Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Grand Central Station Conversation: A thoughtful 2009 story…by Robert M. Katzman

Robert M. Katzman’s Amazing Story:  http://www.differentslants.com/?p=355

© May 2009 by Robert M. Katzman

This true story was first published between May 21 to September 17, 2009, in 7 parts, posted periodically. I was advised that people didn’t want to read long stories, only short pieces of them, as was the internet custom. So, I went with it. Now, I no longer believe that. A good story is a good story and people will stick with it if it honestly captures their minds and hearts. This one will do that, if you all will give it another chance. 

I wrote it three months before my twenty-year-old Chicago-area collectible store was about to die in the terrible, small business killing Recession. It is a story about love, loss, tears, identity, witches, cops, coffee, aging, acceptance  and hope.  

And one truly mysterious and confounding Catholic Priest in a New Jersey airport.

So, find a comfortable chair, and come with me to New York City.  Some very strange things happened there, once upon a time. 

Part 1: Ethnic Bait, Offered and Taken

Twenty-two hours.

I had twenty-two hours to be in New York City, without a hotel room, to attend an annual poster convention and to visit an old pleasure I’d thought was gone forever.

All I took with me was a kind of narrow, over-the-shoulder, sling-like duffel I’d designed to hold jackets, sweaters, gloves and scarves when I went through the periodic agony of America’s airports so my hands remained free.  It was May, but NYC is by the ocean, so the weather could vary significantly in a day.

My silent Korean tailor, Ki Sook, was used to my eccentricities, but never failed to smile when I told her what I wanted her to do for me. And she always turned over a first-class result about a week later.

I also took another customized travel bag made of durable denim material that was light-weight with not too many pockets, but had a large central space to carry anything from a walking lunch (crusty Italian bread, grapes, cheddar cheese, and a brownie with some personality to it) to convention catalogs. It had good zippers, too.

A good strong zipper can keep things that seem to want to be elsewhere, from going there. A bad zipper can get you into all kinds of trouble.  I’m talking about travel here, no matter what you may be imagining.

My wife dropped me at O’Hare Airport, just west of Chicago, kissed me good-bye (yes, after thirty-four years together, kissing is still important) and I went through all one must go through to get on a plane and fly somewhere. It was 7 pm Saturday night and I’d been up since 7 am.  Twelve hours and counting.

Uneventful flight, didn’t chit-chat with my neighbor, read when I should have cat-napped, but I wasn’t tired.

The flight was mostly smooth, except for the part where it ran into rain squalls in eastern Pennsylvania and the little express plane kind of hiccupped, every so often.

Wings tipped to the right, then, they tipped to the left. Then the plane seemed to abruptly drop about a foot.  The wind howled outside my window and the heavy rain splattered insolently against the glass. The lights flickered, momentarily.  I prayed, momentarily.  You can never be too careful.

Like I said, for an American airline, it was an uneventful flight.

We landed in Newark, New Jersey at midnight and I went looking for transportation to Grand Central Station. A friend told me there was a train now to NYC since I was last there, five years ago. That meant I didn’t have to endure the long, long bus ride from Jersey to Manhattan.  Good.

But, as usual, I became confused and meandered around the smallish airport for a little while looking for the “Trains to New York” sign.  A kind soul, who must have recognized a wandering Jew when he saw one, directed me to a bus counter and I waited in line. There were only three people ahead of me and one behind me.

Deciding that the man behind me was more approachable, I asked him if he knew where the trains were.  He lived there, he said, but had no clue. He always took the bus.  Not a great beginning to my quest, but he was friendly, at least.

That part matters.

In Germany–busy, busy, busy and no time to help me.

In Denmark—complete civility, all the time. Everyone.

In Paris—Every time I attempted to say a French word, people looked at me like I was offering free leprosy samples. “No parle Fransais?”  Then you’re a dog.

In Israel—all of the above, but more entertaining.

The line seemed stalled, so the man and I began talking. A classic “one thing leads to another” encounter.

After I reached the ticket counter, I was told that there was, in fact, a train, but it ran sometimes, whereas the bus, outside in the incessant rain, left in fifteen minutes.  Cost?  The same  Travel time? About the same.

So, why did they build a train?  I paid fifteen dollars for a ticket and walked outside with my new local companion.  We waited for the bus’s door to open while standing under a shelter, watching the cool rain fall all around us.  The guy was returning from a design convention in Chicago. He was a kitchen designer.  He used to design all kinds of things, but kitchens were where the money was. I tell him my mother was an interior decorator and, as a child during the Fifties, I got endlessly dragged through the giant Merchandise Mart, getting lost every single time I searched for a bathroom.

We discussed design for a little while, then switched to architecture.  After comparing famous favorite buildings and architects, he told me he had just come from visiting one of his favorite buildings: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House on the South Side of Chicago.

I politely interrupted him. I told him I did indeed know where it was because I passed the damn thing twice a day while attending the Lab School in Hyde Park from 1964 to 1968.  Lab School, he asked?  The University of Chicago High School, I reluctantly replied, because it always seemed so pretentious to me to say all that just to identify my high school. I told him that Oak Park, nine miles west of Chicago, had Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio and a bunch of his larger, more famous buildings.

He knew that, he said, but thought it was funny because his kids went to The Lab School in New York City.  I saw what was coming.  We were entering a parallel universe.  This happens occasionally when you travel and decide to open up to a stranger.  One thing was leading to another and we were becoming more alike by the word.

I told him about the beautiful (from a distance) Fred and Ginger building in Prague that looked like two people dancing.  It was made almost completely from glass.  He, too, had been to Prague, but was not aware of it.  He went as a teen. Then he went to Dachau.


As a traveler, I am extremely careful about identifying myself as a Jew because the world can be crazy and I am always on guard and alert for irrational behavior. Jews seem to attract it.  I am not afraid, just braced.

Making the leap from complete strangers to discussing our possible common history, I realize that even though he could have been Italian, Greek, Arab or some other nationality people endlessly accuse me of being, going to Dachau is a particularly Jewish destination. Visiting the horror. Going where, once, you could never have gone to and still left it alive, once upon a time, especially if you happened to be a Jew.

I had never visited any concentration camps at that time. Within my own family, there was sufficient horror to keep me away from them. I have so many demons, both real and imagined, waiting to take a whack at my psyche when I’m sleeping, that at this point, they have to take a number and make an appointment.

So, you can surely understand, that for me to decide to go nearly forty hours without sleep, was not some great sacrifice. Rather, it was more like an emotional coffee break.  While I’m conscious, they all must wait.

I knew he was offering me ethnic bait, so I took it and said my family’s immigrants were West Side of Chicago Jews who eventually moved south, after World War II. That is generally a swift code for saying: We didn’t have any money. I told him that my family came to America around 1900 and had soldiers on both sides in WW I. Then my parents met, married, and continued the war.  My friend laughed, a knowing laugh.

He said his family was Latvian.  I told him mine was Byelorussian, Lithuanian and Polish. Essentially our families were both from the same small area, The Jewish Pale, where the Czar assigned us to live, long ago. He wanted to keep an eye on all of us, because we were multiplying too fast and we might get out of hand. The Pogroms that periodically occurred were the Czar’s method of population control.

After electing to disclose the Jewish part of who we are, a deeper identity to some, to me for certain, it generally becomes all Jewish from that point on. Why? I don’t know, maybe more comfort in being with a stranger, shared history, common view of almost everything. Common anger.  Common fears.  Almost always, shared politics.  That’s a lot to have in common, so quickly, transcending even one’s gender and national origin, too.  I think it’s an ancient and unconscious tribal allegiance: Safety in Numbers.

I decided at this point (yes, I know, bizarre) to introduce myself.

“Um, hello.I’m Bob.”

He replied,


We shook hands and resumed our swift tour of the world. Jewish Geography is a very real thing.

He somehow, God knows why, mentions that the month before was the anniversary of his Bar Mitzvah in April, unusual in that it occurred during Passover. He doesn’t mention the year. My ears perk up.

Unusual? Yeah, very.  So unusual that it almost never happens. I look at him.  Mark seems to be around my age.  I ask him when he had his Bar Mitzvah. Why?  Because my Bar Mitzvah was also during Passover.

He replied, April 10th, his birthday.

I smile.

April 13th.

“You’re 59, like me, aren’t you?” I say.

He nods, yes.

Except my birthday is April 30th, so he’s older, by twenty days.

Close enough for two strangers, riding through eastern New Jersey together, into the night.

We somehow get around to discovering that we both have daughters aged twelve and thirteen, also an unusual coincidence for two men crowding sixty.

He tells me he was on a summer tour in Europe in 1969, briefly in Switzerland, with a large and widely varied university-aged group, from many places, who also spoke many languages. It was Friday night and he wondered if he could find a Temple to celebrate Shabbat.  He mentioned this to another person in the group from Argentina, who also was Jewish. Amused, but pleased, both began canvassing the other people gathered in the large Swiss hostel for the night.

