Opening up the Original Philadelphia Deli in the morning

The only thing I’m struggling with, with the following, is the voicing of it. Not sure whether or not to include what my parents did, siblings did, but suffice it to say, most of us all did the same thing. Courtney could have easily written this, because he did the same things I did. But for the sake of consistency, I’m writing this as my own day in the life at the deli. But everyone should know that, especially in the early days, Courtney and I were interchangeable at the deli. We both worked hard and on some days, together. As we grew older, other siblings joined us at the deli and eventually I was gone and on my mission, as other siblings filled in and took over. I’m sure their memories of it are a little different, but these are mine, whether they are perfectly accurate or not.

When we arrived at the deli in the morning, we’d park our cars or bikes in back. There weren’t always a lot of parking stalls, because our family would have one or two cars, usually Subarus, that were in the process of being repaired. It always struck me as odd that no one would steal some of those car parts. I suppose no one wants an old car door that’s been propped up against a wall. Or a van bench. Or whatever. I guess I have no sense of what is worth stealing. Some proof of this is that once I left my bike unlocked in front of the deli. After lunch it was gone.

We’d unlock the black metal security screen, which at some point, we’d locked ourselves out of. You can tell this, because there was a hole near the handle that had been cut, so that a wire could be inserted to unlatch the inside door handle. (Don’t ask me how I know this.) Then the main, also-metal door was opened (the sliding bolt as well as the handle lock) and we were greeted by the strong scents of onions, bleached tile, and silence.

Except for the radio. The deli went through phases of leaving a radio on at night, or turning it off at night. But if the radio was left on, you were greeted by one of two things: Either a country music station, or AM 1060, KPAY, which would have current news, or, at nine am through twelve pm- Rush Limbaugh.

Rush Limbaugh wasn’t always a controversial personality in my family. Politically-speaking, he was all I knew about left vs right, or Republican or Democrat angst. I accepted the Rush is Right doctrines upon hearing them, but never liked the loud and aggressive tones in his show. Oh, I suppose that at one point I thought he was funny, but as I grew older I felt that he was more obnoxious than anything.

Unsupervised, sometimes I’d walk into the back of the deli, into Dad’s office, where I’d change the station- usually to a rock station. The deli took on a whole different feeling when Bon Jovi or Def Leppard or The Fixx was playing. A careful observer, looking from the outside, through the front and west-facing door, might catch me singing passionately into a mop handle. Sometimes it would take a very long time to mop the floor- a lot of great music was echoing through the dining areas, where I’d pretend I had finally made it big. This happened more than I’d like to admit.

There was a lot to do in the morning at the deli. Almost always I’d start with cleaning. None of us in the Nelson family cleaned with the same methodology. To me, there was an order to it. My preference was to do what I disliked the most, first. Get it out of the way. Each successive task should eventually lead to what I hated least. So I’d start with the dishes.

Doing the dishes at a deli, where we smoked meats, sliced ribeye and processed pork shoulder created quite a bit of grease and messiness. I know my dad didn’t like this, but I’d pre-rinse almost everything. There was something about having a clean dish water that I found important and this was impossible without first spraying off the caked-on elements from the slicers, huge mixing bowls, and endless amounts of…of whatever else has slipped below the murky water.

Immediately, I’d drain the water, spray down everything in storage room that was to be washed, and then fill the sink with hot water and Dawn. In the summer, that room could get really stuffy. I’d have sweat and stray water all over me, by the time I’d gotten everything done. I cleaned from left to right. Dirty dishes on the left side of the sink. Dishes being cleaned in the left sink. Rinsed dishes in the middle sink. Clean dishes drying and dried in the right sink, plus off to the right of the sink. Some dishes rarely saw life outside of the right side of the sink. We’d just go through the clean dishes with a racket that made you think dishes were being thrown, retrieve the thing, use it, wash it, then off it would go into the right sink, never to be seen until its next use.

I wonder how many times Nelsons were cut by reaching into that sink dirty or clean water, then coming up with a knife’s blade. We wore bandages all the time, which could be found in the drawer right below the register, or to the drawer at its right.

If the floor hadn’t been cleaned at night, I’d sweep the entire deli, picking up mats which I shook, then folded over chairs. All of the mats in the kitchen were moved into the storage room. Then I’d sweep. If I was in a good mood, or things were desperate enough, I’d flip the chairs upside down to lay on the table, while I swept through the tables’ cross-shaped legs, carefully. If I really wanted to impress Dad, I’d move the tables to one side of the dining room (except for the large 8 person table- it was heavy) and then sweep and mop. Then, likewise, I’d do the second side of the room. By the time I’d worked myself to the south side of the deli I didn’t allow myself or anyone else to cross the barely seen mop boundary. The line was hard to see, but it was there, and the person mopping was very aware of its presence.

