06 April 2008

What Foods These Morsels Be!

Jock Bock

I’m now bracing myself for my 25th college reunion, which I will attend next month. One hardly knows what to expect from Providence, a place I haven’t visited much since I graduated. Friends tell me that College Hill has changed radically, although when I spent an afternoon there last March, I found my old haunts around West Quad and the Pembroke campus still more or less recognizable: it was East Campus, especially, that had been transformed. And Thayer Street, the main drag, has been in constant flux since the dawn of time, as far as I can tell. Like most places in America (and, alas, even on the Champs-Elysées), there are fewer mom-n-pop shops and more chain stores than there were when I was a kid. Soon no place on earth will have any distinctive character anymore, and you can go to Paris or Providence or Mars, or just stay home, and it will make no difference to anybody.

Well, as Proust points out, you can’t go back to a place anyway — only to the name you gave to a place. What you’re trying to return to isn’t a place but a moment, and the moment is gone. All you can do is remember.

It does help to have sensory triggers, such as his famous teacake, and for me it’s a matter of supreme regret that a couple of such triggers are forever denied me — neither the place nor the food remains. Memories of one do lead to memories of another, however. Thoughts of Providence bring memories of the turkey and cheese on a roll that I used to buy at the University Deli on Thayer — and those memories are swiftly joined by the grilled cheese sandwiches I used to eat at the Excelsior Hotel Coffee Shop for all of my first years in New York.

The Excelsior still stands, on 81st Street and Columbus Avenue, but the coffee shop long ago fell victim to the building’s reincarnation as a luxury residence. A greasy spoon simply didn’t match the developers’ ambitions. Back in the day, the coffee shop, just to the left of the front door, and slightly below street level, was a sunny, smoky place, linoleum-tiled, with a long counter and little square tables that we’d push together to seat as many intrepid friends as we could round up. Since the Excelsior was near the home of Sally Boldt’s sister Linda, who provided us our bivouac for all our first forays in the city, I began to frequent the coffee shop even before I moved to New York. For a long time, until about 1988, it was true that I’d eaten more meals in the Excelsior than I had in my own apartment.

As the menu put it, “William Shakespeare meant to say, ‘What foods these morsels be!’ Had he written these words, he would have been describing the food at the EXCELSIOR HOTEL COFFEE SHOP.” How I envied Amanda Green, who grew up around the corner! When she was a little girl, she told me, she used to “go for treats,” which meant going to the Excelsior.

The grilled window at left looked into the coffee shop;
Sylvia’s cash register stood before it.

The place was presided over by Sylvia, the hostess and cashier, a fascinating creature who was, we were certain, a former Ziegfeld girl. Sometimes she sang behind her register. Her hair bright red, her figure lean, a cigarette never far from her long, graceful fingers, she dressed with dramatic flair. My favorite outfit was a sort of chocolate-colored medieval gown, which she topped off with a green rooster-feather boa. She addressed everyone as “my darling” and “my love,” and she was reputed to live in an apartment upstairs.

We yearned to hear her stories and to learn her secrets. But there wasn’t time. Sylvia’s days in the shop were numbered already, and more and more frequently, we would go to the Excelsior for breakfast or lunch, and Sylvia wouldn’t be there. Sally Boldt sent her flowers and a get-well note once. And then one inevitable day, a waiter took her aside and told her that Sylvia had died.

It’s a great sorrow to me that I have no pictures of that beautiful woman. The photographer Catherine Karnow joined me at the Excelsior more times than I can count, and such was her courage that she once ordered the borscht (and such her discrimination that she liked it, and ordered it again the next time). Nowadays, shooting pictures is for Cathy a mere extension of breathing or consciousness: you can’t quite be sure she’s present if she hasn’t got a camera in her hand. And nowadays, she’d have taken whole portfolios and albums of Sylvia, whom she loved as much as Sally and I did. But in our youth, Cathy’s photographic passions weren’t yet fully developed, as it were, and to my knowledge she never took Sylvia’s picture.

