I am thinking about the deli's I've been in over the years.
Once, in New York, I got elbowed in the ribs by another customer because I took too long to place my order in a busy deli during rush our. I was young, from a small rural Ontario town and didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know the rude, fast-paced aggression of restaurants that survived on the strength of one or two products. I was surprised that the guy behind the counter didn't even flinch and just took the other guy's order before mine. I think I got pastrami. I had been awake for 24 hours, wandering aimlessly through an infinitely large city, knowing nothing about my destination.
She's made a home in Ontario, but all of my life my mom told me longing stories of Montreal, the home of her youth. Whenever I needed to justify feeling different growing up in a rural farming community, I would chalk it up to being raised by a Montrealer. Montreal became a calling to me. When I was 19 I moved there, having only visited once the year before.
Most of my time in Montreal was spent drunk, hungover, strung out on drugs, wandering aimlessly through the city at night, writing about isolation, reading William S. Burroughs novels, and going insane. I was a boy and I got manhandled by a real city. Still, I did what anyone must do when in Montreal: ate smoked meat.
My boy F. brought me to Schwartz's my first weekend in town. This one I'd heard of before. It'd come up in my Mom's stories, in conversation with my lifelong Mtler aunt, in Mordecai Richler's work, and it was on everyone's list of what to do when I was in Montreal. Neither of us had been. F. had been in Montreal for a year, but had been restricted to the cloistered area surrounding McGill, McGilligans Island. Again, my rural propensity for politeness tossed me around. We ate our giant plate of pink, moist, savory meat on some loose pieces of rye and yellow mustard. Then, oblivious to the world around us, we sat at our table catching up on old times, talking like we'd paid for a room. After a few minutes one of the aggressive, burly dudes that worked there came over, and in an irritated voice said: "Look, either you guys buy something else or get out. I have people waiting for tables here."
I didn't last a year in Montreal. The language barrier was too much, and honestly I just wasn't hard enough to carve my own niche into a place with such a demand. I wasn't a motivated worker, I was a dreamer, narcissistic, and dealing with all the moodiness and anxiety of being in my late teens. I got fired, was broke, and if my mom hadn't sent me the money to come home I would have ended up homeless.
When I'd returned to Ontario I floated around shitty fast-food jobs and convinced myself I was a Buddha. I worked in a grocery store for a bit until a friend got me a job in a small restaurant on the main stretch of the Kitchener downtown. I'd moved out by this point, and money was the only motivating factor in directing my employment. That is, I didn't have enough of it and I needed it to pay rent.
What I'd been told about this restaurant was that it had insane night shift line ups. It was run by a militant Turkish guy who had high standards of his employees, and he was neurotic and difficult to work with.
I did a couple of day shifts. The lunch was busy. I mostly worked till and topped sandwiches, and then cleaned up afterwards. I felt good about it. I only got freaked out on a couple of times by the boss, but otherwise the job wasn't too hard. My friend Sam showed me the ropes and really made sure that I would make it there. The pay was good and there were lots of hours.
This place didn't have too difficult of a set-up. There was very little prep involved, besides dicing vegetables. Our meats were all sourced elsewhere, and everything was cooked in basically the same way on a big double flat-top griddle. After initially sourcing the right ingredients for the right prices, it seemed like managing the restaurant was simple and involved just making sure there was enough inventory to sell.
I'd been warned about Friday and Saturday nights. Sam told me they'd kick my ass. "From about midnight on the place is just swarmed by barbarians, the Mongolians get loosed from all the clubs around and sack our walls for the next three hours. Focus on taking money in batches and then topping sandwiches as fast as you can. Don't get caught up on customer service. From midnight on, the customer is no longer right. You put shit on the bun, give them a chipotle sauce, and firmly put the bun into those drunk fuckers' hands and tell them to get lost."
He wasn't wrong. Night shifts there made me develop tough skin. It was a small, open kitchen and we were short staffed, since the boss liked to save most on labor. Sam and I took on what seemed like endless line-ups of drunk, high, angry, rude, and tired customers in a two-man kitchen. We didn't have chits, so we memorized calls. I wrote down a tally of sandwich types and shouted them at Sam who flung mountains of meat and vegetables onto the flat-top.