It was like a game, Mark said, smiling: Find the Jew!

After a while, they turned up a Russian, an Italian, one from Uruguay, a few Americans from across the US, a South African, a couple of French Jews (initially very apprehensive about responding to the question, as they rightly should have been, if you know what happened there less than thirty years before) a Ukrainian and, rare for that time, an Israeli.

While at first feeling odd, and truthfully uncomfortable at being clustered together by their common ethnicity–especially so close to Germany–in a short time they decided to have their own service using cigarette lighters as temporary candles, and someone produced a bottle of wine. By the time they had blessed the “candles” and the wine, there was a unique moment when they all realized they knew the exact same melodies and the exact same prayers, regardless of where they were from.

Mark told me there was a profoundness to this universal bond, and not a few of them were in tears.

Surprisingly, and suddenly, me, too. Hard to keep emotions in the box, sometimes.

We are riding in the darkness to Grand Central Station.

Two strangers who will likely never meet again.

There are only a few people on the bus sailing east through the loud rainstorm.

There is more to say. We cross under the Hudson River through the Lincoln Tunnel.

“Welcome to New York!” the bus driver merrily shouts.

We have about fifteen minutes more to talk, and we do.

But, for now, that’s all I have to say.

Part 2: In Search of the Succulent Brisket

So, in the final few minutes of our brief journey from Newark, New Jersey to New York City, Mark and I delved further into unlikely Jewish territory, after I mentioned the upcoming Bat Mitzvah of my daughter, Sarah Hannah, who coincidentally was born on 9/11/96, since I was telling Mark about her in that place where 9/11 has the most meaning.

My Rabbi, Jonathan Magidovitch, tells me that there are no coincidences.

Who am I to fathom that statement? But it certainly makes you tend to reflect about things that happen to happen, after the fact.

We get to talking about the number three in Jewish tradition, mythology and practice.  I think of some and he thinks of some.  This is a game in which there are no winners, but it does make you contemplate on the Jewish fascination with reoccurring numbers which seem to have a pattern, may possibly have something to do with there being so many Members of the Tribe who are CPAs, mathematicians,  or physicists.

Here is what I recall of that back and forth about “3’s” in our culture.

In the event of errors, none of my 1958 Hebrew teachers would be surprised in the slightest:

1-Forefathers of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob

2-Noah’s sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth

3-Custom of leaving three stones on a grave site after visiting someone you loved. Varies sometimes, but not in my family.

4-Division of Jews in Exodus: Kohen, Levi and Israelite.

5-Central prayer of devotion in Jewish life, The Sh’ma is required to be said three times a day, if possible.

6-Ways to gain atonement: Repentance, prayer and charity.

7-Divorce (ancient): A man circled his wife three times, repeating three times: I divorce you, etc.

8-There are three daily prayer services in observant communities.

9-Moses was the third sibling in line, after Miriam and Aaron.

10-A Jewish court, a Bet Din, has three Judges. (Clever. Prevents any ties.)

11-A convert to Judaism must dip three times in a Mikva, or ritual bath.

There are likely endless more examples than these, but it was fun to try to remember them.  But after the eleventh one, we both immediately saw how this “three” thing migrated to other groups:


1-Three wise men visit Jesus (Technically, they were witnessing the birth of a Jewish child, but why quibble?).

2-They left three gifts.

3-Jesus rose on the third day after his crucifixion.

4-Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost

5-Roman Catholic’s central ideas: Faith, Hope and Charity (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)


1-Three holy cities: Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem

I found all this fascinating.  Seems like we all have good reasons to get along, doesn’t it?

But by then, the bus was pulling into its spot on the curb, right near Grand Central Station. It was close to 1 am.

As he gathered up his things from the storage area under the bus, and I am wearing my two bandolier-type of traveling devices, I asked Mark for some directions, in the event he had ever heard of this certain place I was looking for.  It was for me, my own personal “Mecca”.

The famed, but doomed 2nd Avenue Delicatessen.  America’s best deli.

Mark smiles. He not only knows of it, he knows exactly where it is, just a few blocks away from where we stopped.

He tells me it’s at 162 East 33rd Street. Delighted, I ask him exactly how to get there because New York addresses are hieroglyphics to me.  We are standing on the corner, and the traffic light is still red. He points me this way and that and we shake hands.  I wish him well.  The light turns green and in a second–he is gone, instantly swallowed up in the crowded New York City streets, even in the middle of the night.

I stand on the corner, immobile in the swirl of people around me, delighted to be in the greatest city on earth, if only for twenty-two hours. I don’t have very much cash on me, and no credit cards, but enough to feed myself at the Second Avenue Delicatessen, man. A priority and not an option.

I see a stern “No Parking” sign where the Jersey bus is still sitting. Illegally parked vehicles will be immediately crushed, even with their occupants still in them. Survivors will be prosecuted, found guilty and drowned. Sterner measures will follow for repeat offenders. Sure sounds like I’m in New York to me.  I smile.

Using this dire warning as a vertical desk, I pull out my little blue notebook to quickly record all that you have read so far. There is much I left out.  A lot can be said in forty-five minutes.  I decide to be selective.  More of what we seemed to be in accord about will appear in a later segment of this memoir, having something to do with the Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn.  I write for about thirty minutes, until I notice a couple of suspicious cops in their two-toned blue uniforms eyeing me. I wave at them and decide that future literature must bow to discretion.

A cop is a cop. I move on, as Mark directed me, in search of a succulent brisket sandwich.  Sufficient motivation.

Back story:

Aside from my two wise and talented grandmothers, Rose from Lithuania and Celia from Poland, I have never experienced Jewish cooking anywhere as superb as I first found at the Second Avenue Deli, originally located on 2nd and East 10th Street.  They set the bar so high, they ruined me for what many people raved about and called “good”.

Not in the concentrated Jewish areas of Miami, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, Montreal or Toronto.

Every other place else was second-class to the 2nd Avenue Delicatessen.  Including all other New York delis.


In more prosperous times, for me, a two-day expedition to New York City would be a convention at the Jacob Javits Center, lunch at the Second Avenue Deli, two Broadway plays or musicals, long, long walks from Battery Park in the southern tip of Manhattan overlooking the Statue of Liberty, to Columbia University way north of Times Square and all the tourists. I rarely used their subways.  Why?

Frankly, not naive, I was afraid of them and also completely baffled by them. Compared to New York’s complex, multi-level underground transportation system, Chicago had one street light and a couple of buses. Taxis were for rich people.  I still feel that way, although Chicago seems to have a lot more horses, lately.

You have to walk a city to know a city. Its cafe’ aromas, street noise and music, sidewalks, both smooth and broken, accents of talking people passing you in a crowd, all that architecture, sometimes thrilling and sometimes, not.

I used to rent available student housing from ColumbiaUniversity as a place to stay when I went to New York, at a fraction of what even a cheap hotel would charge, with their itty-bitty rooms and broken light bulbs.  I owned a travel bookstore.  I read my books.  I knew what to do, everywhere.  Even with money to spend, I wasn’t gonna blow it on a place to sleep. Clean was important to me.  Fancy wasn’t. Still isn’t.

The 2nd Avenue Deli was large (250 seats), really noisy (even for New York), had yelling waiters in white aprons who weren’t afraid to give you a piece of their mind and simply heavenly, bad-for-your-arteries food.

Thick slices of brisket in rich brown beef gravy, or roasted tongue in mushroom gravy, fat lumpy definitely NOT mass-produced potato pancakes with onions in them, steaming hot kishke with natural casing and even more gravy, rich chicken soup with translucent golden pools of chicken fat (schmaltz) floating on top, and skinny egg noodles, massive monolith-like matzo balls and/or kreplach waiting for your eager palate, lurking beneath the surface.

Kreplach, as a concept, is like Italian ravioli or Chinese won ton (but better, of course) and kishke is best explained to you by someone else.  I will volunteer that this now virtually non-existent Eastern European Jewish delicacy tasted, smelled and looked a whole lot better than any dictionary or internet explanation could accurately convey.

I’ll take a stab at this. You’re sixteen, in the back seat of a car with your main squeeze. You’re both new at this and before anything else happens, you tentatively put your arms around each other and gently: kiss. The earth moves.

Now you’re sixty. You love your wife, or husband. You come home, sweetly greet each other, and kiss.  Then, often as not, one of you belches or farts. Not quite the same thing, unfortunately.  Same thing with kishke then, and now.

Maybe there’s a better analogy without sex in it, but to me, a delight of the senses is the same whether it be sex or food, except I never heard of a brisket sandwich becoming pregnant because of an unguarded moment of passion.

There were pictures of famous customers all over the walls of the deli and a heavy fragrance of old world flavors that permeated the crowded place. Yiddishe perfume, to me. It was just south of the United Nations building and just north of the Ukrainian Village neighborhood.

