The other day I took a long cab ride with some co-workers back from the client. I generally like to sit in the front seat in such situations. It not only gives my 6'2" frame a bit more leg room, but it also means I've got a bullet-proof plexiglass barrier between me and account services.
One thing I've always been in the habit of doing is being open to cab driver's conversation. I once had a summer job driving all around Chicago--to 25 supermarkets a day doing shelf-checks, and I know how lonely it can be to be driving all day. Usually cabbies welcome talking to a fare.
This particular driver was a jackpot for me. He was older--he probably had a couple years on me and he's lived in New York for most of his life, residing now in Upper Manhattan in what used to be a war-torn Dominican neighborhood.
We got to talking, naturally, about the old days and together we made a quick visit to 1970s New York in our memories. I told him that I went to Columbia University and we talked about how that neighborhood had changed, from down at the heels and threatening to a benign, somewhat sanitized place today.
He mentioned some of his old hangouts.
The Golden Rail--with two dollar beers and a two dollar cover.
I countered with Salter's, an old-time book seller with a cellar crammed with millions of books and sales help that was way better read than I, a mere PhD. student studying literature.
I told him that V&Ts was still there, home to one of the best pizzas in a city of great pizza. The very thought made us both hungry.
Then he brought up Mama Joys, a deli qua grocery on Broadway between 112th and 113th.
"There," he said, "you could get a sandwich. Carnegie Deli had nothing on them."
I concurred. And brought up the manner of the tall West Indians who worked behind the sandwich counter.
"Meanest men in the world," he remembered and I agreed.
The sandwich guys were brusque, cutting off conversation like they'd cut the dried end off a salami. They had a stock phrase that put an end to all conviviality.
It was, "Just tellllll me what you want. Don't telllll me what you don't want."
So if you asked for a turkey sandwich with provolone, lettuce and tomato and said you wanted no mayonnaise, they'd assault you with that line.
Now, complying with their strictures didn't mean you were on easy street. Ordering a sandwich went like this.
"I'll have a turkey on rye with black pepper, lettuce, provolone and tomato."
"You want lettuce on that sandwich, mon?" They would scream.
"Yes, lettuce, provolone and tomato."
"Just tellllll me what you want, don't tellllll me what you don't want."
And that's the way it was.
And I gave the guy a nice big tip.