For Paul, With Lox and Squalor
He sold me salmon, and became my friend
I’m leaving New York this week. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, but I do know that there is no Russ & Daughters where I’m going, and there is no Paul.
Since moving to New York City twelve years ago, I have lived in nine apartments. The first was university housing on the Upper West Side. The next six formed a Brooklyn daisy chain, fragrant with interpersonal drama. The eighth, which brought me back across the East River, was chosen more or less because of a sandwich.
I discovered this sandwich during my ten-month tenure at the seventh apartment, a place I landed by necessity after a breakup. The apartment had a sloping floor, a ceiling pregnant with water damage, and a space heater that emitted the smell of burning hair, but not much in the way of heat. But it also had a panoramic view of Manhattan, and it was this view that pulled me from my slowly decomposing residence to the Lower East Side, where I found Russ & Daughters, a nearly century-old smoked-fish emporium. Between its neon sign, glorious aroma, and sense of history so palpable it could almost be sliced as surely as a side of lox, it was, in my eyes, a halfway house between a grandmother’s embrace and a place of worship. I ordered a sandwich involving whitefish salad, horseradish cream cheese, and an everything bagel, took a bite, and knew I was home. A few months later, I moved into my eighth apartment, four blocks away from the shop.
I can’t remember exactly when I met Paul, though I do remember being moderately afraid of him. Among the chorus of white-coated Russ & Daughters countermen, he stood out as a crank par excellence, a silver-haired middle finger pointed in the direction of the city’s capitulation to customer service with a smile. He could smite indecisive tourists with a single sneer, and dispatch more high-maintenance specimens with an eye-roll so world-weary it almost required its own cane. He was a throwback to a New York that predated frozen-yogurt chains and nail salons, a New York of daylight muggings and nighttime shooting galleries. He was old-school, full stop.
Over time, we developed what one might call a rapport. I’d ask him about his day. He’d ask me about my boyfriend. We’d bump fists over the counter. One afternoon, I brought in an old Polaroid land camera, prompting Paul to reminisce about photos he took of various lady friends in, shall we say, compromising positions. “What do you want?” he asked, noting the look I had failed to suppress. “I was a red-blooded young man.”
I came to think of Paul as the dirty uncle I never had. He could work blue, but the only time he made me blush was when he told me, with a disarming degree of sincerity, that I was his “precious little angel.”
Being a regular is a funny thing in a big city. Outside, you’re just an anonymous schmo. But if you come inside often enough, each visit starts to feel like a family reunion of sorts; like the extended members of your biological family, the people you encounter will likely be happy enough to see you, though they probably have little idea of who you actually are as a person. But there’s a beauty in deciding how much of yourself to offer as part of the general exchange of money and goods: You can be the thoughtfully curated version of you — the one who always smiles and never has any problems. The one who is a good person simply because she says “please” and “thank you,” exchanges salty banter with the cantankerous counterman, and bakes a cake for the Yom Kippur rush, as I started doing for the staff a few years ago.
But Paul knew some of my problems, and I knew some of his. He knew that my boyfriend was chronically ill and in and out of the hospital. I knew that Paul had endured his fair share of substance abuse — “I did everything there was, and is,” he said — suffered a long bout with hepatitis C and now had to contend with crapped-out lungs. He knew when I broke up with my boyfriend, who by then was my fiancé, and he knew when I subsequently saw my ex through a lung transplant. I knew when Paul’s beloved cat Lily died, and glimpsed how, in an instant, the tough guy could go tender.
We became friends, in other words.
Several months ago, I asked Paul if I could buy him a cup of coffee and listen to his stories. “My stories?” he asked. “Pfft. I’m not that interesting.” But he met me anyway, and I sat and listened as he talked about his extensive travels, his past life as a bookie, his cats, his days of raising hell, his vexing health issues. He also wanted to talk about my love life, so we sat for a while hashing that out. “Next guy you date, you run him by me first,” he said. A couple months later, I did. “This is a good one,” Paul said, appraising the photo I showed him across the candy counter. And he was right, of course.
Two years ago, I baked Paul a lemon meringue pie. I did it because he asked me where he could find a good one, and I didn’t know, so I made him one instead. He happily devoured it, and I happily devoured the praise. I did it again last year, with similar results. A week ago, as I was preparing for a third go-around, Paul had to take a few days off work. His lungs were giving him grief, and he was worried about Joe, his surviving cat — he didn’t seem to be feeling well either. “Becks, don’t make me the pie,” he said over the phone. “I don’t got no eye for pie right now.” I hung up feeling a bit worried about him, and realized with some sadness that I didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance to make Paul another pie.
Later this week I’ll go to Russ & Daughters to load up on whitefish salad, Norwegian salmon, dried figs, and walnuts for my trip. I’ll say a reluctant goodbye to the store’s white-tiled floor and immaculate display case, to the old wall clock that marked the minutes and hours I’ve stood in line, to the customers who gaze in silence as long knives slide back and forth through voluptuous slabs of flesh, hypnotic as a metronome. And if he’s feeling better, I’ll say good-bye to Paul, a man who gave me the privilege of learning that he’s not much different from a good lemon-meringue pie: tart, a bit crusty, singular, and sweet.