The wait staff was comprised of “Red Jacket Men,” according to the explanation on the menu, which further boasted that, "taken together, they represent 167 years of service." Or somesuch figure. Sometimes we tried to do the math, but since the staff kept changing, we were sure the tally must change, too, though the menu never did. The Red Jacket Men didn’t wear jackets, of any color. Most did wear vests, though, and all of them communicated with each other in a dialect we didn’t comprehend. You’d place your order, and they’d shout to the kitchen, not the stereotypical “Adam and Eve on a raft, wreck ’em,” but things like “Jock bock.”

It took the linguistic genius of Andy Weems to decipher that one. “Jock bock” meant “grilled cheese with bacon” — G.C. Bac. Perhaps because he was the first to understand the term, it became his favorite dish. He ordered it even when he wasn’t in a restaurant; he sang it out to the lonely night in the empty streets of Manhattan. It was his battle cry, his “Excelsior.”

As God must see it: Thayer Street, Providence

In my memory, Andy is linked forever to the Excelsior, just as another roommate, Steve Biel, is linked to the University Deli in Providence. Though I first visited the deli with Rob Goldberg, a resident advisor who lived on my freshman hall, it was Steve’s passion for the place that made me a regular the next year.

The shop wasn’t much bigger than a closet, and though three men might stand abreast there, a fourth would have to knock down a wall or two just to squeeze in edgewise. There were rows of shelves, filled with cans of chicken broth and other delicacies that no one ever touched, much less bought, and then, at the rear of the store, a deli counter. It took a while to see that, however, because most days you had to stand on line for a very long time (usually you planned on half an hour, even if there were only three people in front of you) before you ever got near the counter.

And you could be right at the counter before you caught a glimpse of Sam. Sam the Deli Man. A refugee from Hitler or Stalin or both, he’d come to Providence in the late 1930s and never left. Elmer Blistein, my Shakespeare professor, who was an undergrad studying in the John Hay Library when Pearl Harbor was attacked, used to get his sandwiches from Sam. So did another alumnus, my Greek professor, Bruce Donovan. And so did Steve Biel.

Sam was short, and time had made him shorter. His eyes barely peeped over the counter top. His shoulders stooped until his head seemed to grow directly out of his chest. He was gruff, he was stubborn, and he was glacially deliberate. His thick accent led me to an epiphany once. How did the TV character Herman Munster get his name? Somebody had ordered a ham and Muenster from Sam the Deli Man. Now you know.

Salami on a roll, yet not a Samwich. Can you spot the clues?

He would forget your order three or four times while you stood there. But he was professional about that. “Sorry, not to keep you waiting, but that was a turkey and cheddar?”

“Turkey and Swiss.”

“A little mustard, a little mayo?”


And a few minutes later, “Turkey and cheese,” he’d say to himself.

That was a warning to induce panic. It meant that he’d forgotten what kind of cheese. You might wind up with regular cheddar (awful), sharp cheddar (quite good), Swiss or Muenster. Or no cheese. You couldn’t know. So you’d say helpfully, “Swiss cheese,” then add, “With mustard.” Because in all likelihood, he’d forgotten that, too.

On the rare occasions when a customer requested mustard and mayo, Sam marveled. “A little of both? Sure, why not?” As if you‘d just suggested he stand on his head.

After a great deal of further ado, as Sam went back and forth behind the little counter and into and out of the storeroom behind, something resembling a sandwich would begin to appear. It would be several minutes more before the sandwich was finished, a perfect object, a masterpiece made to order.

Though I watched him closely, I was never sure how he managed to spend — and lose — the time. His movements generally were quick. He didn’t stop to take phone calls, and only rarely did he make conversation with the customers.

But he never seemed to have precisely what he needed to prepare a sandwich without interruption. And he was very particular about arrangements. Each meat must be in its place, and rewrapped after being sliced, before he would set the slices on the roll. The mustard must be applied with a specific gesture. And the whole question of whether the roll would be sliced occasioned an internal philosophical debate from which he could take minutes to emerge before turning to you for an answer.

“Pardon me, not to keep you waiting, but do you mind if I leave that unsliced?”

Heaven only knows what he’d have done if he’d had more ingredients to offer his customers, but it was only meat and cheese, rye or roll, mustard or mayo. He eschewed lettuce and tomato, or any fancier garnish, and according to Steve, the tale behind his decision not to stock roast beef was a saga requiring at least 10 or 20 minutes, though I never heard it.

The Brown Campus: In an unofficial yet very real sense,
Sam was affiliated with the University.

Sam did have stories, which he shared when the mood struck him, and indeed we endured his distractions and delays not because he was a comical elf, but because he was an authentic character, an artist. Though most of us were faceless to him, we were certain that he prepared his sandwiches with love — love of his craft, and maybe even love for us.

Steve got the proof of that. Nobody admired Sam more than Steve did, no one was more patient with him, no one understood him better. And over time, it seemed — was it possible? — that Sam recognized Steve, and looked forward to his visits. (Indeed, I tried to schedule my visits to coincide with Steve’s: Sam was more attentive to me then, his sandwiches more generous.)

On graduation day, the Brown community and much of Providence line Waterman Street to cheer on the graduating class. And so, as the becapped and begowned Steve Biel marched down the street in 1983, a hand shot out of the crowd.

“Congratulations,” said Sam, grabbing Steve’s hand. “I’m very proud of you.”

Steve began to cry, of course, and even today, I get choked up as I recall that scene.

My most intimate conversation with Sam came one rainy afternoon in May, 1982. Although the weather earlier in the week promised much, and delivered my Most Romantic Moment at Brown (a moonlit night on Prospect Street, when I reached up to pluck from a stranger’s yard the lilac blossom requested by Karen Prager, the girl I took to the dance), the night of the Campus Dance was a soggy catastrophe. Providence is famous for its precipitation; in the words of a popular greeting card that dates to the 1970s, “…it rains two days out of three, except during the rainy season, when it snows like a bitch.” Yet even by that standard, the deluge of Campus Dance 1982 commanded respect.

Evidently, Campus Dance 2007 was dryer than 1982.

People were still talking about it the next day, and late in the afternoon, I stopped into Sam’s for a sandwich. We were alone, at that hour, and Sam was in an expansive mood — the most expansive I’d seen. “Pardon me, not to keep you waiting, but are you affiliated with the University?” he said.

I answered that I was, and he continued, “And did you attend the Campus Dance?” Yes, I had.

Too bad about all the rain, Sam said. But this was not merely a conversation about the weather, for, to my great surprise, he kept going — farther into the past.

“Of course, the Campus Dance these days isn’t like what it used to be. All the rock’n’roll and the shaking. When I used to go to Campus Dance, the music was beautiful, and we danced real dances. And the women wore beautiful clothes. Not like today.”

Sam used to go to Campus Dance? “Yes, with my wife — not my present wife, my first wife,” he said. The present wife was a redheaded harridan who sat in the shop on Sundays and bossed Sam and every customer mercilessly. We knew that there had been a previous wife, but we knew nothing about her. As Sam went on, I pictured her, petite and dark-haired and sweet-eyed, a lovely dancer in his arms as they swept across the Green.

“They used to decorate the whole campus,” he said, “with colored lights and lanterns and flowers.” He went on at greater length, painting the scene for me, before concluding, “Oh, it was beautiful. It was like something you would see.”

He stared into the past, and through his eyes, I could see it, too. I think we’d both forgotten about my sandwich.

He died right around graduation time, a few years later. I hadn’t gone up to Providence for reunion, but Elise Goyette had, and after what I am told was a considerable discussion, she was elected to break the news to me. She sat me down and placed a hand on my shoulder. And I knew. Sam was gone.

Is the loss of him one reason I didn’t return to Providence for a decade? What, after all, would be the point, if I couldn’t get a Samwich and a Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry Soda and sit for lazy hours in the sunshine on the Green? How would I know where I was?

Or, for that matter, who I was? I transplanted myself to the Northeast, after all, and one way I took root there was to return to favorite spots — the Excelsior, Sam’s deli — again and again. They were familiar, they were special, and they were in some sense mine. They helped to create a new identity: Bill the Grownup. Bill the Brown Grad. Bill the New Yorker.

I have no pictures of Sylvia, as I say, and none of Sam, and damn few of that younger Bill I used to be. I can’t return to the places where we dwelt, I can’t eat the foods they served me. All I can do is remember — and tell the stories.

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