What I learned is that drunks like to talk, they don't like to wait, and they will give you a hard time. In my first night shift I wasn't prepared for the last one. Two guys started harassing me about the length of the wait, and then said that we'd fucked something up - then seeing I was getting flustered two more customers chimed in, and before I knew it I had a chorus of discontent on my hands. Sam turned away from the flat top for a second: "What's the problem? Its taking too long? How about you fuck right off. Wait a fucking minute and your sandwich will be done. I'm cooking for hundreds here."
The two us mowed down weekends together for almost a year, and over time I learned that Sam's way was the way it had to be done. It wasn't just Sam's way, it was the cook's way, and especially the deli way. The way of the open kitchen, the way of cooking and dealing with long line ups, the way of crowded, over-full tiny rooms of hungry people waiting for your product because its the best.
I worked there for three years, and I learned to be an asshole when it was needed. Eventually I learned to turn it into spectacle, to sell my asshole to customers dressed up as a prince. One Bluesfest I worked almost a full 24 hours, closing for one hour to clean and re-up from our suppliers. In the middle of a long line-up a middle-aged drunk guy started loudly bitching about how long things were taking. "Sir," I always called them sir, "you're gonna have to wait. We're cooking as fast as we can and there are people in front of you."
"Well that's just fucking bullshit. What is this? I've been waiting for a fucking hour!"
"Listen, sir, you're not the only one waiting."
"Such fucking service. Do you guys know who I am?! Do you know what I could do to this place?!"
I turned to the rest of the crowed like a character addresses an audience in a Shakespearean play: "Does anybody know who this guy is?" People started laughing.
"I COULD DESTROY YOU!"
"Seriously, does anybody know who this guy is? I think he's lost. Can somebody take him home?"
I walked over the till, opened it, and threw enough money to refund his sandwich at him. "Listen, sir, as much as I am curious about your wrath, I'm gonna have to get you to leave."
He just stared at me blankly. Shocked that he had no pull, no effect. I think the most devastating realization was that he wouldn't even get his sandwich after the wait.
"Sir, that means leave. Get lost. Go." Then I shoo'd him away with my hands like one shoo's a cat.
Instead of a riot, I got applause. People love that shit.
I worked at the sandwich shop for 3 years. There was only so far it could take me and make me feel satisfied though. The fact that we didn't make our own meat really bothered me, and I couldn't help but feel ashamed when somebody asked me about it and I didn't know the answer.
We had Montreal Smoked Meat on the menu. We got it in, the briskets vacuum packed from a Montreal seller. We didn't do traditional sandwiches with it, and I would constantly tell customers that were expecting a real Montreal styled sandwich against getting it. "There are vegetables and cheese and things in it. You don't want it."
I've worked at a couple of places that's done the whole Montreal smoked meat thing, and its been the same story. Nobody makes it themselves in Ontario, it seems, except Caplansky's.
Despite that, everyone loves the stuff. Craves it on and off like a pregnant woman. You know, there's nothing else in the world like it. My friend and kitchen manager, Tim, and I were talking about it. He's tried doing some Montreal smoked meat in the past, and he's been toying around with a recipe. We fantasized about serving sandwiches with homemade Kosher pickles, fresh house baked rye bread, hand-mixed mustard, and of course our own smoked meat. These are the sorts of conversations cooks tend to have, but we decided to make it a reality. Over the last couple of weeks we've put the gears into motion.
We ran it as a special last week, and are going to again tonight. Customer response last week was incredible. Customers bought multiples of them, one of the servers got a phone number of a customer who wanted us to call him next time we did it. Another said he was a raised Montrealer and that ours was the best he'd had in his life.
The morning Tim put the finishing touches on it he sent me this picture. I was aroused in ways I couldn't express without describing my erection.
My partner baked the rye bread and I made the mustard and pickles.
None of this rotary slicer bullshit. I cut that shit by hand.
I see, maybe in the future, a deli run by me and my friends. Maybe we'll get Sam back on the horse, and I'll get back into the groove, strong-arming customers, and selling the best meat on the block.
