AFTERWORD Metamorphosis BY TOM McCLELLAN HAVE YOU HEARD the one about the carpenter who claimed to have used the same hammer from the day he began as an apprentice until the day he retired and turned it over to his own apprentice? He said he’d replaced the handle only five times and the head but once. I know a delicatessen like that. When I first entered the place on Sunday morning in the fall of 1979, I needed to feel that I belonged somewhere. For the second time in my life, I was a resident of a halfway house. an emigre from the state hospital with a few clothes in a cardboard box and a few dollars from the hospital work program in my pocket. Of course I belonged to a kind of community at the halfway house, a community of desperation. We gave each other easy acceptance due to common pariahship; our kindness came from shared knowledge of “the salt taste of another man’s bread, the hard path of another man’s stairs.” Meanwhile, each of us felt his way tentatively toward some private niche in the world of the supposedly sane. So I became a regular at the deli. According to the neon in the window, the place was a pancake house as well as a delicatessen, and its menu indicated an attempt to become all things to all potential customers. As to the exact point in history when some sanguine entrepreneur bolted the huge sign announcing “Phil’s \(New York building at the corner of Oak Lawn and Bowser \(just across from “Lucas B & B. knowledge. I had passed it often enough to know that it had been around at least six years, and I believe it was the prospect of pancakes that finally lured me in. The first thing that stopped my gaze was the bas-relief on the partition between kitchen and restaurant proper: a huge cluster of grapes, a gigantic carp posing as a salmon, oversized rings intended to represent bagels, a carafe four feet high God’s plenty in gilded plaster. The interior decoration continued with murals depicting misty parks seen from colonnaded porticos; scenes of sylvan peace, in which classic subject met romantic vision. These provided pastel counterpoint to the gilded grapes, fish, carafe, and bagels. The over-all effect was stunning. Ah, but the food! Meal-in-itself coffee Tom McClellan is a writer living in Dallas. with half-and-half, none of your powdered nondairy coagulate; eggs scrambled to the proper fluffy ,softness, in butter; egg bread toast with honest jelly, no cube of unidentifiable aspic to be dug out of a plastic match box; and, crowning all, no greasy glop of shredded potatoes burned on the outside and raw on the inside, but potato cakes browned by someone who cared; this for under four dollars, when I would have paid five just to view the art. I was hooked. My life improved. I saved enough money. to buy a nine-year-old Chrysler and with that began a morning ritual of breakfast at Phil’s and a walk in the park before work. When Spring brought the usual, I took my dates to the deli in hopes that they would ignore the slow service and occasional cockroach in order to enjoy . . . take your pick: the large-breasted nourishment of matzoh-ball soup; the subtle textures of lox and cream cheese on a bagel; the lighthearted pleasures of borscht and sour cream followed by spinach salad with Mrs. Miller’s piquant sauce; the classic simplicity of smoked whitefish and Bermuda onion on rye; the incredible richness of cheese blintzes, three to a plate and piled plenitudinously with jam, sour cream, and two hours’ somnolence guaranteed. Not to mention sandwiches offering, separately or in combination, pastrami, turkey, roast beef, corned beef, and tongue, served with a scoop of mustard-scented potato salad and slice of kosher dill. If you had room for dessert, strudel was available, or kolaches with various fillings, or “Phil’s Famous Cheesecake.” I became more familiar with the staff than the food; there was less variety to contend with: John, who dithered like Wonderland’s white rabbit offering observations on the disaster in which he found himself an unwilling participant; laconic Alice, with a teased hive of blue-black hair, who once told another regular “sometimes no man is better than any man at all”; wiry Elaine, whose motherliness was an integral part of her efficiency; and the woman they all called “She,” the manager, whose iron grasp maintained control from seven in the morning until eleven at night, Mrs. Miller. BECAUSE OF MY circumstances at the time, Mrs. Miller is linked forever in my mind with a lady I never met, nor shall meet for a great while since she is dead, Bertha Levy. Although the halfway house was incorporated and listed under a pretentious title which closed on the term “Manor,” the building itself, an ancient three-story hotel rumored to have served in its later days as a house of prostitution, was called “Bertha Levy Hall” and bore a bronze plaque over the cornerstone: Bertha Levy Hall She understood. Since madness, like God, is no respecter of persons, Ms. Levy may indeed have looked into the mirror of self-loathing, may have run screaming over the thin ice of mania, may have walked about Chlorpromazine Land with every cell burning like a coal, and may thus have had some experiential ground for understanding the broken lives that were to benefit from her philanthropy; but nine years ago, sitting on the concrete stoop of the “Manor” in my one pair of jeans and nylon sneakers and second shirt and charity sweater, paint spattered and sawdust permeated, stoned to numb out the hopelessness, I would fantasize a Mercedes from Highland Park pulling to a stop directly before me. From it steps a trim veteran of Junior League and Charity Ball. Gray hair impeccably styled, Sak’s suited and Gucci shod, she clicks up the walkway with all the confidence money can buy, places a perfectly manicured hand on my shoulder, and announces, “I’m Bertha Levy, and I understand.” I had no doubts about Mrs. Miller’s understanding. She understood recalcitrant suppliers:, “What you mean, you not to giff me credit? You tink I come to you from off dat street?” She understood her own anguish over her son’s slow death by cancer and carried his love about her neck in a golden scroll. And she understood her patrons. “Effrybody,” she confided to a few of us one evening near closing time, “effrybody comes in here, got problems.” I wish I could describe precisely the soft plop of the “o” in “problems,” and the delicate inflection of her wrist as shq slamdunked the word, because the memory of her saying that remains with me so vividly that I would like to see the brass plaque on the halfway house revised: Bertha Levy Hall Effrybody comes in here got problems. By the time I had come to know 22 JUNE 3, 1988
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