Thursday, June 30, 2011

NYC: Stealing ashtrays from the Stage Deli

Our friends wanted to go to Long Beach on Long Island - it seemed a nice break from another steamy day in the city where temperatures are easily hitting 40 degrees. We took a train from Penn Station on 34th St. which passed through Jamaica, Rockaway, East Rockaway and a number of other towns with picturesque names. The trip took about an hour from the time we stepped on to the train to the time we reached Long Beach and walked down to the beach from the train station. The tickets were $21 each and included entry on to the beach which seemed a fair deal.

Before we left for the beach, I was imagining Gatsby's Long Island which I am reading while in New York. Palatial mansions by the ocean, Gatsby's hydroplane over a clear blue sky ... but it turns out that we were nowhere near the fictional setting of West Egg (based on the town of Great Neck) and East Egg (Sands Point) on Long Island Sound.

The beach was powdery white and astonishingly clean. It was filled with families and couples enjoying the good weather. I read The Great Gatsby on the beach and our offspring ran along the edge of the water and played with the younger kids. A and I brought back hot dogs and fries from Five Guys, a burger joint down on the main strip. It felt like we were hundred and hundreds of miles away from NYC but we were only a short train ride away.

In Times Square with friends ...
We left Long Beach around four and went back into the city. J wanted to see Times Square with her friends P & B. As did I. I knew that they had changed the configuration of the Square turning it into a pedestrian friendly space with no through traffic by vehicle. I can't say I like it. Three or four blocks at 42nd St. are now partitioned off for pedestrians with tables and chairs where people are eating and lounging. The energy level is different. The physical space is not particularly attractive and due to the volume of foot traffic there's also a lot of food-related garbage lying about. A depressing sight ... a bad idea I think. I loved taking a taxi north up the centre of the Square and passing that giant video display (pictured below).

Surprisingly, J was a bit overwhelmed by Times Square - the crowds, the lights, the heat, the flashing lights. I believe her first remark upon entering it was an astonished, "Too big, too bright!" I remember her reaction was much more muted the first time we were there together three years ago.

Times Square at dusk as taken by J
The kids wanted to go to the M&M's store, 1593 Broadway (between 48th & 49th). My exposure to the store is limited to two visits but I always approach it with trepidation - the chocolate porn excess is too much for me. Many pictures of various candy by J ensued ...

One of my goals on this trip was to return to the Stage Deli, 834 7th Avenue (between 53rd & 54th). We have been going to the Stage Deli since the 80s. On the first or second trip there I said to R in an offhand way during a particularly enjoyable breakfast that I liked the ashtrays they had (although neither of us smoked, I coveted one). They were red and white, fit in the palm of your hand and embossed with the name of the deli. Quietly, R slipped one in his coat pocket and showed me later what he had done (much to my delight).  
Stage Deli by night ...
The next time we went back to NYC, a year or two later, we recognized one of the same waiters, an older Jewish man, who had waited on us. He initiated a conversation and asked where we were from. He then very kindly came back to our table with an assortment of mementos including (you guessed it) a Stage Deli ashtray. 

"Did you tell him you had stolen an ashtray the last time?" my daughter asked. "Of course not!" I told her.

So we set off for the Deli that warm Wednesday night. Some things had changed. The restaurant was (physically) exactly as I remember it from the 80s but the waiting staff tended to be older then. Now the staff seems younger and more racially diverse.

The prices have certainly increased exponentially and the portions are still enormous, almost unmanageably so. But we eagerly dug into our BLTs and pastrami sandwiches. The three kids tackled an enormous piece of Oreo cheesecake with whipped cream at the end of the night (just barely finishing it).

And I liked the idea of passing on the Stage Deli story to J - should the kid come across the ashtrays
J enjoying her matzoh ball soup.
many years from now, she will know why we kept them.

A New York moment:
As we were waiting for our friends at Penn Station there was some confusion about which ticket counter we should be standing at, J and I went in one direction, R went in another searching for them. It was hot, we were getting tired. We passed an older Mediterranean-looking man, small in stature, mustached, wearing a small cap and carrying a cane, who was standing stock still in the middle of the station, doing nothing in particular. J and I glanced at him quickly as we passed him and he looked at us and said, "Meow!" Not a "sexy" meow, not a "You're being catty!" meow, just "Meow!" as in "I think I'm a cat" meow. I looked at J and involuntarily swore ... what the? What was that about? Then we both burst out laughing!

No comments: