Driving through mid-town Los Angeles often allows me to take a detour to my childhood dwelling on old Alfred St, a block east of La Cienega. 1211 to be exact. The four-unit apartment building has seen better days. Iron bars cover every window now. It’s painted a dismal grey. The lawn — what little is left of it — shows more brown than green.
Occasionally, I pull my car over to the curb and reminisce. There is a sense of comfort each time I visit here — which, unfortunately, isn’t very often. This was the building I was raised in, along with my uncles Marv, Morrie, their families and my grandparents. We each occupied one of the four apartments. As my mind wanders back in time, I become a child again, and life is good.
My mother kept me home from school today, which was okay with me. I hate fourth grade. It was a beautiful spring day, but I complained of a headache this morning, and she worries about me getting sick. I also pretended I had the sniffles, which usually seals the deal.
Around noon, my grandma came over to give my mother a break, offering to take me on her weekly shopping excursion. She’s the chain-smoking matriarch of our family and usually gets her way. At a stocky 5’2, she’s not much of a physical presence, but she exudes an old-world toughness that lets you know she can handle any situation. “Can I go mom, can I,” I pleaded. “I’m feeling much better.” My mother reluctantly agreed, only after getting a promise from grandma not to stay out too long.
So off to Koch’s we went, the small storefront deli in the heart of the Jewish section of Pico Blvd. It’s our neighborhood, and grandma paraded down this busy street like she was the queen of some European fiefdom. Everywhere we went, she saw people she knew. “There’s Mr. Moskowitz,” she pointed. “He lost his job last week, poor guy. I feel sorry for his children.” Grandma loves to gossip. She’s always talking, but she hardly ever listens. “Grandma, can we stop at the candy store, please?” I asked as we trudged down the street. “Not now,” she replied, which is her usual response to my requests.
Like always, Koch’s Deli was jammed with loud and unruly customers. A half-dozen small tables lined one side of the store, while display cases and busy countermen occupied the other. Further back was a lunch counter, seating maybe 15 people on old-fashioned swivel stools. Florescent lighting did nothing to enhance the atmosphere, while framed faded photos of what L.A. looked like in old days lined the smoke stained walls. This place was not for the timid.
Koch’s was not the place for the timid.
“Hello, Mrs. Stromberg!” yelled Eddie Meyers, the jovial, rotund owner of the deli, who stood next to the cash register, wiping his soiled apron with greasy hands. “Who’s the new boyfriend?” Laughter rang out as grandma clutched my hand, and she pulled me past the kibitzing crowd, working her way to the lunch counter in the rear of the store.
On our way, we passed those deli cases that dazzled the eye and crushed the hopes of would-be dieters. The overworked counter men, all experts in deli fare, scurried to fill orders from impatient customers. “Number 43, who’s got 43,” someone shouted.
As I walked along the rubber floor mats and looked through the glass cases in the “take out section,” my eyes became fixed on the varied offerings; trays of juicy corned beefs, pastramis and briskets sat next to bulging platters of tuna and egg salad. There was also the aromatic chopped liver, which, when combined with a spiced meat in one of Koch’s famous combo sandwiches, could ignite the palate into a Hebrew feeding frenzy. Rye breads, pumpernickels, challahs and bagels fresh out of the oven lay waiting to be sliced, along with pickles and sauerkraut, coleslaw, vats of flavored cream cheeses, potato and macaroni salad, stuffed cabbage and pickled beets — a Jewish cornucopia of smells and flavors.
In the next case lay the remnants of the Pacific Ocean, mysterious creatures from the sea, sitting on a bed of ice, side by side, staring up at me with dead eyes, some already filleted and ready for slicing. The names danced in my imagination; lox, sable, whitefish, chub, baked cod and sturgeon. Why, I wondered, are these delicacies so prized among these eager patrons?
Our neighbor from down the street, Mrs. Mendelsohn, who wears a wool sweater, even in summer, and a babushka, a floral head scarf, like women do in the old country, blocked our path and told my grandma how big I’m getting, while leaning over and pinching my cheek. Her cigarette and onion fouled breath was more than I could bear, and I recoiled at the touch of her scaly fingers. Impolitely edging past the inquisitive Mrs. Nosey, grandma pushed her way to the lunch counter and glided her ample posterior onto a stool alongside of me.
“What do you vant?” she mumbled, as if she hadn’t ever heard of the letter w. “I don’t know” I responded. “Good,” she said quickly, “Ve’ll share a corned beef and Sviss on a Kaiser roll, some coleslaw, French fries and a couple of Dr. Brown’s Cream Sodas. Vat do you say, totella?” I quickly looked around, hoping no one heard her call me this embarrassing sobriquet. I’m ten years old, for God’s sake and she still calls me baby names.
Fay was our foul-mouth waitress with a waxy face, red painted lips and an off-the-shoulders peasant blouse. Grandma said she used to be a contortionist in the circus. She placed two glasses of ice water on the counter, took our order, made a lewd comment about Eddie Meyer’s shlong (whatever that is) and hurried away after giving me a wink. Why is it that all these old women find me so appealing?
Before our food arrived, I told grandma I had to pee. She offered to take me to the bathroom, but I refused, letting her know I’m not a child anymore. She laughed and nodded her approval, and off I went.
Our order arrived just as I returned, and grandma asked if I washed my hands as she began lathering our sandwich with gobs of Russian dressing, which she knows I’m fond of. “Of course I did,” I lied. Handing me my half, she started to work on her portion of this prodigious creation.
Grandma didn’t chew, she chomped, making these squishy sounds as she dabbed at the sides of her mouth with a crumbled napkin. Like a human wood chipper, she slowly but steadily plowed through her sandwich, sucking down a large kosher pickle along the way. “Eat, baby,” she urged me, as I pushed my fries around the plate. After a few small bites, I told grandma I was full, but she already anticipated this and had requested two sheets of wax paper from Fay. Grandma wrapped the uneaten portion of my sandwich to take home with us. “Let’s get going little one,” she encouraged, “we’ve been gone too long and your mother will be upset.”
I slurped down the rest of my soda as grandma grabbed the check and headed to the cashier to pay our bill. I followed her lead as she waved goodbye to our deli congregation. Eddie Meyers spotted me as we approached the cash register and asked how I’m doing in Little League. He’s heard I’m a terrific first baseman, he said. “We could be looking at the next Hank Greenberg,” he shouted to no one in particular, as I smiled shyly and headed to the front door. “Zay gezunt,” he offered, the Yiddish goodbye.
Grandma loved her weekly visits to Koch’s, and I enjoyed going with her, even though most of her friends seemed really crazy. On the way home, grandma grabbed my hand, pulled me close, bent down and looked me in the eye. “I got a great idea,” she said. “Let’s stop at the candy store for a little treat!”
A car pulls up alongside me, honking gently and snapping me out of my reverie. “You leaving?” the guy behind the wheel inquires. “Yeah,” I nod in his direction. “I just came for a visit!”
Gary Stromberg has headed a highly successful entertainment business PR firm, written and produced two major motion pictures and owned a high-profile, independent, contemporary music record label.