We inherit our notions of purpose, meaning, and transcendence from our time and place. Small and big histories twined together by the overlapping threads of love, death, work, solitude and togetherness make up who we are. There is no way of making a clean equation for it. Its debatable whether or not the self exists, and if it does what, at its nakedness, its comprised of. I've found it useful to examine tiny intersections of life, the clasps - to fumble around, run my fingers over them, and try to see what lies underneath them, like a bra strap.
The old journal or diary is an object of literary fascination that I'd like to focus on. The discovery of an old diary or travel journal is the trigger for many adventures. The offer us rumor of a treasure, or some question unanswered, or evidence of a life grander or different then one the reader imagined.
A blank book is useful for clandestine deposits because it does not interact with the world in the same way that a human confidant does. You can relay a journey to it, devising artifice however you would like without it telling you its own story and how its similar but better than your own. A book seldom gets drunk and spills its words out to a group of talkative imbeciles. Until found, a book will not give up the location of all the money you stole from the Federal Reserve because it sees it to be in its own benefit.
A diary entry is always in medias res. They can be difficult to decipher because they rely on you having some knowledge about the author, their circumstances, and their world. Until the act of criticism and interpretation, the entry itself is static. A static glimpse of a world and soul in motion. In fact, a journal can be seen as a mollusk shell or a snake skin left behind. The thoughts or stories deposited belong to a creature that moved on from it: authors grow, change, renounce themselves, are born again, die. Often, without some record, someone's whole life is eviscerated the moment they move on from it. It might live on in the form of stories someone has told about it - but more often just stories about the person telling the story that the other person was somehow involved in. Rarely are we allowed a glimpse at the beginning. The story is seldom communicated to us from the beginning with any truth. There are those that set out with the intention of telling the story from the beginning, but that is interpreted through the present of the story-teller.
In a collection of works about a person the beginning is often the most ridiculous, and the hardest to take literally. Take the Gospels of the New Testament for example. I have the easiest time accepting the adult life of Jesus as plausible, give or take some miracles. Some dude said some things might garner some attention, but not before long raising the questions of "where did he come from? what was the meaning of his insights? why him and not Jim at the bar?" In delving deep, past the scars, past the iterations, to the beginning - that's where story tellers make their money. Observation requires a sort of integrity, a talent of reading the present - an accidental collision of ideas and things - but Virgin births require a different sort of talent.
I learned to read from playing adventure focused video games. Final Fantasy molded my Weltanschauung in the way that the Bible, Shakespeare, adventure novels, and Leave It To Beaver influenced generations past. I could, and certainly will give some more time to this over my life. What I wish to say here is that I've gleaned a little thought from those Super Nintendo-era RPGs. In these old games there are a few ways that you could save your progress, so that in the event of untimely death, or needing to turn the game off to sleep for 14 hours after a 28 hour marathon, you could return to that spot in your journey.
In the Final Fantasy series save points are portrayed as glimmering vaguely-metaphysical symbols of emanations of light that when the heroes come into contact with they are offered the option to record their existential finger prints. Inherent in their world there is a force that allows them to undo the present and return to a recorded state of the past. There is no reason for it beside it is a useful game mechanic. No lore associated with these mystical save points. Its just the way the universe operates, because the universe is a game and doesn't pretend to be anything else.
Other game series added a religious dimension to saving, implying some kind of salvation play on saving your progress. The way you threaded your memory into the universe was pray to some statue of a god, or even talk with the god itself, and have them make a record of your progress. An eternal soul, registered with an eternal deity, and no need of external validation.
One of my favourite save devices is the type-writer from the Resident Evil games. Resident Evil even challenges you to find type-writer ribbon making it so your memory and future progress can only be procured through a limited single-use object. This mimics the game-mechanics of reality most closely. Your memory exists in hard-copy, only with the time and available resources.
Finally, you can always save your progress by telling a friend. More transient, difficult to draw meaning out of, but fulfilling by far than any of the alternatives.