I would finish off the meal, about 8,000 calories, with a piece of halvah, a kind of oily chewy dessert made from crushed sesame seeds and nitroglycerine, I believe, and a cold foaming glass of sparkling chocolate phosphate (called an egg cream in NYC. I have no clue what the hell that is, frankly).

I’d pay the expensive bill and not need to eat anything again for days.


One of the two brothers who ran the place, a Ukrainian immigrant named Abe Lobewohl, was shot and killed on March 4th, 1996, during a robbery. The killer has never been found.  The surviving brother, Jack, a lawyer by profession and understandably in great pain over the killing as I learned the story later, kept the deli going until January 1, 2006 when the building’s landlord raised the rent too high for him to keep going, and Jack closed the landmark deli.

I hadn’t been to New York for a while before after that, and for me, hearing that the deli closed down was like letting the air out of the whole magical experience of going to that big city. I was very, very sad and felt part of my culture slipping away.

Then, after years of not going to New York for various reasons, principally financial, I ran across an article in the Sunday New York Times that the Second Avenue deli had reopened under the management of one of the nephews of the two brothers, near the Empire State Building, but under the same name.  Go figure.

A good friend and a world traveler used some of his millions of airline miles to get me a plane ticket so I could go to my first convention in perhaps five years. That’s why I was walking the streets of New York in the middle of the night, so I could save the cost of a hotel room.  I had no plan to write any stories. I was just killing time.

I followed Mark’s directions exactly, and after about fifteen minutes (I can get lost in a closet) I see the familiar Hebrew-inspired type style on the awning of the new, reborn 2nd Avenue Delicatessen.  I can see it because in the darkness of the side street it’s on, the letters are glowing. The damn place is still open, even at one in the morning!!

I felt like I was approaching the Jewish Oz, frankly, and carefully opened the glass door in case this was all an illusion and everything collapsed into dust.  It didn’t.

There were several people working there. I slowly walked all through the place.  People smiled at me.  No one else was there. I saw a small counter area, about six seats, and following that, a sit down eating area with numerous tables.  It smelled very good. It was very clean. Very bright.  A succession of “very’s” filled my senses.

They were self-aware of their legend, I saw.  By the register, inside a glass display case, were colorful t-shirts, hats and a cookbook for tourists to buy to allow them to tell their friends back home, somewhere, that they’d actually been to the famed and now reincarnated 2nd Avenue Delicatessen.

After a few minutes of wandering around, happy to put down my two unexpectantly heavy travel bags for a while, I noticed some men there watching me.  I felt I should say something.

“I used to go to the other place.  I’m so happy you’re here.  I thought it was over.”

They all smiled, evidently used to hearing emotional sentiments like that.  I sat down at the counter. A man there, Diego, offered me some chopped liver on a bit of bread from a cold display case. Delicious. He asked me would I like to order something.  Not a conversation I normally had at one in the morning. I was in a dream state.

I opened the long menu, like it was a museum piece.  I wasn’t hungry, but I felt I should eat something on general principles.  Kind of like accepting an offer of sex in the middle of the night, even if it wasn’t on your mind.  A sort of: “What-the hell, why not?” feeling.  Besides, in both cases, I’m easy.  There are worse flaws a man can have.

Diego served me a bowl of chicken soup that was exactly as described earlier. I was inside of a rerun movie now.

We talked a little bit. I was very happy and told him and another man there (who told me his name was Amin) that I would be back in six hours for breakfast.  The man at the register told me his name was Mohamed, after I introduced myself to them, collectively, as “Bob”.  Very warm, accommodating men, I thought, as I picked up my bags and wandered out the door. Unable to suppress myself, but in good humor, I asked, innocently,

“So, um…gentleman, does anybody “Jewish” still work here?  It seemed fair for me to ask them.

They all smiled, again, used to it, I guess, and said yes, but that the other men who were Jewish didn’t work on Shabbat or Sundays.  I nodded in response and went on my way.  What a nice bunch of guys, I thought.

I glanced at my receipt.

It said 1:44 a.m. on it.

I had miles to go until sunrise.  I began writing down all I saw that was unusual, every few minutes. I didn’t know where I was going for the next five hours, just that I was going to be back at the 2nd Avenue Delicatessen by seven a.m. I’d been going to New York for over thirty years.  What was it like to walk all night in this giant city?

I was fifty-nine years old.  I was happily walking along, thinking that this was a second home to me, a Jewish home to me, and that maybe a person can “go home again”.  Or maybe, as I would learn in the hours to come, he can’t.

God granted me five sweet hours to come to that conclusion. I’m grateful for the time.  And the illusion. 

Part 3: The Sparkling Cosmic Galaxy of Times Square (A)

I set out from The 2nd Avenue Delicatessen with the blissful feeling I experience (sometimes) when I leave for home after Friday night services at my synagogue, Congregation B’nai Torah, in Highland Park, Illinois, just north of Chicago.  If only for the moment, my chaotic world seems at peace.

New York City, however, is NOT a big synagogue, the world’s assumptions not withstanding.  It is a blaze of noise, extremely LOUD noise, color, neon, hustling people, 24-hour traffic, a thousand swearing and suicidal taxi drivers, exotic markets, dozens of ethnicities, and the capitol of In-Your-Face screaming outdoor advertising.

It has energy, attitude, a sense of individualism and collective identity at the same time.

So, for example, if three New Yorkers: a Puerto Rican singer, a Ukrainian-Jewish taxi driver and a West African street vendor of trinkets, all found themselves suddenly stranded (God forbid!!!) say, in Nebraska–after their hysterical wailing ceased–all three would undoubtedly see themselves as (culturally superior) New Yorkers before anything else, and then they’d join forces and desperately go hunting for a bus station to get them the hell out of “nowhere”.


Because to New Yorkers, in my experience, every other place is somewhere they don’t want to be, and NYC is the throbbing, screeching, electric heart of everything worth seeing, hearing or wearing.

That often repeated line” If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” (I believe from the great Broadway musical “Annie”) is not correct.  Besides, it better applies to Chicago, a tough enough town.  Because if you can succeed in the arts, or business, or fashion, or writing, or acting or open a killer restaurant in NYC, why in the world (I can just see the stupefied expressions on a million of their faces) would it matter if there were “anywhere else?”  Because to so many striving souls who aspire to be recognized as at the top of their fields, success in New York City is the very definition of “success”.

And, honey, if somehow you don’t get that, well then, get your innocent fanny back to Kansas, or Oregon or Oklahoma or whatever softer place you are from, where the standards are lower and the people more forgiving of your averageness. Mother will comfort you there, but don’t expect to find her in NYC.

What follows is a stream-of-consciousness type of description, mostly, of what it was like for me to walk the streets of Manhattan from 2 a.m. until 7 a.m. when I walked out the door of that fabled, reborn delicatessen.

First a note.

That black sling whose strap ran diagonally across my chest, held the bare minimum of what I thought I might need under the worst circumstances, meaning horrible weather or sudden illness. I wasn’t sure how far I’d walk, or if it would be cold outside, so I brought, besides what I was wearing (slacks, T-shirt, shirt, walking boots, thick white socks for hiking, underwear) two spare changes of socks and underwear, an umbrella, a warm zippered vest, a scarf and gloves, basic medical supplies for a myriad of situations in two small clear zippered bags, a clean shirt for the poster convention, all my prescriptions (too many) for two days, a tiny flashlight, 100 business cards for my store, three pairs of glasses (reading, sun and bifocals) a tiny glasses repair kit, and a notebook in case I needed one, which is why this story was able to be recorded.

Along with that other customized blue denim bag which had some pens and other small stationary type items, that was it. No food, no water (too heavy) or paperback book.  Bare essentials so I could take care of myself.  I distributed everything as evenly as I could between the two bags and wore them criss-cross on my back and hip while I explored the city. They were seemingly light when I was deciding what to bring.  All my medicines and emergency-type other things were miniaturized and taken because experience from traveling all over America, Canada and Europe told me what might happen, to anyone.  Frequently, it was other people who needed aid.

I am easy to make fun of, with my wary perspective, but not if you were watching as my wife, on the top of a desolate mountain in the Western Cascades in 1995, when she suddenly tripped and fell, ripping up her left knee.  I had all I needed to stop the flow of her blood, clean the wound, apply an antibiotic, and ease her considerable pain. I discovered then and there that my band-aids were too small for such a situation and, after slowly descending from the mountain top, I bought large pad-like band-aids from a drugstore where I changed her dressing, and then added the larger pads to my standard kit. She was not one to find humor in my preparedness.

Another time, in Israel with the co-writer of this blog, Rick Munden, he discovered a large liquid-filled blister on the sole of his foot after our endless exploration of Jerusalem and other places. Very painful, of course. I washed it, popped the blister with a long thin needle, drained it, put a band-aid over the puncture and then produced some adhesive moleskin to cover the entire blistered area so Rick could keep going like the energizer American. The only thing that surprised Rick, and not much does, was the moleskin, which turned out to be essential for his comfort.  It would have been terrible if I could do nothing for him while he was in so much pain.

