Welcome to 2022.
To start the new year, I thought we would start with some hopes and dreams. Some of the coolest people in NYC are deli owners and employees. They see it all. (And what is more iconic than a NYC deli and the little black bag they give you for your snacks?) I told my mom I was going out to do this because “the world needs this.” (I am so melodramatic). I think I needed it the most. It really filled my heart. My mom didn’t bat an eyelash because she knows this is my jam. (She used to warn me as a child that I needed to stop talking to strangers or I would get kidnapped… still here, thankfully.) I told my fiancé, and he just looked at me with a concerned look. (He always wants to keep me safe– and well, I talk to a lot of people on the street/train. Something he is still getting used to). I told my dad by text, and he was excited about this and deli pastrami sandwiches. “I want to share their hopes and dreams,” I texted him. They are cool people. And that was exactly my mission. I went into over 15 delis. Not everyone had something to say, but many did. I had so much fun getting to know these new friends better. (Also, I supported local businesses. Spent about $13 cash. It’s easier to talk to people if you are at the register handing them money).
Here are some of the conversations from behind the counter. There will be two more installments following this one.
I am walking around in my leather jacket and new sunglasses (even though it’s dark as hell– despite it being noon). I look cooler than I am, and I know it. I’m an undercover nerd. I walk into the first deli. A young kid in a gray hoodie sits behind the counter. We’ll call him ‘O’. I ask him for matches, and he hands me some. “They are free,” he says. “Can I give you something for them?” I ask him.
“Why would you give me money for something that is free?” He asks, eyeing me. I smile and put some plantain chips on the counter and hand him cash. I ask him if he is a student, and he says he is a senior in high school. I congratulate him.
“What’s next?” I ask him. “Not going to college. Gonna open up my own business,” he tells me and smiles. “Right on,” I tell him. “What are you going to sell?” “Maybe a smoke shop,” he tells me. I nod. “You from NYC?” He asks me. “Born and raised?” I realize he is interviewing me now.
“Nope. From Florida,” I tell him. He breaks out into a full blown laugh. “What have you heard about us? Do you think we are crazy?” I ask smiling.
He continues to laugh a bit. “These delis are underrated,” I tell him. “Yeah, you don’t have these in Florida,” he says to me.
“What sells the most here?” I ask. “Coffee,” he replies gesturing to the machine. An elderly man with white hair and a leather jacket (clearly competing with me for the cool title) walks in and makes his coffee. He starts yelling into his phone.
“What’s your goal for 2022?” I ask O. “Make more money,” he says to me smiling.
“Where is the milk?” The yelling elderly man yells at him. “In the fridge, boss,” O says walking from behing the counter to show him.
“You have a lot of regulars?” I ask him. “Yeah, lots of regulars,” he says to me.
I wish him a happy new year, and I walk to the next deli.
I walk into the next deli where another young kid is behind the counter. He has his black hoodie up over his curly hair, and he is watching something on his phone. He ignores me for a bit. I ask him what most people buy. He looks up from his phone and stands, “I don’t know. I am here subbing for my dad,” he tells me. I nod and pay for an overpriced bottle of Perrier water.
I ask him what his goals are for the new year. “I don’t know. That’s hard. Every day is the same for me,” he tells me.
I wondered what he meant, as it was clear he doesn’t usually sub for his dad at the deli, but he sat and resumed his iPhone watching. I decided to leave him alone and keep walking. Sometimes, every day feels the same, but it isn’t.
As I am walking to the next deli, I see two twins outside of a grocery mart, rough playing. They look about eight. No adult in sight. One is shoving the other into a fruit stand. I shake my head, and I cross the street to a deli that promises snacks. It looks sort of new and glittering on the outside. I step inside and there are no snacks, despite what the awning promises, only smoke shop stuff. “Can I help you?” a guy with a fitted hat asks me. I had just passed him on the sidewalk. It’s his place.
“Looking for snacks,” I tell him. “Ahh, yeah we don’t have,” he tells me. “I noticed,” I reply. “Go next door,” he tells me pointing at another deli. “Hey, happy new year,” I tell him. “Happy new year,” he tells me smiling big.
I start walking away, and then pause and turn slightly. “Do you have any goals or dreams for the new year?” He looks pensive. “Anything you are excited about?” I add.
“Oh, yeah. We are moving to North Carolina and getting the hell out of here,” he tells me. “I am jealous,” I tell him smiling. “I lived in South Carolina,” I add, “It’s so great.” At this, he smiles big.
“I hope it all works out for you guys. That’s awesome. Happy new year,” I tell him. “Thanks, you too.”
I go into the deli next door and the owner is on his phone, speaking in Arabic, ignoring me completely. I do a 360 and head out.
Tune in later this week for the next installment of the deli tours.