The similarities between the American road narrative and the Japanese adventure game will almost certainly come up again in my thoughts. But I want to put this down, and I would like to stop writing, so I will be brief. Through literature, video games, music, and of course, blogs, I am meditating on transmitting memory of self beyond self with objects. A classic country music motif: remember me.
My Ukrainian cab driver and I chatted about business impacts after the so-called "storm of the century" the other month. He had heavy cheeks and smelled like ten thousand cigarettes, and his chin's tendency toward the floor imparted a particularly somber appearance to his face. "We have saying," on the subject of the natural world, "three things cannot be of our control: work, weather and women." I chuckled for show, politeness, to say no, I've definitely never heard that before.
He continued: "All my life, these things I have heard. I was married for 15 years, and whole time everyone around me collapse into divorce. They tell me your time it is on its way. I say: no, not me. Then, one day, it happens. My wife, she leaves me and I am here alone in this miserable world."
We pulled into the parking lot of my restaurant.
"Sorry to hear that," I said, pushing open the passenger door.
"My friend, what I am saying to you is this: I said to the world 'no, not me.' I had need of humility. If you say 'no, not me' then you will be humbled too."
"Thanks for the ride." I tipped him a dollar fifty on a $13.50 fare.
This morning, sometime after breakfast but before cleaning up, I received a text message from my General Manager. "I'm so sorry to hear about the market... How is (farmer friend)? Do you know if he is going to lose any selling days? Let me know if there is anything we can do to help."
Frankly, I am in shock. There are more uncertainties than certainties right now. I'm unsure about future employment, although less concerned about that than I am about all of the people that this will undoubtedly affect. Short term practical questions emerge, like "am I going to market on Thursday?" but the larger, more frightening questions loom. Assuming we don't lose any market days, will the destruction of the main building damage business enough as to really fuck up sales between now and Christmas? We are fortunate to have the support of many great regular customers, and I bet they will continue coming, but is that enough?
I get cross with customers that try to nickle and dime us at our stand. The ones that ask "Can I take 3 for $2?" on items where that pricing doesn't make any sense. Or the classic: "Knock $5 off of the price." No sir, and go fuck yourself. It isn't just random vitriol. Questions like that just emphasize how little people know about the production of food.
Consider your shitty home garden. You've planted your seeds, put a bit of work into it, and had no results. Your broccoli is bug food, you got 6 green beans all year, and your peppers are the size of peanuts. One of the biggest problems with your garden is that you don't know what you are doing. You don't have the time or labor to keep your fields cleared, keep the plants properly tended to. If you have a green thumb you are more inclined to be sympathetic to the amount of work goes into growing vegetables. You may have produced enough produce to be feed your family from your garden while the season lasts.
Scale the whole thing up. Farmers grow quality food in quantity. The farmer themselves work a minimum of 70 hours a week between April and December. Between tending to their crops, communicating with other growers, going to auction, organizing their truck for market, going to market, organizing back at home, fixing what needs to be fixed and dealing with their own labour concerns, there is almost always a surplus of difficult work that needs to be done. The more crops you add to the equation the greater the complexity of the operation. Now you need auxiliary growers, you need skilled pickers, you need people to help with your market stall.
We are past the age of serfdom, so assume that all of the people in the above paragraph are making a reasonable wage. The overhead of land, seed, equipment, labour, and market need to be covered before the farmer can even consider paying themselves. Bad year? Crop failure? That doesn't mean all of that stuff wasn't paid for already. Some dumbass gets California grown grocery store rejects from the Toronto Food Terminal and sells them for less than half your price down the aisle from you, lying and saying that its local and whatever else people want to hear, completely disturbing sales from some key item? Maybe its just a bad day and you don't sell all of the fresh but perishable food you brought to market?
So now you want to "get deals." Great. Go bother a stall that doesn't have to survive winter on the strength of half a year's sales.
What I'm trying to say, and maybe strayed from the point, is that I'm upset about the loss of the market building. Whether you see it or not, there is a lot of hard work that goes into the food and artistry that you see sold there. There are a lot of people that rely on that place for their livelihood, and a lot of people that rely on those people. This happened at a terrible and critical time in the season and I just hope everyone can make ends meet.