I have had food poisoning in San Antonio after eating at a buffet and in New York City after visiting an unnamed but still existing famous deli. Both times, very sick for twenty-four hours.  Both times, too ill to stand up.  Both times, alone.  And, at that time, without any sort of medicine to help myself. So, I learned.

I have removed a long sliver from a crying child’s finger at a Wisconsin theme park (to the parent’s amazement, because I didn’t identify myself), and offered band-aids to a girl at the foot of the steps to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, at 1 a.m.  She was with other people but none of them seemed to be able to help her.  Her sandals had cut a blister into the spot just above her heel, and she was sitting on the ground and weeping in pain. After her friends decided I wasn’t dangerous, and then accepted the band-aids, I murmured to them, mysteriously: “Band-Aide Man” and then walked away from them into the darkness.

In Germany, my entire pants leg tore straight down when I stood up from a wooden bench in a historic center city square. There was no one to repair it, so my wife sewed my torn pants up with the little kit I carried, just in case.

So, hopefully, you the reader, get it. I’m ready for most things so that I, or another person, isn’t at the mercy of random misfortune. Once helped, no one sees the humor, anymore, in my being a traveling medicine cabinet.

But as I soon learned, hour after hour, as the black and blue straps cut into my shoulders, was that both bags were too heavy, or that I was older, or both. Even though I used almost all the clothes I brought, in different combinations, as the temperature rose and fell during my twenty-two hours in New York City, I knew that a line had been crossed, and that this was the last time I could carry so much, on foot.

So, although I hope to travel, write and walk in many other places, it will be different for me from now on.

I saw a business called The Barking Dog at 3rd and Long Street, Joshua Tree, then a psychic parlor.  I saw Asian people everywhere, something new to me because it wasn’t true the last time I came here. The gleaming streets were alive with masses of young people, evidently coming or going to clubs, girls in skin tight clothes and very short skirts. I did not see this as a bad thing. The multi-cultural army of tense young men wore twenty variations of the color black, making their companions all the more spectacular as walking wildflowers.

I passed a place on a corner called Dukes. It was a forest of neon tubing, discordant colors of green, orange, white and blue like some Mexican/Israeli flag. A woman rushed by me with roses in her hand, crying, her mascara running.  I see a closed but intriguing market at 38th and 3rd.  Peering through the windows I see aisles bursting with produce, cheeses, meats.  It looks so wonderful—maybe Whole Earth should worry. Wal-Mart was once a little nothing in Arkansas. So, you never know.

I see a giant travel billboard ad (every ad was colossal, the closer I got to Times Square) that screamed, “From Uptown to Down Under” and showed a picture of the Sydney Opera House.  A restaurant called Sinigual, contemporary Mexican cuisine, with an orange and white sign that reminded me of sherbet ice cream from a Good Humor Ice Cream truck.  I wonder: Did New York also have those wonderful white little trucks with their rounded corners and bell chimes that made all us South Side of Chicago kids come running to it like it was a frozen mechanical Pied Piper?

A car screeches up next to where I’m standing on 42nd Street, scribbling notes. A pretty girl gets out.  I ask her,

“Where is Times Square?”

She answers, matter-of-factly in a whiskey and cigarette voice, “It’s a couple of blocks over” pointing west.  I knew that.  I just wanted to see if she’d answer me at all, or help out a stranger.  She never stopped moving, however.

122 E.42nd Street,”Clanin” a polished Art Deco masterpiece. The whiskey voice was wrong. Times Square was still five blocks away, but she was awfully cute to my weary Chicago eyes. I pass Grand Central Station for the second time.  I see two cops leaning against the locked doors, both heavily armed, one bald, one short. I see one’s cop’s name: O’ Riley.

“Is it open, Officer O’ Riley?” I ask, wanting to look around, and to sit down for a bit.

They answer in unison:  “Not ’til 5:30″, hours away. Their two-toned blue uniforms remind me of a ’57 Chevy, strangely.

I tell them their town is amazing. That in Chicago, at 3 PM, it’s a graveyard. They both smile. Then I add, “I suppose for you, that’s a mixed blessing.”  More smiles, in response.  Very friendly, smiling men, armed to the teeth. In Chicago, I’m thinking, less people, but less smiling, too.

I see lots of very large stainless steel newsstands all over the damn place.  In Chicago, they’re virtually banned. My city says they’re an eyesore.  As the former owner of five Chicago newsstands–including its largest outdoor Downtown newsstand, built by me, at Randolph and Michigan and operated from 1977 to 1984–I thought newsstands were beacons on the street.  Places to go for directions, for conversation or to ask for help.  I think that Mayor Daley’s famed Chicago Political Machine needs a tune-up when it comes to what’s good for people, commerce and comfort on our big city streets.

It’s 3:15 a.m.

A long, wide, really big painted blood-red school bus is in the middle of Times Square: “La Chica Rumbers” painted on the side of the bus, which is filled with screaming and singing young people.  There is incredibly loud, almost painfully loud, amplified music pouring from the bus, the ground trembling from the vibration it creates.  No one else looks up at it, I see as I look all around, except for me.

I pass Cafe Metro, next to the “World Famous Tobacconist Nat Sherman” since 1930″ building and sign. I think to myself, I used to sell them, decades ago. A tall girl with 4-inch heels, tight jeans and a great ass goes rapidly clicking by me, her long black wavy hair looking so sensuous.  I do not see her face, but the way she walks could inspire a symphony.

I’m in Times Square. Above a subway stop is an ad for a new TV show. It says:

“Life is filled with little pricks”

with a picture of a nurse with an evil smile and a syringe with a very long, sharp needle.

Edie Falco, it says below that, as Nurse Jackie.

Across the street is a big sign, sparkling in the darkness, showing a glitzy slot machine.  Below it says:

“Las Vegas?  NO!  Yonkers!!!

It’s late, people, and I’m so tired. These damn bags are really heavy, too.

I need a little donkey to help me, I think to myself.  A sweet-natured, slow-walking donkey.

That’s all for now.

Part 4: The Sparking Cosmic Galaxy of Times Square (B)

The middle of the night, in the middle of the light, as Times Square sizzles all around me.

There’s an endless Dow Jones moving electric news strip, winding around the corner, black and white and moving too fast.  It’s talking about General Motors closing over one thousand dealerships, and also which horse won which race, someplace, both stories equally important, I guess.

In the pulsating center of the vortex, I see giant signs for Chase Bank, Target, Budweiser, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum (isn’t that an English thing?), Shrek, the Musical, Ruby Tuesday Restaurant, The Hard Rock Cafe’…damn neon E-V-E-R-Y-W-H-E-R-E!!!….Red Lobster, Samsung advertising on a towering TV screen, The Amsterdam Theater now showing Mary Poppins!, Walgreen’s urging all of us to shop at their 64,000 locations nationwide.

Cars and cabs screeching through the streets, even more giant screens advertising cameras, stocks, TV shows, Toys R Us, McDonald’s, JVC, NASDAQ, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company—and I’m thinking that they must sell a hell of a lot a shrimp to be advertising in Times Square!

Then, amid all this sound and light, I hear, and then I see, a single yellow finch chirping while perched high above a traffic signal.  I watch it, fascinated. A solitary and fragile bird, alone in twinkling chaos.

Chevrolet has an enormous sign up, too, but maybe not for long, and I see some cops lounging in front of a jewelry store, can’t recall its name, maybe Diamonds R Us or something.  As I trudge past the storefront and glance over at the cops, I see the name plate on one of the guys reflecting the garish colors all around us.

Then I stop, and I look again. O’Reilly?  No, it can’t be. Thousands of cops here and I run into the same one twice, miles after the first encounter.  I look up at his face.  Damn! It’s the same guy. I say his name, like a question:

“O’ Reilly?”

He looks at me, harder.

Recognition, which is stunning, if you actually think about it. Millions of people here, even at night.

“Hey, you’re that guy who wanted to see Grand Central Station, right? Well, it’s open now.”

He smiles.

I smile back, very impressed.  I say,

“Officer O’ Reilly, you are one very cool guy.”

He looks at his pals, pretends to bow with mock formality and winks at me.

I wave at him, wearily, as I pass by him and I keep moving on.

Then, The Lion King, a musical revival of the 1980 movie 9 to 5, then, dead ahead of me on an unavoidable glistening screen, a sexy blonde girl with serious cleavage appears walking aggressively through a trash-filled alley directly toward the viewer.  She stops. Poses, provocatively. A cartoon flower suddenly grows out of the concrete. She leans over to grab it and looks up, while her breasts are spilling out of her dress. The words appear on the screen:

“Wanna Pluck???”

Don’t think they have this in Chicago, yet, Toto.

Then, Mr. Peanut, Coca-Cola, Planet Hollywood, Virgin Records, Mama Mia (a musical), a giant Svedke Vodka ad with a remarkably sensuous bald robot holding a martini glass–nice hips for a robot–then Billy Elliot, West Side Story, Wicked, Phantom of the Opera and South Pacific—all within two fucking blocks!!!

