It was early June, 2016, my dog died yesterday. I was arriving in New York, tears fresh, unsaid words still cycling through my head. Here I was, about to head up to summer camp in Vermont staying a couple nights in the city on the way. It was supposed to rain that day, but the sky was too lazy to bother. Umbrella salesmen stood anxiously in the hollows of subway station entrances waiting for their opportunity to spring onto the sidewalk with their cheap black umbrellas. As I stepped out of the airport I felt overwhelmed. It was loud and the humid air enveloped me. I felt like I was back in the swamps of North Carolina with its stickiness clinging to me. When my brother and my mom got into a cab, I stood for a moment longer on the curb feeling a sense of banality in a place that usually brought such unbelievable excitement. I sat discouraged in the taxi as it bustled slowly towards Kips Bay. The tiny monitor at my feet roared with pointless news, flashing headlines blurted from the buzzing screen.
“I’m starving,” I say quickly. Pro tip as a child: blame your behavior on hunger because it’ll lead to a meal a good percent of the time. My mom started naming options, Indian, Italian, Chinese, whatever I wanted right now. What I was craving hit me as I felt a hot flash roll over me like I was a 50 year old woman….
My favorite holiday living in a Jewish family was Passover. The other Jewish holidays just don't compare. Rosannah you get to blow a goat horn, (which is pretty cool I guess) Yom Kippur you have to starve yourself, and Hanukkah is more overrated than reading on the beach. Passover with its celebratory table, piles of food and the awkward singing is the perfect Jewish holiday. For one evening you feel like good jews (till you sleep in Saturday morning instead of going to synagogue.)
“I want matzah ball soup.” I blurted out. She decided on a place that was not too far from her apartment. The taxi dropped us off in front of 2nd Avenue Deli. I found out to my disbelief that it wasn't on 2nd Avenue but on 33rd street. Crazy world.
Matzah ball soup if you’ve never had it, my god, you’ve never lived. Matzah, the flat stale bread symbolizing the hastiness and sacrifice of the Jewish people's escape from Egypt is reborn into a filling meal fit for a king (or a pharaoh….) As we entered the deli, sunlight creep between the clouds and cast deep shadows on the pavement. It was abandoned, except for one little woman nibbling on a reuben. She shot us uninterested looks. Outside felt turbulent, crashing waves of people rattled me. Inside was gentle, strips of light began to dance through the cracks in the blinds. Autographed photos of icons from Jerry Seinfeld to Muhammad Ali filled the walls. It smelled like our kitchen on the night of Passover, brisket and pungent gefilte fish. Thick slabs of fish were sliced on the counter while stubby candles burned on our table. We ordered way too much food. Rubens, pickles, bagels, gefilte fish and most importantly matzah ball soup.
The deli remained empty when the food arrived, we talked quietly and ate. The stress was slowly dissipating into a warmth.
As we ate an older man walked to our table. Now a year later I can’t remember his name. His face was old and hardened. His nose slightly crooked while his eyes smiled from the visage of age. He began to talk with us. He had the most distinct New York accent I’d ever heard. We instantly connected, jokes about New York,, Judaism and the never ending delays at Laguardia. The buttery taste of the matzah ball soup reminded me of sneaking into the kitchen and having an extra bowl of soup even after the afikomen was passed around. He talked about Muhammad Ali who had just died. He remembered him walking through that very door to roaring applause. The whole room was cast into a much louder image. In walked a young black boxer to the sound of applause that crashed through the wooden room of the little Jewish Deli. What a sight that would have been. The only nerve-racking thing was this man’s persistence to ensure we ate. Here was this man I’d met 20 minutes ago and he was already my Jewish grandmother.
As we left he gave us cookies for our journey to Vermont as well as my twin and I both new tee-shirts. I chose the brown one with a little 2nd Avenue Deli logo in the corner, I was overjoyed when he told me I looked like a “UPS man.” As my mom tried to persuade one of the cooks that vaccines didn’t cause autism I smiled at the room. It was a weekday at some obscure hour yet here we could sit and talk with a random man about Muhammad Ali, eating jewish food, and feel instantly connected. You rarely feel those things in the grind of daily life. The irritation and sadness of moments before grew less pressing. I felt a wash of renewal, a wave of contentment roared over me. I stepped outside and felt instantly refreshed by the warm air surrounding me. “Welcome to New York! You’re officially a new yorker, you already have one friend,” the man said as he waved goodbye.
This summer I’m in New York taking a class at NYU called the “Science of Happiness.” And in the times when I’m not studying happiness I want to pursue happiness. It's strange but the food, culture and atmosphere of a New York deli is an amazing thing. I want to wander and find new experiences like I felt that June day. Starting July 2nd I’m going to go to as many delis as possible and write about the food and the people I encounter there till I return to North Carolina in early August. I hope you will join me as we wander together for this short time, experiencing extraordinary food, smelling the air of passover kitchens, and maybe even finding solace in those brief moments of contentment.