There’s a corner store in Chelsea that sells the best deli meat I’ve ever eaten. I found it when I moved to New York from Israel six years ago. My apartment was a block away, but even after I moved to the Upper West Side, I kept taking the 1 train to the store. Every time I ordered the same: turkey pastrami, thin and layered.
Maybe it wasn’t the meat as much as the people in the store. Behind the deli counter were Sugar and Armagan. Sugar was a six-foot-two black, gay man in his forties who wore his long hair in a bun underneath a net. He had me call the deli half an hour before I came so that he could cut my meat beforehand and save me the waiting time. Armagan was from Turkey and knew some Hebrew. Every time he saw me he greeted me with mah nishmah habibi (how are you, friend) and gave me seven slices of turkey on the side to eat as I waited. Then there was Saanvi, a cashier in her fifties. Years ago she commented on my deli meat as she rang it up and asked if I had ever cooked Indian food. She left her register to take me through the store and put the ingredients I needed for chicken masala. She wrote down the recipe for me. After I failed to cook it, she made it for me and brought it to the store in tupperware. I bought her macaroons in return. We exchanged Christmas gifts every year. Despite never having spoken outside the register, we were friends.
Then César started working at the deli. He was a young guy, maybe in his mid twenties, and was heavily tattooed (including one across the neck). He always smiled.
We became friendly and would talk as he sliced. Many times the conversation shifted to basketball; he was a Knicks fan. My dad sometimes received Knicks tickets from work and I told César I’d get him a couple of tickets some time. He responded by giving me an extra slice of pastrami and a fist bump.
The next day I received a friend request from César on Facebook. He had only known my first name, though it wasn’t a common one in New York. I accepted the request and went on his page. The pictures were mostly selfies in front of mirrors.
The following week as he sliced the pastrami, César told me it was a shame I was paying so much for deli meat and going out of my way to buy it. (At this point he knew where I lived.) He said his girlfriend lived near me and he could just bring me the deli meat without me coming to the store. Sounding like a real time saver, I said, “Great.” We exchanged numbers.
The next time I came to the store I asked for a pound of turkey pastrami. César sliced the pastrami — thin and layered — and put it on the scale. Naturally and with confidence, without looking to his left or right, he lifted one corner of the paper on which the turkey lay, until the scale read 0.3 pounds. He printed the price sticker and wrapped the pastrami. I paid $2.30 for $11 worth of meat.
Later that night I sent him a text that said thank you. His reply: “I got you.”
César caught me off guard the following Monday when he texted me at nine in the evening: “was sup bro, how was your day?” I felt that just saying “okay” was too short and impersonal; I felt I owed him more than that. So I told him my day was good, that I had class and later worked out. I asked him how his day was. He said it was relaxed and that he was washing clothes now. I tried, but couldn’t imagine César doing laundry. I put my phone down, thinking the conversation was over, but then my phone dinged again.
“You coming by the store tomorrow?” his text read. Then another message: “If you are, how much meat you want?”
I wasn’t sure if he was asking me the way Sugar had told me to call the deli in order to save time, or if something else was going on. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I answered, “a pound of turkey pastrami.”
“I got you.” But, he said, “don’t pay at the register.” He told me he’d hand it to me outside once I was done with my shopping.
Then: “still got those Knicks tickets, bro?”
Deep down I knew. I knew why I couldn’t pay at the register. But the following day I still showed up. I took a small basket. I passed the deli and César jutted his chin at me and motioned for me to keep walking. He brought his hand to his cheek as if to scratch it, but made the shape of a phone with his thumb and pinky. “Call me,” those two fingers said.
I walked around the store. I had come only for deli meat but now I had to buy something. I put some hummus in the basket. I looked around. It felt like everyone knew. I glanced at the deli. Sugar and Armagan glared at me, shaking their heads. I did a double take and realized they were serving customers, unaware I was even there. I put another hummus in my basket.
Ten minutes later, Saanvi rang me up at her register. We smiled and told each other about our week while she scanned my hummus and Skinny Cow ice cream. She bagged everything up and frowned, then glanced around her register as if she had misplaced her keys. She looked up at me and asked, “No deli meat today?”
The moment I lied to Saanvi I knew I wouldn’t take part in this scheme again. I told her I still had deli meat left over and that’s why I wasn’t buying any. She smiled and handed me my bag. “See you next week,” she said. I smiled back and hugged her goodbye. I made eye contact with César as I left the store, and as I stepped outside I received a message: “turn left and meet me on the corner.”
I waited on the corner, constantly looking at my phone. Seven minutes later César emerged from the store holding a bag. He walked over and handed it to me. It was heavy. Off my surprised look he said, “There’s four and a half pounds in there.”
“Wow,” I said. We stood there for a second before I snapped out of my daze and handed him two Knicks tickets. He smiled, shook my hand, and pulled me into a hug. We thanked each other. We broke the embrace but continued standing there.
“Cool,” I said. “Thanks again.”
“I got you.”
He didn’t move. “So…” I said, “do I owe you anything for the meat?”
“The meat is on the house,” he said. “But if you feel like giving me something, that’s up to you.”
“Right,” I said. “I mean,” I looked at the tickets he was holding, “these are the Knicks tickets.”
“Thanks for those,” he said. He pointed at the bag I was holding. “Four and a half pounds of Pastrami in there, man. Four and a half pounds.”
I took a twenty-dollar bill out of my wallet. I looked at the bill, then at him, and extended my hand. He smiled and grabbed the money. He hugged me again, then walked towards the store. He turned his head towards me and yelled, “Bro, next time I’ll hook you up with a full slab!” He flashed his smile and disappeared into the store.
A full slab. Ten pounds. What was I supposed to do with a full slab of uncut pastrami in my fridge? I knew the situation had gotten out of hand. It escalated from tipping the scale, to four pounds on a street corner, to a full slab of pastrami. It wasn’t worth it. Definitely not financially — I could have kept my $20, sold the Knicks tickets, and bought pastrami for a month. Even though it wasn’t about the money, it was about the hookup. It was about feeling special. But still, I felt horrible about lying to Saanvi and the bottom line was, I had stolen. I felt ashamed.
César had given me about $60 worth of deli meat and I wanted to give it back. I bought Saanvi a $60 AMC gift card because I knew she liked to go to the movies with her son. I donated $60 to charity.
For a month I went to the store on César’s day off. He texted me once to ask “was sup.” I answered all good. He said he was relaxing, I said that was important to do. That was the last time we communicated. He stopped working there a few weeks afterwards and I never asked him or anyone at the store why. All I wanted was to go back to buying my pastrami the way I always had: thin, layered, and guilt-free.