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

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