There’s a giant red M & M attacking the Empire State Building, on a fifty foot screen

Then a place called Shorgasm.

I decide I don’t want to know more about that, although on reflection, it sounds like a reaction a certain kind of person might have if they really, really, really like going to a beach.

I have been walking for hours.  Now it’s creeping toward four a.m.

I want to sit down.  My feet hurt. The bags are digging trenches into my shoulders. Gravity never sleeps.

I see a cafe’.

Maybe–it has a bathroom?

I wander in, among about a dozen young people occupying the tables and sprawled in the booths. Night people. Dirty T-shirts. Halters.  Beards, long stringy hair.  Closed eyes and heads slumped on the bare shoulders of their friends.  I smell old French fry grease and it isn’t appealing.  This isn’t Starbucks or some coffee heaven, and the aroma in the air is sweat, not from mountain-grown anything.

I head for the bathroom.

It’s a trashy little oasis for me and I lock the door, drop my bags on the one dry spot on the cracked tile floor and turn on the hot water.  After a minute, two minutes, it heats up and I wash my hands, my arms, my neck, strip off my shirt and wash the rest on me with clumps of paper towels. I see the red marks on my shoulders where those two essential bags are doing their worst to separate my shoulders from their sockets.

Sitting on the can, I switch my socks and underwear for fresh ones, putting the damp heavy old ones in a plastic bag, tying it shut and putting it back inside my black duffle. I should have just thrown them away, but it’s not in my nature. They weren’t broken, and frankly, I’m broke.

I dry myself off as best one can in such a sticky place, put on the same shirt and open the door, looking for an empty booth. I find one, but I don’t drop my bags, like I would in Chicago.  I am my own city, and I don’t trust these strangers. But I do leave a clump of my unread newspapers on the table, to try to lay claim to it, and I go to the counter to order a large coffee and a chocolate donut. Sorry, no donuts left, and they’re closing in forty-five minutes.  I sag. Fine, just coffee.

I add enough sugar and cream to the cup to kill the taste of whatever the counter guy poured in there from his burned coffee pot, and I sink down into my booth.  No one looks at me.  I am the invisible old guy with the grey and black beard, the tired face and the two bags, and I just might be a crazy street person.

No, I am the crazy street person, because a rational person wouldn’t subject himself to this situation. I sip my coffee. Not actually poison, and I can taste the sugar. I have hopes for a revival that doesn’t include Jesus.  I just wanna last until seven a.m. so I can feast at the 2nd Avenue Delicatessen. A goal worth fighting for.  So I sip, swallow, close my eyes, periodically peering around me to see if wolves are circling an easy prey, and repeat.  I think to myself,

“Hey, you people, don’t underestimate the mild looking-and exhausted Chicagoan.  He might bite you.”

Time drifts by.  I relax, and become one with the booth, my back molding itself to the shape of it. The “coffee” seems to be working.  The lights begin to snap off in the cafe’.  People leave.  I’m not moving.  No one asks me to.  I’m the last one, but I linger.  Short Latin men move all around me, collecting garbage, going through their routine, ignoring me.  I see them carrying swollen black plastic bags toward the alley and I feel the cool air rush into the cafe’ as someone opens the door to the alley, and it revives me.  I stir.

Looking around in the dark cafe’, I slide out of the booth, put my remaining unread newspapers back in my blue denim bag, and swing both of them criss-cross across my chest, as they resume their spots on my shoulders and back.  I get up to leave.  No one notices. It’s of no consequence to anyone.  I’m not dangerous and I won’t rob them.  They have me pegged.  I unlock the door, move out of the muggy, stinking café and inhale the cool night air.

I’m awake.

It’s five a.m.

Two more hours and I’m back there again, at food heaven.

I can do this.

Maybe I’ll bump into O’ Reilly again.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Part 5: Memories of Delicatessens Past

After a while, tiring of the bright lights, or rather, needing no excuse to be legitimately tired, I drifted around the outskirts of Times Square and quickly discovered the virtually instant transformation of being on the outside of that corporate theme park.  Dark streets.  Very, very, quiet.  Few people and the ones I saw kept some room between us when we passed, an attitude I endorsed.

It was kind of a relief to just “be” and not feel so touristy. It was more meditative and closer to wandering the side streets of any big city.  Which I know more than a little about, having this habit of exploring around big cities, for hours late at night, to better absorb the authentic feeling of the place with less distraction.

That observant and impressionistic wandering includes: Cologne and Frankfort, Germany; Paris, France; Bergen and Oslo, Norway; Toronto and Montreal, Canada; Cardiff, Wales; Sorrento and Naples, Italy; Tel Aviv and Eilat, Israel, and in America: San Antonio, San Francisco, the vast Olympia National Park off the extreme west coast of Washington State (unplanned, because actually, I was lost), Denver, Miami, New Orleans, Seattle, Las Vegas, Peach Springs (an Indian reservation near the Grand Canyon), Mystic (Connecticut) and other places.

Virtually always alone, there is kind of serenity in seeing a “real city” sleeping. When the stores close and the cars and buses and even the commuter trains cease running for the most part, the incessant electrical buzz that fills the air and makes the ground itself vibrate, stops.

No one is trying to sell me anything, and rarely did I ever run into evil looking characters who turned out to be drug dealers (only in Times Square, years ago).  Prostitution?  Well, in Europe it’s mostly in assigned districts and safer for women to stay there to find clients, instead of risking robbery and worse in the alleys.

I did discover a unique area in Paris, on a street called Rue de St. Denis, but that was so weird it was more like a circus, except in almost total darkness.  I realize that’s a sort of contradiction, but I guess you had to be there.

In general, if you are looking for that, it will find you.  In my case, not seeking a buffet of diseases, I always kept walking and avoided eye contact with any slowly sashaying woman who wore really short tight skirts, strange wigs, clown-like eye make-up and six-inch heels.  If that descriptions fits your high school social studies teacher, well, good for you, man.

Specific memories of far away places with strange sounding names? Why am I telling you this in the middle of a New York City story?  Because when I walk, I weave stories in my head and then write them down later. Sometimes, years later. So, in NYC, I know I would have been comparing and contrasting where I was, with where I’d already been.

Paris: Stunningly beautiful, and dirty, too. Dog crap everywhere.

Bergen: Drunk, but very polite teenagers all over the streets on late Friday nights.

Israel: A fucking circus anytime, day or night.  People seem to be hyper-alive.

Las Vegas: So artificial and cold, it was depressing and I will stay away.

Sorrento: The best food and the nicest people of anywhere I’ve ever been.

So, after spending sufficient time in the silent outlying streets of Times Square, and watching the sun slowly rise and light up the shadowy streets and tall buildings inch by inch, I eventually ended up right outside the door of the Second Avenue Delicatessen, again, ready for an atypical American breakfast.  New Yorkers probably think that it’s their sun–a designer sun, of course–and only their sun and much too good a show for the rest of us common folk out on the prairies, but that’s okay.

I have avoided writing this part of the story and even wrote the ending sequence of this 22-hour adventure, before facing up to it. People want their dreams.

But it was there and I was there, and this is what happened.  Forgive the brevity.

There was a different crew of people in the very clean, brightly lit restaurant I’d been in just five hours before.  I walked in slowly, past the display case with the bright T-shirts and the cookbooks. And just as before, each person who spoke to me was very nice and I was quickly shown to a table in the rear area, where I was the only person there. The man left me with a very large menu, and endless choices.  I was so ready to be back in heaven and to recapture what meant so much to me.

I ordered the brisket, remembering the thick, juicy, tender slices nestled in a rich brown mushroom gravy, and an aroma that alone, was worth the plane fare.  I also ordered roast tongue, a Jewish delicacy when properly roasted, the meat is softer than filet mignon. I ordered one potato pancake, remembering the chunky, lumpy, crunchy and slightly burned latkes of yore, and knew that even one was too much.

The paragraph above is a prayer.  Some people pray for fame.  Some, for beauty or money.


I prayed for brisket.


In Chicago, there used to be four outstanding delis in the North, West, East and central parts of the city, in what were areas thick with Jews and others who shared the same tastes in Jewish immigrant cuisine.  North, on Morse Avenue near the elevated train station, was Ashkenaz.

West, on Division Street, in an area where a hundred thousand Eastern European Jews lived and died between 1880 and 1940, was Braverman’s.

Joe Stein’s Romanian Restaurant in the 5400 block of N. Sheridan Rd in Chicago. They were famous for their skirt steak and had strolling “gypsies” playing. In the late 1950’s, it had red and white checkered tablecloths and (strangely) Chianti bottles with short dripping candles placed in the center of those tables.

Central, still sort of on Chicago’s West Side but south of Downtown and very close to the University of Illinois, was Manny’s Deli.  I went there when I was a freshman at that school in 1968 and craved real and not horrible cafeteria-type food.  It was then called Chicago Circle, and now is called UIC.

