The Deli Man
Publix is my luxury go-to market. Usually I shop at Walmart, Save A Lot and the Tasty-Cake bread store. We are thrifty. When I am feeling flush with cash I pickup cold cuts and cheese from the Publix Deli Counter; a rare treat which I relish.
My love of delis dates back to our Great Neck butcher and Deli Man who gave me snippets of raw Hamburg meat, which I loved. My father adored Steak Tartare. I was brought up on Katz's Deli in NYC, and Lorraine Murphy's in Great Neck, whose hot popovers were to die for, along with the little cups of relishes and cottage cheese.
On this day at Publix there were no other customers before me as I sidled up to the deli counter, mouth watering. As usual, the Publix Sub/Take Out counter was booming. Three harried looking hair-netted employees raced around, filling orders. The take-out line was long.
At the deli counter there was one sole man working behind the counter. He was slightly stooped. His hair was colored with age: gray, salt and peppered to match his sprightly salt and pepper mustache. His eyes looked tired under his bushy eyebrows. This gentleman was slicing a large block of cheese, carefully and endlessly.
I grew impatient. I looked at the ceiling. I looked behind me, to see if I could find the deli items on the shelves behind me. None of my desired delicacies were on those shelves. I tapped my foot. I sighed loudly. I grew more impatient.
Finally, after slicing that endless block of cheese and delivering it to the take-out sandwich counter, the deli man returned.
Tiredly, he said, “What can I do for you, ma’am?” I gave him my order. As he carefully sliced roast turkey and provolone I finally paid attention to the deli man. I moved outside my comfort zone, my world, from my horizon and into his. I examined his face more closely. I noticed laugh lines which decorated the edges of his eyes as he smiled his welcome. I smiled warmly in return. ‘He’s so tan,’ I thought. I bet he’s a fisherman, or a gardener, happier on the water or digging in the dirt. He probably wishes he could spend more time relaxing then behind a deli counter.
A bustle of activity erupted behind him. The deli man was not oblivious to this mess of activity. Two large carts of cleaning supplies were wheeled out by four men, joking and laughing. Two forty-something men, most likely managers, walked behind my deli man, holding clipboards and talking rapidly. And here was the lone deli man, serving impatient customers, like myself.
“Bad day?” I asked, my humanity finally erupting.
This gentleman, graced in patience where I had none, shrugged his shoulders. He passed my carefully wrapped packet of provolone over the counter for me to gratefully accept. He continued with my order.
I recognized his place in the world, behind the Publix deli counter, most likely overworked and overlooked. He had a whole other existence beyond the deli counter. I said, “Thank you for being here. I’m glad I don't have your job. But I commend you for your. Thank you.”
My deli man looked up at me. He saw me, as I had seen him. Not as a customer, or as a Publix Deli Customer Service representative, but as two individuals.
He sighed deeply. “You know, I just wish they would reorganize and change out the deli when we’re closed, at night. They're just moving everything all over when we’re trying to work. It’s so confusing. The managers are moving everything all over, and we can’t find a thing.”
The commotion of managers wearing nametags announcing their status continued to bustle behind my deli man. He continued to patiently slice my Roast Turkey. The managers continued to discuss reorganizing the shelves and directing the cleaning crews. I lowered my eyes and admired the refrigerated barrage of enticing Boars Head, Publix meats, cheeses, everything which could tempt a deli aficionado like me.
My gentleman deli man handed me the last of my precisely packed order of cheeses and meat. We smiled warmly at one another. Clearly, we had made a connection. I had finally noticed the man behind the apron. I listened, and he had spoken honestly, The edges of his eyes, beneath his bushy salt and pepper brows, crinkled. His mustache raised over his warm smile.
“Thank you for your patience.” He said, at the exact same moment I spoke the same words. I had learned patience from my deli man. We shared an eye-catching smile, interrupted by a young man who strode behind him, clipboard importantly in hand. My deli guy said to his manager, “I think it’s time for my break.”
The younger man, said, “Not yet. I’ll let you know when you can take a break.” With that he flitted off, calling to the sandwich makers, waving his clipboard.
My deli man smiled ruefully and shrugged his shoulders. It wasn’t time for him to take a break? I wondered. It’s 11:30 when Publix deli counters are at their peak. Would he have to wait till 1:00? When would it be time for him to take a break? When is it time for any 65+ year old deli workers, wait persons, Walmart greeters, fast food workers, to take a break? Not any time soon, I thought as I picked up my deli treats. My deli man and I shared a smile as the woman behind me said,
“ I need exactly 10 slices of thinly sliced roast beef. No more, no less. Be absolutely certain you cut only 10 slices. And, they must be sliced very thin.” My deli man bent over to remove the round of roast beef from the refrigerated display case.
I hoped he would get a break soon. But I didn’t think either he or I believed that would happen.