Friday, March 19, 2010

"Hello Deli"

By Jerry Zezima

The Stamford Advocate

“From New York, the greatest city in the world, it’s the ‘Late Show With David Letterman.’ With Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra. And Dave’s special guests, Sue and Jerry Zezima!”

Announcer Alan Kalter of Stamford didn’t actually say that last part in his introduction during a recent taping of “Late Show” at the Ed Sullivan Theater. But my wife, Sue, and I were in the audience because Sue won a couple of tickets in a contest by correctly guessing Kalter’s hair color: red.

We were required to be there several hours before the taping, so we had a lot of time to kill. Trying to find something to do in the city that never sleeps, we had lunch at the Hello Deli, which is around the corner from the theater.

“Hi!” said the smiling man behind the counter. “What would you like?”

It was none other than Rupert Jee, who owns the Hello Deli and is a celebrity in his own right for his many appearances on the show.

The hoagies were named after the program’s regulars, so I ordered the top choice. “I’ll have the Letterman,” I said.

As Elios, one of the deli’s four employees, made my lunch, which consisted of ham, cheese, turkey, sweet peppers, mayonnaise, oil and vinegar on a roll, I asked Rupert if Dave likes the hoagie that’s named after him.

“He used to eat it, but not anymore,” Rupert said.

“It’s heart healthy,” I replied, noting Dave’s past cardiac troubles.

“Yeah,” said Rupert, “if you take out the cheese and the mayo.”

I don’t have heart problems, so I carried the hoagie to one of the five tables crammed into the tiny deli’s 200 square feet, sat down with Sue and munched away.

“Yum!” I said as Sue picked at my potato chips. “This is delicious.”

“I’m glad you like it,” said Rupert. “Since Dave doesn’t eat his own hoagie now, maybe I’ll rename it after you.”

When I suggested he put a Rupert hoagie on the menu because he’s a star, too, Rupert said, “Sometimes it gets so hectic in here, people don’t know who I am. One time a couple came in and thought the guy at the griddle was me. They said, ‘Hi, Rupert!’ Then they took a picture and ran out. The griddle guy got credit for being me. People will come in and say, ‘Is this Rupert’s deli? Which one is Rupert?’ That’s how famous I am.”

Still, business was pretty brisk, with customers cheerily greeting Rupert, a trim, youthful-looking baby boomer who appeared to be in excellent shape.

“I used to eat the profits,” Rupert said. “I have Christmas videos shot from the back. When I first saw them, I said, ‘Who is that massive guy?’ It turned out to be me. That’s the great thing about the food business: Even if things are bad, you eat anyway.”

“How did you lose all that weight?” I asked.

Rupert replied, “Ping-pong.”

Just then, a disheveled man with a gray, scraggly beard came in, lugging a large black garbage bag containing his worldly possessions. He ordered a sandwich and left.

“He’s a homeless former banker,” Rupert explained. “He won’t take free food, but he will take money.”

“Rumor has it that he won’t take chump change,” said May Chin, Rupert’s business partner. “He wants big bills.”

“And he smokes good cigars,” Rupert added.

Sue and I went back to the counter, where I paid $10.04 for my hoagie, a side order of chips and a bottle of cream soda.

“Enjoy the show!” Rupert said.

We did. Alan was in fine voice; Paul and the band were sensational; Barbara Walters did a good job reading the Top 10 List; the real guests, Jerry Seinfeld and Tom Brokaw, were terrific; and Dave, as usual, was great.

Only one thing could have made the show better: If Rupert had come on and brought Dave a Letterman hoagie. Hold the mayo. No baloney.

Copyright 2010 by Jerry Zezima

Friday, March 5, 2010

"Sink or Swim"

By Jerry Zezima

The Stamford Advocate

Because I am a journalist with only the lowest standards, there is no level to which I would not sink, no depths I would not plumb, for column material. This column is a classic example because the laundry room sink recently became clogged with material I can’t describe in a family newspaper. Drained after several pathetically futile attempts to solve the problem, I called a plumber.

Harry Strawsacker, 63, the burly, friendly owner of Brookhaven Plumbing and Heating, showed up at precisely the promised time wearing a cap with a picture of a fish on it.

“You’re a fisherman,” I said. “I guess you can’t stay out of water.”

Harry nodded. “Fresh water, salt water or dirty water, I’m always in it,” he replied.

The dirty kind was in the sink, which is used primarily as a receptacle for soap suds and linty residue from the washing machine.

“We’re only two people here,” my wife, Sue, told Harry, “but I’m always doing laundry.”

The sink is also where I wash the litter boxes belonging to our three cats.

“You’ve got a lot of stuff down there,” Harry said.

I told him that I had tried to unclog the sink with three applications of a liquid plumbing product that had about as much effect on the clog as a bottle of beer would have on a bowling ball. Then I took a piece of wire and attempted to dislodge the blockage. The wire broke.

After that, I called a national plumbing chain for an estimate that rivaled the gross national product of Finland. I will not identify the company, but I am not a rooter of its roto service.

Finally, I phoned Harry.

“This job calls for an electric sewer cleaning machine,” he said.

As Harry spun the contraption’s long cable through the pipe next to the washer, he spun tales of his many plumbing and heating adventures.

“One guy called me last week at 11 o’clock at night because his bathtub was clogged up,” Harry related. “I said, ‘Can it wait until morning?’ He said no because he wanted to take a bath and that my ad in the Yellow Pages said I offered 24-hour service. I asked him how long the tub had been clogged and he said, ‘About a month.’ I said, ‘Do me a favor: Rip out the page with my ad on it and throw it away.’ Then I said, ‘You don’t have to tell me where you live because I’ll be able to smell it.’ Some people are unbelievable.”

Like the woman who smelled smoke in her bedroom, where she had a fireplace, but didn’t do anything about it for two weeks. “She went to work one day,” Harry said, “and when she came home, she saw that her house had burned down.”

Then there was the guy whose home became a skating rink while he was in Florida. “His boiler blew and the house froze,” Harry said. “The pipes busted and the water kept running. His car was caked in ice, the cabinets were frozen and the floor had buckled. The guy called me from Florida and said, ‘Meet me at the house tomorrow morning.’ He took one look, handed me the keys and said, ‘Here, take care of the house. I’m going back to Florida.’ You can’t make this stuff up.”

The worst people are the “weekend warriors,” said Harry, adding that he often gets calls on Sunday nights from women who say, “My husband tried to fix the toilet and there’s water all over the place.”

Harry fixed the sink for a fraction of the previous estimate and, as a complimentary service, took care of a small problem in an upstairs toilet.

“Now,” Harry said with a smile as he left, “your wife won’t have to call me on Sunday night.”

Copyright 2010 by Jerry Zezima