Of all of them, only Manny’s still survives to this day, possibly because it is near a large fireman’s academy (supposedly erected on the exact spot of the beginning of the Great Chicago Fire, in October, 1871), a police station near Maxwell Street (the old Jewish open-air market place) and it still attracts hordes of judges and lawyers from nearby Downtown.

The Irish, God love ’em, keep the last great Chicago Jewish deli going strong.

The Jews? Well, all the immigrant grandchildren grew up and became–Americans.

Brats & Beer. Pizza. Burgers.  Real food for real people.  Who the hell needs thick, bubbling, handmade split pea soup with cooked carrots and braised beef short ribs, anyway???

I do.

Typically, living in the past and determined to stay there.

All of those places, uniformly, cooked food as described earlier and all of them formed me and helped define my cultural Jewish identity and my strong preferences for distinctive flavors and textures.

Losing them before I ever knew about the 2nd Avenue Deli was a great emotional blow to me. I even married, for a while, Braverman’s niece (not to get closer to the food.  Honest.)  Askkenaz reopened, briefly, in the Rush street area north of Downtown in the Seventies.

Even in 1969, at the age of nineteen, I opened a takeout delicatessen in Hyde Park partially because of my love of my culture and all that food. But after less than a year, I sold the place.

The reopening of New York’s Second Avenue Deli was my last gasp, really, to try to recapture something that connected me to my Polish grandmother Celia and my Lithuanian grandmother Rose, both superb cooks.  Because the original Second Avenue Delicatessen trumped all others.  A Yiddische Mecca that set the standard of excellence, for me.

What am I saying?  Why are my eyes blurry?  How do I show respect and still say what I want to say?

Maybe you went to your fortieth high school reunion. Maybe you saw your heart’s desire there, at 58, remembering that body of hers that split the crowds in the hallways in awe, like Moses parting the Red Sea.

Her blue eyes, wavy blonde hair, dynamite everything.

Now, she’s a grandmother, likely with white hair, soft plump curves and thick glasses over those same eyes, but now with wrinkles radiating out from them. She walks over to you.

“Well, hello,” you say, pausing.

“Why, how is it possible you are still the best-looking girl in this or any other room?” you say.

She smiles, loving it, even if you were invisible to her decades ago.  But now she is old, just like you, and no crowds split to let her pass. Her glory, as you both know, is now in her past.

But, god-damn-it, and Jesus Christ.  It still hurts to lose something that was so impossibly wonderful.

The waiter was very nice to me, asking me if I wanted a leftover container, since so much was…leftover.

I said no.

I gathered up my burdens, criss-crossed them across my chest, paid the tab, walked out into the brightly lit street with cabs honking, and masses of people everywhere rushing to work swirling all around me, and I silently stood off to the side a bit, facing a brick wall, away from the famous Deli’s sign, and, I cried.

Part 6: Cursed by a Tribeca Fortune-Teller

After my second try at the 2nd Avenue Delicatessen, I realized and redefined my expectations to fit this new reality.  New York City was now just a tiny bit smaller, and I mourned that, because the bit that was lost was irreplaceable.

Changing my attitude, or attempting to, I chose to view the situation as being in a museum-like setting and I went back to visit the original location of the deli.  Its address was on the corner at 10th Street and (of course) 2nd Avenue, except now there was a big blue and white Chase Bank sign where one of the windows used to be.  It looked exactly like all the other identical blue and white Chase Bank signs from Seattle to Shanghai.  I sighed.

I looked down at the sidewalk and saw that there were still bronze stars imbedded in the cement of the sidewalk lined up in front of the bank with the names of now long dead famous customers of the 2nd Avenue Deli.

As each day goes by, there will be steadily less people who can remember this old world Jewish treasure, and where it used to be, too. Like some Mayan Temple lost in the underbrush of this cold island’s urban jungle.

As I approach age sixty, my own older friends are dying, two recently in one week.  One of them, Mike Hecht, at 90, was my synagogue’s shofar blower for the last 40 years and a warm and brilliant Yiddish-speaking man. He was not a father figure to me.

We discussed politics, cursed the Bush Administration, whom Mike despised, and he told me detailed definitions of obscure Yiddish words. We were simply friends, but also he was someone I loved.

The other, Leon Despres, 101, a long time Chicago Alderman and a man I interviewed and photographed at 17 when I was in a high school journalism class in 1968, and who I came to know well during my twenty years running my Bob’s newsstands in Hyde Park’s then famously liberal and anti-Mayor Richard J. Daley 5th ward in Chicago.

He was a respected independent voice among the city’s fifty wards comprising the rubber-stamp City Council and the only one to defy Mayor Richard J. Daley, one of the most powerful political figures in the United States.

He was once shot in both legs by an assailant and remained in office, frequently seen hobbling around the neighborhood with two wooden canes. Not your ordinary man. He lived to be 100.

Now both are names on a page somewhere, and silent.

I feel like I am becoming a surviving repository of who, what, why, when and where even as America’s newspapers die all around me.  Who cares? I do.

Though I may be just one disappointed man standing on a corner in New York City, there are still things to be done before my twenty-two hours here are up. You may be surprised to see how much happened between 8 am and 7 pm, when I was back at that New Jersey Airport. There were still miles for me to walk before sunset.

The original reason I went to NYC was to go to the Convention Center on Manhattan’s West Side and see what poster suppliers, foreign or domestic, were still in business since my last visit, years ago.  I was thinking about a new, uniquely compelling kind of retail idea and I wanted the best sources for posters.  The Center opened at 9 am, and I was there.

I went into the men’s room, washed up, took my medicine, brushed my teeth and hair and changed into the nicer shirt I’d been carrying around with me all night.  Then I hung the “Buyer ID” necklace around my neck and went to the coat room, actually just an area marked off on the main floor.

I was one of the first people there, so no line. The pretty woman behind the table took my heavy sling, with other items transferred into it from the denim bag.  Such a relief!  I was free of that heavy weight for the next couple of hours.

There were a thousand exhibitors, or so it seemed, but I’d called a woman who worked in the convention office ahead of time to have them identify the specific booth numbers of only what I wanted to see: only poster people. She found nine booths for me. Quickly, too.

So, unlike many retailers who trudged forever through the long, long aisles, hoping to find something new to sell in their stores, and took two days or more to do that, I was in and out of there in less than two hours.

The other thing I learned long ago at previous conventions, both here and in Europe: Never eat convention food. Ever! It is soul-killing and poisons the whole atmosphere of fun and discovery.  Find a romantic restaurant or cafe’, even if you’re alone, but leave the convention for business and the food for pleasure.  I don’t want to talk about the 2nd Avenue Deli anymore. That’s over and done with.

So, it was about 11 am, with eight more hours to go before returning to Newark, and I decided to make my day end on an adventurous and challenging note. Einstein would have been amused to see how elastic time could be, in a relative sense, when nothing was scheduled and the day was warm and wide open.

I looked off into the distance and decided to walk east /southeast, toward the Lower East Side, once a place jammed with Jewish everything and throngs of American and immigrant residents speaking English, Yiddish and Russian as you walked past them on the street. It was a warm embrace of my culture, both familiar and yet still foreign, since I’m the third generation American born half a century after my family first arrived here.  Now, it’s over a century ago and every single original immigrant is dead. But I can still hear them and their Eastern European Yiddish accents, inside my head, whenever I want to remember them.

Plus, I wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, as I had once done before, and see Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights, the way George Washington saw it, at the end of the Eighteenth Century, except for the tall buildings, the eight million people, and the bridge.

There was also the huge and famous Katz’s Delicatessen in that same area, where I’d eaten years before.

Famous these days because of the scene in the movie “When Harry Met Sally” where cute Meg Ryan fakes a loud and violent orgasm while eating a corned beef sandwich as Billy Crystal watches in stunned realization that maybe some of his many conquests did indeed fake their orgasms to please him.

Then an older woman (who in real life was the movie’s director Rob Reiner’s mother) watching this incredible performance, as Meg calmly resumed eating her sandwich as if nothing at all had happened, turns to her waiter and says:

“i’ll have what she’s having.”

Wonderful moment in the cinema, Meg so yummy you could just eat her up too, and altogether unforgettable. But not today. Not for me.  No more delis in New York.  Maybe Chinese would do, tho.

So, after reclaiming my twin anvils and redistributing the weight again–not that it mattered–I set off on my quest.

I walked in a zig-zag fashion, without a map, because it was an island and I couldn’t fuck this up no matter how hard I tried.

I was looking for architecture and a nice cafe’ within the next two hours, and both were spread out before me like a giant blanket at a picnic.  First Chelsea, then Greenwich Village, then Tribeca where there is a marketplace on the west side of a long street, like a flea market of long standing.

I looked at the many vendors, having been one myself and knowing the slow torture of wondering: Would anyone ever buy anything from me before the day was over?