With a freshly mopped floor, I’d turn my attention to where we’d be hit first, customer-wise, once the doors were unlocked- food stations. The “left” food station (or the “hot side”, where we mostly made hot sandwiches) housed long containers of ribeye, which we used to slice, but later bought pre-sliced, deep containers of onions (in the deli’s last days, Dad and Mom wisely kept an additional container in the fridge below), sweet peppers, and American cheese, smaller containers of hot peppers, pickles, mushrooms (which later became an open, sharp can in the same fridge). In the “right” food station was kept the food for our hoagies, clubs and deli sandwiches, including a large ham, large turkey, salami, capicola, cheddar/swiss/pepperjack/cheddar(sometimes) cheeses, more pickles, tomatoes, mayonnaise, mustard, and other condiments.

Unofficially, the left, hot station, was Dad’s; the right, cold station, was Mom’s.

All of these stations needed to be filled. My strategy, once again, was to do that which I abhorred, first- cutting several onions to fill the hot station’s needs. Once again, depending on who cut the onions, a different methodology was used. I liked to take about 8 or 9 onions and line them up on the left side of the cutting board (hot station, of course), then slice slice the two ends off. If I’d cut too much of a side off, I had to quickly throw that end in the trash, so that Dad wouldn’t get wise to how much food I’d wasted. If I was caught, I’d hear about it. After the ends were cut and thrown into the trash, we’d slice the onions in half, lengthwise. Once this was done it was easy to peel the outside skin off of the onion. Once again, I wasted more onion than Dad did. I knew that if too much of the dry and slippery onion skin were left, as I cut thin layers from the left to the right, the knife would slip and an imperfect product would result. Dad didn’t care about this, I’m sure. But I had enough of my mom’s traits, that I wanted to see calculated, diced onion. But I also wanted to impress my dad, so I’d make sure that he’d see that he didn’t have to dice onions when he came in (he was usually off, buying product for the deli, checking on a yard sale, or taking a deposit to the bank.)

When I go into a deli to order a sandwich, now, I usually order one with peppers. It always disgusts me when I see that a sweet or a hot pepper hasn’t been “de-stemmed”. To me it seems lazy, plus no one wants to eat that kind of thing. Apparently, my dad though so too, because one of the jobs we kids had, was to de-stem all of the peppers before they were placed into the stations. Once again, the product was placed on the left side of the cutting board. Then we’d quickly go through each one, making sure that each stem was plucked off. The stem would go into the trash; the clean pepper would go into the station’s bin.

Once the dishes and floors were clean and the stations were stocked, I’d give the deli a once-over, unlock the front door at 10 am and flip on the neon “Open” sign. Sometimes there were already customers waiting to get in. I never liked this. Opening the deli was sort of a quiet time for me and I really valued it. If I had had a better understanding of how important the deli was to our family, I’m sure my attitude would have been different.

Oftentimes my dad wouldn’t be back yet, from his rounds, when the deli opened. In the older days of the deli, he’d drive down to Zanzies’, in Sacramento, to pick up a van full of bread. When I say “a van full”, I mean that bread was under the seats, on the seats- pilled high. I believe that back in the older days of the deli, he’d pick up the hot and sweet peppers on these trips.  I can’t remember for sure, but it was supposed to last for at least two weeks. So when dad would arrive back to the deli, from Sacramento, he’d start bringing in bags of hoagie rolls, which Courtney and I would stock in the freezer. Sometimes dad and I had a difference of opinion about how many bags should be left out. My memory is that I’d try to keep one more bag out than Dad wanted, up on the grill’s shelf, where it wouldn’t bake, but would stay warm and soft. (Bread from the day before was to be used for Cheesesteaks; the newer, softer bread was for Mom’s cold station (hoagies). After Dad had owned the deli for a while, he started having bread and peppers delivered to the deli. In my mind, though, they weren’t as good. Or maybe I just missed having the smell of fresh bread in the deli.

On some days, when Dad was gone, I’d grab a five dollar bill and run down to Helen’s Donut Nook, on 807 Main Street and get Dad and me a couple of old fashioned donuts. Sometimes I’d get fritters, but if I got the “wrong” kind of donut, Dad would jokingly get on my case. I remember sometimes, that when he came back to find donuts for us on the table, he’d very kindly thank me for having gone to do it. Sometimes I’d remind him that he was actually the one to buy the treats. I think we both found it funny.

I always tell people that I started running when I moved to Utah, but in writing this I remember that the short run (less than two minutes) to Helen’s Donut Nook was really fun for me. I was pretty careful, but I’m sure that if Dad had seen me at some of the points I’d decided to cross 9th street, he’d have had something to say about it. It’s not that I was trying to run out in front of traffic, but the cycle of the lights was such that, if you got caught at the wrong time, you’d be waiting a lot longer than you’d want to, especially as an anxious fifteen year old, trying to beat his dad back to the deli, before he could know about the surprise. So I’d chance it a bit and run down the sidewalk, always taking a quick glance into the bike shops along the way (nothing I could afford). To this day, I still run across streets that I shouldn’t, when commuting to work in Salt Lake, from Provo (and then back). I guess I liked to run even before I thought I liked to run. Sometimes, when I knew Dad would only be gone for a couple of minutes, I’d wait for him to leave, lock up, get the donuts and try to be back within three or so minutes and back to what I was working on when he left. When Dad got back, I’d let him find the donuts and wait for him to ask me how I ever found time to pick them up. I think my sense of irony was just budding.