Talking shop down at the deli



Keith didn’t wake until late the next morning. Sat up and felt great. Having figured out the solution to his Lesli dilemma. Just not the execution. One thing at a time.

He owed himself a pat on the back and was going to give it to himself. He fed the kittens, changed their drinking water and freshened the litter box. Then went downstairs, hit the pavement. Two blocks over, the deli made, around the clock, his favorite snack in the universe.

He was going over and treat himself to a hot, buttered, jellied corn muffin and wash it down with a delicious, chocolate egg-cream soda. He was thoroughly convinced Jewish counter men had the copyright on concocting egg-creams. Nobody else made them near as good.

Dan, the owner, happened to be on duty. Whenever he was, he’d talk shop with Keith.  Rather, Keith listened raptly to the old man. About the business, about life. About whatever happened to be on either of their  minds. But, mostly about the business.

When Dan Kupferberg retired from producing records, the farewell party had had to be held, he told Keith, at Madison Square Garden. Keith had laughed right Dan’s face.  “So, okay”, Dan admitted. “Maybe not the Garden. Some swanky affair, though, at a high and mighty deal down around midtown.”

Swanky it was — if you call the Roosevelt Hotel swanky. By the time Dan got done telling him about the celebrity-packed send-off, Keith had no idea how much was his friend’s penchant for wild exaggeration and how much wasn’t.

Dan loved teasing Keith, whose eyes would widen at the dropping of this or that name. The geezer claimed to have done a secret session with blues legend Mike Bloomfield days before Bloomfield died with a dope-needle in his arm.

And with Barbara Lewis. “Long before Carole King, there was Lewis. First female, never mind first Black woman, first period to go in the studio as the producer, the arranger, the songwriter and the artist. Don’t take my word, go look it up.”

Keith usually double-checked with Katherine, Dan’s wife, for veracity, as sometimes the guy turned out to be telling a whopper. He showed up to work a few mornings a week, sometimes in the afternoon, just to give himself something to do besides sit around at home and collect dust. And get on Katherine’s nerves when she was trying to paint in peace.

Dashing up to the deli, Keith saw him through the window, sipping coffee, reading the newspaper. And rushed in, Dan’s brilliant blue eyes lighting in his craggy face. “Come in, kid. Sit down. What can I get you? Flapjacks? Eggs and bacon? How about a nice omelette with French toast, tomatoes and onion?”

Keith hopped up on a stool, reaching across the counter to shake his friend’s hand.  “Naw, gimme a corn muffin and—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Dan cut him off with a wave of the hand. “Same thing all the time. You know, we do serve actual food. Check the menu sometime. It’s in front of you, in the napkin holder. Next to the napkins.”

He shook his head, smiling at Keith, gave a perennially wizened grin (God knows the man, by simple virtue of living this long, had seen enough) and turned his back to put a muffin in the toaster and mix the magic elixir. “You know”, he said, not turning around.  “When was it you told me you play? Sometime back, yes?”

“’S’pose. Listen, you remember Les?”

“Les Paul? Sure. The man made a good guitar. But, don’t distract. You’ve been holding out, you putz. You don’t tell your good friend Daniel. I have to wait, how many years is it? ’Til now I don’t know you’re a big shot in town. You play everywhere. For everybody. And leave me the last person in all of New York to know?”

Truth told, Keith had wandered in a week or two after moving into the neighborhood, going on maybe five years now. Had wandered in for a knish, something else that, if you wanted made right you made sure a Jew made it. Dan had looked at Keith’s fingers. The calluses. And said, point blank, “You any good?”

Keith’d looked back, blankly. “At what?”

“I know guitar calluses when I see guitar calluses. They’re not broad enough for bass.  You play skinny strings. So, let me repeat myself, in case your ears don’t work so well. You any good?”

Keith got defensive: “I make a living, since you need to know. Alright?”

Dan had got a kick out of that. “Good. I like your fire. And if you live around here, you probably play pretty damned good.” Keith had shrugged and, ordering an egg-cream, chomped on his knish.


Next week: Keith reveals his plan to get Lesli back — and gets some sound advice.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403. 


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