There were people selling costume jewelry, colorful kinds of clothing you might find in a play and used book dealers where I tarried awhile. Then as I wandered south down the street, I saw a small lone figure, just standing there watching the people flow by. There was a crudely drawn cardboard sign hanging from her neck by a shoelace that said: Fortunes Told.  She was smiling invitingly, but no one even hesitated.

I watched her from a few yards away, curious, as I invariably get about unusual people in unlikely settings.  She was about five feet tall, maybe less.  Maybe fifty or sixty years old, but I really couldn’t tell. Her feet were in sneakers with holes in them.  Her complexion was dark olive and weathered with deep creases whenever she smiled, which was constantly.  He blouse was stained and hanging limply against her flat figure, and her pants were like harem pants.  Not transparent, but black and billowy.  No chair. No display.  No table. Just her, standing alone on a spot on the sidewalk, with hundreds of people swirling around her on a lovely Sunday afternoon.

I wanted to see her eyes.

Who would choose such an unappealing way to make money, as if she were completely oblivious to how she looked and how sad?  I wanted to see her closer, and maybe learn a little more.  There’s a Yiddish word for a person (like myself) who would decide to do something hair-brained like this:


As I slowly closed the distance between us, fascinated by her repellence, she turned toward me and looked up at me saying:

“Can I tell your fortune, young man?”  

Her smile widened further still. Occasional rotted teeth were visible, none next to another.  Her eyes were black and hard. The wrinkles were many around them and her skin seemed ready to decompose.  She was a little nightmare offering herself to me.  I quickly shook my head and backed away from her, and she screamed after me, her hoarse voice ragged and furious, and filling my ears:

“You lousy goddamn bastard!  You cheap son-of-a-bitch!!  Haven”t ya got any money between your legs?!!”

She was a witch, and her countenance turned darker still with her face contorted into a horrible mask. I backed away from this nightmare, as passers-by first looked her, and then me. They gave her wide birth and no one came within a dozen feet of her, like some bomb had cleared the sidewalk of people, and it was her.

I was shaken by this unwanted experience, but also unavoidably thinking that, if that crazed dame was truly a fortune teller, she should have already known that I wasn’t interested in her, shouldn’t she?  I quickly left her behind me and found myself in Chinatown.

Chinatown, which also now sheltered Vietnamese and Thai restaurants, was as writer’s frequently say in reference to Asian places: teeming.  If Tribeca seemed busy, this place was seriously crowded, with thousands of people filling every inch of sidewalk and the street, ignoring the trapped cars.

Every block seemed to have a sign offering a foot massage next time, I decided, but the mass of people was staggering, making it hard to believe this was just a neighborhood on an island.  As I moved along into a side street just to have a little more room around me, I saw a collectible record store, which was just another version of what I did for a living.  Seeing an oasis where I would likely feel comfortable among the fragile old items, I slipped into the store. There was a handsome friendly-looking, middle-aged man waiting on a half a dozen people, and doing it well. He went from person to person like a bumble bee, paying attention, seemingly, to all of them.

I was charmed, but not a customer. Same play, different script.

My own boxes and boxes and boxes of vintage Fifties records are stored in a crawl space, to be discovered upon my death by stunned grandchildren.  I looked all around, and when the man turned his warm smile on me, I quietly said,

“Mister, I do the same thing you do, but with old magazines in Chicago.  Can you guide a fellow dealer in the past to a good place for lunch around here?  And please, not too expensive.”

His face changed to one of recognition, since he knew, that I knew, how truly difficult it was for him to make a living doing what he did.  More sober, but genuinely nice.  He told me to try the little cafe’ in the middle of the next block, on the right.  Good burgers and not touristy.  I thanked him, shook his hand and left. That positive experience cancelled out the terrifying earlier one.

The restaurant, with its walls open to the street, was compact and inviting. The woman running it, a good-looking Philippine woman of a certain age wearing a dress that appeared to be a series of holes sewn together and wearing four-inch heels, sat me near the door, took my order, gave me newspaper to look at while I was waiting and she slipped back into her crowded, noisy cafe’.  Long hair and very nice legs, as she obviously knew.

The food was excellent, the other waitresses pretty, or gay, or both, and I felt much better.  It was about $12.00 with the tip.

In previous trips to the south end of Manhattan’s many distinctive neighborhoods, I once saw a giant iguana statue on a roof, a one-of-a-kind half Jewish/half Japanese restaurant–and not cheap, man–”called Jewpanese, and a sturdy-looking toy soldier museum, built, owned and filled with the vast collection of Malcolm Forbes, the business magazine publisher. New York ain’t like any other place.

The day was flowing by; I was letting myself be soothed by the many kinds of people filling the streets, the endlessly clever restaurants and ways of attracting the public’s attention.

I wandered through Little Italy, inhaling the rich aroma of wines, cheeses and tomato sauces, wishing I could eat there, too, and then wandered back north to SoHo, the art district, and then east toward what I thought was the fastest way to the Brooklyn Bridge. I could even see its traffic whizzing by above me.  But by the time I was closer to it, I saw that the entrance that would allow me to walk across it was way too far for me to reach.  By then, my poor feet were hurting so badly, and my evil bags were punishing my shoulders.

It was time for this wrung out old Chicago guy to go home. I later learned that I’d walked fifteen miles that long, long day.

I stopped by the Seaport which was right in front of me, and found an excellent ice cream parlor.  I had a scoop of coconut and another of vanilla bean, and asked the sweet girl behind the sparkling counter for an extra big cup so I could drown both in chocolate syrup.  She said that it would cost extra, I smiled an ok, and then thanked her.

Sometime, when you need it, the elixir of chocolate can go a long, long way toward making a sad person better.

I found a bathroom, washed my face, combed my hair and took my nighttime medicine.  So many little pills.

But the tiniest one==half of it on Sundays and half on Wednesdays–prevents a benign brain tumor I have–called Prolactinoma–from growing.  So I have no reason to complain.  Better half a little pill than another glistening scalpel.

Then I caught a cab and told the guy to take me to Grand Central Station.

It was close to six o’clock and I had to catch that bus to take me across the river to New Jersey.  My twenty-two hours were now quickly running out.  Time, somehow, was suddenly speeding up.

Now, what would Mister Einstein say about that?

Part 7: The Catholic Priest in the New Jersey Airport

So, at last, back at the Newark Airport. It is 7 p.m. on Sunday night.

Why am I relieved to be here?

After the quite serious uniformed security people decided I was no threat, and I put my watch back on, and all other metal possessions back where they were before, except for my dull silver Jewish Star necklace which was still around my neck, which intimidates no one and which hasn’t the power to trigger any alarms, either.  Perhaps, Divine intervention.  But if so, God, helping me to win the lottery would be a lot more helpful, thank you.

Two hours early for my 9 ‘clock flight, I gently slip my long black sling and my blue denim bag back on their deeply painful shoulder grooves, and I slowly wander through the little airport I’d left only nineteen hours before.  Why does it seem so much longer than that?

Maybe because I hadn’t slept since 7 a.m. Saturday morning, thirty-six hours ago. That could disorient anyone, let alone some irrationally motivated late middle-aged Chicago day-tripper who felt compelled to walk from the Jacob Javits Convention Center on the middle western part of Manhattan to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in search of the Brooklyn Bridge.  And solace, too.

Maybe I won’t be back.

Maybe the disappointment was too much for me, and all that I associated that with.  Maybe I should grow up and not live in fairy tales.

I don’t know.  Walking through the sterile Newark Airport, I am not feeling any philosophical resolution.  But, I am a little hungry.

So, I look here and there, hoping for some spot with a little personality, and then I see a place that isn’t McDonalds.  I decide to take a chance, but I’m thinking that this past January I was in Sweden (Note to myself: Don’t go to Sweden in January) interviewing a childhood friend, Erik, for a book I want to write about him.

But after Erik dropped me off at the Stockholm Airport, I found an Irish bar called O’ Leary’s with fabulous hot wings, and a Swedish-speaking Puerto Rican waiter, Carlos, who was very accommodating. My first thought, after I was successful in convincing him to actually burn the wings–most people don’t like their wings cooked that way, I guess–was that a guy who speaks Swedish, Spanish AND English could probably find a better paying job, if he looked around some.

Turns out that Carlos also liked his wings burned and out of that little incident came a half an hour of conversation.  He was very friendly and optimistic. Oh, and the charred hot wings were perfect, too.

But O’ Leary’s wasn’t in the Newark Airport, so I settled for anonymous and edible.  It was okay.

I was becoming increasingly sleepy. The food didn’t help. The Coke didn’t help.  Maybe there were no more stimulants that would help, but I sure didn’t want to irresistibly doze off and miss my flight, and I was very concerned about that. Then came the voice over the intercom saying that my flight was delayed for an hour.


Seriously sleepy in Newark and no one to look out for me.

