bit uncomfortable. Hey, did you ever notice that some of the guys say, “How may I help you TODAY?” What’s with the “Today” bit? We all know it’s today! It’s not tomorrow and it’s not yesterday. So why do they have to say “today?” Do they think it’s cool to say, “How may I help you TODAY?” The customers don’t need any mealy-mouthed, lox slicing clerks to tell them what day it is. They know what damn day it is!

Slim: Are you calling Len Berk, ex-CPA, the only American judge at “The Taipei Food

Festival” of 1993, a mealy-mouthed, lox-slicing jerk, I mean, clerk? You should be ashamed of yourself.

Shorty: OK, not Len, but all the other guys say it.

Jagged: I heard Len say it once.

Slim: He was probably just trying it on for size, get a feel for it, see how it sounds. Whoa there! You’re going over the top, knifey boy. You just don’t get it. Everybody knows today is today. But think beneath the surface. It’s important to say “Today” to stimulate the customer’s mind, and conjure up the thought that she was here last week and she will be back next week, to acknowledge that a relationship exists between us and the customer over time. I know it’s very subtle, but it helps create a mood, a continuity. Can’t you see that?

Shorty: I’m not interested in having a relationship. I just want to do my job.

Slim: You’re so stupid! She doesn’t want to have a relationship with YOU. She couldn’t care less about YOU! Why would anyone want to have a relationship with a knife? The relationship is between the customer and Zabar’s. They want the customer to feel that she’s part of the Zabar’s team; that we’re all in this together. The customer is really the most important player on the team. Can’t you see this?

Shorty: Relationship, shmelationship! Sounds like psychobabble to me. Forget it. You’ll never get it.

Slim: Hey Jagged, Len’s customer wants half a whitefish. Get to work, Jag. You’re the only one of the three of us that can cut through that backbone.

Shorty: Yeah, and that’s about all he can do.

Jagged: That’s not true. I’m the only one that can cut through the crusty top layer of the salmon, expose the pin bones to make it easy for Len to remove them.

Shorty: I’ve been thinking. The other guys behind the fish counter, Ray, Devin, Mickey, Thomas and Ian, all have their trinity of knives. But I wonder if their knives are as close to each other as we are.

Slim: Hey guys, here comes the boss. Watch, he’s going to pick me up and check my edge. I hope he finds it sharp enough.

Shorty: Listen to the boss and Len with their over-90 discussion. Len started this Over 90s Club. They meet here, behind the counter, every Thursday, and question each other about who’s older. Every week, the same discussion. I guess that’s what happens when you get to be in your 90s.

Jagged: Not always. Remember the time when Len sang that song to the boss?

Shorty: What song?

Jagged: Len wrote his own lyrics to Jimmy Van Heusen’s song “The Second Time Around.” I still remember it. It was cool.

Lox is loxier the second time around 

Come to 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 

Saul, you owe and yet 

Lox is the show, no threat 

The second time around

Shorty: It’s getting very busy. We better pay attention to the customers.

Jagged: Len just picked me up, washed me and now he’s heading for you guys. It’s 7 o’clock. Looks like we’re being cleaned and readied to be wrapped up, like snug as three bugs in a rug, until next Thursday.

Slim: Another day, another salmon!

Shorty: I wish he’d work more days. I miss him already.

Slim: Yeah! I think he wishes that too.


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