I plopped down on an uncomfortable chair at the boarding gate and decided to wait it out and see if I could finish the rest of the Sunday New York Times I’d been reading and discarding every time I ate somewhere.  I was in the Week in Review Section, my favorite part where there’s lots of commentary, sometimes great and sometimes annoying, and I thought that might possibly keep me alert.

But after a half an hour of trying, over and over and over, to read the same damn paragraph, I knew this was a losing proposition.  Plus, there were two more announcements of delays for the same flight over the intercom.

Travel hell, man.

I had to find some way to say awake.  Now my flight to Chicago was moved back to ten p.m. Crazy.  I looked around the dimly lit waiting area.  The sedate level of light wasn’t helping me.  Then I saw the priest.

I thought about that.

Generally, there is no way to identify rabbis by the way they look. They wear suits like any businessman (or woman) would on a trip. I grew up in a fairly Irish-Catholic neighborhood and I met a few priests on the South Side of Chicago.  I also met many more when I ran my newsstands in Hyde Park.  The distinctive white collar was a big help in picking them out.

My general impression was that they were kind men, friendly, not put off by my ever-present Jewish Star hanging from a chain around my neck.  If anything, when I spoke to them in some situation, I always noticed their eyes flicking up and down from face to star, face to star, wondering why I was talking to them.  It was interesting to watch and it was always the same.

I decided that, under the circumstances, that Catholic priest was someone I could trust.  I didn’t have a lot of alternatives, in any event.  He was thin, about forty, dressed all in black and had a peaceful expression on his face. He seemed to be my guy.  He was sitting across from me, reading a newspaper.

I decided to forget about the Inquisition thing, for the moment.

Okay, okay, so yes, I hold grudges for five hundred years.  What of it?

So I walked up to him, and said,

“Ahhh, hello, Father.  I wonder if I could ask a small favor of you?”

Years ago, I learned that “Father” was a term of respect for priests in the Catholic Church, and besides, I didn’t think “Hey, you!” would get me very far.

The priest looked up at me from his newspaper. I waited.  Then his eyes did the flicking thing.

Then he replied,

“Yes, how can I help you?”

With his soft voice, and an immediate willingness to get involved with a stranger, he was a man who was in the right line of work, was my first impression.  So, I gave it a shot:

“I am supposed to leave on this flight that keeps getting delayed, and delayed,” I told him, “and I am very worried I will fall asleep before it’s time to board. I can’t seem to stay awake.  I looked around this waiting area for someone to ask, and I decided you were the one person I felt I could count on.”

I actually said that.  What person could say no to someone who said that to them, even if it was really true?

He didn’t.

He responded.

“Father Michael Fitzpatrick,” he said, offering his hand to me. “Call me Father Michael.  And you are?”

“Robert M. Katzman, or just Bob.”  We shook hands.  

Turns out he was from a Chicago-area parish with the word “Angels” in it, but not the infamous Our Lady of Angels, the one that burned over fifty years ago.  But here’s the funny part.  I was ready to fall over.  Father Michael began asking me questions about why I was there, and then more questions about why I did this, and that and I can’t remember a word of it, but that gentle and inquisitive priest kept talking to me for about forty minutes until it was time for us to board the plane.

He was going to board first, so he had to get in line right away. I would be in the next group. He stood up, shook my hand, wished me a safe flight and told me I should consider writing my story down, because other people might find it very interesting.  He blessed me, to my surprise.

I instantly replied,

“God bless you, too, Father.”  

I was momentarily confused.

I saw him walk quickly into the plane past the person collecting boarding passes.

He was gone.  Pfffft!  Like that.

Suddenly I realized how he had kept me awake, this total stranger who I would never see again, just like that guy Mark who I talked to on my way from New Jersey on the long bus ride to Grand Central Station.

What a wise man!  How did he know what to do?  Where do people like him come from?

I grabbed my Twin Tyrannies, those damn “light” bags, when it was my time to board the plane.  I thought I would pass him when I walked through the first part of the plane and be able to thank him again, but I never saw him again. I looked at every single occupied seat, too. Mysterious.  How could that be?

However, I did take his advice, and that is, to a degree, why this story has been written down.  So much to happen to one person in less than a day, less than twenty-four hours, almost like it was scripted, like a Cinema Verite’ kind of movie.

I found my seat, by the window. I thought this was the end of it.  I was going home. No more excitement or surprises. Just two hours of lovely sleep and home.  But I was wrong. I’m always wrong.

I called my lovely wife, Joyce, just before we took off, after even more delays, so she would know when to pick me up at Chicago’s O’ Hare Airport.  My third call to her, adjusting the time of arrival. Her warm voice never ceases to charm me.

Joy has multiple sclerosis.  Some days, she’s great. Some days, she’s not. The last thing I want is for her to endlessly wait for my plane to arrive, while she circles the airport.

As I say goodbye to her, some imperious yahoo across the aisle from me archly informs me, specifically, that the pilot has requested all electronic devices be turned off.  I look at him.  I say nothing.  I sigh. He looks at me, disapprovingly, waiting.

Since 1958, my first airplane flight, no person on a plane besides the flight attendants has ever told me to do anything.

But it’s late. I’m tired. So tired. I want to sink into sleep.  I decide not all sub-humans must be responded to.  Some evolutionary flaws must be overlooked.  Like him. Like now…

I close my eyes.

The plane takes off.

I sleep.

A couple hours later, lights go on, and loud announcements come over the plane’s intercom:

“Prepare for landing.  Fasten seatbelts.  Put your seats in the upright position.”

I blink.

I see Chicago’s perfect street grid of a million tiny lights shining up at me, through the airplane’s little round window.


The plane lands safely, after I ask God, as always, to make sure that happens.

To date, he hasn’t failed me.

We all get up, waiting to exit the very crowded plane, and I grab my blue bag from under the seat.

Then I opened the overhead bin to grab my black sling with my other stuff in it so I can get out, fast. But there’s no black sling in sight. It was there when I took off, I think to myself. Then I see it.  It’s tightly squashed against the back of the bin wall behind two rectangular suitcases belonging (of course) to the charming man who last spoke to me prior to our taking off, and his wife, I assume, who is across from me.

Not pleased, but still silent, I see the sling’s strong shoulder strap peeking out at me from behind their luggage.

Too far away for me to reach, with the plane’s exodus about to begin, I swiftly place one foot on the wife’s armrest and hoist myself up to grab the strap, whip it out from behind their thoughtless blockade and sling it over my shoulder in one continuous movement lasting about five seconds, jump down and I resume standing there, ready to leave.  The wife gasps in horror at my intrusion into her “space”.

Then the husband, already displeased with me, loudly informs me, and the other passengers that,

“You DON’T have to be an ANIMAL!!!”

I stand there, silently, ignoring the insect.  I see several other people catch my eye while rolling their own, smiling, evidently, in disbelief at the creature’s bizarre behavior. The crowd decides I should live, I guess.

Then Neanderthal Man loudly whispers to his trembling wife, inches away from me,

“Don’t move”.

She replies,

“Don’t worry.”

Good advice, I think to myself.

Why, any second I might lunge at her and sink my fangs into her leg. Then she’d have to try to walk down the tight airplane center aisle with me attached to her leg, dragging me along with her luggage.  This is a surprisingly appealing prospect for me to consider.

I smile to myself, tempted.

The people begin to move.  Despite my automatic offer of allowing trembling wifey to exit first, along with her creature, she stiffens, frozen in place.

Freed from ingrained courtesy, I get out of that packed metal zoo, back to my little prairie town.

Yeah, yeah, maybe compared to cosmic New York City, quaint Chicago is a simple one horse nothing.

But, hey, it’s a very, very good horse and more importantly, it’s my horse, thank you very much.

I am home, completely home.

My shattered illusion of other, better, places will subside.

Joyce picks me up, precisely on time, as always.

We kiss.

And for me, the earth still moves.


Note: Some details about that adorable couple on the plane home have been changed (to show them mercy?) so that my description of them isn’t exact. They might have looked much different than what you read.

But, hey, it’s the Jewish New Year (5770) and we are supposed to forgive people and start the New Year fresh, with no leftover anger. Even very, very, stupid people who need leashes and keepers.  And muzzles.Ok, ok, I’m still working on the forgiveness part.

Maybe by Yom Kippur, in ten days.  Or maybe by Halloween.  Or Thanksgiving.  Or maybe by that other New Year, or maybe……………..


Publishing News! 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: https://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998 (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

Books cost $29.95 each, plus shipping

For: (1)$3.95; (2)$5.95; (3)$7.95; (4)$8.95 (5)$9.95;(6) $10.95

(7) $11.95; (8) $12.95; (9)$13.95 (10)$15.95 (15)$19.95

I am also for hire if anyone wants me to read my work and answer questions in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Schools should call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books. Also: businesses, bookstores, private organizations or churches and so on.

1 Comment »

Comment by Donald Larson

August 31, 2019 @ 9:41 pm


The only part I thought was fiction was the description of a dry spot on a NYC bathroom stall floor,


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